Photo credit: Piquant Photo
Yesterday, I caught myself doing it again: pleading for a student to physicalize what they were trying to say on the page. Some problems with that: One, even “on the page” is a metaphor, since this student, and most students, have been plugging away page-less all semester. “On the page” really means “in a draft,” which means “in a Google doc currently being thumbed through (literally) on an Android device.” Two, the student had already correctly identified this creative writing class as the part of their semester in which they weren’t required to physically do
anything. I’m just thinking and remembering here
, they told me.
Nevertheless, the word physicalize
felt important to say, as it always does, and, as is often the case, I finished my monologue with at least one balled fist, which seems to be the muscle memory I lean on to convey physical substance: making my hand more overtly three-dimensional. Sometimes I move the fist back and forth, as though I’m gunning the throttle on a vehicle that I’ve never driven. Or I open the fist and close it again — if I do this fast, I’m usually trying to convey the feeling of grasping for an idea; if I do it slowly, it’s a clenching, a winnowing. For a long time, the only way I could think to describe my second book, Lord Fear
, was as a slowly closing fist, a strangle until the air was gone. I held my fist up as some sort of proof of what I’d done. And that was how it felt to write, and it was
what I wanted the reader to feel, but it always seemed a bit ridiculous and incomplete: just a metaphor.
Last month, I was fortunate enough to be at the summit for the United States Artists fellowship, surrounded, for the first time in my life, by a group of artists who were mostly non-writers. I was struck by what should be obvious — the tactile effect of every other form. When various artists described and displayed their work, we in the crowd couldn’t help but think about what a pair of hands did to make a shape out of raw material, what the body endured in the service of a dance, the vibration of a singer’s held note. One brilliant performance artist, Cassils
, showed photographs of work where they beat a block of clay for hours in front of an audience in a dark room. When that clay was eventually cast after the performance, the mark of their effort, the intellect and emotion and physical endurance behind each punch, was captured and made permanent.
At lunch, Cassils spoke about a particular type of clay that best absorbed and transmitted the image of their force, the strength training needed to tune a body to the right calibration to withstand the force of the performance. I told them about how the H
key on my laptop was starting to fall off when I pressed down too hard. Just the H
— jiggling, warped by the pressure of my pointer finger, and what did it mean? I like to think it was the physical evidence of the act of questioning, the essayistic mindset on display. That one letter present in who, what, where, when, why, how
— maybe I pressed down harder on the words that conveyed some sort of wrestling, the intensity of the desire to know what I meant. Mostly, I said, I was just relieved that the I
wasn’t the first letter to go.
I was trying to make apparent the life that writing has a nook in — if you can see everything around that nook, then maybe you can see the shape of the nook, the space it takes up, what it means to me.
I was sort of kidding, but not really. I was trying to find some evidence of my body existing as I wrote, and doing so in ways that related to what I was writing. Sometimes, the desire to do so snaps into clear focus. Often, this happens when I’m stuck on what to say next. Now, for instance: I’m in sweatpants, on my couch. I’ve have just eaten a Kind bar, the crumbs of which are on my shirt. When I get up from the couch, which is old and soft, there will be a large indentation left behind. The floor is dusty. When I get up, it will be to Swiffer. End scene.
It seems impossible to capture or evoke the act of writing in any satisfying way. This is why it’s reliably the least filmable art form. Every movie about a writer has that insufferable writing montage, the same scene every time, revealing nothing, uninspired. Maybe they nibble an eraser, or watch a cursor blink. There’s nothing alive to the image, nothing human. But more and more, what I want as a reader
is some reassurance that, whatever the genre I’m reading, whatever medium I’m reading it on, the work came from somewhere. Someone. That it’s not ether or algorithm.
At some point in my writing education, or probably many points, it was drilled into me that writing about writing was to be avoided at all costs, or, if absolutely necessary, used as a gimmick once before the charm ran out. I don’t think this experience is unique. Even young students already know enough to cringe when they catch one another doing it. When writing my latest book, Captive Audience: On Love and Reality TV
, I started feeling antsy when the act of writing, or even not writing but meaning to write, thinking about writing, eying my computer, kept creeping in. I felt compelled to remind myself, and then the reader, that this wasn’t a book about the process of trying to write. It was a book about many other things: subjects
, beyond the act of attempting to describe them. But the fingerprint of writing was there, or at least as close as I could get. Whether I liked it or not, I was at least partially writing about the act of making writing. I was trying to make apparent the life that writing has a nook in — if you can see everything around that nook, then maybe you can see the shape of the nook, the space it takes up, what it means to me.
I’ve only just realized that I see the act of writing best, as a reader, as an absence, as though it’s the shadow of a sculpture. I just devoured Jenny Boully’s Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life
. It’s a book about the process of writing that is, in many ways, about doing anything else. Yet the image of writing, the process of it, a body engaging in a life that includes it, comes through so vividly. Boully is bundling in blankets in a harsh Chicago winter, kissing, reading, teaching, speaking to her mother, having sex — the imprint of her writing is in all of those acts. It’s the thing she’s not physically doing, but it is somehow tactile in every other action, and then those actions become the display of her writing. It didn’t feel meta or gimmicky, it felt like something essential.
Maybe that move is still boring or self-indulgent for a lot of readers. I don’t know. Sitting, typing, pacing, and rereading can never be the only story that a writer has to tell. But it’s part of every story we do tell. So what I think I should start telling my students and myself is something a little more visceral than the "show don’t tell" dictum. I want to say this: Remind me that you made this thing. Remind me that you’re there.
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was born in New York City and received his MFA from the University of Iowa, where he was the Provost’s Visiting Writer in Nonfiction. His essays and stories have appeared in or are forthcoming from Wigleaf, Barrelhouse, New South, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art
, and The Kenyon Review
. He teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and lives in Providence, Rhode Island. Captive Audience: On Love and Reality TV
is his newest book.