I have often been involved in discussions with other writers where we have phenomenologically explored the act of writing. Many creative writers will say that the writing kind of ‘writes itself’. The writer-created characters start to ‘take over’ the story. The language itself – its tones and rhythms and patters feel like they ‘speak’ autonomously. I have myself used the the analogy of being ‘ridden by the gods’ to describe being in the process of creative writing. As practitioners we have a tendency to make a mystery of certain aspects of the writing process because we do not fully understand them. Of course, there are other writers, and they’ve written many instructional books on how to write: the technologies of narrative structure, characterization, theme etc. It is a strangely polarized camp: those who want to present creative writing as a mysterious, almost transcendental act, and those who believe it can be bloodlessly dissected into a rational set of processes.
I’d like to step back and first clarify why writing is different from thinking or speaking, and then discuss what parts of the writing process indeed remain something of a mystery to us and why some of us enjoy that, and some of us find it frightening.
From the ‘cogito’ on, we have theorised a great deal about the process of human thought. Undoubtedly we do a lot of non-conscious processing of information and decision-making on a day to day basis. Then there is focused thinking: where we set our minds to examine an issue from a number of perspectives. Language plays a huge part in how we do this, not as an outwardly communicative act, but as a way to tack the ideas down, to set boundaries around our site of focus. We have more or less ordered ways of thinking about things and it is assuredly informed by the way our society, through language, has framed the matter in the past. What we know, from having been taught, from having read, discussed, seen, etc. And all the semiotic relationships that have been made. But when we set out to think, we do not necessarily take on the presupposed obligation to communicate our conclusions, through language to another. Our thinking can be as disordered, idiosyncratic, individualistic as we care to make it, within the constraints of the way language (the outside) has informed our understanding of the idea we’re juggling. It must be acknowledged that we have differing levels of control over what we think about and how we think about it. And when we acknowledge a true lack of control over those aspects of our thought process, it is either pathologized as neurosis, obsessional thinking, disorganized thinking, etc. or it is valorized as ‘thinking outside the box’, free association, hyper-focussed, being a dreamer.
When, however, we commit those thoughts into spoken language, they can now be judged by listeners. We are more careful about what we say than what we think. We might seek clarity, the approbation of our peers, to change the thinking of others, accommodation with the status quo. Or our speech acts can be formed in order to challenge, to disrupt, to limit or to enable. Words are loosed into the air; they become public. Of course, some speech acts are recorded for posterity and can be played back and their contents may be contemplated outside the context in which they were spoken. Some speeches are, of course, written first, with the knowledge that they will indeed be recorded. But our everyday speech – the simple communicational transactions we indulge in a thousand times a day – while often done without much thought, are nonetheless more controlled than our thoughts. If only because in speaking we are attempting to transfer some information to another person, and we are mindful of the need for clarity. But unless a speech act is recorded, it has limits: ideas spoken aloud must be within the reach of those with ears to hear it (and a shared language with which to understanding it) and there at the time of its utterance. Beyond this lies the ephemeral question of how an utterance lives on in the memories of the speaker and the hearers.
Writing – any writing – carries with it the threat and promise of longevity. For some reason, its survivability and transferability often eclipses any thinking on the process of writing. And technology has played a considerable part in how this has intensified over the centuries. At one point, words engraved into granite were there for those who could read it. It was site-specific like speech, but not time specific. A proclamation engraved on the walls of a temple in Ancient Athens may be still there today, for me to decipher. It has no reliance on memory, but it is still unstable, because with time, the context is lost and language changes. We are left with an artifact of thought, a product of an idea under the control of the one who caused it to be engraved. A consciously public communication, only the public changes and so the meaning loses clarity, eroded by historicity.
With clay, papyrus, velum and paper, the writing act becomes transportable. No longer site-specific, it can be born from place to place. Yes, perhaps it is more fragile, can be soaked, burnt, lost at sea, but a manuscript written in Venice in the 14th Century can arrive to us, in the 20th Century intact, lying under glass as an exhibit at the British Library. And I am always surprised by how eerie that is. Because it is a ghost. The ideas of a man or woman long, long dead, from a place no longer in existence, living and thinking and writing in a time we may know something about, but we are hard-pressed to really imagine with any authenticity. (Yes, Venice still exists, but 14th Century Venice is lost to us. We only have a jigsaw puzzle of clues as to what it was really like to live there, day to day).
These precious papery ghosts speak the way ghosts speak. In the language of the dead. A thread of human commonalities may translate, but the fabric of the language is shot through with the dark threads of lost experiences. And we naturally give these surviving fragments on another life importance simply because they have made the journey of centuries intact. In the same way we give the mummified corpse of some hapless traveller in the Alps importance. We crown them simply because, no matter their dilapidated state, they had the temerity or the luck to have escaped the intense interest of those who came before us.
Keep in mind that, if a hand-written manuscript from the 14th Century contained obviously marvelous thoughts, there is a good chance it would be taken out and read a lot, fingered and passed from hand to hand often, and eventually might die the death of all well-used things, having fallen apart in earlier hands like a oft-read love-letter.
It could be that the delightful 14th Century Venetian manuscript we have placed in all its glory in the glass case was, in fact, stored and forgotten in a wooden box, because it was too dull to reread. So perhaps its advantages were that it is a document penned by a very boring man who could write and afford the quill, ink and velum necessary to document his uninteresting thinking.
Printing changed things. The more copies of something are made, the more likely they are to have survived through time. But the fact that they were printed informs us that they were considered thoughts of great value to those who caused them to be printed.
Let me tell you the sad story of the unknown poet of Mainz, Germany who was born in 1415. He wrote poetry so sublime that the very few individuals who read them wept and swooned and fell into ecstatic trances. After the readers recovered, they went on to live intensely rich and joyful lives, because the words they had read remained with them, giving them a permanent sense of the delicious wonder of the world. He took his book of poems along to Johannes Gutenberg at his printing press and asked the printer to produce some copies of his work, but Johannes was too busy printing the bible, which was far, far more important, and thus sent him away.
So, in inherent in the employment of the technology of printing lies the determination of what was considered important enough to print. What deserved reproduction and, therefore, longevity. The choice to print the Gutenberg bible, rather than the poems of that forgotten poet of Mainz, was never based on the intrinsic value of the contents, but rather the conservative estimate of what deserved to be immortalized at the time and place of its printing. Just imagine for a moment how different our world would be if we had decided only to print things which were not easy to understand or decipher at the time they were produced. If we determined that we needed to print what we could not get our heads around or appreciate now, to preserve them for the smarter people who might come after us to decipher and interpret? We’d certainly have inherited a more fertile library.
In the digital age, it costs almost nothing to write your thoughts and make them public in the developed economies. The diversification and change in profit strategies of the large publishers, has meant that editorial choices have shifted radically from skilled writing to what will sell. At the same time, the rise of the blog and other forms of individually generated electronic publication has meant that the once shameful stink of the vanity press is waning. Last year there were four self-published authors on the NYT bestseller list. There is no reason to believe this number will not grow exponentially year-on-year as even established, published authors realize that, between the rise in e-book readers and the convenience of print-on-demand technology, self-publishing means a huge boost in profits to them.
But, you see, I have digressed. Because this, for the most part, is all about the finished ‘product’, not the process of writing.
I was born, as a writer, in an age of electronic documents. I write knowing my writing will be read and, thanks to the technology of the blog and commenting, I have some sense of who reads my writing and how they engage with it. Via the comments function, email and twitter, I have conversations with at least a thousand of the people who actively read my work. I know something of who they are, what attitudes they have to certain topics, what gives them pleasure, what makes them anxious or angry. It is impossible for me to separate the process of writing with the apprehension of its reception. My writing is, to some extent, a conversation with my readers. I am conscious of the responsibility I have as a writer to supply that conversation with matters of concern to both of us. I have a sense that it would be easy to tell them what they want to hear in that conversation (and what would be likely to result in a more profitable writing career for me), and yet I also feel that if I don’t challenge what I perceive as their expectations of how our conversation will unfold, I am not being a truly good conversationalist.
Although writers have always had an ‘ideal’ reader in mind when they write, I think I am justified in saying that this aspect of writing has never been so explicit. Barthes may have proclaimed the ‘author’ deceased, but he did not say the writer was dead. And I’m not. But I am ‘OTHER’ to my readers. And they are ‘OTHER’ to me. And I feel that this exchange of alterities is an important aspect of my writing. The danger in conforming completely to the expectation of your readers is that you cease to be ‘other’ to them. I think the success of extremely conformist fiction like Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyers and EL James, may be their ability to write texts which so conform to the expectations of their readers that their works cease to be read as the product of the mind of the ‘other’.
My writing often focuses on how sexuality and eroticism plays out in our lives. The gaps between the exteriority of sexuality and the interiority of eroticism. I often choose to write about situations which seem familiar and titilating as exterior acts of sexuality, but which become private, more complex and acquire greater contextual meaning when examined more closely. So I have a conscious sense, as I write, of trying to take my reader by the hand and drag him or her, sometimes unwillingly, into a closer look at the aspects of sexuality which inform our lives in broader ways.
My stories are often deconstructions of sexual colloquialities. Words that are used to classify certain acts featured in, for instance, pornography – like Bukakke. My writing process begins as thought, of course. I think about the word and why we need it. I decide that it acts as a lid for semiotic associations and feelings we are frightened or embarrassed to make explicit. I know my readers will know the word, and they will be in possession of certain pornographic images, staged remediations, caricatures of sexual acts associated with the word. In the case of bukakke, its etymological origin comes from the Japanese word to ‘splash’ or ‘sprinkle’. Had we been a different sort of society, all that fountaining of semen might have been a symbolic act of pure enjoyment, but it’s not. There are aspects of humiliation inherent in it. Why is it, I ask, that the releasing of semen might be read as partly negative. Why do men seem to have such ambivalent feelings about their ejaculate? Why is it like spit, or like waste? There is a paradox in the way we feel about seminal fluid. To me, that is where the story begins. I construct a narrative to travel through the examination of that paradox.
I may consciously structure the story, I may decide that I require characters with certain personalities that will realistically fit into a story with this subject matter, but I do not know what or if, in fact, the conclusion of the story will be. That part of the writing, those poetics, is a process of putting the the question into the setting and the characters hands, and seeing the possibilities play out on their fictional bodies and in their fictional erotic imaginations. My knowledge of my reader ceases to play much of a part in this aspect of the process. It becomes a fictional dialectic between the characters and the contexts they inhabit in the story.
This part of the writing process is experimentation. I have set up the experimental paradigm, I have determined its scope. I have acknowledge the tools of my experiment are not entirely inert – like the glass of a test tube – because they are catalysts, of which something is known. The writing phase is the running of the experiment. I have a vague sense of what the outcome may be, but I am never entirely sure. And often, like any good scientific experiment, the outcome produces no answers and more questions.
All I know is that this part of the writing process, once I have decided on the matter I want to explore, and determined the parameters in which I want to explore it, is unquestionably an act of experimental research. I acknowledge the fact that what makes this form of research different from the scientific variety is that it is that, although it may be reproducible in other ‘labs’ (other writers may write on this subject matter) there are far too many variables and intangibles to expect that the results will be the same. But that is not the only thing that makes research valuable. The practice results in a single, unique response at a given point in time.
Moreover, I know that the act of posting the story online is another act of research, where I test assumed readers’ responses against what they are. Finally, and most importantly to my motivation to write, the story acts as the opening salvo in another conversation between myself and my readers. We are engaging in a quasi-hermeneutic conversation on how we experience and make meaning of the matter. Of how we travel from the received wisdom of marketized sexuality, and internalize it as lived-erotic experience. Admittedly, the question is not entirely kept phenomenologically ‘open’ inasmuch as I am requiring the reader to respond to the way the matter is explored in the narrative, but I am relying on the belief that the ‘author’ is indeed dead. That readers will actively engage in making meaning based on their own lived-experience, their own unique dialect of the interior languages of the erotic.
What I feel makes electronic writing interesting is that, beyond its editability, its disseminational properties, its interactivity, is that despite its textual form, the volume of content being produced on the net everyday also makes it fragile and liminal. This conversation will, undoubtedly, be quickly lost in the immense ocean of data bobbing around on the internet. It is something to engage with for a moment and move on.
And I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. Some of life’s most intense moments are fleeting.