He didn’t recall hearing a shot, nor actually feeling the bullet enter his chest, but he knew now. It had hit somewhere around his heart; obviously not his heart considering he was still alive, but it burned slightly and that made him uneasy. He got up and walked a few paces, testing his strength and the stength of the pain, trying to determine whether or not he could actually continue living. It appeared that he could, so his first inclination was to try and ignore the wound and go about his day normally. But he couldn’t really ignore the bullet hole. It was there, somewhere beside that most important organ, shifting around restlessly with his every movement, like an uncouth thought, a deprived desire that one tries to suppress in the back of their mind. It would kill him, this round, he was certain of it. At least if he did not seek help. But he nonethless delayed in reaching out to someone and alerting them to his peril. If someone had asked him why, afterwards, he wouldn’t have been able to explain. It was just something he did, perhaps born of his stubborness and his hope that maybe, if he ignored it, everything would be OK. But it wasn’t going to be OK. The wound became more and more apparent to him, leeching his life from him in minute steps. It was inexorable and he could feel its progression, its gradual movement from life to half-life and then to quarter-life. And then he knew it was time. Not for his family’s sake but for his own, because his imminent death began to frighten him. He was too young, only twenty-five, and he did not want to cease living. He wanted to move. It did not matter if he wasn’t moving in any particular direction, he just wanted to be able to move, to be free to feel the non-kinetic trials of life. He wanted to one day feel powerful and like a man, not a dead corpse that had tragically succumbed to its own obstinateness and stupidity. So he finally called his parents, warned them: “Parents, I die. Please save me.” They began to take the necessary steps to save him. They traveled to distant locations, full of hope, and reassured him that they would bring that hope to him. They made phone calls and spoke urgently. But their actions were slow. He called them again, and again, and again, but they ceased to answer. They were busy saving him, too busy to listen to his pleas. And for the first time the young man felt terror. It was a terror unlike he had ever felt before, one that caressed his face with a macabre sweetness and filled him with emotion. He tried phoning again, but no answer. He could feel the wound consuming him, swallowing him whole and threatening to leave nothing of him. He slouched back against the wall of the mansion, crying to himself: “I don’t want to die. Please don’t let me die.” Only the wound spoke back: “Tough shit stupid boy. You had your chance.” And it continued to swallow him, happily spreading its fear and its animal nature into the young man’s brain, fluttering his heart so greatly that he thought it might catch the bullet and end it sooner. He was on the verge of panic: “I don’t want to die.” He called again but his parents were still to distant, still too preoccupied. He thought of his sister, and of his mother and father, of how they loved him and he them. Of how he was dying alone in this luxurious setting, a strong young body brought to naught. He coudn’t move now, his body limp and useless. Only the wound pulsated, continued to swallow. And as it finally sucked the last few breaths of his terrified life, he slumped forward and disappeared.
Every day of my yearlong stay here has been full of daydreams. They carry me from my waking moments into the streets, through the tunnels and back up into the buildings. These are fantasies that enrich and enliven my life, much like I imagine the real experience would. They are my constant companions, my voice, my words, accented by the world and all it encompasses.
I don’t write. Not nearly as much as I should. I wonder why this is, although I no longer despair. My lack of authorship is not a point of contention for me, as it once was. Instead I go about my life in a contended state, not oblivious, but slightly numbed. I still wonder, though.
In the moments where I yank myself free of my dreams, I begin to ask, why? Why have I not written? And then, there it is. That specter of an urge, that yearning to throw myself away into the abyss of language and exploration. I remember the promise in my dreams, that hint of the tangible, freed from the momentary experience of my mind. I am finally taken away, carried along by an unseen current that grows in strength and vitality, lapping up whatever it can touch and pulling it into the currents that make up its body. Life is born, form appropriated, made to conform to a new rhythm, meaning contorted and examined, losing and gaining, burning and cooling. This sudden movement is like a spark or a glimmer that rebounds off every undulating crest, reaching up and then diving below. The current itself builds, it swells, splits and becomes two streams, one calm perhaps, the other roaring, maybe. In the distance I can see them converging, and as I roll along, my eyes set at their juncture, my mind becomes lucid and brave. I can see the world, or a world, and I smile a smile that spans their flowing.
It is here that I first reach for my oars and begin to dip them into the current. But it is here as well that I find myself dammed in, as suddenly as the current arose, and I am left knocking up against that sudden structure. I set my oars aside and lie back, stare up into the sky and watch the birds and feel the breeze. I hear the water, a placid body now, lapping against my small vessel, and I slip back into dreams.
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.
Fiction is work. More work than it ought to be. The question then, is why is this so? Why the difficulties? For those who excel at a particular endeavor, for those who have a particular knack or propensity to engage in something successfully, why would it still be a struggle? Quite simply, in my case at least, it is because I am forcing something upon myself. I am imposing a standard model on what I want to do and attempting to write within its confines. Punk is what has brought this to light in my mind. It is what is allowing me to see that the true essence of who I am is born not in the contrived stories I pain over in order to please, but instead in the rambling essays that I choose to write as a means to air my grievances. Now I see that this fluid exposition of my being, in how I pour my every fiber into the words that are placed on the page, has to be translated to the fiction I create. I must dispense with creative control and allow for creative expression. I have a voice, I have a particular point of view, and regardless of its validity or intelligence I am going to scream it until your eardrums burst and you choose to thrash me with your belt. Because fuck you. And fuck me. But mostly you. I want, and always have wanted freedom. Freedom from myself, my self having been molded into a prison by the others, and now finally giving way to the beauty of irreverence. Others find genius in science, or music, or art. I find genius in writing. I am blinded by writing. Writing is my muse, my Aphrodite, my everything. I will never concede that there is anything more impactful, more profound, more true, than what writing is. Because writing is mine, and I am human and selfish, and what I know and adore is all that matters. No need to elaborate or elucidate. If you can’t read between the lines then you don’t belong. If you don’t understand that reading between the lines is actually feeling, well now I’m explaining. This is just the beginning. I want more, and I will have more, and if others won’t have it now then it’ll be had later, even if I’m dead. I don’t know what I’m doing. I only know that this is what I need.
He had nothing of the clerk in him and all writers need something of the pettiness of the clerk, the diligence of the proofreader.
How do I begin this? As always I don’t know, but what I do know is that I have, for the first time in my life, been so affected by a piece of writing that it has started a fire in me. It starts with a claim by Geoff Dyer. He stated something that attempted to counter everything I have hoped for in writing, to discredit writing in such absolute terms as to make it obsolete. There is irony in this as, in the very same creation that holds this assertion, he has in a way disproven that exact claim. That claim is that somehow Jazz is greater than any other form of expression and that writing will forever be a petty endeavor, the product of contrived minds.
Geoff had come to my weekly seminar to discuss his book, But Beautiful, and field the usual questions, all polite and quotidian inquiries into the purpose and process of that seminal Jazz book. For the hour and a half before he joined us I had listened as the conversation revolved around the particular strengths of certain passages, the manner in which they had strengthened his supposed argument, and how evocative his writing style was. We were all enchanted by his writing; in how his fictive tale of the Jazz greats had managed to reach beyond the normal scope of criticism to capture the spirit of what the music was. People were happy.
But, despite the explicit purpose of the class being the analysis of the varying forms of criticism, I found myself stuck on one passage in particular that had little to do with what we were supposed to be examining. In the afterwards, almost an afterthought in fact, Geoff threw writing under the bus and stated that the only genius achievable was in Jazz. It was here that he made the aforementioned claim that writing is hindered by the necessity to edit and review, thus robbing it of any actual worth as a means to express the actual reality of being human.
I managed to build up the courage, in the awkward silence after a question had been satisfied, to ask him to elaborate on that passage. In his book he had used Mingus as an example, harping on how this beautifully belligerent man, whose music belted out of his every pore, was unable to transfer his genius to paper, arguing that the sole reason was because writing lacked the ability to capture that same purity of being as Jazz. To put it bluntly, this one example, this one passage, pissed me off. Pissed me off enough to make me underline the offending lines and scrawl “fuck you” beside it, as childish as that may sound.
And the response I got from Geoff when I asked him about that passage didn’t quite change my sentiment. Even his physical reaction to my question left me wanting. I vaguely remember, as I struggled to formulate my question from my trembling words, his sly, almost arrogant grin as he realized what I was touching on. It seemed to me that this was something that had been asked before and that he didn’t quite know how to defend it, and the answer I got about how Jazz’s penchant for improvisation gave it the truthful quality that no other art form could reach sounded practiced, canned, without soul. Very quickly the subject then morphed into something else, not even a specter of what I had initially asked about.
Perhaps he had a genuine point in stating that Jazz’s improvisation was what lent it the touch of humanity that no other art could hope for. But to my ears that argument was as superficial as my internal counterargument that, like the writer’s process of revision, so did individual Jazz songs go through varying forms, moving from initial formulation to the “improvisation” of the varying band members. To me there was hardly any difference between the creative process of writing and Jazz. Nor did I believe that the soul that poured into Jazz was somehow more powerful, more honest, more immediate, than what a writer poured into their work.
Geoff’s belief that writing was incapable of capturing the honesty of the human spirit, that in effect it had been dead on arrival, led me back to his claim that Jazz was also now dead. I would argue that the issue here isn’t that Jazz, and writing, are dead, but rather that people have stopped believing that they can be reincarnated. Hell, it was even stated during the seminar that somewhere along the lines, as an individual becomes smothered in recognition and leveled by age, the pioneering spirit becomes weary and cautious, and therefore what new horizons lie ahead are masked by the clouds of complacency and comfort. This was part of what made me so mad. For so long I had been searching for a means to use my writing to capture what was actually fermenting within me, to find a way to push writing beyond the point at which it stood and take it to new forms of expression, and to not only be told that writing was dead, but to be told that writing was never alive to begin with, incensed me.
I suppose I also found myself aflame because I suddenly knew how to verbalize what I had been feeling and wanting for so long. Through Geoff’s abject denouncement of the purity of writing via the lens of Jazz, I realized that I had the means to speak about what was burning within me. For the past few years I had been telling people that I wanted to capture movement through writing, an incredibly vague and meek attempt at describing what I felt writing could accomplish. And when I provided samples of attempts at this, at pure expressions of being, my supposed compatriots would simply give me horrified deer-in-the-headlights look. I felt demoralized, as if I was somehow not correctly aligned with the world and that what I was feeling was some form of dementia that I would have to learn to subdue. Even after arriving in New York City and beginning graduate classes the feeling lingered.
As I examined Geoff’s book, though, I realized that what I was feeling was mirrored beautifully, almost perfectly, in the stories of the Jazz players he brought to life. It didn’t make sense to me at first, at how I was apparently drawing a parallel between what these musicians experienced and what I yearned for, and then it hit me. But Beautiful isn’t at all about Jazz or the Black American experience, it’s about passion. It’s about the raw passion that drove all of those great Jazzmen to pick up their instruments and quite literally blow the wind out of their own sails. It’s about the nascent passion that burst forth in Geoff himself as he discovered their ecstasy and set him about writing his opus on Jazz. It was about the passion that kept me up until four in the morning mulling over a text because the author had tried telling me that writing couldn’t ever have any Jazz in it.
So this is where I end. I have been set afire by writing that has both paradoxically denounced itself and yet has helped breath new life into the essence of what it assumed was only true to Jazz. I truly hope this great irony is not lost on Geoff.