Friday, September 17, 2010

Is Regret the Salt of Creation? Or Is It Desire?

In February of this year, the UK newspaper The Guardian interviewed a bunch of writers and asked each of them for a "decalogue" of personal writing rules. (This article was brought to my attention when I read Christina Baker Kline's selection of her favorite among these "rules".) My feeling about such "lists" is that one ought to be deeply suspicious of them, since articles such as this are so banal and so recurring—the stuff of journalistic stocking-filler. Also, the need to know what famous writers consider their personal decalogue is in a way part and parcel of that all-American obsession for celebrities—what they do, what they say, what they eat, etc.
And yet, there was one of these "rules" that touched me deeply and is still haunting me, for altogether personal reasons, so I want to pass it on.

British author Geoff Dyer's rule no. six was "Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire."

A decade ago I had a lover who said to me, in one of his most bitter and self-deprecating moments (something he used to do a lot, and that I initially mistook for literary inclination, then came to understand as deep mental instability) "Regrets are what I live for." 
But in his case, this posture of poet maudit was deeply pernicious, because all the regrets he had so willfully cultivated, not finding any other creative outlet, ended up festering in his soul, creating cancerous poison in his mind.
Yet, my experience—of a life full of regrets that constantly threaten to turn into festering wounds—has been that, if you use your regrets instead of letting them take over your life; if you turn them into creative products, they can be like manure—maybe a bit stinky at first, but in time penetrating into the soil to feed it, so that it will grow beautifully strong plants...

There is a phrase by Willa Cather that I treasure (oh no, not another quote—oh yes!) and each time I start a new diary (I have never liked the word "journal") I transcribe in the first page, together with any other quotes "du jour" that more fit my mood at that time:
                      "Desire is creation. It is the magical element in that process"

So is it desire or regret that fuel creation? 
But this is a false question, only valid if we buy our Western cultural bias towards diametrically fixed opposites. Desire (unless you are of an extremely austere and moralistic religious persuasion) is seen as a good thing in our cultures—the motor that pushes us forward to want things, to perform, to achieve. 
However, the inescapable by-product of desire is regrets: a certain accumulation of them, like dust over furniture, throughout the years of our lives when our desires fell flat; or when we did not even allow ourselves to entertain them. 
Regret can turn into poison and generate envy, anger, even violence. The best cure for regrets, then, is to take them and use them creatively.
If you're writing fiction, you may give your characters all the desires and regrets you wish and play around with them, without anybody getting hurt except maybe for your reader's feelings from time to time (but what is the pleasure of reading if it doesn't elicit a strong emotional response?)
 If you're writing a memoir, you can be both confessor and witness to your desires and regrets; flesh them out on the page and relive them, this time around, with a sense of their contemporaneity instead of their cause-and-effect timing. 
This counterpoint of desire and regrets is what gives a memoir, in my opinion, a sense of the author's passion, vitality, strength—even more than the sometimes wishy-washy optimistic moral message ("I survived and I'm all the stronger for it") that seems to be the requisite ending for memoirs these days.

Yes, that play of desire and regret, so similar to the play of life and death...

1 comment:

  1. I love the quotes and seeing them in this context gave me much to think about. My desire to create something with peaches has me heading to the kitchen to bake a cobbler. Not the desire to eat, the desire to create. So this makes good sense.