Free for a storytelling spree

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Another one of those aimless, sprawling collections of thoughts, quotations, snippets floating freely in my brain … all on the vast topic of writing and reading. Thinking about how ideas come to fruition and lead to a story or a storytelling spree of some kind. I know I am doing little more than collecting a bunch of random quotations and thoughts – not doing anything particularly creative myself, and certainly not weaving together a story. But I am, as I write about below, creating new links and networks in my brain… which I guess is part of my process (also noted below).

The ability to tell your own story, in words or images, is already a victory, already a revolt.” Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

“In the place of the ever-changing cloud that we carried in our heads until the other day, the condensing and dispersal of which we attempted to understand by describing impalpable psychological states and shadowy landscapes of the soul—in the place of all this we now feel the rapid passage of signals on the intricate circuits that connect the relays, the diodes, the transistors with which our skulls are crammed. Just as no chess player will ever live long enough to exhaust all the combinations of possible moves for the thirty-two pieces on the chessboard, so we know (given the fact that our minds are chessboards with hundreds of billions of pieces) that not even in a lifetime lasting as long as the universe would one ever manage to make all possible plays.” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino

To write is to embrace a certain freedom and break free from constraints you did not even know were there. Sometimes to write is to buckle down and find your way. Free to write our stories, or some story, we have to find the way to do it – and seize the freedom that allows us to… even if, as Calvino cautions, we shall never live long enough to make ‘all possible plays’.

This can be a considerable enterprise, depending on how you experience writing, the process of writing and creativity. And the how you do it does not even begin to touch the why.

The write way

For some, writing is like giving difficult birth, laborious, long and painful. Or like a marathon, tapping into the reserves of the entire being while also still being a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other exercise.

“Writing novels, to me, is basically a kind of manual labor. Writing itself is mental labor, but finishing an entire book is closer to manual labor. It doesn’t involve heavy lifting, running fast, or leaping high. Most people, though, only see the surface reality of writing and think of writers as involved in quiet, intellectual work done in their study. If you have the strength to lift a coffee cup, they figure, you can write a novel. But once you try your hand at it, you soon find that it isn’t as peaceful a job as it seems. The whole process—sitting at your desk, focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of a blank horizon, creating a story, selecting the right words, one by one, keeping the whole flow of the story on track—requires far more energy, over a long period, than most people ever imagine. You might not move your body around, but there’s grueling, dynamic labor going on inside you. Everybody uses their mind when they think. But a writer puts on an outfit called narrative and thinks with his entire being; and for the novelist that process requires putting into play all your physical reserve, often to the point of overexertion.” –What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami

For others, it’s almost dissociative, but still subject to much self-doubt and criticism as well as somewhat cynical self-reflection.

“…there is always a point in the writing of a piece when I sit in a room literally papered with false starts and cannot put one word after another and imagine that I have suffered a small stroke, leaving me apparently undamaged but actually aphasic.” –Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion

“My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.” –Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion

For others, it’s casual and easy. (I tend to fall into this category but only because most of what I write is not ‘personal’ and I am not personally invested in it.)

No matter what the process is like, or what the results, it’s still a process. Entirely unique to the storyteller. This is true whether the story is a work of fiction that many will read or a technical manual that only a handful will read. Being able to delve into and engage in this process is a kind of privilege, necessarily implying that the abilities and time exist to produce – something.

The process

When I think of the “process” I think of two different things. One is the literal process of sitting down and being surrounded by certain comforts or habits, which many writers discuss. I suppose mine is closest to that offered by Gary Shteyngart: “I write in bed next to a coffee machine.” There are so many other well-thought-out and explained processes (or non-processes), when for some, it’s literally, in the end, just rolling over, grabbing the computer and putting the coffee machine to work. (Admittedly I don’t have a coffee machine next to my bed, but I make cafetiere after cafetiere and bring them with me to the bedside table where I think, read, work and write most of the time.) Each person has his or her routine, largely, I assume, governed by the impulses that inspire or force one to write and by the aforementioned way a writer experiences writing (hard work, escape, etc.).

The second part of the “process” relates to everything that leads up actual creation and development. How do ideas form – how do they grow from embryonic seeds into a multicellular life?

The eyes and ears have it

“There are days when everything I see seems to me charged with meaning: messages it would be difficult for me to communicate to others, define, translate into words, but which for this very reason appear to me decisive.” –If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino

This stage can start out in the vaguest of ways. For example, I see something or hear something and jot it down, whether it’s the URL on the side of a van: eloped.se (which I figured would not be about eloping but about an electric moped), or a much fuller vignette. In the case of the URL, it is not that I will write about the URL, the van, or even the misunderstanding/difference in the language but only the fact that some piece of cognitive dissonance jolted me out of the moment, stuck in traffic, to think about other connections and linguistic associations. It’s about keeping the brain working and linking seemingly disconnected concepts together.

The ‘sprout’ of a fuller idea might be planted by a conversation. For example, when someone told me that he ended up with a copy of Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side of the Moon album in every breakup he ever had, without ever having had the album himself in the first place. Now the proud owner of six copies, all of which were relics of relationships gone by, existing on media ranging from vinyl to cassette to CD, representative of the eras of which they – and the failed relationships – were a part. Perhaps a flimsy premise for anything, but certainly a human anecdote to fill in the flesh of a skeletal character.

The read way

Every writer is a reader first.”

The other part of this ‘germinating ideas’ is preparation, however unconscious. It’s sparking the brain constantly to think in different ways, walking down new paths. This is largely done with (excessive) reading. It doesn’t matter if you remember everything you read: “Books also change, via our mental models, the very reality that we perceive.

And this is the whole point. Changing the perception of the world around you, the people around you, taking on understandings you did not have before… and applying this newfound understanding to your own creativity – freely.

Reading is a form of forgetting – and remembering:

“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” -“When we read a book for the first time”, Vladimir Nabokov

It is a process, according to Nabokov: you may know how to read, but are you a careful reader – have you read and reread and viewed it through the aforementioned microscope? Have you asked the right questions of it? In this way, the reading and examining process, too, is like writing. And it’s through this other level of understanding, of seeing the written word presented in many unexpected and unusual ways, defying expectation, that the freedom of creativity is cultivated.

The freedom of creativity

“No one, no matter how alienated, is without (or unaware of) an irreducible core of creativity, a camera obscura safe from intrusion by lies and constraints.”The Revolution of Everyday Life, Raoul Vaneigem

Regardless of what hard work it can be, the ability to create at all confers a form of freedom.

That is, when I reach a stage in my mind when I am ready to finally throw my hands up in the air at the powerlessness of having to tow the line, speak the party line full of marketing gobbledygook and corporate branding BS, of feeling rendered inert by the anodyne ‘voice’ of large corporations – either silencing me from within (restraint at being able to only say so much) or outside (as academics and journalists experience when entities like Google have outsized influence on what they can publish. Don’t be evil, my ass),  I am asking ‘what for’? To go on, continuing down this path of non-creativity forever until self-respect shrivels up and dies a merciful but none-too-early death? No. This is not what I was made for. I was, like many others, made to tell stories. I was not made to censor. I was made to create characters. I was not made to sit silently in offices and nod while someone describes another ‘campaign’ that will lead nowhere.

“Is there a limit to the imagination of a writer who takes real facts and uses them to construct a world where truth and fiction coexist? What right does one have to play around with collective memory? Is there any credibility in getting these sometimes-disparate characters in tune? The starting point for all these characters was the thirst in them.” –Tram 83, Fiston Mwanza Mujila

Yes, I live in the real world, and for now, my creativity has to be partly channeled into this environment. And sometimes, strangely enough, reaching this stage of frustration, as described, opens the door to new clarity, a new approach to communicating in different terms, circumventing the “rules” imposed in these narrow frameworks. And isn’t that what true creativity is? Being able to find a completely fresh way to describe or communicate about something?

I’m producing too many stories at once because what I want is for you to feel, around the story, a saturation of other stories that I could tell and maybe will tell or who knows may already have told on some other occasion, a space full of stories that perhaps is simply my lifetime, where you can move in all directions, as in space, always finding stories that cannot be told until other stories are told first, and so, setting out from any moment or place, you encounter always the same density of material to be told.” –If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino

Defiant

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The other day, reading Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem, I was struck when reading her writing on Joan Baez by the statement:

She “…was a personality before she was entirely a person, and, like anyone to whom that happens, she is in a sense the hapless victim of what others have seen in her, written about her, wanted her to be and not to be. The roles assigned to her are various, but variations on a single theme.”

These words evoked for me the feelings I have long had about, and the image of, Sinéad O’Connor in the late 1980s, an embryonic personality driving and sometimes hindering a skyrocketing career and startling voice. I’d always felt back then that the well-publicized “mania” (I wouldn’t really call it this), early in her career, had unfairly stuck to her, giving her a reputation she could never outrun. She was so very young when her career took off, and we forget – today, as always – that people are still quite unformed and incomplete throughout their early adulthoods; I’d venture to say that many people continue to be unformed well beyond youth. She fit Didion’s description: a personality before she was a fully formed person.

O’Connor, though, also experienced very public controversies (which many would dismiss as publicity ploys), public identity crises and shifts, and quite gut-wrenching bouts of depression and battles with other forms of mental illness (and here I mean gut-wrenching for her fans to watch her go through; I cannot even begin to imagine or put into words what these bouts are like for her, undoubtedly something much worse than just “gut-wrenching” – maybe The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon begins to touch on some part of it, but certainly not all of it), which continued well beyond her youth, worsening with the passage of time.

Could one say she never had the opportunity to become a fully formed person, to move beyond the preternatural talent and preconceived ideas people had about her? And, given the revelations she has shared over the years about her own experiences with abuse and mental illness, how could she ever become a fully formed person? How could she not struggle, often – again – very publicly?

I thought about all of this rather without aim while plowing through the Didion writing, humming tunes from The Lion & the Cobra album to myself, overcome by memories of the summer of 1988, listening to this album repeatedly (when I finally got it on vinyl, after waiting forever), so in love with its extremes of ethereal wave and primitive scream. How, oh, how, I was asked by classmates, could I like this? (Perhaps another case of people failing to look beyond the shaved-head surface.) Eventually Sinéad gave us I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, which, at least for a while, turned her into a mainstream favorite, and the masses could finally understand what I had been saying since 1987.

In one of those all-too-frequent little coincidences, it was only a week or so after being reminded of Sinéad by Didion’s writing that Sinéad herself posted a heart-rending video of herself on her Facebook page talking about her diagnosed mental illnesses and recent suicidal thoughts. It feels exploitative to post the video again (certainly in its complete form), although it’s on her official Facebook page to see. A cry for help, a need to be heard, a voice reaching out to others who perhaps felt as she did? In a way, this act felt very much like the Sinéad O’Connor who has always existed, no matter how lost she feels: she won’t be silenced; she won’t care if you, we, anyone doesn’t want to hear what she has to say; she is, despite being devastated by the effects of her illnesses and the rejection she has perceived from her loved ones, still defiant in the way only she can be. Hopefully it will be this defiance that keeps her going.

Photo by Jenu Prasad on Unsplash

Contextual past and eventual becoming

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“I am writing for the person I used to be. Perhaps the person I once left behind persists, standing there, still and grim, in some attic of time – on a bend, on a crossroads – and in some mysterious way she is able to read the lines I am setting out here, without seeing them.” –A General Theory of Oblivion, José Eduardo Agualusa

In If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino hints gently at context, and by envisioning parallel, fictional realities, we may be ripping some gem from its intended context and stuffing it into another to serve another purpose, to enhance another context. These are not even close to his words, and in fact, in my own paraphrasing I have moved his original words (in translation no less) quite far from their origin and intended context to justify my own. It is the intent, perhaps, that a reader should interpret and ‘steal’ concepts (I know that in one of the multitudes of books I have read this week, there was a passage somewhere about stealing and refashioning good ideas – but I don’t know if I saved the quote. A shame).

But this is my pattern. I read aggressively, voraciously, feverishly highlighting meaningful passages (stopping briefly to wonder if I might highlight different passages and quotes if I were in another frame of mind, or context). And later I find some application – or context – for those passages that meant most to me in some way.

Behavior eventually shows its hand and establishes a pattern if you wait long enough. I can change these patterns to change behaviors, but the underlying drive comes out the same. I shifted from television addiction to a reading addiction, which I would argue is the better of the two addictions. But both are addictive and almost compulsive behaviors. To compensate, I seek and find some balance, and my constant underlying drive is not just the search for balance but the search for change. And for me, change is always about the future and ensuring some otherness or difference from the now and the past. It is not about dragging vestiges of the past with me into new scenery; it is likewise not about erasing that past or its experience. It does not mean cast off the you who was, but does mean give careful consideration to the you who will be.

“This is what I mean when I say I would like to swim against the stream of time: I would like to erase the consequences of certain events and restore an initial condition. But every moment of my life brings with it an accumulation of new facts, and each of these new facts brings with it its consequences; so the more I seek to return to the zero moment from which I set out, the further I move away from it: though all my actions are bent on erasing the consequences of previous actions and though I manage to achieve appreciable results in this erasure, enough to open my heart to hopes of immediate relief, I must, however, bear in mind that my every move to erase previous events provokes a rain of new events, which complicate the situation worse than before and which I will then, in their turn, have to try to erase. Therefore I must calculate carefully every move so as to achieve the maximum of erasure with the minimum of recomplication.” If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino

While many recognize and complain about their patterns, they do nothing to alter them. Change, after all, is what we most avoid. Because of this aversion to change, at least some kinds of change, the complaints are idle and the angst projected about them contrived. But we all have our blind spots, especially when it comes to other, unpredictable, people.

“…but at that moment it was as if an undigested bit of the past had come back up his throat.” –The Solitude of Prime Numbers, Paolo Giordano

Yes, people. Unpredictable people who jump around in the timeline of our lives. Almost dead within our archives, yet somehow we live on, almost as living, breathing people in the daily existences, of which we are (almost) no longer a part. I can control my books or tv viewing or the lengths of walks in the rain (though I cannot yet control the rain). I can control how much I sleep and how deeply involved I become in my mad dreams (how I love these). But people… and how much the past wears on and continues to affect (and infect) people.

Someone told me recently that “the past is a foreign country”, which sounds, not unlike my allusions and references to Calvino, like something lifted from a literary source (with which I am not familiar). This is poetic, but Calvino himself manages to describe the pernicious nature of the past with a far more apt simile:

“The past is like a tapeworm, constantly growing, which I carry curled up inside me”.

The past, and the people who populate it, has a voracious appetite and will eat away at one from the inside, if one lets it.

The interesting part is that the phantoms, those living in the past as though it were yesterday: they are often the most honest ones. Maybe not about how the past was (they can in fact be quite blind and/or deluded), but they aren’t hiding their intentions or papering over their defects. And the people laboring along in the firm belief that they are living in the present and looking toward the future? The veneer of calm does not hide the high-strung individual underneath, paddling away from reminders of the past like poor swimmers with no instinct for floating – there is no actual serenity in those who so desperately seek it. Maybe, like Daniel Hall writes in “Love Letter Burning”: “The past will shed some light/but never keep us warm”.

“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.”Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion

Mediocre egg roll

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When I spend such a vast amount of time reading – losing track even of how many hours pass with my nose in a virtual book – of course I see connections. Most often these are thematic connections that crochet together, however loosely, disparate books and ideas from different parts of the world.

Sometimes though there are just coincidental mentions that seem strange – for instance, choosing randomly to read a Philip Roth (Goodbye Columbus) in which he mentions egg rolls, only to be followed immediately by a Joan Didion (Play It as It Lays), which also mentions egg rolls.

It has no significance. But why is that the one connection… and the one thing I remember? (I do recall my last trip to Iceland when my dear Jane brought over egg rolls and had somehow ordered two orders of them rather than just two egg rolls, and it was actually the best thing about the meal – they were quite good!)

Overdosing on reading, I took a little break Friday evening to watch a “triple feature” of Jaime Rosales’s understated, slice-of-life, ultra-realistic films (on MUBI, of course). And what do they show other than the tedium and brevity of life, punctuated as it is by bits of bad news, manipulative people and occasional dramatic events that upend our lives and sometimes disturb our very souls. And yet the backdrop remains the same: the humdrum, the mundane and the mediocre. And this is a place where the small, almost imperceptible happinesses reside: where a character meets a waitress who comments on how cute her baby son is, where a character can enjoy how much light comes into her flat, where characters at dinner can comment at length on how simple and good the meal turned out, where a character can move little by little past the individual and collective tragedies. We don’t get to see this “striving for normal life” much, certainly not in mainstream films, and certainly not in films that exceed two hours in length (as Solitary Fragments/La Soledad was) or which are essentially without dialogue (Bullet in the Head/Tiro en la Cabeza).

The films were there for me to watch at exactly the right time. After reading an article about the desire for a mediocre life, which unexpectedly struck chords with many of my friends, and thinking about how the simplicity and calm of an average and non-dramatic life is exceptionally fulfilling, the normal and mediocre nature of life as portrayed in these films was illustrative and almost life-affirming. And the things in life that often give us the most are the things that are the most unassuming, the least glamorous. These things, as a 2016 University of Otago study concluded, are small, daily creative pursuits that foster feelings of “flourishing” and make us want to do more. For me, it has often been baking (everyone knows that once I start, it’s hard to stop because I feel productive joy from this simple act and giving the results to others); for others, it is long-distance running; for others, like my mother, it’s knitting. Things that don’t necessarily require excessive resources or expensive equipment, exciting or exotic locations or anything particularly demanding.

Especially after being hit Friday evening with a brief wave of deep sadness and a feeling of loss that sprang up seemingly from nowhere to choke me as I waited in a long, endless Friday evening line at the store.

By the end of the night the feeling had completely washed away, soothed by returning to reading (The Things They Carried and I Do Not Come to You By Chance) and some always-restorative words from a fellow, in his words, “misanthropic mugwump”.

Photo (c) 2011 Annie used under Creative Commons license.