Sunday, November 19, 2017

Notes toward an autobiography by others

In her book The Argonauts Maggie Nelson says:

My writing is riddled with … tics of uncertainty. I have no excuse or solution, save to allow myself the tremblings, then go back in later and slash them out. In this way I edit myself into a boldness that is neither native nor foreign to me.

I was surprised once when someone told me after a poetry reading, “You speak with such authority.” Like Maggie Nelson I grew up including “tics of uncertainty” in my writing. It reflected my thinking, didn’t it? Who really knows. Knows! Being certain of something should make you suspicious. Be open to other possibilities and, at least occasionally, what seems impossible.

I remember as a kid there was a period I added the word “no” to anything sarcastic, i.e., “That’s the most beautiful dirt clod I’ve ever seen — no!” I don’t know how I picked it up, and I don’t remember anybody bringing my use of it to my attention, but at some point it hit my ear wrong. Why was I so frequently contradicting myself? It took conscious work to purge the “no”. 

When I noticed I was constantly using phrases like “I think” and “it seems to me” in my writing and that other writers weren’t I wondered where the difference was. Were the others writing what they thought? Yes. You are reading them to find out what they think, I said to myself. They don’t have to write “I think” because it is understood that what they are writing is what they think. This made sense to me. So whenever “I think” appeared redundant — “I think ice cream is too cold!” — I would cut it out. “Ice cream is too cold!” is not a universal opinion thus I must not be speaking for everyone. I must be speaking for myself!

Leaving out “tics of uncertainty” creates an illusion of certainty. Or, as Maggie Nelson says, evokes “a boldness that is neither native nor foreign to [the speaker].” You get used to figuring out whether the person speaking is speaking from a place of authority, a place of personal experience, a place of knowledge, by following their argument a bit. Does it hold together? Does it make sense? Does it match your experience? They may be more wrong than right but still be worth attending to. 

Nelson goes on to say she opens a lot of her letters or emails with “Sorry,” as in “Sorry for the delay. Sorry for the confusion. Sorry for whatever.” She adds, “I’ve had to train myself to wipe the sorry off.”

I’ve done that too. Who really cares that I’m sorry when I haven’t written a blog post in months? You’re writing one now, Glenn. What is it you’re putting fingers to keyboard to say? Other than that you are sorry, of course. Other than that you are terribly sorry and you feel bad about neglecting the blog and doing other things which are not important either.

source: The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson


Jim Murdoch said...

I just did a search of my poems to see how many times I use “I think” and much to my surprise I find I hardly ever do. I thought I’d be guilty of that because if there’s one thing I’m definitely not it’s certain. In an interview with ShortList Kazuo Ishiguro said, “’Write about what you know’ is the most stupid thing I’ve heard. […] It’s the reverse of firing the imagination and potential of writers.” I have to agree with him. For me writing has always been about discovery and many of my poems are basically theories. Scientists get away with it so why not poets? I present a scenario as if it was true and let the reader decide if he can accept it.

Actually now I come to think about it I suspect what I do instead of using “I think” is pick a simile instead of a metaphor. I remember getting a rejection letter from an editor in response to my poem ‘Futility’ which opens:

      In many ways
      Life is like the bed
      in which we fake love

He hated the way it hedged its bets. You don’t get Erich Segal saying, “In many ways love is like never having to say you’re sorry.” That was almost forty years ago that letter and I can still remember it. God, it must’ve stung at the time.

On the subject of apologising, however, I do have to say I think there’s nothing wrong with saying you’re sorry. Maybe it’s a British thing. If we don’t understand something we’ll say, “I’m sorry?” whereas Americans are more likely to blurt out the more adversarial, “Excuse me?” as if they can’t believe what they’ve just heard. If you’re not sorry for not writing you blog then fine, don’t’ be sorry. It doesn’t hurt. That’s all I’m saying.

David Lee Ingersoll said...

I write with a lot of uncertainty and hedging. I've been editing some of that out as I get older but it's likely to always be there, at least in the first drafts. Nothing is certain and I'm certain of that.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

"The Profundity Pose" -- that's what I call poems that are too certain. "We fake our love in the bed of life!" That sounds, um, profound? On the other hand a voice that seems to be trying to figure things out, that seeks understanding through experimentation is the voice I find more appealing. Thanks, Jim.

Like all things, one can hedge too much. The writers who hedge too little come off as arrogant. All sorts of things are as certain as the word requires in order to be useful. The turning of the earth, gravity, death, that the things we understand mislead us. Happy Thanksgiving, David!

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