Where Words Come From


I adopted Motorboat when my family emigrated from Hawaii to California to start over. It was fitting then, I suppose, that my cat waited to die until I returned from college a graduate. I had a few days with her when I arrived at home before she stopped eating, became inert, and remained in a closet in my bedroom until she passed. I say fitting because, as impressively sad as watching her die was, she was well over fourteen, and as much as I felt like my pre-graduate life was inexplicably and unsentimentally linked with hers, so then did her dying remind me that it was time to abnegate the convenience and comfort provided by an attachment to the things I was leaving behind.

Part of that process of voluntary loss involved making peace with the future I had chosen for myself. Writing, in all of the expansive and imprecise meaning associated with the term, had appeared before me as little more than a miraculous accident. I had always written things, but it wasn’t until a cascade of words spilled out of me in a happy constellation and a few important people gave me a phone call that I was forced to consider if this was the identity I wanted to define myself by. To my great dissatisfaction and discomfort, otherwise fair and probative questions asked of me regarding process, craft and upcoming projects became inextricably tangled with the greater looming consideration of exactly what it was that I was doing with myself.

I felt—and still feel—as if questions about writing are too couched in impossibility to be answered by someone in my situation with any sort of authority. Accomplished writers, with the sorts of accolades and experience that might actually legitimate that sort of advice, have tried to opine on the gravely serious issue of “craft.” And to their credit, some mysteries about writing do not resist explanation or identification. These are the sorts of technical elements taught in bachelor’s programs and MFA workshops—the sorts of principle subjects that become the topics of dissertations and honors theses and exegetical papers and the aimless abstractions of responses to workshopped short fiction. These are the considerations of what makes a compelling character, and what shapes plot, and what is meant exactly by jargon that sounds as if it came out of some insufferably stuffy patois. Jargon like “free indirect discourse.” They end up in lectures and manifestos for the fledgling writer and circulate in conversations held by those who consider themselves adept with a pen. But inevitably this sort of mechanical speech is always retrospective and belated, occurring a number of steps and a few moments removed from the instant that a compelling sentence, or passage, or text springs into existence. It puts good writing on a pin, giving anyone with the impulse an ability to be a faithful witness to writing, but not the ability to necessarily create it.

Speaking about that primordial moment—before the words come—requires an unattainable fluency in what Zadie Smith has called the “private language” of the individual writer. Ask someone who has written a piece of fiction and they might be able to tell you about its inspiring forces, or the influence that a predisposition to magic realism has on the strokes with which scenes are painted, or even how a ponderously long sentence might be deliberately constructed—overloaded with pedantic nothingness and useless verbosity—in the service of making a narrator sound like a vapid and self-absorbed nuisance. These words come easily to writers. It’s one of the only ways we know how to speak about what we do if we’re to pretend to take ourselves seriously. The place beyond that though, where the words come from, evades being spoken about. It is shapeless and terrifying, dense and impenetrable. It menaces because it’s an alien thing. An eloquent saying or two could be made about what it means to write, but where do the words come from and what makes them unique? Why do they suddenly up and run away? I don’t know. I’m not sure. I couldn’t say.

This year, a dismissive and slightly apologetic shrug at that problem hasn’t sufficed for any of my or others’ purposes. Emails asking, “What’s next?” accumulate in my inbox and remain unanswered. I can’t bring myself to respond to affable requests for guidance. I have nothing to say to my family and less to say to my peers and I feel awfully guilty and responsible to those wonderful people in publishing who have made themselves available for my ends. But such are the anxieties produced by an awareness of one’s credentials. I feel their absence acutely. My measurable achievements are few and the brittle creases in my writerly pedigree hold up against very little scrutiny. Giving encouragement or advice, then, still feels like an elaborate form of lying. And to speak about work pending seems like an endeavor destined for failure; it presumes a familiarity with process that I simply don’t have. You might say, to Dean Koontz, “When is the next novel going to be wrapped up?” And he might reply, “One month and two days.” McCarthy might deadpan, “When it’s wrapped up.” Salinger, depending on his age, might have sneered or sighed or laughed and quipped, “Never, probably.” But when I try to map out the trajectory of my own work it inevitably spirals off into the atmosphere in an errant contrail and never returns to me. I can’t path it—it feels untoward to even contemplate such a thing without the appropriate tools.

“When she asked how it felt to be a writer I took a moment to sip at the head of my beer and stare uncomfortably into the red of the heat lamp before stating, quite honestly, that I didn’t know.”

If this crisis is particularly unsettling, it’s because of the existential mess that having a newly dead cat and being a newly minted graduate can put someone in—because the order to “say something about your writing” is so closely aligned, for people who call themselves writers, with the order to “say something, right now, about who you are.” I remember making the decision to write—to make a home in and a life out of words—and I remember the weight of it settling upon my shoulders. I remember the volumes of everything I imagined I was going to write crawling into my lungs like a stubborn, bronchial mucus. And then, when the time came to say something about writing to anyone, I looked inside of myself and saw that place where the words come from and I beat my fists against it and found nothing. It was an insulting feeling—to have both the pursuit and the life I had selected for myself be mysterious and inaccessible.

Trying to reconcile that mystery made me familiar with the special kind of tiredness that comes about watching over your soul. I was tired of my soul appearing at my bedroom door in the evening, always with some awful intent, to heckle and remind me of the portents of the future. I was tired of its terrible heaviness—of the way it dragged its feet to delay or impede meaningful decisions. I was tired of my soul in a way that makes someone give a lazy appellation like “the soul” to the vast multitudes of their embarrassments and their fears and their deficiencies in confidence. As if those things were a child that could be censured and taught to not slash at the curtains with scissors or draw on the walls or curse. And so, on numerous occasions, I would abandon the desk and the computer and go away to let my soul tend to its own concerns. To rummage about the pantry and the attic, to tour the vistas of the places I had lived, to run about the yard and lie in the driveway. To expend itself, finally, in the time that I was gone.

And yet I always find myself here in front of an empty page when I return, which leads me to believe that writing—or being a writer—might have very little to do with something as comfortable as writing “what you know.” As I look over the topics of my previous work, and still the waves of nausea that come with reading it, I see very little that was written from a place of confident understanding. Instead, amid the malformed sentences covered all too late in red pen, I recognize a number of exploratory impulses, a series of wanting-to-knows put in the harness of a useful turn of phrase. Writing something—like the dull, persistent ache in the lungs when a cat dies—gives amorphous things a tactile quality. On paper they can be stretched and pulled, subjected to all kinds of terrible inquisitions, have their ridges defined and their contours traced. It’s a method of laying hands on the soul.

And always there is the desire to simply put everything in order. The morning my cat died I buried her under a blooming oleander on the western edge of the lawn. It was a ceremony with little fanfare but nonetheless quietly dignified and appropriate. Later that night, as I shared a drink with a friend whom I hadn’t seen for years, she asked me what I had been doing in the interim. I told her that I was writing and making progress on a novel. When she asked how it felt to be a writer I took a moment to sip at the head of my beer and stare uncomfortably into the red of the heat lamp before stating, quite honestly, that I didn’t know. The next morning I began to write this, not with the intention of putting down the answer that I was unable to provider her, but with the intention of discovering it for myself. And now I am lining up everything, and putting it into the modest stables of syntax, and forging neat little tapestries out of words, and trying to compose the portrait of an image I’ve never personally laid eyes on.

I think what I’ve found is that there is more to do. I don’t think I’m finished.

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Cover image via Christiaan Tonnis