2.23.2016

Writing and Speaking as Performance

For the last 25 years, writing has been a kind of meditation for me, if you will. It's how I slip into the ether, letting go of ego as ideas and words play through me. Writing never feels like mastery. It feels like participation, the grammars of the social, conceptual, and linguistic carrying me along a series of possible trajectories and necessarily landing me on this one, here and now. Writing is beautiful like that, at once so generous and despotic. It gives you x number of options and then demands you choose one.

I always loved writing as a practice rather than as a mode of communication. It's the writing itself that turns me on and riles me up — to be carried along by the mechanics of ideas meeting language meeting what's coherent (more or less).  It takes me out of myself, out of the insistent and insane demands of the everyday ego.

No doubt, we tend to see the writer as an egomaniac, forging the world in his likeness. But that's to forget and ignore all the constraints of language, of words, of people. Burroughs and Beckett and others pushed up against this — these logics, these possibilities, these necessary limits.  Writing is a kind of surrender that doesn't abandon self but becomes self:

The old writer lived in a boxcar by the river. … Often in the morning he would lie in bed and watch grids of typewritten words in front of his eyes that moved and shifted as he tried to read the words, but he never could. He thought if he could just copy these words down, which were not his own words, he might be able to put together another book and then…yes, and then what (Burroughs, The Western Lands, his greatest book).

I loved writing my dissertation. I know grad students complain about this part which, frankly, is insane to me. Why else go to grad school? Writing my dissertation was writing a book, a sustained argument for around 200 pages. It was like building a house from the inside out, deciding what needed to be built next based on whim and necessity. Ah, a veranda here! A hall and stairway here leading back down there! A turret here! Perfect! Only, the only person living in the edifice was me. Which is awesome!

We think about writing as a mode of expression. It's way to communicate what's inside me to you who's outside me. But that's not all that writing is. Writing is itself — and first and foremost — a practice of engineering, aligning, assembling ideas, words, and one's self. It's a kind of surfing, ocean and crowd, leaping into the undulation and riding it out.

And so, after the pleasure of writing my dissertation, I continued writing books — sustained arguments over 100 or so pages. I never did anything with them. Publication always seemed foreign to my writing practice. I wasn't writing to tell anybody anything; and I sure as shit wasn't writing to make money. I was writing as I loved to get lost, and found, in the performance itself. (Alas, I do have a book coming out later this year, published by Zero Books. Publishing speaks to a different component of writing, an ethical component. But more on that another time.)

Oh, that's an awesome moment! To be carried along the waves of an idea, veering this way and that along the grammars of language! This is bliss. This is what I assume the surfers are talking about, feeling the ocean's tumult and power, letting them be your guide as you steer into the wave's vortex. This is writing: steering into the crest of an idea hitting words hitting the world and it's fucking beautiful.

A few months ago, writing began to feel like a chore. It wasn't something that carried me along; it was something that I carried along. But I craved that abandon and remembered that that was what I experienced when I was teaching: performance as the subsuming of ego. I loved prancing and rambling to students. I was always less interested in their comprehension of the material than in the rhetorical postures we created as a classroom (eeesh! That sounds vague and odd!).

So I began speaking into a mic rather than writing — which explains the past few weeks of podcasting rather than bloggng. When I turn on my mic, I have an idea but that's all. I'm not sure where it's going to take me either in words, ideas, or inflection. And that's the pleasure! Getting lost in the performance of articulation!

I'm not that interested in explicating this or that idea. For me, that's just so much fodder. I love the performance of writing and speaking — not in terms of performing for an audience but in terms of performing as doing.

After all, life happens. That is, life isn't per se. Life is always an activity; we're always doing something. Writing and speaking are not a matter of this ego using language as a tool to convey to you, another ego over there, what I want or need. Writing and speaking are actions, ways and modes of taking on the world, of taking on ideas and words, and at once abandoning and superseding the ego. Writing and speaking are not means. They are actions, practices. And should afford the speaker and writer the pleasure of living.

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