I love this expression of Emile Zola, while being greatly relieved it doesn’t apply to me.
What’s great about it is the physicality of the suggestion of something being hammered, the anvil being the great inflexible immovable thing whose thereness furnishes the base for creativity, a base around which sparks fly, a base where one creates a din. Yes, something like that does happen as a deadline nears.
Then there’s the imagined act of forging. I imagine a lot of sweat, and a man with great physical strength wielding crude tools. His ingredients are unpromising and unmanageable; dangerous, even. But with enough stamina and skill, the smith—or forger, if you will—can unite and shape them into miraculous things. And any smithy worth his salt can get up and do this every day. Thus, style, no matter how miraculous, is tethered to “the terrible” and the everyday.
There, in a nutshell, is the proof that Zola himself had become a great writer. A journeyman journalist who was immensely prolific, Zola was capable of tossing off amazing aphorisms like the one above that people like me are still gushing over 100+ years later. He was one of France’s great novelists, wrote the withering political diatribe J’Accuse, and is suspected of having been killed by his enemies, who may have caused his fatal asphyxiation by stuffing his chimney. Famous as a realist, Zola rose to great heights by grappling with the messy facts and implications of the everyday in a way that was fearless and unrelenting.
Writing is both heaven and hell, I used to say. Each person who writes has to find her or his own motivation, her own rationale and guiding image. Was it Joyce Carol Oates who once likened writing to pushing a peanut across the floor of a room using the tip of her nose? And I believe it was Henry James, an inexhaustible writer, who, when asked what made him write, answered, “Doubt.” So here’s to all those writers living and dead, who’ve tended to their forges, and their peanuts, and their doubts.
Image: Drawing of Emile Zola (1840-1902) at his desk, from this source.