What is the Nordpolen Journal?
San Francisco, California
There is a kind of stereotype of writers who suffer for their work. It’s romantic. It looks like a gaunt, bearded man in an unheated garret room eating stale bread crusts for dinner. Or it looks like a not particularly attractive woman sitting at a writing desk with a fountain pen. It sometimes looks like a prisoner scratching walls in a cell, or an alienated young person furiously scribbling in a notebook, or a man at a typewriter, pounding away at the keys and trying to ride the delicate equilibrium between inspiration and inebriation.
I grew up with this stereotype, but I always thought that the pain was not a result of the writing itself, but the thing that fueled it. All the best stories seemed to have, at their core, a terrible nugget of unspeakable pain. But I have found that the opposite is actually true. No matter how emotionally difficult the subject, it is the act of writing that is the source of the pain. My mind does not work in a linear fashion. For me, every word is not a single note but a chord. One idea creates instant echoes of other ideas. Even typing as fast as I can, I can’t keep up with the glimpses and connections, and it is so difficult to find the right words. Sometimes I spend whole days actively avoiding writing, because I so dread the frustration of not being able to translate what I am seeing and feeling in my head, yet the whole day is defined by that avoidance. There is work that needs to be done… things that need to be resolved… images that want to reveal themselves… voices with a story or an idea that need to be written down.
It’s not that I feel that my thoughts and visions and ideas are so important because they are mine. They are important because they really aren’t mine. They come out of me, but they also lead me in directions I can’t predict. If I try to direct them too much, they evaporate like something important that you know you have forgotten. If I try to ignore them they nag and nag at me all day in the background- urgent and unspecific. When I do sit down to write I find my way in what feels like darkness along a path that keeps changing, and never ends up where it seems like it was headed at the beginning. It never gets easier to sit down and write.
I have spoken to other writers about this intense desire to avoid being creative, and I’ve heard a spectrum of responses. Some people have told me they would write all day long if given the chance, and that it’s something they take great pleasure in. To me, these people are like impossibly beautiful cylons: you just look at them and think… ?????
I know other writers who have gone so far the other direction that they have given up writing altogether. They carry the non-writing around like a vestigial limb. At first they talk about how they’ll take it out again and use it when they are ready, but after awhile it becomes the thing you politely don’t talk about. You can see the shape of it under their skin and in the things they don’t say out loud but are shouting silently all the time. Writers who are not writing are like haunted houses.
I want to know if this pain, this uncomfortable-yet-compelling feeling that writing produces in me is common for all artists and all creative people. I have a suspicion that it is a necessary part of the process, maybe even the reason we do it. There’s something about relieving the pain that is addictive. There’s something about dredging something out of the unconscious and into the world that is somehow so rewarding that it never loses its attraction.
There is some reward: the sensation of finding words for something that was, a moment before, ineffable. The feeling of hope that another person might read those words and experience the same internal moment of transport. But any sense of accomplishment fades almost immediately, and the need to keep traveling those internal spaces returns.