Further Thoughts on Writing and Artistic Integrity

July 2008 was a prolific time apparently. Which is a little strange because most of what I remember from that summer involves a lot of partying, having people over till 3am on a nightly basis, rolling out of bed at 11am to go to work and then getting drunk after work and starting the cycle all over again. Oh yeah and listening to “Electric Feel” by MGMT. But apparently, I found time to blog amid all that debauchery. Who knew?

Anyway, here’s the old post:

So in my last post, KaliDurga gave this link, “Writing is in my blood…”.

And in that article, I found this little gem:

“One also writes as a spiritual practice and a mode of self-discovery. One writes in order to see. One writes in order to remember. Writing is like a sixth sense used to apprehend a reality not detected by the other five. It is the memory-sense, or the feeling-sense, the organ through which we make known to each other a rich world not otherwise knowable. It is also the medium through which we make known history and the soul of our culture. It keeps something alive that otherwise might die.”

cover_issue_354I whole-heartedly agree here. I’m immediately reminded of my favorite story I’ve ever read in The Sun, of all the years of reading the magazine. I dug up the issue so I could quote it. The story is called “The View From Here” by Mithran Somasundrum. It starts like this:

“I was born in the house my father built, a wooden house of two stories with broad eaves. There was an avocado tree in the front garden, and from my bedroom window at night its ragged black branches seemed to reach for the moon…”

It then chronicles the story of a woman growing up and living amidst the racial fighting of the Hutus and Tutsis, and an escape at night to another town, far away, and tiny government housing. And it’s also the story of changing times – the granddaughter ends up singing songs in a different language, and it’s almost like history or tradition evaporating. And then the story ends with this:

“This, then, is my life: the box room and the market and the stairs that hurt my knees and my granddaughter singing strange songs. But I was born in the house my father built. It had broad eaves and an avocado tree in the front garden, and in the mornings you could see to the opposite side of the valley. After I am gone, who will remember these things?”

That ending always makes me tear up. It’s true. For everyone. I mean, our lives are so individual that we live things that will never be lived again, especially in our rapidly changing world. I am a lover of memory, so things like this compel me to want to write, to capture, to re-enter and re-experience moments, places, periods, feelings. And sometimes it’s hard to get there consciously, but in writing, there really is another dimension.

One time I wanted to write about the two weeks I spent at summer camp when I was 14. I was inspired by a woman in my writing group who wrote about a summer camp experience. It was an intense two weeks, especially because a girl in my cabin and three other kids ran away and went missing (and were later found lost in the woods). In preparing to write about it, I was bothered because I couldn’t remember how I had found out about them missing. I was actually going to make something up, just pulling together other memories from that summer, and other things we did that day, and using probable circumstances, but it bugged me. I’m sort of a stickler for accuracy and I usually have an excellent memory. But it just escaped me. So I went on writing and suddenly, as I was about to write the probable scene, it all came back. I remembered we were having a free swim. I remembered where I was in the pool. I remembered the staffperson who came up to me and exactly how she asked me if I knew where my friend might go if she wanted to get away. I don’t think if I sat there for days and days trying to conjure the memory, that I would have. I think there is some magic in writing and reliving something, because some part of me really was re-inhabiting that experience on some level. Call it accessing the unconscious or what you will, there’s something to it.

So that quote really spoke to me. I also remember a writer friend saying that sometimes she’s more herself in her writing than she is anywhere else, and I think there’s something to that too. It’s that sixth sense part of it all, the way all the different layers coexist without contradiction.

The weird thing is, for all my feeling excited about life and back to myself and all that jazz, I haven’t really been writing lately. It bothers me. I know it has something to do with fear – sometimes writing takes me into some pretty dark territory.

And the weird thing is, I love that. Sometimes the dark and the intense and the writing that is packed with feeling, even if it’s not the most pleasant, is the richest. The writing where I dig deepest into the recesses of memory and forgotten, forlorn territory, enter the abysses of existence or dredge up the most secret things I would almost never dare to say, is the most satisfying. Afterward, of course, there is catharsis, and insight. And I almost always find humor in the strangest places. It’s really weird actually. Awhile ago, I was going to write about Mr. O – which from reading this blog anyone could see was a really miserable experience for me. I have been very afraid to even go near the topic in writing, because it was such prolonged and profound unhappiness. So one day I went back and read some stuff I had written on the subject. I thought if anything it would make me sad or mad at myself, but instead, rereading, I was in hysterics, finding so many funny things. I NEVER would have expected that. Another time, at the artist residency back in March (which was a week of laughing so hard I cried at least once a day), I was again writing about something really difficult, something I thought might be good to exorcise from my system and get on paper, something I expected to be joyless, and again in writing, I was remembering things I had totally forgotten, and I was laughing. So it’s like, writing is always good in that way, always release, and usually has me L O L.

But it’s not only afterwards, it’s also during the actual writing. I can remember a few winters ago, the winter I lived in the dispensary, sitting in the living room by myself, writing the most difficult thing I’ve ever written (as of yet). I went into some territory that was so taboo to me that for years I hadn’t even let myself think about it. It took hours to write this piece. Some of it made me cry. But it also made me laugh at parts, and feel compassion and perspective, and it felt really good to write it, even during the worst parts.

And still, still, the idea of writing scares me. And I avoid it. And then I get frustrated with myself for avoiding it and feel vaguely dissatisfied and irritable because writing is sort of like my version of meditation – it centers me. Even knowing that intellectually and certainly, and thoroughly believing that though it’s difficult sometimes, it’s always worthwhile, and that sometimes the difficult things are the most worthwhile, it doesn’t always get me over the hurdle of fear. It’s easy to get in the habit of not writing. Sitting my ass in the chair with pen and paper really is the biggest challenge. If I can do that, I’m fine. I think that I want to get back in the habit of doing it anyway, even though it scares me. Reading all these writing quotes and ruminating on them has definitely stirred me up. And really, what is life if you don’t do what scares you? I’m contemplating some bigger, scarier things in life, so I might as well get in practice with the daily stuff.

I think I’m going to go write.

Currently Listening:
“Hurt You” – The Sounds – great song that a friend just put on my computer, kind of addicting. Here’s a great line from the song, “Should we start over or should I leave you behind/Give me an answer but please don’t tell me the truth.” LOL.

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5 thoughts on “Further Thoughts on Writing and Artistic Integrity

  1. Grab life by the balls. Cuz you only go through this particular one once. At least that’s my philosophy, although I also feel scared at times. Not so much of writing, but of other things – like those darn query letters!You are so much braver than you think. Really. Peace, Linda

  2. I definitely agree with Richard Feynman’s idea that the best way to make sure you understand an idea is to try to write an explanation of it for someone else.

    Re everything we experience being something that will only be lived once, I’ve always thought of the consciousness of every sentient being — even a cat — as a map of the universe with itself at the center. That’s why every death is a tragedy. The overwhelming majority of human consciousness will never be reduced to a verbal formula and conveyed to others — it will turn to dust in the skulls of those who possessed it. And the experiences of almost every human being who ever lived was reduced entirely to such dust, without ever leaving a record.

    • I didn’t know that Feynman said that, but it’s a principle I see play out everyday at my job. The students learn a lot more if they can explain it to me, or to each other, as opposed to just absorbing what I say to them. And writing it might be even better.

      I really like what you wrote here. And I think a lot about how often it’s not just lives that are destroyed in wars but also the cultural things that people have left behind, their accounts of life on earth in that time and place, and what a loss that is because it’s not just lives that are being lost but also stories.

      I’m reminded of what a great friend and mentor used to say. She always told this story about how Robert Redford went to some filmmakers conference or some such and told everyone (paraphrasing), “The world as we know it is dying. It’s your job to capture it as it goes.” I probably totally botched the quote but hopefully not the point he was trying to make.

      ~EJ

  3. That quote captures it perfectly, I think. I remember when my old tomcat was still alive (he was too old to be allowed outside the yard, but also too arthritic to climb the fence), I’d watch him go outside and think about how bright and amazing his little world must seem to him, with him at the center of it. I’d also envy him the fact that he probably had no sense of his own mortality, or of there being a time before he existed. And then I’d feel grief that he was so old, and that little map of the universe in his head with himself at the center would soon be extinguished.

    I found a quote from Robinson’s “Mars Trilogy” that sort of captures what I was getting at:

    “Without an observer at a twenty-three degree angle to the light reflecting off a cloud of spherical droplets, there is no rainbow. The whole universe is like that. Our spirits stand at a twenty-three degree angle to the universe. There is some new thing created at the contact of photon and retina, some space created between rock and mind. Without mind there is no intrinsic worth…. [I]t’s glorious, it truly is. But that glory is in our minds.”

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