Monday, 6 October 2014

Works and days

Writing starts in a state of blindness from which you gradually recover. This is the blindness of not knowing where to start, of not having anything to hold on to. This impasse is fundamental to writing. Without it, projects, plans, and efforts would not be possible. Nobody would ever write if there wasn’t this state of chaos, this emptiness full of potential, where everything is present in principle but nothing is materially present. Not yet!

It is in this blindness that, at some point, things start to happen. This is also a recurring blindness, one to which the person who writes returns every time they have reached a finish line. Every time an assignment is finalized, a new one peeks from beyond the line of horizon. And thus, with a text finalized comes another text-to-be.

Source: Pen Again
It happens this way. You don't see. You strain your eyes, you strain your mind in an effort to see what has to be seen in order for writing to commence. What needs to be seen is the step forward, with which the project is given a kick start. This is the hardest part, because there’s no precedent. So many options, the work appears impossible. The only thing known by the writer at this stage is the task.

The chore

So the act of writing finds its origins in an assignment. There is a task to which I subject myself, a task that oppresses me, gives me nausea, restlessness, itchiness, insomnia. There is a task that I inflict upon myself like a wound. I must write this text, I must compose this document. There’s no if, there’s no but.
A task imposed from the outside is nonsense. Take the case of a school assignment. There, the immediate impression is that the task has been forced upon the subject, because it has been uttered by another subjected, vested with more authority. But there is, really, no external imposition. As in Sartre’s formulation of absolute freedom, I can always opt out; I can always say no to the task, I can always choose not to write that assignment. So the choice is, really, mine. It’s easy to say otherwise, because then accountabilities too are taken away from me. And what a peaceful life that one is! Another axiom of Sartre’s philosophy is that freedom entails responsibility.
And so, in relation to writing, I always find myself bound to make a painful decision. Painful – why? Painful because, in order to write, I need to extract myself from the reel of unwriterlike events that make up my life. Writing becomes something special, something out of ordinary, when I start forcing myself to do it in spite of my daily life.
In an essay called “Nine Beginnings,” Margaret Atwood wrote a lengthy ending paragraph I would like to quote in full, because it describes beautifully the process of writing. It goes like this:
"There's the blank page, and the thing that obsesses you. There's the story that wants to take you over and there's your resistance to it. There's a longing to get out of this, this servitude, to play hooky, to do anything else: wash the laundry, see a movie. There are words and their inertias, their biases, their insufficiencies, their glories. There are the risks you take and your loss of nerve, and the help that comes when you're least expecting it. There's the laborious revision, the scrawled-over, crumpled-up pages that drift across the floor like spilled litter. There's the one sentence you know you will save.
Next day there's the blank page. You give yourself up to it like a sleepwalker. Something goes on that you can't remember afterwards. You look at what you've done. It's hopeless.
You begin again. It never gets any easier."
There are obstacles – there are always grand obstacles that life erects before the writing subject. And I don't mean (for now) the financial obstacles. I mean a lot more than that. Take a look around yourselves and you’ll see them everywhere. For those who still have difficulty seeing, here’s an aid: these obstacles are sometimes called procrastination.

The spark and the aggregate

So writing starts from blindness. You don't see, you don't see, you don't see – for a long, long time, everything is dark, nebulous, invisible. Then there's a twinkle of light. An idea, a word, a sentence, a tiny photonic explosion. That is all it takes for the machinery to start, with huffs and puffs; this is how it starts assembling itself. One spark after another, the whole fire becomes alive.
Yes, I think writing is (apart from the many other things I have so far discovered, in or out of this blog) a form of assemblage. Writing is an ars combinatoria. Writing is the craft of putting things together. If there's a place where the idea of a collage never fails, that's gotta be the fief of writing.
So there's that little moment, right? The moment when the darkness that oppressed my mind is slashed through by the tiny lightning of an idea showing itself. It is showing itself not only as a potential, but also as an isolated sequence: a nod.

Source: Vimeo
And now we’re talking. Because, as with nods in networks, this one too, in order to exist, has to grow branches. My idea branches off as soon as the first flicker has become apparent. In other words, this idea attracts other ideas. In the blinding darkness that used to surround me, and which was suddenly illuminated by a single idea, more sparks emerge here and there. In similar ways, other ideas come to light. But these ones are not independent. They are related to my first victor, to that first avenger of light. Everything that follows is triggered by it. That tiny particle of mental dust, which in the beginning appeared to be nothing but an isolated instance, now proves to be the centre of a system; its point of origin. I therefore end up experiencing writing as a networked and networking thing, in its most material form: the form of its coming into being.

Whatever inspires us

Yes, that tiny particle, that initial blast, is what some used to call (and others are still calling) the Muse. It is a kind of secret visitation, if you look at it from a reductive perspective. (Reductive of the writing self, is what I mean.) But the way I prefer to think about writing is not through this comforting, and at the same time frightening, myth of the rebellious Muse, which puts an unflattering light onto the writing subject. On the contrary, I want the subject to shine.
The question is: what causes the Muse to show itself? What allows that initial photonic explosion to take place? Is there anything prior to it? Is there world before revelation? To a writer, the answer is yes: before the Muse there is something. Before the Muse there is a calling for the Muse. The writer who experiences writing as an obligation, as a task, doesn't rely on the visitation to take place. If they do, they fail. Young poets are usually inclined towards this detrimental approach to writing, because they believe there’s no such thing as a predecessor.
Without the task, without the obligation, without the awareness that there are other writers who have already done it before, one cannot understand that it is truly their own subjectivity making room for the Muse, setting the table for her, pouring the wine, cooking the meal, arranging for the waiters, and so on. There's a lot of work before the Muse shows her face, and it is this work that makes the appearance possible. What this means is very simple: every writer is his/her own Muse. Anybody is capable of musing about. It doesn't take preordained talent, it doesn't take a writ in the stars. What it takes is work.
When Hemingway said he was striving to write that single honest sentence that would truly make his day, this is what he meant: to work his butt off in order not to write pure and simple, but in order to allow the Muse to alight on his plot of land. When Joyce was declaring his satisfaction at the production of two lines after a whole day of work, he meant the same thing. Tedious as it may be, writing is, first and foremost, an affirmation of the writing subject. Just as withdrawals of the ascetic type are affirmations of the anchorite’s ability to distil himself into a non-societal being, to work himself out in the hope of receiving the visitation. It should not come as a surprise that monastic life requires isolation, which is not isolation meant to help the subject to avoid temptations, but isolation meant to allow the same subject to work. Revelation is not a given. Revelation requires pain, blood, sweat, humiliation, failure after failure, distress, doubt. All the trainings, all the prayers, all the acts of self-purification, all the renunciations, all the trials and errors of the anchorite are preparations: they are his way of enabling writing to take place.