Some writing I found about writing
Descriptive language – creating disappearance
Lately I have been thinking a lot about why I often turn to writing when I can’t go forward with visual work. It is probably something I shouldn’t question, seeing as it seems to be an effective strategy for me in the process of getting back to studio work. While figuring out the question I have been re-reading things I wrote while studying, while immersed in that awful period of perpetual self-questioning when my impending ‘thesis’ meant having to put all those thoughts to words. And just this morning I found the following slightly odd text. I am not sure what to make of it. It doesn’t really even feel as though I wrote it. But I think it contains the core idea behind why I write—that it is actually a kind of drawing, perhaps even a process of drawing something covertly in the mind of someone else. Perhaps Mac Pages is my sketch book.
This is what I found:
When I was eleven I was given a creative writing assignment that lasted a year. My class were handed notebooks and told to fill them with whatever writing we wanted. I have since lost the book, but I remember what I filled it with. I invented characters who all had something in common; an out of body experience. The book contained the characters’ reports of those experiences, the first person narratives of what it felt like to leave a body, to leave solidity, and return. I remember being lost in descriptions of darkness, depths that sank into unimaginable distances, because, in my eleven year old mind, to leave the body was to lose sense of containment, and edges, and hard surfaces. It was not a book of answers. I proposed no God that met the characters. It was simply a study of what it might feel like to inhabit something larger than I could possibly imagine. It was a study in writing of how I imagined losing my outer edges would feel, losing my skin. I imagined through those stories that I was affecting a bodily disappearance, not from the outside looking at a body, from from the inside, being one. In writing, I was making those stories real for myself. This was not, as I remember overhearing, a morbid eleven year old’s new obsession with death. But rather a curious child’s inquiry into the limits of herself, her experience of which, in darkness, in mind, fought with the experience of being contained within a skin.
Writing vividly descriptive text is a way to break the fourth wall of a body. When someone reads a story, they imagine the things you describe. It is like breaking into their mind and inserting places, and people, actions and a story. When I think of breaking into a mind I recall a disturbing documentary about brain surgery. A man sits upright in a brightly lit operating theatre. His head is held in a stainless steel medical vice. He is awake but the skin on his shaved head is numbed and the surgeon pokes this with a sharp implement to prove it. He is connected to a large monitoring device, which several nurses clad in scrubs attend to constantly. The surgeon begins. The top of the man’s head is carefully sawn off with a shiny circular saw to reveal the strange sight of half of his brain. While talking to the conscious patient, the doctor presses parts, which, at times, causes the patient to flinch involuntarily. While this is a strangely violent and stomach turning image to invoke, I use it precisely because in doing so I have created an image in your mind, one that physically affects your body. The words have broken into your mind’s image bank and involuntarily made you feel something, however slight.
When I arrived at art school I had just finished reading Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I think of it as containing many of the visual forms I began to employ when I arrived, perhaps unknowingly at the time. Now, recalling my first tentative steps into visual art and making, I can point to things in that story, a fiction, that seem like the narrative embodiment of some of my visual interests. I cannot say that is where those interests came from—I can merely draw parallels. Murakami’s heroes find themselves in deep wells. They are so deep they can only see light at midday, when the sun shines directly down the huge drop. Time exists for them only in one flash of noon light. Their bodies have no edges. Darkness engulfs them and prevents them from seeing themselves. In that space they are able to think, with thoughts freed from the constraints of the physical self. Their minds occupy a space that has no visual confinement, no home inside a seeable brain.
There is something else that happens in the book that fascinated (and horrified) me at the time. The three protagonists are edging out into Mongolia during the war. They are constantly in danger and hiding their tracks. They are being followed. Once one is caught, he is skinned alive by a man known for his skill in flaying flesh. Reading about flaying flesh instantly recalled art trips to museums as a teenager, standing tingling with horror in front of works like Titian’s Flaying of Marsyus or Gerard David’s Judgement of Cambyses and the Flaying of Sisamnes. Thinking about those images now even does something to the way my body feels that begins to physically relate to the story. My stomach liquidizes, I can feel blood pumping in my ears. I begin to understand in my own body the role skin plays in solidifying our sense of self. It literally holds us together.
I now wonder if reading Murakami at that time provided me with a case study for the kind of bodily disappearance I wrote about in a very literal yet fantastical way as an eleven year old but still hold as true for my experience of the written word now. I love the moment when, on reading a book, and with watching a film, you, as reader, are able to effect this transformation within yourself, out of your body and into your mind. When you are absorbed by text you are no longer a body in the room, holding a book and reading black and white text; you are watching a story unfold in your mind. You have broken through the skin and affected your body’s disappearance. You can no longer see yourself. You are in the story. Your body is gone.
I was not a morbid eleven year old, but I might be a more morbid 27 year old. I could not comprehend death at eleven. I can now. Disappearance has, in the intervening years, taken on a new meaning. I have never been religious. I have never believed in anything except that on death we become fertilizer, as the spark of life is extinguished. With each death of someone close that I learn about, that belief becomes more acute, more terrifying. Back then, even before then, I was probably the child that my friends’ parents dreaded. I told my friends about Santa, the Tooth Fairy and God. As a young child I had put them in the same category: the things your parents make up so you’ll be good. Everything in the world I inhabited and could understand had solidity and limits. I did not believe in fantastical or supernatural things because I always knew of an internal world that I could create that seemed more important than any prescribed image of something. And it is this that I was drawing into existence with words during that writing exercise when I was eleven. I was, in fact, disproving for myself the supernatural, because in writing about it, I was creating it. I was the one making it real, and that writing had the power to make it real for someone else too. And by real I do not mean that I created a physical place. Writing creates, sketches sometimes, a shared mental space, where it is possible for two different people to read the same thing and see something that has some similarities. That imagined place, made real in words, has the power to make you feel. In myself as a child, I never imagined that there was a life after death, a possible out of body experience, but by creating fictional accounts of them, I was able to see something that might embody that idea. Handily, I had also created a nice metaphor for the act that is reading and then picturing in the mind, though I will not go so far as to imagine my eleven year old self thinking that I was creating a metaphor for writing itself. I was just fascinated with the idea of something so odd that I did not believe in that others so fervently base their entire existences on. I wrote it to understand it. I wrote it to see it.
There are moments of ambiguity, particularly in the use of descriptive language though, where reading forces a kind of synesthesia in the reader. Synapses touch in poetic language—colour to pain, natural world phenomena to internal emotion. To me it seems something akin to, using my surgery metaphor again, break into the wrong part of the head so that pain suddenly appears. Poetry is very good at this. Eileen Miles and Maggie Nelson as particular examples. The sky for Eileen Miles is that place that exists as both reality and immense metaphor, and the colour blue for Nelson is the same fraught connector between exterior object and interior emotion. The words ‘sky’ or ‘blue’ conjuring for each writer in turn the depths of heatbreak, unfathomable distances and very specific moments of happiness, so that on reading them, the reader also becomes embroiled in their web of associations. New neural pathways open to accept that the little blue object you hold before you might stand as a reminder of the vastness of the sky and in turn evidence of your insignificance. And once you’ve read it, it’s too late. Every time you look at a new thing you will think of it. The picture exists in your mind. Until you write to draw another.
I had a conversation with Naomi Mishkin, a friend of mine, recently, in which she swerved answering my direct question to her about what in the world I was doing with my writing and making with the following:
Naomi: You’ve read Lolita, right?
Naomi: So you know Nabokov isn’t a pedophile?
Naomi: That’s what your work is. It’s that Nabokov is not a pedophile.
While the pedophile reference is particularly difficult to get my head around, I can understand the association to a writer who touches on difficult subject matter. I find that I often write to imagine something different, to push at the edges of my known world and slide into another, so that on reading it, someone else might do the same—a studied remove from this world. I do not write to become Humber Humbert, but Nabokov, who creates a character and writes through him as if to draw a picture that is vivid, yet utterly unreliable as reality. I like to make that shaky ground, where you can draw something that even questions its own validity as truth, that while depicting a clear image, questions its own fictional truth.
There’s a painting project to be done here. Google book scans that went wrong. See full article on Rhizome website.