A large part of the pain of writing is the pain of needing and wanting the right thought, but it not coming. It’s the agony of standing before the chimney, hoping and not knowing if and when Santa will ever be sliding his bulk down the chute. Plenty of other things may come down, but not, perhaps, what you’re looking for. It’s the wiry tension required to face uncertainty, emptiness, frustration, and imperfection for an unknown period of time: to simply remain, possibly with no reward ever, in the presence of your own inability to live up to your standards, and just persist in staring and staring and staring and staring. To escape this agony, I’m constantly drawn to distraction, usually in the form of the Internet. Checking my email and surfing the web allow me to relieve rising levels of nervous impatience — my muscular urges to write chomping against my knowledge that I have nothing worth writing — into the clicky, finger-tapping channels of false productivity. But such diversions only postpone that period of living with the indefinite without which nothing can be accomplished.
Archives for November 2012
They do. Someone who tastes sweet in the first second in the front of your mouth may turn salty and then bitter and on departure leave a nutty aftertaste. And texture, aroma, visual presentation, and all these may also alter over time within the same personal dish. And a palate, too, can blossom or jade, may mature, complicate itself, tire of convention and seek out the more pungent or wild.
The mind is a terrain, a geography. Emerson said that the whole physical world, all of Nature, existed in highest part to furnish metaphors to describe the mind. The physical landscape provided the rich vocabulary with which to describe our emotions, thoughts, experiences. I would agree wholeheartedly, and say further than the entire realm of myth is also an extended metaphorization of our inner realms. Its sorceresses and demons and heroes actually exist, as phantasmagorical emotional arcs, strange visions and dreams, forbidden desires.
As we experience different emotions and moods and beliefs, we experience different terrains, and each terrain has a message, or perhaps many messages: observations that can be made of it, of what it is like to be there. And by creating a travel journal, by decoding these messages into the language of art, we can direct our mental eyes so that we can see this landscape we are in, experience it better… and travel through it. Freud said that dreams are the royal road to the unconscious; I say art is the regal transport within the realms of mind. It does not merely move on roads. It creates helicopter and hovercraft routes, bolts or lumbers through the waters, and makes haste by every element imaginable — and even by those which are not imaginable, but only conceivable.
One place I find myself not infrequently is the terrain of indifference. I visit different versions of it each time I go — in part because I am at least subtly different each time I go: my memories are different, my view is different, my focuses and emphases are different. When I went most recently, I felt suddenly relieved of a backpack – relatively light and without any particular burden, but also without any particular pressing purpose or direction. I could go anywhere, but was not inspired to do so. Unlike other times when I’ve felt similarly, it’s not that I felt that all the paths were worthless per se, simply that none were particularly appealing. I didn’t feel like going out to exercise, like eating out, like chatting with friends or going on a date, like taking up a hobby, like reading, like watching television, like writing about anything in particular. I was in a whole world, a whole universe, and nothing called out keeningly to me. And yet, I noted, that must mean something.
I was in a comfortable little settlement, all my needs taken care of, with a few people milling about, but only warm dusty landscape all around – not dangerous, but not appealing. And beyond it? More landscape, maybe jungle, maybe ocean, but whatever they were: just objects. Nothing all that interesting. Was this boredom? Perhaps. The boredom of watching the wind for hours at a time. Nothing threatening, nothing oppressive, not the crushing burdens of ennui or depression: simply nothing punchy, dynamic, directive, or enchanting. I was simply nonplussed by an unexpected absence.
Must you find desire, or must desire find you? In the Hindu conception, to the enlightened person the world is in one sense homogenous: the gold the same as dirt, the good the same as bad. To the one who sees clearly, the world is in some sense always a matter of indifference. Such a one draws sustenance not from the world but from his inner self. But how does one draw sustenance from an abstract entity? Perhaps by exploring its appearance in the shimmering reflections of consciousness. For boredom and indifference, too, are objects to be examined.
The landscape of indifference is a terrain characterized on the one hand by boredom but on the other by flashes of nostalgia. On the one hand there is a lack of compelling landmarks or destinations (this reminds me of The Doldrums of The Phantom Tollbooth), and on the other hand suspicions of a desire for something you couldn’t even remember having seen, until, by sheer chance, you glimpsed it once, and by its silhouette, its scent, knew it.
I’ve just cut, with these words, into some interesting, fruity flesh, which let a little juice drip out. I find my senses suddenly sharpened. For this is interesting: to talk about this landscape qua landscape.
At lunch one day I asked a non-writer friend of mine, in clumsy, fumbling language, whether it was more important to write in a way that was true to your ideas or that connected with other people. His response was immediate: writing was about communication.
I wonder. Nabokov said he thought only about the reception of a few friends when he wrote, and cared not at all about the broader public: still, there is an element of communication there. He also said he wrote for pleasure and published only for money.
Marcel Proust and Henry James knew that what they were writing was largely inaccessible, but that didn’t stop them. Still, they clearly tried hard to publish. Proust pulled strings to win the Prix Goncourt. He cared about the prestige and dissemination of his works. Joyce famously reveled in the thought that Finnegan’s Wake would confound English professors for 100 years. And yet all these authors also clearly viewed writing as a way of seeking truth, a sacred mission.
Ray Bradbury relished writing as a rejuvenating practice apart from publication, a kind of meditation that refreshed him and allowed him to “play in the fields of the Lord.” That didn’t stop him from making enormous amounts of money and influencing generations of readers. Booker-prize winning author John Banville claims that finding the perfect words to describe an experience is to him the closest activity to godliness, and that is why he writes. Immanuel Kant swore, before his Critique of Pure Reason, not to be seduced by the desire for fame, and instead to work out his system to its fullest extent for its own sake. And yet he cared about the judgment of posterity: he wanted to change the field of metaphysics forever, and he did.
Robin LaFevers points out, “[j]ust as we must dance as if no one is watching, we must write as if no one is reading.” Only then can we “embrace our strange, unique, and often embarrassing selves and write about the things that really matter to us. We need to be willing to peel our own layers back until we reach that tender, raw, voiceless place—the place where our crunchiest stories come from. We need to get some skin in the game. It should cost us something emotionally to tell our stories.”
Perhaps this might be akin to writing not for no one at all, but for an ideal audience. Poet Jee Leong Koh asks “Why publish at all if your work does not build the house of poetry? This is a serious question that all serious poets must answer for themselves. It is not just about the ego; it is about something bigger than all of us. Call it the ends of art. If we cannot answer the question, we should not publish. … I consider a book a success when it finds its perfect reader.” And this makes sense because even when we write only for ourselves, we hold within us, as writers know only too well, an audience — indeed, whole populations, often restive.
So perhaps we should write not as if no one were reading, but as if the ideal person were? What would the ideal person be like? Perhaps it would be someone absolutely nonjudgmental, with impeccable taste, and in a position to judge the congruence between what we expressed and what was in our hearts?
Rainer Maria Rilke advises his friend, in Letters to a Young Poet, to “[A]sk yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple ‘I must,’ then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose.” The emphasis on necessity suggests an inner impulse towards expression rather than a focus on communicating with a particular someone.
What does this all mean? To me it suggests that the best writing implies a kind of absolute honesty which by its very nature automatically communicates to a perfect audience, and that this, rather than an aim to impress any particular contemporary, is the best aim for an artist. As Emerson puts it, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men–that is genius.”