Gertrude Stein famously said, “I write for myself and strangers.” I write for many reasons. One of these is to become estranged from myself.
Often in daily life I intuit a firm sense of who I am, what I think, why I behave as I do. My motivations and desires seem transparent to my conscious will. My “I” is singular, intentional, tangible. Say, for example, that I’m hungry—I go to the freezer, open it, and grab some ice cream. Pretty straightforward, right? Sure, there are a few rare times when I open the fridge door and blank on what I wanted; how I even got there. “Senior moments” are coming a little early for me, maybe. But mostly my body and its desires seem to synch up in a way that leaves little room for existential questions, despite plenty of everyday qualms and frustrations.
Now writing is often a completely different story. I set down a few sentences and immediately things start getting hairy. Should a character be a blonde, brunette, or ginger? If she has an Afro, then what else might I be implying? Are these implications based on stereotypes or do they add depth to a character? Should I even mention hair color at all (black; raven; midnight) or is it a superfluous detail in the context of the larger narrative? Well, since I haven’t written that narrative yet, how am I supposed to know?
Everything during the process of writing becomes provisional, a placeholder in a tight-fitting mosaic. Change one small piece over here, and its upshot ricochets throughout the whole. The vague impetus that provoked me to sit down and start typing might have been an inkling of a plot, or a few phrases rattling in my head, or just a glimmer of an image. Maybe it was simply the urge to sit down and peck at the keys because I’ve neglected a sustained bout of writing for a couple days, which provokes a physical malaise in me akin to lack of exercise. Or maybe I have an approaching deadline. Anything might do, really.
But once I’ve begun, other impulses arise. Conflict, pace, subtext—do I need to increase the tension, quicken the tempo, leave more unstated? Against such considerations, are the stakes too high to start; does the narrative require more exposition, backstory; are there things I need to make clearer to help ground my reader? Whose style am I imitating here? What rhythm have I established? Wait—what’s the etymology of that word? Oh god, should I switch the point-of-view? Has this narrative pattern been overused? Or maybe its frequent use is a sign of a durable, effective structure… Are all the big plot points resolved? No, maybe I’ve been trying too hard to achieve closure. How much ambiguity intrigues the reader? How intelligible do I even want this piece to be? Hey, why am I writing, anyhoo? As the spark that prompted me fans into a larger flame, my initial assumptions often go up in smoke.
I’ve tumbled into a morass of interminable questions with no definitive answers. Mine is no longer the only voice in the room. My head’s a whispering gallery. I listen to the story, the characters, the language. I’m trying to make the piece not only sing, but zing. I’ve become more interested in throwing my voice than in finding one. It’s late, I’m alone and elating. Immersed in my work now, quiet, I begin overhearing—hallucinating—not only voices but the pops and fizzles of radiator-humming, phone static, a dishwasher’s rinse cycle, the neighbors conspiring upstairs, squawks from gawky night birds, rodents scurrying up the lining of a wall. A world begins to take form. I’ve divorced myself and live as a double, as multitudes, a gumshoe doubling back on paper trails, adrift in a vortex of many-branching possibilities. I seesaw, I counterbalance all the forces of variousness, trying to orchestrate the distant murmurs into semblances of meaning. Playing each off the other, fast and loose, and keeping them all in play.
I read what I wrote. I re-read it. My interpretation changes. What did I mean? I don’t remember writing it that way. I didn’t write it—no, I’ve changed. The self I thought so solid before has melted away, like the bowl of would-be ice cream I’ve already forgotten about.