Thursday, January 9, 2014

Starting Out is Like a Vertical Treadmill

Invention (or the starting-off phase of writing) can be like a treadmill, a plank at a steep incline.

Today, I have several writing projects in this stage, and I am finding it very amusing.

The work feels like a significant exertion though it's not necessarily an unpleasant situation. I'm aware that this is how it often feels when I am starting a new piece of writing. The incline of starting carries around the cliche in English of "an uphill battle." It also contains the conceptual metaphor of ascent and possible transcendence.

I know myself as a writer pretty well by now, so I understand that it's not usually audience concerns that make starting an exertion but rather contact with the unconscious. That is, I don't usually worry about the impact of my nascent words on an imaginary audience in the future--those worries are not the source of strain. With new ideas there is always the shadow of the unconscious. (This is even the case with the scholarly writing I do--not just creative writing.) Exertion comes from forcing contact with the unconscious: it's the inaccessibility Freud describes in his term "motivated-non-knowing."

I've come to understand that this treadmill is my all-too-human desire for mindlessness.As Elaine J. Langer puts it in her discussion of Freud in Mindfulness, unconscious forces are connected to mindlessness. (That's fine; we all need a healthy dose of mindlessness.) They "continuously affect our conscious lives yet, without extreme effort such as is required in psychoanalysis or various spiritual disciplines, we can not recognize or change their influence.”

Sometimes my treadmill is accompanied by a surreal image: the actual running floor of the machine is transformed into a continuous fingerprint, expanding and fluctuating like some sort of fun house mirror. I understand this image as related to identity and the self in writing.
I also think of the neat packaging of the 5 canons in the Greco-Roman tradition (invention, arrangement, style, memory, delivery). The "exact moment" in which we start a piece of writing is much more fluid than any neat category. Who knows when you actually started? Perhaps in a dream you had last night. Perhaps four notebooks and two years ago (or longer). Perhaps even when you gripped a pencil and formed your first letter as a child.

If a person is intimidated with starting a piece of writing, they are, in the words of Suzuki, "adding something extra" to the experience. Just observe the moment the draft begins to surface. Don't be scared. Every present moment of writing contains shards, marks, and strings of Beginning as well as Ending.

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