Writing: the balancing act between self and other, solitude and engagement, me and world
I fell out of blog world for a second. A combination of personal turmoil, relocating to Pittsburgh for a month, and buckling down on my novel has left less room for reaching out to my fellow writers via the internet.
In Pittsburgh, I am doing a writer residency at a punk house. Isn’t that interesting? I think more people that own houses and have a little extra space should do DIY writer residencies. Here, they give you a room to live in for free for a month, and you produce something by the end of your stay. The room has a bed, a desk, clean sheets/blanket, and there is a grocery store just a few steps away. They also have a letterpress studio and the equipment to do perfect binding at the house, so they are always making beautiful DIY books and zines. I’ve only been here for a few days, but already I’ve been immensely productive, averaging about 3,000-3,500 words a day on my novel alone. My head feels clear. And one of my best friends from college lives here, which means I have enough socializing opportunities to feel engaged, satisfied and happy, but not enough to be terribly distracted. Virginia Woolf’s thing about having a room of one’s own is starting to seem true. But I still wonder, are such conditions ideal on a more permanent basis?
Here in Pittsburgh, I am thinking about the conditions under which people are able to write. When are you most productive? I am considering the following factors: free time, personal space, emotional stability, routine, environmental, etc. In Baltimore and Florida, I shared a room with my partner. Right now we are both dedicated artists that don’t have “real” jobs and just work on our projects all day. This is completely different from my life several months ago, when I worked 2 jobs while I was going to school full-time and working on my thesis. While my partner and I are living together, every day we continually have to negotiate how to spend our time, where to work, when and what to eat (who should cook), space (she works best listening to loud music, I can’t focus when loud music is playing), our emotional needs (I feel upset right now, will you put aside your work to talk to me?), sleeping schedules (I will often sneakily get up in the middle of the night to pound out several pages [if I have already taken my ambien, you get this]), etc etc. Rather than seeing this as “bad” for my work because I am quantitatively less productive, I see it as something that indirectly enriches my work because it forces me outside myself, makes me more expansive, forces me to learn how to balance self and other. Plus, we always have the opportunity to bounce ideas off of each other, and since we are hyper-engaged and thoughtful about things, we challenge and move each other in unforeseeable directions.
This balancing act brings me to the next issue I am trying to sort out in my mind. The question of living vs. writing.
I think this dichotomy is false.
Yoko Tawada says:
The claim that a person who writes is not truly living can be made only by someone who sees a person and his life as subject and object. He might say the most important thing is to live one’s life. I would say: I live, and my life lives as well. Even my writing lives. Thus the question of whether a person is living when he writes is misguided to begin with. One asks this sort of question only to make everything revolve around man.
Similarly, Pierre Guyotat writes:
But the work is there, beneath my fingertips, the voices that I must set free from my guts. I want to postpone the trip. In front of my friend, the alternative erupts, the debate, an ancient one for me, between oeuvre and life.
There may perhaps be a debate between literature and life, but there is none between what I write and life; because what I do is life.
The dilemma has lost power since then: the more I intervene physically in language the more I feel alive; to transform language into Word is a voluntary act, a physical act.
Even though I agree that this dichotomy is false (hence my interest in writing as performative), I do think that there is a real tension between insularity and engagement when approaching writing (Johannes’s post on Montevidayo addresses this). I read Coma by Pierre Guyotat recently and am now reading The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke. Both are novels that can be thought of as theories of writing. (I love reading writers write about writing, too. That was pretty much my college thesis.) Both of these writers are negotiating solitude and engagement with the world, the struggle between looking inward and looking outward.
For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gesture which small flowers make when they open in the morning. You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighborhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you had long seen coming; to days of childhood whose mystery is still unexplained, to parents whom you had to hurt when they brought in a joy and you didn’t pick it up (it was a joy meant for somebody else); to childhood illnesses that began so strangely with so many profound and difficult transformations, to days in quiet restrained rooms and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, but it is still not enough to be able to think of all that. You must have memories of many nights of love, each one different from all the others, memories of women screaming in labor, and of light, pale, sleeping girls who have just given birth and are closing again. But you must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open windows and the scattered noises. And it is not yet enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return. For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.
In Coma, Guyotat writes:
The work at hand fills with doubles, with the ghost of humans, whores, animals, as if I needed to reinforce, to prolong the tenderness of earthly exchanges in the life of those who embrace in their beyond.
What do you think? Do you buy into the idea of the work as necessarily enriched by the world?
One of the most fascinating aspects of Coma is the way it grapples with issues relating to depression and writing, specifically the way depression can sever our connection to the world. Guyotat is panicked throughout the book because he senses an imminent depressive episode, and he fears this. He knows that when depression hits, he will be cut off from the world, driven inward, shut out, distanced from the things around him.
But one late afternoon, on the terrace that slowly drained of voices and footsteps, a friend and I listen to a bullfinch singing under the cover of the leaves. That light song, so stumbling, fragile, at times so soft, so tenuous it seems to come from the beyond, is the very one I attempt to compose before my depression, and that I do not wish to interrupt before travel. A song now prohibited, inaccessible. The world bouvreuil [bullfinch] itself, its roundness of breath and the trembling of the u and the l, such pleasure, such words are now forbidden to me: because of a judgment superior to morality, to Art. Inaccessible. Physical laws keep us apart. The ease of birds, the torment when depression removes you from the world: non-depression is winged feet, whatever the obstacles.
This is precisely why I fear depression as well. Because I don’t want to be stuck with myself. My writing is the worst when I am stuck with myself, when I cannot think of anything to write other than how I can’t write, when I can’t think outside myself—the futility, the lack of will, the inability to get up, the alienation and muteness of the world. I am always trying to figure a way out of that.
Where does our personal writing connect up with the world? Sometimes, I often feel a little bummed about the medium I am working in because writing has less room for spontaneous collaboration. Writing is definitely collaborative in that we are constantly in dialogue with the things around us, and that informs the work. But the more immediate and spontaneous experience of getting together with people to work on something isn’t as common in writing. I have collaborated on papers with people while in college–and both papers were exploring experimental, feminist approaches to writing. It was great, but it ended up being more of a conversation (with distinct voices) rather than a meshing of multiples.
My friends do mostly performance art, experimental dance, music, and theater; so they are always having lively and exciting group sessions whenever they are working on a project. The downside to collaborative practices in that they can sometimes manifest as a series of dueling visions (especially if the people working together are uncompromising or have big artistic egos) rather than the free-flowing, fluid transformation and development of ideas. Some people also cite the tyranny of group-think as a reason to avoid collaboration, but to me this seems like a poor excuse for privileging individualist approaches to making and thinking about art (the idea that you must separate from the world in order to transcend the world, to achieve greatness). But I think it’s true that people who are less outspoken about their vision can get trampled on in the collaborative process. Successful collaboration requires an attention to power dynamics, and compatibility among all the participants.
Have you ever collaborated with people on writing? What was that like? When you write, how do you balance yourself and others? How do you engage the world, and how does this influence your writing? Should we write alone, toiling away in solitude, or should we throw ourselves into the world so our skulls can be cracked open and our brains can be yanked in different directions? Confronting the world is often kind of violent and jarring like that, but I find in good in many ways. I suppose I am just suspicious of and disinterested in this idea of the writer as isolated, and am more interested in approaching writing as connected, as something that expands through interaction.