There’s something Biblical, brimming with confidence and vigor, to divide things: light from dark, water from land, rams from ewes. Writings about writing tend to do something similar: divide the plan-before-you writers from the plunge-into writers. But to strain metaphors more than Chobani strains yogurt, I say we have a situation less of rams and ewes and more lambs and ewes. (Besides, I haven’t photographed any rams lately, only this cute pair.)
Lambs can become ewes, and ewes can become lambs.
I don’t mean writers change how they do things, though I suspect most writers both plan and plunge as well as change over time. (I keep picturing in my head Faulkner’s novel A Fable outlined on the walls of his study.) The key is being present in the story to recognize and take advantage of the opportunities it offers, however they arose. When characters collide, for instance, whether by plan or by chance, you must pause to recognize the emergent options or discard the original ones to embrace something better. The process is sort of like hiking with a crude map. You pick a route and a day to maximize beautiful vistas, even if you have no idea if such vistas will actually materialize, or it’s like myself and a camera, stalking this barnyard with some sense that an image would eventually emerge. If vistas do materialize, you don’t rush by. You linger and enjoy everything about them and use them to pick the next direction most likely to keep expanding your vision into something far purer and felicitous than you would have assumed possible–in this case, a scared lamb looking for its ewe.
The author Thomas Pynchon and the former head of Stasi’s foreign intelligence Markus Wolf have one thing in common: both worked the majority of their careers without their faces being known to the public. (I’m assuming Pynchon doesn’t live past 120, though I’d be excited if he did.) Sure, many of us—at least till Facebook—probably exist our entire lives without our mugs entering or interesting the public domain, but the world’s indifference isn’t the same as hiding.
Why hide? Personal protection seems the easiest answer, whether from counter-espionage or paparazzi. Moreover, anonymity also allows you to do the job of scavenging insight from the profane, which requires you to talk to normal people and exist in the normal world if you are to say anything about it. Imagine as an author or intelligence agent shutting down all conversation whenever you entered a restaurant or a grocery store. How could you eavesdrop? (We’ll discount the technical skills of the NSA for now or the movie The Lives of Others, in contrast to the old-fashioned, personal forms of insinuating yourself into another’s confidence.)
Of course, hiding has another advantage in a world never satiated on celebrity: it builds a mythology which becomes its own form of fame, the famous person famous for being unknown. Such calculated concealment is altogether different from Britney Spears in sunglasses or the time I almost backed into Sissy Spacek and simply had no idea that it mattered because I don’t watch enough movies to recognize her. My friends, however, who witnessed knew immediately it mattered. Sadly for Wolf, life on the concealment plan may have backfired somewhat, as he now posthumously has to suffer the internet rumor that he was hired by the Department of Homeland Security to design its operations.
Wolf and Pynchon also share a suspicion of capitalism and build worlds of shadowy conspiracies, whether centered on fictive postage or real politics. Their characters often cannot be wholly trusted and don’t seem to trust wholly anyone else. Just a short step from here is where all espionage and all literature meet, not just Wolf and Pynchon: both use ideas, words, to create stories about ourselves and others, to create characters and goals, that then motivate us to act, sometimes on behalf of things that may or may not exist beyond our imaginations of them.
Men without faces, giving faces to things that are not men? (For the moment, I say nothing of their intentions, only their methods.)