Why I Write

Samuel R. Delany

 
 

When I was twenty or twenty-­one (and had already written and sold five books and was in the midst of yet another) I said to myself, “I write the books or stories I want to read but can’t find on a library shelf or bookstore rack.” 

In the midst of writing my first published book, The Jewels of Aptor, I realized, one evening when I was trying to be overly modest during an eagerly awaited dinner visit by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, that the book I was in the midst of writing was actually the most important thing I had undertaken. A little later, when I was still nineteen, I sat in the wood-­framed red easy chair my mother-­in-­law had sent down with a lot of chipped and cracked china as a house gift for my young wife and me. Marilyn was out at work that day, and I was home. I remember thinking of the various people who, only a few years before, were constantly coming around to my parents’ apartment in Morningside Gardens and saying they would be willing to get me really good-­paying jobs. All I had to do was knock on their office doors or give them a phone call and set up an appointment. Many of them were fairly successful black businessmen who felt it was their responsibility to help out the new generation of young marrieds. I also realized it was very likely that if I did take them up on any of those offers, I would be on my way to a ten-­thousand-­dollar-­a-­year job in a decade or so, the equivalent of around a hundred thousand today. I mumbled to myself loud enough so that somebody in the room with me would have heard me, “I am never going to make that kind of money. I will be lucky if I make enough to survive.”

Aptor was sold that March to Ace Books for a thousand dollars; at that time, our rent on the four-­room apartment in the East Village on the dead end of East 6th Street was fifty-­two dollars a month. Marilyn had a job in which she was making approximately eighty dollars a week as an assistant editor at the paperback publishing company that had accepted my first novel as an anonymous submission. That was a livable wage. I managed to lose three of the first five hundred in a way that I am still too embarrassed to talk about, but within a year, I sold another novel—the first of a trilogy that was completed before my twenty-­first birthday—and I had learned never to leave the house with more money than I could afford to lose.

§2. A lot of my writing was done to stimulate myself sexually. This could be an entire book in itself: A poet whom I greatly respected, W. H. Auden, and whom Marilyn and I even invited to dinner in those early years when we were still living together (and who came with his life partner, Chester Kallman), had written that he found pornography interfered with the aesthetic effect of a narrative. (His rather glib description of pornography was, “That’s easy. It gives me an erection.” He himself, however, wrote, I think, a very fine pornographic poem, very well observed and stimulating enough, I’m sure, at the time it was written, called “The Platonic Blow,” which he never owned up to, but which is still available online.) I don’t feel that way: I think the erotic response can be worked into the aesthetic response, and I think the history of nudes in painting and sculpture is probably proof of that in the classical pictorial and plastic arts. Anything written with care can be publishable under your own name.

§3. Early on, i wrote because I began to realize (to borrow William Blake’s words from Proverbs of Hell), “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.” It keeps producing them—and it keeps destroying them.

As one reads, one learns that writing has a relationship with the past. Whether from half a second or half a century ago, all writing comes from the past. To write and to publish is to enter a great gambling game in which, in the words of Auden’s elegy for William Butler Yeats, there is always the slim possibility that we will “become [our] admirers.” It is not immortality, but those words address the closest thing we have to it, the possibility that our works maintain some interest for people beyond our personal death.

Does one write for the future?

I believe we have the best chance of future interest if we write as intensely as possible for the present.

§4. I wrote because it was fun. It was a way to perform for others by performing to myself.

§5. I write because of a compliment an editor five years younger than I was, who’d been a military journalist overseas during the Vietnam War, paid my early trilogy, The Fall of the Towers: he told someone who conveyed it to me, “I think that’s the best metaphor for the Vietnam War I’ve ever read.”

In spring 1964, I registered for the draft with letters from my wife and my psychiatrist (Dr. Gross) saying I was homosexual. At my physical, the doctor asked, “Are you sure you want to do this? If you do, this will be on your record forever.” I said yes and was declared 4F. Never have I known anyone to look up the reason why.

§6. I wrote because, at five, I encountered death at home in a way that terrified me.

I remember sitting on the steps of the embalming room at the back of the chapel in my father’s Harlem funeral parlor, watching Freddy, my father’s embalmer, working on the corpse of a tan woman with reddish hair stretched on her back on the white enamel surgical table with its drain and clamps…

“How old is she?” I asked.

“Twenty-­five,” Freddy told me, at work in his rubber gloves with the bottles of pink embalming fluid.

“What did she die from?” I asked.

Freddy picked up the tag on the woman’s wrist. “Sugar diabetes is what it says here.”

“Does everybody have to die?” I asked.

“Eventually.” Freddy smiled. “But you won’t have to worry about that for a long time…”

“But I will have to die, won’t I?”

Freddy laughed. “Not for a long, long time…”

I think his firmness was supposed to be reassuring, but suddenly I felt a dizzying chill. I didn’t know what to say or do, but I stood up and said softly, “I’m going upstairs.” Halfway through the funeral chapel, I began to move quickly, and at the stairwell up to the first floor where we lived, I started running. My mother was in the bathroom, scrubbing the floor. “I’m gonna die!” I burst in, screaming, and threw myself into her arms. “I’m gonna die, Mommy! I’m gonna die!” I think she was bewildered.

“You’re not gonna die,” she said.

“No! No! Not now. But I’m gonna die…!”

She pooh-­poohed my terror, and for almost forty minutes while I screamed and thrashed and hugged her and sobbed, she tried to find out what was wrong. She couldn’t quite believe that, really, this was all it was. I had seen dozens of corpses before, but it never occurred to me to tell her that it was the reality of a dead body that had initiated my panic.

But that terror, naked, until I was thirty-­five years old, would return to me sometimes once or twice a day, eventually every three or four days, and finally, to my astonishment in my mid-­thirties, once I had my own child, it vanished—though such attacks are part of the life story of the character, the young philosopher Timothy Hasler, in my novel The Mad Man. Every once in a while, in my first years of teaching, such a panic attack would hit me abruptly, and I learned how to…swallow it?…not fall down on the floor and have a seizure? 

For what little it is worth, this chronic condition, which at that time I believe I shared with almost no one, was the background against which I wrote and published five novels; spent three weeks in a mental hospital for a mild nervous breakdown that I suspect stemmed from overwork; produced, scripted, and edited three short films, and directed another (one ten-minute super-eight film in both black and white and color—Tiresias—was lost in the mail from San Francisco to New York); taught my first term as a visiting professor at SUNY Buffalo; and also wrote and published three collections of essays on science fiction—The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, Starboard Wine, and The American Shore: Meditations on a Tale of Science Fiction by Thomas M. Disch—Angoulême

§7. I wrote because it was hard (and harder than it might have been because of these mental afflictions) and, while I was doing it, it took up my entire mind, and also because somewhere I heard an anecdote about Michelangelo that had the ring of truth: a great Italian baron had been taken with the sculptor’s art and got to know him. He asked to be taken to a tavern, where the artists of Florence were supposed to gather and drink in the evening.

Obediently, the artist took him to the tavern. After three evenings, the lord said, “But all I hear among these men is talk of stone and chisels and files, gesso and tempera and pigments. I expected to hear talk about beauty, the truths that we learn when we gaze up at their works, the perfection that they create for us. Why do they waste their time talking about these trifles?”

Michelangelo answered, “But perfection is the sum of trifles, and perfection, my lord, is no trifle!”

§8. I wrote because I was terrible at board games. I could play checkers, and I knew the moves in chess. But when I was twelve, I taught them to Freddy’s ten-­year-­old son, Freddy Jr., and from our second game on, he checkmated me regularly. My father died at fifty-­four from lung cancer. (Formaldehyde is a vicious carcinogen.) So did Freddy Sr. and four other black men who worked in the morgue room, embalming with my dad.

Scrabble and chess were two games that were simply closed to me. I’ve read books on the latter but can retain nothing from them, nor do I know what has happened to Little Freddy since his father’s death. The progression of scenes in a novel was a game I had much better control over.

§9. You can put together more interesting combinations of words in science fiction than you can in any other kind of writing—and they actually mean something. You can say things like, “The door dilated” (as Heinlein did in Beyond This Horizon), and it implies both design and technology, as well as whole sets of social and experiential differences. When you say things like, “Her world exploded,” you are not just giving a muzzy metaphor for a female character’s mental state. You reserve the margin for the words to mean that a planet belonging to a woman blew up. Thus SF is sensually pleasing to work with, simply at the level of language. 

I think what happens with mundane or naturalist fiction is that these characters succeed or fail in what they try to do, but they succeed or fail against the background of the real world so that their successes are always some form of adjusting to the real world. Their failures are always a matter of being defeated by the real world. So in a funny way the only thing that mundane fiction can talk about is either madness or slavery—those people who adjust to the world and therefore are slaves to it, or those people who are defeated by the world and are therefore mad because they shouldn’t have tried in the first place. But I do think there’s something else: in science fiction, because success or failure is measured against a fictive world that is itself in dialogue with the real or given world, that dialogue is much more complicated, richer, than in realist fiction. Of course, we all know that there are many things about science fiction that are predictable. One of the problems—now that I’ve given this account of SF’s potential—is that, for a long time, SF was a kind of marginal writing, with many hard and fast conventions. You can do absolutely anything in it. But when you can do absolutely anything, you tend to fall back on the conventions.

§10. Harold Bloom’s answer to the question “Why do writers write?” is fascinating: artists create in rebellion against the failure to create. There are a number of elementary ways in which that failure can strike them. One is the failure of another artist to tell the truth, to get it right, to make his or her report truly accurate. Several times this has struck me personally, and if the reader can recognize the step forward on the simple measure of truth and accuracy, often the work can gain power because of it.

If I had to come up with a single-­sentence answer to the question I’ve been asked to address, Bloom’s answer would be it, and the only thing else I could add would be details that make it true.

§11. On August 3, 2017, in Philadelphia, I jotted this on a Facebook post (FB reminded me of it today):

I woke this morning with two famous Frost poems entwined in my head. “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…” (“The Road Not Taken”) and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening…”

*Whose woods are these, I think I know. / His house is in the village though. / He will not see me stopping here / To watch his woods fill up with snow…*

…I did not know Frost, but I met him briefly at the end of the Breadloaf Writers Conference when I was eighteen. After an evening’s reading toward the end of my summer 1960 Middlebury stay, Mrs. William Sloan, who had shown some of my poems to him, dragged me up to meet him (I don’t believe he had been reading that night), and he gave me his quick and certainly canned advice: “Remember, don’t let anyone else tell you how to do it.”

I smiled, said thank you, but was not very impressed. It was the exact opposite of what I wanted to hear. (“Find yourself a model and follow it until you learn how it works.”) But I suppose, since I didn’t follow it, perhaps I followed it in spirit anyway. I was never a big Frost fan, and I had to look both poems up to disentangle them in my head. And I suppose I too took the road less traveled in that, a year later, a nineteen-­year-­old gay man, married to a wonderfully talented American poet, and living on the dead-­end of East 5th Street, in the East Village, I’d committed myself to becoming a writer rather than the business­man whom, finally, my father would have been happier with—

Indeed, since then, my suspicion has been that my father would have fought me over it until he passed away, if he hadn’t died the previous October. But perhaps I am wrong: on the advice of one of his best friends, Jesse Jackson, telling him I’d probably be in print before I was twenty-­one, he paid to have an early novel of mine professionally typed. 

§12. I no longer write novels or stories with complex structures because, between my retirement in the spring of 2015 and today, I have observed the deterioration in my own mental processes, which makes it all but impossible for me to read or write complex works of fiction and nonfiction, other than very short essays the length of a Facebook post. Even these require a great deal of editorial revision, sometimes with the help of an outside reader. This also explains the form of these notes. It is not necessarily unpleasant or pleasant; it is simply a fact (age-appropriate hydrocephalus), but it is part of the transition I am trying to make between someone who writes and someone who has written.

 

This conversation appears in the Winter 2020 print issue of The Yale Review. Purchase a downloadable version of the issue at the low rate of just $5, and get writing by and conversations with Anne Boyer, Julia Cho, Samuel R. Delany, Aleshea Harris, Bhanu Kapil, Yiyun Li, Jonah Mixon-Webster, Namwali Serpell, and Maria Tumarkin.


Samuel R. Delany is a novelist and critic who taught literature and creative writing at the University of Massachusetts and Temple University. He has won Nebulas, Hugos, and the Stonewall Book Award.

Image: Detail from Portrait of Samuel Delany, by Gregory W. Frux © 1984, https://www.fruxart.com/.