Musings on Writing

In lieu of posting multiple smaller entries, I’ve decided to gather on one page some of the miscellaneous musings on writing that I’ve written in the last few years. These are all very occasional pieces, sometimes quite divergent in argument and aim. None of them are really what you would call “practical,” but hopefully they offer fruit for meditation nonetheless. I’ll try to update this page when new material on the topic is produced. Note that at the bottom I’ve collected links to other writings on this site which deal more or less directly with the question of writing. Thanks for reading.

Writing is like giving birth: we cannot help making the supreme effort. But this applies to our actions in the same way. I need have no fear of not making the supreme effort―provided only that I am honest with myself and that I pay attention. ―Simone Weil

I. An Idiot for Miracles (March 21, 2017)

Writing is like spreading out into nothingness a clear, invisible, paint-like substance that upon contact with meter cools immediately, coagulating into a softbound clay image that foils meaning, or a thought-marble that harbors the bounteous silhouette of a dream. At this resistant block, you have no choice but to chisel, for it is raw and rough and an idiot for miracles. But with every stroke of your hammer, every chunk of material discarded, the strings of a cello glimmer out into the foreground, and the light vibrations so seduce you into passage that you must halt everything and paint what you hear.

II. Scripts of the Possible (September 20, 2013)

The one who writes is not he, but the one who dreams. The truth of it’s not his, but the truth of those who dream with him. Writing’s not written from the position of an actual being, but from the position of being’s possibility―the possibility of dreaming and speaking in anyone. It’s not someone’s, but anybody’s. Such is why the one who writes is never “one,” but many. Which is why anyone might hear him. No voice, no language is possible without this intermingling of the multiple in the same. And if these dreams mean anything, it’s because some multiple one dreams in them. To read them is for that multitude to be read. Singularity comes from this: that inside our words, inside our being, others are given a chance to dream and be also―to dream up their own possibility, their own speech.

Always more than ourselves, we’re equal only to the dream of we all―to this possibility of “all,” the possibility of saying “we.” Thinking’s heart beats only for this, and it’s how we dream this “we” that defines our uniqueness, makes each of us an absolute. To carry this dream―of being, of being ourselves, of being us―to the threshold of consciousness, where we touch one another without being fused, without exhausting our possibility in anything actual: this is what the dreaming writer will have always tried to do. This is what the dreaming multitude will have always been dreaming up in you.

III. Questioning Sense (April 2, 2016)

One is barely within their human rights to question the need to “make sense” and develop a discourse that can be followed by reason, that credits argumentative structures, deduction, persuasion, is grounded in facts, or in past or present referents in reality, etc. These are the rules that stand up in court; if you can’t follow them, you are either mad or in contempt. But the courtroom in this sense is everywhere and we are all bailiffs.

This is a philosophical requirement as much as it is political. Its pass-codes are: linearity, progression, intro-substance-conclusion, proper sentence structure, grammar, spelling, etc. Narrative also usually adheres to these basics. They can be faked and manipulated a million ways around true and false, but without them, true and false make little sense. Nietzsche put this in its extreme form: “I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.” (Ultimately, what is at stake is the problem of personhood and the position of the “I,” which Nietzsche also understood but hardly escaped.)

Efforts to break these rules is called “experimentation.” Such attempts, however, are often neutralized under this label. They are relegated to poetry or art, if only because these are the only spheres in which they’re accepted as and recognized to be “consumable”; otherwise, it is feared, they will never even have a chance.

All the same, it then seems to be a futile act. When viewed as mere poetry, it is already neutralized politically: it is child’s play, frivolous, unserious in comparison to pressing issues and their debate. It even appears undemocratic, hermetic, self-satisfied. At best, one is forced to develop a poetics, a theory made to explain, according to the same old basic rules of explanation, what the experiment was all about. Grounds for testing must stand up in court; and if the poets don’t do it, readers and interpreters and scholars are bound to come after them and suture the wound and make sense of what might otherwise have been an unlimited and unstoppable breakthrough (and which made the work so alluring and worth reading in the first place). In this way, the politics of the argument is never really escaped, even in relation to that which, in its moment of creation, really did escape it. Call this the doom of rational rebound.

Worse for the creator, an experiment itself is tamed if ever the theory is somehow taken to be “behind it,” rather than “following after it.” Then the theory―the strategy, the poetics, etc.―takes precedence over the experimentation itself. Even to call it an “experiment” puts it in a dependent, secondary status in relation to “normal” discourse, which reasserts its power through this very way of framing it as something strange, anomalous, unorthodox― a framing that it is almost impossible for anyone to “really escape” for good.

Even here, I am making a coherent statement and make the problem plain. But what a pain it is to come back from the lab! However, leaving aside the fact that one would otherwise risk ostracism and institutionalization, it is also politically necessary to come to terms with the “rational rebound,” and with it the ordered world we know through sane sentences―not so that the experiment can be better understood or shown in its “true light,” but so that the argumentative structure show itself and admit, in its own language, its limitation, arbitrariness, even its violence. It is what is superfluous in relation to the elation of the “nonsensical” startburst!

The “natural” modes of discourse and of the sentence are not, in sum, natural. They are not eternal. They are linked to an order of social relations and to the enforcement of those relations through the subtlest modes of law and order, influencing all our mental processes or at least those geared toward “publicity.” But ultimately, they establish the hegemony of a power structure, explaining away whatever diverges if not forcefully controlling it. That we can barely imagine a different mode is telling of the extent to which this structure dominates all human intercourse. To break it requires the vigilance of a constant experimentation and an attempt to express it in a rational discourse beyond reason, to break the machine of grammar-power from within.

IV. Messiah Ink (January 14, 2015)

Thought gives up its record, gives up its tune, turns back outward to turn back to you, leaving behind the thematic analysis of its outlooks and hopes for another truth, for a rhythmanalysis of this time and its next, outside of intention and against it, abandoned to its fate however scandalous, an analysis not of poetry nor of daily life, no longer scanning the outworn normal seasons, but a rhythm interrupted and leavened by this hold, yours, held suspended by you presently bubbling up in it to engorge, by the other that you buried in its presence, arriving before its invitation and recognition as a present, originary tributary of the other in me: “who?” that then bubbles up and sings out blurts, cries out to reach what the other’s reach first made possible by you: syncopation of self in the beat of you-beat-me-to-it, just like you always did and would; a pause become aware of itself as pause; love’s idea lost in being loved; saved appearances seen through in the dissipation of what appears to be true; everything cherished evaporating in dark laughter, irreparably, this faith in you, to you; this heart you hear and heard changing guard off-guard, lifetime account instant account of a life lost; last light shining right now here so unclearly, so unstilly (however, there will be more, you can bet on it, just as there had been some more before it too, just as I had come on unexpectedly like an ant’s roar in a mobile tomb), and so I was so worried about it too, so worried finally by all of it for you, by the presence of you in this communication I couldn’t count up to or match, scribbled as it is on the bent corners of these unreshapable notebooks no one could have ever retrieved, because always vanishing instantly, knowing, no, never knowing that, but acknowledging that the present began anthologized without effort, beyond human measure, archived in all its verbrannten Traurigkeit, no matter how unsaddened and refreshed by listening gestures, passing the unsightable underneath, the unfounded sightings in the gory and ghastly growing forlorn ether―for now the “shock,” now the interruption of that too-close-to-time event, that word from on high dragging to wound-fester, again and again, that now no longer comes in typical waves; that now is the constant coming of a beauty of ruins not one of us will ever taste or hear, because too real, because no one’s: the future’s ours because we’re absent from it, “the present’s a memory for the future,” spell it out just like that, a last truth leaving everything open, opening everything to let everything open open, as a first last real, as the first last one, as the only thing I’d ever have to share with you as me, as the only thing I am and in your heart could ever feel.

V. Found Lost (May 27, 2017)

In writing and trying to think, one is essentially in a position to do or say what one could not, or would not, have ever done or said oneself. In every case it is a self-exceeding, self-forgetting practice, because one participates then in a space-time that is not just one’s own, because it is aspiring to reach all humanity, precisely in each person’s capacity to think in excess of themselves too. There is a momentum to this work, like swimming with the flow of a mighty river; and when it is “working” there is no denying the magic of this flow. It carries one away absolutely—and one would be a fool to think one ever powers the current oneself, even if the entire time one must push for the work to go.

But there are times, too, when it seems like the current has stopped—like all humanity could give up on itself, stagnate and tire out, too injured or too ignorant to flow on. Then one feels oneself to be absolutely inadequate to even the least undertaken work. Not a word will budge, and none of the thoughts started make an ounce of sense. This forces upon us the dreadful moment of self-reflection, where we feel the great heaviness of the world in all its violent inertia and indifference. And so we feel frozen ourselves—as if time could stop, and so hope whither. The paradox is that one feels one must restart the whole current oneself, do the impossible against so many resistances; at the same time, one knows that the “ease” of writing and thought only grants itself, that nothing can be forced, that humanity’s inspiration to surpass itself must come from elsewhere, lest it contradict itself. This is a paralysis that, as Kafka would remind us, only patience can overcome. But what is paralysis, in this case, if not the impossibility of being patient—the incapacity or unwillingness to wait for the current to restart (us)?

But maybe it is then that thought and humanity reach for their true resource: to start over as if no one had ever tread a word, not even oneself. That point of genesis comes to transfigure even the worst pain of inertia. It is to remember, against the summary judgments of history, that the “giant leap” is there only in the “small step”—meaning there’s no need for giant leaps at all, no honesty in them. Or at least nothing that doesn’t risk crashing back upon the inertia it would repress with false triumph. The small step, on the contrary, realizes it must reckon with a kind of absolute inertia at every step. Which raises the question, not to be answered, if the current’s flow or the dreaded pause is truer—ease or impasse, inspiration or block? Perhaps a humanity that saw the indivision between these two would get farthest, knowing that in getting there it got nowhere, found lost.

“Writing”

VI. Overdoing It (April 29, 2016)

Exaggeration. Is it avoidable? I tend to doubt it… Of course, leaving it open like that isn’t nearly as fun as saying: “It would be impossible to think without passing through an exaggeration or two,” or , “To philosophize is invariably to exaggerate.” Such hyperbole has its merits, so long as the exaggerations don’t pretend to be conclusive. One can play at undoing them endlessly (something like writing), for the sake of constantly upping the ante (something like thinking).

One of the hardest things in writing (yes, I almost said “the hardest thing” but added “one of the,” so as not to exaggerate too much) is to loosen the grip of these automatic phrasings that come up simply because we’re struggling to put an idea to paper. Think of filler words like “precisely”: who could verify it was ever not an exaggeration? How often we write this word only because we ourselves, in the moment of writing it, precised our own idea!

Most of this can probably be traced back to our need to convince ourselves that what we’re doing is worth doing and we’re not a total idiot, a concern almost immediately fused and confused with another, namely, to write the other a convincing and relevant text that won’t make us look like a total idiot to them (in this regard, I recommend we all be a bit more suspicious). Exaggerations are there to convince both parties: they get the blood flowing and kick-start the mind into critical action. Of course, they can also induce aversion and animosity in a reader if the exaggeration seems overindulgent, though this reaction too can be exaggerated. Which again raises the question: could we ever form a question without exaggerating? Isn’t every poetic word, every call to revolution, every promise, in some way an exaggeration? Or am I just exaggerating?

“Rhetoric”―everything having to do with the unrolling presentation of a text (a string of gathered exaggerations?)―asserts its primacy over truth-claims, not only to mislead or run in circles like a sophist, but out of an aesthetic concern to be appealing or “ingenious” that is directly connected to a political concern to not be ignored by everyone and have all one’s work go to waste. It is in no way at odds with the deepest thinking, which in fact probably requires it. One could find many testimonies on this point. One can only really discover what’s at stake in the matter in the moving draft of its presentation. (At what point does emphasis become exaggeration? Who gets to decide that, reason or passion?)

In sum, exaggeration wards off and transforms boredom with ourselves, what we’re doing, and our own ideas (but it’s not the only thing that does: that would be an exaggeration), which is the best thing that can be said in its defense (it’s justified the work of many a philosopher). If only the consequences weren’t so horrifying when exaggeration tactics fell into the wrong hands (“Boredom is the root of all evil,” exaggerated Kierkegaard). But whose hands are the right ones (for all these exaggerations to fall into)? Study shows…

VII. Breaking the Spell (May 31, 2016)

It is regrettable how many writers relish in gestures of appreciation, admiration, and praise of their work, preferring and approving this over efforts to engage with the work and the ideas it deals with in a “critical” or demanding way.

Whenever such efforts are dismissed or ignored, I’m left wondering if the ideas and their consequences are not actually so important to them, at least not in comparison to the continued production of successful works and the enjoyment of the attention and benefit they bring. Though rarely acknowledged, it is obvious that productive activity can serve any kind of social purpose and need not have any substantive link to thinking to be effective. One even suspects that the latter is best achieved by excluding it. This is perhaps inevitable in a world where producing the signs of production is more important than actually producing anything. In the battle between signs of thinking and thought, signs will always win out, because we need reassurance that our activity is meaningful. This concern, while irreducible, should never be considered sufficient. The thinker’s duty is to doubt the signs and refuse to rely in any way on any indication from the other that the signs produced are meaningful.

Where careers, personal fates and popularity are so bound up with succeeding in this affair, perhaps it’s not surprising that thought cedes its place to effectiveness of one sort or another. This includes all the multifarious forms of ingratiating behavior, ranking, networking, and so on. At the level of content, thought gets caught up in social maneuvering, ideological pandering, code wars, proofs of erudition, revolt or cleverness, contests in effusiveness or vitriol or formal elegance. On the other side, a culture of celebration is set up in which any criticism is taken as an unfriendly and unwelcome attacks, especially among friends. When such is the mixture, it is no surprise that one shies away from thinking when the moment for it comes; or one relies on references to things they have already said, as if these were magic formulas (judging by the general reception, they often work that way).

But charisma is not, in the long run, a reliable sign of relevance. Appeal does not necessarily gauge depth.

One would have thought that the thing to be most preferred and encouraged was the challenge, at least if it came in a serious way and made an encounter possible. One would have thought that the thing to be most skeptical of in these matters was endorsement and accolade, which always leave open the chance that some social strategy or manipulation is at play. That the favor shown is innocent or honest or grounded in love does not change the fact that it may be “persuaded” or under a spell. Close relations increase the risk of poor appraisal, though they don’t have to. The thinker must guard against even the most valuable association for this reason: the spell of attraction is not the right condition for thinking, for it always risks being muddied by worldly affinities. Thought ultimately thrives only in a democracy of strangers, in works that make us stranger to ourselves.

Unfortunately, it is often believed that casting spells and hypnotizing the audience is the very purpose of the work, the best outcome to be hoped for. It bears repeating that success in this regard is no guarantee of credibility. Before everyone else, it is the writer who must remember this, for the danger of the spell—susceptibility to mask, lie, exaggerate, beguile, work hastily, impatiently, without care, over-enthused, slipping into dreams of future influence, importance, reputation, in thrall to giddy delusions—begins right then, when one hypnotizes oneself and starts to write.

VIII. No-one Superior (August 1, 2017)

People who use their expertise to elevate themselves above others and make themselves out to be the enlightened one utterly misunderstand intelligence and do a gross disservice to thinking. We don’t even need to get to the moral objection, that lording one’s smarts over another in a condescending way is the rude behavior of a haughty asshole. The primary objection pertains to the nature of thinking as a generic and common activity, as indifferent to the “status” of the thinking subject.

The error of the snob is to believe that their smarts are rooted in their own cognitive capacity, special ability, unique experience or knowledge base. Then, when they know more or think they know more, it becomes evidence of their superiority or comparative advancement; and if someone else does not demonstrate, according to them, the same level of thought, it becomes evidence of their inferiority—which quickly becomes an argument for treating them nastily, like a subhuman.

We see often enough where the battle of capacities leads: to a divisive and vain war of insults. But once intelligence is seen as being radically without ownership, without location in a specialized brain, then this battle of capacities, this jostling in the social hierarchy, is over and must end. Cognitive and creative effort instead shifts to making things intelligible generically. The audience is always no-one/everyone, never a specific person or subset of the population. One starts from an egalitarian maxim on the equality of intelligences, the equality among humans to think now. [On this topic of equality, see also: On a Community of Equals, Beginnings Began Begun, and Avian Stripes]

The objection to the know-it-all, the snide interjectionist, isn’t only moral, it is political: they set back all by assuming irreconcilable divides between humans, instead of seeking those gaps and openings in which no one’s behavior or beliefs or ideas are solidified, where the latter remain in contact with generic potentiality and are thus most accessible to the infinity of thinking.

IX. Silenting Language (October 10, 2017)

The error of many writers is to believe that thinking only occurs in the course of writing, in its act. Not just in all the necessary minutiae of writing—grappling with grammars, seeking the right words, balancing the paragraphs, including the right references, mapping it all together, making it flow, etc.—but in its most basic aspect: the stroke, the engraving itself, mind to pen and pen to paper in a seamless circuit, transcribing thought-language as it arises and leads itself on, sometimes in an almost auto-erotic fashion.

Certain discursive norms, bolstered by the long-winded academy, contribute to a situation in which “productive thought” usually takes place while staring at a screen of half-finished text, largely because essays and articles are supposedly the only valid “evidence” that one has been thinking. This is the hegemony of the letter, of the sign, which as Derrida told us is profoundly theological. To believe that thinking is constricted to writing/text, or even that all thought is impotent unless it is “externalized” somehow (in a text, image, sound, form, trace, etc.), amounts to saying that we are all performing our many languages under the grading (and grating) eye of God.

This is easily proved by the obsession with authorship and the function it serves in our society. That I identify my thinking with a text I wrote is like identifying my soul with all the actions I performed; I will be judged by them, defined by them, etc. But do these products, works, acts, really encompass our true self? Do they exhaust what is possible for consciousness? And what about this convention of identification? What purpose does it serve, save to keep us neatly sorted as entities that can be encoded, accounted for, graded, i.e., known exhaustively through qualitative or quantitative textual markings?

Only in a well-developed practice—rooted, I might argue, in silence—can one differentiate the errors in a piece of writing from errors in thinking and disentangle one from the other.

For when words appear to contain or channel thought exhaustively, it too often becomes the suggestive power of words, sentences, strings of argument, rhetorical novelties, and so on, that carry the writer away and seduce them to say just about anything (and sometimes to get so spun around that they end up making no common sense at all). When thinking and writing are seen as synonymous or inseparable, “unsophisticated” language—one that doesn’t speak the lingo of the discipline or in the specialized terms of the current discourse in vogue, etc.—supposedly produces a poor, inadequate, uninformed and invalid thought. At the other extreme, one believes that if one tortures oneself over a text and makes sure it’s taken every last facet into account that it must contain worthwhile, if not masterful, content. In most cases this is an illusion we are happy to indulge, since it justifies to us all the time we spend chugging through the writing process. It the same prejudice which holds complexity to be a virtue. Once we’ve put down so much, betting it all seems natural, even if it’s a bluff.

In the end, however, these prejudices can lead to the writing of texts designed for exclusive inner circles only, alienating thought from its own desire to be universally addressed and to circulate freely, opening spaces of possibility, not placing them behind an intellectual tollbooth. More generally, the conviction that “thinking happens while writing” upholds the value of the text and enforces the prevailing definition of thought and understanding as fundamentally discursive—a logocentrism of practices, not just meanings.

A lover of language and a writer myself, I believe it is necessary—especially for those of us so invested in the arts of letters—to question this assumption.

X. On Poetry’s Demand (September 29, 2017)

Poetry is precious to me not because I love language or rhyme or strangeness, but because it demands something, not only from us, but from reality itself.

One doesn’t just sit down and write. There must be an experience, a hope, a yearning, a pain, a reflection, something that has built up in our personal or social life to the point of bursting—and often we’re very unaware of what all has accumulated within us. This doesn’t mean the moment of writing is spectacular; in fact, one often writes on the way down from the summit or up from the valley. But behind it, something has come to pass: a harsh realization, a nearly illegible feature, a horizon swamped in fog, something on the way to vanishing no matter how powerfully it hits us. The poem words it to preserve it, bearing its loss. This demands unconventional and disorienting modes of language, lest it be too quickly grasped—or grasped at all.

For my tastes, the poem will completely transform every mark of the original event, which often remains obscure and dispersed in fading memories even for the writer. But in masking the traces, the poem itself becomes a face, and as unmistakable. Nothing the poem says can be put in other words; otherwise it would miss itself, what it demands of us, of thought and of itself. Even if we comment it at length, what it seals it seals in silence, like a smile or a tear. The essence of poetry is to render speechless—and to induce us to reread the poem, tirelessly, as the only way to catch out what it thinks and feels; and in so doing, to confront us with the blank page and space of life again.

Rarely could I open my notebook and read to you a poem I wrote or even one I’d copied out from a source—not that the poetry is too good to be spoken, but that any poetry is too good to be spoken by me. There will always be some trepidation attached to any reading, for poetry demands, like the gods did before it, utmost scrupulousness. Take issue with that as you like; for me poetry is a rare and miraculous bird. One doesn’t just take it out of its cage for any visitor or set it free into any old field. That conditions are ever right for poetry, to respect it, will forever be a mystery to me. I hope there never comes a day when poetry is “only” work, class, readings or publication, realities that poetry, for its part, has no reason whatsoever to respect. I say this only as a vow to never forget what should take priority here—the creation of a space conducive to poetic encounters with each other and language—recognizing that, upon entering those worldlier realities, there is a great danger that that priority will be lost, distracted away. Again, it takes a quasi-religious sort of dedication, honesty and love to keep oneself safe from such dangers (ego games). I meant here to reaffirm my pledge.

What is on a pedestal here is not poetry, but the encounter. I trust the encounter and those in it, but I believe it commands its own respect, and good poems translate it. It can be unconditional without that meaning that any conditions are right. One must have the mind and the space well-prepared; in another sense, the poet is always preparing that space in their life-world. One should think here of the restraint one displays before the beloved or a well-respected friend. Yes, this smells quite a bit of sacred altars and nuptial beds and so on, but such is the mystical and erotic dance of poetry, which seeks eternity no less than these other limit-experiences of humanity. We can even link all this with a respect for the poem’s own silence, for the silent air that needs to surround it for it to resonate—for an encounter pregnant with after-thoughts to be instantiated.

Poetry refuses to be forced and will abandon you the moment you fail to respect its moment, its time for unfolding, for being spoken. Even if you fancy that you’re still engaged, certain games simply do not admit of cheating. I am content to never read a poem aloud again, if the moment is never right. And if I never write another poem, it is no one’s fault, definitely not poetry’s. Alas, the suspicion remains, and must: perhaps I never have.

Other musings:

A Mind in Relief (April 1, 2017) — On capturing thought in writing
Little Works (Oct 24, 2017) — On the value of smaller projects
Thoughtscape (ca. 2012) — On thought as a writing-landscape
Ordeals (Fall 2010) — On writing-out one’s existence (ex-scription)
Doubts and Honesties (March 23, 2017) — On my goals with my writing
WRITING (Spring 2013) — On the yearning to reach the other
PROLONGED (ca. 2013) — On the “idiodyssey” of writing
The Grill of Language (Jan 11, 2016) — On the courage of the poet

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