Keith Hjortshoj has sent along this follow-up post to his one earlier in the month.
“Performance, in which the whole fate and terror rests, is another matter.”
This sobering statement lands at the end of James Agee’s “Preamble” to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, following several pages of invective against publishers and readers who would fail to be moved, he predicted, by the realities of the fragile, damaged lives he tried to document. In this sentence Agee acknowledges, in the end, that the failure to live up to his intentions would also be his own, or that of language itself.
This fear afflicts all of us who write not just for ourselves but to and for others: that the products of our work will be unclear, misunderstood, misjudged, for reasons we can’t entirely control. And these doubts about the future of the product affect the process of writing, in the present.
In an earlier post I argued that while we are doing it, “writing” (as a verb) results from embodied movement and therefore from release into motion, not from control. When we include the dimension of audience, however, this first release is followed by another: the release of this “writing” (now as a noun and object) into the hands and minds of readers, where it begins a life of its own.
Most of our anxieties about this first release, in the process of writing, are really about the second: the quality and fate of the product when it moves beyond us. The desire to control its fate, or the fear that we can’t, makes release feel like a loss of control. Like helicopter parents, we are really trying to control in the present what will happen to this child in the future, when we “let go” and she has to face the world on her own. To those who care about their writing (or their children), we can’t argue that such fears are irrational. After all, as a young Marxist, Agee was most afraid that readers would view his book as “art” or “literature”; and that’s precisely what they did.
This is another reason for which the advice “Just write!” seems naïve or insufficient. For writers who have reason to worry about the fate of the product, it sounds like “Don’t care!” These things we produce do eventually represent us in various ways, with real consequences. Clearer advice, perhaps, is, “Don’t confuse the first release with the second, the process with the product.” The delay between them, in writing, buys you freedom and time, and concerns about the way the writing will strike the reader are the work of revision.
But there’s something else about this product and “performance” that unsettles us. Writing fixes language to the page, in a certain order, and when it’s released to the audience that order, now an object, becomes unalterable. If the act of writing is an embodied dance between language and thought, the dance then seems to be over. The product of this movement appears to be a static, skeletal rendition of the life that went into it: a frozen artifact of once fluid thoughts and intentions.
Perhaps this is why academic writers and their teachers, especially, become so obsessed with the formal, structural features of writing—with its organization, logical order, and “positions.” If writing (the noun) is an open window to the mind, as they tend to believe, they want to be properly dressed and posed for the occasion. Schematic outlines, notes, and other preparations for the performance might get their disheveled thoughts and words in order. And this is why academic writing is so often taught like anatomy rather than like dance, or music.
What we tend to forget, and therefore lose control over, is the way this language will continue to move, in the minds of readers, as a living thing. What continues to dance across that spatial and temporal divide, between the act of writing and the act of reading, is the sound of the human voice. When writers are tense, embroiled in structure, inattentive to their own voices, distrusting language itself, we can hear that too. That’s the uniquely human miracle of writing, so improbable that we can’t quite believe it ourselves. And it’s a dimension of writing that Peter Elbow examined closely in his essay “The Music of Form.”
Even James Agee, of all people, didn’t quite believe it. He wanted to make language record actualities, like a multisensory camera, and was afraid that he couldn’t. But what really comes across that divide, between his moving experience of Alabama and our eyes and ears moving across the pages of his book, decades later, is his own voice: his anger, empathy, and remorse, and his astonishing ability to ignite our own imaginations on behalf of others: “so that, wherever the weathers of the year have handled it, the wood of the whole of this house shines with the noble gentleness of cherished silver, much as where (yet differently), along the floors, in the pathings of millions of soft wavelike movements of naked feet, it can be still more melodiously charmed upon its knots, and is as wood long fondled in a tender sea:”
Rolling and unfolding in the living rhythms of his voice, the resonance of one body in another, the beauty of Agee’s performance lies in the gorgeous failure of his intentions. Of course we read it as “art,” in the deepest and most human sense of the word, because that (like it or not) is what writing is. Defying time and space, as Eliot wrote, “My voice echoes/ Thus in your mind.”