Tuesday, June 30, 2015

To Write is an Act of Life: On One Paragraph in The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

There isn't much I'm prepared to write about in Maggie Nelson's brilliant new book, The Argonauts, because I simply have not spent the requisite time and close reading to truly unpack her treatise on gender, love, birth, death, parenting, and a whole host of other loaded, nuanced, and ambiguous concepts, all handled with Nelson's particular knack for productively not answering questions. To put this another way, Nelson is a writer to re-read. That said, as in Bluets, Nelson is somehow also able to construct crystalline moments that connect directly to my life and reading experience. Depending on who you are and how you read, those moments can be few and far between, but, for me at least, they are always present enough to impart momentum or even motivation for that longer, more rigorous process of internalization described above.

One paragraph in The Argonauts connected to or articulated something I had been thinking about for a long time, not a theory really, but just one of those concepts that rattles around in your head like a burr, until it finally gets stuck on some passing animal. Here's the relevant animal:
Most of my writing usually feels to me like a bad idea, which makes it hard for me to know which ideas feel bad because they have merit, and which ones feel bad because they don't. Often I watch myself gravitating toward the bad idea, as if the final girl in a horror movie, albeit one sitting in a Tuff Shed at a desk sticky with milk. But somewhere along the line, from my heroes, whose souls were forged in fires infinitely hotter than mine, I gained an outsized faith in articulation itself as offering its own form of protection. (p123)

I don't think the world needs more writers. I'm not about to stop anybody from identifying as a “writer” however they want to define that identification, but “not protesting the existence of” and “demanding more of,” are very different stances. However, I do think the world is in desperate need of people who write. To put this another way; those who identify as “writers” aren't the only ones who can benefit from articulating their experience through writing. It is not about having good ideas or bad ideas, good experiences or bad experiences, good stories or bad stories, it is about the process of “articulation itself” acting as a force of revelation for what is being articulated. Here's why:

Writing Forces Your Brain Into a Dialog: The language part of your brain and the emotional part of your brain, regardless of how the neurology shakes out, are different. If they are not quite distinct, they at least have distinct voices. When you write about an experience or emotion, you transfer that experience from the feeling part of the brain to the language part of the brain and create a dialog between the two. One interrogates the other as you strive to accurately translate something that isn't inherently an act of language into an act of language. And dialog, even if it is just between distinct voices, can only improve your understanding of, well, pretty much everything, including your own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Something is always revealed when a second (or third or fourth) voice engages an idea.

Writing Organizes Your Thoughts: There has to be a first word. Whether you're trying to write grammatical prose, poetry, or are just spewing language into a receptacle, there has to be a first word. And that first word must be followed by a second and a third. Even if you go no further, even if your moment of writing is just a string of words that string is order from chaos. Prose, even first draft, mistake-laden grammatically crippled prose, imposes a systemic method of thinking about whatever happened to you and whatever you feel about it. Even the most fluid, free-form, experimental poetry is order for chaos, system for random, substance from void. Regardless of the type of writing you use, writing forces you to make one decision over and over again: what to write next and the process of coming to that decision inherently creates systemic consideration of your topic. And the result is an organized thought.

Writing Creates an External Object: Once you've written something, you now have that writing outside of you to interact with. You have externalized whatever you were writing about into something stable. It can just stay with you, like a diary or a journal. You can let someone else read it and get their perspective. (Remember that whole dialog thing) Even if you don't plan to share it with the public you can still edit it. You can add to it. You can cross out indiscretions. You can burn it, frame it, enshrine it, decorate it, slowly and methodically tear it into confetti while your rage dissipates into a more manageable smoldering mass of anger. And, of course, you can read it. You can literally (literally) look down on your thoughts from a new perspective. (And probably discover you're being a selfish idiot, but, maybe that's just me.)

Writing Slows You Down: Thoughts and emotions can cascade with such speed that you can actually lose track of what it is you are thinking and feeling. Writing slows you down. Even if you're scrawling at a frantic pace, desperate to get it all down before the language evaporates, you've still slowed the electric pace of your brain to the manual pace of your scribbling or typing. You are probably sitting down. You are probably relatively still or in the process of becoming still. And if you take a moment and just sit after you've gotten whatever you need out of you out of you. And then if you read what you've written. And then if you take a moment to think about what you've read. I'm not saying this would be a miracle cure for most of the world's problems, but I am saying a lot of stupid phone calls, Facebook posts, and tweets would be avoided, to everyone's benefit.

I have had experiences, ideas, and emotions that I have simply not understood until I've written them down, usually in a poem. Sometimes those moments of writing as an act of self-understanding form the base of a piece I try to get published (after a rigorous editing process through which a conversation with the self is transformed into a conversation with the world, because if I didn't do that the poem, usually, would be meaningless drivel to everyone else) but most of the time, those moments have done their job. They have given language to something that did not have language. I imagine my relationship with language is somewhat atypical, but I still think the value of articulation is intrinsic.

The astute reader will note, none of what I just cataloged is actually in the quoted paragraph and, in the context of the book, Nelson's project in this paragraph is much different from my project in this blog post, but Nelson is getting at the inherent value of articulation, the idea that articulating/writing something gives you a new, and otherwise unavailable, type of power over whatever it is that you are articulating. My thoughts and Nelson's on this topic, meet only at this one point and then continue in their independent trajectories, but, that, to me, is one of the reason's why we read. Sometimes the briefest, glancing convergence and impact of thoughts and words is enough to solidify what was once vague in the reader's mind. And so through Nelson, I can write, “The act of writing protects you from your own bad ideas,” and though it is very different from Nelson's point, it is indebted to Nelson's own articulation.

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