Notes on the Anxiety and Liberation of Writing

These days, people write all the time. I know that might not sound quite right but, as we know, we don't talk much to each other. We text. Text has become a verb! And not one made up by 90s post-structural academics! When I used text back in the day, it always smacked of pretentious academia (I don't like such accusations of pretension; it seems based in a deep rooted anti-intellectualism that disturbingly lurks in Americans but that's for another time).

Yet despite this rampant writing, there persists a certain anxiety around writing. It seems that while many are more or less comfortable with this texting and its Morse code-like shorthand and hieroglyphs, once they need to write an email or an essay — what's an essay? who writes essays these days? — they stammer. (In full disclosure, I text in full sentences with paragraphs, parentheticals, citations. I keep looking for the italics option. Mind you, this is not because I believe in proper writing; I don't. It's because I enjoy such writing and, well, I don't know how to do the texting as the kids do.)

Having taught comp and humanities courses for over 15 years — at UC Berkeley, mostly — and then having participated in the online dating world which, oddly, is comprised mostly of textual missives; the only thing more anxiety producing than the written word, it seems, is meeting in person —  I am well acquainted with the anxiety and discomfort (and inability) people experience when confronted with the demand to put words on page. These same people don't usually panic when they speak. So it's not a matter of language per se triggering them. No, it's writing, the act of inscribing words visually. I see this anxiety in all walks of life, in people of all ages, genders, backgrounds, and settings, personal and professional.

I don't blame them. Writing is disconcerting. You sit there in front of your screen thinking this or that; you tap your fingers across the keyboard and, boom, there are these words over there on the screen which, despite marketing that suggests otherwise, is not smart. And yet it's suddenly saying things, making sense (or not), assuming a voice and tone. Is it my sense? Is it my voice? If so, what's it doing over there? What is my responsibility for it? To it? In the Phaedrus, Socrates calls writing an orphan that rolls about without anyone to defend it: And when [speeches] have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not; and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.

In this sense, writing is akin to cutting your nails or hair. This stuff which was you, or seemed like you, is no longer you. I distinctly remember that uncanny sensation of seeing my hair lying on the bathroom floor after my mother had snipped away. Ever see human hair in the garbage? It's creepy. Seeing words I thought were mine on the page in front of me is uncanny in the same way: me and not-me are over there, to be disposed of any old way.

But perhaps a better analogy is shit. Words and ideas are food and writing is their digestion: we take them in, process them, play them back. Shit is considered grotesque, of course, but then again that's how many people feel about their writing: it's all so much ick. We are taught at a young age to shit in a toilet and then flush it away — woosh and it's gone. I see the fear in toddlers' eyes. Isn't that part of me? Where is it going? Why doesn't anyone talk about it? Ahhhhhhhhhh!

And so some young 'uns cling to their making, preferring to defecate in their diapers. They don't want to relinquish control, give up their creation to the great violent plumbing infrastructure. So they hold on to it. After Freud, we call this anal retention.

I've seen this same hanging on in the faces — feces? — of my students. They just can't seem to write the paper and, even if they do, they resist handing it in. It's scary shit! These words and ideas come out of them but then there they are, on a wrinkled set of pages, being tossed in my dirty backpack. Ahhhhhhhhh!

There's something hilarious about this. On the one hand, it's an attempt to tether identity to a process we call writing that, by nature, unmoors identity. On the other hand, the use of that "as" suggests that I can post as anyone but just happen to be posting as Daniel Coffeen, that writing doesn't secure identity but proliferate it.

Writing undoes us. It's us but not us. In fact, it's emphatically not us. I am this — this ridiculous nose, this ridiculous body, this excuse for a beard, these thoughts and feelings. The words I write are other things over there that are shared all willy nilly by anyone and everyone,  passed around, coming in and out of the mouths and fingers of any ol' person with desire. There are a lot of Daniels. To write, then, is to move out of oneself. It's to have one's sense making, one's most private thoughts, meld with this mysterious common body we call the written word.

If only the page were as clear cut as a toilet! (I do love italics; note the name of my blog — the emphatic figures prominently.) A toilet's flush may have a resounding finality to it that's scary but when I write, there's no toilet. On the contrary, now my words are out there, floating around the universe for anyone to see. Usually, I want — or need — someone to see it. For many people, I believe, writing is akin to shitting at a party and the toilet just won't flush.

And not only is writing an orphaning of one's words, it has so many complex rules. To express yourself, you can't just spew words any old way. There is an order — nouns, verbs, prepositions, tenses, pronouns, sequence. And, to make it worse, these rules aren't absolute. It's not like I have an idea and then choose my written expression from a list of options. Oh, I'll go with Option A and, boom, your writing is done Nope. In writing, there are so many different ways to express an idea, so many ways to begin a sentence, so many options at every turn — from word choice to voice to which rules to adhere to (I, for one, love ending in prepositions and splitting infinitives; much of school room grammar is arbitrary and silly.) And then, once I make a decision, all kinds of new choices emerge.

I'm going to the store.
To the store I go!
The store is being gone to by me (eesh!).
I am going to the store.
I'm going to the corner store.
I'm going shopping.
I'm headed to the shop.

All these word choices! All these constructions! Writing is rich with internal logics, limits, ways of going that determine sense as well as mood, little of which you get to determine. Once you enter the written page, you are no longer the master.

And we haven't even discussed the audience which, oddly, isn't ever here. That's the whole thing about writing: it's asynchronous communication. When I speak to you, you respond. The words are not as important as other things, as our being together and what feels like. But when the same words are written, isolated on a screen, the words take on a different role. When speaking, mood and social etiquette comes to the fore — so much so that people often don't even notice what you've said. In writing, words take center stage.

To wit, I used to do this obnoxious thing (I used to do, and probably continue to do, all sorts of obnoxious things). I'd ask someone — a barrista, a casual acquaintance on the street — a conspicuously personal question. You get any lately? Almost every time, the person would reply. Uh, huh? Uh, yes... Why would they reply when my question was so clearly out of place? Because a question is a social contract and people in America are loathe to confront face to face yet love to when enjoying the absence writing affords. See: Yelp reviews, Thought Catalog comments, Twitter trolling. Were I to ask the same question in an email, they'd ignore it or tell me to fuck myself.

The time and context of the writing — the rhetorical milieu, if you will — is so different from the time and context of speaking. There is a spatial and temporal gap between when I write and when you read. I don't know what mood you'll be in. Maybe you're grumpy after a hard day's work. Or you just met another fella who's caught your eye and my missive feeds your doubts about me. When I'm writing, I don't know how you'll take a particular word, if you'll know I'm joking, if you'll know my references.

And this is all assuming you're the one reading what I wrote. As we know, once set to page, writing is set loose in the world. I may have only emailed you — which you remains to be determined — but the fact is the writing is out there for all to see. The now-act of writing is hence inflected by a future audience that is unknown in size and mood. When we write, in some way, we are always writing for all people across all time. In this, writing is a photograph: when we pose for a picture, we get uncomfortable because we're being looked at by unknown eyes at an unknown time. With writing and photography, the now is never quite the now.

And, damn, the things I wrote in that now are still now! I may have changed my mind about this or that but that piece of writing keeps saying the same things over and over. To infinity! The written word never changes. It's a now that's never quite a now and yet remains stubbornly now. Writing can't all of a sudden change its mind.

Yep, writing is scary. You have to give up control to this strange body with all kinds of rules and modes of operation. It's an inherently public act so you are on display — and you don't even know to whom you're on display. It's not surprising that writing causes anxiety.

And yet the very thing that makes writing scary is the very thing that makes writing liberatory. It demands we leave our egos behind, that we lean into this morass of forces and rules that is written language in order to recreate ourselves in the world. That we face the often inchoate stream of moods and ideas bouncing and streaming through our bodies and try to inflect them with this incredible thing, these written words and their grammar, in order to make some kind of sense, to at least express a desire to others if not to introduce new ways of going in the world.

A great hindrance for would-be writers is that they think they need to express themselves. That somehow, somewhere, there is a version of themselves in writing that they've yet to discover. But finding your voice in writing doesn't mean discovering something that's already there. It means happening upon a rhythm and mode of going with language that makes you feel great. If writing unmoors identity, the response is not to try to moor. There is no mooring to be had. The trick is to play in the waves and love it.

The surf analogy is apropos. Just as the ocean has tendencies but is always changing, written language has propensities but it's not a fixed thing. It is a way, not a house. There's no hidden room where your voice lives. When we enter writing, we let go of ourselves. That's the whole point!

As in surfing (he says not only never having surfed but not even knowing how to swim), the writer has to lean into the fray, into the surge, the tug, the swell of the ocean of language and mood and ideas. When you write, you are no longer in the realm of the true and sure. You enter the world of becoming, a place that is never a place once and for all, where nonsense becomes a new kind of sense only to teeter into nonsense once again. Writing is not a matter of moving thoughts from point A to point B, even if it often feels like that. No, writing is a matter of playing at the border of chaos and order, at the ever emergent junctures of sense where the self gives way to the world.


dg said...

"Written language may have been conceived as a modest way of describing reality, but it gradually became a powerful way to shape reality... Anyone who has dealt with complex bureaucracy knows that the truth hardly matters. What's written on your form is far more important." ~Yuval Noah Harari

I live this daily. A multi-million dollar machine sits idle. The part to get it running sits beside it in a box. The part can't be installed in the machine because the paperwork doesn't exist. It's as if the paper and the writing is a kind of magic that animates matter.

Playwrights say my play is good, so I sit across the table from actors trying to translate/buttress my writing's intent/meaning/sentiment with the my speaking. And even if I were perfect in my translation, could a 36 year old urbanite grasp the feelings of gutting her first moose?

Daniel Coffeen said...

"It's as if the paper and the writing is a kind of magic that animates matter": this made my day... Thank you.

As for the play, it seems like that is the issue with all communication amplified. We say shit; people hear some other shit; something entirely else happens. I don't see this as a limit or failure of language; I see it as an indifferent operation that allows for all kinds of play. To wit, your urbanite might bring something surprising to the feeling of gutting her first moose precisely because you'll never be able to deliver a perfect translation as no such thing exists. That presumed gap in communication need not be a gap at all but a productive collision. Or some such thing.