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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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Chips and Source
I've been trying to track down just where Graham Greene remarked that writers need "a chip of ice" in their heart. That is to say, I've been googling it unsuccessfully. Although it's much repeated (with small variations), no one has given the specific source. If things carry on like this, I may need to consult a book!

I'd like to know, because it's a phrase that means many things to different people. For example:

  • Writers need to maintain an emotional distance from their characters and the situations they're in, so as tell the story that needs to be told from an artistic point of view, even if that means bad things happening to good fictional people.

  • Writers are in some respects maimed individuals who leverage their character flaws to create art. The chip is to artists what grit is to oysters.

  • Writers cannot be expected to behave decently to those around them because writing is a high and noble calling, etc.

Not that these beliefs need be mutually exclusive. I suspect that Greene had the first in mind, and maybe a bit of the second, and I hope the third not at all, but I've heard number three trotted out too. If, as I suppose, Greene was alluding to "The Snow Queen" he presumably didn't mean it as a compliment to his profession, or not entirely, but self-praise is often wrapped in the loose mantle of self-criticism, as I well know (speaking as someone who's really too self-aware for her own good), and it would be useful to see context of Greene's remark.

Graham Greene remarked that writers need "a chip of ice" in their heart. That is to say, I've been googling it unsuccessfully.

That's because the phrase is "a splinter of ice." It's from his 1971 autobiography, A Sort of Life. [edit] From context, it looks as though he meant the ability to observe and experience and acknowedge things as real and simultaneously file them away as raw material for future writing: a kind of double-vision detachment from whatever is at hand, if it's useful and/or interesting.

Edited at 2015-06-04 09:31 am (UTC)

Ah, thank you! That has rather more of 3 and less of 1 than I expected, but perhaps a smidgeon of 2, as well.

That has rather more of 3 and less of 1 than I expected, but perhaps a smidgeon of 2, as well.

I don't know that Greene is saying that you can't expect writers to behave decently to other people. They may treat you quite decently: you should just be aware while you're being supported through your traumatic break-up that you're generating useful human data as well.

Yes, that's fairer. In fact, I remember writing elsewhere (but I am unable now to track down the post) about how nice it would be to be able to give that compulsive secretary time off. I found it most oppressive when looking at the dead body of my father, and feeling very sad, but also taking notes.

And then taking notes on my self-disgust.

And then taking notes on my self-disgust.

Then Greene might be in sympathy with you; he is describing himself with the splinter. He may have felt it as a failing. I think I disagree with his metaphor anyway, because I do not see observation and memory as incompatible with compassion or other real feeling, but I have always studied my own behavior and other people's; I knew from very early on that they were often not naturally the same.

(no subject) - steepholm, 2015-06-04 09:53 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - nightspore, 2015-06-04 10:28 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2015-06-04 10:59 am (UTC)(Expand)
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I haven't - you'd recommend it?

I know the feeling you refer to well, though (as you'll have gathered) I've come to have mixed feelings about the involuntariness of it, sometimes even seeing it as a kind of fifth columnist who adds insult to injury by publishing the column! But what indirectly triggered this post was hearing Hanif Kureishi on the radio the other day, mentioning the "chip [sic] of ice" and then having this exchange with John Wilson:

JW: You’ve always mined your own biography and talked about family… How do your sons feel about it? There are sketches here, we get a sense of who they are in a couple of these stories. Do they mind being written about?

HK: I would advise them to keep out of a writer’s way if you don’t want to be in a book.

JW: That’s pretty hard when the writer is their own dad!

HK: That’s tough. I mean, that’s something that they have to live with. You’d have to ask them about it. Writers are rather merciless. You see it with painters too. There’s something really ruthless about a real artist. Virtue is the worst quality in any artist.

The absurdity of his opening remark was almost disarming, but the last sentence, along with the snobbery of "real" in the penultimate one, made me want to puke.

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Absolutely agreed. If you want to hear that exchange in context, by the way, it's here. I don't think it's unrepresentative of the way he came across generally.

I shall seek out the Byatt and Goldman - thanks!

look at Bach

Madeleine L'Engle once wrote: "That night during a wakeful period I thought about all the people in history, literature, art, whom I most admire: Mozart, Shakespeare, Homer, El Greco, St. John, Chekhov, Gregory of Nyssa, Dostoevsky, Emily Bronte: not one of them would qualify for a mental-health certificate. It’s been a small game with me this summer to ask, “Do you know anybody you really admire, who has really been important to the world in a creative way, who would qualify for a mental-health certificate?” So far nobody has come up with one."

Bach was one of the people I thought of, but even for several of the people on that list -- Homer? She thinks she knows enough about Homer to say whether he was mentally healthy?

(no subject) - steepholm, 2015-06-08 06:16 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ethelmay, 2015-06-08 08:21 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Using one's children in fiction is really awfully common, though, from what I've seen. My mother did it quite openly, though she wasn't always sure she should have done it. I told her once, baiting her rather, "You know, when I'm grown up I could always write a novel about you and Dad," and she winced and said "Please don't!" So I haven't. (I mean, there are other reasons for that, like my never having written any novels at all, but still.)

(no subject) - steepholm, 2015-06-08 09:04 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - sovay, 2015-06-24 04:42 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2015-06-24 05:04 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - sovay, 2015-06-24 05:08 pm (UTC)(Expand)
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(no subject) - ethelmay, 2015-06-09 01:40 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2015-06-09 02:31 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ethelmay, 2015-06-09 02:47 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ethelmay, 2015-06-09 03:03 am (UTC)(Expand)
There’s something really ruthless about a real artist. Virtue is the worst quality in any artist.

It is amazing how rapidly that diminished my desire to read Hanif Kureishi.

There are so many myths about artists I hate. Tortured genius is probably at the top of the list, but the idea that great art is fueled by poor treatment of other people (and the best that people who aren't artists can hope for is to enable or stay the hell out of the way) comes in a very close second. I associate it especially with the twentieth century, actually. I wonder how to trace that.

(It may start in the late ninetenth century. Gauguin was an ass.)

It's not enough to be an ass. You've got to make a virtue of it somehow, and imply that your very asshood is (by a thrilling vault of logic) proof of your genius, and conversely that anyone who's considerate of others, especially if they give up a day's writing to attend their mother's funeral, is ipso facto not a "real" artist.

In my head, this feels a rather macho and early-20thC, perhaps initially American line; but I may be confusing it with the related idea that you're also not a real writer unless you've got a destructive addiction.

(no subject) - sovay, 2015-06-05 02:15 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ethelmay, 2015-06-07 05:30 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2015-06-07 05:52 pm (UTC)(Expand)
In one sense, that reminds me of the claim of China Mieville, among others, that writers have to discomfit. I would say that writers have to tell the truth: some truths are discomfiting, and some are not. To be thus purposely selective is to slant the truth.

In another, I've been reading Leader's biography of Kingsley Amis, and the relationship of his life to his novels is outstandingly murky. Amis would claim both that they were drawn from life and that they were completely fictional, whichever claim was more convenient at the moment. The net result is that he libeled people from behind their fictional avatars' names.

(no subject) - steepholm, 2015-06-07 06:16 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2015-06-07 06:31 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2015-06-07 06:39 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ethelmay, 2015-06-08 08:42 pm (UTC)(Expand)
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(no subject) - kalimac, 2015-06-09 02:35 am (UTC)(Expand)
Greene was always detached from his subjects, his works are great but read like theology treatices.