1.03.2019

What's the Point of Writing?




I sit down to write less and less these days. It's not for lack of things to say; nor is it for lack of discipline. I have plenty of time and plenty of thoughts — although I'm not sure said thoughts want to come to points only to be poked, prodded, extended, forced into metaphors and examples and the same old turns of phrase, all those thises and thats and that is to says of which I am so fond.


Writing often limits the play of an idea or observation. Of course, such constraint is not inherent to writing; it's just how writing is taught. Writing can explode a thought or observation, fold it into surprising  configurations, give ideas or observations tendrils, make them sprawl, multiply, peter out. It can make ideas less coherent, messier, more visceral, and more beautiful for it. If only that's how writing were taught! Or, perhaps, if only that were one way of writing that was taught. I'm dumbfounded by the absurdities that my son, as a freshman in a San Francisco public school, is taught. Watching him has me considering the things I've been taught in classrooms, the things I've taught in classrooms, and the what, where, and how people are taught about language and writing as they go about their lives. I suddenly see that there is shockingly little concerted attention paid to the pedagogy of language. That's probably best kept for another post where I can wax on, delve, come to points and such about these matters, where I can make a concerted argument. (Writing is always a matter of propriety, one way or another). Where I can make a point! Try to change things! Is that why we write? Why I write? Who am I going to change? Why would I want to do such a thing? Who am I to change anyone? Come to think of it, all of my pedagogy has been focused on creating people I might enjoy talking to. Because I don't enjoy talking to most people. It's not their fault; it's nothing they're doing wrong. It's me, not you. Truly. I just prefer people with my sense of humor, my ironic tendencies, my intellectual perversions. In the meantime, it suddenly seems so downright bizarre to me that there is much more attention paid to algebraic equations than there is to the mechanics and mysteries of writing. I mean, why the fuck are they teaching my kid how to decipher equations and not discussing the rhythm of punctuation;  the pyrotechnics of prose; the way words operate affectively, sensually, and conceptually at once and always in a different calculus; how a word can inflect an idea and vice-versa; how a piece of writing tours an invisible space, a choreography of thought and feeling, a play of seduction, of expectations and revelations; how language entails a certain violence as it coerces thoughts, eyes, mouths, culture (as you read, your eyes and mind are in the hands of the text); the role of tone and character as the very act of writing effaces you (your writing is not you; its relationship to you is nebulous at best; this means you, as writer, can assume any character, use any turns of phrase, borrow the lingoes and jargon of any class, race, time period, gender (I, for one, enjoy slipping between erudite fruitcake, made up olden day formality, and out of date slang all tempered with a taste for alliteration — but only in writing, not speaking (did I lose track of my parentheses?))); how odd it is that writing can both describe and perform the same action, in this case, the words I'm writing right now are the very act of me thinking how inane it is that we're never really taught writing and is a description of me doing that very thing (writing doesn't always or only come later, after the event, as a report; the act of writing is an event, too). 

Anyway, sometimes my thoughts do reach for the structure prose proffers. I use the word proffer more than most. Funny how we become attracted to a word, a phrase, a gesture; and then, after a bit, it's gone. You can see why Burroughs calls language a virus: you catch it, it takes you over, then runs its course and dies out. Or kills you. Or mutates. Or finds a kind of symbiosis with its host (you). So, yes, sometimes I lie on my couch and think and my thoughts may come together here and there to form something that could become an essay or article.

But these days, more often than not, an idea comes, sits for a bit, maybe even longer, but neither the idea nor I feel any need, compulsion, or desire to follow, structure, or compose. Its duration is enough. It's plenty. Flashes, smiles, notions, images, flickers of thought, all an avant-garde movie or a diary or the place at which a diary becomes a surreal montage as identity kaliedoscopes and drifts into these threads and fractures of thought.

Paragraphs frame an idea and pace a paper. This is something I used to teach in my classes. A paragraph should be able to stand alone; it is a discrete insight even if qualified by what precedes or follows it. But it's not just a conceptual break; it's a physical break for the reader or speaker. When readers see no paragraph indentations, they know they need to be in shape as there's nowhere to stop. That indentation gives the reader a ledge to sit on and catch her breath. I've always been jealous of those writers who don't use paragraph breaks like that, who feel no need to give their readers a respite, who demand you plod along, keep up — or forge your own resting point in the middle of the river. Forge is another word I use a lot. Proffer and forge: my linguistic viruses. And, usually, lots of paragraph breaks. I'm a pleaser like that. But I want to explore less discretion in my paragraphs (see above).  


These days, I'm working on a lecture I'll be giving on Nietzsche for an independent online university. When it's done, I'll give the details should you be interested. But, for now, I'm thinking about how to corral Nietzsche into a two hour lecture that my son will film in my house and around San Francisco — I imagine there will be buffalo as seeing them alongside hawks and squirrels always makes me think of the vicissitudes of the will to power, the taut attention of the vulture and the equanimity of the buffalo — which all has me thinking about the slippery ways of the performative which, in turn, brings me back to my earlier point (did I have a point?): How can we educate our children for at least 10 years — by law! — and not teach them about the performative? This may be the most critical absence in our culture; if we all learned to reckon the performative, we'd read life so differently. We'd stop taking people at their words; we'd include action as information and, at the very least, make more interesting sense of things. Is that a reason to write and teach? Hmm.

So while I've taught essays and books by Nietzsche dozens of times the fact is, these days, I live with Nietzsche. I don't explicate him. Mind you (what a phrase!), I enjoy explicating Nietzsche because it becomes a kind of possession as I lean into his rich shtick and let it permeate my vibratory flesh before oozing out my mouth in a breadth of extreme manual gestures. But I don't explicate much of anything these days except when my brilliant female cohort inquires. And then it is gloriously fun to wax on about ressentiment. Nietzsche's shtick reverberates in my being, an echo I can always hear, feel, enact. But that is quite different than lecturing on Nietzsche as now I need to think about someone on the interweb coming to me, watching me gesticulate for two hours, then walking away with a sense of Nietzsche. From living with to explicating to explicating as living with. Or some such thing.

Why write anything? Well, I like writing as a process, as an event in which ideas, words, the social, and I meet and negotiate each other. It's sensual, often erotic, at times deliriously so. I think of writing less and less as composition and more and more as channeling, letting my thoughts and words be nudged by forces that far exceed my little if inflated ego.

Yes, more and more, this is what I want from writing: to succumb rather than to compose — succumb to the ebbs and flows of words and ideas rather than composing some symphony. I'm less inclined to be the one reigning rogue ideas in, grooming the frayed edges, making ideas fit into paragraphs. I want to be the medium, leaning back as the ideas leak out my fingers to meet language and become this. I want to be as surprised as the next guy by what comes. I feel less compulsion these days to deliver the nuggets I so enjoyed when I was younger. I strove for intellectual, linguistic dim sum — discrete pockets of deliciosity. Now, I say: Let it come down.

In writing, as in life I suppose, I have nothing to prove. Nothing I want to accomplish. I don't care if anyone reads what I write; I don't care if my words are never read. I don't write for posterity; I don't write to perpetuate myself.  Of course, I have written to perpetuate, extend, amplify myself; that may very well have been my dominant driver. I think I wrote to prove to people that I was smart. But now, honestly, who cares? Surely not me. These days, I'm not interested in being heard, being recognized as this or that. And I'm certainly not interested in making an impact on the world (whatever that is). I don't want to write as an audition for my right (write?) to exist! I just want to go well for and as me, as this, with whatever words may or may not dribble out. 

I've been thinking about Nietzsche and his view of the world as revelatory — his view is not revelatory; the world is revelatory. Language is tricky like that: it asks for distinctions between actors and actions, between subject and object, when experience more often than not belies such distinctions. Which is part of Nietzsche's argument in On the Genealogy of Morals: we say lightning strikes when lightning is itself always a striking. To say lightning strikes is to posit a subject behind the action, a doer behind the deed, when all there is is the deed. What is lightning that doesn't strike? It's not lightning. I suppose, in some perverse way, I don't want to write. I want to be writing.




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