We tend to image the writer as someone with a seething internal life for whom writing serves as a kind of vent, a way to let the demons out. We imagine, perhaps, that the will to write comes from a desire to express oneself, to be heard, to be seen, to let all that is in, out. 

We know the architecture all too well. Inside we have ideas, feelings, memories; outside is the world. And writing is the go between, the vehicle of expression.

But I enjoy a different architecture of writing with a different configuration of self, language, and world. For me, it's not the movement from inside to outside, from self to world. Language is not a vehicle, a means to and end, but is a force — and a domain — in and of itself. 

Absurd as it may sound, I don't write to express myself — at least not primarily — even if that is an inevitable outcome. No, I write for the pleasure of composing, of putting together the fragments of ideas, feelings, concepts, observations, words, speeds. It's like arts and crafts. I sit down and start throwing things together and, frankly, I'm not always sure what will come. It's a matter of my mood, the mood of the world, the will of ideas, the way of words. 

In order to write, Burroughs said all he needed was his typewriter and a pair of scissors — you know, to cut up and (re)assemble. This is not a vision of writing as exhumation or expression but writing as creation, as assemblage. 

This entails a fundamentally different distribution of bodies and words. There's no inside and outside and certainly no linear movement between the two. Like the kid at the arts and crafts table with a pile of magazines, some pens, some paper, some glue, it's all right there, splayed before you. Sure, some of it might be obscured by the flesh and fuzziness of feeling and thought. But it's still all part of the mix, waiting to be put here or there or tossed aside all together. Once it's all out there, the writer begins moving it around. And this is what I love about writing — this act of assembling. 

But it's not just a free for all cut and paste. Because writing is way of moving with language — not using language to express but operating with language as a way of assembling. And language has all kinds of rules. And I'm not talking about dangling prepositions because we can dangle at will if we want to. No, I'm talking about the elaborate mechanics of language. 

Consider, for instance, the particular weight and speed and intensity of words. Words are bodies that like to do certain things; you can try to make a word do your bidding but that word will always talk back.  

I remember my first semester as a TA in a comp class (in 1992 — holy moly!). The assignment was to discuss the rhetorical tactics of some MLK speech (not my assignment, alas). The student, some bright but overconfident boy, used the world eclectic as in, "MLK uses eclectic sources to reach a wider audience." I critiqued his use of this word. Did he mean "a breadth" of sources? No, the kid insisted. And he wasn't wrong as much as he was, well, wrong. Eclectic conjures a world his essay did not support. But he kept quoting the definition (the denotation). He didn't yet have a feel for the words, only for their meanings.

Language is not just words but is a logic of assemblage. It has rules if you want to make any semblance of sense. Subjects, verbs, adverbs, spaces: all these relationships that can be endlessly tweaked. It's great to bend and push against the limits of sense, to see what will come in the juxtaposition — shocking silly revealing (non)sense. 

But do any old thing and your writing is no longer anything at all.I remember when my kid began to distinguish a drawing from what he called scribble scrabble. So it is with all things: there is a line — tenuous, precarious, uncertain, and grey — between writing and scribble scrabble (Burroughs loves to operate in this space; and, in some sense, all great writing operates in this space, careening between sense and nonsense.)


Grammar is not as much a set of rules as it the ethics of interaction. Put this and that together — junk, sick, dawn — and incredible things happen. But not any old combination creates events; some create nothing at all. Grammar is not a set of rules but the ethics of event creation, the terms of engagement between writer, reader, words, ideas, and sense. 

Then there's punctuation. Oh, punctuation! How I could wax on about you (and have): from the understated comma to the compromising but ever accommodating semi-colon to the surprising discretion of parentheses — and let's not forget the ever generous m dash.

Language, then, is words and rules, things and logics, bodies and events. But it's more than that, too. Language is not an ideal system removed from the world. It's entrenched in our lives, our history, our culture. I may love a word for its awkward precision — such as, say, haecceity — but my enjoyment does not eclipse the resonance of the word beyond this screen. If I use a word and no one understands it, have I spoken?

The same goes for rhythm — of ideas, of explanation, of prose. What needs explanation? What can I point to and move on? What deserves the relish of detail and what the ellipsis? Rhythm is a choreography of bodies and ideas, literally moving the reader and the words together in a more or less elaborate pas de deux.  Staccato, adagio, allegro: writing is a score of emotion and understanding.  

And then there's tone. This is partially an issue of audience, of course. But it's not like there's an idea and then I just have to choose which tone to use to reach this or that audience — Slap some serious on there and it's good to go! Tone is the whole posture, the whole comportment, of the writing, how it sits in the world. When I would teach Nietzsche, students would often remark that his ideas were similar to Buddhism. But that's to reach behind the writing. In tone, Nietzsche and Buddhism are worlds apart.  And nothing could be more relevant.  

Tone is not just a matter of audience but of writer (not to mention of words and grammar). Sometimes, I begin writing in a pissed off mood, ranting, cursing, and careening. But then I'm stuck in that place — not just the essay but the whole event of composing, of assembling is all pissy. And maybe I don't want to be in that mood. Does the writing demand I remain there? Or, as my mood shifts, can I start to write more playfully?

Tone is so bewilderingly complex. It is an affective force that streams through the writer to become a principle of selection, an editorial force selecting words and rhythm.  A tone can overtake the writer and suddenly he finds he's written something quite different than he'd intended. This is neither good nor bad, just a reality that the writer must reckon.

Writing is an encounter — between human flesh, words, grammar, ideas, affects, feelings. There is obviously no right way to write. And yet we know, as both readers and writers, that there are certain ways that work, ways that turn the world on, that take everyone and everything involved on a journey elsewhere — a way that makes writing less a matter of expression and understanding than a matter of discovery and creation.  


Jim H. said...


Terrific essay. It captures so much of the process I encounter in my own relationship with my writing.

As folk with philosophy backgrounds, we've both, I'm sure, wrestled with Grice's communicative intention. My take away from all that philosophy of language was that expression isn't enough. Speech, writing, language is a bridging device between minds. Merely expressing what you think or feel doesn't necessarily guarantee that your expressions will be understood or empathetically received. You have to do the work of structuring (the arts and crafts and rules you speak of) communication so that it reaches and resonates in the minds of the hearers and readers.

Nice, thought-provoking piece.

Jim H.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Thanks, Jim.

Have you ever read the encounter between Derrida and Gadamer? Derrida doesn't address Gadamer, not once; he talks about Nietzsche. Why? Because language is not about understanding but about event, meander, drift, affect, accident.

Gadamer, meanwhile, addresses Derrida and Nietzsche claiming that both just want to be understood.

Me, I agree with both positions.

Jim H. said...

No, but I shall. Had bits of both in my thesis which pre-dated their encounter, if I'm not mistaken. My gloss would be: Hermeneutics—search for Truth of meaning via interpretation of texts and, perhaps, intentions; Deconstruction—looking beyond the text for the differance that renders interpretation meaningless.

So, what you're saying is that Derrida just kept talking past Gadamer, and G just wanted D to try harder to make some sense? I'll have to give it a gander. Thx.

Frances Madeson said...

"...language is not about understanding but about event, meander, drift, affect, accident."

One writer I know calls what he's trying to induce in his readers "triggering effects." He claims not to seek meaning or to wish his readers to do so in his work, which at the level of description (noun selection) deliberately lacks specificity, with some exceptions (mostly around high-end non-generic brands of liquor).

He asserts (hopes) that his compositional strategies including an elegant visual presentation (typically words arranged in bendy sentences surrounding by much white space), artful manipulations of rhythm, repetition, at times incantation, as well as some fragrant smoke and fun house mirrors for atmospherics, will distinguish him from the pack.

It's packaged as fiction writing as part of revolutionary praxis--I won't oppress you by trying to make you think as I do by mucking around with trust at the level of meaning. From his Meta stance, he seeks to craft verbal machines that will operate on his readers well after they've turned the page via resonances. Not crude at the level of subliminal messages --arise, arise!--but maybe "Pause, won't you at least consider...(me)."

All to say, we live in an era of the wholesale displacement of intellectual men, some of whom are very desperate. That their desperation fuels their theorizing about their own fiction-writing should come as no surprise. But it's a kind of drone operator's fantasy for victory without the taint of actual blood on his actual hands. Beware.

Daniel Coffeen said...

All good writing, I believe, operates at multiple levels and in multiple ways at once. Meaning and understanding are only part of that elaborate process. A text is what Deleuze and Guattari call a little engine producing effects: understanding, affect, emotion. ee cummings' line, "not even the rain has such small hands" reverberates in me, with me, even if it has no meaning per se. The best writing works us over in all sorts of ways — tiggering effects, yes. The writing should be able to do this without gimmicks. But if this guy likes gimmicks, power to him.

Arthur Keng said...

All these years later the only note written by a prof on one of my essays that I remember was you circling the word "whom" and writing "Who the hell uses 'whom' anymore?" At the time and for years after I took it as some funny critical snark. But as that comment continued to stick in my memory for whatever reason I started to wonder whether you meant it as a legitimate question. Who does use 'whom'? And why? What sort of encounter demands the excavation of obsolete words in order to fulfill itself? I've no doubt I was not actually engaged in such an encounter in the essay in question, I was just trying to sound fancy, but the broader question became a pleasant distraction.

Frances Madeson said...

Maybe it's not the method, but some other madness I detected. Thanks so much for extending the thoughts so helpfully. It's really great to have a place to bring things that baffle, bother or rattle one about the articulation of writing practices. Or obversely, to appreciate writing one greatly admires.

I wonder how you might respond to this passage on shading and Writing that I think "works us over in all sorts of ways." It's from Edmond Caldwell's thrill ride of a debut novel Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant:

"This guard this Wooden Indian or rather Writing Indian also happens to be a White Indian, even a WASP Indian, where our protagonist is swarthy and Semitic-looking probably more Arab-than Jew-looking although in Palestine or the so-called Holy Land it can be tough to tell the difference sometimes just a matter of which side of the bulldozer or big wall you happen to be on, one in a series of swell historical ironies which I am sure they're all savoring together over their tea in the West Bank or Gaza as we speak, but it's the Way of the World that when you see two people doing more or less the same thing but especially anything to do with Writing anything to do with Language or Culture and one of them is lighter skinned and the other one is darker skinned the lighter-skinned one is always the original and the darker-skinned one is always the copy, as night follows day the lighter one is always the primary and the darker one always secondary, just to clear up this dispute, this dispute in the subdued lighting, the lighter one is the prototype and the darker one the mimic, the Way of the World a bitter pill."

With the concentrated flurry of capital letters and conjuring of archetypal images meaning is exploded about something that makes no damn sense (privilege) while the cascades of language rhythmically create the effect of a false and relentless inevitability.

That he dares doing this with the language of geopolitics courting accusations of agitprop makes his project even riskier, more subject to misunderstanding and dismissal. But that he does risk his reputation in this way makes him something of a literary hero in my estimation.

The whole book is genius like that and in many other ways (formally innovative). Later on in the Human Wishes chapter he writes: "Once a narrative gets started it's got a certain tidal pull--to change it takes a mind like the moon."

I'd just love to hear you riff on Edmond's stuff because of the special environmental challenges he makes his readers confront, the elemental injustice of racism as a kind of tiny-handed rain.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Google ate my comment so I try again — and they say technology saves you time...

@ Arthur: Very nice to see you here; thanks for piping in. I have to ask, though, as you sure it was a "whom" I circled and not, say, a "whilst"? In any case, if it was rhetorically effective, I'll take it!

@ Frances: Don't know this book but I like this excerpt. I am enamored of that contemporary style, that Pynchon-thing of the epic, meandering and ever qualifying sentence. This is the modern moment, as I imagine it — never quite sure, always quite sure, qualifying, drifting, folding, referencing. There is a beautiful, compelling rhythm here, choreographing our eyes and our revelations, moving us around the globe, through ideas, and then hitting us in the end with not just a 'j'accuse but a more encompassing bitter pill of it all. I like your reading of the capitalization, too: they seem at once mocking and serious, a German affectation which is always funny, sorta.

dustygravel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dustygravel said...

Back when I was a stanchy little teenaged mess, I spent all my time drawing, every class and after school I would draw and draw and draw. I got so good all my friends would ask "how do you draw so awesome!" One day my friend asked me if I imagined my drawings before hand, and I didn't even know the answer to that question, dazed and confused as I usually was back then, I didn't know what to tell him. I didn't even know where my work was coming from. After that I started to per-plain my drawings as a practice, and strangely enough this killed something in me. I guess it was my responsiveness and sensitivity that started to slip way from me, I stopped letting the work emerge from its own set of problems. I grow more impatient with my work, and it became more sporadic and less complete. I don't think this was just because I was over thinking it, I think it was because I was looking for something that wasn't there.

I remember you recommending, in one of your UC Barkley lectures, taking on someone else’s voice and see where it leads you. Now I often think of Nietzsche when I write. I think Nietzsche has an amplifying affect. He mocks continuity by embracing his self contradiction. His negation is an affirmation, as they say Nietzsche, “just likes drama!” When one of my friends read my writing he said it was Hegelian, which surprised me. I like Hegel’s style, I find it to be epic, and terrifying, but it's not me, ultimately he's to tidy. I also find myself channeling Hunter S. Thompsons fantastically blunt pessimism from time to time, but, I'm more metaphysical then he is, and in a way more literal.

Out of all the concepts that you talk about Dr. Coffeen, I think the ‘infinite’ is the most hard for me to grasp. Some times when you talk about it it sounds like an escape from the teeming chaos of immanence, and sometimes it sounds like a union with that vary chaos.

I did this post back in December that I think might be close to what you call the ‘infinite’, I’m not shore.


Daniel Coffeen said...

Dusty, I love this...The taking on another's voice is an ancient rhetorical exercise. What I love about it is that it forces you to do things you might not normally do — not just consider things but do them. It's a training of the body and mind and more all at the same time. Inevitably, we deviate from that other voice and within it find another way of going — you channeling Hunter S and Hegel and neither.

So, as for the infinite: I believe you do know what I mean (reading your blog). It's that seethe of all things, that swirl of time and collision of the cosmos — suns and space junk and moons and thoughts and ants and cookies and love and shaving. I was about to say something about "the infinite" but, of course, there are infinite infinities. Still, when I say "the infinite" I mean: the cosmos, the set of all sets, that set that includes itself and, in so doing, becomes infinite because there is no closure, not in any absolute sense, only local comings and goings (death, fire, etc).

That all said, I wrestle and negotiate this idea of the infinite myself, all the time. I know, for me, there is a beautiful peace I find in the infinite universe — all this nonsense, all these neuroses, all these pains and fears, are taken up, put in their proper place and I find relief.

dustygravel said...

Thankyou kindly sir.

The set of all sets; my friend says it doesn't exists, I think he read Zizek saying that, and took it to heart. Maybe it's an actual principal of set theory.

I'm like "why not", everything: it's a set of all sets.

Daniel Coffeen said...

I like that the set of all sets is a process of relentless self-overcoming.

dustygravel said...

Oh how Hegelian

dustygravel said...

I thought it was clever to call what you said Hegelian. I guess it isn't.

Doesn't Delueze talk about a whole that is open to the future in cinema 1.

When I tryed to explain cinema 1 to a friend she said "oh! like a whole with holes!" and I'm like yeah but the holes are in time. (So fuckin' tripy!)

Daniel Coffeen said...

It WAS clever. I laughed — or smiled, with appreciation. Alas, it was not reflected in pixel.

The Cinema books are some of the most difficult books I've ever read. I think I understand — and I use the word loosely — about .01% of it. But, I agree, super freakin' trippy.