This spring, I participated in a writing workshop led by Eva-Lynn Jagoe entitled Forms of Critical Writing. Each week, the ten of us would respond to the same prompts, share our ideas and offer each other feedback. The pace of it meant that we were sharing drafts—a vulnerable position to strike. But the pace of it meant that we were constantly writing—a strength-building exercise. Over the course of it, I was charmed. By the range of responses to the prompts we were offered. By the kindness with which we approached each other. By the slow reveal and, at other times, the continued obstruction of our selves in the writing we shared. For our final meeting, we read aloud to each other and one of my classmates, Caitlin Saltmarche, delivered a gorgeous reflection on the whole endeavour, which I am posting below with her permission. This is one attempt to enlarge the container that holds our words, that wants to nourish them despite our constant failure at translating electricity into static shapes.
I think I entered this course with a certain question on my mind. It was:
Is there a form of writing possible that is—at one and the same time—an intense listening, an instance of thought in motion, and a way of showing something worthwhile? The answer I came up with is no, no, there is not.
This failure was a good lesson in and of itself. However, I also feel as though I’ve learned another thing or two along this bumpy winding pathway we’ve been bushwacking together.
I can’t imagine that everyone in this room has had such an experience in the flesh, of bushwacking—of making one’s way through dense woods by cutting at undergrowth and branches—it’s a hell of a lot of work, and usually those right behind the trailblazers up front get cut up quite a bit from the flying uncaught branches as they swing back to seek the most petty form of revenge that plants seem to be capable of.
We’ve taken turns leading the way and following, and turns getting hit with one another’s branches. I hope, for my part, that I haven’t caused any scars as collateral damage from my at-times completely inchoate attempts at writing something meaningful.
To commemorate this experience we’ve shared, I’d like to try my hand at sharing some of the things I’ve learned along the way. To do so, I have to return to my very first piece of writing for this course, and in this re-visitation, I will alter some things and add some things and perhaps take quite a few things out.
I do this with a view to what I am now able to see as the common project of my recent works of writing—a project that has made itself known through the themes of speaking and telling and saying, responding and calling and even shooting guns—that is, those forms of communication adopted between two or more individuals, two or more selves, selves within a single person, and even between different parts of the brain, which amounts to the trilling of several distinct destinies.
Trilling—like the sounds that birds make, quavering and de-harmonizing and re-harmonizing. What humans do, too.
To hear these destinies independently together may allow for several things to occur. An understanding of what empowers the self, and what disempowers it. An understanding of how disharmony and failure may lead to the creation of new and quite profound truths.
Nietzsche once wrote, “Our true experiences are not garrulous. They could not communicate themselves if they wanted to: they lack words. We have already grown beyond whatever we have words for.”
What I see here is a built in and structural failure between language, on the one hand, and what needs to be yet what cannot be expressed, on the other. This is what Lacan’s late project points to as well, when he calls the subject split or divided. ‘I do not think’ or ‘I am not,’ is his strange though not entirely incomprehensible binary. Rather than becoming trapped in Descartes’s all-to-familiar causal nexus, ‘I think therefore I am,’ we have this either-or situation to contend with: ‘I am being’ or ‘I am thinking’ but not ever both at once.
The second thing I see here, in Nietzsche’s final sentence of the quotation cited above: “We have already grown beyond whatever we have words for,” is that a certain capaciousness is called for. A roomy container or containment to allow certain things to happen. We need a larger container—we need, that is, to do more with words, to be committed to the growth of words and their interactions, and also to be committed to forever failing in this endeavour.
This might sound like I’m some kind of word-utopian, but I’m not.
It’s only to point out that playing is important and it’s sometimes very serious work. There’s a lot at stake here.
On that note, I’d like to (finally) return to the piece I alluded to, and play around a little bit, for a very short while, in a semi-serious way.
Speak, call, respond and tell.
Let’s go, again, by way of examples:
1. call and response.
When I think of call, I think first of drinking and dialing, or that string of self-propagating embarrassments that unite us all in the great ocean of regret. Like all of those calls you made to the first person you thought you were in love with, during your first year of university—having found someone to talk with about ideas and thinking that this opportunity would never pass you by again. The 3 a.m. tri-weekly assaults, or however many times a week you were getting slogger-headed with your classmates.
How could an absurd, semi-conscious call such as this possibly be responded to?
I first and foremost affirm and maintain that a hang up is a response, and so has to be counted among the numerous other inappropriate responses, a category to which all responses fit in this delicate and indecent situation.
In our calls, we sometimes ask the impossible. We ask a friend, lover, or even a stranger, to enter into our world, to intuit our most tender or broken places, in order to help stitch things right again—this is an impossible demand.
On the other hand, sometimes our calls are completely reasonable, as when we go to the doctor with some tediously recognizable malady, and she writes us a script, and in seven-nine days the sore throat goes away.
In our responses to calls, something else perhaps emerges. When I think about my life, I have given half-assed responses to calls, tired or in a foul mood, or preferring to go back to my book rather than admit I don’t have the answer to your call. On the order of response, there may be well-intentioned and mal-intentioned responses, self-serving responses, exponentially more troubled calls in response to our call, earth-shattering and abusive responses, inspired and inspiring responses, or no response at all.
Like the drinking and dialing, sometimes we don’t even know what we’re asking for when we make a call, and I want to argue the case for the lack of response, in this case, and in many.
—and I won’t call it non-relationality, just a shifted-relationality, which compels the one making that call to create and recreate their language container, to become greater, more capacious, and more willing to really relate,
which means to listen, and to hear the trilling of all the different voices. Not only his/her/their own.
2. speaking and telling.
When you tell, you usually have to tell something. More often than not, you tell someone something. So if you don’t have a thing to tell, there’s no real reason for speaking. You can speak without telling anyone anything—but to tell, you need something to say, and someone to witness it.
You can tell on someone, (and I’m sure somewhere someone’s come up with an ethics of the snitch, but that’s not our business today)—or you can tell someone off. You can tell someone to do something, or not to do something, or to do you. You can tell the truth, tell a lie, tell tales, or tell bedtime stories.
Speak, on the other hand, is a kind of imperative: “Speak!” Hamlet’s posse demands to the Ghost of King Hamlet the father. And he does speak. So that Hamlet may act.
But if we really get into it, we’d have to admit that Hamlet’s father truly speaks and says nothing—for when the ghost finally does speak up, he says “I am forbid / To tell the secrets of my prison-house”
Again, we have a response that is the lack of a response.
Don’t tell. I cannot tell.
I will keep the secret.
To tell someone something is to reveal something. Through the experience of confession, perhaps it is the attempt to free up desire—to get it out of you, to make it real, by enchaining it in words. And yet,
as soon as it is spoken, something is fixed, made rigid and dead, and the desire, forever unchained, moves on.
Is whatever we tell bound to be a failure?
Again, the demand arises—as it always does and, as usual, in some of the strangest and most unforeseen places—to shape and reshape our language, to make a more and more capacious container,
and to enjoy all these failures,
and these new ways of relating,
which allow for that certain, specific, dead gorgeous, soul-shattering, trilling.
I began this piece stating that I would share what I’ve learned along the way.
—as the sediment, the broken twigs and gritty sand, slowly makes its way and finds its resting place on the floor of a too-long shaken and agitated mind, the clearer vision is precisely this: I relate to my language in new ways because of you. That however much we try to avoid admitting it, we’re always and forever writing for one another. I fell in love with this group—which is the only reason why I wrote. No response required.
Caitlin can be reached at saltmarche [at] gmail.com.