Posted in avoidance, nonfiction

On sun, shadow, and hidden images (three quotes)

Digital art by Tucker Lieberman.

“In Pharaonic Egypt at the time of Akhnaton, in a now-extinct monotheistic religion that worshiped the Sun, light was thought to be the gaze of God. Back then, vision was imagined as a kind of emanation that proceeded from the eye. Sight was something like radar. It reached out and touched the object being seen. The Sun—without which little more than the stars are visible—was stroking, illuminating, and warming the valley of the Nile. Given the physics of the time, and a generation that worshiped the Sun, it made some sense to describe light as the gaze of God.”
Carl Sagan. Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium. Ballantine, 1998. p. 31.

“Here is a graphic demonstration of what Jung usefully called the work of the archetypal shadow: we cannot encounter directly what we have repressed, what we cannot face, because it is by definition unconscious; and so we encounter it indirectly, as if it were outside us, cast like a shadow out of the unconscious on to the world.”
Patrick Harpur. The Philosopher’s Secret Fire: A History of the Imagination (2002). Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003. p. 54.

“It could be that I had the kind of childhood full of absences, and yours happened to be the only one that hurt so good. It could be simply that suicide does tricky things to people. It is a bizarre kind of loss, full of answers and empty of ways to access them, much like the series of Magic Eye posters taped to the walls of our junior high school. Despite extended periods of squinting and eye-crossing, I repeatedly failed to detect the hidden images, available only to those with the ability to skew their vision. I grew to detest those posters with their cloaked dinosaurs and sailboats, constant reminders of the limits of my perception.”
Candace Jane Opper. Certain and Impossible Events. Tucson, Arizona: Kore Press, 2021. p. 13.

Posted in avoidance

My writer’s desk is surrounded by death spikes

In summer 2018, Neologism Poetry Journal published my poem, “Readiness,” which begins:

Bits of wildflowers find their way
into my hand and into my dirt.
The purpose of the seeds: to become their parents.

They were morning glories.

Close-up of two purple bell-shaped flowers.
My morning glories, photographed October 4, 2020.

Yesterday, the apartment building manager said that contractors would come to our second-floor balcony to “install something.” To receive them with grace, I tidied the balcony by repotting those morning glories. One had grown long, and I seated the pot in the windowbox and tossed its vines over the side of the balcony like Rapunzel’s hair so that the passersby could enjoy them, too.

Afternoon came, and it seemed the handypeople were not coming. Then, while sitting at my writer’s desk at the corner window that faces east and south, a strip of metal weaved through my field of vision, as if alive, as if wrapping the house of its own accord. Moments later, the man who was holding it came into my field of vision, too. He was crawling backwards on his hands and knees through my compost in the windowbox. The strip of metal was to be installed on the perimeter of the balcony.

Here is the result:

Corner window on the second floor overlooking a busy urban street with many metal spikes on the balcony edge.
My corner window, showing my writing desk and the balcony.

They installed 178 three-inch, barbed, flame-shaped metal spikes on the edge of the balcony and windowbox. 13 on the west side, 106 on the south side, 50 on the east side, and 9 on the north side. I did not know this was going to happen.

(There are additional spikes outside the bedroom window, too.)

It is supposed to make me feel safer? It does not. It is not my backdrop of choice for my writing desk where I make poetry and anti-fascist essays. It offends me and makes me anxious.

I understand that millions of people are actually in jail. I understand that I am not actually in jail and that what I am complaining about is merely a carceral aesthetic. I understand that some people like this aesthetic and truly feel safer when surrounded by such a physical deterrent to break-ins. I understand that I am not trapped in my room, despite other kinds of real restrictions that the pandemic places on my movement. I understand that I am unlikely to accidentally injure myself because the spikes slope outward away from the person standing on the balcony and that I am not personally at risk for self-harm.

I understand that most writers do not have the privilege of their own quiet, sunny home office—spikes or no.

I understand that my complaint is significant mainly to me and may seem petty to others.

Of course, the construction worker also stole my potted morning glories. I’d like to believe the flowers were kidnapped in kindness and are alive somewhere, but broken Rapunzel vines were left behind.

The time I’ve spent in this apartment is the longest I’ve ever lived in any one place as an adult. As a kid, I lived in three houses for six years each; then I was in college dorms; after college, I had 12 consecutive addresses before this apartment where I have just completed three years.

So I’d like to believe the vines that spiraled slowly down my balcony did not suddenly, when I wasn’t looking, transmute themselves into barbed wire; that they were always only flowers, pure and innocent; that there was nothing else in their DNA.

My poem “Readiness” ended:

They sprout
tendrils that slowly unfold tinctured secrets.
You are becoming what you always were.
I water you. I do not remember what you are,
but do not let me stop you.

Posted in art, avoidance, nonfiction

The term ‘writer’s grievance’

Here is a term coined by Minna Salami describing the weariness or frustration in noticing that other writers—because of their dominant race or gender—can adopt a particular tone that you could never take or can get away with less effort, less serious attention, or less critical analysis on issues that are central to you.

This grappling [with the impact of Europatriarchal dominance] has not led to writer’s block but to an equivalent sentiment that I refer to as writer’s grievance. Writer’s grievance is when you become starkly aware of the constant, howling objection in your words. It is when you wish that you could write about trivialities in the way that white male writers can. Or that you could be cool and impartial in writing about gender, as black male writers are. One cannot even single-mindedly write about a classic feminist issue such as the gender pay gap, as white feminists do, without that other issue spilling its Rs and As and Cs and Es onto the pages.

—Minna Salami, in her introduction to Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach For Everyone

Insofar as black women, in Salami’s analysis, never quite feel that they have the space, permission, freedom, or opportunity to view the world purely from their own point of view without the awareness of how white people and/or men perceive them, this “writer’s grievance” resembles what W. E. B. Du Bois called “double consciousness.” Their work tends to reflect how other people view them or constrain them. And it takes its personal toll. Salami says that “never placing myself (however constructed that self is) at the center of my worldview is the most harmful way for a black woman to live. I remain the ‘other’ even to myself.”

The desire for the freedom to make art and philosophy about “trivialities” is not itself trivial. There is a difference, after all, between being trivial and having the freedom to choose to be trivial. It is a reflection of the options that society makes available. People of dominant identities often criticize those of marginalized identities for “making the personal into the political” or “playing identity politics.” But do the people of marginalized identities have the full freedom to do otherwise, given how they must gain knowledge and make their way in the world?

Bertrand Russell, an early-20th-century white British philosopher, wrote this sentence 90 years ago which has been widely quoted. In unpacking it a bit, it sheds some light on the topic.

One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.

—Bertrand Russell, Conquest of Happiness (1930), Chapter 5

Russell seems to mean, first of all, that it is healthy and necessary to be able to step outside one’s work now and then, if only for a necessary respite to be able to return to the work with a refreshed perspective. Perhaps he also means that we must be humble and realistic about our eventual unimportance as individuals within history. But there is an additional meaning embedded here which he probably did not intend: Much of white men’s writing is unimportant because they have the luxury of writing that way. The way they gain knowledge is not, as it is for so many other people, biased by survival mechanisms due to their race and gender; instead it is biased by the way they benefit from and participate in upholding Europatriarchal dominance. And if a white man enjoys and promotes an existing system in which he is treated as nobility, then, regarding that system, his work is not revolutionary or transformative and, in that sense, it cannot be terribly important. If he thinks that it is, he is starting to suffer from a kind of delusion that is a product of the Europatriarchy itself.

As Salami put it:

Men are just as enslaved by the social system—one that they hesitate to criticize because it amplifies an illusion about who they are. In fact, men are troubled with frustrated desires; they are caught up in the competitiveness of the rat race; they are sexually needy; they suffer from suicidal inclinations in disturbing numbers; and they possess an insatiable urge for power.

—Minna Salami, in her introduction to Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach For Everyone

Thus, maybe—to alter and repurpose Russell’s observation—when certain thinkers and artists feel that they are approaching a nervous breakdown, they should reconsider whether their work is designed to describe or achieve anything sufficiently important. Those who are always trying to achieve something important already know who they are; they more likely have the “writer’s grievance” than the type of stressful self-doubt to which Russell refers.

Posted in art, avoidance

Who’s going to write your book?

“Our disconnectedness from the [imagined] older version of us,” psychologists believe, is “a surprisingly powerful subconscious influence on our behavior.” So wrote Leon Neyfakh in the Ideas section of the Boston Sunday Globe on January 6, 2013, in his article, “Meet Future You. Now Be Nice.”

The conundrum is that, the more we imagine that we will change significantly as we age, the less we want to sacrifice today’s pleasure for tomorrow’s happiness because it seems to us that tomorrow’s happiness will belong—somehow—to a different person. Why should people feel motivated to save money, give up dessert, tell the truth…if the benefits will go to their future selves that they can’t yet recognize as “themselves” in their imaginations today?

Neyfakh quoted psychologist Anne Wilson as saying: “You have to find that sweet spot. You need to feel connected enough and care enough about [your future self] in order to pursue [your goals], but not feel so close and connected that you just reap the benefits before you’ve actually done the work.”

Based on how I understand this article, I identify another sweet spot: You need to feel distant enough from your future self to understand that there’s a goal you haven’t achieved yet and into which you must therefore invest effort if you ever want to become that imagined future self, but not feel so distant that you resent working so hard as if you were doing it on behalf of a total stranger.

Hal Hershfield, a professor whose research interests include decision-making, was quoted in the article as saying, “It’s fine to think about that future self as another person—it just has to be another person you feel close to and have a lot of overlap with,” since “the marriages that work best and the friendships that work best are the ones where people feel like the other person is almost part of them.”

Today—having happened across the saved newsprint in my paper hoard—I think about this advice in the context of how much time we invest in our artistic projects. When I make any piece of serious art, I grow as a person just from the process of envisioning it, discovering a way to express it, and seeing it through to the end. When I think of certain accomplishments as very distant, as in, Someday I’ll be the sort of person who can write this book, the book doesn’t get written because I’m essentially telling myself I am not yet the sort of person who can do it. But when I think of certain accomplishments as achievable by me—because the accomplishments are, let’s say, in my “zone of proximal development”—I’m more likely to sit down and write a first draft. I realize I’ll have to grow and change a bit to see it through to the end properly, but it is still I, and not some barely imaginable stranger, who is able to put in the effort and take credit.

Posted in art, avoidance

On failure in writing

“One of the things that young people need to know when they go into writing,” she said, “is that they ought to stop writing these stupid books that please people. They should write as if they might fail at it. To succeed at something mediocre is worse than to fail at something great.”

“Jamaica Kincaid on writing and critics.” Kate Tuttle. The Boston Sunday Globe, Nov. 3, 2013. p. N18.

“Curiosity is the most powerful thing you own.  Don’t put limitations on yourself. Other people will do that for you…failure has to be an option in art and exploration because it’s a leap of faith.  In whatever you’re doing, failure is an option, but fear is not.” 

James Cameron, director of “Avatar,” at the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference on Feb. 13, 2010. CNN.

“If you’re going to try anything, try something big,” [Stephen] Sondheim told the rapt audience during a visit to Brown in February.  “Make a big failure.  Big failures are dignified.  Little failures are shameful.”

“Why Write?”  L. G.  Brown Alumni Magazine, Mar/Apr 2010, p. 20.

“Why fixate on success when, as Bob Dylan once put it, ‘there’s no success like failure’ and ‘failure’s no success at all’?”

Bob Dylan. “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.”  Bringing It All Back Home. Columbia Records. March 1965. Quoted in Stephen Prothero. God is Not One:  The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World–and Why Their Differences Matter. New York: HarperOne, 2010. p. 302.

“‘Insignificance is the locus of true significance. This should never be forgotten,’ Barthes tells the interviewer from Le Monde. ‘That is why it seems so important to me to ask a writer about his writing habits, putting things on the most material level, I would even say the most minimal level possible. This is an anti-mythological action.’”

Ben Kafka. The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork. New York: Zone Books, 2012. p. 142.