you must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
you must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
you must go through the way in which you are not.
from T.S. Eliot’s “East Coker”
The guts to face the unknown, to willingly embrace an air of innocence, is simultaneously strange but exhilarating. For the poet, heavily reliant upon reflection and observation, to cease interaction with thoughts, information, or feelings is a disquieting prospect. This state of release often creates a void. A void of prickled spine crookedness, a void where you write and write until you just lay down and stagnate in undiluted emotions, a void of isolation, a hungry void of total submission. For many of us, it is this void which we loathe and crave.
Writers have identified it with different names: aboulie, melancholy, receptivity, mania, depression. Keats named it “negative capability”, Eliot dubbed it “objective correlative”, Rilke likened it to an illness. Many contemporary writers often refer to it as a “mania” or “depression”. Is it insanity, an episode, or a condition? I’ve had writer friends who’ve explained it away with minutia – busy time of year, deadlines, too much wine, seasonal sadness. A doctor I dated (I almost wrote “hated”!) – a psychotherapist – spent months carefully detailing the length and quality of the sun’s rays and their probable effect upon my poet's brain mental state; my lack of wearing sunglasses in bright light being responsible for the horrid open feeling that left me incapable of answering his calls but wanting to lick his gentle skin both day and night. No matter what you term it, any writer who’s experienced it knows it when they feel it.
As a writer, I have spent much of my writing time “stripping down” and far less time actually writing. It is no small task. It demands sacrifice; it has robbed me of possessions that define me, patterns of thought that are my own, a body of knowledge I have tended. It is a complex challenge to create a vacuum where, as a solitary entity, I expose myself to the rawness of life’s experiences. Each writer has different requirements, different methods. I punctuate these lean seasons of “void” by sliding clean sheets on the bed, scrubbing out the sink, stacking all the laundry neatly in rows. It’s an attempt to plan ahead for the weeks of disarray, the crumbs in the sheets, the days spent in bed, the possibility that there will be times when lifting a pencil will be more bothersome a task than raising a thought.
Writing effects severe alterations to our rational, factual, thinking, ordered lives. Under the right conditions, writers discover words that capture the seemingly unknowable, or the known in all new light. Writing from within the void requires absolution of normalcy within daily life; be it marriage, work, family obligations, or general adherence to social norms. A running joke at MFA International is which the married students will achieve first -- degree or divorce?
We are living in an age consumed with enlightenment, psychobabble, and true confessions. The resulting effect is an overwhelming emphasis on self. At first, this might seem the right direction toward attaining open consciousness. It is too often the impetus of writers consumed with their own experience to stop there, short of the greater comprehension of the world of receptivity. Instead of casting off experience and personal emotions, this age of information frequently insists that we embrace our knowledge, experiences and feelings, explore them, and adhere to their confines. Too often “to know thyself” becomes the stopper which blocks the opening to a broader understanding of true emotion and feeling.
A writer who is open to it can help guard against the “standardization” of human feeling in their writing. The writer who elects to live life without the barrier of experience risks many things. Yet, this process of unraveling, of becoming undone, of losing the outer protective layer in order to feel, invites transformation and the possibility of experiencing the freedom of unknowing.