02/16/2014 12:28 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How A Bewildering Literary Phrase Taught Me To Love My Flaws And Limitations

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The first assignment I was given at Oxford, where I was spending my junior year of college, was to write about the novels of Thomas Hardy, paying attention to "the disturb of the fictive." There were eight of us in the room when our tutor pronounced these words, and we all looked at each other, dumbfounded, none of us daring to ask the woman for clarification. She was the ex-wife of a descendant of William Wordsworth, she smoked stinky French cigarettes, and she dressed, always, in black. She was terrifying.

We were to write the essay over the course of the week and present it to the tutor at the first of our one-on-one tutorials. Off we went, bewildered and ignorant. Fictive was tricky enough, but disturb? As a noun? What on earth did it mean? We discussed the phrase over meals and coffees, but made no headway with it before it was time for us to settle in, alone, to write.

There are moments in any writer's work when something goes awry, or when something upsets the writer's plan for the novel (or short story, or poem). Often, these deviations end up being for the best. -- Henriette Lazaridis Power

That first week, I was convinced the tutor was nuts and I looked ahead to a year of tutorials with dread, convinced I wouldn't learn a thing. Instead, she turned out to be a professor of unusual intelligence and insight, and over the years, in my first career as an English professor and my current one as a novelist, I keep coming back to that strange idea of hers: the disturb of the fictive. I've looked through my old papers, but can't find the essay I wrote, and I've Googled the phrase with no success. But the idea still fascinates me--or at least my idea of what I think it means.

There are moments in any writer's work when something goes awry, or when something upsets the writer's plan for the novel (or short story, or poem). Often, these deviations end up being for the best. A novel that adheres too strictly to the outline laid out for it at the start might be too programmatic to be interesting. Sometimes, the detour becomes the road you need your plot to follow. Sometimes a character you had no intention of spending more than a few pages on can grow into a novel's driving force.

But there's something more than that--and that's what the tutor was trying to get at with her disturb of the fictive. There are instances in the work of a writer or a painter or a musician when the very energy of creation makes itself felt in the resulting art. In those Hardy novels, I think it's in moments when it almost feels as if the narrative is a scroll that has stopped rolling while the pen keeps writing. You end up with a passage so deeply and intensely written over that it borders on the incomprehensible. And then the scroll starts up again and the novel moves on the way it's supposed to.

You can't plan for these moments in your own work, but you can spot them and edit them out. Or should you?

I'm all for writing that is meticulously cared for, and I value the same dedication in the photography or painting or acting or singing that I seek out. Still, why rid your work of the traces of its own creation? Couldn't it be that the flaw you see but leave intact becomes your own mark of creation and identity, like the fingerprint at the edge of a potter's vase, or the hair that drops from the painter's head onto the still-wet canvas?

These days, we can consume our art in conditions of perfection: CD's with no crackle or static, photographs with no scratches. But I think we all find something intriguing in the idea of the disturbance. We love the Easter egg in the video game, the intentional flaw of a Navajo rug or a quilt. More and more of us have tired of the digital clarity of a CD, and film is still being produced for those who want the imperfections of a negative in the darkroom. Conceptual artists have long been making art that is set to decay, its disturb built in to the fictive energy that invented it. Audiobooks now come so cleanly produced that you hear only the syllables and nothing more, but I will never forget a recording of the Turn of the Screw in which I could hear the actor's every inhalation--a poor production, no doubt, but so human.

That is it, in the end: the disturb of the fictive is that quality in art that is human, impermanent, physical, that comes from our hard imaginative work. What I learned that week so many years ago took me a long time to truly discover. It's in its flaws and limitations that our work comes alive, and it's in those flaws and limitations that we reveal ourselves, as artists and as human beings.

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