I’ve recently had a good bit of correspondence on Mary MacLane in connection with the last few days’ rediscovery of her first book – written in 1901, at age 19, in Butte, Montana – in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and a new edition (under her original title I Await the Devil’s Coming) by Melville House. I’ve been asked my take on various aspects of this writer gleaned from her life and work. A recent correspondent asked what lessons bloggers, and in general writers of today, could draw from MacLane’s enduring first book.
Differences to today’s blogoworld (i.e., the missing in a lot of today’s blogs):
1. Consistent literary artistry. The quotes I looked up for the notes in our big MacLane anthology show how Classically-grounded MacLane was: for all her cutting-edgeness, even today, the King James, Shakespeare, Milton, Dante were her literary operating system.
2. Never a raw download. In MacLane there’s a powerful guiding hand building up an impression, a picture, and a total career as a writer. She thinks and acts in the long arc, not the flashbulb moment.
3. Avoids cheap exposure and particularly over-exposure. She knew when to flash and when to go dark.
4. Mixes genres. She never talked only of self, or of society in general, or other people in particular, or nature. Make a personal, inimitable blend.
1. Steep yourself in the ancestors, from MacLane on through the other Confessionals, like the Beats, Anne Sexton, and so on. Then do your new radical thing that overturns the ancestors.
2. Choose. Always choose. The less formless, the more power. MacLane shows us how much pure literary power can be gained from deeply conscious incision.
3. A touch of the Classical virtues like dignity and decency to the opponent can increase our stature, even today. There’s a statue, from about 100 years ago, of a forgotten politician outside San Francisco’s City Hall with a wonderful plaque. After his various attainments are listed, there’s a last line: AN HONORABLE FOE. We need to rediscover the spirit of that politician – and the opponents who honored him.
4. Diversity, deeply-woven. Don’t self-blinderize.
5. Balance. Once you reveal everything, what next? If revelation is infinitely postponed, what point? The magic happens at the point of balance. That’s the way forward. That’s where everyone is at their top as a creative artist, because the material and the method will always be maximally different. We’re the “Characters Welcome” age. Use that to your advantage. It provides a path to success without compromising integrity.
6. To a fault, avoid facile ways out. MacLane is never afraid to work.
7. For our over-loud age: understand the power of negative space. Every so often you’ll see MacLane not specify something she’d normally, logically be expected to specify. Look at the dimension that opens up.
8. Allegiance to your own voice. Never compromise that. If you find yourself in the gutter, be the best you in the gutter you can be. She’s the same writer in c. 1926 as in c. 1898, but as I, Mary MacLane (1917) shows she moved with the times. Many try to make a blog and subsequent literary career out of poses or mere harshness, especially if sexuality/drugs get frothed in. Won’t last. Not ever. So ask: what do you want for your future? Ask if you have the inner drive, what Jung called a “gradient,” that makes you write, and write more than navel-gazing. If you have the drive and more than personal grousing, you have something you can create out of. Some mistake mere success-drive and general aggression for inspiration.
9. Move in all areas of society; draw from their voices and disdain none. MacLane only broke out in defiance after she had absorbed, deeply, and was quiet first. She avoided self-ghettoizing.
10. Lay your groundwork. Confucius said (he really did, this time): “slow growth is good growth.” Take a caution from her career’s external details: she never made it into the pantheon of her time, despite Pulitzer’s New York paper’s saying “Even her severest critics agree she can write”: the yellow papers took her up, and she had fabulous scandal-success for The Story – but it flamed out public interest in her. She was smart enough not to want scandal.
11. Have a mythology – your own life-arc creation mythos. That is to say, make one – but make it sincerely by applying your own unique consciousness to the unique circumstances you’ve experienced/are experiencing. Let it emerge: don’t contrive purely consciously – that creates a “dead hand”. Permit yourself a numinous mystery that has nothing to do with enchanting or seducing readers.
We – today’s bloggers and everyone who writes – can all learn this from Mary MacLane: where you can never go wrong, what always has the most power when done right, is being yourself. But your real self: which is an effortful thing to find. Mary MacLane is one of the rare ones who guides us as she learns about herself. But she’s subtle enough to leave us wondering how much she knew ahead of time. She’s in a delicate interplay with the reader. And herself. After all, she analyses herself down to little selves in I, Mary MacLane – she fractures up the self itself then heals it together. Which puts her far beyond the personae-spinners of today.
There’s more to say on this, and I’ll say it before long.