A writer’s equivalent to the sketchbook

A few weeks ago, wandering London’s Hampstead Heath for the first time, I watched Rachel record her impressions — not just the appearance of objects, like a camera, but her impressions, her looking itself — in a sketchbook, and I wished, not for the first time, that I, too, could lay claim to a sketchbook. Rachel is a potter, but that gives her the generic artist’s right to make little drawings everywhere she goes. I do not have that right. I’ve tried to carry a sketchbook, but it makes me feel like I’m cheating on my marriage to literature. What’s needed is a writer’s equivalent. All artists, not just the visual ones, should be able to feast on the world anywhere and carry boredom’s kryptonite in their pockets.

Writing represents just like drawing. But due to the extraordinary power of writing’s medium, it can represent sensory and intellectual and emotional experience. You’d think this would make writing even more portable and ubiquitous than drawing, a perfect pasttime at the park and in the gallery, on lunch breaks and after dinner. But they don’t teach writers to carry notebooks like they teach artists to carry sketchbooks. In all the classes on writing I took in college, no one ever assigned me that basic exercise of drawing class: “Here’s a blank book. Fill it everywhere you go.”

Sure, there’s the “writer’s notebook,” as classically described, for instance, by Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” She records fragments of conversation and the sartorial ensembles of people she sees. There are also many examples of notebooks like Henry James’s magnificent volumes of notes for his novels. In their own way, James’s notebooks are as astonishing and final a statement of creativity as Bach’s two- and three-part inventions. But neither of these books contains a single instance of the writerly equivalent of a sketch, a rough but complete record of an impression, suitable for study in its own right and not merely an accrual of material for later, larger, more premeditated work.

The writer’s notebook, as kept by James and Didion, is for accumulating raw material, but the sketchbook is for practice. The writer’s equivalent of the sketchbook should also be for practice. Perhaps that makes it unnecessary, since the performance of writing is an infinitely revisable one, while the painter, for instance, or potter, faces crucial moments, makes irrevocable gestures, and has a reason to practice the physical movements of art.

But I reject that disembodied view of literature. Perhaps not the glyphs, but certainly the words I use, do arise from gesture, mood, short-term memory, what I see, smell, how warm it is, whether I am watched or alone — from my body. If I haven’t written for a while, it’s hard to start. If I’m constrained to write for many reasons for many hours, my prose suffers. I can’t revise a piece properly immediately after I’ve written it. Writer’s bodies affect how they write, so surely their bodies can be trained to help them write better.

What would a real equivalent of the sketchbook be like, then? One could fill a notebook with evocations in words of sensory impressions, a direct correlate of the sketchbook, merely substituting words for lines. But that seems inadequate, as if an artist limited themselves to making rubbings of the textures of things, bark and leaves, gravestones and brick walls. An artist with merely tactile interests would be like a writer with merely visual ones, would be failing to employ the full range of their medium.

But writing about thoughts or emotions — those additional
aspects of the world available to the writer — is innately digressive. From the moment, I mean. Once the writer’s mind gets to work on a thought or an emotion, they — or I at any rate — tend to wander. To wander into the realm of dialectic, if thinking, or into the realm of therapy, if feeling. One of the most important functions of the sketchbook, on the other hand, and something I would like to capture in this hypothetical writer’s equivalent, is training the artist to attend to the moment.

It is the actual act of drawing that forces the artist to look at the object in front of him, to dissect it in his mind’s eye and put it together again; or, if he is drawing from memory, that forces him to dredge his own mind, to discover the content of his own store of past observations. (John Berger)

The writer’s equivalent of a sketchbook would therefore require an entirely new frame of mind. It would require a simultaneous use of and disengagement from the machinery of language, which seem of themselves to take the writer away from the moment.

(Perhaps that’s wrong. In the tradition I was born to, influenced by and stemming from the Bible, naming is creative, life-giving. “In the beginning was the Word.” The author sets things into independent motion with a word. Perhaps my difficulty in using the medium of language to accomplish the simple acts of recording that come so easily to lines and colors is the result of a psychically deep conviction that writing is more creation than representation. But then, in Buddhism for instance, to understand and name a thing is a way of dispelling it. If there’s anything to Buddhist mindfulness, perhaps this very act, right now, of noticing a potentially deep-seated illusion about language — that by using it I’m breathing the breath of life into it and therefore inevitably bifurcating the moment, the impression — is enough to overcome it.)

The closest I have come to this ideal equivalent of the sketchbook is when I go to art museums alone. When I do that, I like to pick a painting and sit in front of it for an hour or two, writing down what I see and think. I try to overcome the philistinism of a defective art education, not through a spurious connoisseurship, but by actually inhabiting an artist’s way of looking for a while.

Ironically, the closest I come to an artist’s sketchbook is in looking at art. I’d like to forego that crutch.

As plain a thing as an ordinary sentence

Don’t all writers have a hidden nerve, call it a secret chamber, something irreducibly theirs, which stirs their prose and makes it tick and turn this way or that, and identifies them, like a signature, though it lurks far deeper than their style, or their voice or other telltale antics?

These words are by André Aciman and they apply to him also, though it can be difficult to look beneath his style, which is so unusual, so beguiling in its coils and toils, that it’s often the first thing critics mention. So let’s dispose of that style summarily and look at what “lurks far deeper,” then return to the style to consider it as a manifestation of that deeper thing.

The uniqueness of Aciman’s style follows almost entirely from his willingness to write long sentences. His sentences are remarkable for more than their length, but length is their precondition. Because Aciman is willing to give himself space, to sacrifice the sacred cow of modern English prose—immediate, self-effacing intelligibility—in pursuit of more rarefied aesthetic goals, he simply has more room to experiment. Long sentences, as should be mathematically obvious, have more possible variations than short sentences. Many of Aciman’s long, recursive sentences have an exploratory feeling, as if he is always probing into the terra incognita of syntactic hinterlands. Here’s a lovely example:

You go out into the world to acquire all manner of habits and learn all sorts of languages, but the one tongue you neglect most is the one you’ve spoken at home, just as the customs you feel most comfortable with are those you never knew were customs until you saw others practice completely different ones and realized you didn’t quite mind your own, though you’d strayed so far now that you probably no longer knew how to practice them.

Within these long sentences, Aciman performs miracles of subtle rhythm and felicitous diction. He seems to feel what few writers, however inventive and vigorous their prose, feel anymore: the difference not just between the right and the wrong word, but between the beautiful and the ugly word. His sentences are beautiful, but they’re emphatically not his signature, hidden nerve, secret chamber.

That would be desire.

Desire’s a funny thing. It’s a pain, a discomfort, because it signifies a lack. When you desire something, you move toward it restlessly, hoping you’ll get it and desire will cease. But if you get the thing you want, and have no further desires to prick you with further discomforts, likely you’re bored. Boredom is even more uncomfortable than desire. And so the life of someone attentive to their own gratification will be a constant rocking to and fro between desire and its fulfillment and the emptiness that brings. Perhaps the lowest point of all is to be bored so intensely that you begin to desire to desire something: and this desire, this meta-desire, a second order self-consciousness of the lack of desire, is numbness.

These three moments in the movement of desire are basically the entire focus of Aciman’s writing. Writers with such exclusive focus upon their theme are rare. If he were a lesser writer, this narrowness of vision would make him minor; but I think he plumbs the depths of his theme, makes the minor major by sheer thoroughness.

The book I read recently which prompts these reflections is called Alibis. It’s a collection of travel writing, but as, I imagine, anything Aciman writes will tend to do, each piece bends toward evoking and analyzing the workings of desire: “it is not the things we long for that we love; it is longing itself. . .”

 

alibis

 

When Aciman visits a place, his regard slides off the present into memories of his own dreams of the future. You know that aesthetic, the retro-future? The future as imagined by someone from the 50s, say? That’s Aciman’s experience of the present: he revisits a place and remembers how he imagined it otherwise. He experiences this both as a painful thwarting, and, self-consciously, as an exquisite pleasure. So when he goes to visit Rome, where he lived as a boy, he thrills with nostalgia for the memory of how he despised the streets he is now seeing, how he used to imagine them as the streets of other cities from the books he escaped into. Or when he writes about New York, he imagines how it might have appeared to Walter Benjamin if he had managed to escape France and emigrated to America. “What we ultimately remember is not the past but ourselves in the past imagining the future.”

But boredom is also there in the elaborate pains Aciman takes, when visiting or revisiting a place, to arrange the most exquisite sensations, to ensure that he will stir up the most poignant desires. And when he fails, he complains about numbness, and turns to writing to kindle the missing fire, and then turns against writing with doubts about its suitability for the therapeutic role in which he’s cast it: “Does writing, as I did later that day, seek out words the better to stir and un-numb us to life—or does writing provide surrogate pleasures the better to numb us to experience?”

If these brief adumbrations of the theme he explores at excruciating (and exquisite) length, in every variation, haven’t made it clear, I’ll say it bluntly: Aciman’s travel writings use terrestrial geography as a pretext to explore the geography of consciousness. These essays, and the travel that occasioned them, are themselves pretexts for inner journeys away from the places his outer journeys are toward. The full title of the book is Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere. That word “elsewhere” does typical Acimanian double-duty, alluding both to the fact that this is a book of travel essays, and to the fact that Aciman himself is always elsewhere than where he travels to.

I say this is about desire, because I think Aciman raises to the level of an all-absorbing theme a dynamic of universal significance—desire itself—but Aciman himself seems to interpret his hidden nerve, secret chamber, signature, as exile. In childhood his family was forced to move from his birth city, Alexandria, and also to descend socially due to the circumstances of their departure. So he attributes his “parallax” vision, his constant absence from the present in favor of the speculations of the past or the counterfactual future, as a consequence, an internalization of the fact of exile: “an exile is a person who is always in one place but elsewhere as well.” His sense of exile is so complete that it has no relation to place; it’s an exile in time, a complete exile, permanent, irrevocable: “This feeling of being cut off from oneself or of being in two places at the same time is as though what was left behind were an amputated limb, something that was cut away from us and was not allowed to travel with us—an arm, a grandparent, a baby brother.”

So, given this absolutely unwavering interest in the dynamics of desire as raised to consciousness by the fact of exile, what are we to make of the style? Is there a connection between those lovely long sentences and the displacements of desire? I think so, yes, absolutely.

For one thing, at their most expansive and wandering, his very long sentences act out the displacement he’s usually describing. With imperceptible slippage, clause by slippery clause, he leads you to a thought that leaves you wondering: where did that sentence begin? You wonder not in a startled, confused way, as when the run-on sentence of a bad writer startles you into attention by a sloppy failure to be consistent in tense or precise about antecedents: no, instead it’s the kind of wondering that comes from wandering, as when you look up from your walk and realize you don’t know where you are are because you got lost in thought and then in reality, or when you’re trying to meditate, to think of nothing, and catch yourself cleverly metamorphosing this well-intentioned nothing into elaborate daydreams.

But the best part about the perfect fit between Aciman’s style and his subject is that he professes to be as helpless in the former as he is in the latters. He regales us with the intricacies of his travels by foot into memory because that’s just how he can’t help but experience those travels, and likewise, “cadenced prose, for all its pyrotechnics, is also a way of hiding that I can’t write as plain a thing as an ordinary sentence in English.”