On Writing and Other Speculative Witcheries
“I tell my students all the time: writing fiction is an exercise in giving a shit—an exercise in finding out what you really care about….What will you let yourself know? What will you allow yourself to know?” — Alexander Chee, “The Autobiography of My Novel”
I’m not actually sure if you got my last newsletter. I’m switching platforms because I knew I had to get off of Substack, but the first platform I migrated to had a pretty clunky infrastructure, so I went in search of yet another that could meet my basic requirements: 1) have a streamlined newsletter service, and 2) not actually be a haven for transphobic hate under the guise of “free speech.”
This is the last newsletter I’ll be sending from Substack as I finish setting things up on the new platform. I probably could have done this in much less time than what it actually took to set up, if it weren’t for the inescapable fact that I was also feeling frozen with the creative anxiety people tend to call writer’s block. I’m not going to go too deeply into the what and the why of it—there are some things I will not tell—but overall the effect was stultifying.
When I find myself confronting creative anxiety, I usually do two things. First, I sit on my couch and do absolutely nothing until I can’t stand it, and then I reread an essay by, or interview with, a working artist I admire. I first read Alexander Chee’s “The Autobiography of My Novel” in a fiction writing workshop this spring, and I’ve returned to it many times since. Most recently, yesterday.
Chee’s essay concerns the intersections of life and story and all of the unorthodoxies therein; he opens with a scene where he is confronted by a puzzled would-be reader of his novel: if Chee is, like his protagonist, a victim of sexual assault, why not just write a memoir? Chee replies: “The things I saw in my life, the things I learned, didn’t fit back into the boxes of my life...my experiences, if described, wouldn’t portray the vision they gave me.”
I’ve been thinking about how to describe the not-quite-translation process of writing. I think it’s a kind of alchemy, and a mysterious kind, at that—the way that life and lived experience slips into narrative, landing tangled up and completely transformed. Creative anxiety, for me, comes in the form of a panic that I’ve lost this ability.
Oftentimes I wonder if this is a common fear. I think it must be. I’ve heard from other writers that writing isn’t like riding a bike, that every new project or even page feels like something achingly new and uncharted. Is that why it always feels so high-stakes?
When I’m confident in my process, I bathe in words. They spin across my mind, and I pluck them, almost idly, casually, to put down on the page or the screen. Each word appears just when I need it, strung behind the next like beads on a thread.
When creative anxiety strikes, it feels like the threads have been cut. I sit, unable to reach into the pool of words for the next one, because it isn’t there. I have to move forward nevertheless, but I’m half-convinced that my writing on those days lacks something in that loss of easy movement. It’s often easier to not write anything at all. But then I feel it, that accrual of days without words, and that feels much worse than any kind of ease that lack has granted me.
I wrote in my first missive to you that I was thinking about writing and the speculative together as a measure of what we shape and what shapes us. It’s clear to me that writing is a kind of witchery, one with the power to shift and transform both reader and writer. “What will you allow yourself to know?” writes Alexander Chee, and I hold the question close to me like a bird in my palm, heartbeat trembling against my fingertips.
Who will you let yourself become?