01 November 2010

Worlds of writing: for All Souls

I keep thinking about Profacero's remarks about needing to get back in touch with the Writing Self in order to write, and the time that this takes when Writing Self is eclipsed by Teaching Self (or other selves).* Certainly not only Teaching Self but also Bill-Paying Self, and various other selves, interfere with writing, for me (though tasks like laundry and cooking allow for useful reflection on writing, if interwoven with writing time rather than replacing it).

But I wonder if it's more than that. How much time does it take to get into the world of which one writes? Boice, after all, is a psychologist; he writes about the world he actually lives in, people he's actually talked with, and what's more, he "writes up" rather than "writing," in my parlance: arguably, his studies of people are his real work, as experiments are the real work of scientists, and writing is what such scholars do to communicate their results.

Of course, I think I have argued elsewhere that reading is my real work, my lab time, and that writing essays is a form of "writing up."

Nonetheless, I do discover things in the act of writing that I do not find while reading, so writing is not a mechanical filling-in of sections that belong in the lab report (apologies to any scientific readers; I realize that what you do is not so simple as that; I'm referring more to comments of Boice's about planning out sections of writing projects). Moreover, I'm not just "dropping down the well" (Julia Cameron's term) to the Writing Self, but re-creating a long-dead world. The most recent past of which I write is over 400 years gone. A man of whom I hope to write more has been dead these 372 years, and yet I keep saying, only partly facetiously, that I'm in love with him (or at least with his book). And that's just this spin-off project that I was unsure about last year. My "real work" lies another 150 to 275 years deeper into the past.

Perhaps it's different if you think of your work as being about texts; if you read medieval or early-modern texts primarily through the lens of recent literary theories; if you study old works in the context of sweeping movements or broad themes; if you work on medievalism; if you focus on linguistic change over time. I work on manuscripts: books that belonged to and were hand-written by real, if often nameless, people. Even when I write about texts, these days, I can't avoid thinking about the books they come from, the hands that handled them, the voices that spoke their words aloud for a listening audience, the ink that no doubt got on the fingers of those who scribbled in their margins. As Dr. Virago speaks for the dead, I speak for dead readers and writers. Even nameless, they get in my head. I listen for them, hearing whispers and mumbles from the next room, most of the time, but getting a few clear words here and there. With later people, like my early-modern inamorato, the sense of personality is much stronger, and I hear whole sentences and bits of verse. It is a bit like being haunted, a bit like possession, and it's hard to break out of that and come back to this world, with a pile of quizzes to grade, bills to pay, cats to feed, highways to drive. And similarly, it is difficult to put those things aside and slither down the rabbit hole in the first place. The past is another country; they do things differently there. It's hard to adjust to different customs. I often think that if I met the people I study, I would probably not like them much. That doesn't stop the haunting.

What do you think? How much time does it take to switch gears and re-create the world in which, or of which, you write?

*Profacero thinks of this as a gendered problem. That is her reality, and I don't exactly disagree; but it is not, at the moment, how I choose to think of the problem. This may simply be a failure of feminism on my part.


Anonymous said...

Well, I wouldn't say *just* a gendered problem. There's all of this, too, writing on things long ago and far away, and writing that isn't just a report. I can write things for business (administrative things) or to pull down mega-grants, and so on, in any state, because I don't have to switch worlds. You have to have an atmosphere that fits what you're working on; and if that isn't your immediate atmosphere, you have to create it.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Yes, I too find it much easier to write administraive-type things without any scene-setting. But I've been wondering if I'm just strange about my need to think myself into the past in order to write certain things.