Riff on Not Writing

1. Let’s start with this: This is for me, this is not for you.

2. The above statement is not a very inviting invitation to the audience, is it? Sorry. Look. I have the Writer’s Block. The blockage. The being-stuckness. Etc.

3. Writer’s block, for me anyway, is not the inability to write. It’s more like some kind of inertia, some kind of anxiety, some little whisper of doom, hopelessness about the futility of shaping feelings into ideas and ideas into words. (That last phrase is, I believe, a paraphrase of Robert Frost’s definition of poetry).

4. Anyway, sometimes it’s best just to write—and write with the intention to make the writing public, to publish it (even on a blog!)—to put something (the publishing, that is) at stake.

5. (And so I’ve done this before).

6. I’ve read or audited nearly a dozen books this year that I’ve failed to write about on this site. Ostensibly, at some point, writing about books was like, the mission of Biblioklept, which maybe that mission has been swallowed  up by some other mission, some non-mission, some other goal or telos or whatever.

7. But you see there are some books I’ve read or audited that I really, really want to write about! (Sorry for this dithering but hey wait why am I apologizing I already said that this is for me this is not for you did I not?).

8. These books are:

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley

Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus

Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole

Concrete by Thomas Bernhard

Middle C by William H. Gass

Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald

Goings in Thirteen Sittings by Gordon Lish

Not quite half a dozen books of poetry by Tom Clark

The majority of Donald Barthelme.

9. (I am also reading half a dozen books right now, even though I made a vow years ago not to do that).

10. A common theme to some of the books listed in point 8: The difficulty of words to mean, the toxic power of language, the breakdown of communication.

11. In Thomas Bernhard’s novel Concrete, our obsessed narrator spends most of his adult life not writing his grand intellectual essay on Mendelssohn because, as he tells us,

I still didn’t know how to word the first sentence, and before I know the wording of the first sentence I can’t begin any work.

12. In William H. Gass’s novel Middle C, fraudulent Professor Skizzen worries over perfecting one single sentence. The first iteration of that sentence is

 The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure.

I didn’t count the revisions to this sentence, but they are in the dozens, and include:

One’s concern for our species, namely that it may not survive, has been overwhelmed by a terrifying conviction, specifically that it will endure.


Should humans die or survive, disappear or endure? his indecision rattled like a die in a cup; but at the moment it tended to tilt toward the latter.

And (my favorite)

When young and full of fellow feeling, Professor Joseph Skizzen had been tormented by the thought that the human race (which he naïvely believed was made up of great composers, a few harmlessly lecherous painters, maybe a mathematician or a scientist, a salon of writers, all aiming at higher things however they otherwise carried on) … that such an ennobled species might not prosper, indeed, might not survive in any serious way—symphonies sinking like torpedoed ships, murals spray-canned out of sight, statues toppled, books burned, plays updated by posturing directors; but now, older, wiser—more jaundiced, it’s true—he worried that it might (now that he saw that the human world was packed with politicians who could not even spell “scruple”; now that he saw that it was crammed with commercial types who adored only American money; now that he saw how it had been overrun by religious stupefiers, mountebanks, charlatans, obfuscators, and other dedicated misleaders, as well as corrupt professionals of all kinds—ten o’clock scholars, malpracticing doctors, bribed judges, sleepy deans, callous munitions makers and their pompous generals, pedophilic priests, but probably not pet lovers, not arborists, not gardeners—but Puritans, squeezers, and other assholes, ladies bountiful, ladies easy, shoppers diligent, lobbyists greedy, Eagle Scouts, racist cops, loan sharks, backbiters, gun runners, spies, Judases, philistines, vulgarians, dumbbells, dolts, boobs, louts, jerks, jocks, creeps, yokels, cretins, simps, pipsqueaks—not a mensch among them—nebbechs, scolds, schlemiels, schnorrers, schnooks, schmucks, schlumps, dummkopfs, potato heads, klutzes, not to omit pushers, bigots, born-again Bible bangers, users, conmen, ass kissers, Casanovas, pimps, thieves and their sort, rapists and their kind, murderers and their ilk—the pugnacious, the miserly, the envious, the litigatious, the avaricious, the gluttonous, the lubricious, the jealous, the profligate, the gossipacious, the indifferent, the bored), well, now that he saw it had been so infested, he worried that the race might … might what? … the whole lot might sail on through floods of their own blood like a proud ship and parade out of the new Noah’s ark in the required pairs—for breeding, one of each sex—sportscasters, programmers, promoters, polluters, stockbrokers, bankers, body builders, busty models, show hosts, stamp and coin collectors, crooners, glamour girls, addicts, gamblers, shirkers, solicitors, opportunists, insatiable developers, arrogant agents, fudging accountants, yellow journalists, ambulance chasers and shysters of every sleazy pursuit, CEOs at the head of a whole column of white-collar crooks, psychiatrists, osteopaths, snake oilers, hucksters, fawners, fans of funerals, fortune-tellers and other prognosticators, road warriors, chieftains, Klansmen, Shriners, men and women of any cloth and any holy order—at every step moister of cunt and stiffer of cock than any cock or cunt before them, even back when the world was new, now saved and saved with spunk enough to couple and restock the pop … the pop … the goddamn population.


13. (See what I did there? That big chunk of citation, swelling my own riff, puffing up the word count—and really, here, I mean, yes, what I want to say is: Isn’t citation better than analysis or criticism? Or maybe it isn’t. I don’t know. Context is everything, right? But doesn’t a citation, a big chunk of well-chosen text—isn’t that a more persuasive argument to read the Gass than anything I might write about the novel here? I don’t know. Maybe what I’m feeling is some of that Bloomian anxiety, that writerly proximity, that showing a little plumage (or here, that failure to show a little plumage) to the writer under discussion, to paraphrase Bloom’s heir Wood).

14. Or Gordon Lish, in his collection (really a memoir of sorts in stories, true, True stories) Goings in Thirteen Sittings—I mean the whole book is basically a study in how language means and then fails to mean or can’t mean or might mean, etc. Look, I’ll just share an entire shorty from the collection. (Don’t worry, publisher OR already excerpted this). Here’s all of “His Son Falling”:

Okay, let’s get right to it before this old machine LF MINE ===gives right out in the middle of the best part OF THUS THUGG ui WANT TI TEKLL PEOPLE, because the machine, this one’s got ONE IF THE HIUNGES ln it busted and they’re all telling me, by way of them warningm me to learn to use the new machine they went and got ne before this old one goes all dead okn me like evertytgubg dies, which I don’t have to tell you Im pldnty used to working with uit back thee wutg all thr stories =======sat here abd wrote fir yiu in uit with the best of intenbtioins in iut and that just when U get ti the crux of ther thhiubng and its all just gkoing ti lay litself ciwn on its deathhbed a bd like everyttghubg ekse has, just gie ti shuit on yoiu. So Okay, thre kids and te grandskidsm they alk got together and got up the greebacjs abd got mr a new inem but IU ca n;t ty=opre rjght with thus old ine niw, my eyesw my arthritis and my i mpogiencde ..shuttinbg kwn on ne itm is the got damn thubg, Yes, I am an old god and it’s juzt luik they say how you can’t tea ch one new tricks but I dkn’t give squat abiuyt thenm is all I juyst wabtit tell yiu this thuinbg whuchg haoppened years back and theeres been ni reilutiuon if it yet a nd it concerns me and my son Lardner jjust that I caan/t. So let’s hurry, Here’s the set up, I’ve got thi s son (Lardner, didn’t I tell yiou?) who used ti come over ti see ne at the old hoyse now and then abd so okay,l ardner he cimes and tere were are sitting at the tabvle and smoking and drinking cubingockkfee abd I get to zoft o carcg sight of my biy abd see ther kid, who;s turbugn gkind if gree it lokks like and thrbn all pastylooking and white and even yeklkow even and so IU says to him, Lardner, you feekiunbg sick oir anytbjunbg like that abs he ups and snfd he sas ti me, nope, pops, Im just that I had thussi ne cazy tomatoc toast out there frmh the hughway vendor on the eway ivere toi yiu and naybe geah, he;s feelkunbg a trCE DIZZY ABD ALL BUTM WIT WORRYM , but HE’S OKAY, but I can see he;s bo okay I ever seen anbdn AND so JUS LEFT HIM SUT A UN UTRE, A ND CAN SEE, WHoA Nellie, BIY, THIS KID IF NUNBE HE’S SICK, YIY JKNIW,M BUT WWE JUSGT GO ON SiPPING SNF PUFFING AND GTHENBM SURE AS HEKLKM IUT;S PLAIN HE,S HONE WHITE AS A GHOST, ALL RIGHTM AND i SAYS TI HIMN, lARDNER, TME YIU TOOKM YIURTRSEKF TI THR SKINK IR THE TO THR TOILET OR SOMETHUNBG, AND HE SHYASSURRM SUREM AND JUST MAKES IT TI THR Sin K whuch ius rught near by ub thge kitchen and WE BHE SADRS TI SI D LIKE NBE/S JULOCHCKING A ND i GETS NSEKF UO BEHUNBD HINM FIR NE TKO E THEE ABD SEADY HIM BUTM, SHUTM HE STARTS TO SA GIN BACK AND u CAB SEEM HEKKFUREM UNB ATE BEXRF SECIBD HE;S GIUNBG TI GI AKK THE WAY ABD SI HE DIESM SO HE DoIES, AND i DON’T KNW SHOYKD i SABD THEE ABD TRY TI CTAHGC HIN AND GOI FA,KLING IN MGT OLD BRIKE ASS QWUTG HIM KIR,EAL KFF TKITESJDKE KIUT KIFTBE WAYH ABDS WHAT ui CDECIDXE TI DI i DECIE IN TBESECINDS k;VS GIT JUN REAL ,KIFE BUT UN FALING LIFE IT’S LIKE HIMFAK=== R GIE-ARN TO USE THE Egey KIYRS FIR NE TIK NAKE UO MNG MIBD ABD WEKLL, YOU CAZN SEE THUS OKD NACHIUBNE WOIB;T TAKE IT NI NIRE,M SI THAT’S JUT, NI WAY IF NE TEKKLUNG YIY WGAT i DUD, KIT/S IED-UO ON YOIYU AND THE \\ALL MJJUSGT BHJSTIRY NKOW JUST THE WAHii AZM ASND TBHUDS MACHUNBE JS A DTBE[-BKIWYKH/’RE GKJ G TI RE IIZEE UO ON YOY ABD SIMNEOBDY EBDS UO BUSTED IR BEAT SI BAD HE;S VGIT TI KEEO TI HIS BED FIR THE FREST of his natural life IF UT ON OIYUT IR WAIT ON THE SITUATUINB TIO TEKK YIOY BIW TI DO, MNEANM YIOYU KNIW/ BECSUAE YIY BETTER HAD BECAUZSE YIUR TIMNRE’S COMUNG to yiy wuith loike yiur kid anx TIOM, ME IR HIM IR THE NACHUBE KEEOIUNG THE WHIOLE FCKJEDJ UO DEALK TI ITESKF.WBE IUBG TOO FAST ABD CRAZY ABD MB T A,LL SGAFTS lw Im ok zn czn alk but Lafdcy can’t thoi he’s nit dead byt just parakyzed akk ti shut lkuike a dead mkid =and uts sad cause wboo knkows coukld I have caught hin a d git sqasbed nhysekf sk tbee ;s dad abd biuyt dead abd nit just boy but ZZi didnbn’t and he fekll bad wbeb he cfekk back abd was akk snasned tk sbjut abd yiu jbiw wghat? Kit;s fuckuing sa us whgatm ut;s just fycing sad/G. Here;s yiur overiiod, the end]]].

You see what happens to language here, yes?

15. If there’s a central thesis to Ben Marcus’s work to date, it’s that language is an illness. Leaving the Sea is shot-through with that thesis.

16. Tom Clark, Donald Barthelme, and Grace Paley: The possibilities in language, in forms of language, the groupings of words, phrases, sentences, etc.

17. And Clark: The documentarian! A curator, like David Markson, but an originator too. Dear lord, Tom Clark!

18. Here’s an easy bridge to Teju Cole’s latest, a memoir essay, a documentary, larded with reality, but also poetic, even oblique in its mimesis.

19. I’ve left Fitzgerald out so far. Her book Save Me the Waltz, swollen in turgid prose, is a fascinating counter-narrative to F. Scott’s Tender Is the Night or even Ernest Hemingway’s unfinished novel The Garden of EdenBut hey I wanted to read the book, tried to read the book in some other way, some way perhaps aesthetically divorced from those two novels that for me came before it, that marked Zelda’s competitive anxieties with her husband, etc.

20. (I’ve just realized that I can tie three of these writers that I’ve listed in point 8 above together again. Here’s Gordon Lish in “For My Mother, Reg, Dead in America”:

You know who referenced Kierkegaard a lot? He also fucked Grace Paley. Oh, come on—it’s easy. And listen to me, don’t go running around saying Gordo is acting, or is speaking, scandalously. I mean, it is no big deal. Unless you prefer, “It’s no big deal.” Well, it’s not. Half the people who patronize modern lit know the answer. Okay, let’s say you don’t. So if you don’t, you know what? You’re a moron. It’s literary stuff. Lit stuff. You should know your lit stuff if you want to get your beak wet in the looking-like-a-literus stakes. Besides, they’re both kaput, fucker and fucked.

Donald Barthelme, right?

Or maybe I’m a moron).

21. Pretensions:

To write a Big Thing on Tom Clark

To write a Big Thing on Donald Barthelme

To write on the aesthetic experience of reading Thomas Bernhard

To write on the formal musicalities—the phrasings, the leitmotifs, the alliteration, etc.—of Gass’s Middle C

To write anything real.

22. Let’s end with this: This is for me, this is not for you.

10 thoughts on “Riff on Not Writing”

    1. With the hope that I won’t get bogged down in a semantic quagmire: I don’t think that a rhetorical action can happen without an audience; to believe otherwise, to me, is a kind of metaphysical solipsism. Your very question demonstrates that publishing (by which I simply mean to make writing present to others in some way) puts meaning at stake—the writer’s name, ego, sure, but also the intention, the susceptibility for language to fail, for the author to be misunderstood, etc.
      My rhetorical trick here, in this riff I mean, which is immature at best (the trick), is to pretend that I’m writing for no one but myself; the trick works, I think, because I am sincere in my insincerity (of intention).
      Even private writing has its own audience and its own stakes, which we might simply name the author’s imagination. Author notebooks so engage me because of this very notion—that these are staging grounds, sketches, where the author auditions for himself, practices. And why practice? Because of the stakes—of daring to write after [insert another author’s name here].

      Liked by 1 person

    1. If you drive down a street named ‘Nihilist’ that is marked One way No Exit and come to a dead end with a stop sign and another sign that reads, ‘No Turn Around’, what do you do then? Abandon the vehicle and try to walk out? Biblio is into some arcane literature. Reminds me of the remark Jim Morrison made to his band at an Andy Warhol party, ‘let’s get out of here, these people are vampires’. Bloodless, anyway.


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