Here’s Junot Diaz, talking about his writing process:
It was an incredibly difficult struggle. I tell a lot of young people I work with that nothing should be more inspirational than my dumb ass. It took me 11 years to struggle through one dumb book, and every day you just want to give up. But you don’t find out you’re an artist because you do something really well. You find out you’re an artist because when you fail you have something within you–strength or belief or just craziness–that picks you back up again.
One of the criticisms of my book, and it’s a criticism I take rather seriously, is that the artistic process lacks the rigor of the scientific process, and so it’s thus meaningless to talk about the “discoveries” of artists. If an artist happens to stumble upon a scientific truth about the brain before science…well, then, that’s just dumb luck. After all, even a broken clock is right twice a day.
On the one hand, this criticism is hard to deny. Proust didn’t publish in peer-review journals. He didn’t perform experiments in a lab. (At the start of the 20th century, which is when Proust was writing his novel, the most “rigorous” psychology experiments involved the measurement of nerve reaction times, so perhaps it’s better that Proust stuck to fiction.) He obviously was not a neuroscientist, since neuroscience had yet to exist.
But I think this criticism also gets something fundamentally wrong. One of the things that surprised me (and my surprise was quite naive) was just how hard it was for all of the artists in my book to make their art. The act of creation was an arduous struggle. Proust spent more than ten years writing In Search of Lost Time and even then he insisted on making numerous last minute changes to the text. Cezanne would spend years painting the same Provencal mountain, as he deliberated over each brushstroke. For Virginia Woolf, the act of writing was so intense and draining that she would often relapse into her mental illness after finishing a draft. And so on.
One of the reasons the artistic process was so difficult is that these artists weren’t simply describing stuff – they were investigating stuff. George Eliot, for instance, famously described her novels as a “a set of experiments in life.” Virginia Woolf, before she wrote Mrs. Dalloway, said that in her new novel the “psychology should be done very realistically.” Whitman worked in Civil War hospitals and corresponded for years with the neurologist who discovered phantom limb syndrome. (He also kept up with phrenology, the brain science of his day.) Gertrude Stein worked in William James’ Harvard psychology lab, then went to med-school at Johns Hopkins where she worked in a neuroanatomy lab. She would later say that her art was inspired by some of these experiments. (Her first piece of published writing was actually a science article on “automatic writing”.) My point is that it’s easy to falsely dismiss the artistic process as lacking rigor or diligence, to pretend that artists are merely trying to come up with creations that are entertaining or pretty.
Obviously, a novel makes a different set of epistemic claims than an experiment. Nevertheless, I think many artists, and certainly all of the artists I talk about in my book, are still passionately interested in reality. They want their fiction to feel authentic, to accurately capture some hard to capture element of human existence. That’s why good art is so hard to make. Just ask Junot Diaz.