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Get Unfamiliar

A writer's search for inspiration in the great unknown.

Recently I was asked to contribute to an anthology on the craft of fiction. I decided to write an essay on punctuation. Its title—which, of course, I’d chosen before writing a single word—was to be “Balks, Gulps, and Thrusts: The Kinetics of Punctuation,” and it was to praise such beauties as the guillemet and the full stop, the slash and the interpunct. It was to admire the semicolon, whose modern use is credited to the Italian printer Aldus Manutius the Elder (1449-1515); and to measure the speed of the em dash.

But I did not write it. I found I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. I had some ideas, yes; I had a vague notion of what I wanted to convey; yet whenever I opened up the Word document that contained the title (and believe me, all it contained was the title), I sort of just—crumpled.

Instead of writing, I stretched out on a table in a room that smelled vaguely of pot while needles were pushed into my legs, feet, and forehead. I enjoy acupuncture, but as I lay there, dotted with silver toothpicks, I couldn’t relax; instead, I thought about the state, which I am often in, of wanting to write and not doing it.

Instead of writing, I read Today I Wrote Nothing by the Russian author Daniil Kharms. “Enough of laziness and doing nothing!” he declares. “Open this notebook every day and write down half a page at the very least. If you have nothing to write down, then at least, following Gogol’s advice, write down that today there’s nothing to write. Always write with attention and look on writing as a holiday.” 1

As I looked at this paragraph, I pulled a strip of skin, slowly, off my thumb. Whole paragraphs of my own had been gelling at the backs of my eyes as I drove home from the acupuncture clinic. But I had written none of them down.

In the 18th century, writing—at least in the West—was considered a rational, resolute act, a task one could execute successfully at the same time each day. Then came romanticism, which imagined creativity as a breath of genius blown into the poet at moments he could not control and had to wait for, sometimes in vain. A 21st-century paradigm perhaps absorbs the pressure of both of these models. On one hand we believe we ought to write for set durations, finish projects on schedule, churn out a thick ribbon of work (though probably not quite matching the staggering output of English novelist Anthony Trollope, who wrote with a stopwatch—250 words every 15 minutes—and produced 47 novels). Yet we also want to be inspired, to feel some hot muse-breath on our necks, and fear we can’t do much, or much that’s good, without this fickle visitation.

Anyway, the punctuation essay. It wasn’t coming. I did try. I made some notes, thought hard about marks I loved. But no ribbon. No thickness.

I was in one of those holes—what Walter Benjamin called “the lacunae of inspiration”in an early 20th-century treatise on the writer’s technique. 2 The brain is limp and lukewarm; the fingers itch but don’t move; the body seeks distraction. The aversion to sitting down to write, or to staying at the desk, is fierce and physical, almost as if magnets were at work, rejecting each other. For days or weeks, even years, the writer is not writing. I won’t call this writer’s block, because I believe that term is an all-too-convenient pathology, one name for so many different causes and conditions. Moreover, the word “block” implies that something is wrong, that something ought to be otherwise; and these gaps, these maddening gulches, are not necessarily wrong at all. Perhaps
the only thing wrong is how much we
fear them.

In a 2007 interview published on, the poet and essayist Maggie Nelson observed, “I like being at work. What I like less are the soggy, ill-defined but probably necessary periods between monsoon and drought. … Being possessed is pleasurable … But abiding with a dead or resting or paused brain, or numbness, or ordinariness, or sanity—that’s harder for me.” 3 Her phrase “abiding with” is an apt one, because I don’t believe we need to be horrified by spaces of not writing, or to frame them as problems. As a person with catastrophist instincts, my own first response to lulls “between monsoon and drought” is to diagnose predicament, demand solution. But what if these holes did not bother me? What if they could even be welcomed as essential to the game?

Most of us don’t experience writing as a smooth, unbroken, logical stream of expression: Instead, we jump around in language, leap over memories, crawl under ideas, teeter on images and words as if they were melting icebergs. We chew and we doubt; we wait and we fidget. Sometimes the waiting and fidgeting drags out longer than we want it to. Rather than being 15 minutes in the midst of an otherwise energetic and engaged writing session, it turns into 15 hours—or 15 days, or 15 months. Returning to Nelson’s idea of “the periods of silence, inactivity, and aimlessness that inevitably punctuate a life,” the question arises: How might we make use of such periods, rather than dreading them or fighting them or feeling bad about ourselves when they occur?

In my own experience, one of the best answers is to focus on language collecting. Writers are asked where we get our ideas. A better question, maybe, is where do we get our words—how muscular, slithery, shattering is the language we use? The best way I know of to abide with (and make use of) what seem like stalled gaps in my work is to look at, and for, the material itself. I don’t mean plots and characters: I mean the glittering clay. The syllable-knots that turn into our work are in our fingers and our mouths by the time we sit down to the page; they come from somewhere; we can actively hunt and sift them for future use. I might be having trouble making sentences or paragraphs, but I can pretty much always make lists—I can always be a rummager, a scavenger.

The Gleaners and I (Les glaneurs and la glaneuse) is a 2000 documentary by the French director Agnès Varda about gleaning, the practice of collecting leftover crop-scraps from fields. Varda considers all sorts of ways to glean, from the literal to the metaphorical, from farm to city dumpster to art studio to classroom. She is interested in how people use recycled materials and in people’s capacity to see detritus as a “cluster of possibilities” rather than as junk. What can we make of anything we find? Her film evokes the American author Ursula K. Le Guin’s Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction: narrative not as a heroic line but as “a sack, a bag.” She writes, “A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in particular, powerful relation to one another and to us… Its purpose is neither resolution nor stasis but continuing process..” 4

Years ago in a small post office in Maryland, I saw pinned to the wall a list of the terms for animal young: an owlet is a baby owl, a fingerling a baby fish, an elver a baby eel, etc. I asked the postmistress to copy the list for me and took it home with no idea what to do with it, knowing only that I liked the words and was intrigued by the fact that these new creatures had different titles from their parents. This list turned, eventually, into a story about a solitary woman who feeds orphaned animals with her own breast milk. Human-to-beast nursing might never have materialized without the post office list; it was the words themselves (codling, polliwog) that produced the image and all of its narrative consequences.

Scavenging is a richly generative mode—a way of being in the world that sharpens our attention, deepens our curiosity, and gives us an astonishing wealth of material. One could argue, “Oh, but all writers scavenge all the time; it’s just what we do”—but I believe it’s a practice that actually requires deliberate awareness. We can get lazy or careless about it. We can stay in the safety of what has proved successful for us—a certain type of poem, a certain type of story—and neglect the great potential in the unknown, the haphazard, the fresh.

The poet William Stafford once wrote, “A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.” 5 I love Stafford’s emphasis here on what the poet would not have thought of if he hadn’t begun to speak, hadn’t begun to put words into play. Too often we labor under the belief that thought comes before speech—that a writer chooses a particular message, meaning, or sensation before she starts to write—yet this is not necessarily the case. Philosophers of language from Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist to Jacques Derrida have suggested that the act of utterance is what engenders thought, rather than the other way around. Instead of believing that we need to know what we want to say before sitting down to write, we might try entering into language—words we have borrowed, stolen, chased down, stumbled upon—in order to discover what we want to say. American poet and memoirist Mark Doty has talked about reversing the “order” of metaphor when he writes a poem: Rather than beginning with the idea or object he wants to symbolize, he chooses a symbol, then figures out what it could stand for. How much more can we learn, he asks, when we don’t try to overcontrol or predetermine meaning—when we simply look around us, pay close attention, and thereby unearth rich veins of implication that would have escaped us had we been trying from the start to get a particular message across.

Scavenging is not only valuable in generating new things to say, but a wonderfully effective means of disrupting our habitual way of saying things. As writers, we all fall into ruts with diction, sentence structure, syntax, line length; we may even stoop to using outright cliches because we can’t think of another way to express something. The Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky declared in 1917: “Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war … Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.” Shklovsky called this phenomenon of sensation recovery “estrangement” or “making strange,” also known to us as defamiliarization. He insisted that a writer must deliver the world freshly to the reader, rather than rehearsing prepackaged (“known”) modes of description.
Give things new names—depart from standard syntax—skew
the routine.

Shklovsky asks us to think of the difference between the first time we do something and the 10,000th time. He imagines a technique that will turn back the clock to “the very first time.” He calls this technique “art.” The writer describes an object as if it were being perceived for the first time. And when the reader is obliged to slow down and pay more attention—when hasty everyday perception is interrupted—art may cast a headier spell.

Take, for instance, this sentence from James Joyce’s Ulysses: “On his wise shoulders through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins.” Why not simply say, “Sunlight fell on him through the leaves?” Because the second version doesn’t force us to look more closely. It delivers the action in a way we’re accustomed to receiving it, rather than plunging us into a heightened state where shoulders can be “wise,” and the acoustic affiliations between “sun,” “flung,” and “spangles” give the sentence a luscious mouth feel, and we are left to stand in an unexpected shower of dancing coins. Joyce’s narration removes its object from the sphere of automatized perception.

In order to show readers the world in ways they may never have seen it before, the artist herself must practice being open to raw, unbridled perception. (As William Carlos Williams has said, perception is the first act of the imagination.) The interesting problem is that such openness isn’t so practical for daily living. If we went around entirely open and vulnerable to every shred of stimuli that crossed our path, it would be hard to get anything done. We’d spend all our time looking, listening, noticing. The human ability to shut out perception—to ignore unnecessary data when we’re driving to work, calming a screaming baby, or running away from a tiger—is an essential survival skill. But ignoring and shutting out are not quite so fantastic for writing. Our eyes and ears and noses and tongues and fingers need to grow ever more sensitive, ever more receptive. Or, as Marcel Proust put it: “The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

One way of “having new eyes” that’s always available to writers is to scavenge on a regular basis. We can rummage and hunt for language, objects, images, and ideas even when—especially when—we have no clue how we’re going to use them. Like Agnès Varda’s gleaners, we can view anything that happens to cross our path as a “cluster of possibilities.”

I don’t know if I’ll ever write that punctuation essay. For now it remains an inventory, a fledgling file on my computer. Other files are near it: lists of words, titles, questions, quotes, species of sea ice, protections against lightning, things said on subways, manners of death by misadventure. Haphazard collections such as these are bright with potential, and might be—from the hole—the best first weapon to reach for.

Illustrations by Matt Dorfman

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