The Humbling

i’ve been working on a longer piece for a while now & i thought it might be interesting to talk about what it feels like doing that after writing so much, but so much, very, very short prose; some don’t even call it prose but prose poems (there’s a good discussion on the distinction over at fictionaut right now).

six heady number artists.

one thing i want to say is that i find it difficult to keep writing well & just withdraw in one’s own world and head like a mathematician. a mathematician has got a great advantage: he carries the end-all of his art in his head in the form of axioms, proofs, lemmata … (the taxonomy of mathematical structures is an art form in itself not unlike musical structures). the writer doesn’t. his world looks like “his” but it isn’t. the larger part of “his” world belongs to others. his world is in their world and in order to keep writing about anything interesting to anyone else, he must go into other people’s world.

if the writer goes there & just brings back what he saw, heard, thought, people will call him a realistic writer. most writers are, or aspire, to be realistic writers, it seems to me. some, like carver, look like realistic writers on the surface, but they’re not really realistic writers (which makes them more interesting, to me). if the writer goes there, into the world, and turns it into something the readers’ conscious mind cannot recognize but only their unconscious mind, they might call him a ‘fantastic’ or ‘absurdist’ writer. kafka and borges are such writers. if people recognize ideas but there’s nothing much else to hold on to, like characters or plot, they call him a ‘philosophical’ writer. kierkegaard and nietzsche are examples of such writers.

only one of these writers is a real alien. 

if nobody and no part of anybody, conscious or unconscious, really understands the writer, he might be not from this world either because he actually is an alien (you know who i mean) or because he writes about a world not in this world because it doesn’t exist (yet). this is the writer considered mad or prophetic – prophetic, however, like kassandra, whose divine gift came with the dreadful condition that nobody would believe her prophesies. pynchon and vonnegut belong here.

all this stuff about different writers really is just a corollary to saying, again, that it is difficult to write well and a lot while withdrawing into one’s own head or one’s computer. there’s this pressure to remove yourself from anything that is real because real things draw you in on their own account & seem to compete with the reality of the story inside your head. (i’m saying ‘you’ here where i should say ‘i’, which is not just laziness but an exercise in POV. really.)

do you know what i’m talking about?

the other day, i looked at my wife, we were sitting in the car, i was driving, and i said to her: you know, you’re not saying anything and you haven’t said anything since a while, what is going on. & she said: look at the road! & you’re not saying anything either. it turned out that she’d been waiting for me and i had been waiting for her, which could only happen because i’d been writing for so long that i had completely withdrawn into my own world. we later agreed that it felt as if a giant ball of shit was laying between us that we couldn’t get past. at the same time my writing went to shit, too.

«There is a great deal more pain than pleasure in writing fiction.» – John Banville

all this was disturbing to me because i had nursed substantial fantasies that the writing of a long piece would be a blissful experience overall. not without pain, but i had only expected the pain of creation & not the pain of losing my world and having to find my way back into it to be able to continue at all with any joy.

which i have done now. do you want to know my secret? how i did it? i’m not going to tell all because this is a public space, mate, but here are a few things that i did to get myself grounded again in reality so that i’d be happier where i was and was able to continue to write my long piece:

  • i installed a septic tank on our premises, looked some actual shit in the eye and got my hands dirty.
  • i finally caught up with my tax returns & submitted overdue insurance receipts.
  • i went and bought something that i really had wanted for a long time that made me look great in the shallowest possible way.
  • i played several games of chinese checkers with my daughter & lost.
  • i spent a day teaching people things that had nothing whatsoever to do with writing or literature or the building of worlds & there was laughing.
  • i wrote a dada poem to please nobody but myself.
  • i slept more one day than i thought i should.

and so on. you get the drift. i call it ‘the humbling‘. it is as necessary to creating longer works of fiction as … love is to living a life. over out & back to my desk & to listening to jane and serge & zaz.


[the author of this diatribe is working on a novella. if you read this and liked it, or if you read this and didn’t like it, no matter what, even if all you do is exist and have couple of unemployed fingers, he’d like for you to keep these fingers crossed for him in your world which he’ll undoubtedly visit at some point as you’ve visited his just now.]

10 thoughts on “The Humbling

  1. I think of myself sometimes as a mockingbird. A writer must keep his eyes and ears open at all times. He makes a kind of quilt, a collage out of it all, and yet it’s still his own voice. There’s no song like a mockingbird’s, yet each time it’s a patchwork of things heard and each time it’s unique. Mockingbirds also go on and on and on, and I get really sick of hearing them, as I sometimes get sick of myself.

    • thank you mark, you put it well. i hadn’t thought of myself as a mockingbird but now…and that conflicted relationship with oneself, yes, i share it.

  2. I read this earlier, and had to leave, it was so painful to me. It’s the curse of the writer, to become so absorbed in the reality on un-beings that you lose a grip on the here and now. The complete focus is necessary in writing, especially the long writing. Which is one reason I’ve been farting around so much with short stories — they provide cover from what is necessary and hard and sometimes painful.

    Today I reached the end of (yet) another revision of my first novel. I had mixed emotions, a bit sad that I’m finishing with this character and he and I can move on, and joy because I can turn to other projects: two chapbooks, grad school applications, poetry all April, a short story I love but need time to finish. My second novel. the other ones not written.

    I miss being as present as I used to be before I ‘became’ a writer. Maybe we just need to take breaks. But even a day away makes me itchy. Thanks for a provocative post. Peace…

    • linda, hang in there. i share your motivation for short and short shorts. quite relaxing really: i dive in, i dive out again, nobody suffers…but one (wo)man’s gain is another (wo)man’s suffering…thanks for sharing.

  3. I’m sorry, but you’re such a prolific writer of short fiction that I was wondering recently how you’d be getting on with a longer piece. And I’m quite relieved – again, sorry – to find that you’re human like the rest of us!
    I’ve honestly been unable to get absorbed into my own world for, oh about 6 years now. The Humbling clambers all over me and my writing every day. I have to fight it off. So I see what you’re going through and I wave to you from the other side of the abyss. *wave*

    • why, thank you … i still do write a lot of flash, two pieces (engl/germ) every night to be exact throughout 2011 – it’s turned into a refreshing break from the long form. indeed The Humbling is both curse and chariot.

  4. Another thought-provoking post Marcus. And yes, I echo the sentiments of falling so deep into the writing process that sometimes it’s hard to break free. Then you blink and realize there are actual people waiting for you to converse with them. I’m gearing up to do a longer piece/book/something and am interested to see how it will differ from the flash I do.

    • jules, thank you, and best of luck with undertaking that longer journey. in the beginning, you may not even notice the difference, as flawnt already anticipated when he wrote about Flash Fictional Pointillism – http://bit.ly/eRTELC. cheerio!

  5. I was sort of stunned reading this, because I have felt the same lately. An overload that clogs my mind. My mind needs a new septic tank. I really need off facebook which is an assault to the writer’s brain. The writer’s brain needs breathing space. Fresh air. Sunshine and rain. Clouds, wind, snow, smog. It doesn’t need so much verbal stimulation of other people. BTW, I love chinese checkers.

    • thank you, susan, good to hear that this resonated with you. unplugging facebook is easier than you might think…i also get ovestimulated too easily, i think. at least temporarily. and checkers rule…

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