I often think of . . . liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed.
-- Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm*
words, words, words
-- Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm*
words, words, words
-- Hamlet, II. ii.
I'm figuring out how to write. Been figuring it out most of my life. Most of the time I was wrong.
Why do I care?
It seems like a fight with myself. Or maybe a fight for myself. Maybe a quest. To find. Discover. Become. What? the thing I'm going to be when I actually exist. When I grow up. Yes, that's the ticket, when I grow up then I'll be a real boy, and then I can drive the car and operate machinery and order a martini, and when I speak people will listen, o yes then I won't be just a kid, I'll be the real thing, a genuine article.
Genuine. True. Authentic. Yes, that's the word. Authentic. At least, it's the word I've been using the last couple of years. The word that, when someone I trust applies it to me, turns on my water-works. The word by which I can be manipulated. "You're strange, but you're authentic." The key to my heart.
I've pursued this thing in three ways. I tried to live in the theatre some way for a quarter century. More recently I've spent a decade being formed as a counselor. But all my life I've been trying to write, even when I couldn't.
People ask me how I came from the theatre to counseling, as if it were a contradiction, and I say that they're two different searches for authenticity.
In a theatre you pretend that you're worth looking at, and if you pretend truly they look at you. The main thing is honesty, fake that and you've got it made said many a sage. The semiologists teach us that every sign of truth can verify a lie. If you lift your eyebrow when you lie, stop lifting your eyebrow.
The best approach to truth in the looking-glass of illusion is the via negativa. Learn what's false and put it away. Repeat. Keep learning many falsehoods and putting them away. What's left is more likely to be true. And what is this falsehood, this truth, false or true to? To the thing, the place, the plot, the illusion at hand in the play, the Spiel, the commedia, the bit, the act. Take away what distracts from that, and we might have something.
I was trained to find the falsehoods in myself, the things I brought with me that were not the play, the Spiel, the commedia -- my assumptions, attitudes, neuroses parasitically feeding off the terror of the stage, obscuring the authentic illusion. Learn what's false. Put it away. Repeat.
In counseling, we track our attachments and antipathies: is the client before me just like my sweet old auntie? the mother I wish I had? the cheater who betrayed me? We also track the attachments and antipathies of the client toward ourselves: am I in their eyes a son? a lost husband? a huckster who sold nostrums? We learn, with the help of our teachers, to notice and disarm, contain, bracket these transferences and counter-transferences. We note our assumptions: we're too fast or slow, too loud or soft, too white or nouveau ethnique -- we name these patterns to get a handle on them, lift them out of the way so that the client's truth will shine. Learn what's false. Put it away. Repeat.
And words demand their own authenticity. I was brought up among books, not just picture books but big thick books jammed with print, books in many languages, books that I knew were for the grownups and not for me yet and therefore sooner or later but not much later I would grow into. I was also brought up among poems and songs, rhymes and rhythms of speech -- olympic vocabulary contests, spoonerisms and puns.
Language seemed like a road from childhood to adulthood. The shy boy might come out into the world on a thruway of words. Writing seemed a way of being somebody. But who was the shy boy to be?
At first you try on many voices, like old clothes in a thrift store. Scripture, Milton, Orwell, Kerouac, Frost, Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Joseph Conrad, John Steinbeck, the bard . . . And then you discover how your sentence lights up on the fuel of anger. You turn all your school papers to rage so that your prose can burn with a hard light. You're a sullen, secretly angry person. Angry is happy. Angry is real. You're trying to grow up, but you're stuck in adolescence, because if you can't be shouting at the elders, the system, the cosmic conspiracy to irritate you, then you can't find the words.
Then you grow up into the academy, where you're supposed to write, but in a particular way. A man who had never published taught me how to write for academic publication. When I had absorbed his teaching, I was silent for a decade, for he took my voice away. If the words had to follow those rules, they would not come to mind. I could not find the words. No words about the shifts and shadows, wisps and breaths, of theatrical illusion -- which in those days was what I had to write about. If I was to write at all.
Then came the deconstructionists -- the imitators of a French philosopher whose greatest horror was ism of any kind -- and every article in every humanistic field must be written in a tangle of neologisms: clunking cinderblock terms that, if dumped into one's writing, were proofs of currency and profundity. The new vocabulary was the certified antidote for logocentrism, phallocentrism, colonialism, imperialism, and hegemonic aggression. So powerful were these words that I adopted them myself. I rewrote my drafts in fast imitation of Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco, and became a published scholar. I had learned the power of those words.
I'm not a scholar. I started this project eight years ago, and I don't have to please anyone but myself. I just have to keep it honest. I'm doing better than I've done before, the proof being that I can look at some of those entries from eight years ago without feeling ill. I'm pursuing authenticity, hunting down extraneous words and syllables and letters, striking out the things I don't really have to say, eschewing explanation that obscures the thought. It's via negativa. Find what's false. Put it away. Repeat.
I dropped out for a year, but it wasn't a good year. It was a year when I got tired and sick, and let the job overpower the work. I had to give myself a shake, and get back to the task. The last few months are a new thing, closer to the bone, with firmer adherence to life and to death. Behold! I'm doing a new thing, don't you see it? said the Lord in Isaiah's prophecy. But it's the same thing, always new. Find what's false. Put it away. Repeat.
*(New York: Harper Colophon, 1977), p. 59.
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