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Not Writing

Is it wrong to want to write toward what isn’t intended to be read? What I want is a story that’s an object that can turn itself inside out. So perhaps what I’m thinking of as inspiration is something else instead. Not to be writing like Martin but to be not writing like her.

The problem is I’ve chosen words, which can’t seem to be about nothing

Image via Library of Congress.

The following is an excerpt from Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other, out next week from Coffee House Press.

“Doubt equals writing.”

That’s Marguerite Duras in her essay “Writing.”

I could write something called “Not Writing.” I am writing it. Soon, I’ll have been the one who wrote it.

Whenever I’m not writing, which is most of the time, what is it I’m doing? I am someone pursuing fitness. I am obviously sometimes sleeping. I am someone collecting the sentences she reads: “The question of food is salt. The question of food is salt. The question of food is salt.”

That is Clarice Lispector.

Of course it’s natural for a writer to not be writing, even most of the time. What can be surprising is the extent to which one might feel, upon finding oneself newly not writing, struck—as if one has dropped the reins and fallen. As if a moment before one was up on a horse and now one is down on the ground. All one can say, looking around, is that one is not a one upon a horse.

Meanwhile, K and S are collaborating on tone. C just sold a book. R is giving a series of lectures on drawing and language and lines. Last night in a lecture, she said: “I am writing and by writing I am moving and by moving I am living.”

By not writing am I not moving and by not moving am I dead?

Sometimes, when not writing, I’m listening to the news. I might even cry in the kitchen. I’ll weep while stirring the soup. I’m of no help to anyone when I cry. Do I help anyone when I write, or when I am waiting to write? Tonight I make the soup and I surround the soup with anguish. The whole world is anguish, except the soup.

A while back, at his request, I wrote texts to accompany the images in an artist’s book of collages. An assignment minimizes doubt, that’s true. Yet was I happy writing? Later, he asked where I find the things I want to use in my work, and I said: “Visual art has always been one of the main places I go.” I told him how I’d been looking at Agnes Martin’s paintings and also reading her texts, and that reading her writing about painting made me want to write stories.

He said: “Agnes Martin’s writings are amazing, I agree with you there. But what really happens as you read them? How does what you’ve read manifest in what you write?”

And I said: “Well, I’m reading this essay about how her paintings are ‘about’ nothing, yet when you look at them there’s an obvious beauty and a kind of performance happening—something happens to you as you look at them. I read that and look at her work and I feel that performance and I think, yes, that’s exactly what I want to do, exactly what I want to make happen with language.”

The problem is I’ve chosen words, which can’t seem to be about nothing. Words don’t make things happen—performances or feelings—without also making meaning.

miserable means wretchedly unhappy

friendless means alone

ugly can be hideous or plain

For some reason, lately, I can’t stop telling people about the time my sixth grade teacher asked me (miserable, friendless, ugly) to stand up and show the class that I didn’t have a typically Jewish face. In an interview, the artist Moyra Davey says that shame is beautiful when we bring it out in the open. I wonder if we have to do anything to our shame other than share it. Shape it?

“They came, these restrained, reserved, exquisite paintings, as visions, for which she would wait sometimes for weeks on end, rocking in her chair . . . ‘I paint with my back to the world,’ she declared.”

That’s Olivia Laing in “Agnes Martin: The Artist Mystic Who Disappeared into the Desert.” Of Martin’s paintings Laing writes: “They aren’t made to be read, but are there to be responded to.”

Is it wrong to want to write toward what isn’t intended to be read? What I want is a story that’s an object that can turn itself inside out. So perhaps what I’m thinking of as inspiration is something else instead. Not to be writing like Martin but to be not writing like her.

I look again at one of R’s drawings, the one that hangs on my wall. She describes her drawings as language with its skin pulled back. In a second evening lecture, R says, “Fiction is a category of not-knowing.” And it’s true I want a story to be a hole I drop inside of. Then I fall asleep. While sleeping I have one of those dreams in which you think you’re awake in your bed. In this particular iteration of that category of dream, there’s a ladybug on my sheets. But the ladybug is enormous, at least as big as my head, and it’s reared up on its hind legs as if ready to attack. I cry out, “Marty, there’s a bug!” And Marty gets rid of the bug. Then I remember that I left a bright-green poisonous snake over on my bookshelf. So Marty grabs the snake behind its head and takes it into the yard. Then I remember that I left something else on my bookshelf, something worse, on the shelf below the snake, but Marty’s still outside. I know I have to handle this myself. I walk slowly across the room. What’s there is an enormous gray pulsating slug. It’s gelatinous, repulsive. It fills the entire shelf. There are many smaller gray slugs attached to the larger slug, and they’re feeding off it somehow, making sucking sounds. As they suck, the smaller slugs seem to be constructing sacs around themselves, dark hard sacs like scabs. The whole thing is magnetic, revolting. But these words don’t come to me in the dream. In the dream there is only the slug, filling the shelf, and the certain knowledge I have that it is a thing I have made.

In the morning, over oatmeal, I tell my son about the dream, which he finds completely hilarious. Yet the moment I’ve spoken it aloud, I experience a kind of electric shock in which I understand that the slug in the dream is the very thing I’ve been hoping to write, which is not writing. And it isn’t about doubt at all. It’s this whole new thing, unseen in the world, replacing the books on my shelf.

That afternoon, in an email, K asks if I’m thinking of writing about Agnes Martin. I don’t know how to tell her about this thing I’ve already done. “I have been wanting to write about an old woman,” I say back.

Now I’m in bed re-reading a favorite novel in which the main character, a polite spinster aunt named Laura, abruptly leaves her life in London against the wishes of her family and moves to a remote country village to be alone. Tramping through meadows, she decides to become a witch. She listens to the violets, listens to the trees. One day, she runs into Satan in the woods. They have a lengthy conversation. Near the end of this talk, a bug lands on Laura’s arm and she smacks it. “Dead!” Satan says, and the word spreads out in ripples like a rock dropped in a pond.


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