On negative space

A few weeks ago I sat at my desk and wrote a poem.

It was, as with every attempt at writing after a long interval, a bit of a painful task. I’m usually a word-processing kinda gal when it comes to writing creatively: the ability to vanish my poor metaphors as if they never existed, and instantly reclaim them if I decide they weren’t that rubbish after all, is a kind of magic you take for granted if you mainly write on a computer. But since starting this blog (whatever meagre degree of productivity it has achieved) I’ve been trying to think more about my self-censorious attitude to my own writing. The illusion that word processing gives you is that the process of writing is without mistakes, as the page you start out with is the same page that you finish with, with all the messiness of the in-between process erased. This is comforting for sure – and it’s a great feeling when you’re writing often. “Look at all these things I did recently that I’m proud of,” you can say to yourself, sweeping a hand impressively across the vista of your open “Poetry” folder. “Look at these things I created so well and so easily.” You can read your own work almost like you were reading someone else’s, and that’s great.

Except for when it’s not great. Except for when you haven’t written for months, and the process feels like pulling a tooth, and when you look back at all of these other poems – fully formed, history-less – you see no evidence of this head-butting-against-a-ceiling kind of feeling. No sense that this thing you’re doing right now could one day be one of the things you’re proud of, because there’s no evidence that any of those things were once what this thing is: vaguely incriminating, a testament to the fact that you are still learning. At these moments, when I’m feeling discouraged and distanced from the past writer self who I always think of as more confident and creative than she probably was, the “Delete” function isn’t so much a space-clearing tool as a kind of writerly ejector seat. In the moment of creative frustration and doubt, I can just press a button, and never have to look at these bad lines that seem so humiliating right now ever again.

So in the spirit of giving myself a break from my own perfectionism, this time I sat down at my desk with a notebook and pen instead. It was, predictably, hellish – at least to begin with. Writing one line out over and over again in different formations, rehashing the same ideas on different pages and with different line breaks feels like a nightmare at the best of times for me, one that’s only made worse by the exaggerated physical act of reinscription that handwriting entails. At least when you’re typing a line that you know is bad, you also know that it’ll be gone as if it never existed in a matter of moments – not so with a notebook. Not only was I writing bad stuff, I was having to look at it again and again and be discouraged by it.

Maybe I got into a bit of a stubborn frenzy, or maybe I just hit my stride around 2am, but for whatever reason I managed to push through the discouragement and stick it out ‘til the end. And I’m proud of myself for that, and proud of the poem I wrote, too. It’s not my best effort, but it is an effort, and that’s something to be happy about. And actually, throughout all this process of striking out and writing over, I found myself thinking much less about the bad stuff I was leaving out than the good stuff that didn’t make it in. I began to remember more and more the labour of love that writing is, the repeated letting-go that it entails. Meanings I couldn’t find the words for; words I did find but somehow didn’t fit. Plotting my progress physically across the pages of a notebook made it so much more apparent to me just how much negative space there is around the edges of the final thing: all the things a piece of writing doesn’t end up being that are, really, the making of it as it is.

I’m by no means the first person to think about writing as a process of selective omission. Every writer nowadays seems to know that Samuel Jonson quote (“Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out”) – or at least, if they don’t know it yet, they have it quoted at them pretty quickly (case in point). Ernest Hemingway’s theory was “that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” This idea – of good writing, selective writing, being able to make us feel more than we understand – is at the heart of why omission is so important to the writing process, and perhaps why it is so hard, too. Leaving out the things we once thought so good or so important is not only letting go of a part of ourselves ,but letting in a little of someone else. Chuck Palanhuik says it best in his essay instructing his readers to stop using “thought” verbs in their writing: “Your story will always be stronger,” he promises, “if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing.” Sure, leaving out lines that you’re proud of, or moments that are so integral in your head to what you’re trying to get across can feel like a capitulation. It feeds a fear I believe that everyone, and perhaps especially every writer, has: that we, our selves and our lives, are inexpressible, unreachable by anybody else. But when we relinquish the need to make someone else understand as we understand, the need to explain everything, we allow the reader to understand for themselves. To ask questions, to think of new answers, to recreate the text in their own minds in a way we would never have thought of. Though writing can feel like a monologue, in the final event it’s more of a conversation: it’s in the parts where you’re not speaking, that negative space, that real connection occurs.

Of course, omission is not always a virtue. We don’t always have control over the things we leave out. The world that we live in implicates us all the time in the erasure of people and problems through the stories that are told to us and the stories we choose to tell back, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (an utterly fantastic writer and human being) speaks about in her now-famous TED talk, “The Danger of the Single Story”. In a world full of stories balanced on the cusp of telling, it’s easy to be petrified by the dangers of omission, to choose silence over a flawed telling: to press “delete”. But I’m inclined to agree with Adichie in that, in this world so full of untold stories, and so overrun with systems resistant to the telling of all but a few of them, it is more important than ever that we write, that we support others’ writing and writing that is othered. That we are aware of systems of omission and our roles in them – and omission’s role in our telling of ourselves.

“How well I would write if I were not here! If between the white page and the writing of words and stories that take shape and disappear without anyone’s ever writing them there were not interposed that uncomfortable partition which is my person! Style, taste, individual philosophy, subjectivity, cultural background, real experience, psychology, talent, tricks of the trade: all the elements that make what I write recognisable as mine seems to me a cage that restricts my possibilities. If I were only a hand, a severed hand that grasps a pen and writes… who would move this hand? The anonymous throng? The spirit of the times? The collective unconscious? I do not know. It is not in order to be the spokesman for something definable that I would like to erase myself. Only to transmit the writable that waits to be written, the tellable that nobody tells.” – Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveller

Both an Organ and a Blade

When I tell people that I study English literature, there is one question that they almost always seem to ask.

“But hasn’t that totally ruined reading for you? Hasn’t it made it a chore?”

I can see their point. Reading is, after all, an intensely personal experience – the free play of the mind over the landscape of someone else’s words, at once a meeting of minds and a blissful self-isolation. It’s easy to see how the idea of imposing a structure on such a boundless activity, which essay deadlines and seminars and lectures inevitably do, of tuning yourself to what a text is doing and how instead of immersing yourself uncritically in its story, can seem like something of a death sentence.

And yet, I always reply in the negative. No – despite its best efforts, my degree has failed to make me hate reading. If anything, it has made me a more adventurous, more enthusiastic reader. Not only has it introduced me to books and concepts I may never have confronted otherwise, but honing my critical skills has been incredibly rewarding. The quest to be at once a sensitive eye and a keen and seeking blade is something I have found increasing enjoyment in as my studies have progressed. I enjoy the search. I am a reader.

The problem with my studies, then, is not so much what they’ve done to me in that capacity, but in another. If we’re being perfectly honest with each other, dear stranger, this blog post is about the most coherent piece of writing I’ve done in the last three years. The creative urgency I always felt – the urgency that drove me to write with naivety but always with honesty, the urgency that brought me to myself, that fuelled me – seems, in recent years, to have waned. What happened to that flame that was like a furnace? That kept me up at night? That filled pages and hard drives and days of my life?

The truth is, I already know. On those rare occasions that a flicker darts through the dark, there I, the reader, always am. Always over my own shoulder, critical eye and hungry blade: doubly armed with critical skills and a preordained knowledge of my own vulnerabilities, my veteran insecurities. Suddenly Roland Barthes’s assertion that the death of the Author is the birth of the Reader (a staple notion of my first year of university study) takes on an altogether more discouraging, more ruthless tone. I read and dismantle before I have even written. I cut myself to pieces. 

The furthest I get is a scribble in the margins, dogged always by an apologetic question mark – as if to say, “I’m probably wrong.” I put down the pen, move on to something else. Assure myself that the time for inspiration will come some other day.

But that is just not good enough for me any more.

The time has come when I can no longer pretend that this is working for me, this working myself up to the possibility of creation and then chastising myself for its inadequacy. I need to accept that there’s no bolt of lightning coming for me, no magical moment of revelation when suddenly that flame will roar into life again, and I’ll be saved from this long silence. The only solution is to try. To push past my fear of myself, of mediocrity. To write my way back – however painful, however arduous – back to that voice of creative confidence I feel I have lost.

And so, this blog is born. Not in the spirit of despair, but of reconciliation – the reconciliation of reader and writer, critic and creative, self-consciousness and self-acceptance. And above all the hope that I can allow myself to be both organ and blade without tearing myself to pieces.

I hope, for my sake, that it works. I hope for yours that it’s worth watching.

“It is an intrinsic human trait, and a deep responsibility, I think, to be an organ and a blade. But, learning to forgive ourselves and others because we have not chosen wisely is what makes us most human. We make horrible mistakes. It’s how we learn. We breathe love. It’s how we learn. And it is inevitable.” – Nayyirah Waheed