"Writing About Things That Can't Be Written About"
For me, when writing happens in a way that's real -- when it comes out in rich fluid gushes -- it's always the case I'm writing about things that can't be written about. It's not really writing that's happening, then, but something more.
It has less to do with putting words on the page than with connecting inside with something more amazing than I could possibly describe. I would drown there, save for words. I splash them frantically about like a shipwrecked sailor in a storm. I'm not a good writer. I can't swim in this. But a current arises out of nowhere. It takes me. I surrender. I flow in a direction not of my choosing. I wash up on a far shore, struggle somehow to my feet -- and stagger into a strange and beautiful land. "This is the place that was always my home!" I cry with tears of remembrance.
It doesn't make any sense I was ever away somewhere else. All that now seems like some strange dream that never had anything to do with me. If its story tells itself now, it tells itself very differently. It's as if I were somehow privy to the goings on of a world at the far end of the universe, conversant with the intimate details of the existence of some stranger so different from me as to be utterly unimaginable. All I can know for certain is that person is not me, is not by any means who I really am. And yet he walks around with my name and lives at my address. He is sleeping with my woman, working at my job.
Many years ago, when I was getting my doctorate at Columbia, I flew out to see about a possible postdoc opportunity in Berkeley. It was such a brief trip. I could only squeeze a few short days out of my busy New York life. Yet, after only a day or two walking the streets of Berkeley, meeting new young people, lunching in taco shops, marveling at the peculiarities of the local demography and flora -- I quite unexpectedly saw the life I would step back into upon returning to New York had nothing whatsoever to do with who I was or what I was really about. If I could choose, I realized I would choose not to go back. Yet I had to return.
It was only a matter of time after I got back to New York before that whole life I had been living dissolved completely away -- the marriage, the apartment, the profession -- like bubbly foam in a brisk sea breeze. It had no more hold on me because allowed outside it for the briefest instant, like a bird from a cage, I had stopped believing in it, ceased mistaking it for my reality. The illusion that it was that, had been the only thing holding me.
This was a major event in my life. It was years before the shock waves subsided. Such a big step! Now it happens to me many a morning when I get up and write. I go to a far shore. From there I come back -- just like I came back from Berkeley that time -- knowing, "It is not me -- this. I am something more. I am something else." Getting up from my computer on mornings like these I step into a life dissolving and reforming instant by instant. Sub-instant by sub-instant it re-constitutes itself wholly, utterly, completely. Once a week or once a month or once every six months something very special happens, something very magical, whereby everything in a sudden flood is washed with the most beauteous splendor. I am overwhelmed into the realization "This is me. This is what I really am."
I stand there empty-handed. My whole life dissolves sweetly away. I am visited with a new world. The same place: it's a new place. Everything shines in a different light.
What can I say of this far shore, my true home?
There is nothing I can say.
I can't go there to learn, except inasmuch as unlearning is a kind of learning. It would seem, however, that maybe unlearning is one of the higher and more difficult forms of learning.
I can't go there to get anything, except inasmuch as standing empty-handed is something to be sought after and attained. It would seem, though, that perhaps it is one of the highest attainments possible.
What can I bring back with me from this far shore?
Ah! There's that strange word again: "Nothing".
Don't be fooled by her appearances. She seems a ragged slut from the side streets of an Arab village but she's the virgin queen herself -- God's bride in the religious mythologies. Hers is the miracle of virgin birth. Nothing she is, and with nothing she works her magic. Hers is the cosmic fecundity of emptiness out of which the universe is born in its big bang flash. Hers is the instant immediately before the idea of his greatest novel comes to a writer. Not easy to achieve, her art, yet very easy to mistake. Don't think nothing is nothing. Nothing is a lot. To be able to come back clean -- that is everything! To know, to see with new eyes!
When I was a child in Cuba once I saw a peasant farmer, sweaty and weary of limb at the end of a hot and arduous day in the sun, stand by his oxen and rustic plow. He took a moment in the fading light to look out appreciatively over the newly bare expanse of rich black soil -- the field he'd spent all day plowing. It was ready now for planting. It was a good feeling he had.
The writer, too, can have this feeling. There comes a time -- because I did everything ass-backwards, for me it came after decades -- when a writer can know not to be afraid of the bare page and of the fact he has nothing to say; when he can know, in fact, that this is a beautiful moment of accomplishment for him. For when he reaches this point, like the farmer in the field, a large part of his work is behind him. I'm comfortable with it now. I welcome it. I can savor the dizzy depths of that bare emptiness because I've seen what issues forth from it.
More than we perhaps care to admit, we're taught creatures. So much that we are and know, we've been taught to be and know. I only signed up for one writing course in my life. I got up in the middle of it and walked out, never to return. I was afraid if I let myself be taught how to write I would end up learning what writing is -- learning something that in fact I somehow knew I needed to discover.
Now I realize, belatedly, I over-reacted and have wasted my best years wallowing in mistakes anybody could have warned me against. But maybe the flip side of this huge waste is that I've managed to come to writing in a way that's real. When I set out to be a biologist I had a passion for the biological sciences. By the time I earned my Ph.D. I never wanted to see another mitochondria; I couldn't care less about oxidative phosphorylation.
There are so many university writing programs all over the country now, so many talented writers who have read a lot of good books at a young age and end up with quite a proficiency at verbal expression. I never had that. When, at a very late age, I turned to writing it quickly became apparent I hadn't the least talent for it. And yet I was driven to it with the whole of my being. Why was this?
Why would a person who can't write, write? And write and write? Spend years, decades, writing things that he himself didn't even go back and read? I did this. Why? Why do people do crazy things like this? Why did Bodhidharma in China sit in a high remote mountain cave thousands of years ago staring unswervingly at the blank wall? Or Rumi off in Turkey, respected, honored even -- why would he give it all up to repair to the rooftop of his house and dance around and around in circles through the night crying out the name of God at the top of his lungs?
You begin to get the picture of what I am asking by the kinds of questions I pose. You begin to see what company I find myself in when I undertake to do what I have no talent for. You maybe get the drift that there is a different "take" we can get on this whole question.
When writing becomes real it isn't just writing anymore. Something else is at play.
When I get up to write some mornings there are only two or three words that come. I can tell...
That's all. Just two or three words, maybe a sentence. I can tell...
I have learned to be able to tell... I take those words, like Jesus did his loaves of bread, I can feed pages and pages with those words. I can write until the pages aren't hungry anymore. And then there is enough. Enough is enough. It's hard to believe, at the end of it, that all those filled pages came from just a few skimpy little words that popped up so innocently out of nowhere.
I don't send my words out on the street to turn tricks and bring me home money. No. It's not that kind of thing with me. It's so much more.
I set my words, like little birds, free so that they can carry me, these feathery friends -- back home.
I run with my words, like big wolves, across the barren page, until there is a whole pack of them all around me. Their teeth are sharp. They draw blood -- my own. To my surprise and amazement I find myself feeding alongside them, tearing at something that never was what I am, drawing nourishment somehow by pulling down a lie, turning it to good use.
I play with my words, like a child doing something he shouldn't. I fashion a makeshift raft of them. It takes me far out to sea. I reach a spot where the forces are too great, the waves too high, and the storms too fierce. My vessel goes crashing onto the rocks. I crawl upon that alien shore. Beyond words. A place where there is no language.
Writing doesn't have to do with words. It's not about language. These are the shadow effects of what's going on. For me it's always been about freedom. So that when I come into language again, mine will be a language that breaks chains. When I speak words once more, they will be true. I will have been to the place that makes this possible.
In this endeavor, it's not just myself I set free. What the books I've read have done for me -- I can do for others. That's what's so beautiful to me about writing. That's why I love it so much.