The Pump You Pump the Water From

By Sven BirkertsDecember 5, 2011

The Pump You Pump the Water From

 Photograph: cc Lisa Jane Persky

When I come upon a bad assonance or a repetition in my sentences, I'm sure I'm floundering in the false. By searching I find the proper expression, which was always the only one, and which is also harmonious. The word is never lacking when one possesses the idea. Is there not, in this precise fitting of parts, something eternal, like a principle? If not, why should there be a relation between the right word and the musical word? Or why should the greatest compression of thought always result in a line of poetry?

— Flaubert, letter to George Sand

Though I don't think of myself, touch wood, as a blocked writer, I will admit that the spells of sputter and balk — of hesitate, delete, and pause — have increased over the last decade, and the anxiety that is their shadow has grown accordingly. This is painful, as the vocation has over the years become ever more identified with the inner life. I watch myself closely. I see that even in productive periods, when I feel I am making honorable headway on some project and have earned the right to exist, the day's work seems to take more build-up — me trying to maneuver myself into the right "state" — and the intervals between good sessions get longer and longer. At the same time, I believe that I am, by whatever personal standards, a better writer than I was when I had no such anxieties. The radius of my available experience is greater than it has ever been. I understand things more deeply.

But tell that to the man mired in a thought-trance in front of his illuminated screen. Coach and lecture myself as I will, it avails not. No smart idea, no heaps of notes, and certainly no earned satisfaction from previous work can hold a plea when I am here, undisturbed and caffeinated, and the spark just will not cross the gap. It's all irrational, and I know it works both ways. Aches and money woes and the aggravations of an over-crowded calendar are as nothing whenever the signal comes clear and I feel the agitating stir of words and phrases.

Writing can't be planned for or predicted, and when it happens, when the surge begins, it brings a satisfaction like nothing else. There are finer sensualities, sure, and basic emotions that give joy or connection when released, but as far as giving me a sustained sense that this is who I am, this is what I do, a full-fathom immersion in writing is the ultimate verification. Alone at my attic desk, catching the flow of words, when the flow is there to be caught — or generating it when it is there to be generated — I break with my more tentative self, claim some more necessary seeming "I." The change has everything to do with finding words and their sequence. The joy prolongs itself for a short time after I stop — a resonance, a psychic afterglow — then it tapers away, the other life resumes. But I am already thinking toward the next occasion.

The memory of the best of the best writing moments haunts, most grievously when the desire is there but the impulse is absent, or when the impulse flickers and sputters but doesn't catch, when the words — which I believe are right there, as if on the other side of the sheerest membrane — will not come. The good runs are not a fortifying memory but a reproach. My younger self — it is always, necessarily, the younger self — mocks me. It's not just writing at stake, but everything. The worth I felt when I worked, when I was young — even if that was only yesterday — is gone. This is now and henceforth the way of things; this is the new reality.

My reaction is extreme, I know. I tap my available anxiety far too readily, ignoring common sense and all that I've learned about writing. The situation is hardly ever that polarized — fully engaged intensity versus utter paralysis. There are distinctions and nuanced gradations everywhere, and these can be parsed to reveal a more accurate relativism, though I have to say that with the restoration of more objectified shades of grayness, some defining absolutism is lost. It may just be that in those paranoid summonings of the void — the glaring page empty forever, the fingers immobilized over the keyboard — I have a truer insight into what writing is. I see better how I have set it up to be the measure of all things.


Where did it start, this bizarrely complex meshing of my sense of self-worth with my ability to express myself in writing? I don't remember any classic "aha" moment — I don't think it happened at a stroke. But I do know that early on, as far back as my earliest school years, I hit on a pleasure unlike any I'd known when I wrote papers or assigned "creative" pieces for my English teachers. Hunched over my school binder, instigating with my bad pencil-grip the ugly callus I have to this day, I had my first sensations of words coalescing into sentences I liked. My sounds were loud and distinct in my mind as I worked, almost a kind of voice-over, and they made me think of things I liked to read. That was the other thing: I was a reader. And my reaction when I read anything I liked, whether it was John Steinbeck or William Golding, was pure greed. I wanted the things I'd read to have come from me; I wanted to find the trick to make that happen. There was so much imitation in those first compositions, but also audial bursts of what I would call my own sound, sensations of having almost caught something. What pleasure! Certain sentences felt like they were alive and writhing when I wrote them out on my notebook pages. I was in close and everything seemed so immediate. How lucky I was that my teachers were kind. The papers I wrote usually came back with good grades and now and then a comment that nothing in later life has trumped.

In seventh grade our English teacher gave the assignment to create a description of a family member. I picked my grandfather. With a concentration I still remember, I worked up a one-page sketch about being a young boy and sitting in his lap while he smoked his pipe and told me stories. I went on and on about his long white beard, how I tugged at it while he told me about his younger days, the war. What on earth compelled me? My grandfather, who had died the year before, had been clean-shaven and pipeless; he had also been as reticent as a man could be. But through that wishful triggering, whatever it was, I was for the first time made ecstatic by my own phrase-making. I felt myself at the helm of some new power as I added one phrase to another, finishing each sequence with a period at what I knew was just the right moment.

But I am not after autobiography here. I am only making the point that the business goes way back, the joining of language, pleasure and self-recognition, and that the very same elements are in play — or in dire disconnect — fifty years later. Writing, not writing; satisfied self and self-loathing golem. And everything in between. For of course the whole identity- and ego-fraught business — and I have to now distinguish between writing and "writing" — unfolds along an extensive continuum. I have never been afflicted with such paralysis that I could not produce a cogent letter of recommendation, or a thoughtful response to a student paper. Prose of that sort can be, often must be, generated on command, but I am not very much interested in it as prose. The writing that matters, that defines me to myself, that injects me with affirmation when I amable, and every sort of self-depreciation when I am not, is precisely the writing that I cannot command. Its attainability is the result of an array of factors and I conjure the variables incessantly.

Mood is relevant, certainly, but it is not sufficient. Mood, the vibration of one's psychological state — the momentary expression of the felt relation to the world. It is as all-determining and elusive as weather. I have sat myself down many times feeling alert, rested, unanxious, confident that I know exactly what I want to write about — the scene I will evoke, the connection I will make between two ideas — but for whatever reason, the words just will not come. I mean the right words. And just like that I feel the universe of possibility fold in on itself, all that "I" suddenly reduced to a point. What can possibly be the matter? Why am I frozen here? I arrived at my desk with a head full of notions. But I know that notions themselves are not the problem — notions are not deal-breakers. The problem is the words. It's the matching of impulse to expression, the bringing together of intent and execution, that not-to-be-counterfeited alignment that depends on diction, rhythm, and who knows what else, and the signature of which is a sensation, almost physical, of rightness.

I think back to Coleridge's deceptively succinct definition of poetry as "the right words in the right order," and from all my years of wrestling the language — never mind that my medium is prose — I get to what feels like his deeper meaning, which I believe is apt for all more lyrically expressive kinds of writing. "The right words in the right order" is, beyond its almost foursquare obviousness, a way to talk about the elusive and very unfoursquare ideas of inevitability and artistic inspiration. It not only raises the question of where the words we assemble originate — how they originate — but also whether there might actually exist ideal expressions that have vital purchase on the essential nature of the thing expressed. We are in the contested realm where people are forever shouting "define your terms!" And we cannot.

Coleridge, we know, wrote not only the early poetry for which he is remembered, but later prose of different descriptions, including the Biographia Literaria, one of the founding documents of literary criticism. In Coleridge's case 'blockage' was a relative diagnosis. Though he wrote his superlative prose for decades after the poetry stopped, that production was no recompense. For him there was no comparing the "rightness" that he had experienced in the seizure of poetic composition to what he achieved in the other medium — neither in terms of personal gratification, or ultimate value. Coleridge lived under the banner of Romanticism, upon which was inscribed Shelley's rallying assertion that "The poet is the unacknowledged legislator of the world." Through the language of poetry — language in its highest incarnation — are the ultimate truths made manifest. It is not given to the essayist or critic to draw that deeply from the wells of inspiration.

I am not a poet. Nor do the poets I know feel themselves to be marching behind any higher In hoc signo. But I nonetheless connect with certain implications of that rightness, making my own strong distinction between writing that attains a redeeming expressiveness and writing that either falls short or serves other ends altogether. What is this redemption? How is it that two centuries later, moving about in a signal-saturated universe, I can still equate the production of my best writing with a sense of being in a deeper accord with existence? And why do I suffer in my innermost nervous core when I cannot get the words to come the way I feel they must?


Writer's block — or, maybe more accurately, a writer's expressive frustration — has many presenting symptoms and many causes, but it is at root language-related. Versions of creative stasis may afflict those who practice in other fields — painters and composers can find themselves short of ideas or inspiration — but the situation is not quite the same. Certainly we never hear anything comparable affecting statesmen, lawyers, coaches, electricians or pastry chefs. This affliction afflicts self-anointed users of language, writers, and because their medium of choice — or compulsion — happens to be the universal medium of consciousness and communication, it takes on a metaphysical inflection. If language is the distinctive human feature, its single greatest evolutionary feat, then writers are in a most privileged and vulnerable situation. In the movement from ape to apex, the engaged — successful — use of language, literary expression, represents the latter. It follows then that a frustration or failure in its use must be seen as something more sweepingly indicative as well. The fact that any true success is rare and difficult is not consoling to the person who is failing in the attempt.

Reason naturally persuades otherwise, but for many of us the deeper superstitions rule. Though the writer may believe that the finest productivity is fickle and cannot be willed, arriving on itsterms, not his, he might still blame himself for productive lack. For he has the idea — I do, certainly — that inspiration has something to do with being in the right relation to things, and if arrival of words is out of his control, the achievement of that relation is not. If he has not made himself a worthy vessel, he has in the largest sense failed. Call it complete and utter nonsense, but when it eludes you — the tone, or the feeling of surprise, the current you can feel when the circuit is complete — when you know what that's like and don't have it — then such repudiation is useless. The psyche is irrational.


Define your terms! All this said, we need to acknowledge how little of what makes up a writing life, even a productive one, is actual point-of-contact writing of any kind, and how much is the inner self-maneuvering (actions and choices in all aspects of living) that would make those right words possible. The fingers hover over the keyboard, the pen twirls this way and that in the fingers. I hum, I tap, I stroke my eyebrow, the side of my nose. The emphasis falls — again — squarely on the adjective 'right.' For according to the writer's tyrannical conscience, a faculty developed over a lifetime of expression and attempted expression, the placement of words that are only well-meant approximations onto a page or a screen is not necessarily writing. It may even count as a movement in the other direction, away from writing. Rightness is, to torque Shakespeare slightly, all. And so the deeper philosophical question about writing is really a question about what is right. Not only what matters in terms of the subject matter — the thing one is disposed to say — but what matters in the specific language, in the words, pauses, cadences, and inflections in which that saying happens. Style.

Style, I'll define here, for my selfish purposes, as the verbal/lexical confirmation that I'm in the right relation to my impulses, my so-called material. "The right words in the right order": style is the outer face of the inner impulse, its realization. It is not a frippery, an adornment, an excess. Style is the how of the what. "By searching I find the proper expression, which was always the only one...." And what an arduous business it is, getting to the "proper," the "right." For years I tormented myself with the possibility that there was a single inevitable order, an absolute objective arrangement. I heeded Coleridge, and I likewise took seriously Flaubert's famous self-castigating agonies over "le mot juste" — as if behind or beneath each of the configurations of our common reality lay a paradigm, a kind of Platonic form, and that for this there was but one true verbal equivalent. Reading the finest stylists can create that impression, for their peak expressions do get us saying "Yes! That's it!" Still, I had somehow not considered what those 'best words,' that 'exact word,' might mean for the writer, and that they might in fact represent the embodiment of that relation I'm talking about. The "best words," might in fact signify not a universal attainment but a personal one. In other words, the momentum that brings the words in shapely patterns is not tuned to some imprinted common reality, but, rather, configures our unique relation to the world around us. For a writer the signature, the embodiment, of that relation is style. So many great writers, so many inimitable styles.

How readily and forgivably we limit the idea of style to its outermost — obviously ascertainable — manifestations. One person's style said to be "florid," another's "austere." But the business is much deeper than that. Those designations are nothing more than caricatures, ways of remarking a salient attribute — like saying such and such a person is "conceited" or "solid." Style is as much a totality as personality, and is no more accurately served by pot-shot adjectives.

As a totality, style is implicated at every level in these other explorations. What we call writer's block can be seen, in these terms, a failure to achieve style, by which I mean an inability to find the relation — a paralysis of that inner negotiating by which my expressively ambitious self hits on what feels like an accuracy of representation. When I experience this inability — this crackling static in the brain — when nothing I do can make my words feel true, as if they are embodying what I'm after, it's almost never for a more general lack of ideas. There are always things to say. It's the idea as it impinges upon language. "The word is never lacking when one possesses the idea." Not just any idea, but the true idea. Without this, I can't find the words that will call forth other words in a way that lets me know I'm in sync with what I'm after. The approximate rendition, an approximate style, will not do. Anything short of rightness, getting it — which is registered intuitively, almost bodily — is worthless. I am out of phase with my subject. Therefore I am out of phase with myself.


Writing is in large part the struggle to achieve the state of mind that would make writing possible, and therefore it permeates my life, from my first waking moments to my last flickering efforts before sleep to secure the feeling, as if I could insure its availability for the next day. This permeation of impulse and need makes the question "what is writing?" all but impossible to answer. So what is the nature of this state I'm talking about? What is it that I would bring to the desk? How could I ever catch hold of what I'm calling my relation to the world in a way that would give me access to expression? Or — or — is there something about the writing itself, about using language, that brings about that connection? I think of E. M. Forster's famous question: "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" Here again we find the perspective of the language mystic, a version of the Heideggerian idea that "language speaks man." Here is the most vexatious philosophical conundrum, one that the writer engages not through metaphysical speculation but in the dynamic act of putting words to paper. Are those words being thought to the page, produced in composition, or do they already somehow exist in resonant sequences? How could they? Do we know and possess more than we imagine we do? If not, why do the best writing moments have a power and necessity that feels almost separate. As if, to quote Rimbaud, "I is another." And it's true: to be frozen, blocked, kept from writing, is to feel marooned in the mere self.


What is the nature of the desired condition? How does the writer know it? Does it forecast itself somehow, send a signal? I know it when I feel it, and that's it. I can't think of it as something that exists ahead of, or separate from, any actual writing, though the actual writing requires it. More likely there is some kind of relational mutuality. The readiness brings the words, the words act upon and confirm the readiness. I don't know that I have ever taken my place at any desk, in front of any pad, typewriter or laptop, with clear confidence about what would happen next. Sure, it happens with certain projects when the work is so far along, its tone and development so clear, that I can reliably find my place and push on. But this is only the case with writing that is directly thematic, or follows an argument. With work of a more lyric sort, where the "how" matters as much as the "what," there has never been guarantee, and mind-states outwardly similar can produce radically different yields. One day it's a house on fire, the next an Eliotic blight, where I "can connect nothing with nothing." Stranger still is the fact that on occasion the least propitious approaches — when I am exhausted, hung over, set upon by distractions — can with an unexpected triggering of syllables throw the gates wide open.

About thumb twiddling impasses and initiatives that come to nothing there is not much to be said. All failures of ignition are the same failure. But what of the other times? What of the less dramatic, more ordinary — and far more common — instances? When a paragraph or two finds its way out, laboriously, but still registering its own perceptible pulse — prose that does not feel finished, but that has something in the phrasing, the pace, a few of the sentences, that I sense can be developed, and yet so very different from the very rare flights, the releases, when for an hour or two the sentences just arrive, sense neatly bundled in sound, phrases nipping after one another with an almost musical rightness, with what feels like a rhythmic logic just behind the accruing prose. How to account for it? I have not yet found the neuropsychological explanation that would do justice to the uncanny synthesis of sound and sense, music and meaning, the compositional experience of which is at least as gratifying as any result it generates. "Why should there be a relation between the right word and the musical word?" There are moments when the act of writing is at one and the same time an intuitive heeding, a listening-in on oneself, and an action, a pressure of thinking. The process is active and passive, though I would hasten to qualify passivity as itself active, a most heightened sort of reception.

This has everything to do with style. Style, which is a totality, a dizzyingly complex confabulation of language patterns, a sui generic collection of tendencies and defaults which has over time crystallized into an expressive mode as singular as a fingerprint, a mode that not onlyfeels unique to oneself, but may also be perceived as such by others. We think of Updike's style, David Foster Wallace's style, Alice Munro's style — the myriad choices of perspective, cadence, diction, and syntactical orchestration that create in their sum an authorial personality. Who will argue that all writers don't, once they have found their expressive agendas, reveal themselves in distinctive ways?

As a writer I believe myself to have a style, if only because I feel so vague to myself, so inwardly pained, when I can't reach it, when my sentences, however clear and articulate, give me no feeling of connection. It's not enough to say something well, I must say it well in the way that is uniquely mine. What is the secret? Some days I arrive at my desk and it's as if I have an appointment with myself — it's almost that easy. Other times I could put a gun to my head and there would still be nothing but smudges. But it can also sometimes happen that I move by stages into my expression. I can, if my stars are kind, write myself into my style — recovering a trace of the original inspiration and then my rhythm, my phrasings. I can recover flow, resume my position, retrieve my verbal relation to my subject matter. There is the confidence that the launch of a sentence already contains its destination. I feel myself moving toward something that already exists around the next bend in the road.


Self-conception and writing are so intimately joined that they can feel merged. And what a cloud of superstition surrounds the whole business. I wrote of stars being 'kind': as if it were a matter of luck, of juju, being in cahoots with the Muse. Unable to control the sources of our own craft, many of us externalize and mystify. We have as many occult private rituals as gamblers or baseball pitchers. As if the rotten apples in the drawer or the alignment of sharpened pencils, or the muttering of mantras could affect the process. But of course these are just tokens of a reverence before what must remain the unknown. The stakes could not be higher. Success in expression is the crowning affirmation of self — ask any writer. Failure is confirmation of an ultimate unworthiness. Ask any writer. To undertake to write is to actively court the unknown; it is to put oneself at the mercy of a power that may be external, may be internal, but is, either way, not subject to volition.

On the days when nothing will kindle, there is no use pretending, I just know. When I was younger, I might have stayed in my chair, tried anyway, but now I know better. Forcing myself to use words when I'm in this state guarantees not only self-reproach, but a larger questioning of the uses of anything. Far better on such a day to do busy work or read. Other times it's not so clear. I assess my energy, willingness; I exert myself to call vividly to mind whatever project is at hand. It can happen that the mind will fasten onto something, start up a kind of friction. Other times, no adhesion. Every thought is a distraction from the subject — it's almost fascinating. How not to be superstitious — if not about writing, then the ways of the psyche itself?

I will never stop hoping. If I have any inkling — my wetted forecasting finger extended — that the breeze may come, I will go up to the desk, and since simple inert sitting is too overt an advertisement of incapacity, I will, without investing deeply, try out a few words. Maybe they will yield something, a combination that flashes. It does happen. But far more often I find myself going dully back and forth, Penelope at her shuttle, weaving and unweaving, moving the cursor to the right and watching as the words materialize behind it, and then moving it back the way it came, watching how something comes back to naught, trying not to draw larger human inferences from the action. I will do this until I'm sure, until the feeling of a larger failure threatens. At that point I snap off the desk lamp and take up whatever rationalizations will get me through the rest of the day. Because if I have achieved nothing here, the odds of finding pleasure in anything else are slim. Best then just to do something — straighten up my shelves, sort through old papers. Though even these can turn fraught. Straightening, I have to confront my various masters, the ones who saw the job through; sorting papers there is every danger that the eye will alight on some piece of writing that once caught the real spark. Which will never come again...

But — oh — it does. And when the moment comes, I don't pause to reflect on causes or contributing factors. I have the words, I feel them. Here they are, almost physical. I feel them as shapes, vibrations, valences.... Sometimes they will start to agitate me before I get to paper or screen. They are like the first kernels popping in the pan, words turning into phrases. I feel suddenly rushed, anxious not to lose anything. I get more phrases, and — rarely but best of all — an initiating line, a sentence or run of words that I know right away holds in its rhythm, in its bit of structure, a whole unfolding. Everything feels musically — rhythmically — touched, and it's all I can do to bring the two lines together, the line of the music and the line of sense. There is urgency, syncopation, a movement forward from one thing to the next, the specific rhythm so integral that there is risk in stopping. These visitations, when they come, last for a few hours at most. And just as I had sensed the onset, so I sense the tapering off, and now some other superstition keeps me from trying to push it to the limit. I remember Hemingway's advice — always stop when you know what you will say next. Bank the ember with warm ash. Whatever.

After such a session, I don't look back: I never read over what I've just written. I will check in later. But my life feels worthy to me again. Whatever vague and unproductive sloughs I have been through, whatever disconnects I've known, all of my failures to be adequate to a situation or fellow soul — they have in a stroke all been turned to the good. All things are now subsumed, part of this other thing, this capture. The true redemption. If only it could last, but it doesn't. A day or two at most. By the third my title to existence is less secure — no matter how well I wrote. Art may be long, but not for the maker. Said Frost, nothing gold can stay, and though his saying has stayed, I'm sure that for him it was not enough.

Where else do we see in such stark, concentrated terms the intersection, or collision — or collusion — of volition and that which is beyond the reach of volition, what feels like the action of a power that can give and take away? As Alice Flahery documents in her searching study, The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain, much work is currently being done in neuropsychology and neurophysiology on these very questions. Scans and experiments can now tell us exactly which areas of the brain are active in various kinds of creativity, and they have shown with great precision how chemical and electrical influences can trigger and heighten that activity, though to my knowledge no one yet has been triggered to create anything we would consider lasting art or literature.

Still, the question has been raised, and it is a specific instance of a much larger question having to do with sources and origins. Are we en route to uncovering the physiological causality that, when fully understood, will confirm that the so-called mysteries of creativity have merely been an insufficient command of the facts? Or will the breakthroughs and syntheses finally prove asymptotic, describing a line of a curve that approaches but never intersects the line of the axis? It could be that the closer we get to understanding the process, the more vexing will become the remaining unknowns. If we were to find the specific region of the brain that governed a moment of poetic production, could we also account for "bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang"? Possibly not. But even if we could, would we ever be able to say why those specific words in their place in the sonnet have a beauty that, at our most receptive moments, we feel down into our very breathing?


Flaherty takes as one of the two epigraphs to her book Roland Barthes' observation: "A creative writer is one for whom writing is a problem." This takes us right to the heart of the business. Writing is a problem. One does not write if there is not somewhere a wound or a loss or a grievance of soul to redress. And where there is hurt of any kind, there are bound to be resistances, difficulties of access, of aptness of language, of volition. To heed Barthes here is to push right past the preposterous notion that creative expression is governed by some kind of on/off switch, so that — as the pop culture mythos would have it — the writer is either pouring forth, giving vent to the sublimities of the inner self, or else stalled, on hold, staring at the empty page like Stephen King's character in The Shining. The truth is in between and everywhere else. We can allow the extreme cases — abundance, immobility — sure, but most writing, as experienced in the subjectivity of the writer herself, is experienced differently. It is fitful and labored; it describes a constant movement between output and inhibition, release and constraint.

And what we address in speaking of the whole work, we might also address at the level of the smallest units. In the incremental making of sentences, but also in the arduous progress that is the completion of a page of prose. Both at times require a straight-up rock-face exertion; there are long racking stops and there is much trial and error. As compensation are the breakthrough rushes, words coming to the page as fast as the fingers can type. It is almost never just one or the other. There are infinite varieties of stasis and release. The play of opposites can be an intimate dynamism, where the tension of blockages presages creativity. Voice and style are lost and found and lost again — reminding us that we do not inhabit the world effortlessly as just ourselves, but are constantly digressing from center and then returning. Silences precede storms, and follow them as well. Who are we to imagine, to presume, that expression is any kind of constant, or that words are simple servants to the will?

I described this fascination, this vexation, to a friend. Himself a writer, he knows well the embattled contradictions of any day's work — I am writing; I am written. I command the expressions of my deepest self; I am nothing — and the other day he e-mailed me this little poem by Randall Jarrell. "Why am I so sure it's about writer's block?" he asked.


Well Water

What a girl called "the dailiness of life"
(Adding an errand to your errand. Saying,
"Since you're up ..." Making you a means to
A means to a means to) is well water
Pumped from an old well at the bottom of the world.
The pump you pump the water from is rusty
And hard to move and absurd, a squirrel-wheel
A sick squirrel turns slowly, through the sunny
Inexorable hours. And yet sometimes
The wheel turns of its own weight, the rusty
Pump pumps over your sweating face the clear
Water, cold, so cold! you cup your hands
And gulp from them the dailiness of life.


I was primed and the lines hit me straight on in the moment. Yes, I thought, it is about many things, but it is absolutely about creativity. About how with a breathtaking turn our inner nature can unexpectedly over-ride all obstacle — "and yet sometimes/ the wheel turns of its own weight" — conferring upon this often bitter undertaking what feels like grace, a surplus in the world. Inspiration still keeps that sense of externality, and that surprise; it remains, in the experience, a token of the unknown.


LARB Contributor

Sven Birkerts co-edits the journal AGNI at Boston University and directs the Bennington Writing Seminars. His most recent book is Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf).


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