Words may be a thick and darksome veil | Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for May 19th, 1840

May 19th.–. . . Lights and shadows are continually flitting across my inward sky, and I know neither whence they come nor whither they go; nor do I inquire too closely into them. It is dangerous to look too minutely into such phenomena. It is apt to create a substance where at first there was a mere shadow. . . . If at any time there should seem to be an expression unintelligible from one soul to another, it is best not to strive to interpret it in earthly language, but wait for the soul to make itself understood; and, were we to wait a thousand years, we need deem it no more time than we can spare. . . . It is not that I have any love of mystery, but because I abhor it, and because I have often felt that words may be a thick and darksome veil of mystery between the soul and the truth which it seeks. Wretched were we, indeed, if we had no better means of communicating ourselves, no fairer garb in which to array our essential being, than these poor rags and tatters of Babel. Yet words are not without their use even for purposes of explanation,–but merely for explaining outward acts and all sorts of external things, leaving the soul’s life and action to explain itself in its own way.

What a misty disquisition I have scribbled! I would not read it over for sixpence.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for May 19th, 1840. From Passages from the American Note-Books.

Poe’s writer’s block (The Far Side)


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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.

Continue reading “Riff on Not Writing”

Writer’s block (Calvin & Hobbes)


Writing Tips from Charlie Kaufman

I Have Writer’s Block (but I’ll Share a Vomit Story Anyway)

I have the writer’s block somethin’ terrible.

Everything was going so well, too—I seemed able to blather and drivel at will for a few weeks, dribbling out my noisome little posts on books or films or TV shows or what have you.

But now, nothing, which is terrible, because I have been reading up a storm—putting away half a Hemingway in a day (The Garden of Eden), flying through Donald Harrington’s epic comic masterpiece Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks (still not finished), trudging through Breece D’J Pancake’s stories when I think I can take the sadness, and polishing off Wayne Koestenbaum’s Humiliation in three short sessions.

I kind of blame Koestenbaum’s book for the writer’s block. It’s always hard to write about a book that you love, that you think others should read too, but even harder when the book is about subjects and figures that most people would rather not think about, like abjection or vomit or gloryholes or the terrible pain of Liza Minelli or Antonin Artaud’s electroshock therapy or Jean Genet’s prison sex or lynching photographs or  Michael Jackson’s penis. Plus, Koestenbaum repeatedly points out that the act of writing itself, particularly writing for publication, writing for others to read is an abject, humiliating process. Here’s Koestenbaum—

Writing is a process of turning myself inside out: a regurgitation. I extrude my vulnerable inner lining. I purge. And then I examine the contents—my expulsed interior—and begin the bloody interrogation. I ask whether it is filthy or clean, valuable or deplorable.

Koestenbaum goes beyond metaphorical vomiting to consider the literal act of regurgitation in his book. There’s a lot of vomit in Humiliation—other bodily expulsions too, but Koestenbaum singles vomiting as a primary site of abjection (this seems a little less intense or mordant than theorist Julia Kristeva—whose work Koestenbaum is surely working from—who finds the corpse the ultimate abject object).

Maybe I’ll try to work through my writer’s block by telling a vomit story. The story is made more germane (to what, though?), perhaps, in light of the fact that I had just read some of Koestenbaum’s vomit theory (or vomit prose, if you prefer) the night previous.

Here is the setting: it is a pediatrician’s waiting room. I am waiting with my son, who is 13 months old, who is to receive shots on this visit to protect him from disease. The waiting room is packed and the progress is unusually slow. The woman across from me makes idle chit chat with me and with her own son who is maybe 13 or 14 years old; he’s in marching band; he needs new shoes for marching band; jazz band will be discontinued due to budget cuts, but the teacher (a man who shares my last name, I hear by eavesdropping although how can it be eavesdropping when their conversation is so public and the room so small) will teach jazz band after school. These details are unimportant to the vomiting story, although they perhaps signal the teenager’s mother’s caring, involved nature in her son’s life.

Here is the climax of the story: to my right, another man is at the doctor’s with his son, waiting; the son is perhaps 3 or 4 years old. He doesn’t look well—he looks queasy. In fact, when I look at him (not directly of course, but glancingly, the way that people might in a waiting room or other such place where direct eye contact is unspokenly shunned), when I look at him, I internally remark his queasiness, his ill gills, his distraught angle; I also internally remark his father’s concern, the way his father slowly strokes the son’s back in impotent consolation. And at the same moment I remark on these details, it occurs to me that this queasy looking boy is in the wrong section, that there is a clearly marked, smaller room (not so much a room but an alcove or adjoined large cubby—no door separates the two) for “sick” patients, for patients who are not attending a regular “well” visit (like my own son). My reaction though was not fear or disgust or anger, but more mild annoyance that the father was either flouting a convention of the office (one that I didn’t really care about, knowing that, hey, really, is that smaller room really going to protect my health or my child’s? Because, no it’s not), or that the father simply failed to read a clear sign (I feel a similar annoyance when people at the grocery store where I shop treat the clearly-marked entrance as an exit and vice-versa).

Anyway, I promised a climax, and failed to deliver. How humiliating. So here is the climax: the man’s son up and vomited all over the floor, all over the man’s leg. It was not the tidy vomit that we might sometimes manage—the short, projectile aimed mass that usually conforms to a strict element, mostly solid or mostly liquid. No, this was a messy, mucusy, ill affair, the kind of vomit that hangs from the vomiter’s mouth and sticks to the floor (for me, the most abject, threatening detail). It was foul. And yet I felt no abject horror or humiliation for the man or his child—in short, none of the vomit-horror that Koestenbaum describes in his book (a description I know I have not described for you, dear reader). Instead, I felt immediate empathy and compassion for the man. The mother of the teenager responded even more demonstrably. She immediately located a garbage bin for the boy to continue vomiting in, alerted the staff, went to the bathroom for paper towels, and helped the man while speaking consolingly to the son. She did what I wished that I had did. She behaved like a good human.

The point of this vomit story is to try to address what Koestenbaum does not address in his fantastic book. This is not meant to be a slight or an attack or even a criticism. A book should never be attacked for what it doesn’t aim to do. But what Koestenbaum, in his wonderful analyses of vomit, of expulsion, of all the ways our bodies, the material facts of our bodies humiliate us, make us abject, what Koestenbaum doesn’t consider is that the loving parent’s relation to a helpless child’s body’s expulsions bears the possibility (the strong possibility) of not being abject, but instead a site of abjection’s flipside: grace, love, empathy and all that jazz. In short, no one in the waiting room where the child vomited shrank in disgust or showed any visible sign of shared humiliation—quite the opposite. The child’s demonstrable illness became a moment not of horror but of empathy, of understanding the child’s illness and the father’s worry and care and love for his ill child, a love that transcends humiliation’s gaze.

So there’s my vomit story, or one of my vomit stories. But I still don’t know how to review the book right now.