When I write, I try to distill some order—drip by drip—from the chaos that is me. It means first unmasking that façade of certainty that so many of us weave about ourselves. And by “unmask,” I mean in the manner an EF 5 tornado swoops down and noisily, elegantly rewrites our possessions into two categories: large, widely-strewn piles of the inessential, and trembling, almost invisible wisps of the essential; the way it edits with unassailable punctuation, the long, meandering sentences we have labored over in our years of daily semi-sleep.

I do not say this to myself when I sit down to write. Not, anyway, if I hope to get anything done. No, instead I say, “What if I looked at this like that?” or “What might happen to a person who was both x and y?” Or (and this is the best way for me) I gather a group of words whom I have never seen together before under quite that set of circumstances. And if they almost get along but also happen to rub each other the wrong way, I ask them to tell me more. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they tell me to fuck off. When it really goes well, they tell me fuck off and I ignore them and keep listening; and they forget that I’m there (or pretend they have) and keep talking and talking and talking.

Usually when it goes wrong—which happens during at least part of every day—I have come to the page (screen, whatever) with a Capital Idea. Foolproof. Guaranteed to generate at least a couple thousand words in no time. I know because I thought it up and I told myself so, and I would never, ever lie to myself, right?

Everything I do when my process is working is just a trick to get me to arrive at the page empty. With nothing. All the reading and notes and thinking and talking are only exercises to get it all out so that I sit down to write without any foolishness that I know what to say or do.

And the emptier I can make myself, the more the language rushes in to fill the void in ways I could not have imagined. Of course, then it only takes the next couple of weeks/months/years to do the editing. Or I can insist on bending the writing to my will from the beginning, in which case it’s pretty much permanently unusable. I think I prefer empty.

8 thoughts on “Empty

  1. I have found recently that the most fluid writing I produce is the writing that comes without any thought or planning or even knowing what I am going to write when I get to the computer. A strange thing, really: emptiness. If I plan too much, I end up resisting the actual process of writing words. Or trying to force them, which renders them, as you said, “permanently unusable.” This has always seemed somewhat ironic to me, given I have a propensity for being rather meticulous to detail for pretty much everything else in life. But writing has always been an organic process. Like a potato. The story’s buried somewhere, and when it’s ready, it’s ready.

    • When I’m at my best and clearest and most productive, I think writing does operate like a mindfulness exercise for me. It becomes less me finding the words and more me becoming aware of the words that are already there and following them. Always good to hear from you. 8~)}

      • Thanks – some to you :). The way you describe it sounds great – though this is something I only rarely achieve – or rather have not achieved for a while. But as with mindfulness, it is practice that makes it easier. So I practise…

  2. Even before the wrestling match at the screen and keyboard and as I don’t actually have a goal to get words down, the words start arriving in the empty mind when i am out in nature. They fly into my brain as I am far removed from the thought of words, causing me to stop and start getting them down on slips of paper in my pocket, on dirt patches with a stick, or more recently, on this chunky phone in my pocket. You have a gift for allowing the words to reflect the actual struggle of M.A. – which is endearing, connecting, profound, human, beautiful!

    • Thank you for your kind words. For much of my life, I also have had that experience of characters speaking in my head while I’m moving around in the world. These days, I have other small voices competing for my attention in the form of young children; one of my main challenges is balancing those voices and finding a way to respond to both. How have you managed that?

      • How well I remember what you describe, and actually, even though my “little” voices are older, I still feel so divided in their presence, shoot, even when they are just in the house. When they depart for more than a few days, I feel such a different type of silence filling every corner. This big silence feels like a healing and powerful force, and as it arrives, I realize the years and years of moment to moment janggily experience I have had instead with living with these growing beings so constantly. I would recommend a padded closet that locks from within, but I know that wouldn’t be enough to bring in that profound spaciousness. And what of this sharing of space with these young beings? I think we will see what it really was all about later, maybe. The givingness of this, immeasurable! AT the very least, perhaps good compost for the words. 🙂 Wish I lived closer and could take some little ones out for a walk in the park for a bit. It would be fun for me at this stage!

  3. I wouldn’t mind the padded closet if I weren’t convinced that they’d still managed to make themselves heard by banging on the door. I still believe it’s possible to balance those inner and outer voices, the time spent w/the little one and the time for solitude. But it does take concentration, which is a capacity that needs to be developed, like a muscle. I need to work out more. Because I do still enjoy the way my kids ground me in the present and pull me out of myself. And be careful that I don’t take you up on that babysitting offer sometime.

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