The Form Writing Takes: Essays, Books, Notes

Recently, I find myself disinclined to write. Which is funny — and a bit disconcerting — as writing has been my go-to delight since I was 20 and writing my undergraduate honors thesis. I discovered then that I could churn out the pages and that it filled me not just with delight but with vitality. I never feel more alive and entwined with the universe than when I'm writing.

For me, writing has never been an expression of thoughts I've had. It is thought itself happening right now across the page (or screen, as the case may be — although I do continue to write on my tiny Rhodia pad). Writing, for me, is an experience rather than a recounting. I am at the edge of my seat, literally, but also at the edge of my thoughts and the edges of words and grammar — reaching, delving, exploring, seeking the right word, the right turn of phrase, as ideas take shape before my eyes. It is thrilling, life at the limit of its own becoming.

Recently, I've published a book with a press I love, Zero Books (the official release date is August 26th). It's a book I've written and re-written many times over the last 20 years. So it feels good that it's out there in this present form; it is a pretty good summation of thoughts I've had — and believed, I suppose — for decades.

But I think that its bookishness, its closed borders, has dampened my will to write. Books are so final. In the process of publishing, I had to sign off on the manuscript's finality along the way. And now it's bound and printed, an object in the world. I can't tweak a phrase, add an idea, qualify a claim. There it is, repeating itself over and over to anyone who will read it. It's done.

This is a beautiful thing in its way. Like the Oulipo writers, I enjoy constraints. If I hadn't published this book, I'd keep writing it over and over. Which is beautiful, too, but in a different way. With the thingness of a book demanding a finale, a form is birthed, perhaps a bit misshapen but a life unto itself nonetheless. It will now do what it does, have the effects and affects it does. (Plato and Derrida differ over how they feel about precisely this fact: Plato is a bit anxious that writing has no parent to defend it; Derrida loves this undoing of subjectivity; but both feel the power of this detachment from the person.)

I always enjoyed writing books (although this is my first one published). I loved writing my dissertation; as I've written in the past, writing a book is constructing a house from the inside out — while living in it! You can add whatever room you want, knock down walls as you go.

But after my son was born, my ability to have the kind of time and space — practically and intellectually — was, well, eliminated. And so, tentatively, I took up blogging. At first, all my posts were essays I'd write first in Word before cutting and pasting into blogware. Over time, however, I took to writing directly into the blog UI. I enjoy this liveliness, my writing sitting somewhere between me, my screen, and the internet. I like this plasticity, that I can change it, write over it, write it again as I wish, when I wish, with nearly no obstacles. If a book is solid, a blog is liquid.

Essays are an incredible form, so generous (I wrote about them here). They afford me a freedom, a space and form to improvise and play.

But recently I keep having thoughts, flickers of ideas. I jot them down or verbally record them on my phone. In the past, I've thought of these notes as seeds that might germinate and become essays. But now I am attracted to their brevity, to the fact that they don't go anywhere. I like the fragmented nature of the note.

If I published just one note on this blog, in this interface, it would look silly, look almost wrong. And readers would be confused or maybe bored (of course, they may be bored right now reading this essay about not writing essays). Where, then, does the note live? Twitter, perhaps. That's certainly how I use my Twitter (talk about an Oulipo-style constraint!).

But I don't always want that constraint, either. I want the note to go as it will, fork as it will, end as it will. I can do this in my pad and my voice memos. But how do I publish notes? Maybe they're not for publishing; maybe notes are too private to be of interest to anybody else. We'll see, I suppose.


dg said...

Looking forward to the book.I'd buy the notes,too. Might be cool to have you talk about the notes like you're talking about the book.

XXX said...

Could be relevant to this post: Michael Taussig's I Swear I Saw This. Just wanted to mention it here...

mittens said...

random thought, have you considered these as parts of poems? Instead of treating them as bits, treat them as poems, or the beginning of one, and see where it leads...

Daniel Coffeen said...

DG: Always a pleasure. Thank you, kindly. The idea of talking through notes is interesting — a kind of verbal cut up, maybe. Hmn.

XXX: Always love a good recommendation — thanks and thanks. I looked online and I see why you suggest it. I've seen a few big art shows that include the notes on curation and layout; I always love that.

Mittens: That is interesting; I fear the poet in me is ill-formed, as it were. But I like your thinking and maybe I need to open myself up a bit more. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment; I appreciate it enormously.