Plunging into the Work

Conversations with Christopher Isherwood
Edited by James J. Berg and Chris Freeman
University of Mississippi Press, 2001

One summer a few years ago I went on a binge of some of Christopher Isherwood’s books, particularly the ones dealing with his commitment to Vedanta.  They were informative and inspiring,  from his translation work on the Gita to his recollections of his guru.  I also read with appreciation this book of interviews over the course of his career, even though I have yet to read his fiction, perhaps the most famous of which are his stories from his Berlin years, which later led  to the musical and film, Cabaret.  What follows are some excerpts that may be pertinent to you, given your interests in  “writing your own history.”

More and more, writing is appearing to me as a kind of self-analysis, a finding-out something about myself and about the past, and about what life is like, as far as I’m concerned; who I am; who these people are; what it’s all about. 5 

[T]he chief discipline I have is the plunge into the work. If I get an idea of any kind for my writing, I try to sit down at the typewriter… and just make a stab at it, almost with the freedom of free association on an analyst’s couch, just saying: it doesn’t matter what this is but just pour it out.  28

And I feel a sort of disturbance, a sort of itch, to write about something, and then I ask this other part of myself, “Well, why do you want to write about it? Tell me, tell me what’s so interesting?”  28

You’d find [Aldous Huxley], after seeming so distant and shy, deep in conversation with the most unlikely people about their professions and problems and being very knowledgeable about them and, what is more, really anxious to learn more from these people and really succeeding in learning more and constantly adding to his stock of knowledge.  33

That’s what the books are  really about, and the experience of meeting certain kinds of people, the experience of the encounter, that’s very important to me.  42

I gradually realized that one should not concern oneself with what other people say, or what they tell you is your duty: your duty is what you find out for yourself. 52 

[T]he greatest saints of Hinduism have said, “Well, after all, relax. I mean, if it takes a million births to realize the Lord, nevertheless you will realize Him sooner or later.” 62

What I want to do really is to try and get down to the inwardness of my own experience of life in my time, because I know that, if I can do that, I shall touch other people’s experience.  69

Art isn’t a recreation of one’s own experience—that you can get nowadays easily enough by shooting a great many home movies and having the tape recorder on all the time, and we’ll have even more sophisticated machines before long. We’ll be photographing ourselves all day long, if we want, in some quite inexpensive manner, and no doubt it would be amusing to dwell on these things.  71

But I really recommend more of a notebook than a diary. Put something down about what you read—anything. You don’t know whether it will turn into fiction or what—that isn’t the important thing. What is important is that you must find out what you’re interested in—the essence of your interests…. To be interesting, your book must be your burning interest. 73  

… a whole new approach to biography, letting the characters literally tell their own stories. 80 

I agree with Hemingway—one should only write what one knows.  98

The important thing  is that you do something everyday, no matter how little. If you form the habit of work when you’re young, it makes things easier later.  107

I feel A Single Man is the best thing I have ever written. This was the only time when I succeeded, very nearly, in saying exactly what I wanted to say. 107

[T]here’s no doubt in my mind whatsoever that I am a believer and a disciple, and that’s only strengthened with the years.  133

Fiction or non-fiction is not a very important distinction to me, and Kerouac could have said the same….I find the difference between my fiction and non-fiction slighter and slighter. The difference is diminishing. because what I’m really interested in is commenting on experience. 137

I would love to do some tiny little thing. One-page stories or sort of exquisite little pensées.    Everybody always imagines they can do that. It’s harder than the longest book in the world.  149 

The English are great masters of comic despair.  165 

I have roots, very strong roots—I’m very, very  British in many ways—but I can replant them anywhere in a  moment.  167

The three most remarkable people I’ve met were E.M. Forster, Stravinsky and Swami Prabhavananda.  187

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