Writing at turmoil’s gunpoint

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“We’re doing this thing on my timeline. My way.”
He looked at her with avuncular condescension. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Tired of listening to other voices, or writing in them, she walked out.

“My story, Sir Pen, is, to put it briefly: I’m a blank sheet of paper that no one will write on.” -from “Peer Gynt”, Henrik Ibsen

“But in these theories there always remained a void that no one knew how to fill, a zone of darkness between cause and effect; how does one arrive at the written page? By what route is the soul or history or society or the subconscious transformed into a series of black lines on a white page?” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino

Turmoil sharpens syntax and diction, makes the willingness to hunt for the right words acute – heightens the senses like a hunter on the trail of his prey. You will know what I mean if you write when you feel anguish, pain or even the murky mist of questioning. When you revisit those distress-filled writings, you might not find answers, but you may find keen edges on your prose that you don’t find when you’re writing without emotional gags and bindings. It’s odd to consider that turmoil, which can render us helpless and not free, gives us the freedom of discipline (which sounds contradictory). Turmoil forces us to write, and ties our hands and our minds to make us only write about what it wants.

“For me, to write is self-deprecating, and yet I can’t quit doing it. Writing is like the drug I abhor and keep taking, the addiction I despise and depend on.”The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa

On the other hand, for a person so ‘haunted’ by the demand to write, only by writing through it can you make sense of your experience.

“By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.” –The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien

You may go back, as suggested, and see well-chosen words and sharp edges, but what you read might not fill you with the glee of someone who has written superlative, quality prose. No, in fact, it will probably read as self-pitying, naive, maudlin, even silly.

“There is no separating yourself from the things you make, he thought. If you are a cesspool, what else can your work be except shit?” –Before the Fall, Noah Hawley

You’re not doing it because you think it will be a masterpiece; you don’t even imagine anyone will ever see it.

You nevertheless were held hostage to the need to get it out.

“no smoke without you, my fire”

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Memories of Glasgow…

One Cigarette
Edwin Morgan
No smoke without you, my fire.
After you left,
your cigarette glowed on in my ashtray
and sent up a long thread of such quiet grey
I smiled to wonder who would believe its signal
of so much love. One cigarette
in the non-smoker’s tray.
As the last spire
trembles up, a sudden draught
blows it winding into my face.
Is it smell, is it taste?
You are here again, and I am drunk on your tobacco lips.
Out with the light.
Let the smoke lie back in the dark.
Till I hear the very ash
sigh down among the flowers of brass
I’ll breathe, and long past midnight, your last kiss.

Throwaways

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Three or four classrooms full of children, all around 9 or 10 years of age, were put together to take a historically oriented field trip to downtown Seattle. This was the mid-1980s, when it seemed that the homeless population had, if not reached a peak, penetrated the Pioneer Square area of Seattle… and the (paranoid) consciousness of suburbanite schoolteachers and parents. Enough visibility and paranoia that the homeless presence warranted ‘warnings’, apparently. I don’t know if these warnings were issued because 100+ unruly children are hard enough to control under the best of circumstances, so the adults thought they would ‘scare’ us into submission, or if the teachers and school really believed that the homeless population was a grave threat to us (“us” the children or all of us as a society).

We were told not just to not interact with “them”, but not even to look at “them”. “Ignore them, as if they don’t exist.” All I do know is that the message they branded on our young, malleable brains was: “You don’t need to care about these throwaway people.”

This still comes to mind and bothers me now, 30+ years later.

Photo by Zhifei Zhou on Unsplash