By Naomi Riddle
30 September, 2020
‘It was a time
governed by contradictions, as in
I felt nothing and
I was afraid.’
Louise Glück, ‘Landscape’, Averno (2006)
‘When I say ‘I,’ when I say ‘my,’ I am behaving like a fruitfully messy lump.’
Wayne Koestenbaum, Figure It Out (2020)
Two weeks ago, I injured my right knee. Now, when I try to put any weight on my leg, or go up a flight of stairs, a deep twinge of pain radiates from my knee down the inside of my calf. After three months of attempting to write to you and then not-writing to you, September is the month I am told you must sit still. As in, sit in this chair and deal with your sullen teenage silence. Listen to the words that have hidden themselves under your kneecap and that refuse to budge or let you air them out in the open. Determine the exact feeling of the swollen, or pinched, or inflamed meniscus (exact diagnosis pending). Acknowledge that all there is right now is you in your chair with your desk and your keyboard, and a specific injury that prevents you from running ahead of your anxiety and your not-writing and your energy-lag.
I asked my knee to write the letter for me, and it refused.
When Graham Greene developed writer’s block in his fifties, his solution was to keep a dream journal. If Greene could write down his dreams as a set of brief descriptive lines, he would know he was at least able to write something. The descriptive lines in his journal became a story, then a story with characters, then other characters appeared, and then the story unspooled itself inside of the dream journal, which of course did not announce itself as a novel or a book, which was what allowed him to start writing it in the first place.
Paul Giamatti is sitting behind the wheel of a blue Toyota hatchback. We are observing from outside the car, in front of the windscreen, looking in. Paul Giamatti closes his eyes and starts hitting his head, with some force, against the driver’s side window. (Paul Giamatti looks more like rumpled Paul Giamatti in Sideways than suited-up Paul Giamatti in Billions, and the car is left-hand drive.)
A playing field full of hundreds of line dancers moving in tandem to ‘Old Time Rock-n-Roll’, which is blasting over the loudspeakers. None of the dancers are wearing masks or practising social distancing.
Cold. Night, but still well-lit from a near or full moon. In a forest, or small wood. A row of idling ambulances visible through the trunks of the trees. The ambulances are silent, and there are no other discernible sounds coming from the wood. Red and blue lights strobe through the branches, on/off/on/off.
What Graham Greene didn’t say about the dream journal is it might not be helpful if you are trying to spin your descriptions into a letter, not a story. What Graham Greene didn’t say is, if you are well versed in the art of avoidance, you might just start abstaining from writing down the dreams too.
I give up on the dream journal and attempt an alternative method, this one stolen from Bernadette Mayer—address your reader.
Between now and the last time I wrote to you there have been two deaths, and two memorial services, one of which I did not attend because I lacked the courage.
Between now and the last time I wrote to you there have been hundreds of thousands of deaths and no pause, no collective guilt, no remembrance—only graphs, lines, charts, modelling, data, tracers, fines, anti-lockdown protests, polls, tracking, casual and non-committal apologies, an inquiry, proffers of togetherness, and invites to online events.
But are you approaching the situation rationally? interjects the doctor or the psychologist. Are you approaching the world as it is, or telescoped through the lens of your own experience? Consider this: your relationship to illness is different than others. Consider this: the global experience of one is not the equivalent of the other.
Yes, I say, a pandemic is not the same.
(What is the same: how a society deals with a body as soon as it becomes a vector or a contaminant or an ill body or a less-able body or a body requiring care. Always care as an expense, always care couched as hysteria and motherly sympathy, always care as cost, weighed against the disruption to the other more efficient bodies. Chris Ulhman: ‘COVID-19 mostly kills the elderly, especially if they have an existing chronic disease. That is not an argument to let them die but it should guide government responses.’ A rhetorical trick: to advocate for an action in a way that makes it sound as if you would never advocate for such an action at all.)
I read that writer’s block is not the result of being without an idea, but the belief you are not up to the task of writing the idea, so instead choose to write nothing and avoid the failure.
I read that writer’s block is not real, and is just a phrase used to excuse procrastination and a brittle ego.
Maybe my silence is a necessity. Maybe my inability to write or my stubborn refusal to ‘reflect on our COVID-19 moment’ is actually grief, or an unwillingness to reside inside of grief, because doing so would demand another confrontation with it.
Parse the meagre entries of my dream journal and all you will find is a group of dead metaphors for arrestment or claustrophobia or entrapment or loss: locked cars, missed flights, trains stopped at stations, filled suitcases (also locked), pocket radios where an announcer’s voice is drowned out by static, cassettes with the looped tape bunched up, or worse, with nude and empty spools.
Why am I writing this to you? Why is this an editor’s letter, or should it be, and, actually Naomi, this is kind of, embarrassingly, like your journal, or the types of sentences you write in order to slow-walk towards the actual thing you should be writing. At this point you’re meant to delete the earlier drafts. It is not a letter at all.
Figure it out, chides Wayne Koestenbaum.
Ok, fine, replies my sullen teenage self. Figure it out.
Maybe some of the images in the dreams are real descriptions and maybe some of them aren’t, and maybe I put some of them in there to help flesh out the rhythm/point of the sentence. Perhaps all of them are true or none of them are. Just as I’ve always not-written so too have I always dreamt, so whatever we’re interpreting in the language of the dreams is probably misdirection. If you feel disappointed know that writers are also kind of fibbers because they make it seem as if each sentence was always meant to follow on from the one before. Hide the scaffolding, and the tomato salsa, and the earlier drafts. Hide all the missteps, and the overreactions, and the mistakes in that other document, password protected.
A better way of putting it: I have developed a suspicion for the thing I love. Put two words together and they’ll make their own connection and you’ll believe in that relationship and what those two words have to say to one another. Put the pairing in the gallery and you’ll believe in its importance by virtue of the white paint around it, and its connection to the history of everything else put on the wall before it, which also had its own rim of white paint around it.
Problem: how to continue to believe in the frame, the white paint, the wall, the writing and the words.
Problem: how to continue to believe in the use of the ‘I’, or language, or rhetoric, when the tricks I use are the same ones used by those who condense suffering and violence into clean and simple lines.
Problem: realising my wish to avoid using the first person is really about my wish to avoid addressing my power, because the I of the writer always has power. The I of the writer knows where this is going and how it will end before you do.
I want to find a way of writing that escapes itself. Writing that puddles and leaks, and, yes, even dribbles or makes a mess or has shadows. Writing that asks you to find those shadows yourself, and does not presume or think it knows who this ‘you’ is, and how it is that you happen to find ‘yourself’ reading it.
Writing like cloth or gauze, something resting lightly on a surface, which can be removed if necessary, like the way a tablecloth can be ripped clear without disturbing the cutlery. (But what writer wants to envision themselves as a tablecloth and not the fine china sitting on top of it?)
I want a writing full of holes and ragged edges. Writing that shies away from that other type of writing—writing that’s foreclosed, resolute, tightened and sure; writing that’s already decided before it’s begun.
(Know this ‘I’ is a messy pool of sludge / know whenever I use the first person the ‘I’ is meant to pick at its scab and disintegrate / know I am repelled by the ‘I’ just as much I seem to have to use it / how it always thrusts itself into the first paragraph and won’t let go from there / not repelled as in repulsed and disgusted / repelled as in resistant to its magnetic field.)
Why am I telling you all this?
Because I said to F: How do you maintain a feeling of optimism and energy and excitement when you’ve seen what goes on behind the curtain?
Because institutions and organisations distance themselves behind moats and false walls and prepared statements, which helps to create feelings of calmness, certainty and control, whereas all I can give you is uncertainty, hesitation and flailing about.
Because I might be having trouble keeping this float up in the air.
Because once I read a sub-Tweet by an editor who said he found all writing about writing to be turgid and dull.
Because the undergraduate student said he had a fear of partially submerged vessels.
Because I am pushing myself onto the stage without guitar or piano accompaniment and my knee is whispering sing dummy sing.
Because June Jordan said: these are not trivial times.
Because The Social Dilemma conflated images of the Yellow Vests and Hong Kong protestors with QAnon believers and white supremacists, and then presented the root cause of all these things as being one and the same.
Because we went from talking about the number of burnt hectares in one month to the number of pandemic deaths in the next, and, like temperature increases, both losses conceal blame and consequence under numerical figures. (Remember: this is what words and images can do.)
Because both the doctor and the psychologist said in the same few days: well perhaps now is the time to take a break from it because it is making you unwell.
Because, two weeks ago, the night/day images of a Californian sky blotted out by smoke filled your news feeds, and there were words written to describe these images and connect them to Australia’s own smoke-filled summer, and now both the Australian and California skies are bright and clear, so we have giving up on thinking about the sky in the way we were thinking about it two weeks ago, and there are other words and opinion pieces for what is happening today, and yesterday, and there are other images too.
Because the analyst said: superpowers do what they do because they can get away with it.
Because as much as I know what Running Dog means and why I started it, I spend an equal amount of time unsure as to where the work is going, what it is for, and whether I should continue.
Because a far better writer told me the answer is to put all of it in the letter. The letter is the vehicle, the letter is the method, the letter is the gap, the letter is the arena within which I might find out what it is I’ve spent these past three months avoiding and not-writing about.
Put all of it in the letter anyway and resist the urge to delete it.