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

The ‘created place/space’

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“There are cities which don’t need literature: they are literature. They file past, chest thrust out, head on their shoulders. They are proud and full of confidence despite the garbage bags they cart around. The City-State, an example among so many others — she pulsated with literature.” –Tram 83, Fiston Mwanza Mujila

It can all return to place somehow, even when the story is about inner life. It does not need to be a city, as Fiston Mwanza Mujila posits, or as Italo Calvino writes about at length in Invisible Cities. This place can be an actual place, geographically, an interior, private place, or even a container/concept that represents a kind of space. A space that is occupied by some need, for example the need to write, to drink coffee, to love, to break out of previous forms or perceptions, the need to pretend or project images of ourselves into another space.

There are so many ways to create and exist in a space or place, for example:

  • “stepping off the plane at keflavik i didn’t know what to expect – only that i thought i belonged there. i went through all the stages of excitement, wonder, questioning, noticing all the surface-level weird things that all foreigners remark on animatedly when they arrive. almost 20 years later it’s easy to blur the hardships and forget all the missteps that often made the move seem like a mistake.”
  • “sometimes you know someone, even from afar, and feel like you want to hug her close to you and immediately declare your love, make it legal, and marry her. she, in central europe with her bewitching way with words, makes me feel that way every time i read her writing or see her messages in the far, cold nordics.”
  • “if he were serene, would he be able to accomplish the feats he does? underneath it all, with just a hint of resistance, he becomes fussy, testy and sarcastic.”
  • “how did i get blindfolded? i saw so clearly at the beginning, lost all sight, but eventually, like a hostage with no value, was dumped off somewhere, mostly unharmed. removing the blindfold, the reality is stark.”
  • “…and the guy painting on the remnants of the berlin wall – he was a felix, asking the firewall if he liked weed and shared a joint with him, if firewall would just roll it. according to firewall, it was an experience he just had to have. felix, as it happens, is the name of a ketchup brand in sweden; i frequently make people abroad jealous about my ability to get it, even though i don’t use/eat ketchup.”
  • “the phone rings. a husky, masculine-sounding voice answers gruffly, ‘computer room, this is odile.'”
  • “The point is that fantasies are fantasies and you can’t live in ecstasy every day of the year. Even if you slam the door and walk out, even if you fuck everyone in sight, you don’t necessarily get closer to freedom.” –fear of flying, erica jong
  • “compared with my present incarceration, the future holds no interest for me.” –the revolution of everyday life, raoul vaneigem
  • DUSHANBE!
  • “maybe a woman’s version of a midlife crisis involves stopping doing stuff?” –love and trouble, claire dederer
  • “but I’ll tell you a secret. when i want to take god at his word exactly, i take a peep out the window at his creation. because that, darling, he makes fresh for us every day, without a lot of dubious middle managers.” –the poisonwood bible, barbara kingsolver

You get the point. You see the ‘place’.

Image (c) 2014 S Donaghy

The translation lie

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In some other universe, when I was young and attended university, I thought a lot during long commutes about translation. This was during a time in my life when language was the be-all, end-all. How it fit together, where it came from, how it all formed the pieces of a puzzle. I loved nothing more than to learn new languages and delve into semi-obscure poetry (at least in the English-speaking world). My mind was opened by the broad field of linguistics. I never specialized, and never pursued a professional career relating to language or linguistics, but that low-level passion bubbles away under the surface.

I wrote a paper during my first year at university about lying and forms of lying. It was in response to a book by Sissela Bok: Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. I think I took the assignment in a different direction than the professor sought, but it nevertheless kept coming back to me as I drove the 50 miles to campus and back, contemplating how I could frame translation as its own form of lying, unintentional though it is.

I don’t have the paper any longer, nor any copies of the Bok book (haha – bok book!). But the basic concept: translation as lie, comes back to me frequently, particularly as I move through the world and experience everything as a foreigner, as a non-native speaker, and constantly observe the non-native use of English as the foremost business language. It endlessly fascinates me, and thus when I recently read a dazzling book, Tram 83, by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, I was all the while curious about the book in its original French. The translation seemed vibrant and vital (which I say without having the original to look at for comparison), but then I stumbled on an interview with Mujila in which he voices very similar sentiments to those I’ve been carrying around with me for 30 years:

The interviewer asks: “But how did you experience the process itself?”

Mujila: “The process? I think that translation is not like getting a photocopy, or a printout. The translation of a text involves a process of re-creation. The English version of Tram 83, is not the French version of Tram 83. They’re two different books, because the translator doesn’t translate… Perhaps even the word ‘translator’ is… It always irks me…”

“I might say ‘re-creator’. Because the word ‘translator’ is like someone who buys beer and then goes and sells it, while the translator does more than buy and sell beer: he buys the beer and then he adapts the beer to the taste of his customers. A person doesn’t translate a text, he re-creates a text. It becomes another text. The English translation will be another text, and the Italian or Swedish or Dutch translation will be yet another text, particularly since this novel is aimed at a wide range of cultures and imaginations; it’s aimed at readers who may or may not have a connection to the Congo. When I wrote my characters, I didn’t think that these characters would one day speak German or English. I think that translation is a precious profession – more than one might think. I myself constantly slalom between languages. I speak several languages, and I myself have had to translate my own poems and texts into German, before I began writing in German too. And so I think that translation is more a work of … perhaps re-writing, but I think that above all we need to find another term instead of translation, or translator, another term that can illuminate all of these energies, because one doesn’t translate sentences, one translates a culture, one translates imaginations, one translates countries, one translates characters, one translates impressions, one translates sounds, smells, the smell of Kinshasa, the smell of Lubumbashi, the atmosphere of the mines, everything that happens around the mines, noises, the sound of glasses… And so a translator is not just somebody who buys beer wholesale and sells it retail, it’s more than the work of a salesman. A translator is like a ferryman, but beyond being a ferryman, a translator is a creator in his own right.”