Confessions & Confidences

with Madison Smartt Bell

On Inspiration

Byliner: Your Byliner title, Soul in a Bottle, is drawn from your journals during your extensive travels to Haiti as you were writing your trilogy of novels about the Haitian Revolution. Where did your initial interest in this country and culture come from?

MSB: Well, in fact quite a lot of the book was written on assignment from The New Yorker, though never published there.  But they did pay my way to Haiti several times and I turned into them reams of the Soul In a Bottle material.
       I happened on Haitian Vodou while researching my first novel, The Washington Square Ensemble.  One of the characters was a practitioner of Santería, about which very little was written in English at that time (early 1980s).  So I read several books about Haitian Vodou as a supplement so to speak.  Haitian Vodou attracted anthropologists sooner than other Caribbean syncretic cults because, thanks to Haiti’s long political isolation, it is very pure and conserves its African roots intact and so on.  I was fascinated with the idea of the divine manifesting in the flesh—right here, right now, in our own time—and I thought, some day I want to see this thing happen.

Byliner: You’ve said that you have “always had a mystical attitude towards inspiration” and how this manifests itself as a trance state. How did you find this to change as you became more acquainted with Haitian Vodou?

Portrait of Madison in Haiti by Jean de la Fontaine

Portrait of Madison in Haiti by Jean de la Fontaine

MSB: Since I was a small child I’ve had a facility for getting into what in creativity contexts is called a “flow state,” (meaning, essentially, that I was an expert, dedicated day-dreamer).   In a flow state you feel like the order of the universe is being transmitted to you or through you (that’s the mystical aspect of the experience) and all you have to do to make a valuable artifact is record it.
       Like many writers I had ways of reaching a flow state intuitively.  While living in London in the mid-1980s I had an encounter with therapeutic hypnosis and was struck by how similar my states of inspiration were to a light hypnotic trance.  I figured people like me were engaging in a form of self-hypnosis without knowing it.  I brought this idea into my teaching, and I’ve written about it at greater length in “Unconscious Mind,” a chapter of my textbook Narrative Design.
       Vodou practitioners in Haiti refer to themselves as serviteurs—in the sense that they serve the spirit that guides them.  When I got directly involved with Vodou practice it gave me a model for inspiration that’s larger than just the ego’s need for self-expression or whatever.  When writing or making any kind of art I could think of myself less as an actor and more as a conduit—and letting myself be used as a channel has a real cathartic value.  If you consider the structure of the word “inspiration” it’s really about having a spirit inside of you.  For us in the First World, inspiration is more likely to be read as a phenomenon of our individual personalities, but in Haitian culture (and in a good many religious contexts as well) it has much more to do with connecting to realms outside the self.  

Byliner: You’re from Nashville. Does the deep literary tradition of the South influence or shape your own work? Any authors in particular?

MSB: For sure.  My parents were friends with some of the Fugitive/Agrarian group, including Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, and Andrew Lytle, so I knew them a little growing up, and my friendship with Mister Lytle continued through the first phase of my writing career in the 1980s.  The first novel for grownups I ever read (other than Huckleberry Finn), was All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren—I read that at 14 and reread it at least once a year for the next fifteen years, while reading the rest of Warren’s fiction.  At 15 I read through Flannery O’Connor, also read a good deal of Faulkner during this period.  The novelist Madison Jones was a good friend of my parents (they all grew up together in Nashville) so I read all his work too, and the novels of Harry Crews.  My first writing teacher at Princeton was also a Southern writer, George Garrett, and he and I became close friends.  I am a great admirer of his work too.
       I thought I was going to be that kind of Southern writer but then I got to New York right after college and found a new subject.  It was virgin territory as far as I was concerned… I hadn’t read any urban fiction at that point.  Over the whole spread of my career some of my work, but not that much, has explicitly Southern subject matter—but I do think of myself as a Southern writer, because I come out of that general culture, and that specific literary culture.

Byliner: You’re also a banjo player, and the instrument is featured in your work. Is there a correlation between your music and your writing—both style and process? Does one influence the other?

MSB: I’m actually more of a guitarist these days (I have a couple of singer-songwriter albums out, collaborations with poet Wyn Cooper: Forty Words for Fear and Postcards out of the Blue).    But yes… playing fretted instruments is almost inevitable for anybody growing up in the Nashville area, and my father was a solid amateur musician, playing the 60s folk revival repertory when I was a kid.
       A lot of people write more for the eye, but I definitely write for the ear.  Sound defines my choice of words and the way I construct a sentence and paragraph, all that.  The musicality of prose has always been extremely important to me.
       Then again, the physicality of playing an instrument is really nice. You can sit there and do it without any conscious thought and let your mind just drift around, which can be productive in other areas.

Byliner: What comes first for you, the trance/flow or the inspiration? 

MSB: I consider them to be the same thing, basically. The goal is to have your mind be relaxed and not quite empty… it should just have the few things in there you want to be working with, and those few things tumble around as if in a rock polisher and with luck something constructive will start to happen.

 Space of inspiration

 Space of inspiration

Byliner: Did you feel a sense of confirmation when you finally mastered the voluntary art of setting yourself apart from yourself before writing. How did your mastering of this act evolve over time?

MSB: I think mastery is a very dangerous word to use in this context.  A flow state is not something you can muscle into being.  People who can’t get there are blocked and people who try to force their way to it are likely to tighten up more and become more severely blocked.  My practice of this stuff has always been intuitive and largely unconscious and I find it pretty easy to get there almost all the time… which is just my good luck.  I am one of those people who live in the imagination most of the time.  Intrusions of the mundane are more likely to just bend the membrane of that state rather than break through it.  I don’t turn screws; I imagine myself turning screws (and thus you can surmise that I am not too brilliant at home repair, but that’s another story).
       There are ways to practice getting into a flow state deliberately.  Self-hypnosis is one.  Meditation is one.  A lot of quirky writer’s rituals are meant to trigger the flow state, I feel sure.
       And craft skills can always be practiced, just as a musician practices scales or an athlete or dancer practices movement—the idea is to bring the mechanical part of the activity to a point where it can be performed by reflex when the flow state/inspiration arrives and you need to deploy it.

Byliner: Given your relationship to receiving inspiration, how does the adage of writers needing to write every day fit into your process?

MSB: That’s a matter of temperament, and I think different people find different work rhythms that are right for them.  Daily’s a good thing, but not an absolute—I have a flexible enough schedule that I can do it but not everyone is so fortunate.  The important thing is that the writing schedule be regular—that really does matter a lot.

Byliner: Your novels require so much historical research. Is there a shift in how you approach your writing when working on nonfiction? 

MSB: Hah, well, in nonfiction you are really not supposed to make stuff up, and for a fiction writer that’s very inhibiting at first… takes some getting used to.

Byliner: Are there any issues that you feel have not been given sufficient attention in the media and deserve to be written about in greater length and depth? 

MSB: Okay, so we all have recently discovered that racial tension in the United States is as toxic as ever—enough to poison the whole society.  What I think would be helpful is to unmask race issues as class issues and treat them honestly as such.  That’s a social and political problem as much as it’s a media problem.  The Haitian Revolution dealt with it effectively 200 years ago, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen here anytime soon.

Byliner: And, to end on a positive note, what is your idea of perfect happiness? 

MSB: Well… people are apt to construct that idea as some kind of consummation.  And there are many kinds.  There’s certain joyful artistic consummation that happens when a reader absorbs the intended total effect of a text exactly as the reading is completed.  That can happen for the writer too, in certain happy circumstances, when just as you set down the last word you come to full comprehension of just what it was you meant to say.