Fingers. Their performance on the keyboard, pianist-like; this private recital. Their pulsing sensations and rhythms are supposedly at our mind’s service, but really – feeding it, stamping their music onto our vocabulary and imagination. They labour hard. Sometimes they ache. But it is the mind which gets the accolades.
Arms. Their fate is even worse than that of their appendages. A repetitive strain injury is almost as common amongst writers as it is amongst masseurs, particularly since the invention of the computer mouse. We pretend writing is a delicate business of the spirit, but our arms betray our illusions; they embody the aggression that writing requires.
Words. The pleasure of them, the velvet of them. They roll in our mouths like candies. The torture of them. The torture of endless choices. Because we write word-by-word, which means we choose word-by-word. Crimson or plum-red. To shit or to defecate. The resentment I sometimes feel – even in an average short story there are 3000 choices to make and this is more than I have to choose in any other area of my life even in this era of online shopping.
Sentences. Here they come, trudging one after another, like carriages of a longlong train – twisting and twirling, vulnerable to the weather conditions, non-organic. Yes, the unnaturalness of the written sentences. For who really speaks, or thinks, like that in their daily life: ‘She broke the nights into little pieces.’ (Brian Castro, Shanghai Dancing). But these are the mad, the wild sentences we want, because they are the carriers of the visceral truth, the one we ignore in our everyday. Sentences render writing as an act of a certain, fussy, insanity. Fussy because in writing madness usually does not equal spontaneity. We take care to rob our work of normality, sentence by sentence (Castro again: ‘She pulled a bottle of something from the fridge and opened it and I could smell the coldness of its promise.’).
Re-writing. We do not write. We re-write. Sometimes long after publication, in our fatigued heads. This is not a matter of initial sloppiness, or compensation for a lack of brilliance via hard work. Isaac Babel could write up to forty drafts of a single story. Sherwood Anderson said that some of his stories took him ten or twelve years to write. Re-writing is crystallization of a thought. Or excavation. Or – writing.
Self-wrestling. Writing as an act of self-doubt, a breeding ground for self-loathing, the perfect S&M establishment. Thomas Mann once wrote: ‘A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people’. We all know what he was talking about.
Playground. Equipped to perfection. So large that we cannot see where it ends and the world of adulthood begins. We play there usually alone, often feeling utterly lost. Sometimes even bored. Or bullied. But we rather wouldn’t go home yet.
Terminal illness. During successful writing sessions time seems to disappear. I emerge at their end dazed, disheveled, anxious that I’m shortening my life by swallowing chunks of time too quickly, too greedily
Lovemaking. To write poetically is to merge with language, to make love to words, shape sentences out of their flesh, then reread those sentences in feverish agony of pleasure mingled with anxiety. Physical symptoms include: goose bumps, shivers, blood rushing to tender places… (Note, this isn’t an exhaustive list – you’re welcome to continue).
Therapy which is supposedly cheaper than the real one. If we discount all those hours we spend writing instead of toiling in some properly-paying job, the times we paid to escape to remote places so that we could write, those expensive laptops or fountain pens we fetishize. Then, what about the emotional cost of writing? And the real therapy we turn to to help us with that?
Deja vu of our choice. The privilege of re-experiencing emotional and sensual states and social encounters dear to us, but in a more knowing way, without the initial accompanying anxiety. Yet this privilege also means writing is often closely entwined with loss, as recreation is built upon the fact that something precious disappeared from our lives. So this privilege comes with a price tag attached.
Escape. But what sort of escape? A fallible one. Our sorrows and embarrassing desires follow us even into the strangest of worlds we create. Like sandcastles, those fantastic places cannot withstand the pressure of reality – wind, ocean waves, the emotional baggage of their authors. Even our dragons resemble us, or our bullies. Writing as self-delusion. As a failure to escape.
Underworld. To write is to conjure up our unconscious, to give it shape, to bring the darkness into the light. Even when we have a plan, when we feel completely in control, if we write the way writers do, then many of our words will surprise us, as they will not come from our Post-it notes. Rather, the words will rise from our guts, smeared with blood and undigested risotto; they will slap themselves wetly onto our pages, telling us stuff we do not want to be associated with. Writing is frightening. Sometimes it can feel like dying, at least the kind of dying the ancient Greeks had in mind – death as the descent into the shadowy underworld. In our case, the underworld is our subconscious mind. What will we find there? Will we make it back? And if we will, what kind of people would we return?
Finally, writing is also giving the finger to death. That not-going gently into that good night. Kafka’s axe breaking into the frozen sea inside us. So we go on and write. Onwards.