Where does writing come from? (part 2)

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Félix Emile-Jean Vallotton, Woman Writing in an Interior, 1904, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Mavis Gallant, a Canadian short-story writer, died in February at 94. A notice in the New Yorker got me curious about her. After a brief early marriage, she moved to Europe in 1950, at 28, giving herself two years make a living entirely from writing. And she did it, making the tradeoff so many women have felt compelled to make: “She has quite deliberately chosen to have neither husband nor children, those two great deterrents to any woman’s attempt to live by and for writing,” as one scholar put it. So when she explains what drives someone to become a writer, she knows what she’s talking about.

In an afterword to a collection titled Paris Stories, Gallant says:

The impulse to write and the stubbornness needed to keepclick to go to Amazon book page going are supposed to come out of some drastic shaking up, early in life. There is even a term for it: the shock of change. Probably, it means a jolt that unbolts the door between perception and imagination and leaves it ajar for life, or that fuses memory and language and waking dreams. Some writers may just simply come into the world with overlapping visions of things seen and things as they might be seen. All have a gift for holding their breath while going on breathing. It is the basic requirement.

What interests me is this phrase holding the breath while going on breathing. And why it’s the basic requirement.

To me, it sounds like an ability to inhabit two alternate realities at the same time, or two different levels of existence, one a kind of internal timeless being and the other the world of objects in time. There is a meditation practice of shifting focus from an object of concentration to just the awareness of the knowing of that object. As I understand it, this practice trains you to be increasingly able to experience pure awareness.

With respect to writing, I think “holding the breath” equals accessing the timeless subjectless place ideas arise from, at the same time that you’re finding language and constructing sentences that make these ideas into an object—the words on the page (or screen) that exists in time and space. I’ve had the experience of dissolving into the process of writing such that my sense of myself simply evaporated. I have usually only gotten to this point when I was able to work continuously over a period of time. Once someone called me at such a time—not a close friend, but someone I knew more than casually—and I embarrassed myself by forgetting who she was.

This is the best experience of writing that I know of. Nothing beats it. Sometimes I think that my entire motivation for writing another book is just to have it again. Perhaps Mavis Gallant felt the same.

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Suzuki Harunobu, A Woman Writing, circa 1764–circa 1768, Brooklyn Museum

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3 comments

  1. I hadn’t thought of Mavis Gallant in years, but now recall enjoying her writing for the power of the thoughts and keen observations behind it. Your quote is fascinating. This is the line in it that speaks to me almost perfectly: “Some writers may just simply come into the world with overlapping visions of things seen and things as they might be seen.” That describes my experience exactly, though in trying to explain, on my author’s page, why I dig the same garden over and over, I put it a bit differently: My novel Belonging (2011) was how things might have been, for young women in the time and place I grew up. And my new book, Virginia Primitive, is about how things actually were.

    Whenever I try to move on to another venue, I get lost, and end up returning to the old ground. so it’s all one journey for me – discovering the emotional elements and events that formed my life. I think now that I probably would have enjoyed writing biographies, figuring the emotions and events that formed others’ lives. But I would have wanted to stick to the small Southern town to explore. I’m working on a several-part essay about it now – Part 1 is available, though unfinished, on http://www.sallysparleys.com. Part 2 will probably debate how the people in this town could have avoided re-enacting the injustices of the past, and how that might have led to a “cure,” or at least an alleviation, of the crippling of so many lives for so long.

    Thanks, Stefanie!

  2. “All have a gift for holding their breath while going on breathing. It is the basic requirement” (for a writer), A state of mind to me that is as natural as ..well breathing. When my eldest sister nudged me a while back while we were waiting quite a while for our father to come out of a medical emergency and said ‘breathe Vic! It’s too much today!” and though the same reason came out of my mouth as it had times before with her, ‘Sorry, It’s the information” It still took me a minute to get my bearings. Today was the first time I ever heard anyone recognize it, let alone understand it. Perhaps, it is a writer’s absolute need to reconcile the events in her life, and relay them to the universe as if it were a truth the universe needed to continue to grow and the absolute frenzy to relay it so we could too. Today, being the first time I have read anything you have written, as I happened upon your site, I feel the Universe had something to say to me today. Something I needed to hear and just wanted to say thanks and “I’ll be back” I’m looking forward to the further reading on your time spent with the homeless Women! The radio gift was great and I agree with your assessment. I too was surprised as I sat down on a bench outside my office one day, and it was quite a day for me as I was just feeling unsettled and a “Bag Lady” sat down on the other edge and said out of nowhere “Man Plans and God Laughs” One sentence with the ability to change me! That has at times, been the one statement in my life that made any sense at all! I look forward to reading your work.

  3. You’re so welcome, Victoria, and thank you for helping me understand that line of Mavis Gallant’s more deeply. Looking forward to any further comments you may leave on a return visit!

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