Today I went to a talk on “Fame and the Writer.” Advertised panelists: Daniel Kehlmann and others. (The “others” did not show.)
I went because (1) I wanted to go to a PEN World Voices Festival event, (2) the Herta Mueller event later in the afternoon was all booked up, and (3) I’ve read one of Daniel Kehlmann’s books.
I did not expect the talk to be particularly good. Which was good. Because it was less than good. Not really through any fault of D.K.’s, who, though certainly a less-than-inspired speaker (in English, at least), can’t exactly be expected to carry what was supposed to be a panel discussion on fame (seriously, WHO came up with that topic?) all by himself.
But here are some interesting mental acrobatics I went through while my mind was busily not being occupied by the person who was supposed to be occupying it:
At one point, the moderator asked D.K., “Do you ever contradict yourself [when talking about a particular book] in interviews?”
D.K.: “Only in the beginning” – in the earliest interviews, shortly after publication. Eventually, “what sets in is much more dangerous – a mechanical thing, where you know what you’re going to say and you go through the tour on autopilot.”
That’s about as far as they went down that road, but it was enough to send me down my own mental road, one where I started thinking about talk, and how it changes art.
It’s a spin on a pretty standard question – how does the artist’s intention affect the meaning of a piece? does it? should it? – but I don’t think people talk too much about this aspect of the debate: it’s not only the audience whose interpretation of a piece changes when an artist talks about meaning and intent. The artist’s understanding of the piece’s meaning changes, too – or solidifies, perhaps; somebody’s gonna slap me if I keep drawing analogies with quantum physics, but it’s kind of like taking a quantum measurement – asking an artist to articulate intent and meaning forces him/her to choose between a lot of different abstract choices, and eventually, what happens to the artist is that he/she comes to believe in the particular choice that he/she continually articulates in interviews and talkbacks and introductions and Kickstarter videos and blah blah blah.
The thing is, when I’m writing something, when I’m really in the groove, it just comes out. I’m writing down whatever feels like it comes next. I’m not thinking about why. I’m not thinking too hard about meaning. And when I get to the editing stage, I’ll make more conscious choices about what to keep and toss and where things should go, but there’s an essential element of happenstance and I think there’s a level at which too much explaining actually drains a thing of some of its meaning. For you (audience) and for me (artist).
On the flip side: Explaining, clarification of ideas, is central to workshopping and to collaboration. When Patrick and I are forced to articulate our ideas about the Pessoa project to one another, the project takes shape – and more than that: new directions and new paths open up. You can never say exactly what you mean, you can never know exactly what you mean, but in trying to express it, you definitely figure something out.