Writers are fond of saying that they write out of necessity. That’s probably true, and often for one of two reasons: 1) You find your own thoughts so increasingly panic-inducing that you need to give them form and expunge them on the page, or 2) You find your own thoughts so exceedingly beautiful that you feel like other people should really be sharing these moments with you (and maybe even paying you for them).
So, you know, “Anxiety or Narcissism: A Succinct History of Literature.”
I’m of course guilty of belonging to both of these camps, at some point or another. But there’s a larger, more crucial reason why I write as well: I love to hallucinate.
Writing changes the way my brain functions. When I’m working on something, over the course of hours, days, or weeks, I begin to observe the world around me like I’ve just dropped acid. Everything becomes luminous, every waking detail potentially worthy of a poem, every person’s story radiating from their coolly demeanors on the subway like a light quantum that won’t be contained. I begin to interact with my world like I’m recording it; I start talking to people like I’m interviewing them for their biography.
Suddenly, everything feels important. I jot notes everywhere: on napkins, in the margins of books, on my phone. I recite phrases & couplets in my head while I’m walking. I’m in the shower humming one tune and then I’m seized by another—“No, not ‘liberate’” I’ll realize. “The word there should be ‘unshackle,’ paragraph 4, 8th line.” The page is a chessboard; these acts of heightened perception are the strategy, and my task as a player is to move the pieces into a precise mosaic of metaphysical purpose.
I have to explain it. I have to make you feel it. It should make you trip as hard as I did.
And the goal should be to write something important, something that will stir you and maybe even stay with you. Writing should be a deeply personal act, whether you’re synthesizing your history, writing a novel, or delivering the news. You should be present. You should be manic. Your writing should grab me by the shoulders & scream “Holy shit! Isn’t this thing [important/ beautiful/ fucked]?” (Which is, actually, not so different from doing drugs with & screaming at me, either.)
When I write, I become more of myself than at any other moment. I’m Jackson Pollack at the keyboard, this glowing screen my canvass. The reader is like a canvass too—if I don’t leave an impression, then I’ve failed.
You might say that there are two types of writing: That which lies, and that which tries to expose the lies. A decent writer’s job is to do the latter. That’s what I try to do when I write. And that notion probably situates me primarily in the ‘narcissism’ column.
At least, until the other shoe drops.