Monday, October 22, 2012

“A Meditation on the Contours of Absence”

A few Fridays ago, I had the pleasure of spending time with some of my writer friends. We—a fellow graduate of the program, her husband and one of our instructors—met in Annapolis to attend a lecture by James Wood, a pretty incredible literary critic (New Yorker) who spends some of his time at Harvard. I decided to go less because I wanted to hear Wood and more because I looked forward to the company. I’d been feeling very disconnected from the creative process lately, and I knew whatever conversations might pop up between Jen and Bill and I would be a tonic, even if a temporary one at that.

And so when we learned the lecture had been canceled, I couldn’t help but marvel at my good luck.

We found a corner table in an Irish pub (Annapolis does not seem to be short on them), and ordered a round and the conversation soon turned to writing, and more specifically, why I wasn’t. Which, you know, I’ve covered here in the recent past. It’s not a mystery. I’m overwhelmed and terrified of accessing all the painful “stuff” that comes with loss. That was no revelation. But something else was.

But first, I think I need to back up a moment and talk about this question, “why write?” People have asked me that in the past, and I’ve had this particular conversation with other writers.  It can be an arduous task, even when there’s not the immediate specter of loss looming in every corner. I’m not unique in the art of avoidance. Yes, my writing friends and I agree, the payoff is worth it. When you hit upon something, when that epiphany cracks open the world in front of you, it’s euphoric, but the process. Ugh. The process can be hell. I remember a decidedly non-writing friend of mine, after listening to me complain about a particularly difficult bout with a short story, exclaim--with no small degree of incredulousness-- something to the effect of, “why on earth do you do it then?” And honestly, I couldn’t answer.  As I said, it’s not the first time someone has asked me that, and the only thing I could do by way of response is shrug my shoulders and mumble something like, “I just have to…”

I’ll say here that answer isn’t necessarily wrong. Something, somewhere inside really does have to, though it seems a pretty cruel joke to feel compelled to do something that at times can make mucking out the Augean stables feel like scooping up kitty litter.

It wasn’t until Friday night that I figured it out. We started talking about Ann Carson (who is quite possibly the smartest person on the planet, certainly one of the finest writers. Not convinced? Pick up the Autobiography of Red and then we’ll talk), and Nox, the artifact she created about her brother, Michael, which one experiences, rather than reads. In much too simple an explanation, Nox is Carson’s attempt to get at something—her brother’s life, his death (the news of which did not reach her for several weeks, as Michael’s widow didn’t know how to reach his family),their estranged relationship, all of that “stuff.” And to do it, she not only uses her words, but words in translation, images, photos, scraps of paper—these little bits of her life and his, little scraps of quantity that hopefully add up to something. 

Hopefully. Because it never really does. The title I’ve used, “Meditation of the contours of Absence” is a quote from Meghan O’Rourke’s New Yorker review of Nox. I re-appropriated it here, because that’s exactly what I do, every time I sit down to write. I meditate on the outline of something that isn’t there—be it loss or love or grief or regret or anger or pain. I’m forever trying to get at something that can never, no matter how hard I try, be captured.  I might get close every now and then, but I’ll never actually reach the goal. And that’s a terribly frustrating thing to grapple with. This acknowledged rock that will, no matter how many times I get close to the top, always roll back down. And yet, I keep pushing it back up. Every time.

And every time, I think, This is it. It’ll work this time. 

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