Whenever I travel I draft an entire book, in pencil, in the back of whatever I’m reading. On Sunday it was a series of short stories based of A.L. Snijders’s “zkv’s,” or very short stories, ninety-nine of which have recently been translated into English by Lydia Davis. I want to document the whole trip, the flight to Fredericton and the return, in Snijders’s gnomic style (which doesn’t not share a resemblance, at least superficially, with what I sometimes try to write here). In the air I can see the drama of the trip, and of my life, in a way that interests me less on the ground. As you can see, I’m already giving them up. Maybe if I had started writing them then (we only had an hour and fifty minutes on the entire flight) I would have kept working once we returned home. But instead, for the last part of our trip I put on a basketball podcast and held F’s hand (she’s terrified of flying) while I looked out the window, watching the earth change below. I knew it would be more difficult than it seems on its surface to write an entire piece in fragments that maintain a duty to themselves even as they also build toward a larger narrative.
When I was in the first year of my undergraduate degree, the author of one of the books we had read that year came to visit the class. He spoke a little bit about writing, answered a few questions, and afterwards sat at the front of the class and signed our books. When it was my turn I told him that I thought the book was “perfectly constructed,” a compliment he took gracefully though I had meant it as an insult (I was an anxious little shit who couldn’t quite get it off). I didn’t like the TA for the course, who I thought wore herself as if her own body was a suit of armour, in a permanent defensive posture. She confirmed my dislike when she stood up and asked a question which seemed only to demonstrate that she’d paid attention, reading up on the author outside of the class. It was something like “How do you feel, now that you’ve been named one of Knopf Canada’s ‘New Faces of Fiction’?” Though I’ve heard very little about the book, or about the writer, in the almost two decades since the visit, at the time he was doing well, and he mentioned using the money from the book to buy a house on the Danforth. Now we’re friends on Facebook. Thinking about all of this now I have the sudden urge to ring him up, and ask him if he remembers the visit, as if we are old friends, though his author visit remains the only time I’ve ever spoken to him.
Lydia Davis writes that the project of Michel Leiris’s long autobiographical essay collection The Rules of the Game is to “write himself into existence,” and that in doing so he is following Michel Foucault, who said in an interview that a writer is “not simply creating his work in his books, in what he publishes… his principal work is in the end himself writing his books.” (Essays II, 392.) I remember sitting across from the extremely cramped little card table in M’s apartment, where we worked on our laptops and ate mostly silent meals, and her saying, in response to some story I had told about growing up or about the years of writing and loneliness immediately preceding that it was like I had written myself into existence, which was true at the time especially because there was very little of me outside of that writing. One of us—I forget who—imagined it as pulling myself out of the muck. I thought of Fernando Pessoa and The Book of Disquiet, which I imagined as a similiar project, working so hard to build form out of what seemed impossibly various.In many ways this blog (over so many years) has been the most obvious example of that long effort, and my hiatuses—or times when I have substituted more confessional writing for something more difficult to parse—are examples of times where I have, for various reasons, put that project on hold. Or at least publicly done so.
Similarly, in Thomas Hoccleve’s Complaint the speaker (who we can safely assume is Thomas) complains about what it is like to return to society after suffering a long mental illness, with few believing that he has regained his sound mind. He looks in a mirror, practicing appearing in control, and imagines that if people just saw him like that they would believe that he was alright again. In his poem Dialogue, which follows immediately afterwards, a friend—who may or may not be fictional—arrives and Thomas tells him about his desire to cleanse his body (of its “guilt… foul and unclene”) through translation of the consolatory Latin treatise Lerne for to Die. The friend is worried about this project, since he believes Hoccleve’s mental illness already to be the result of “overstudy” (which may be true). Perhaps the job of the writer is balancing the need for rest with the desire to transform oneself. Writing is magic, in that its concerted practice can effect change not only on the world which receives it (as in Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius) but also on the body and the mind of the writer. (I have my own translation project that I imagined clarifying or cleansing me.)
Every so often—when I feel at my worst—I imagine that I don’t have time for the writing that I like to do, or that in order to do it I have to wait for circumstances to be perfect. This is never correct—more often I write myself back into sanity. Therefore I am writing this post in the middle of the night, on the eve of a short trip. Soon I will go to bed. I am nurturing the most urgent part of myself, one sentence at a time.