One Sunday morning in August 1925 a young American journalist by the name of Kyle Crichton parked his car outside Kiowa Ranch in New Mexico and swung open the driver’s door. He’d come the regular, the longer route (his host, Bert, would tip him off about the short cut through the canyon and across the river before his return trip) and must’ve felt like he’d never unstick himself from the car’s upholstery. His wife made an equally welcome exit from the passenger’s side. But once they’d had a moment or two to stretch their legs and let their shirts / blouses peel away from their backs, they were able to appreciate the view (one could see 150 miles, even the mountains beyond Albuquerque) and properly appreciate the pleasure of the visit they were about to make.
The Crichtons’ hosts were, of course, D. H. and Frieda Lawrence, and in the newspaper article he subsequently wrote, Kyle Crichton painted a rather charming portrait of the celebrated / notorious couple, bringing to life Lawrence’s gift for mimicry and Frieda’s quietly proud appreciation of her husband’s practical skills (“He built the new cowshed – all by himself!”). But it was when he asked a question that managed to be ostensibly simple and yet exceptionally profound that the Lawrences suddenly and vividly revealed the aspects of their personality that Crichton, always the journalist, had most earnestly hoped to reveal. He had turned to Lawrence and said,
‘What makes a man a writer?’
and Frieda had immediately replied,
‘Egotism. A writer thinks he knows something nobody else knows and he wants to tell it; he wants to show the world what a great fellow he is.’
The Lawrences were famous for their rows, their violent tempers, their sheer ability to turn a social occasion into a battlefield; their sheer inability to recognize the difference between a battlefield and a social occasion; but on this particular day, perhaps because the atmosphere was too good, the company too congenial, the Crichtons simply too nice and decent and respectful to make a scene in front of, the upshot was not a violent contradiction, rather a measured refutation. Lawrence tapped his clay pipe on the edge of the table, he said,
‘No, it isn’t that. You don’t write for anybody in particular; you don’t really mind what individuals think or say about what you write. A man writes rather from a deep moral sense – for the race, as it were. That sounds high-falutin’, but that’s really what it amounts to. You want to see it published well enough, but you don’t care what’s said about it.’
Oh, what a gorgeous irony! Did Crichton (or, indeed, any of them) recognize it? I really don’t know. Lawrence was widely regarded as fundamentally immoral by most of the world – even three years before the publication of Lady Chatterley. But I do know that late in the afternoon Mr. and Mrs. Crichton took their leaves of the celebrated couple they’d driven all the way out to meet, and gave a final valedictory wave out of the driver’s window (she leaning over, one hand on Kyle’s shoulder) and set their course back home on the short cut recommended by Bert (the short cut through the canyon and across the river) filled with the sense of exhilaration one feels having met a famous person and finding oneself treated as an equal and a friend. Nevertheless, it was to be the first and the last time that the Crichtons and the Lawrences met; a few weeks later Bert and Frieda left Kiowa Ranch for the last time; from New York they sailed to Europe, subsequently compiling an impressive list of ex-pat addresses that included sojourns in Capri, Florence and the South of France – where Lawrence died less than five years later at the age of forty-four. But in New Mexico they left behind an enduring legend and a site of subsequent literary pilgrimage, as well as two contrasting answers to a simple question –
‘What makes a man a writer?’
(to say nothing of a cow called Susan, a cock called Moses, and a cat called Timsy Wemyss…).
In its in-answerable combination of profundity and simplicity, the question is, whether Crichton was aware of it or not, worthy of Pilate. And the responses given on that hot Sunday afternoon, while doing nearly nothing to answer the question itself, give excellent insights into the respective psychologies of this extraordinary pair of violent extremes. I have not the space to comment on either Frieda’s answer or her husband’s. I will say that a whole essay could be written in response to each; I will say further that any writer’s critique of the answers to the question would in itself lend itself to reams of further exegesis re. the interpretation of the answers foregone. In fact, I might prefer to stand back and suggest that as any answer, if delivered by a great writer (or his wife), is necessarily subjective it therefore defies an objective critique. It is also the case that Kyle Crichton, however decent and worthwhile a guy he may have been, stood in relation to 20th Century literature as a meteor to a planet; a sudden glow, almost missed by astronomers, coming briefly into contact with the atmosphere of Jupiter or Venus. But his question remains, and one wishes that, in a sort of hommage to Landor and his Imaginary Conversations, we might have a parallel set of answers to Crichton’s question from married couples where one was the famous writer, the other the famous writer’s other half. James and Nora Joyce; Joseph and Jessie Conrad; Eugene O’Neill and Carlotta Monterey; Ernest and any of the four Mrs. Hemingways; Anais Nin and either of the two (simultaneous) Mr. Nins. Now that would make for a rather interesting article…
But in the meantime, having brought up the question, it would be something of a let-down if I failed to at least attempt an answer myself. So, let us say that when Kyle Crichton asks me, “What makes a man a writer?” I will take a contemplative draw on my cigarette, swish the ice around in my Bombay & quinine fizz, and reply,
‘Three things, and the first two are easy: talent and application. But the third is the most necessary and takes a moment to explain. When you are very small you read something that transports you to a different place. And it happens again and again when you read different things of the same kind – Arabian Nights stories, for example, or The Little Prince or Willard Price. And if you have a certain way of thinking, an intelligence certainly, you realise that if you become a writer you can control this extraordinary means of travel to other places. A bit like science-fiction, really. Best analogy I can think of is if a child is taken up in an aeroplane and sees the whole wonder of the world, experiences the sheer exhilaration of flight, and instead of dreaming of being a traveler, dreams of being a pilot; dreams of being in control of this marvelous machine…’
‘So, if I get you correctly, all writers aspire to the condition, not of music, but of H G Wells? Or at least, Antoine de St. Exupery?’
‘No, you take me much too literally. What makes a man a writer is to be exposed at an early age to the sheer possibilities inherent in being a writer. Because he wants to fly with Wordsworth, not be flown by him. There is an element of egotism, yes, but it’s of the benign sort that seeks freedom for itself, not servitude from others. But ultimately the question is unanswerable, as I have intimated earlier; or is necessarily subjective, which is almost the same thing.’
I will, of course, before they leave, make sure they are familiar with the short cut through the canyon and across the river. And wave them away as their car-door slams and the wheels turn up a cloud of dust.