Sunday, August 19, 2012

We Are All Afraid

Nina Bricko's first post shows how much we have in common--writers and editors, young writers and old ones, people at the beginning of their work and people approaching the end, a little inch closer every day.  If you scratch me, do I not bleed? If you scratch me, do I not show myself to be about nine years old, scared and shy?  If you scratch me, do I not reveal myself by trembling ?  What will people think of me, if I do post what I've foolishly spent several hours writing, because these really are the things I've been reading and thinking about?  Is she pompous?  Is she foolish?  Is she too set in her ways of being to write a simple casual post on a blog?  Writing exposes who we are.  Even if we write from behind a mask, the presence of the mask reveals us.  No wonder we need a cozy, warm place like Eleanora's futon.  No wonder we fill a portmanteau like Ron Koertge's first chapter or first stanza, in case we need supplies out there in the wilderness.
Here goes, a cannonball into the cold water; what I've been reading and thinking:
A few weeks ago, I mentioned to a young male writer that I wished more young male writers would choose to work with me, because I like them.  “Guys don't want to think about their feelings,” he said.  Later, talking about this true statement, another young male writer friend said, “All our lives, we're taught not to think about our feelings.” Or talk about them, maybe. Or write about them.

                              Photograph: B. Gaye
What is writing fiction, poetry, or non-fiction, however, but the expression of thought and feeling? How can we express a feeling if we don't know what it is? As E.M. Forster said in his 1927 series of lectures, published as Aspects of the Novel, “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” We learn what we think and feel by listening to what we say and write.  We discover what we want to say by saying it. In the very act of expression, we learn what we want to express. 
 This theory of writing is one way of stating the Mind/Body Problem, the slippery paradox that has bedeviled people for centuries. How can the mind reflect on the brain that is both the mind's dwelling place and the seed bed in which thoughts and feelings originate? Does a writer, striving to express emotion, depend on reason? Which precedes the other, the chicken or the egg, the phoenix or the fire?  Where does reasoning come in? 
I think that the writing process is an incessant quicksilver shifting from one instantaneous mode to another, from thought to emotion to reason to feeling. We can't pin down this mysterious, dynamic, fluid process long enough to explore it deeply enough to speak about it clearly enough in words. As soon as we circumscribe the process by means of words, we have caught the firefly in a bottle and made it other than the free spirit it is.
Joy Williams gets at this slipperiness in her book of essays, Ill Nature. Most of these essays express the writer's bitter rage about humanity's depredations  and do so with great hilarity. Even as Williams charges me, her reader, with destroying the fertile earth, saddling me with guilt, I am laughing out loud, because the manner of her accusations is so funny. In the final essay, though, “Why I Write,” she offers only paradoxes about the nature of her work and its oily elusiveness, how impossible it is to catch lightning (as well as the lightning bug) in the bottle of words and to rationally understand what the bottle contains.  Williams's  book ends with this paragraph: “Why does the writer write? The writer writes to serve—hopelessly he writes in the hope that he might serve—not himself and not others, but that great cold elemental grace that knows us.”

We need all the help we can get. One thing that will help me in the future is Ron Koertge's invitation a couple of pieces back—Tell us about a time when you saw through your parents.  He writes about the time when his mother's outrage about the unfairness of a TV wrestling match revealed to him that she believed the match was genuine, just as she believed in the factual truth of what she heard at church. From then on, he writes, it was all wrestling to him.
Ron says he always wanted to slip this incident into his fiction, but never found a way. The emotional knowledge of the incident, though, is rock solid, down there in his mile-deep foundations.  It shows up everywhere in his work, in his scepticism and humor and irreverence. We need all the help we can get, and writing our memories of childhood is one source of help. Not that we will ever use these memories, literal and untransformed. We write our memories for the drawer.  They provide us with little glimpses, a little way farther, beyond the pool of light that falls from our window, into the dark.

In the July 30 issue of The New Yorker, editor David Remnick published his own essay, “We Are Alive,” a Profile of Bruce Springsteen at the age of sixty-two. Remnick remembers Springsteen in the 'seventies, standing on the apron of the stage, telling his audience stories about where he came from: his raging, depressed, alcoholic, abusive father, who came home broken from World War Two; the home place in Freehold, New Jersey that Springsteen had to escape.
After all these years onstage,” Remnick writes, “he can stand back from his performances with an analytic remove. 'You’re the shaman, a little bit, you’re leading the congregation,' he told me. 'But you are the same as everybody else in the sense that your troubles are the same, your problems are the same, you’ve got your blessings, you’ve got your sins, you’ve got the things you can do well, you’ve got the things you fuck up all the time. And so you’re a conduit. There was a series of elements in your life—some that were blessings, and some that were just chaotic curses—that set fire to you in a certain way.'”
As Remnick talked to Springsteen, he concluded that Springsteen's “ anything but past. 'My parents’ struggles, it’s the subject of my life,' Springsteen told me at rehearsal. 'It’s the thing that eats at me and always will. My life took a very different course, but my life is an anomaly. Those wounds stay with you, and you turn them into a language and a purpose.' Gesturing toward the band onstage, he said, 'We’re repairmen—repairmen with a toolbox. If I repair a little of myself, I’ll repair a little of you. That’s the job.' The songs of escape on 'Born to Run,' the portrait of post-industrial struggle on “Darkness on the Edge of Town' were part of that job of early repair.”

                                     Cover: Albert Watson

Those stories told from the apron of the stage...One reason that Springsteen's audience love him, I think, is his willingness to expose his vulnerable underbelly.  The musician has a lot to say to the writer, or any other artist. All artists are “the shaman, a little bit.” We make our art, as The Crane Wife made her cloth, of feathers plucked from our own bodies. All we have to go on is our selves and our experience: our troubles, our problems, our blessings, our sins, our things we do well, our things we fuck up all the time, our blessings, our chaotic curses.
In order to do our job, writers, like Springsteen, have to remember where we came from and where we have gone in order to see where we are going. We understand what we think and feel by seeing what we say. We serve that great cold elemental grace that knows us. We redeem ourselves and make art by doing so.


  1. Ah, Jane...I knew this was you before I ever got to the bottom of the screen. Thanks...thanks...thanks...for taking the time to think this, for taking the time to share it.



  2. "All we have to go on is our selves and our experience: our troubles, our problems, our blessings, our sins, our things we do well, our things we fuck up all the time, our blessings, our chaotic curses.
    In order to do our job, writers, like Springsteen, have to remember where we came from and where we have gone in order to see where we are going. We understand what we think and feel by seeing what we say."

    Oh Jane, this resonates for me. I've read and reread these last few lines and am reminded of how I've been so fortunate. I'm not saying I've lead a blessed life, but I've had and continue to have a life of experiences. I often find myself envious of others who had taken their writing to a serious and professional level earlier in their lives. My terrible thoughts leading me to believe that I would be so much further in my journey if I had come to this awakening earlier. The truth is that I needed to live and gain these memories in order to enter this writing life. That my journey, as other writers journeys, are an important part of what and how they write. A little while ago I was a part of a writing group with a man that was 85 years old and was writing his first novel. What a world of memories for him to pull from!

    Thank you for these beautiful reminders. The devils voice poisoning my confidence has been quieted for the moment.

  3. Jane, we've never met--you left the Vermont College faculty before I joined--but reading your words here I can see why the echoes of your thinking linger in the mind of every student whose life you've touched. What a moving, truthful post this is! Thank you.

    1. Dear Uma,

      Thank you so much for your generous reply to my essay. I hear such warm regard toward you from VC students, long since and recently enrolled. They say what a warm presence you are and how wise and insightful your reading of their work is. I'm grateful that you were there to help bail out the program when some of us couldn't work there anymore and am glad that it's thriving.

      To touch one another, even from afar, is a pleasure.

      Yours, Jane