Thursday, August 6, 2015

Separately and together, we must invent joy

I'm trying to complete a post I started on July 25. Though I don't remember my original intention, the post has quickly become a mashup of thoughts about Marilynne Robinson's Lila, Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, and an estranged childhood friend who occasionally takes a swing at me via e-mail or Facebook message. Since the piece, tentatively entitled "Life crushes us all," ranges across issues of class and race and whiteness and the deepest disappointments that life can deliver, it has proven not merely difficult to bring to an integrated, well-reasoned conclusion, but has also become, into the bargain, no damn fun.

Of course, I am quite familiar with all the tactics I routinely rely on to both avoid bringing a writing project to a conclusion, and to excuse each failure to simply sit down and write. I should add, also, that in regard to the twin challenges to write and to keep writing, though familiarity does breed contempt, it does not reduce the effectiveness of those stale, old maneuvers.

In the 1990s, the decade that Marrianne McMullen and I shared major responsibility for publishing the Dayton Voice/Impact Weekly, I had the happy experience of quite often bringing writing projects, news stories, opinion pieces, et al., to a conclusion. But even then stories begun in a burst of inspiration would sometimes grind to a halt and find themselves forever abandoned. As any writer can testify, such failures are common and ought not even be remarked. After all, the opportunity to succeed once more, or even for the first time, arises with each new day, with every new story.

Sometime, in that period, I came across The Courage to Write, a book by Ralph Keyes, who lived in nearby Antioch, Ohio and was a leading figure in the Antioch Writer's Workshop. I fell instantly in love with the title, with the idea of the courage it takes to write. Surely a whole book on the subject was just the thing, and so I bought a copy; several copies, in fact, and gave some of them to people I knew who also trekked through the unmapped writer's swamp.

As it happened, the book did me no obvious good. Keyes' repeated assurance that no writer is alone in that boundless swamp did not seem to empower me, however hard he worked to document the point. But, in struggling with "Life crushes us all," I have found myself thinking about The Courage to Write. And for about four days running, I'd sit down and read a few pages from the book and find myself able to add 300, 400, even, 500 words after each reading. It was as if I had finally found the secret that works for me, that gets me sitting down, that gets me confidently picking my way through the swamp.

Alas and predictably, the moment I felt that I had discovered the right path for me, it turned out to be a mere trick, dissolving quickly into wisps of smoke. But a day or two ago, I encountered a 2013 Atlantic Magazine post of a video featuring Ta-Nehisi Coates himself talking about writing. In the video, he also uses the phrase "the courage to write."

"I think breakthroughs," Coates says, "come from putting an inordinate amount of pressure on yourself and seeing what you can take and hoping you can grow some new muscles. It's not really that mystical. It's like repeated practice over and over and over again and then suddenly you become something you had no idea you could be... I strongly believe that writing is an act of courage, almost an act of physical courage..."

Writers, Coates says, need to go back to their work repeatedly. Revise, rewrite and after awhile the idea you had in your head is 50 percent realized, then 60 percent, then 70 percent. It's never fully realized, he says, but you can get closer when you don't let up.

I am certainly writer enough to know that Coates is correct. You don't let up, you go back repeatedly and you revise and refine and every once in a while, after all that pressure focused on putting an idea into words, you achieve real clarity, a sentence, a paragraph, a whole piece to make you proud.

So, I'm going to get back to "Life crushes us all," though it might help if I came up with a new working title that was less of a club with which to whack myself, but not right this instant. In point of fact, the struggle with the piece really is not merely about the courage to write, it is also about clarifying my own thinking in a way that weaves together several related ideas that are nonetheless separate and most often considered independently of each other.

There is whiteness and the struggle, as Coates describes it, of black folks to both live with and within the havoc that white supremacy visits on a daily basis and to live and to forge independent identities beyond the reach of whiteness; there is also the injuries and insults of class as portrayed in Lila, and the special victimization of women who are further silenced and marginalized even in a time of extreme poverty when solidarity ought to be the default state of human relations; and there is also the accumulating losses and humiliations that the world has inflicted on my estranged childhood friend.

All of these are part of the collective experience of life and history in the country we live in together, and are more easily considered separately, but if we are ever to move into a world of justice, deep and shared, we need a more profound understanding of who we are separately and what we each have been through. And since it is impossible to both succinctly and comprehensively explore the variety of oppressions that afflict both our separate and collectives selves, the challenge is, to pervert a phrase from Lord of the Rings, to construct the one metaphor that will rule them all.

I haven't figured out how my draft of "Life crushes us all" gets from where it started to that happier place. But while I've been thrashing about in search for the courage to write, I've tried also to write in my journal, to sneak up on the problem(s) before me, to write around and through it. I might be getting somewhere. Yesterday, in my journal, I got to here:

is for the love, the people, the things
taken from us...

"This, of course, is not enough because one cannot be forever sorrowing. In the face of the standard litany of loss that people endure, we must each rise up again after every lying down. We must proceed, not merely stoically. We must rise and proceed in spite of the beat-downs. Separately or together, we must invent joy."

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