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 keep 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.