I’m not gonna lie: the American fiction writer William Gass—best known for avante-garde novels like In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, and one of the high priests of postmodernism—always eluded my tastes. (“O William Gass, you’re a pain in the ass…”) Nevertheless, I find a peculiar choice he made one day circa 1944 completely fascinating. Because, while it seemed so trivial, it changed everything about the way he practiced his craft. Even the way he saw the world.
Gass told the story to The Paris Review in 1977. He had just completed his ninth book, The Tunnel, which had involved almost thirty years of toil, and maybe the sheer relief of being done put him in the mood to reminisce about the pebbly path behind.
The epiphany, he explained, happened in college.
Gass had already been writing for years, in an over-the-top style. He was “a tame wild man … threatening the world as a good Nietzschean should.”
But he was restless and increasingly unhappy. Unhappy with his style and unhappy in his own skin.
Gass has grown up with an alcoholic mother and a character-stunted father. His writing burned with fury. He yearned to “cancel the consequences of the past.” To “reject his background entirely.”
But he couldn’t quite outrun himself.
So one day he had an idea. “I decided to change my handwriting. I sat down with the greatest deliberation and thought how I would make each letter of the alphabet from that moment on,” he said.
“It was strange. Really strange.”
He continued, “When you decide to change your handwriting, and when you sit down and spend a day or more making new characters, you’ve got to be in an outraged and outrageous state of mind.…. I had to make myself anew—or rather, seem to. To become “other than the person I am.”
It “was a really odd decision,” Gass admitted. But he committed to it. And for years, he carefully penned all his communications in this new way.
“I wrote everything—marginal notes, reminders, messages—in a hand that was very Germanic and stiff.” It had little serifs that looked (it would later regretfully strike him) like strands of barbed wire. But “it had a certain artificial elegance, and from time to time I was asked to address wedding invitations.”
That restrained, supercontrolled new m.o. found its way into his fiction. He became hardbitten formalist. (The formalists were trying to create artifacts that stood alone; the meaning of the work was in the structure itself.)
“I became detached,” he explained. “I emphasized technique. I practiced removal. I was a van; I took away things.”
His style had outgrown his old roomy romanticism. Every trace of sentimentality had been purged. “It wasn’t Shelley any longer, it was Pope. It wasn’t even Melville, it was James.”
“I think it very obvious now, though it wasn’t obvious to me then, that I should pick the way I formed words to be the point where I should try to transform everything,” he said. “The alphabet, for Christ’s sake—I would have changed that, if I’d been able.”
From that original superficial adjustment had come a transformation of his aesthetic, really his whole weltanschauung.
“It changed my tastes,” he said. Gass would come to view the handwriting gambit as a kind of philosophical training.
The formalists are known for their sentence-making, and on that score—whatever you think of the gloomy cast of the stories themselves — there’s no doubt that Gass is one of the best there ever was. (David Foster Wallace called Gass’s early work “bleak but gorgeous, like light through ice.”) In changing his handwriting, on that single day, back in the shadow of WWII, it was as if Gass had somehow tweaked his own genome, with the consequences amplifying down the line. Though he did loosen up in later years, it’s the rigorous experimental writing he’s still best known for.
“I think that if I eventually write anything that has any enduring merit,” Gass told his Paris Review interviewer, “it will be in part because of that odd alteration.”