This post isn’t instructive in any useful sense. It’s a painful confession. Perhaps others struggle with some of these issues. Perhaps not.
In the beginning was the Word. Inspiration has to do with the In breath. Speech and writing deal with the Out breath. Writing is breathing.
It occurs to me as I read through Bret Anthony Johnson’s Naming the World and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer that I have skimmed over the surface of my life and writing, like a water spider, never dipping below anything. The exercises suggest things like meticulously describing a person who is vivid to me or interviewing a character or listing shameful experiences ( shame is something we avoidants hold within us like a tight spring) that I’ve had, or the most significant experience, etc. As I sit here staring out the window at the quince bushes and grape vines I find I can’t muster a single emotion, and the memories of people, places, and things are foggy at best. I’ve forgotten everything. It’s a type of self-protective amnesia. I hold my breath; I live on an existential intake of breath. My life and notebooks bulge with the in breath of experience–mine and other people’s. But I’m missing the other half of my life, the out-breath.
Bruce Robinson’s The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman is flawed, but incredibly bold and colorful. I find myself editing pages as I read, but it’s addictive at the same time. Something is going on here. It must have to do with a writer’s strengths and weaknesses, but the weaknesses do not prevent him from writing anyway. With only in breath one feels defeated before one begins. Is it that I sense my life is a fake? Is it that I don’t take anything seriously? Is it that I’m afraid to explore my feelings? If so, why is that? Until one can expose oneself to oneself on the page, one will never amount to much as a writer. What is there inside to expose?
The quince bushes have hundreds of thousands leaves. Some hang out in the bright sun, others are in shadow, and others recede into hiding so that I can’t see them at all, even though I know they are there because a bush doesn’t have leaves just on one side of itself. My emotions and memories are like that. But I only see the bright leaves that are obvious, the ones lit up and visible. This is how I write stories, too. I stay on the surface. I try to be clever to hide my lack of confidence, to hide my suspended trauma, grief, loss, shame, whatever. How do I release the surface tension of my deeper self? What am I afraid of? Is it fear or is it laziness?
I come across passages in fiction that take my breath away. Why do they do that? How do they do that? Is it the beauty of the language? Is it the suffering that I recognize, the universal commonality? I ache to get over my own superficiality, my own unwillingness to dig. Why that unwillingness? Am I in such a hurry? Where is it I have to go? I will be going soon enough. My images are abstract, esoteric, complicated. This is a sign of a novice writer. Accomplished writing reveals truth in concrete terms, in easy language, one sentence after the other, like life, like taking a walk along a simple path to an inevitable yet unpredictable destination.
No. I hide behind complication. I’m afraid of simplicity because it is so difficult for my mind to achieve, to uncover my own vulnerable humanity, which is, as any writer knows, universal. I long to step over myself, this hurdle that hides behind wit and cleverness, that does hat tricks instead of reaching toward the writing of good prose. When I’m skimming the surface I tell myself things like my age is against me, when another part of me knows that the soul is ageless. And writing is the out breath of soul.
I live in a nation that has lost its soul, so out of survival I hold my own close to me. It holds secrets in safekeeping about nature and wonder and eternity. I can access these secrets in my writing if I allow myself to do so. But this “holding” is also holding the breath. How does one access those parts of herself that have gone into hiding? What has caused them to hide? Where are they? How does one access them?
I think this is what is meant by taking risks on the page. Stylistic risks, yes, but also risks of personal discovery and exposure. What, then, is the screwdriver that will pry the lid off one’s emotions so they spill onto the page, so that one can write them simply and truthfully?
The act of writing a simple description–of a room, the light, a person one knows, a neighborhood, a feeling–is next to impossible to do without riding the out breath. Is this inability from a lack of confidence? Is it laziness? Is it always being in too much of a hurry to slow down, another act of avoidance? I believe it’s good to practice sitting down somewhere and describing what one observes through all one’s senses. Just practice, without the pressure of creating a story or anything else. Forget the self and its awkward take on life, forget the attack of one’s thoughts. Just take what the eyes, ears, nose, skin, tongue experience and write them out onto the page, transcribe them into language somehow as vividly as possible, yet without the use of adjectives and adverbs. Nouns and verbs, nouns and verbs. Simple, declarative sentences. Simple as breathing in and out.