Wrestling with Restlessness & Writing

“I do not read today what I wrote yesterday; nor shall I read this tomorrow. I write simply so my hand can move, my thoughts move of their own accord. I write to kill a sleepless hour.”

– Hjalmar Söderberg, Doctor Glas, 1905

“Mortality – seems like the sort of chat that’s just everywhere now, doesn’t it?” (Overheard at Waterstones, Oxford)

These days I find myself restless – or rather, restlessly wavering between the states of inactivity and restlessness.

Re the Scotland travelogue that I promised, I suppose I owe everyone (or anyone who cares) an apology. The truth is, I’ve transcribed and truncated that 20,000-word narrative, only to realise that it contains too many private thoughts and resonances for me to post on a public platform like WordPress. I could excise and revise, but then what’s leftover would essentially be a second-rate, overly rhetorical Lonely Planet-esque entry – i.e. meaningless.

After all, you don’t come to my blog for travel tips or itinerary suggestions, because it’s not intended for that. Not really. It’s shamelessly lyrical*, and therefore shamelessly non-objective in content. So, I’m putting my Scotland travelogue on the back burner, at least for now. If I ever, in the future, find a way to separate the personal from the public in those journal entries, then perhaps you’ll see them digitalised in full excised glory.

But yes, restlessness. It’s anathema, for both the writer and the reader. Having quenched my wanderlust by getting out of the Oxford bubble, I find dealing with the aftermath of returning to be somewhat tricky. So I climbed to the top of Arthur’s Seat, sailed the Loch Ness and flâneured my way across the urban sprawl that is Glasgow, but while my wannabe Wordsworthian communion with nature has granted me with “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings“, my version does not “take its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility“. Ever since coming back, I find it hard even to concentrate on the words of a page, let alone read a mid-length book from cover to cover on an especially idle day. It’s not so much that I can’t sit still, but that my brain keeps whirring, my thoughts scrambling to get out; they no longer flow, but instead assault in an avalanche before I can even say chillax.

CALM THE F DOWN, BRAIN.

So yeah, I’m basically as far removed from tranquility as Bugs Bunny on steroids.

Margaret Atwood

I have, however, managed to finish Margaret Atwood’s On Writers and Writing, which is a fantastic, meta-authorial reflection on – you guessed it – what it means (1) to be a ‘writer’, and (2) to ‘write’ like a ‘writer’. It’s erudite but humble, so not at all jargonistic or pedantic. None of that smug “Montaignean rejection of the ‘less-than-suffisant‘ reader”, to use the comment of my friend who studies French and German and is now on her year abroad in Paris. To anyone who has ever thought about the whys and hows, ins and outs, nuts and bolts of creative writing, I recommend adding this to your Goodreads bucket list.

This restlessness, though, is in its own way a blessing in disguise. In the past few weeks, I’ve noticed this constant itch to just take up a pen and write (no, wrong word) – deface, more like, pieces of paper. Ink before words; sense over semantics; markings above meaning. And when I say ‘pen’, I don’t mean it as an anachronistic metaphor for ‘keyboard’. I mean actually writing with the medium that precedes the typewriter; so not exactly the Shakespearean quill, but more of the Whitmanesque “pen in hand”, to which we owe the wonderful, dynamic manuscript of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (it’s a chirographic marvel, really). Passionate, swift, self-effacing strokes of the pen.

6a156-waltwhitmanleavesofgrassmanuscript

A page from Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ manuscript

There’s something strangely morose about typing, I’ve come to feel, and I can’t help but recall T.S. Eliot’s vignette of modern anomie in his 1922 Waste Land, which remains one of the most haunting poems I’ve ever read:

At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting,
I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at tea-time, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.

(‘The Fire Sermon’, III, The Waste Land, l.215-223)

T.S. Eliot

Eliot himself famously composed on the typewriter. Perhaps as a fellow typist, then, Eliot was privy to the dehumanising rhythms emitted by the keypress; those uniform clicks seeking to both contain and suffocate a unique thought, as seeds of artistic originality become stultified by the sounds of technological progress.

With the onset of 20th-century ‘modernity’, humanity no longer wants expression, but engineering – to become that “human engine” which “waits/Like a taxi throbbing waiting”. “Throbbing”, because it still holds onto that residual pulse of its pre-modern, flesh-filled, human self, but the vehicle of the simile – the taxi (pun intended) – is distinctively modern, given that the taxicab was not invented until 1897 by a Londoner named Walter C. Bersey, who referred to his invention as ‘Hummingbirds’ precisely because of the throbbing, humming noise that it made.

And so the forces of history swallow up the feelings of man wholesale, only to eventually spit them all out in mechanized increments, as pieces of metal on which one hits, as cans of Campbell soup from which one consumes. Efficiency takes over emotionality as the new creed of the age.

Aversion to high Victorian sentimentalism? Perhaps, but that’s too easy. To me, Eliot’s poem is more like Warhol’s pop art in monochrome. I mean, the parallels are there, after all.

I digress. As usual. But at least this sort of distraction leads me back to writing, to being productive on my own terms. And that to me is a testament to living, something which I have always taken for granted. Turning 21 does weird things to your mind, I suppose.

When all logic fails, let logorrhoea prevail. I could live with that.

For now though, let the lovely, morbid thoughts sink in.

*In the sense of expressing personal thoughts; as an inward-tending mode of speech

[Photo credits: Random House, The Airship, St. Louis Today, Pursuit Magazine, UMBC]

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