Elena Ferrante on the Myth of Inspiration, Writing on Demand, and the Central Truth of the Creative Process
“Words draw out words: one can always write a banal, elegant, heartfelt, amusing coherent page on any subject, low or high, simple or complex, frivolous or fundamental.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood,” Tchaikovsky proclaimed in a letter to his patron in contemplating how inspiration factors into on-demand creative work.
More than a century later, beloved Italian novelist Elena Ferrante attests to this central truth of creativity in a magnificent letter to her publisher, Sandra Ozzola, included in Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey (public library) — the nonfiction volume that gave us Ferrante’s elegant case for anonymity.
September of 1994 marked the fifteenth anniversary of Ozzola’s publishing house, Edizioni E/O, which a couple of years earlier had taken a chance on a young first-time author writing under a pseudonym. Ozzola invited Ferrante to write a short piece commemorating the occasion. Ferrante, noting that to “say no to people whom we love and trust” is not her way, complied in a largehearted letter that begins with a meta-meditation on the creative process itself and ends with a beautiful parable celebrating the occasion. It stands as a testament to the fact that where there is groundwater of genius, the well of inspiration can be dug anywhere and any personal experience can quench the universal thirst for meaning.
Ferrante, translated as always by Ann Goldstein (who embodies “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes … a second original”), writes:
What a terrible thing you’ve done: when I happily agreed to write something for the anniversary of your publishing venture, I discovered that the slope of writing to order is a slippery one, and that the descent is in fact pleasurable. What is next? Now that you’ve made me pull out the plug, will all the water flow out through the drain? At this moment I feel ready to write about anything.
Will you ask me to celebrate the new car you’ve just bought? I’ll fish out from somewhere a memory of my first ride in a car and, line by line, end up congratulating you on yours. Will you ask me to compliment your cat on the kittens she’s given birth to? I will resurrect the cat that my father first gave me and then, exasperated by its meowing, took away, abandoning her on the road to Secondigliano. You’ll ask me to contribute an essay to a book you’re doing on the Naples of today? I’ll start from a time when I was afraid to go out for fear of meeting a busybody neighbor whom my mother had thrown out of the house, and, word by word, bring out the fear of violence that reaches us on the rebound today, while the old politics touches up its makeup and we don’t know where to find the new that we ought to support. Should I make an offering to the feminine need to learn to love one’s mother? I will recount how my mother held my hand on the street when I was little: I’ll start from there… I preserve a distant sensation of skin against skin, as she held tight to my hand, out of anxiety that I would slip away and run along the uneven, dangerous street: I felt her fear and was afraid.
Words draw out words: one can always write a banal, elegant, heartfelt, amusing coherent page on any subject, low or high, simple or complex, frivolous or fundamental.
With this, Ferrante puts her ethos into practice and delivers a most inspired iteration on the assignment:
In one of the many houses where I lived as a child, a caper bush grew, in all seasons, on the wall facing east. It was a rough, bare stone wall, riddled with chinks, and every seed could find a bit of earth. But that caper bush, especially, grew and flourished so proudly, and yet with colors so delicate, that it has remained in my mind as an image of just force, of gentle energy. The farmer who rented us the house cut down the plants every year, but in vain. When he decided to fix up the wall, he spread a uniform coat of plaster over it and then painted it an unbearable blue. I waited a long time, trustfully, for the roots of the caper to win out and suddenly fracture the flat calm of that wall. Today, as I search for a way to congratulate my publisher, I feel that it has happened. The plaster cracked, the caper exploded anew with its first shoots. So I hope that Edizioni E/O continues to struggle against the plaster, against all that creates harmony by elimination. May it do so by stubbornly opening up, season upon season, books like the flowers of the caper.
Complement this particular fragment of Ferrante’s thoroughly satisfying Frantumaglia with Leonard Cohen on creativity and work ethic, Agnes Martin on the nature of inspiration, Carole King on inspiration vs. perspiration, and Elizabeth Gilbert on what Tom Waits taught her about creativity.