“My own personal experience tells me that violence disrupts our balance, create a feeling of vertigo, the sense that everything clear about our morality, our ethics and about our worldview is spinning out of orbit so fast we can barely keep up. For most of us, art is the only way to arrest the speed of disintegration, to step back and get a hold of the fragments. Like when you break a vase and take a step back. We see at once the detail of pieces and the whole vase. Slowly we bend, pick up the first piece and consider it. This is witness.”
“Every true artist know that art is a weak vehicle for addressing trauma in all its magnitude and yet it is the most durable, the most reliable one we have. In this way the witness of art transcends mere testimony, mere accounting, mere reportage, to define a space that allows for surrender and resistance to occur at once.
That witness works at all is in itself a small miracle. A miracle of what, you might ask? In the oblique way that much truth happens, this is in fact a kind of love. I mean this in the sense that James Baldwin did, the idea that any kind of honest interaction between people requires the relinquishing of parts of the self to each other. Witness is an act of love, not in the sense of the sentimental although that is certainly part of it. What I mean by love is the act of seeing. Why is seeing an act of love? It is perhaps the only true act of love. Seeing slows the world down, bringing it into focus, even for a moment, the object/subject of sight, imbuing it with worth and value, while also actively resisting its erasure. But more than that, seeing requires not turning away from difficulty to the safety of comfort. […]
Witness works first by seeing and then by lingering. The seeing as I said slows everything down, and the layering creates a thickness, a mass that sits in our consciousness without threat, even if it does reek of menace. And this in turn allows us to approach by degrees, the violence of the event and the damage it leaves behind. The distance between the seeing and the mass is the impossibility of expression and this is conversely and paradoxically the very power of witness.”
“When we speak of art giving witness, we usually mean that we are attempting to give form, address or visibility to things that are often inexpressible such as the effects of terror, pain, destruction, and erasure. In this way, the idea of witness, of testimony, is seldom if ever linked to things that are wholesome in our cultures. We give testimony it seems to unveil the hidden, to restore the wished away, the instinct towards the erasure of shame.
To give witness is to create a common body of remembrance, one we can all share in, but beyond that, one that can and must necessarily offer us some kind of catharsis. This is what art strives to do. To build this body out of shared fears, and triumphs, and desires, nostalgia as it were, for something that maybe never existed. This is both the triumph of and the problem with art. It cannot speak of essential truths (if there is even such a thing), or even relative truths for that matter. It can only speak in approximation, because that is what allows everyone into the conversation. This is something writers and artists have always known because the truth of course is that we can never feel each others’ pain, but only approach it by relating it in degrees to our own. That this trade in a mutual loss bridges the distance between self and other. We are, it seems, an intrinsically selfish species. In this way, I think, the common body of art, despite its protestations to the unsentimental, depends so fundamentally on this shared trade between love and loss.”
“[I]t seems that the desire to make art, to draw the limits of the body, to create a simulacrum has its roots in loss; or at least, the possibility of loss. The need to remember, to create (or re-create) a body out of loss, but also against loss, and against forgetting, is what drives the artist. This intervention in the world is repeated through time and culture and place, regardless of the truth of this or any other myth. It can be argued that the creative process is a ritual of remembrance.”
“This is the writer’s mind when embarking on a piece of work. We sit perched in front of our laptop screen, or our spiral-bound notebook, or giant desktop monitor, and—we freeze. After all, it’s so important, isn’t it, where we start? Don’t we need a plan? Hadn’t we better know where we’re going? The stakes feel impossibly high. We’re convinced that first word will dictate every word that follows. We are tyrannized by our options. All sorts of voices scream in our heads. First person or third? Present tense or past? The span of five minutes? Or two hundred years? What the hell are we doing? We don’t know.
Build a corner. This is what people who are good at puzzles do. They ignore the heap of colors and shapes and simply look for straight edges. They focus on piecing together one tiny corner. Every book, story, and essay begins with a single word. Then a sentence. Then a paragraph. These words, sentences, paragraphs may well end up not being the actual beginning. You can’t know that now. Straining to know the whole of the story before you set out is a bit like imagining great-grandchildren on a first date. But you can start with the smallest detail. Give us the gravel scattering along the highway as the pickup truck roars past. The crumb of food the wife wipes from her husband’s beard. The ripped bottom of a girl’s faded jeans. Anchor yourself somewhere—anywhere—on the page. You are committing, yes—but the commitment is to this tiny corner. One word. One image. One detail. Go ahead. Then see what happens next.”
— Dani Shapiro, “Corner,” Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life (via recycledsoul)
“You can’t escape [symbolism], can you? What, after all, is one to do with oneself in print? Does the reader feel a dread of anything? Do they all feel a dread for different things? Do they all love differently? Surely the only way to cover all these readers is to use what is called symbolism.”
“What is the link between art and life? No one knows, even the writer sometimes, what happens in the night-blind whirlpool of the making.”
“I can honestly say that whenever I feel myself formulating or invoking something that is conceptual/theoretical… I veer away from that so fast. I just know from experience that my instincts are better than my cerebration.”
“So much in writing depends on the superficiality of one’s days. One may be preoccupied with shopping and income tax returns and chance conversations, but the stream of the unconscious continues to flow undisturbed, solving problems, planning ahead: one sits down sterile and dispirited at the desk, and suddenly the words come as though from the air: the situations that seemed blocked in a hopeless impasse move forward: the work has been done while one slept or shopped or talked with friends.”
— Graham Greene, The End of the Affair (via invisibleforeigner)
“The book did not write itself, even with my chapter notes, and I often felt as if I was pressing up against the edges of my competence, as if I had bitten off too much. ‘Every book,’ Annie Dillard has written, ‘has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as soon as his first excitement dwindles. The problem … is insoluble … [a] prohibitive structural defect the writer wishes he had never noticed. He writes in spite of that.’ For me, this defect was not in the book but in myself. I was not smart enough, not adept enough, not a good enough writer or thinker to live up to my premise, which felt, at times, as if it had been bestowed on me by someone else. Here’s Dillard again: ‘I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.’ This had been the case with my first two first books, and it was the case with this one too. The difference was … what? That I was older? Under contract? Certainly, yes, this was part of it. But even more, in blundering through those projects, I had learned something about how expectations can derail us, that the only remedy for fear (or, let’s be honest, ambition) is to sit down and work.”
— David L. Ulin, My First Book(s)
“That was not what I had meant to write, but I’d learned by now to be responsive to the text—to give up, in other words, the desire for control that had waylaid me in those first two first books, the need to know from the outset what the point was, what the themes were, to tell the story from the top down rather than the bottom up.”
— David L. Ulin, My First Book(s)
“I keep getting in my own way, loading up the narrative with frills, stylistic and otherwise, but there are places where the writing starts to sing. I remember the finest moments of its creation: when, deep in the middle of the book, I would go for a walk, have a conversation, read something in the newspaper, and all of it, every last whisper, would have some necessary link to what I was trying to construct. ‘Once you’re into a story,’ Eudora Welty once observed, ‘everything seems to apply: what you overhear on a city bus is exactly what your character would say on the page you’re writing. Wherever you go, you meet part of your story.’”
“I’ve learned that writing is an art of the unknown, that we write what we don’t know, rather than what we do. ‘I write,’ Joan Didion tells us, ‘entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.’ Implicit in such a statement is how little she grasps when she begins.”
— David L. Ulin, My First Book(s)
“I wanted… to get everything I’d ever thought or felt on paper, to connect with the core of not just literature but also being, and in so doing to write my way out of circumstance and into fate.”
— David L. Ulin, My First Book(s)