March 26, 2013

Writing

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What is the issue?
Oil on Canvas: “William S. Burroughs 3″
Christiaan Tonnis (1999)

We tend to image the writer as someone with a seething internal life for whom writing serves as a kind of vent, a way to let the demons out. We imagine, perhaps, that the will to write comes from a desire to express oneself, to be heard, to be seen, to let all that is in, out.

We know the architecture all too well. Inside we have ideas, feelings, memories; outside is the world. And writing is the go between, the vehicle of expression.

But I enjoy a different architecture of writing with a different configuration of self, language, and world. For me, it’s not the movement from inside to outside, from self to world. Language is not a vehicle, a means to and end, but is a force — and a domain — in and of itself.

Absurd as it may sound, I don’t write to express myself — at least not primarily — even if that is an inevitable outcome. No, I write for the pleasure of composing, of putting together the fragments of ideas, feelings, concepts, observations, words, speeds. It’s like arts and crafts. I sit down and start throwing things together and, frankly, I’m not always sure what will come. It’s a matter of my mood, the mood of the world, the will of ideas, the way of words.

In order to write, Burroughs said all he needed was his typewriter and a pair of scissors — you know, to cut up and (re)assemble. This is not a vision of writing as exhumation or expression but writing as creation, as assemblage.

This entails a fundamentally different distribution of bodies and words. There’s no inside and outside and certainly no linear movement between the two. Like the kid at the arts and crafts table with a pile of magazines, some pens, some paper, some glue, it’s all right there, splayed before you. Sure, some of it might be obscured by the flesh and fuzziness of feeling and thought. But it’s still all part of the mix, waiting to be put here or there or tossed aside all together. Once it’s all out there, the writer begins moving it around. And this is what I love about writing — this act of assembling.

But it’s not just a free for all cut and paste. Because writing is way of moving with language — not usinglanguage to express but operating with language as a way of assembling. And language has all kinds of rules. And I’m not talking about dangling prepositions because we can dangle at will if we want to. No, I’m talking about the elaborate mechanics of language.

Consider, for instance, the particular weight and speed and intensity of words. Words are bodies that like to do certain things; you can try to make a word do your bidding but that word will always talk back.

I remember my first semester as a TA in a comp class (in 1992 — holy moly!). The assignment was to discuss the rhetorical tactics of some MLK speech (not my assignment, alas). The student, some bright but overconfident boy, used the world eclectic as in, “MLK uses eclectic sources to reach a wider audience.” I critiqued his use of this word. Did he mean “a breadth” of sources? No, the kid insisted. And he wasn’t wrong as much as he was, well, wrong. Eclectic conjures a world his essay did not support. But he kept quoting the definition (the denotation). He didn’t yet have a feel for the words, only for their meanings.

Language is not just words but is a logic of assemblage. It has rules if you want to make any semblance of sense. Subjects, verbs, adverbs, spaces: all these relationships that can be endlessly tweaked. It’s great to bend and push against the limits of sense, to see what will come in the juxtaposition — shocking silly revealing (non)sense.

But do any old thing and your writing is no longer anything at all. I remember when my kid began to distinguish a drawing from what he called scribble scrabble. So it is with all things: there is a line — tenuous, precarious, uncertain, and grey — between writing and scribble scrabble (Burroughs loves to operate in this space; and, in some sense, all great writing operates in this space, careening between sense and nonsense.)

ASSUME THAT THE WORST HAS HAPPENED EXPLICIT AND SUBJECT TO STRATEGY IS AT SOME POINT CLASSICAL PROSE. CUTTING AND REARRANGING FACTOR YOUR OPPONENT WILL GAIN INTRODUCES A NEW DIMENSION YOUR STRATEGY. HOW MANY DISCOVERIES SOUND TO KINESTHETIC? WE CAN NOW PRODUCE ACCIDENT TO HIS COLOR OF VOWELS. AND NEW DIMENSION TO FILMS CUT THE SENSES. THE PLACE OF SAND.

Grammar is not as much a set of rules as it the ethics of interaction. Put this and that together — junk, sick, dawn — and incredible things happen. But not any old combination creates events; some create nothing at all. Grammar is not a set of rules but the ethics of event creation, the terms of engagement between writer, reader, words, ideas, and sense.

Then there’s punctuation. Oh, punctuation! How I could wax on about you (and have): from the understated comma to the compromising but ever accommodating semi-colon to the surprising discretion of parentheses — and let’s not forget the ever generous m dash.

Language, then, is words and rules, things and logics, bodies and events. But it’s more than that, too. Language is not an ideal system removed from the world. It’s entrenched in our lives, our history, our culture. I may love a word for its awkward precision — such as, say, haecceity — but my enjoyment does not eclipse the resonance of the word beyond this screen. If I use a word and no one understands it, have I spoken?

The same goes for rhythm — of ideas, of explanation, of prose. What needs explanation? What can I point to and move on? What deserves the relish of detail and what the ellipsis? Rhythm is a choreography of bodies and ideas, literally moving the reader and the words together in a more or less elaborate pas de deux. Staccato, adagio, allegro: writing is a score of emotion and understanding.

And then there’s tone. This is partially an issue of audience, of course. But it’s not like there’s an idea and then I just have to choose which tone to use to reach this or that audience — Slap some serious on there and it’s good to go! Tone is the whole posture, the whole comportment, of the writing, how it sits in the world. When I would teach Nietzsche, students would often remark that his ideas were similar to Buddhism. But that’s to reach behind the writing. In tone, Nietzsche and Buddhism are worlds apart.  And nothing could be more relevant.

Tone is not just a matter of audience but of writer (not to mention of words and grammar). Sometimes, I begin writing in a pissed off mood, ranting, cursing, and careening. But then I’m stuck in that place — not just the essay but the whole event of composing, of assembling is all pissy. And maybe I don’t want to be in that mood. Does the writing demand I remain there? Or, as my mood shifts, can I start to write more playfully?

Tone is so bewilderingly complex. It is an affective force that streams through the writer to become a principle of selection, an editorial force selecting words and rhythm.  A tone can overtake the writer and suddenly he finds he’s written something quite different than he’d intended. This is neither good nor bad, just a reality that the writer must reckon.

Writing is an encounter — between human flesh, words, grammar, ideas, affects, feelings. There is obviously no right way to write. And yet we know, as both readers and writers, that there are certain ways that work, ways that turn the world on, that take everyone and everything involved on a journey elsewhere — a way that makes writing less a matter of expression and understanding than a matter of discovery and creation. TC mark

Daniel Coffeen

Daniel is an independent writer, reader, teacher, and philosopher. Follow him on Twitter here.

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