DISCOURSE as quilting

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remnant 56: “thus I, for example, in the midst of my unhappiness”

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Writing about Franz Kafka, Bob Blaisdell explores Kafka’s relationship with writing:

As he told Felice, one of his fiancees (he would remain a bachelor): “My mode of life is devised solely for writing, and if there are any changes, then only for the sake of perhaps fitting in better with my writing; for time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible, then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers. The satisfaction gained by maneuvering one’s timetable successfully cannot be compared to the permanent misery of knowing that fatigue of any kind shows itself better and more clearly in writing than anything one is really trying to say.” This last sentence is part of Kafka’s thinking about the unavoidable self-revelation of writing. How often we read work whose loudest message is “I wish I were doing anything but writing.” Kafka had poor health; he needed to conserve all his energy and attention for writing. Writing did not give him vitality; it certainly did not give him money or fame in his lifetime. It was a compulsion, a habit, a refuge. It made life possible and purposeful; it sometimes, not always, gave him peace of mind. Sometimes it brought him to despair over its difficulty, or it exposed his weaknesses to the light, but he also noticed how sometimes, in the midst of that despair, writing gave him distance from (and thus rescued him from) that despair:

I have never understood how it is possible for almost everyone who writes to objectify his sufferings in the very midst of undergoing them; thus I, for example, in the midst of my unhappiness, in all likelihood with my head still smarting from unhappiness, sit down and write to someone: I am unhappy. Yes, I can even go beyond that and with as many flourishes as I have the talent for, all of which seem to have nothing to do with my unhappiness, ring simple, or contrapuntal, or a whole orchestration of changes on my theme. And it is not a lie, and it does not still my pain; it is simply a merciful surplus of strength at a moment when suffering has raked me to the bottom of my being and plainly exhausted all my strength.

As a young man firmly in the grasp of the compulsion to write, struggling with what that meant, floundering with the evil twin of wanting to be published, I read, re-read, marked in, and carried around (also compulsively) a copy of The Basic Kafka.

The Basic Kafka

The mid-term assignment I now use in my first year seminar that is writing intensive invites students to interview professors, academics, or writers about their lives as writers; one of the questions I recommend they ask is about what compels them to write. Many students are surprised to find that so many who write have extremely conflicted relationships with needing to write, wanting to write, or being compelled to write (and that many academics dislike writing, dread it).

I have many writer-Selves, and I share that with students.

The writer-Self for me most like what Kafka details in his journal is my poet-Self.

In all writing contexts—poetry, blogging, scholarly work—I am compelled; these are not things I choose to do. But the poetry is the most beyond my conscious control.

For lack of a better way to explain it (odd, yes, for someone who calls himself a writer: as Kafka also warned, words tend to fail us), poems simply come to me.

And therein is the problem.

With blogs and scholarly work, there is certainly inspired writing. And with all my writing, the moment I finish a piece I am immediately petrified I’ll never again have anything to write. This is what being a writer is.

But the great bulk of prose writing allows me to make some decisions, step back, reject ideas, experience fits and starts, and sometimes abandoning all together.

To ignore a poem is like turning your back on a child.

So recently I felt moved—in other words, these poems called out to me to write them—to write poems about the shooting of Jordan Davis, poems that feel akin to poems written about Trayvon Martin: Four Poems: For Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin.

criminal acts (black&white)” came first and then “misfire (trigger warning).”

The latter represents the most difficult part of being a poet—being compelled to write poetry—for me.

I was (I am) petrified by the piece. The topic is hard, the language walks a thin line of confrontation and offense, and the act of writing poetry about other people’s tragedies feels invasive.

Writing is necessarily and simultaneously two contradictory things: intensely solitary and private as well as nakedly public, communal.

One aspect of the communal element of writing is that many writers thrive on collaboration—the most important of which is an editor or readers who see drafts before a wider public reads the work.

Scholarly work often goes through several drafts and editors before publication.

My blogs and poetry, however, tend to reach readers after having passed only my eyes and mind, and there is a terror to that, a terror that suggests that only those compelled to write would continue to go through the process.

Many writes have confronted all this, possibly few better than Kafka.

So key moments sustain the writer (and I would argue all artists)—and the writer above all else needs sustenance; and therefore, it is no surprise Kafka wrote again and again about hunger and starving (see A Hunger Artist).

One moment is the kind reader. The “I like this piece” or the truly wonderful “I love this piece.”

The other moment is selfish and comes also in that solitary state.

You revisit a piece, possibly one you barely recall. And you think “I’m glad I wrote that.”

And then being a writer creeps across your skin as you are immediately petrified that you’ll never again write anything that good.

Sometimes we get a second or two, but rarely more…

And so we steel ourselves against the insecurities of being a writer, the fears that threaten to paralyze. We recall and imagine the kind reader, and then we move on, feeding the beast within us. It is ravenous and self-consuming, yes.

But there are days, quite by chance, that we read ourselves and find peace in our own words, a peace we feel thousands of times in the words of others. And we smile:

layers (stranger in my own dreams)


Written by plthomasedd

February 23, 2014 at 3:50 pm