WRITING IS LIKE…

… an onion?

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(from LARGER THAN LIFE: THE AMERICAN TALL TALE POSTCARD, 1905-1915, by Cynthia Rubin and Morgan Williams)

Maybe. But that’s not where I’m going.

My summer reading (and listening) has lately brought me back to TWO METAPHORS for writing, and both have been sloshing around in my head for days, like so many more accidental infusions of pool water.

The first one turned up in David Almond’s middle years book, My Name is Mina. Towards the end of the book Mina — the narrator/diarist — and her mom go for a walk, and talk about Paul Klee’s idea about WALKING and how it relates to his art.

Her mom tells Mina that Paul Klee says “drawing is taking a line for a walk”. Mina extrapolates that writing isn’t so different from drawing. “Each word is a step a-long the way to I don’t know where.”

She continues, in a sort of marching song:

“To write is to take some words for a walk.

The words follow the rhy-thm of the feet.

The feet foll-ow the rhy-thm of the words.

To write is to take some words for a walk.”

To geek-out and get a wee bit academic, the Klee/Mina notion of a walk reminded me of the Situationist Internationale and Guy DeBord’s idea of the dérive which — no surprise — I’ve always loved. For the Situationists — a group of avant garde intellectuals and artists active in the mid 1900’s — a dérive was a sort of open-ended and open-hearted wandering — not about work or recreation or reaching some goal, but all about exploring and having new, unexpected experiences. (The Situationists posited it as an antidote to the monotony of daily life in Capitalist culture — which is a whole nother conversation.)

Anne Lamott (I’m finally reading her fabled Bird by Bird ) and others have commented that a great perk of being a writer is having a standing excuse to get out into the world and explore. Amen! Like writing, any walk — weather a dérive or not — can show you things and bring you to places that weren’t on your original itinerary. Arrival at the unexpected is one of the great joys of both enterprises. And there are aspects of walking (as opposed to being in a car, especially) — the slow speed, the immediacy of smells and sounds and visual details — that involve a sort of presence that writing, especially free writing, offers too.

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My second metaphor for writing: BEING A PARENT.

Terry Gross interviewed Richard Linklater on Fresh Air a couple weeks ago about about his new film, Boyhood, and talking about the film’s father character (played by Ethan Hawke), Linklater told Gross “…he’s trying very hard, but… he’s kind of bumbling through parenthood. He’s figuring it out. Kind of endearingly, self-consciously. And I just think he’s trying, which as a parent that’s so much of the game. You know, just to try. We’re all gonna get it wrong anyway but you have to at least try.”

I laughed out loud at that one: welcome to what writing is like too — for me anyway. But there is the lesson: just try. Like that admonishment that you read in every writing book and hear from every working author: just write.

Just being a parent and just writing share lots: you bumble through both; both can be really lonely in their ways (especially when you’re just getting started); the characters involved repeatedly assert their own agendas despite your wishes; and both jobs — once you sign on — you can never (god forbid) quit.

Tangentially: I did end up going to see Boyhood the other night too. It’s the story of a kid growing up in a complicated, modern family in Texas. Linklater filmed over 12 years, using the same actors throughout. Its whopping 166 minutes somehow didn’t seem long enough: I haven’t so wanted for a movie not to end since escaping into Avatar in 3D.

It was a gift to be able to watch kids morph and change over that kind of time frame on the screen. The movie is not plot-driven at all, and you end up recognizing its many small moments as both all-important and no big deal. A bit of bullying, say, might elsewhere become the linchpin for an entire storyline; but here it is just one moment — something that happens. (A nice reminder to sit back a little in an age of problem-oriented “parenting”!) And at the same time, all the small moments — their accumulation and overlay — are exactly what make up a life. Nevermind the great narrative arc.

It is a pretty special movie — definitely worth the 3 hour commitment.

2 comments

  1. I try every day to make my writing more of a dérive…and then I realize I’m not SUPPOSED to be trying, ha. I guess you kind of have to approach it sideways. We are huge David Almond fans here, and two years ago my daughter wrote to him. Here’s what he said about creating Mina — which was a sideways endeavor: “Mina wasn’t based on anybody i know. She first appeared in SKELLIG, and she was a total surprise to me. I hadn’t planned for her to be in the book at all, but she quickly became, for me, the most interesting character. After Skellig was finished, I kept on thinking about Mina, but, again, I didn’t think I’d write about her. Then, ten years after Skellig was published, and after I’d written many more books, my editor asked if I’d be interested in writing a little ‘extra’ for the 10th anniversary edition. Oh, I thought, maybe I would write a couple of pages of Mina’s notebook. As soon as I started, the notebooks sprang to life. It was as if Mina was saying to me, ‘What took so long?’ It really felt as if she was inside me, directing my thoughts and words. That maybe sounds crazy, but writing is sometimes like that. I’m sure you find that when you do your own writing – sometimes thoughts, ideas, words, seem to come of their own accord. It was a lovely book to write, and it was lovely to experiment very Mina-ishly with words, stories, poems, pages, ideas, nonsense, emptiness etc etc.”

  2. I love that Sonya — thanks for taking the time to share it. Definitely sounds like a man on a writing-derive. (I think you were actually the person who recommended Mina to us in the first place!)

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