Writing and ‘X’


In a recently published book of her journals, the late Susan Sontag describes “X”.

X, the scourge.

“X” is when you feel yourself an object, not a subject. When you want to please and impress people, either by saying what they want to hear, or by shocking them, or by boasting + name dropping, or by being very cool.

[…] All of the things that I despise in myself are X: being a moral coward, being a liar, being indiscreet about myself + others, being phony, being passive.

I do not want to be an X person. That is the part of myself I want to excise. It is ugly and mean. Complaint is the same as “X”. I do not mean criticism, which is entirely different, and a natural response– though it can become “complaint”. Complaint is ugly. If you watch complaint in an empty and dark room, you will see little flashes of blue and green light, and it will illuminate all of the crags on the complainer’s face just so, and the end result will be a horrifying, demonic grimace.

I am trying to write in a way that excises speculation about the future of my work. I have put a great deal of thought into plot and theme. I am trying to think of these things subconsciously. To have them readily in your mind in a first draft is devastating. It is like packing your writing with oil and fertiliser, and when you come back to proofread in 4-6 weeks, arming yourself with matches. It is better to think of plot and themes as an urge. It is better to put them in the same category as “hunger” or “compulsion”.

Yann Martel says writing is applying “cool mind to hot stuff”, or something along those lines. I agree with that completely. The “hot stuff” does not mean that you are writing in a fever dream, however. I read that quote in an interview four or five years ago and confused myself. It means your imagination should be active, and warmed by the activity, like electrons running through a coil. You might have some idea of plot, but let the characters and situation take you as far as they will take you. Be comfortable, in not knowing where you are going, and comprehensive. You cannot be lazy. Laziness in this situation is rushing along as fast as you can and not informing yourself and the reader of the situation. That’s dangerous. You are forcing concepts. The writing becomes much more difficult.

You can be lazy and work harder and achieve less than if you just approached the situation naturally. You can only withhold things for the purposes of pacing, and even then only if you have a very clear reason for doing it. Do not hold details in reserve because you think of yourself as “clever”, because you’re not clever, or you will forget the details, or the details will change themselves thousands of times in your mind before you finish and your writing will be inconsistent and reading your first draft will feel like wrestling an octopus. Explain things as simply as possible. Work methodically. Make sure you live in that world. Do not be afraid to expose yourself, because fear of exposure is what causes people to “write like they are clever” in the first place.

It’s been too long since my last post. I don’t know what it was exactly. Part laziness, part fear that I should be doing something else, part inertia. But posting here is stimulating and therapeutic. I’ve got to keep that in mind.

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