The New York Times Magazine eventually wore down the writer Anne Carson and convinced her to submit to a profile. And thank God for that, because the resulting piece is just brilliant.
Carson is private, something which has come to seem unusual these days. While her contemporaries are Tweeting, Carson's books are published with no author photographs. She always uses the same bio: Anne Carson was born in Canada and teaches ancient Greek for a living. She sometimes writes about extremely personal things — Plainwater contains an essay in the form of a travelogue, but the reader only realizes at the very end that Carson has been crossing the country to get to Los Angeles with a lover who is going to stay there without her ("Love is, as you know, a harrowing event," she writes) — but does it in a terse, deliberate way. She is not here to confess. It's one of the best things about her writing.
A poet, essayist, and scholar of Ancient Greek, Carson agrees only to an email interview — and even that takes weeks of prodding from her publishers to arrange. That correspondence with the Times' Sam Anderson goes so well that she agrees to spend part of an afternoon with Anderson. He goes to a gallery and then has tea with Carson and her husband, Robert Currie.
Carson discusses the writing of her latest book, Red Doc >, which is a quasi-sequel to her 1998 work Autobiography of Red. It was a long process. Carson worked on the book for around 11 years. Different drafts varied greatly not only in content, but in form — she even tried writing it as a play. She says the manuscript spent "years" being terrible. She started over again. She revised it. A word-processing accident left her document with weirdly large margins, breaking the text up into lines, which she found she liked. She gave it to her publisher. She took it back. Then, after more revisions, she gave it to them for good. Carson does not pretend that writing is not work, that great books and essays do not sometimes (often?) grow from the seeds of truly wretched drafts. Eleven years is still an awfully long time to spend gardening.
Here is what it's like to exchange emails with Anne Carson, in case you've ever dreamed of doing that:
On writing: "we're talking about the struggle to drag a thought over from the mush of the unconscious into some kind of grammar, syntax, human sense; every attempt means starting over with language. starting over with accuracy. i mean, every thought starts over, so every expression of a thought has to do the same. every accuracy has to be invented. . . . i feel i am blundering in concepts too fine for me."
On teaching: "when i began to be published, people got the idea that i should ‘teach writing,' which i have no idea how to do and don't really believe in. so now and then i find myself engaged by a ‘writing program' (as at nyu, stanford) and have to bend my wits to deflect the official purpose."
On contradiction: "i realize all this sounds both chaotic and dishonest and probably that is the case. contradiction is the test of reality, as Simone Weil says."
Also, "Her subject lines contained only punctuation marks: an angle bracket, a comma, parentheses." <,)
But the money quote is this:
"I'm really trying to make people's minds move, you know, which is not something they're naturally inclined to do," she told me. "We have a kind of inertia, sitting and listening. But it's really important to get somehow into the mind and make it move somewhere it has never moved before. That happens partly because the material is mysterious or unknown but mostly because of the way you push the material around from word to word in a sentence. And it's that that I'm more interested in doing, generally, than mystifying by having unexpected content or bizarre forms. It's more like: Given whatever material we're going to talk about, and we all know what it is, how can we move within it in a way we've never moved before, mentally? That seems like the most exciting thing to do with your head. I think it's a weakness to fall back into merely mystifying the audience, which anybody can do. You know, throw in a bit of Hegel. Who knows what that means? But to actually take a piece of Hegel and move it around in a way that shows you something about Hegel is a satisfying challenge."
It's important to get somehow into the mind and make it move somewhere it has never moved before. That is the work that good writing seeks to do — not to mystify, but to move. Anne Carson's writing does that, and that's why it's cherished by so many.
The Inscrutable Brilliance of Anne Carson [New York Times Magazine]