The "in-between" state
This weekend, for the first time in months (and what seems like years), I’m in between projects.
I sent my agent my book proposal for my next nonfiction book earlier this week (more details coming soon). Next on my list: touching up a novel I’ve been working on off-and-on for seven years, an epistolary novel called The Letters. It’s supposed to go on submission this fall, so I feel an urgency to get it done (finally, finally, finally), but a friend told me to make sure I do something good for myself in between.
That’s good advice. The “in-between state” is one that needs to be revered, nourished, and indulged in, whether you’re in between writing projects or jobs or homes or lovers or pets (or licks of an ice cream cone).
I’m in a burned-out state now. It’s not a good creative state. And especially not a good state to be in when pivoting to another project. So I woke up on Friday, and with a plumbing problem as an excuse, went out for an extravagant breakfast, bringing along several books I’d wanted to read for ages.
I also brought along a comment from a writer friend: she’d told me how she was writing her current work with accessibility in mind because she didn’t want the language to be a barrier in any way. She didn’t want her writing to exclude.
I took this to heart because in trying to be a writer—a lyrical writer, a smart writer, a writer of nuances and shadings and layers and complications, a writer who evokes, and in evocation opens the door to depths (I hope), I wondered if I have taken an elitist (and even insecure) approach to my writing. Insecure because I strive, I aspire, and maybe in striving and aspiring I overcompensate.
Perhaps, I thought. In fact, yes. But wait, there’s more.
One of the books I brought with me was a collection of essays by Donald Barthelme, Not-Knowing (I’d stumbled on a mention of it in The Marginalian’s article, Donald Barthelme on the Art of Not-Knowing and the Essential Not-Knowing of Art).
I was interested in the essay because I covet the state of not knowing. It’s a state of wonder and curiosity and surrender. It’s the beginning of creation (and a lovely part of the state of being in between). Bathelme said:
“Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how. We have all heard novelists testify to the fact that, beginning a new book, they are utterly baffled as to how to proceed, what should be written and how it might be written, even though they’ve done a dozen. At best there’s a slender intuition, not much greater than an itch.”
A slender intuition, not much greater than an itch. This is the feeling I wanted to touch before turning my attention back to The Letters. Even though I began the novel long ago with that exact feeling, I need to feel that itch again in order to put the final touches on it. Because every rewrite of a novel should feel like a first kiss, the relief of a tension, the beginning of an exploration, the expectation of joy.
But a first kiss is never just one thing. Thinking back to my friend’s desire for the utmost accessible prose, I wondered if instead of accessible prose, my aesthetic is more about finding clarity, even if the expression of that clarity poses nettlesome problems and difficulties.
If words are a lightning rod for atmospheric disturbances, then sometimes they must demand interrogation and even bafflement. A writer, said Karl Kraus, is a person who can make a riddle out of an answer. A riddle isn’t accessible by design because its riches lie in figuring it out (or even in not figuring it out, but forever probing it). Barthelme said:
“Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art. However much the writer might long to be, in his work, simple, honest, straightforward, these virtues are no longer available to him. He discovers that in being simple, honest, and straightforward, nothing much happens: he speaks the unspeakable, whereas what we are looking for is the as-yet unspeakable, the as-yet unspoken.”
Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art.
As Cioran said: “We do not spend much time in front of a canvas whose intentions are plain.”
I’m not arguing against my friend’s aesthetic of accessibility. I find it admirable and desirable (and she’s such a poet I know her definition of accessible will be fascinating). I’m arguing that access to some things is only available by way of a circuitous, thorny, indeterminant path.
I don’t want my prose to obfuscate for the sake of obfuscation—to be linguistically forbidding just for the sake of being forbidding (unless the story requires such obfuscation)—but sometimes clarity is a muddy thing, and an image is a riddle, and a dog is a god, and a god is a goat, and you see your reflection in a mud puddle, and you dance to silence.
I have no answers, but I enjoy my in-between states tremendously. They’re wonderful because I’m in suspension, without my moorings, without ambition or aspiration, adrift and not trying to cling to anything, wondering and wandering. I don’t want the in-between state to end, but then, somehow, the in-between reaches exhaustion, and there’s only the in, the all-in, the scratching of the itch, and I’m ready to look into a mud puddle to find the reflection of the dog that is a god.
We write to open worlds. That’s the only thing that matters. The what and the how speak to us without us knowing why.
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