Monday, 27 October 2014

The losing of dreams

There’s this game of cat-and-mouse we play with memory. I know I, for one, wake up sometimes after having dreamed the perfect sentence, the perfect combination of words. There’s this mist enveloping my head, this feeling of elation, from which I don’t want to depart but which I will have to destroy soon. Very, very fragile, this ecstasy. So fragile, it comes to me in fragments, not as a full-bodied article.

Light, the destroyer

Before my eyes open for good and light returns to rule over my world, there’s this state of in-betweenness, where things are still happening without a program, and where I find the texts I might be able to write – I find them perfectly formed, perfectly written. Only not on my page, not on my screen. They are there, in me, and yet not exactly there. I encounter them the way I encounter the accidents of my life, and I rejoice at seeing them (or rather feeling them) the way I rejoice at the sight of pregnant newness. Oh my god, I say. Oh my god, I've got it. I've nailed my best one ever. The words and everything – lined up in a beautiful string like beads queuing patiently after one another, everything making sense, everything making more sense than anything else. The thoughts – their hard surfaces and their soft malleability – their fragile being materialized in a state between states. The genial embrace of the muse through the blanket covering me head to toe. The feeling, the good feeling, covering me like a blanket too – I am it.
And then – damn, I wake up. And every time I ask: Why do I have to wake up? Why do I have to ruin this wonderful moment? Wakefulness brings about its own monsters – darker than the monsters of the night, harder – if not impossible – to push away. The stubborn monsters of reality, the menaces of daylight. They come and steal away my best sentences. They eat them up like they were slices of cake. The worst thing about these monsters of daylight is that they steal away my brilliant ideas, with that rapacious gluttony of ravenous ogres.

Source: Deviant Art
I find this in a poem by Tomas Tranströmer, and I know he means exactly what I’ve been saying so far.
“A dizzying commedia that is inscribed
inside the eyelids’ monastery walls.
A sole exemplar. There it is right now!
It is, in the morning, altogether erased.
The mystery of that great extravagance!
Obliteration… As when the tourist is stopped
by suspicious men in uniform –
they open his camera, unroll his film
and allow the sun to kill the pictures:
so dreams are blackened out by the light of day.”
And they say daylight is good… It may be for plants, but the photosynthesis of thoughts is different. Unlike plants, they grow well in darkness as well as in full light. Maybe better, sometimes.

The threshold

Tranströmer’s example is one that calls for some thinking.
You think: when there’s no way out for thought, one way will have to be invented. Take the gift of speech away, and you’re left with the gift of telling. Because speaking and telling are not the same thing – no way. The turning of one into the other is not a taken-for-granted metamorphosis. The pronunciation of words does not make the thought apparent. But telling – telling can be achieved without words. You can tell with your hands, with your eyebrows, with the color in your cheeks, with the trembling of Adam’s apple.
And so, the passing of speech into telling requires a threshold of its own. This threshold may be speech’s own progression into meaning, and at the same time its state of uncertainty: the point where it’s not yet clear if what you’re saying will be understood, if it will be made apparent in the form of something told. What is clear, though, is that not everything will pass through. The threshold is not only a passage but also a filter. Like a sieve that allows the water to leave while keeping the solids in place, it is a termination of something and an inception of something else. This is where speech loses its inarticulateness and where it starts to take the forms of meaning – where it becomes articulated.
The threshold. So many good moments died at the threshold between my nights and my days that I’m thinking: isn't it unfair that we depend so much on this state of conscious wakefulness to create things that are mostly irrational? Poetry comes from where reason gives up in embarrassment. Writing in general comes from the same regions, although there must be a secret potion somewhere that transforms writing-in-general into poems. It needs to pierce through all this barrage of reason, this unbearable daylight, in order to get back to where it is possible – to where poetry is not poetry but a dream, an event that hasn't occurred yet but which is about to take place.

At the threshold, there are no certainties. There are the things behind and the things ahead, none of which shine true. Behind and ahead are mere coordinates, not to be relied on. Since the ground is shaking, the only things I am left with are questions. Where is my muse now? Where is her promise to deliver the Idea? Is she hidden? Is she forbidden to cross the threshold? Am I left alone? Should I be worried?
If there’s a muse out there, she must be worried by the threshold, because this is where her mirage becomes apparent, where it is exposed as hallucination.

The archive

The situation in which I find myself when I forget this way and try to bring the forgotten back from the recesses of a memory that is not exactly memory (since, as I still believe, dreams come from a region that’s independent from mundane experiences, if often caused by them), this situation in which I try to bring to the surface something that lurked underground, i.e. under the ground of my conscience, is a writing situation. It is a writing situation insofar as it presents precisely the possibility of a recollection; but a recollection that is remembrance in the sense in which putting members together, when a body has been pulled apart, will not create the original body, but something else: something more monstrous, like a mere collection of members. Remembrance is recollection, no doubt.
When I wake up and realize that my words and my thoughts have flown away from me, that they are broken apart, I timidly formulate the hope that writing might be a salvation for me, because I've been taught (by whom? I can’t recall) to think of writing as an aid to memory. But also because (as I've learnt by myself) writing is more likely to be a storage system. If I could use this potential of writing to store, I would never be worried again about my thoughts slipping away. If only.
But as things stand, writing is nigh impossible at that threshold between the conscious state and the state of slumber. When I manage to cross this threshold what I am faced with is a series of sorry recollections. I see improbability and incompleteness when I try to view what’s happening at the threshold. I see my thoughts trying to take shape and failing. I see, therefore, the need for a system of recording; for an archive of sorts.

Source: Matrix
Writing, as a system of notation, is this rescue I am hoping to get from somewhere. But writing, I need to remind myself, is not a means of producing copies. Writing is not a copy of the thought, of the real, of the World. Writing is creation of worlds, of thought, of realities. So it cannot be the rescue I am hoping for. Even when I take pen and paper immediately after I wake up (the way some psychiatrists advise their patients in order to monitor their flow of dreams and the significance of recurrences), what I write on the paper never sounds complete. It does not have the same weight as the words/the thoughts I encountered in my sleep. Not even when I’m sure that I've put down the exact same words I heard/sensed in my dream, with the same inflection, with the same logical succession.
But can I ever be completely sure? With thoughts, as with texts, certainty is a risky enterprise. They can be anything and nothing at the switch of a button; at the crossing of a threshold.

Monday, 20 October 2014

The work of writing

“If a doctor told me I had six minutes to live, I’d type a little faster.”
(Isaac Asimov)

There’s nowhere to hide when the task of writing comes about. It often comes as a blessing. When it does so, there’s no reason to fear it. But there are other moments (many more, in fact), when having to write is possibly equal to having to strangle oneself with one’s own hands. Not only equally terrifying, but also equally difficult (or laborious).

A writer is one who writes, and there’s no way known to man to argue against that. There’s no additional option, no middle ground, no escape route – except, of course, the one expressed in the form of a refusal. But refusing to write means choosing not to be a writer; and so it is not exactly a choice at all for the one who dreams of embracing the writing profession. In order for a text to come to light a gesture of literal inscription needs to have been made. Those who think about writing are thinkers. Some of them quite excellent: geniuses of orality, champions of the spoken word. But they will never graduate from their oral state. They will never be writers. This is so odiously simple, so blatantly evident, it’s hardly worth saying. But still...
Writing relies not only on this decision to take up the task of writing but also on the motivation to stay put. In other words, with writing comes the status as well as the work. But mostly the work.

Source: Writinghood

Work is eternity

What lies in the tenacious task of writing is sweat. Once this is acknowledged, it is easier to accept failure; which is, in essence, the short-circuiting of work’s capacity to go on forever. Failed projects are projects in which, in theory, the work could have continued ad infinitum. If it weren't for the barrier, for the enforced halt.
But what is this stop-that-comes-from-outside-work, and which imposes itself upon writing?
Well, work of all type is, by definition, a manifestation of the infinite. Writing, which is a form of work, is also a manifestation of the infinite progression towards no objective other than the perpetuation of the process itself.
Work is continuous. Work is becoming. Work entails no real beginning and no real end. This is best illustrated by the logic of hitchhiking: you hop on at some point while the vehicle is in motion and hop off to look at its slow, irreversible departure. It's really the vehicle that matter, or rather – its velocity. And this makes it necessary for us to distinguish between work and worker. Work is never-ending. Like all ideal situations (Platonic ideas, metaphysical perfections), it resides in a region where there are no limits and no categories. It is a form of perpetuity and limitlessness. The worker, however, is the well-known human being, with his limitations, with his dependence on biology, with his death. Work exists after the worker died, just as it existed before he was born. It’s within this vessel that the worker carries out his task, and within this perimeter that he finds, once more, the confirmation of his mortality. And so he carries work out knowing that nobody is irreplaceable in the workforce: the harshest, most unfair thing we learn when we are employed for the first time, on which occasion we realize that our employment was another’s end-of-contract. Saying that one’s life is another’s death would be very accurate in this context, as would be to note that this realization places work itself in an ecosystem of its own, with its own logic of sustainability: in order for one to work, another must stop working (and so on).

Source: Walls Pick

The still-born

The finished work, as I suggested last week, is not finished in a natural way. It is work stopped in its becoming. A book, a document, a project of any kind is, in truth, an unnatural death, insofar as Work is concerned. It is, at the same time, itself a form of failure: the work's failure to impose itself as continuous. Finished projects make work seem fragmentary. An author’s books are his/her fits and starts, his/her re-engagement with the eternity of work – not in the hope of containing work, but in an attempt at giving work its due. And work’s due is its lack of history. Work is without history in the sense of not being made of moments strung together, but being a progression without interruptions; a continuum.
Failure is a tricky thing. The writer who writes and writes and writes and writes in order to eliminate errors (thinking they’re doing it in order to make their work perfect, or as close to perfection as possible) is, presumably, a creature thriving on the termination of failures. However, this termination is not equivalent to the achievement of success. To a writer, the book just published, the document just printed, the recipe just handed over, are, really, failures of Failure (by which I mean, as above, the affirmation of the worker’s limits – his virtual death). Failing to fail is equal to failing to die. Hence the immortality we hope to acquire thought the books we write, through the texts we produce.
Workers who perform their task as if it were the pill that made them eternal work in order to vanquish Failure as a principle, by struggling to eliminate every particular calamity while it's still unborn. And this is why writers almost always boast about the fact of their dealing in mistakes and fiascos. To quote Margaret Atwood again (from the same text quoted last week):
"A ratio of failure is built into the process of writing. The waste-basket has evolved for a reason. Think of it as the altar of the Muse Oblivion, to whom you sacrifice your botched first drafts, the tokens of your human imperfection. She is the tenth Muse, the one without whom none of the others can function. The gift she offers you is the freedom of the second chance. Or as many chances as you'll like."
Error comes with work – that's the message here. (Miscarriage, the Tenth Muse – I need to retain this association.) This is not only a warning; it is also a promise. A promise that failure cannot be avoided, since beginnings, as initiations of new projects, are failures in-the-making.

Source: The Guardian


And because writing is so much a withdrawal from life, it appears (in spite of its exclusive definition as work) to be no-work. Leisure. Pass time. Elegance and uselessness. Aristocratic affordability to waste one's time and to bring no good (or little good) to those who live around. "Why do you write?" appears, to Atwood, as a subtle rewording of another, more proletarian, question: "Why not do something useful instead?"
"If you were a doctor, you could tell some acceptable moral tale about how you put Band-Aids on your cats as a child, how you've always longed to cure suffering. No one can argue with that: But writing? What is it for?"
Yes, writing, unfortunately, has to happen as an attempt at answering this impossible question. And every time somebody thinks they've found an answer, that answer is harshly, emphatically, pragmatically, rejected. There's no way you can accept writing, especially writing that's never acquired the (partial, never-sufficient) confirmation of a book cover. Writing, if it has to be considered significant, will have to take place in one's spare time. (Nota Bene: One's own, not the time of others.) Professional writers are in fact writers whose writing doesn't appear as profession but as hobby.
So when the question comes, when it is thrown at the writer with the force with which a spear is thrust towards an enemy, the only safety guard is the forget-about-it argument:
"If at a loss, perfect the shrug. Or say: It's better than working in a bank. Or say: For fun. If you say this, you won't be believed, or else you'll be dismissed as trivial. Either way, you'll have avoided the question."

And so, under the protection of one's own techniques of avoidance, writing can return to its lair. It can evolve the way it has been evolving all along: apart from the world, into the wilderness of one's own isolation, into the rage of one's soliloquies; i.e. into one's precondition as a writer.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Working towards the Muse

I spoke of work last week, and somehow, at some point, I bumped into the Muse issue. For most of my post, I dealt with writing in its professionalized form. But now I want to start by saying a few things about the other forms of writing, the ones that are not so glorious - the non-professional ones.

Source: DVO
I return to my favourite example: the shopping list. Let's think about it. What is there, in the shopping list, that may be said to enable writing? A couple of weeks ago I suggested that this may be the disappearance of the body. And I do believe the same now. But I need to stress that the disappearance of a body (that anonymity of the author of a shopping list which makes it impossible to anybody else to recognize who he or she is) is doubled by the appearance of a self. It is the self that we perceive when we read that list, since the body is invisible to us. And that self is the metadata that gives us a wealth of information about the author: about his choice of words, the page he's picked up, the pen he used, but mostly about the mental energy that made it possible for the list itself to come to light. Before the list there was darkness. And the darkness could only be dispelled with effort.
What do I need? What do I lack? What do I have to replenish in my cupboard? What have I run out of? All these questions are prompts. They facilitate the coming into the world of the shopping list I am now confidently composing, knowing exactly what I am in need for, and more importantly, knowing perfectly well the words I need in order to express that lack on the piece of paper I have chosen as my canvas.

Of work (again)
In order to do all this I need to put myself to the task. I need to toil in an effort to clear the ground and to make things possible. It is only in the void (in that state of blindness I mentioned last week) that the appearance of objects is noticeable. In a fertile field full of bloom and growth (which is what all efforts of clearing aim for), the blooming of one flower or the rising of one plant from seed is not a noticeable event. There are too many similar events that compete for supremacy there, and because of this they all end up invisible. But make that field blank; make it a field of potentialities. Now the Muse can come. Now there's room for her to feel good, to feel cherished, to feel useful. And the Muse will come as soon as all that is acquired. It will come easily. Her coming will be made easier and easier, as the toil extends, as the effort intensifies.

Source: Anatoly Karlin
This is how I like to contradict the myth of the benevolent Muse, who comes to impregnate the writer's mind. I believe it is the other way round: it is the writer that impregnates the Muse. That's why the Greeks made Muses into feminine creatures: because they presuppose, these Muses, the potential to carry. Good Muses are pregnant Muses. Good Muses are carriers of a writers' own efforts.

Working towards the Muse
So when someone says you need to be in your Muse's good graces to be able to write, I say no way. In order to be able to write you need to work. In order to write you need to have already written. Not in the sense of being familiar (from accumulated experience) with what the act of writing implies, but in the sense of having paved your way towards the real moment of writing (the one that produces the real satisfaction), by means of a working-towards-the-Muse.
It takes work to write and it takes determination. To return to the writing profession, i.e. to the writers called "writers" in dictionaries and encyclopedias (read the Wikipedia entry for the word and you'll be edified), let's say without work there won't be a name on a cover. There won't be a cover, there won't be a name.

And working some more
When asked to write about her writing, Margaret Atwood admitted she was in an impasse. Writing, her own writing, did not appear clearly to her. The only thing that she appeared to be clear about was the idea that there had been work involved. Work and other peripheries of writing (location, events, circumstances), but not writing itself. That may very well be because writing is almost exclusively work. And we have this strange tendency of remembering little about our work.

Source: This Recording
We only seem able to remember the end product  which is a silly thing to say, of course, because it's self-apparent that the final product is the one that stays (in memory or elsewhere), since it is the only thing finished. Work itself is not finished; it is a process, and a process that doesn't end. It requires fortitude insofar as it presents itself not as a possible end but as a sure continuation. The final product is only an end to the work: to the work that came with the task, but an end that will be posed anew with the next task, and the next, and the next. Work is only struggle. It is masochism at its best. It is pure extraction from life's easy moments.
Margaret Atwood:
"You need a certain amount of nerve to be a writer, an almost physical nerve, the kind you need to walk a log across a river. The horse throws you and you get back on the horse. I learned to swim by being dropped into the water. You need to know you can sink, and survive it."
As an end note: Atwood's piece, called "Nine Beginnings," is the 15th essay in Curious Pursuits. Occasional Writing, a collection of essays published by Virago in 2005. It appeared initially in The Writer and Her Work 1, a book edited by Janet Sternburg (New York: Norton, 1990, 2000). "Nine Beginnings" is a series of nine attempts at answering the question "Why do you write?" A self-imposed question that gets no full answer, only a litany of incomplete attempts, of failures to define what proves to be, in essence, impossible to define: Writing.

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.