By Sven BirkertsJuly 24, 2017
(You put those words down without thinking too hard, because they feel true, but then you catch yourself. It hasn’t really been so sudden at all, you know it hasn’t. There’s been a tapering down — of both impulse and product — for a good long time now. More days than ever before of just sitting in place, well-intentioned and alert, waiting for a trace of the old reliable signal. What chafes at these times is the memory, still fresh, of the many years when it seemed that all you had to do was tilt yourself toward the paper, toward the screen, and the words would come. Not unbidden, but barely bidden.)
The change did not come overnight, but I did start to notice a while back that I was having fewer of these word surges interrupting whatever I was doing. Less and less often was I waking up wanting to strategize — plotting out paragraph transitions like a traveler marking a route on a map, except that both map and route were both in the head. I remembered so clearly lying there with a pillow over my head to shut out the light, tracking the inner development of whatever thing I was writing, or wanting to write. I had ways of dialing myself down to zero so that I could feel out the momentum, or imagine where a surprise turn of phrase might come. Later, when I had a space of writing time, I’d try to recreate what had been so clear, though inevitably, I would find I’d barely kept a trace, maybe an idea or two, but the words themselves would be gone. Yet morning after morning I did the same thing: in truth, this ongoing hubris could only continue because back then I lived with what felt like a surplus, though surplus might just be another word for youth. If the morning’s first inspiration, that first mapping of straightaways and turns, was not to be recovered, never mind — there were always new ideas to be had.
Writing back then meant owning a life apart, having a great secret from the world, though of course the ultimate point of the secret was to have it be known. But when it — whatever it was — was in the works, it belonged to me alone, and even if people around me knew I was busy writing, they didn’t know what. They didn’t know what it felt like to be inside the sentences I was making, moving right on the front of new sense being made. There was arrogance in this, and vanity, no question. But what a wonderful thing it was to have it going on as I sat in the car waiting for my son’s bass lesson to be over, or as we inched our way home through afternoon traffic. And how different it feels not to have that now, or to have it just occasionally, feeling the arrival of the words more as a stroke of grace than a renewable state of redemption.
I dramatize the present and I romanticize the past, I know that. But the business feels important enough to allow for some hyperbole. And lament as I might, I have in no way abandoned writing: when the words do come, I feel every bit as gratified as I did before. More gratified, I’d say, because now those words are not ever taken for granted. Sadly, they are not as insistent as they were. I’m no longer falling all over myself to keep up. Less clamor all around. And because of this — what an odd thing to come to grips with — everything is different. Not just the present, but through the vantage of the present, my relation to the past and future, too.
Of course the past gets re-scripted constantly. In my case, so far as writing goes, it is being mythologized — consciously and unconsciously — as a golden time when all things were possible and every day was a kind of migration of ink across white paper. And the future? When the words were coming, the future was naïvely projected as a continuation and fulfillment of the same. Working at full tilt one has a hard time imagining things ever not being thus. It is part of the nature of inspiration that it when it strikes us we feel it will be ongoing. In this one way, it’s like love.
Needless to say, writing is by now bound up with everything in my life, and there is no scenario, really, in which all other things are not affected by it. If I’m not writing, or at least pointed inwardly toward writing, I am suffering. Privately, I am listless and anxious by turns. Publicly I carry on as if I still had full title to my existence. But really, everything about how the day — the life — proceeds has to do with the presence or absence of the impulse.
I have to wonder what forces or factors create the fluency — or else prevent it: whether there is anything I might do, or stop doing, that would have an effect.
I think about subject matter, for instance. Our preoccupations may change over the course of time, but their number is ultimately finite. So one obvious question is whether after years of going at these few things, a writer doesn’t just wear them out. The protesting voice insists that however much you have excavated, there is always more to find. And naturally I like to think that’s true. But when I am in a brooding state, moving the writing antennae this way and that, those tried and true things are just not beckoning the way they did. I double my vigilance, but to no avail. I sit and wait, wondering whether it is the thing or the angle on the thing that is the real issue. Have I really depleted the subject or have I merely used up the possibilities of my vantage? If the latter, then it’s a new vantage that’s wanted.
But how is this to be achieved? A vantage is not a dial that one sets mechanically. Point of view — or voice, for voice is part of it — can only ever be the natural expression what you are as a person. If the writing is to be real, that is. You can’t put on an attitude like a body suit — I can’t, anyway.
What tells me I can’t is the great give-away of cadence, syntax, and diction. This is more than a crotchety disinclination: it’s a principle unto itself, an important one. I believe we make our way forward in writing by way of negation, by the gradual but steady shedding of what no longer serves. A big part of the process involves deploying the inner critic, paying attention to what I’m doing as I’m doing it and then reacting, incorporating the reaction. My responses to my own expression are my signals, my indicators. Yes, no, yes, no … This is a complicated affair, for there are, I believe, endless ways to say the same essential thing wrong — not as one really means it — and maybe only one way to say it right. This might be what Coleridge meant when he defined poetry as “the best words in the best order.” How much of the act we call “writing,” with its participial sense of momentum, is really a more static hovering over things wanting to be said, with every sense tuned to pick out the finest nuances of sound, the most expressive rhythmic correlatives. Doing this, I am working on instinct alone — instinct honed by years of accepting and rejecting variant versions of the same basic expression. The deeper parts of the process remain a mystery.
For me, the most accurate means of judging is by these hair-trigger reactions to my expression. So often I’ve come to in the writer’s dark wood, to find I am sickened by the look and sound of myself on the page. Not the what of the prose, but the how. And “sickened” is not misplaced, for my response is almost visceral — it’s like I’m registering an odor or a taste that is distinctly “off.” This can be the smallest thing — a hint of posturing in the verbs, a stiffness of diction or what feels like a false humility or an unearned archness … At these times, I’ve learned, it’s not a matter of the minor fix, but a systemic change. But how does one do this? Changing the way you say something amounts to inwardly changing your perception, your affect. Which is, as I’ve said, the thing that can’t be willed.
I am answering my own question here. Affirming that it’s likely not my subject matter I’ve exhausted, but my way of seeing — how readily it crimps and immobilizes whatever it touches. How difficult, on the page as in life, to avoid becoming a set of stances. One does get older, and, getting older, settles into views, though often enough viewing that process not as a defeat but rather as an attaining of a certain wisdom about living.
And there are other considerations: I shouldn’t underestimate, for example, how much everything was early on powered by a need to announce myself, and make the right impression on my admired elders. When there is that much directed energy, the variations of phrasing can seem more like quibbles than vital shadings of a truth that needs to be captured exactly. The work, alas, bears this out. Looking back on things I wrote in that ambitious youth, I catch myself mentally revising every other sentence. But I can also admit that I was far less likely to get stuck back then. I would not have let nuances become obstacles.
This whole writing question — I don’t know, I really don’t. I only know that the various stages of psychological preparation — everything I go through before I get to the desk — have become a lot more fraught. It’s so much easier, it seems, to somehow compromise the effort; so much harder to find my way into that state of slightly agitated wanting that has always been what has worked best.
Agitated wanting, that’s what I still hope for — that almost indescribable sensation of inner teetering that is only allayed by the production of sentences, even as that production keeps renewing the unrest, pushing it farther along. It could be that this condition I’ve been describing amounts to a waning of that unrest. That one kind of unrest, anyway. What remains is the unrest about writing that runs its roots through the whole of the nervous system, the self.
I don’t want to sound grandiosely afflicted. There has to be a way to avoid that and still be accurate. When you have spent your whole life doing this one particular thing, working with words, which are themselves the puzzle pieces of consciousness — making this meaning or that, depending on how you put them together — there is no way not to be conjecturing your psychic life, your whole sense of purpose, around the activity. If you feel it is live for you, things fall one way; if it has gone numb, they fall another.
I have written about writer’s block before: it is one of the inexhaustible subjects, not to mention also beautifully self-reflexive, or — better — self-canceling. Writing about being unable to write is writing, though of a special kind. Here the question of vantage becomes especially live. There is such a difference between considering blockage from a neutral speculative distance, or as something one is currently suffering. To write successfully about not writing requires that we find a prose that does not enervate. And — paradoxically — if such is found, it’s tempting to say “problem solved.” But I’m being glib here. It’s also perfectly possible to see it as a last-ditch maneuver, taking the little red hammer and breaking the glass as we’re instructed to do.
I have always loved T. S. Eliot’s lines from “East Coker.” He names the problem and then he finds the wonderfully Eliotic tone in which to consider it.
“So here I am,” he writes, “in the middle way, having had twenty years — / Twenty years largely wasted […] Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt / is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure.” He continues, clarifying, in lines that have the cadence of prose: “Because one has only learnt to get the better of words / For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which / One is no longer disposed to say it.” How true, how true, I think.
“And so each venture,” he continues, “[i]s a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate / With shabby equipment always deteriorating,” concluding at last that
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
To say it again, in another way — which is, I sometimes think, all we ever do — writing has never been a thing unto itself. Reflection on experience has consistently been part of the experience; not just integrated with my consciousness, my inner life, but its very emblem. Maybe I exaggerate, but maybe not. If I consider how right and necessary that inner life feels to me when I am able to write, and how crabbed and stymied when I’m not, then I am granting it that status.
So yes, here I am, trying to learn to use words, and every attempt is a wholly new start, because it seems I’ve only learned to get the better or words for something I no longer have to say, or the way in which I’m no longer disposed to say it … My valuation of self significantly bound up with the output of words on the page. But I am not here talking about quantity, only about freshness — of insight, or image, or even just of the way a few words behave if set side by side. When that unexpected wished-for thing happens, as it still sometimes does, it is enough to persuade me I have not yet become a collection of petrified habits, that I’m still capable of seeing things without assuming they’re just variations of what I’ve seen before.
When I was in my late teens, the time when the words of other writers blazed most brightly for me, when I was trying to imagine a life for myself that would be just such an immersion involving just such charged expression, I made all kinds of vows to myself, solemn vows precluding conventional paths, vows of the “If I ever grow up to become ______ [fill in the blank here], I hope I have the guts to _____ [and fill in that blank as well] …” How do we finally live with ourselves? Or, rather, how cruelly — with what rationalizations — do we end up repudiating our arrogant younger selves? Of course we look for ways to come to terms, maybe by conceding how overblown our fond self-fantasies were. But — and here’s the rub — for me something in all of that did stick. Traces of that first fantasia survive in me and allow no lasting peace.
And so it was that for this whole long season of the middle way — the fall and winter of my private malaise — I would try to get myself to the desk day after day, following my old and familiar pattern. Sitting there, I resolved to make my way forward, down one intended track, and then another. Some of the time I convinced myself that I was in touch with the old energy, and other times I would know I was being merely dutiful. But no matter how enthusiastic I felt on those better days, as soon as I scrolled back to read my words, I would know — in that terrible way one knows — that they were not what I’d hoped, but at best an impersonation of an old manner or cadence. Looking to get the better of words, no longer disposed to say whatever it was. I had arrived, I realized, and not for the first time, in that most indeterminate place, the limbo state in which the old is no longer right and the new has not yet announced itself.
If, indeed, there was still some new take on things waiting to reveal itself. There always had been before, but this is now the voice of retrospect speaking. For the feeling of that state I had arrived at had become the feeling of “never again,” and the ever-compounding problem with getting older — I say this with full cheerful acceptance — is that “never again” is not always a figure of speech.
And yet …
I take a necessary pause.
And yet. If it weren’t for those two words, I don’t know how any of us would make our way through. “And yet” is the cipher, the mark, of the unexpected, the gift, the surplus — and sometimes it’s the instancing of grace. Which of course means various things. Here, in the context of writing, it can suggest the slightest combustion, or, to vary the metaphor, the first faint ripple of wind in the canvas of the long-becalmed ship. It’s the creation of energy — and thus possibility — that can happen when an idle reflection yields an unexpected image. Or else when an image, a thing seen or suddenly pictured in the mind, vibrates in a way that lets you know it belongs to something larger, something you’ve been carrying for a time. In the space of a breath — I mean this quite literally — one ordering of the world becomes another. I feel that faint agitation of futurity — how else to say it? — and then, almost right away, the opportunistic calculation. How can I put everything else aside, all my obligations, and just sit with this, see where it leads? This shift of attention is an awakening, a summons. It wants, it moves toward; and it charges things up to the point where I can only dread any first sign of its waning.
So it was that late this spring, around the time of the melting of the last snow, with no advance signal, I woke up one day and wanted to be making sentences. For once. I was not thinking about the wherefores or looking for the worthy ideas; I just needed to be inside the local logic of sounds and rhythms, with the feeling that comes when the approximate unexpectedly finds the better, sharper way of saying. I craved those moments of the aerialist’s suspense when one ring has been let go and the other is just coming to hand — that simultaneous nearness to both faith and doubt, in which faith wins out, but just.
I wanted all this for itself, of course, but in another — I hesitate to say “deeper” — way, I also longed for the existential exoneration, to feel I’d been given a “pass,” if only for the time being. For to write, in my psychic economy, is to earn your keep. This could be a suspect equation, and a good therapist might call me on it — but it’s what I have, a combination of inherited ethos and a script I have evolved all by myself. I don’t think I’m alone in this. I’ve had too many shared confessions with my fellow writers to believe otherwise.
Would I change it if I could? What would be the terms of the deal? Attaining peace of mind by giving up some of the sharpest, most defining moments of the inner life? I don’t know. If you have peace of mind, maybe that loss does not matter.
And yet the choice has not really been given to me. What has been given, and only just now, with no guarantee of anything further, is this newly returned impulse to make, a glimpse of first principles, reminding me how it felt when it was new. Because this is the thing about writing, its deep draw: that when it’s happening it knows nothing of before or after.
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