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Asking an infinite question
What do you do when you are invited to give a writer’s intro… and you haven’t actually been, you know, writing?
Such is my plight, dear readers. I have been invited here by the nonpareil people behind the nonpareil community, Foster.
And I’m going to disappoint them, and disappoint you all, and be exposed as a fraud, and be chased with torches and pitchforks. Because while I have written, I don’t feel like I am writing. And a writer… who doesn’t write! What an abomination!
Why don’t I write? This question came to me in the midst of my misgivings. A true Frequently Unanswered Question if there ever was one for me.
Still more: why do I write? Why this difficult, painful, unremunerated mess of words?
I guess these questions are telling me where to go with this writer’s intro, friends. Let’s go, then, all of you willing to embark on this strange contemplation with me.
Let’s ask some damn questions.
The Section Wherein “Writing” Proves to be Fraught, Tricky, Elusive, and a Touch Brutal
Thich Nhat Hanh has a beautiful little meditation that goes like this:
Buddha is the breathing,
Buddha is the walking.
I am the breathing.
I am the walking.
Its message is simple: we don’t need the separate duality of the “I” versus the “breathing”/“walking”, the subject versus the object. Thich says: "We think there must be someone for the breathing to be possible. But in fact the walking and the breathing are enough.”
So why can’t the writing be enough, dammit? Why is it so much harder than walking or breathing, Thich?
“Enough” is a word that comes up all the time as a writer. Usually like this: “I am not writing enough.” There are times, of course, when I also worry about doing enough walking, breathing, or every other stupid thing—”Do I need get closer to that 10,000 step goal?” ”Am I somehow… not breathing enough?”
But for my entire adult life I have not been writing “enough,” even when I am spending plenty of time—enough time—actually sitting down to write. And even if I’m getting enough written, what I am writing is not enough. That’s how brutal the experience of enoughness is.
Why is this?
There is something beautiful and unforgiving in this word, “writing.” Writ-ing is the verb, the ongoing present continuous of “to write.” But it is simultaneously the noun, the object, the output, that-which-has-been-written.
What do you create as a writer? Writing. But that word, in all its present continuousness, never reaches an end. It’s always still ing-ing.
The writing keeps writing itself, in other words.
The writing writes itself through readers. They write their own fresh reactions in their hearts and interpretations in their minds while reading the already-written writing.
The writing writes itself though its influence. It influences writers who follow in the writer’s footsteps. It influences the writer themselves, as they continue to write off of the foundation of what they’ve already written.
This is why we writers can answer that question, “Have you been writing?” with that dreadful answer, “Not really.” We might have written something. But all we have then is something written. We don’t have writing. We don’t have that which keeps writing itself. We feel the lack of that, because it’s the thrill of having it that keeps us writing.
Writing has to be more than something merely written. There’s a difference between the email you write to your boss and Shakespeare. And you know it when you’re closer to one pole than to the other. Boy do you know it.
And until we get there, we are not the writing.
Instead, we are the not writing.
The Intriguing Addendum to the Previous Section
(But, paradoxically, this still makes us writers.)
The Section Where the Writer Qualifies His Previous Assertion that He No Longer Writes
Fine. I mean, ok, I do write.
I mean, I have written. -ish. Yeah. Here and there.
See. Plenty of stuff.
It’s fine. It’s whatever.
Don’t make me call it writing. Or whatever, call it whatever.
There are moments though, I guess.
There are moments.
Moments where I break through layers of sediment around memories long ago interred in my past, where my heart takes in so much, all of a sudden.
Moments where I find sudden truths, where the myriad truths of my life coalesce into a broader, clearer truth—and yet, and yet, those truths then sink back to the bottom of the ocean of my psyche, almost immediately, there but not able to be used as powerfully as I’d expect.
Moments where I realize the immense satisfaction of getting others thinking, getting them to see something new or interesting or even liberatory. Moments when I get to celebrate those who bring powerful honesty to the world through their lives and art. Moments when I make great friendships off of the conversations that writing starts, friendships I know I’ll value forever (thanks, Foster).
Moments when I simply look around me for a bit, and find something beautiful, for a time, to contemplate.
There are moments.
The Section Where the Writer Considers the Nature of Such Questions as Go Frequently Unanswered
The biggest questions take a lot of words to answer. In fact, such questions may be infinite, never arriving at a conclusive answer.
But I think the biggest questions also take the fewest number of words to ask. Setting forth here, as I did, with the questions, “Why do I/don’t I write?” already feels a bit stale, a bit too limited. Have I answered them? Not quite. But I’ve already moved beyond that initial asking.
The question I am really asking here, continuing to ask here, is much simpler, and simultaneously way larger. It’s just this: “Writing?”
No parameters, no who/what/where/when/how. Just the full bloody experience of writing, the full weight and gravity and energy of that word, that experience, that phenomena—and then a giant question mark wrapping the whole thing up into something resembling Rene Magritte’s Castle of the Pyrenees.
We can do the same thing with larger questions, more universal questions, more urgent questions, too: “Climate change?” “Global catastrophe?” “Gaza?” Again, the single word or phrase is just a shortcut for the entire experience—your entire experience, my entire experience, our entire experience. That entire experience can and ought to be experienced as a question, can and ought to get us starting to think instead of thinking we have an answer.
And yet if this infinite asking of a question, this unbounded way of posing a question, is powerful, it’s also extremely difficult.
To ask “Gaza?” requires a full opening up to the hopeless horror currently embroiling the Middle East, without reliance on the personal, tattered Rand McNally roadmap of the entire world that we typically pull out from under the driver’s seat when asked to give our opinion on something. To ask “Climate change?” requires us to ask about the very way we live today. To ask “Catastrophe?” requires us to stare into the myriad voids of our own making.
These infinite questions are challenging, neverending, and demanding of everything of us. And they can never, truly, be answered. They can be lived, and in the asking of the questions, that living can grow ever deeper, realer, more connected to others—in service to others—because communicated to others.
But they can’t be answered, any more than life (or writing) can be finished.
The Section Where the Writer Asks Some Smaller Questions
The rascal child will annoy her parents with glee with her endless “why?”s. But she knows something we later forget about questions: they can be a source of play as much as of serious inquiry.
And I suppose I ask too many big questions, take those questions too seriously. Maybe that’s why I don’t write, why I haven’t been writing—I make it all too big.
And there are so many smaller questions around me.
Glasses left on a table outside the window of the cafe I am sitting at. Aquamarine Ralph Laurens, there alone for well over two hours, the sky behind them slowly darkening with overcast clouds and the mid-autumn day’s early end.
The mailwoman across the street with a long-faded set of USPS mail pouches, the USPS-brand navy color turning into a summer gloaming blue in the particularly worn patches.
And another mailwoman, ten minutes later, whose mail pouches are equally worn with a more brown and gray palette mixed in, but whose hat’s white eagle remains crisp and clean.
A tanned, dark-gray haired man in his late 50’s walks out of the cafe with glasses that look identical to the aquamarine Ralph Laurens. But when I turn and look, the glasses are still there.
I don’t explicitly put question marks against any of these written observations, but I don’t need to. They each provoke the emotion that one feels when one is genuinely asking a question.
They provoke wonder.
And that’s maybe the easiest answer to my original question in this piece: “Why do I write?”
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