Some of those terrible writing books that use the word “inspired” a lot probably advised me to wake up early and write poems with the sun rising at the cock’s crow. That type of thing. For a time, I tried this in earnest. It did not work, and, looking back now, it’s certainly possible that going to bed at 3:23am every night wasn’t part of the regime they were prescribing.
I never found that beating myself up for not making time to scribble away on my notepad helped me to write anything—at least not anything I liked and actually wanted to read to my friends or send to a magazine. Guilt trips probably help some writers; it always felt stupid to feel guilty about not writing to me. It wasn’t like anybody was standing on the doorstep, holding out a hand for me to place a fresh poem in.
I put the writing off. I avoided it. But finally I’d told enough people that I was writing a book, so I’d work in these little scribbly fits and bouts. I made notes all over everything, and finally bought some big sheets to work by hand with a marker and a large scrawl. It seems somehow utterly egotistical now, and I’m embarrassed even to mention it. But the work would accrue by a kind of dull self-deception. By that I mean, I’d had to do that thing Žižek talks about someplace: convince yourself that, on the one hand, you’re just taking notes and then, on the other: you’re just editing your notes.
Writing, I suppose, is whatever happened between those two apparently tolerable exercises. For, the picture of “The Writer” I’d had was just preposterously wooden. He (oh yes, he) had some weary smile of wisdom and aggrandizement. Yet, what portrait was I inadvertently conjuring to haunt myself with as an impossible identity to conjoin mine to? I don’t really know.
Nowadays, everybody tells me I write too much. Actually, that’s not quite true. They mention this blithely or dismissively in the form of a fake-exasperated observation of my “productivity.” Some writers have a book or two inside them, awaiting the scrawl to air. Some have dozens. Apparently I have a number of very spare, odd books in me—who can say how many. I’m fine with not knowing. Probably it’s better that way.
Over the years, I’ve evolved many practices. Talking about it is like trying to describe everything you did last Wednesday. You might have a pretty good idea, but some of Tuesday might get in there as well—and you might just forget something as big as a long phone conversation with a sibling about money or running into an old friend on the street. Anyways, it goes something like this: handwritten notes with a cheap pen I buy in bulk at the drugstore on yellow legal pads.
After a time—somewhere ranging between an hour and a fortnight—I type up my “notes” for “editing” onto my computer at home. I can do the first part in public (in an aisle seat of an airplane is actually my favorite place to work), but I usually type at home, with coffee, alone. And with music. Today is A.A. Bondy’s “Believers” on repeat, for instance.
But, at times of intense writing, I’m a conduit to some otherwhere, who knows how or if or when. It’s the best strange feeling I know: a cross between chasing and being chased, saying and listening, overhearing and conjuring. Days are lost in its glossy sheet. Bathing and eating may, you know, be abandoned. But, as Adam Phillips says of our sex lives, you can’t force yourself to desire somebody. You have to return to a state of boredom and let it eke its way back up through the blood, while you’re making a sandwich or walking the dog. Writing’s like that to me. If it doesn’t come back, at least I’ll have five or six lifetimes of good books to put a dent in.
Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s new book is The Courier’s Archive & Hymnal (Sidebrow Books 2014).
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