Monday, October 15, 2007
WRITTEN WORD 1 -- First Person
Writers are constantly being told to write what they know, but they are often steered away from that they know best, the writer’s own self. In some very deep sense all art is about the artist – and this is most obvious in all writing the rises to the level of art, whether or not it is actually written in the first person. All art that goes beyond the surface is essentially first person art.
Right now Marta and I and eleven other writers are sitting around a fire in a spacious room full of color and light with wide windows that bring in the garden from one side, the mountains from the far end, and from another side a strand of woods that
cut off from view the outbuildings of a funeral home that everyone knows who lives in our Catskills, town, Woodstock, NY. In this group Marta and I write along with the workshop members as we do in the various weekday and weekend groups we facilitate here in the Catskills and every week in New York City, and at times at a range of retreat centers, colleges and resorts here and abroad. On this night Marta has opened the session, and the topic that has come to mind right away is “Helter-skelter.’
It came out of people’s verbal introduction in this first session of a five-part weekly series. Short verbal reflections, here at the start but nowhere else, reflections but not verbal stories, for there is a contradiction between stories told verbally, such stories being virtually impossible to tell without knowing exactly where they are going, whereas written stories, whatever the order of things may be in the writer’s head, will never go according to a set plan, will always contain surprises, when they make the transition from the head, where logic can seem real, to paper, where logic alone never suffices – never, that is, if stories are real, if the author – like a really good painter or composer or dancer – lets the material takes its own mysterious directions.
For unless writing becomes some sort of precious academic exercise, honoring approved rhetorical modes and rigidly following outlines, it will always contain surprises. No one is surprised that material comes in from mysterious places when someone is painting a picture or composing music or working out a dance. And the same way matters of mystery and spirit lie behind fine writing – as opposed to the predictable orderly writing that feels safe and causes no surprises at all – writing that relies on the head only and rejects the heart.
“Helter-skelter.” I had no idea I had anything to write until I started to write, and hit on a crucial story I had not written, a version of which is in my last blog entry – that first memory, from before I was two, when I am sitting on the edge of an upper bunk in a Pullman drawing room on a train taking me into the heart of the family into which I had been born. Something horrible is happening in the drawing room. And now I am realizing as I write what I knew at the time, and why when many years later I was near a murder scene in New York City I knew what I was smelling when I smelled fresh blood.