I went to a reading a few weeks ago. It was like all the others I had been to: hosted in a bookish environment, warmed by the soft glowing of incandescent lights, a crowd of expectant and well-mannered yuppies conversing briskly and self-righteously in neatly arranged seats. As the night wore on and reader after reader took to the podium, each after an elegiac introduction from an appropriately writerly looking fellow, I became increasingly irate. Partly because the writing I was being presented with was flat, dead, devoid of spirit or passion. Partly because the readers were so obviously reveling in their supposed grandeur, basking in the afterglow of their new award, a token from self-professed curators of quality writing. But mostly because there was no truth, or honesty, or raw expression in anything that was being read. It made me shift in my seat and look at the multitude of books lining the walls, each with their perfectly manicured covers, melting into the exposed brick and aged wood of the shelving on which they sat.
Something changed in me that night though. Still reeling from my reintroduction to the spirit of punk, the blatant artifice and self-importance of it all finally became clear to me. I suddenly wanted to stand and yell, “this is crap!” I wanted to heckle and to be heckled, to tell them their writing was worthless and that they could do better, to challenge them, force them to consider their self-involvement frankly, not on paper or in the safety of a carefully moderated forum but in the moment, through the spitting and anger that is unadulterated, impassioned life. It was then that I realized I had finally made a crucial transition from disillusioned to merely dissatisfied, and so I left.
It is this conventionalism that I see all around me. It is part of our world and our psyche, and as I wandered the city one night with a classmate we could see it everywhere. We wandered because we found some freedom in unguided movement, not knowing what we would experience or how it would affect us. We eventually stopped and sat down but not because we were tired, or because we were in a particularly nice place, or because it was necessary, but simply because we wanted to. We talked about civil pretense and how it was so blatantly before and around us. We agreed that people were content, satisfied with what they had and did. My classmate spoke of how the more conventional laborers, white and blue, were simply going through the motions. To us such a life was one without merit, which was unfair of us to say, but what made it lack merit was that it was a lifestyle that required thought and action preordained by the customs of its predecessors, not by the creative, freeform feeling that is so romantically attributed to the artist.
What I see now is that this mindlessness, this lack of feeling, is also the character of the modern writer. It is a certain smug and self-enamored mindset. These are simple people who are unwilling or don’t know how to dig beneath the facade, partly out of fear and partly out of blindness. Blindness to a more intimate state of being, of a more honest mode of communication, removed of pretense, released from convention. Thus they relinquish any drive to explore what they are feeling as it proves too difficult. And now we have embraced this defeatism and made it holy, made it the status quo, the measuring stick against which we compare ourselves and all of writing, and we cease to acknowledge what we are actually experiencing, no longer making an effort to understand what it is that we actually feel. We therefore cease to express and only create from the cud of the past.
People want to feel good, and as it stands the easiest way to achieve this is by pandering to what the norm is, remaining within the rubric that has already been set. We have learned that if we create what others like they will like it and us. It is an incredibly narcissistic system on both sides. The people create to feel admired and validated, to feel ingenious and visionary. This can only be given by the masses, for the masses, or at least our masses, is always right in our minds. And the masses also want to feel brilliant and better so they revel in the fact that they recognize another person’s creation as genius.
It is a dissymbiotic relationship that has become a natural state of affairs when in fact it is simply a circular prison. I can think of no other analogy than two oxen who, released from their harnesses to the well, continue to walk in circles simply because the ox before it is doing the same. Still the issue here isn’t so much what is being created, or what is being done, as it is the intent behind it, or within it, or beyond it. No one is releasing themselves from the standards. No one is truly taking the time to feel and allow themselves to organically translate that to their craft. They are always keeping within the bounds of “ennobled” precedents.
Intent is not however the same as the content of writing. Content could be best described as being the meaning, metaphor, narrative, or dissertation we do or do not include in our writing. That is not the issue. Content is present without question and is easily included. What I am getting to is that the feeling isn’t there. Not just feeling though, for we all feel and write because of it. I’m thinking about the censorship we engage in in order to make what we’re feeling “appropriate” or palatable to our audience.
Another analogy: A carpenter creates a bookshelf. It has a particular structure which can take a multitude of forms, none of which are right or wrong. It has a particular purpose, which is to hold books, but this purpose is flexible and it can contain almost anything. The carpenter will provide it with a particular aesthetic, lacquering the wood, sanding the edges and adding details. But then he might add small flourishes, details that somehow reflect not so much who he is but why he is, and why he does. These flourishes might be intentional or unintentional, like the accidental chip on a corner. What we see, what we enjoy experiencing, is the life current of its creator, the movement, his history and his intention, born of his experiences and psychology, whether known by him or not. This is what endears the bookshelf to us, not because it has a particular function, or purpose, or aesthetic. It is this that speaks to us.
This is what I wish to explore, understand, and most importantly feel. In other words not the writing itself but the process of writing. I have long been unable to understand why I’ve had this sentiment, or indeed what it is. I only know, or believe, that in some manner this is the best way to bring movement into writing.
So I think we should be focusing on how we create rather than what we create, and we should create not because we have been taught that it is right, or that it is meaningful. We should do so because it is in our nature, it is our expression of life, and to assume we do so for anything else is anathema to the nature of being. To lift directly from a previous piece I wrote, I find that the unwitting personal notes left behind in writing are far more true to form, and intriguing, than what is actually in the work. Whether it’s fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, every letter, word, intonation, punctuation, formatting choice, all of it, is an extension of its creator. It’s a subtle clue into the mental workings of another human being, someone just as mundane or inspired or dumb or smart as yourself, someone who has the same desire to express him or herself and to try to make sense of this crazy world. It’s a way to get behind the civilized persona we all assume as we leave our homes and to see the raw, true essence of being. So I think that the only way to get the unadulterated truth is to read behind the lines.
I say this because I believe that what is truly being said is only said through the totality of the writing, not the manufactured words that we diligently select and use in our work, each one cleanly defined and with a particular function. It is the unseen current that assigns the meaning of the words, which is why reading between the lines, so to say, is so essential. This is not something that I believe a writer can purposefully include in their work, at least not with any honesty or truth. This is a quality born of the uncensored expression of the self, born of the organic, natural choices made while putting pen to paper. This almost appears to be a call to pure stream of conscious writing, which it is not. But our lives are fluid, constantly in motion, and by adhering to established protocols we are removing this fluidity from our own creations.
One can look at the writing of Pauline Kael or Manny Farber. A major criticism of my classmates was the meandering nature and florid language in the pieces they wrote. But I see their passion as being an attempt at surmounting the limitations of modern language and at expressing what they were actually feeling. They were driven by their mood, and in their drive to better understand and express what they were feeling they plowed forward in their writing. Being that feelings are so difficult to articulate accurately they followed each little clue that promised further elucidation, their passion then progressing in the manner that a wildfire does, finding matter which excites and fuels it, hitting upon a multitude of vaguely related topics, raging recklessly and sparks flying every which way, lighting new fires, each producing new crackles, new odors, new sights, each one as tantalizing as the last, adding to the flame, carrying the passion forward and making it more visceral, real, honest, consuming anything that proves to be associated. The passion does not so much know what it is doing, or why, it only continues to blaze because it is in its nature to do so, it somehow understands what it feels through the act of consumption, and in its attempt to more closely understand, or express, what it feels it continues to pounce upon whatever keeps its strength burning.
To those of us who stand and watch from outside their fervor and passion may seem incomprehensible, without direction and utterly destructive. We tend to view their nature as being self-centered or even arrogant, whose only purpose is the maintenance of their power. But it is not just the desire to hear or pander to oneself, it is also the desire to expand one’s own mind, to understand and challenge the self, and in so doing understand and challenge the world. Again this is not necessarily a matter of deliberate, intellectual investigation of what it means to be but a latent desire, expressed through one’s emotions and feelings, to better grasp the nature of one’s existence.
In a way this is what I would consider movement through writing. It is a desperate attempt to surpass the physical limitations of writing and capture the actual essence of what one is feeling, something that is incredibly difficult to achieve for us writers, if not impossible. Music appears to be the most effective way of expressing the essence of what it means to feel, a point Dave Hickey made in saying that music is always at the forefront of expression. I have to agree with him, although grudgingly. I suppose this is true because music allows us to express a facet of being that we are not quite able to express through any other medium. It captures the immediacy of our emotions, thoughts, and actions, of how they exist largely apart from civilized predetermination or editing (all philosophical questions aside), and in a manner that most closely resembles who we are as beings, which more fixed and tactile forms of expression cannot do as they lack the vibrancy of motion. And motion, not necessarily kinetic motion, but motion is life.
While writing may not be able to capture the same fluidities of music that make it so useful as a means of expression, we have the tools to synthesize and articulate what everyone else simply feels. It is our job, as writers, to improve language in order to effectively communicate this motion. But to do this we must first learn what it means to feel, and learn to not fear and censor it. People don’t trust words, they don’t trust how those words exit them, feeling that somehow the language we have now is fixed, puzzle pieces that must be put together just so or else nothing will be expressed because anything vaguely uncomfortable must be incorrect and detestable. Let’s over think and pose problems.
As I left the reading in dissatisfaction a few weeks ago, I explained to a classmate that I was going to a bar, to which she asked why and I responded “because this is crap.” At the bar we discussed whether my sentiments were in fact well-founded. I spoke to her of how I was disgusted by the politeness of the modern-day reading, of how I felt that sitting quietly while another read and gloated was a disservice to the reader and to the listener, that such readings would not create the challenges that would bring new forms of expression to life. To her, a Lebanese expatriate, the notion of a freeform literary arena, where everyone was free to express themselves, either at the podium or in the seat, would lead to chaos. Order was necessary, she maintained, so that the reader could finish the reading, at which point the floor could be opened to criticism, if so desired. In Lebanon attempts at artistic expression would routinely be drowned out by the wild calls of the faddish youth.
She was right and I had trouble justifying the creation of a spartan space where people could congregate to heckle and be heckled, to present themselves as best they could, defend themselves, and through the interaction of these dynamics discover what it was they were truly attempting to do, or say. It was my hope that such a venue would help us better understand what it meant to make writing something like what jazz is, or used to be I suppose. It was the only way I could imagine of capturing movement through writing.
I still want more from writing, even if I get lost in myself and forget what exactly it is that I have been wanting. And I still can’t find a better way to say this then through the idea of capturing motion through writing. Not motion in writing, or writing as motion, or motion and writing. I want to capture motion through writing, in the manner that music does. Until that happens I will say that writing is dead. I’m not sure it’s ever been alive. If not this than it is lying in a coma and we are not allowing it to wake up.
The irony here is, or maybe it’s not irony, but in any case I have, in writing this piece, failed to do exactly what I am championing. I did not allow myself to go forward as was necessary, instead paining over the words and structures to try and express exactly what I was feeling. This last paragraph is more in line with who I am, and none of it is in the writing above. So I will leave you, dear reader, with this: the best, most honest, most accurate representation of how I feel as a member of this great society and engaging in this great art.