“When I try to analyse my own cravings, motives, actions and so forth, I surrender to a sort of retrospective imagination which feeds the analytic faculty with boundless alternatives and which causes each visualised route to fork and re-fork without end in the maddeningly complex prospect of my past.”
– Vladmir Nabokov, Lolita (1959), p.12
I hate it when my mind draws a blank.
This is especially maddening when I’m in the mood to write, which doesn’t happen too regularly these days. John Updike’s advice to aspiring writers is to write every day, however short the length or trivial the content, while Jonathan Safran Foer’s weekly routine consists of waking up at 4 am so that he could write for two hours before going to work. The fact that they practised what they preached is also what makes them Updike and Safran Foer, two of the best authors to have come out of the American post-war literati. To them, writing itself is religion, and the act of writing comparable to that of prayer.
Ideally, I’d follow in their footsteps, but the lure of sloth and sleep too often precludes my pursuit of more writerly ambitions. Regardless, I still keep a journal, which helps curb my laziness on the pen-moving front.
The problem with this though, is that I mostly end up just talking about myself – to myself. Which is kind of the point of journaling, I guess. Still, it’s discomforting to feel that my diary isn’t all that different from the priest in a confessional (which I’ve never been in) or a boyfriend who’s still too loved up to tell you that ‘frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’ (which is probably the case).
Sometimes, I’m embarrassed by this meta-exercise of telling myself too much about me, mainly because all of my journal entries read like confessions.
Ever since I was a kid, the most common criticism I’d get is that I’m too self-centred and hypersensitive a person. What most people don’t realise is that I’m also painfully shy, which makes me self-conscious almost all the time, and in turn overly concerned with how I should come across to others/what others think of me. I’ve also noticed that a lot of writers tend to be all of these things, especially the Romantic poets, who followed an artistic credo which was very much about centring the subject matter on themselves with a heightened sensitivity to their own feelings and thoughts.
This probably explains why William Wordsworth – the bane of so many literary scholars, happens to be one of my favourite poets. Birds of the same feather flock together, except my readiness to claim kin with Wordsworthian plumage likely makes me a megalomaniac as well (which, according to my Renaissance lit professor back at college, is pretty much Wordsworth in a nutshell).
The way I deal with this melange of journal-inspired emotions is ironic:
To dispel the discomfort of writing, I usually write even more than is necessary.
Sad or shitty days tend to sire rants of epic proportions, composed in Medusan sentences in which I’m all screw you problems and you too paragraphs because when I’m in bitch mode I could care less about that intro-main body-conclusion spiel. In fact, screw structure and syntax altogether; instead, let the pandemonium of emotions set in, the avalanche of adjectives rain down, and the rhetoric of ruefulness take rein to lessen my pain. Such humanly-endowed, emotionally-charged words need no conscious writing down, as I imagine them to manifest on the page, in a tumbling onrush, out of their own agentless volition.
This image reminds me of a description in the novel I’ve recently completed – Italo Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience, where the protagonist compares the difficulty of writing about pain with the movement of a choo-choo train:
“In writing, or rather, in setting down on paper these painful memories, I discover that the image that obsessed me at my first attempt to see into my past, that locomotive dragging a series of cars up a slope, had come to me initially on that sofa, as I listened to my father’s breathing [before his death].
That is how locomotives sound, as they pull enormous loads: they emit regular puffs that then accelerate, ending in a menacing pause as the listener fears he will see engine and train go hurtling downhill.”
(Penguin edition, p. 46)
In fact, it’s amazing how inundating a page with words works largely like intoxicating a mind with alcohol, which I think is exactly what Keats had in mind when he wrote his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ two centuries ago:
Away! Away! For I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee!
After all, who needs vino when verse does the job, sans hangover?
There are, of course, subtler ways of coping with the emotional hang-ups that stem from self-reflection:
In my writing class yesterday, I had the students ‘turn’ prose into poetry by rearranging some sentences from Saint Augustine’s Confessions into run-on lines. In return, I close read their ‘poetic excerpts’ and gave them my Freudian two cents on what I thought their revisions reveal about how they understand the confessor’s psychology.
One of my students presented some ripe food for thought with the following rearrangement:
(Augustine’s original, in which the saint beseeches God to save his “iniquitous” soul)
Narrow is the mansion of my soul; enlarge thou it, that thou mayest enter in. It is ruinous; repair thou it. It has that within which must offend thine eyes; I confess and know it. But who shall cleanse it? Or to whom should I cry, save thee? Lord, cleanse me from my secret faults, and spare thy servant from the power of the enemy.
(My student’s revision of the above)
Narrow is the mansion of my soul; enlarge
thou it, that thou mayest enter in. It is ruinous; repair
thou it. It has that within which must offend thine eyes; I confess and
know it. But who shall cleanse
While the anaphoric parallel of “thou it” projects a semblance of balance and stasis, the metrical progression of the first three lines suggests tumescence and change, as they swell to the climax of “I confess”, a declaration that makes clear the nature of Augustine’s address to God. This juxtaposition creates a wonderful contrast; one that crystallises the push and pull of the theologian’s psychological battles within.
What I find most interesting though, is how my student suddenly departs from the (pronoun/verb) + (preposition) pattern once he reaches the “cleanse it” reference, instead dislodging “cleanse” from “it” by dint of a line break, in a manner reminiscent of Hercules’ breaking of Prometheus’ chain as chronicled in Shelley’s ‘Prometheus Unbound’.
Typographically, this results in a visual gutter that highlights the contrast in length between lines 3 and 4, but symbolically, the blank space after “cleanse” bespeaks a subconscious desire on my student’s part to recover the tabula rasa – that Lockean testament to man’s inherent purity, which opposes the Christian reading of man as the ‘blotted’ inheritor of Original Sin.
Thus, the student ‘fulfils’ the imperative of “cleansing” by purging line 4 of words, and, as it were, anticipates Augustine’s wish for God to purge his soul of sin.
Overall though, the class seemed to prefer re-writing the lyrics to Usher’s ‘Confessions: Part II’. Even when I had the boys read out those lines in which the singer confesses to be “creepin’ with, creepin’ with… that chick on Part I”. ‘Twas kinda awks in retrospect.
But anyway, to echo one of my earliest posts on this blog, poetry = happiness. Whenever the prose of confession fails, the joy of poetry will me avail. I don’t know about salvation, but at the very least, consolation can always be found in many a cheesy rhyming couplets.
That much I know to be true.