Writing from the core

Tiny snails in crevices on a rock, Moeraki beach, New Zealand

While I was thinking about mortality earlier this week, I thought again about the piece I wrote for Litquake in 2011, and — I don’t know if this is always true, but it’s how I felt in the moment — I thought it is the closest thing I have ever written for the public. By “close” I mean nearest to the deep fundamental questions and struggles that motivate my existence. I would say “close to my heart” but that phrase has come to imply affection, and affection has nothing to do with these questions, in the way that mortality is neither good nor bad but simply exists. I don’t have feelings about these questions; they are merely central to who I am. I think of them as my core.

There is much to be said for writing, creating, from the core. I feel happy with that piece because it expresses something I truly feel, and that gives me a satisfaction no one can take away. It may or may not make my writing better, but on some level I don’t care; that wasn’t the point. I am not sure if I can attain that degree of closeness with everything I create. I’m not sure if I want to. When I wrote that piece I felt terrified and elated; I seem to remembering crying a lot and shaking a fair bit too. Sometimes even when I think of it I want to cry again; that’s how close it is. If I could write like that all the time I don’t know how that would feel.

I often give myself writing exercises to try to achieve that closeness: prompts that are designed to push my buttons, subjects I know are likely to make me cry. I get around those, though, the way we get around answering uncomfortable questions by changing the subject or talking about something related. It feels good — in the big picture — to write things closely, but it’s not a process I want to evoke voluntarily; it’s scary. So I talk around and around the close questions, and don’t even know I am doing it until I read something that truly shakes me up and I realize: oh. I’ve been avoiding the core.

The core is a little bit like sexual climax, in that as long as you are not touching it, you might believe that you are. Oh, this feels right; yeah, I’m pretty sure; mm hmm, 99.9% sure that time. You can get closer and closer and closer and think this time it is really happening, but the point is, you’re still able to think, there’s still some distance, and that means you’re not there yet. When you actually do get to the core it sweeps everything else away, if only momentarily; there is no room for sure or not sure. Your core is very powerful. But until you get quite familiar with it, you can spend many many nights thinking you’ve reached it when really you haven’t.

I remember one evening in college Erik and I were sitting in my apartment (sorry, this is going to be a story about the core, not about sex), watching a Zhang Yimou drama (I think it was Not One Less, but maybe it was The Road Home). We had requested it from Netflix and were watching it on my computer because neither of us had a TV. It was a very emotional film and at some point near the end, I started to cry. The movie ended, Erik clicked over and closed the little DVD window, and still I cried. I cried for something like 20 minutes, tissues strewn all over the hardwood floor, and at some point Erik said, “I don’t think this is about the movie anymore.” Exactly so. I don’t even remember what started me off, but whatever it was, it touched a sadness in my core, and that sadness was so strong it rendered me into a helpless, mindless mass of feelings.

I don’t think we necessarily need to set ourselves off like that every time we sit down to create — artists are too fond of drama already IMO — but if we want to create closely I think we need to be within arm’s reach of that kind of unstoppability. It’s not about high emotions for their own sake, getting swept up with the rush of it, but it’s about accessing the forcefulness of our own core, touching something that is so vital to who we are that once we let it speak, it tells our truth.

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