Clarity (and Gestation) of Writing Multiple Stories at the Same Time

Speaking of not being afraid when you write, I see that I have evolved quite involuntarily two habits that make me not afraid. One is the habit of starting every story in the notebook, where it is under no pressure to be a story; the other is that quite often I do what I did today: I sit in front of the typed pages of a story that is nearly finished and that I am not trying to finish, and instead of working on it, I begin another story in my notebook and write that out until nothing more occurs to me. It is easier to do that—to begin a story—when that is not what I had planned to do. My unconscious, or whatever part of the brain works hardest in writing something new, is very relaxed and comfortable because there is a clear-cut task to go back to when I have nothing more to add, for the moment, to the new story.

Meanwhile the typed story just sits there. The same thing may happen the next day. Sometimes I have four or five, or more, stories in progress at once. It is nice to feel that there is too much to work on rather than nothing at all—the blank page. Some stories, not quite finished, may get pushed out of the way in all this activity and may be forgotten for a while—even months. But sooner or later I come back to them and finish them, and it does not hurt them to let this time pass. I see them more clearly.

Lydia Davis, “Revising One Sentence,” The Paris Review

On Being "Intelligent"

I don’t care about someone being "“intelligent”; any situation between people, when they are really human with each other, produces '“intelligence.”

- Susan Sontag, As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh (Journal)

A man is not ‘intelligent’; he is free or he is not.

-At the Existential Café, Sarah Blakewell

When Not Writing, Gleaning

I’m still a writer when I’m not writing, because I’m gleaning all the time. I only write for publication, you know. I don’t keep a journal, I don’t keep a diary. I keep a kind of commonplace book, but that’s for keeping a record of my gleanings.

Luc Sante, The Paris Review interview

Indirect Expression, Circumlocutions, Abstractions

Suddenly, during a pause in his monologue, Federico Pérez cautioned me not to become too lost in circumlocution. I should lay everything on the line, he said … I do not remember his exact words, but he did allude to the evasiveness and circumlocutions in my speech. He added that he thought it was a manifestation of insecurity, a defense mechanism behind which I was hiding. I do not know if the doctor’s intervention, his interruption and description of the structure of the story, which unbeknownst to me had become unnecessarily and painfully labyrinthine, was part of the treatment, an attempt to stimulate a particular reaction, the beginning of subjugation. I defended myself with literary arguments. I took refuge in the fact that my writing was fundamentally built on those devices. That is its visible expression. I feel incapable of describing any action, no matter how simple, in a direct way. I said that other writers were able to do that, which did not mean I was less competent than they. In my case, plain and naked exposition, without flourishes, without detours, without echoes or shadows, fatally diminishes the efficiency of the story, converts it into a mere anecdote; a vulgarity, when all is said and done. From the very beginning, what I had always done was scatter a series of points onto the blank page as if they had fallen there by chance, with no visible relationship between them; until one suddenly began to spread out, expand, sprout tentacles in search of others, and then the others would follow its example: the points would become lines running across the page to find their sisters, either to subordinate or serve them, until that initial group of solitary points morphed into an increasingly complex and intricate character, with gaps, creases, ironies, blurrings, and glaring darkness. That was my writing or, at least, the ideal of my writing. I could have added, but I restrained myself, that my exposition could be the reflection of a specific way of conceiving literature, or rather, that the apparent loss of direction in language had created in me a second nature from which I could not escape. To the extent that I did not know how to talk about anything, not even the weather, without detours, and that, in itself, had nothing to do with personal insecurity, as it is usually understood, but rather with a lack of confidence, abstract, of course, in the possibility of communication and persuasion in the ontological loneliness of being. The narrator who, as a rule, appears in my novels rehearses several starting points in the pursuit of a truth, a revelation, and in the effort will lose his way a thousand times, stumble constantly, and will maintain the pace with great difficulty between suffering hallucinations and sleepwalking, only in the end to declare himself defeated. He will come to know that absolutes do not exist, that there is no truth that is not conjectural, relative, and, therefore, vulnerable. But searching for it, no matter how ephemeral, partial, and inconstant it may be, will always be his objective. The narrator might be Sisyphus and Icarus at the same time. His only certainty is that along the way he might have touched a few strands in a marvelous and deplorable tapestry, obscured sometimes by ominous stains or by a sudden and immediate iridescence that, upon seeing it, gives meaning to his efforts.

  • Sergio Pitol, The Art of Flight

If We Can Be Fearless, to Be With our Pain

So that became, actually, perhaps the most pivotal point in … the landscape of my life: that dance with despair, to see how we are called to not run from the discomfort and not run from the grief or the feelings of outrage or even fear — and that, if we can be fearless, to be with our pain, it turns. It doesn’t stay static. It only doesn’t change if we refuse to look at it. But when we look at it, when we take it in our hands, when we can just be with it and keep breathing, then it turns. It turns to reveal its other face, and the other face of our pain for the world is our love for the world, our absolutely inseparable connectedness with all life.

-Joanna Macy, “A Wild Love for the World,” On Being podcast interview

May we forever remember that in each and every moment we are composing stories of our lives … let’s aim to make it a meaningful read … or at least an interesting one.

- Richard (Johnny Depp) in “The Professor”

The Luminous Obscurity

[Walter] Benjamin venerated words, so much so that he surrendered himself to their whirling excess and luminous obscurity, for “it is precisely when you lack for words that a paradox arises.”

Frédéric Pajak, Uncertain Manifesto

Perfectly Inexpressible Truth

How odd it is that words seem like a necessity and a consolation while at the same time they are an error, a deviation, a source of incomprehension … I believe in stuttering, in speech torn to pieces by its own thorns and brambles. I believe too in a total and absolute truth that is perfectly inexpressible.

Frédéric Pajak, Uncertain Manifesto

Our Terrors, Our Abysses

We, however, are not prisoners. No traps or snares are set about us, and there is nothing which should intimidate or worry is. We are set down in life as in the element to which we best correspond, and over and above this we have through thousands of years of accommodation become so like this life, that when we hold still we are, through a happy mimicry, scarcely to be distinguished from all that surrounds us. We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has its terrors, they are our terrors; has its abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful. How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.


Writers: Simply Engage in Sustained Use of Language

Writers may not be special or talented in any usual sense. They are simply engaged in sustained use of a language skill we all have. Their "creations" come about through confident reliance on stray impulses that will, with trust, find occasional patterns that are satisfying.

But writing itself is one of the great, free human activities. There is scope for individuality, and elation, and discovery, in writing. For the person who follows with trust and forgiveness what occurs to him, the world remains always ready and deep, an inexhaustible environment, with the combined vividness of an actuality and flexibility of a dream. Working back and forth between experience and thought, writers have more than space and time can offer. They have the whole unexplored realm of human vision. 

- William Stafford, “A Way of Writing”

The Antidote to Nihilism?

When we return to our breathing, we return to the present moment, our true home. There’s no need for us to struggle to arrive somewhere else. We know our final destination is the cemetery. Why are we in a hurry to get there? Why not step in the direction of life, which is in the present moment?

- How to Walk, Thich Nhat Hanh

The Word Wardrobe

Does there exist a single dreamer of words who does not respond to the word wardrobe? And to fine words correspond fine things, to grave-sounding words, an entity of depth. Every poet of furniture -even if he be a poet in a garret, and therefore has no furniture- knows that the inner space of an old wardrobe is deep. A wardrobe’s inner space is also intimate space, space that is not open to just anybody.

The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard

The Storm is You

“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn't something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn't get in, and walk through it, step by step. There's no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up into the sky like pulverized bones. That's the kind of sandstorm you need to imagine ...

... And you really will have to make it through that violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm. No matter how metaphysical or symbolic it might be, make no mistake about it: it will cut through flesh like a thousand razor blades. People will bleed there, and you will bleed too. Hot, red blood. You'll catch that blood in your hands, your own blood and the blood of others.

And once the storm is over you won't remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won't even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won't be the same person who walked in. That's what this storm's all about.”

- Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

A Witness to Magnitude

Poetry is a witnessing to magnitude. It is the art of making urgent values manifest, and of imposing them on the reader. It is the housing of these values in poems so they will exist with maximum pressure, and for the longest time. It is the craft of doing so in structures that are a delight in themselves. And it is the mystery of fashioning poems in such a way that the form and the content are one.

- Jack Gilbert, The Landscape of American Poetry, 1965

Pessoa's Aesthetics of Artifice

Sometimes, I don't even recognize me, so external to myself have I become, and so entirely artistically have I deployed my consciousness of myself. Who am I behind this unreality? I don't know. I must be someone. And if I do not seek to live, to act or to feel, it is -believe me- so as not to disturb the already laid down lines of my false persona. I want to be exactly what I want to be and am not. If I were to live I would destroy myself. I wanted to be a work of art, at least as regards my soul, since physically that's impossible. That is why I sculpted myself calmly and indifferently and placed myself in a hothouse, far from draughts and direct light - where the exotic flower of my artificiality can bloom in secluded beauty. 

- The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa

Donna Tartt: Freedom to Shut the Door

"Was it Emerson who talked about the great freedom of American life as the freedom not to participate in the life of the culture, the freedom to shut the door, to close the curtains? American heroes are almost always solitary figures in our literature.

Joan Didion writes a beautiful essay about Howard Hughes who was a lonely recluse but also a kind of weird American hero who built the whole city of Las Vegas and Joan Didion said, 'he's the last private man, the dream we no longer admit'."

- Interview with Donna Tartt