Earlier today, before I sat down to write this reflection on how I write, I found myself staring blankly at an unkempt stack of dishes in my sink; each one’s chalky surface was streaked with the stains of a morning’s breakfast. Beside the plates was my hand, lingering in the lukewarm water that had yet to drain, and my watch, still clasped around my wrist, reminded me that I had been standing there for about fifteen minutes, unflinching.
With a quick jolt, I finished cleaning the dishes, and when they were washed I continued to scrub the sink clean for about ten minutes, and then I figured that I should take out the trash, and after I did, instead of heading back up to my apartment, I continued on from my building’s service entrance to the local Japanese restaurant down the street, where I had a bowl of chicken katsudon and, while eating, I decided to go find the most eco-friendly kind of kitty litter for my cat, and later, with a bag of said litter in hand, I returned to my apartment to find that the floors looked a little dirty in the afternoon light, so I got out the dry mop and went about cleaning the wood floors until I could just make out the reflection of the snow falling outside my window, which reminded me that the bathroom needed to be disinfected.
Theodor Adorno once said in his own reflection on the process of writing that in “his text, the writer sets up house. Just as he trundles through papers, books, pencils, documents untidily from room to room, he creates the same disorder in his thoughts” (86). When I am preparing to write, the exact opposite happens, for I cannot stand feeling like I have a muddled mind when getting down to the business of thinking. I need order inside my head, and when all is in order, I feel ready. Since I can’t easily clean each indefinable corner of my consciousness, the dishes generally seem like a good place to start. By participating in the upkeep of my home, I am not just cleaning up the mess that is around me; I am beginning a therapeutic procedure of self-organization. Managing what immediately surrounds me helps me manage my thoughts. But alongside the need for orderliness, there is also a sprinkle of uneasiness involved, and that can account for the random episodes of blank stares and all-around avoidance of the inevitable work that lies ahead.
Even after running my hodgepodge of errands and anything else I could think of doing before I ran out of excuses, it still took me another four hours to find, finally, the courage to sit down and start typing, and even when I did, as expected, the first hundred or so words I wrote were eventually discarded. That which was not thrown out was rearranged.
I constantly seek clarity when the words come together on my page, and I anticipate that my reader will expect no less than a level and carefully-structured written progression that accurately represents my thoughts. Writing, for one who cares deeply about the results of his or her approach to a composition, can be a torrent of torment. The anticipation of crafting a lucid page haunts me, and so I put it off for as long as I can.
Just beginning to compose a single sentence can be the hardest part of the process. For a writer, the ultimate challenge is to ease into a work with an almost-carefree naturalness and mastery of language, so that the reader barely knows he is reading at all. F. Scott Fitzgerald begins his great American novel The Great Gatsby with the narrator, Nick Carraway, repeating his father’s counsel: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” From the very start, Fitzgerald handles the sail that he has raised to the wind and “beats against the current” (141) to the last page with constant control, where the reader is brought gently to the story’s conclusion. In seeking order, I want to maintain direction in my writing, to prevent those who follow my words from becoming lost in the vast spaces between my paragraphs or wandering off into the margins. If my thoughts are not clear to the reader, then I run the risk of them running astray or drowning in the undertow.
My first writing instructor once shouted a chorus of five words to me and my classmates that echo through my head whenever I read back what I’ve written in times of distress and struggle: “It is just a thing!” Well-intentioned, my instructor wanted us to remember that, in the end, what we put to paper was only ink. From that perspective, a paper should be no different than any other object I might wash or scrub in my kitchen—an item that is ultimately used and then returned to a shelf. But the problem is that the more a writer spends time with the “thing,” the more it becomes part of the writer’s existence and the more it begins to accumulate value.
You begin to care about the inanimate piece of paper because on it is a piece of your spirit. When you reach this point, you become frightened of getting involved any further. Once there is emotion attached to your work, it becomes possible to start thinking that the work itself requires your nurturing, and that stress of expectancy can cause you to flee. Although this idea is irrational, only a change of scenery can alleviate the anxiety. In circumstances such as these, it is best to be anywhere else—anywhere but here, in front of the computer monitor, typing on a keyboard. Although the disruption created in escaping can throw into disorder everything you’ve worked so hard to tidy up, leaving a mess behind, abandoning feels better than carrying the burden of caring on your shoulders.
What is perplexing, however, is that the same means of escape is also an action that only prolongs the initial sequestering. Walker Percy states that the writer “is marooned in his cortex … unlike the artist who can fool and cajole his right brain and get it going by messing in paints and clay and stone, the natural playground of the dreaming child self, there sits the poor writer, rigid as a stick, pencil poised, with no choice but to wait in fear and trembling until the spark jumps to the commissure” (147-148). Many times have I been seemingly locked in one place, as if cast away in isolation on an island somewhere inward, in an immaterial place in my brain. Being in such a place can block the connection that forms among the ink, the paper, and the creator.
I can wander the streets for as long as I want, sample every cuisine in my neighborhood, and buy supplies for pets that I might not even own, but after a while I begin to get homesick. Detachment, in the end, reminds the writer inside that only through working with the words, playing with the emotions, and juggling the elements of form, does true clarity begin to take shape. For although an artist has the advantage of possessing the physical ingredients of creation, a writer has the flexibility of considering things that do not fall under the strict guidelines of the corporeal. Writers find in one idea—in a moment’s single spark—the possibility of extending oneself beyond one’s limits.
Before I finished this essay, I returned home and picked up the pieces that I had left scattered on the floor. It was getting dark, and outside flakes were falling beyond the fogged glass of my bedroom windows, dusting the world with a clean sheath of white. But even with a fresh start, I was still left with finding that damned first sentence.
Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life. Trans. E.F.N.
Jephcott. New York: Verso, 2006.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University
Percy, Walker. Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. New York: Picador,