Ways Not to Write
I am a terrible descriptive writer in part because I am not perceptive about the world visually; in addition to being self-absorbed and inattentive, I have never acquired several important vocabularies which help one take note of what one sees. Like many men, I suppose, I’ve neglected color, and still round all blues to blue, from Cornflower to Pantone 292. I have no idea what the plants I see are, how large they’ll grow to be, whether they flower, how often flowers flower, what grasses are capable of, how many generations of men a given tree has endured.
I cannot describe a room, cannot express the spatial relation between an untidy sofa and a chair opposite it on which a man sits, reading a novel he expects relatively little of: a good story, a very mild hint of having seen into a cross-section of life which reveals, in its cutaway clarity, the mechanisms at work in us, in our loves, our capitulations. I cannot describe his pants —I know little about materials or textures, and might write the lovely word houndstooth, and think of my dogs’ teeth and how they might be made into fabric, and I might get lost thinking about the dead men in old offices sorting out textile matters, issues of standards and weights and threads and transportation…
…before I realize that, first, it is not houndstooth at all but corduroy, a material so common that my error is appalling despite being trivial, and second, that houndstooth was originally and perhaps remains typically a pattern made from wools, not cotton, so that Degas’ A Cotton Office in New Orleans was quite the wrong image to have come to mind.
But now I am lost: the particulars of a pair of pants are beyond my creative capacity because they are beyond my perceptive capacity: when I meet you, I am so worried about whether you can tell that I am a fraud that I never notice your pants at all! I remember my awkward turns of phrase, the awful habit I have of making every sentence part of a sitcom duet, but not the color of your eyes. It’s hideous to know that this is how it is for everyone (but it is to this fact that my attention is drawn, rather than to the details from whose configuration this fact is made evident). My memories are of the wrong things, the wrong details; I blame culture and technology for my mind, but I know I am exactly as I’ve chosen to be; as Simone Weil said:
We have to endure the discordance between imagination and fact. It is better to say ‘I am suffering’ than ‘this landscape is ugly.’
I say this to myself twenty times every day; does this mean that I am suffering? I don’t feel that I am; I feel that my suffering stopped long ago, and now I merely grapple with the form of the psyche it sculpted, the effect that form has on what I see, record, recall. And it is better to admit that ‘I’m paying attention to the wrong things’ than to claim that ‘the world has grown meaningless’ or that ‘my phone keeps me from noticing sunsets.’ It is not my phone and it is not Facebook that kept me from the sunset yesterday. It was the everydayness of life that Walker Percy’s Binx Bolling claims is what keeps us from “the search.” But this search seems strange to undertake when there is nowhere undiscovered, no meaning not mediated, no knowledge not within a larger system of knowledge, no boundary past which we do not spill in great crowds, no text immune to annotation, no event which is not subsumed by its live-posted trails of reactions in the cultural agar.
And this idea seems more important and interesting to me than the construction of a character’s pants or even the details of how s/he sees light, hears city sounds, flees love, which is why I cannot surpass the dull didacticism of those who write to express ideas. I love ideas because I fantasize about a skeleton key enlightenment, an idea whose profundity and breadth will transform all that is flat and dead in my life, recast my weaknesses and failures as strengths and victories. I want to be redeemed simply by reading a sentence.
I love such ideas like people love money: in spite of myself, automatically, distractedly. I know that they’re a kind of intoxication; I know that they’re not reality, not the components of vital human experience, not the texture of life or the phenomenology of mind or the beating of the heart; they are competitive meta-maneuvers, dogs circling one another, mechanisms for partializing reality and believing that you stand above it.
We should of course "let facts create" us, and our writing, too, but to be open to my self or my work becoming any happenstance creation requires more courage than I have. I am attached to my self, which I am also eager to transfigure or escape. I think and write with what I imagine is a self-enhancing end in mind too often, but there is no end to inquiries and responses, to the invented universe of ideas: they continue in all directions, along all axes of scale. They subordinate entire civilizations; they concern infinitesimal quanta; they zoom between quarks and quasars; they are quaint and they are contrarian. One can reach the end of a description and think: “Just so.” But an idea demands to be applied ever more-broadly, across vectors of human activity. Ideas are like machines: submit your data to them, receive binary signals in response, operate your device on unprocessed reality and receive nifty schema, and on and on and on.