Why not to write: a confession
by Sam Kriss
Once you’ve done a little writing you start to hate words, really hate them, the kind of frothing obsessive hate that might be love if you could only push it a little further, but you can’t, something’s stopping you. The words are everywhere, they’re invasive; you wish they’d go away, but at the same time you can’t imagine life without them. There are too many of the things. Little stubby ones; long serpentine ones with twitching antennae and gossamer-thin probosces; pale words, translucent and squirming; big rich words engorged with blood, their carapaces dense with tiny thorns. An infestation. Some people freak out and see bugs crawling all over their skin; I get words. I don’t know which is worse.
There’s a sea of them. Not a pacific blue mirror nibbling tenderly at the sands, not an iron-grey ocean roaring its foam-flecked fury. A sullen greenish bog, oozing and bubbling, squirming with life, a primordial soup. I feel this sea of words somewhere at the base of my spinal column, a fetid reservoir, and with every sulphurous belch from its surface the words come teeming, crawling up my back, rippling under my neck, gnawing into my brain. When the words seize you it’s a feeling not unlike pain. It’s sharp and constant. You can’t think of anything else. They’ve got you by the throat, they repeat themselves in your ear, they can utterly ruin your day. The only way to get rid of them is to spit them out. You have to write them down.
That’s where the hate comes from. When the words are still crawling their way around your body they’re just an annoyance. Nobody really hates their runny nose or their aching feet. Like any sickness, it doesn’t really belong to you. Only when you’ve expelled the words and lined them out all neatly on a page do they become yours. Then their intrinsic hideousness is all your own fault.
The hatred is everywhere, it runs like a spine through the body of literature. Beckett’s Unnameable can’t go on, he must go on, he goes on, but all he really wants is to be silent. Shakespeare rejects words through Hamlet and renounces them through Prospero. Chaucer ends his Canterbury Tales with a penitent’s retraction. Virgil orders the Aeneid burned. There’s something really grotesque about words, it’s on the level of an innate repulsion, they’re hideous to the touch. It’s something unique to writers. Artists are a temperamental self-important bunch in general, but painters don’t tend to see the very act of applying pigment to canvas as something shameful. Sculptors don’t throw their clay to the ground and curse its earthy worthlessness. Composers don’t cultivate an instinctual distrust of their pianos.
If you work with paint or clay, what you make is already in the world, you’re just moving stuff around. That’s OK, you’re not disturbing anything too seriously. If you write, you’re making new world, you’re pumping more and more reality into the already overstuffed carcass of the Earth. Even if you never show anyone what you’ve written, it’s still there. The planet sags under its weight. All this blasphemy just to get the bugs off your skin.
If you do show it to people, it’s worse. Love this! you cry, shoving a handful of worms in their faces. Validate me! It’s pathetic. If you join a writing workshop, you’re beyond salvation.
In the book of Genesis, God forms the first man out of dust and breathes life into him. The animals are formed ex nihilo, but before he can be created, man must first be moulded. His image comes before his reality; he’s a representation first and a being second. It’s the same in so many creation myths: humanity is unique, its form precedes its function. There’s a difference, though: in the Old Testament, the world is spoken into being: before images there are words, the universe is a linguistic construct. It’s strange, then, that the Torah – usually so rigidly formulated – begins not with aleph, the first letter of the alphabet, but with beit, the second. The text is incomplete from the start, it’s intrinsically insufficient. Even the Word of God is still just a word, a hideous foreign thing that bores its way into your brain. To deal with words, to surround yourself with words – it’s an imperative, but it won’t save you. Christianity offers salvation by the blood of Christ. Judaism gives you only the Book: you trace your way backwards through the entire scroll, until you come up against the letter beit, and then you’ve got nowhere else to go.
That’s the root of it. Great writers tend not to be nice friendly Anglicans. In the West, at least, they’re of two types: Jews and antisemites, antisemites and Jews. One type, really. Antisemitism is just a desperate attempt to capture some of the Jew’s particular talent for self-loathing; Judaism is just a desperate attempt to account for the antisemite’s hatred. A Jew doesn’t have to be circumcised: Yitzhak Shapira is not a Jew; Jacques Lacan was a Jew par excellence. The Jew is the one for whom something is missing, circumcision is just a reminder of that fact. You try to replace it: that’s where you get psychoanalysis, political radicalism, Christianity. Pathological inventions, all of them.
Writing is displacement. The words are loathsome because they’re a constant reminder of something that isn’t there. It’s a symptom. If Nietzsche (the antisemite who wasn’t an antisemite) wasn’t crippled he could’ve walked the mountains himself, he wouldn’t have needed to write Thus Spake Zarathustra. If Kierkegaard (the Jew who wasn’t a Jew) wasn’t impotent he could’ve fucked Regine Olsen, he wouldn’t have needed to write Fear and Trembling. If you’re writing, it’s because the world has failed you. And, like the good little masochist that you are, you make more world, you make more people, you make more absence.
My shoulders are always tense, they’re full of knots, I can feel the muscle fibres fraying, like old sea-worn rope. It’s never painful, not exactly, but it’s hard to get comfortable. I can’t say why, but I almost relish it. I worked in an office for a few months; one day they had a masseur come in. They asked if I wanted a massage. I said no. Nothing valuable comes out of a lack of tension. It’s idiotic.
It’s said that everyone has a novel inside them. Always a novel: never a film or a painting or a really good spaghetti bolognese. Books about writing are everywhere, they’re consistently popular. The advice is consistently lousy, especially when it starts to border on spiritualism. You have to write from a place of love. You have to love storytelling, you have to love your characters, you have to love words. You have to write for an audience. You have to use fewer adjectives. I think the books should come with little warning labels. Caution: it won’t help, something like that. Not that they’ll save anyone, if you have the sickness there doesn’t seem to be much you can do about it, but at least people won’t be allowed to delude themselves.
Maybe I’m wrong. There are plenty of writers, many of them published, some of them quite successful, who claim that they do what they do out of a genuine love of words. I happen to think they aren’t much good, but after all I’ve not been published. Sometimes people tell me I do this to myself, I indulge in it, I could be content if I wanted to. They may well be right; it’s immaterial.
I’ve never felt like I have a novel inside me. Only words, sentences, stories, characters, flowing like pus from an open sore, crawling like ants. Sometimes the flow dries up for a while and I get worried, but it never stops for too long. The only way to really halt it would be to fumigate the anthill, to give it a nice fresh blast of diazinon, to tear down the whole rotten structure. I’ve been writing almost since I can remember. As a child I’d take a few sheets of blank paper, fold them in half and staple together to make a little book. I collected my first few volumes in a VHS case. I’d carry it around with me wherever I went. I don’t know where it is now. The first story I wrote – I must have been five or six years old, maybe younger – was called Lost in Space. In the story an astronaut on a spacewalk accidentally breaks his tether to the ship. He goes floating out into space. He drifts past planets and stars. It doesn’t seem to bother him too much. That’s all. I don’t think he ever made it back.