Apart from professional development and blogging about publishing, this WordPress also serves as a forum for me to write creatively and discuss creative writing. I’m currently in a graduate-level creative nonfiction workshop, and one of our assignments is to read The Journal of Jules Renard on our own time and journal about it. Jules Renard is not well known in English and American literature; in fact, his works such as Poil de Carrote and L’Ecornifleur rarely appear in the literary canon so often taught in high schools and universities. But this neglect is such a shame, for Renard’s writing is beyond simple lyricism and grace—it is clear, concise, and thought-provoking. Renard has inspired many a writer, and reading his journal is an excellent example for writers to follow, for, as writers, we are never done developing or honing are craft. There is always another book to read, another form to experiment with.
In the first creative nonfiction workshop I took the second semester of my freshman year of college, we read a piece that was full of short maxims in an anthology titled The Lost Origins of the Essay by John D-Agata. One girl in our class commented that they were “truth bombs.” Our assignment over spring break was to write our own series of truth bombs. I believe I’ve since “lost” (or conveniently misplaced) my truth bombs. I’m guessing that whatever an eighteen-year-old girl had to write in the way of truth bombs isn’t much worth repeating. My writing is rarely concise. I tend to ramble a fair bit, and I have this awful habit of constantly repeating myself, as though I believe the reader isn’t going to get it the first time, so I just have to pound the point into the reader’s head. Frankly, it’s a little insulting to the reader—childish hand-holding between the writer and reader. One of the biggest lessons I’ve had to learn as a writer is to trust your reader.
Anyway, I digress. Back to one Jules Renard. From the get-go, I’m sure he and I are going to have a good friendship, even though he’s, well, dead. In French, renard means “fox.” Before I even open the cover, I think, “Damn, this is gotta be good.” So when I begin reading, what do I discover? A whole new set of truth bombs. Not aphorisms, not adages, not maxims. Truth bombs. I assumed that reading snippets of a late-eighteenth-century writing was going to be a challenge, but I immediately found myself in dialogue with Mr. Renard, because he immediately challenged me:
“Talent is a question of quantity. Talent does not write one page: it writes three hundred. No novel exists which an ordinary intelligence could not conceive; there is no sentence, no matter hoe lovely, that a beginner could not construct. What remains is to pick up the pen, to rule the paper, patiently to fill it up. The strong do not hesitate. They settle down, they sweat, they go on to the end. They exhaust the ink, they use up the paper. This is the only difference between men of talent and cowards who will never make a start. In literature, there are only oxen.”
Immediately I want to protest, “But I’m a writer! And I have writer’s block; I can’t help it!” I think to myself, “Psh, I work in a writing center. Trust me, there are some sentences that are beyond the beginner’s grasp,” as elitist and horribly condescending as that sounds. But then I wonder, “Hrm, that concept of ruling the paper, just writing and writing until something good comes out.” Most of what I write is absolute shit. There’s no getting around that word. Most of it quite simply sucks. Hard. But when you just write and write and write, eventually you’ll strike gold, or at the very least fool’s gold. I’ve got to just go and go and go. Already Renard is providing me lessons about being a writer, but in a more modern context: type until your fingers are numb. Control the screen. You are the master of your own Word document.
But beyond the lessons and content Renard is passing on to me, I’m looking at his syntax above all, or lack thereof. For example, one line reads “A scrupulous inexactness,” another, “Fingers knotty as a chicken’s neck,” “A simple man, a man who has the courage to have a legibile signature.” “The scholar generalizes; the artist individualizes.” These aren’t even complete sentences, but they’re compelling and fascinating, like flash fiction in ten words or less. Maybe these phrases don’t constitute a story; maybe they don’t make up a scene. But I feel like I’m getting an intimate look into his mind, random thoughts he had and just jotted down. I do this, except on my iPhone. A phrase or thought pops into my head, I open my notes, and type it out before returning to whatever it was I was doing. The juxtaposition of two opposing thoughts—scrupulous and inexactness, a gorgeous simile of knotty fingers, and the idea that those of us who hide behind a chicken scratch signature are cowards. Makes you think, doesn’t it? All of a sudden I want to work harder whenever I use my credit card. But my favorite so far is, “To have a horror of the bourgeois is bourgeois.” One sentence, and I want to say, “Yes! Exactly! How did you do that? That would take me three paragraphs to explain.” Frankly, it’s kind of sexy for a dead guy, how he can capture the fact that memories can use your brain as a tambourine. Lately, I’ve been experiencing this every night,and consequently I’m so sleep deprived that it took me half an hour to go grocery shopping because I kept forgetting which aisle I was on.
What are like are the breadth and depth of his one-liners; I feel like I can curl up in them, sleep in them, explore them. There are a few words, ten at most, and yet I want to live in them, emulate them, experience them. I walk away not inspired but contemplative. When was the last time one sentence made me really think?
His prose his sparse yet full. On the one hand I think of haiku and the prose poetry of Gary Young; on the other, I think of a fusion of romanticism and realism. He focuses on some of the details (even the mundane) of life—a bitchy mother-in-law, how a spider glides on an invisible thread as though it were swimming in the air, that the ideal of calm exists in the sitting cat. But he also extols nature, the verbal version of romanticism. Renard is a contemporary of the avant-garde school of impressionism: Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet, Degas, Pissarro, Renoir, yet his work is reminiscent of his art contemporaries through his use of the written word to capture a snapshot of life, a brief moment snatched from time. But he also is expressing his personal views on life—representing the world through a lens not based on time of day or fleeting feeling of the moment, more on the thought passing through his mind.
Renard leaves me with the inner workings of his mind, snippets of what passes through his mind during any given day. Although he doesn’t share explicit details or his personal life, the prose feels incredibly intimate. I feel as if I am almost intruding, looking through a keyhole into which I should not be peering.