I don’t like being wrong. I am also not used to being wrong: I usually get things quickly and (you may smile wryly at this, but you can take my word for it… it’s all you’ll have) almost always correctly. It is part of my stance, of my bearings in the world: knowing things, being right about things, makes up a lot of the value I assign to myself. I can do a lot of things, wisdomwise. I almost wrote that I can do a lot of tricks: here, toss me a question and I’ll jump higher than the rest to answer it. Yes, I have read it, or remember it; I can quote the author, and pronounce her name close to the real thing; I can speak the language, or (if it’s English) fake it very well. Even in everyday matters I can decode how appliances, software and tax returns work. Just give me time and the booklet with the instructions.
That’s why writing is so hard for me.
You probably guess where I am going with this. Writing is a blind journey, you see. Perhaps not completely blind, but certainly seriously astigmatic and myopic. For one thing (and this is emphasized in this course, for goodness’ sake), you don’t really ever know if it’s going to work. There is, we’re told, such a thing as an audience. Yes, the theatrical metaphor works too well; but let’s walk through its bone-chilling dimensions. We write, we submit (what an ominous word) the text. We walk slowly, with fear-frozen lungs and cramped legs, onto the bare stage. And there they are: the audience, the masters, the reason you’re here… but they are blackness. There is a kind of silence that speaks of cruel smiles and disdainfully curling lips beginning to form. You are hopelessly blinded by the lights, you’re highlighted, like a grammar mistake in shameful fluorescent marker; you’re exposed, and may I remind you that you may die of exposure. You are watched, and now, by all means, go ahead and try to please them, try to show them you know your text, the one that you yourself wrote expressing clumsily what you feel, think, believe or hope. Just give us your soul, quickly, and we’ll see if it works for us. The words you learned by heart (but already fear you forgot), and that are, in fact, you, an extension of you, connected to you by vessels and raw nerves. Just give them the words, and they will give you theirs, like whips: cloying, pretentious, misguided, bookish, plodding… if they are kind. If they are not, if you failed before you started, they won’t ever notice you came onto the stage in the first place. But you won’t have a clue. To take some pressure of you, dear, just keep in mind you won’t have another chance.
My whole being writhes in fear at this image. And yet this is who I am. I am a writer. Just a cowardly one, one who won’t write. So I am not a writer.
What’s keeping me? You see, I think I know the trick (ma’am, I do, I know, ask me!), I’ve read about it more than is healthy. All you have to do is play the believing game for a while, they say. Write a first draft, no matter how clumsy, no matter how pathetic. Hide it while it grows from the inner critic long enough, and then it will be too late for him to stomp it out of existence before it exists. It will then be his chance to prove he can really find the flaws, and move the paragraphs around, and discard the sentences, and yes, omit needless words (ha! but which are they?). So?
So here is my secret hope: that this time I’ll be witness to the magic, and won’t forget it. I’ll write in fear, and edit earnestly, with an honest frown, and then begin to feel the absurd hope that I can do this again, that those waiting and watching in the dark will not despise me, that they will be, in spite of themselves, enthralled or intrigued or in any other way compelled by my arrangement of word and phrases to read on and at the end, perhaps, smile.
That was a perfect ending, and I should have grabbed it. But there is one more thing I need to say, and without it the story, the roots of the fear of writing, will not be drawn, and this exorcism may not work.
I am a reader. In fact, if this were truly a story, it would start when I was four and I read the Odissey. Seriously. Why would I lie to you? To make my false life mesh with the journey theme of the assigment? No, I won’t lie to you if it’s about reading. You don’t lie about the sacred. Yes, I read the Odissey when I was four, and ten years later I was still in the library, reading everything and speaking to no one if I could help it. There were enough words in my books, and they were better words.
So, if I came to define myself, this I would say: I read. When I am angry at everyone, I picture myself in some kind of monkish dormitory, and I am in bed, surrounded (defended?) by towers of books (my Kindle hasn’t achieved symbolic stature), and I read and my heart is content. And there, in reading peace, I don’t even hate myself. So when I say I am a reader, think more of a species being classified than an activity being described.
And that is also why I can’t write.
Because I know how the song should sound when the song is beautiful, I cannot (I will not) sing with this poor voice. Because I know what the words can do when the words are worthy, when they make you tremble in both pain and awe, when they keep you awake because a new world was made to exist out of nothing, and given as a gift to you if only you keep reading, I look at these words and I have to stifle over and over the desire to crumble the page (again, our symbols and literary images haven’t kept up with the times: will you accept “select all-delete” instead?).
So show me. Show me how I can write something resembling what I read and admire and breath. Tell me how to choose among the maddeningly endless possibilities at the start of the blank page and the blinking cursor. Will you take my hand and guide me in this journey?
You see, I’m blind.