On Reading Lewis Hyde’s The Gift
I first read Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, now in its 25-year anniversary edition, in the mid-eighties and I began to breathe again, I began to write to live—and I don’t mean support myself.
Or is that what I mean? For I did support my soul.
I began writing with my life’s breath in 1987 when my first piece, an elegiac tribute to my mother, was published in The New York Jewish Week—between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—the time of self-reflection for Jews. It was not the best thing I’ve written, but I risked. I mailed it out, knowing it could have been better, knowing that I am not as good as many of the essayists and memoirists I have read, knowing that some, perhaps many, would judge me as not good enough.
But I also knew that judgment opposes the creative way. Judgment throws the baby out with the bathwater.
Some ten years later, I entered the writing life hook, line and sinker. No one should do this without reading Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift and his extended explanation of art as a gift exchange. This book changed my life, gave me breath and hope.
With Hyde’s book in my pocket, I took Auden’s advice from his poem “Leap Before You Look” and quit my corporate job to sit down and write full-time. I did so with Hyde’s books as my guide.
The search through confusion is central to the writing process, a process that for me has two essential parts: the belief that the search matters and the study of literature. The two are inextricable for me.
Some eat to live. I read to live. Lewis Hyde’s book opens with the chapter entitled, “Some Food We Could Not Eat,” and it is here that he lays out his premise that art must operate as a gift exchange. On its most simple level he posits the “paradox of gift exchange: when the gift is used, it is not used up.”
Artists who do not understand this, expect remuneration—and art rarely provides money because it is not actually a commodity. As Hyde says in the introduction to the 1979 edition, “A necessary corollary seems to follow the proposition that a work of art is a gift: there is nothing in the labor of art itself that will automatically make it pay. Quite the opposite in fact.”
The endeavor to make something “other,” and each of us who tries hopes that that “other” may be viewed as “art,” but like all endeavors that support the soul, the effort itself is transformational.
For me that transformation operates through what is known and what is unknown.
What is known can be sourced.
Hyde reads widely and deeply and he sources every quote he uses, some 20 permissions, some quite complex, cover two pages of fine print at the start of the book; extensive notes for each chapter end the book. (As an aside, do see the note at the end of this essay on the permissions process and its cost: a paradox Hyde does not address.)
Hyde spends the first half of his book on what he titles “The Theory of Gifts.” In chapter one he tells us, “Tribal peoples distinguish between gifts and capital.” The next three chapters rely on American Indian Tribes, myths, the Talmud, AA, the mystic and philosopher Meister Eckhart, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, and many others to explain what he means by a gift exchange or, as he quotes British anthropologist Wendy James, the assertion that “one man’s gift must not be another man’s capital.” He moves in the second half of the book to discuss and to quote Whitman, Pound, Eliot, Pinter and many other poets and writers.
The Gift, with its carefully sourced notes, points all of us to other books and to the importance of both living and reading in order to write. His book points us to other artists, the study of the art that moves us, that transforms us and for which we stand in grateful wonder—even awe.
But Lewis Hyde also profoundly understands and explains—at the same time that he quotes others over and over, as he leads us to other books—the transformational power of what I call here un-sourced attentiveness. He understands that wonder is the vehicle for creative work.
A new friend and emerging writer Jennifer Cooreman sent me this quote by the poet Mary Oliver:
Ten times a day something happens to me like this — some strengthening throb of amazement — some good empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest and wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.
I can’t find the source for this quote, meaning not that Mary Oliver said it, but where and when she did so. I hate not knowing that—though not-knowing is key to all my fiction and memoir, something Lewis Hyde does talk about in his essential-to-any-artist book.
As Mary Oliver in my un-sourced quote—except that we know she said it or wrote it somewhere (Please if you have the source, send it to me!)—as she tells us, attentiveness is the key to the creative way. Attentiveness leads to wonder. The wonder we experience strikes us as indefinable, hard to put into words or paint, but the artist forges ahead, afloat on the sea of awe and in a state of gratitude for the gift he does not fully understand.
Here’s how Hyde explains what I mean: “Not all artists use these very words, but there are few artists who have not had the sense that some element of their work comes to them from a source they do not control.”
To explain, he quotes Theodore Roethke in a lecture:
‘I was in that particular hell of the poet: a longish dry period. It was 1952, I was 44, and I thought I was done. I was living alone in a biggish house in Edmond, Washington. I had been reading—and rereading—not Yeats, but Raleigh and Sir John Davies. I had been teaching the five-beat line for weeks—I knew quite a bit about it, but write it myself?—no: so I felt myself a fraud.
‘Suddenly, in the early evening, the poem “The Dance” started, and finished itself in a very short time—say thirty minutes, maybe in the greater part of an hour, it was all done. I felt, I knew, I had hit it. I walked around, and I wept; and I knelt down—I always do after I’ve written what I know is a good piece. But at the same time I had, as God is my witness, the actual sense of a Presence—as if Yeats himself were in that room. The experience was terrifying, for it lasted at least half an hour. That house, I repeat, was charged with psychic presence: the very walls seemed to shimmer. I wept for joy …. [Hyde’s ellipsis] He, they—the poets dead—were with me.’
Such moments of unwilled reception are not all there is to the creation of a work of art, of course. Notice Roethke: ‘I had been teaching the five-beat line for weeks.’ … .[my ellipsis] All artists work to acquire and perfect the tools of their craft, and all art involves evaluation, clarification, and revision. But these are secondary tasks. (Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, pp. 144-5).
I suspect that many creative types feel themselves a fraud, as Roethke once did.
I have learned that part of the creative process must be the willingness to fail without destructive judgment of oneself or fear of that judgment from others—though this last is much harder. Leave that work to the critics and there are many who are expert take-down “artists.”
Things go wrong when we try the creative way. We fail. And I believe that failure teaches. Only if we risk will we create. The word risk implies not safety, not security, but failure, in the best sense of that word.
Part and parcel of this gift exchange for me has been the willingness, the primary desire to continue to teach, to read great work with a student in order to learn.
Hyde says, “Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say most artists are converted to art by art itself. The future artist finds himself or herself moved by a work of art, and, through that experience, comes to labor in the service of art until he can profess his own gifts. Those of us who do not become artists nonetheless attend to art in a similar spirit. We come to painting, to poetry, to the stage, hoping to revive the soul. And any artist whose work touches us earns our gratitude.” (Hyde, p. 47).
If you are considering writing as an endeavor, you may already have experienced a “workshop” and I would like here to address anyone who may have been profoundly discouraged. Good teachers, I argue, do not do this to those who enter the dialogue of their souls on paper with the supposed artist, designated to teach them.
Let me take time here to explain and encourage. Teaching is my love after writing. I have taught a good part of my life, high school and on the university level, both undergraduate and graduate and through the Smithsonian’s Campus-on-the-Mall.
I now teach pro bono students who come to me from all over if I see that a true dialogue is possible and that the potential student is willing to take the necessary risks.
The act of writing is a deeply human experience with profound implications for all who are exposed to it with an understanding teacher, with the teacher’s belief.
Here’s what I mean: The creative writing teacher must have a deep concern for each student’s intention, his noblest and highest aim—and the student must be allowed to safely fail.
I use the word failure in an unusual way. Please understand that I do not mean that students while I was at university were allowed to leave my class without demonstrating an understanding of the basic terms and techniques required to write a piece of fiction. Indeed, I focused heavily on the “craft” of fiction, what we can understand and articulate about how a story works.
But, in truth, the art of teaching is about something more profound than this, is it not? It is about the student’s deep participation in the process.
A focus on the failure of a piece—the approach used by some workshop leaders—too often discourages the writer while missing this essential truth: that the seeds of success lie in the risks taken.
The teacher must come to her student with a deep concern for the artist—indeed every person carries an artist within him—and yet our first efforts often fail. I have an unfailing respect for the student who risks failure by trying something new, hard to do, or philosophically difficult. My goal—Should this not be the underlying goal of the truly committed teacher in any discipline?—is to encourage invention, the heart of the creative effort.
It is my deep-held belief that all creativity involves, by its very nature, failure. The safety to fail—particularly when creative work is on the table—is the key to the risk-taking that allows and encourages invention. Sometimes these risks are blind alleys, not worth the trouble, or just the result of not understanding the craft well enough. And these failures need to be addressed. The writer must understand what is going wrong. But I also believe that the writer who has tried something worthwhile must leave the exchange encouraged to keep trying, on that chance, that outside chance, that his failure is the key to his success.
The nature of the failure is the key. If one can see worthy intent in the failure—something that’s worth trying, something hard to achieve, something philosophically or technically challenging—that intent must be encouraged. At the end of each session the student should understand what is worthy of encouraging in the failure. That is where the true leap of faith, the real invention may come from.
Encouragement is the truth of teaching. In teaching, it embodies the search for the good, wherever it may lead, however bleak that search may seem at times for both teacher and student.
As writers, when we feel like frauds, we must remember that and encourage ourselves or hope for a witness to our lives and work to help us through.
The tenet of my work with others is this: that the teacher must always be the most open mind in the exchange, the student par excellence because every face before us offers a path for our own invention as we remain open to the dialogue about the art that inspires us.
The teaching of an art, like the experience of invention, is the gift exchange that Hyde unravels throughout his book.
Part of what I have to offer is my own failure. In 2006 after my first book The Woman Who Never Cooked was completed and had won Mid-List Press’s First Series Award, the bottom fell out of my life because of the loss of my beloved spouse—or what I thought was that loss. That story of the four-year separation from my husband is recounted in my memoir (Re)Making Love.
When we separated, I concluded I was done, meaning the writing life was, I told myself, in big-time all caps OVER. What I did was set aside my novel-in-progress entitled Who by Fire in the belief that I deserved that sentence: She’s done. I was in the dark place where a woman sets aside her art for fear of the damage it may have caused or could cause. That’s a grandiose thought that damages the bearer. I was lost and did not believe I had the right to write.
I was lucky to get a low-paying visiting-writer-professor job at the University of Missouri-Columbia in the graduate creative writing program.
I taught. I was, to use Roethke’s metaphor, “studying the five-beat line.”
Without my fully understanding what I was doing, I continued to journal. I continued to write out of the unconscious, not the self-conscious, mind in that journal. The novel Who by Fire came to be by end of 2012.
Two years later Lewis Hyde has come to my aid once again. Despite the fact that The novel is featured by editor and publisher Margaret Brown in Shelf Unbound: What to read next in independent publishing and has been chosen as “Notable Literary Fiction” for the January 2014 issue, it is not selling well. I am decidedly “not famous,” and decidedly not paid for this effort though I remain grateful for the small publisher, Anthony Policastro, owner of Outer Banks Publishing Group, who has had faith in the novel and believes, as he says, that “Who by Fire earned its place among books that matter.”
Part of the conundrum of the gift exchange when writing is an understanding that all of us who endeavor in the arts must come to profoundly know: That we are involved in a transformative process that has little if anything to do with the world of commerce as most of us know that world.
Hyde advises in his chapter “The Commerce of the Creative Spirit,”
Once an inner gift has been realized, it may be passed along, communicated to the audience. And sometimes this embodied gift—the work—can reproduce the gifted state in the audience that receives it.
I did not lightly mention Jennifer Cooreman at my opening. I’ve not ever met her, but I teach her pro bono via phone and e-mail. She has read Who by Fire and some of my short stories in The Woman Who Never Cooked.
We are grateful to have found one another. She has little idea how grateful I am to have found her. While I was composing this essay she sent me these words that follow on reading me:
I see myself like a mirror in your work, but I know everyone who reads it sees themselves in your words just as much as I do, whether they lost a sister or not, had an affair or not, has been married. Any of it. You accomplish this a million times over in Who by Fire (I couldn't figure out how to tell you how marvelous that was). And again in the short story “Sine Die.” It is the most remarkable, beautiful, amazing story.
And so the gift moves and so I am moved. Is this not remuneration enough?
The journey continues and I hope won’t stop while I still breathe. In the writing lies the search for the nature of existence. The search for identity is our life’s work and to bury that search, to bury one’s work—as I did in 2006 with the novel Who by Fire—is to bury oneself, to align with death, the ultimate definer of our limitations.
I close here with belief in the creative way and with encouragement for any who feel its loneliness along with its gifts.
Note: Permissions: boy, is that another story that I could write volumes on. See my memoir (Re)Making Love for the list of 18 permissions I had to obtain before publication of that book at a cost of more than five thousand dollars. David Shields in his book Reality Hunger balked at this process. He says before the notes he begrudgingly added at his book’s end, “This book contains hundreds of quotations that go unacknowledged in the body of the text. I’m trying to regain a freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs took for granted and that we have lost.” For my memoir, every author who is alive gave me permission, free and clear. With the gracious exception of John Updike’s estate that did give me free permission, in every other case, meaning the author had died, I had to pay the publishing house for the use of the quote, and every quote in my memoir is fully annotated inside the body of my text.
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