"You don't know what it is to stay a whole day with your head in your hands trying to squeeze your unfortunate brain so as to find a word."
- Gustave Flaubert
"Language is very difficult to put into words."
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
A nice and unexpected teaching gig has been occupying much of my "free" time these past few weeks, but I've been meaning to at least share this passage from Annie Dillard's The Writing Life. I frequently get caught up in the issue of audience, so much so that at times it completely paralyzes me (maybe that's been the case this past month). So this was a nice reminder that the "audience" is not always mine to choose or understand:
"I was too far removed from the world. My work was too obscure, too symbolic, too intellectual. It was not available to people. Recently I had published a complex narrative essay about a moth's flying into a candle, which no one had understood but a Yale critic, and he had understood it exactly. I myself was a trained critic. I was a critic writing for critics: was this what I had in mind?
One day, full of such thoughts, I tried to work and failed. After eight hours of watching helplessly while my own inane, manneristic doodlings overstepped their margins and covered the pages I was supposed to be writing, I gave up. I decided to hate myself, to make popcorn and read. I had just sunk into the couch, the bowl of popcorn beside me, when I heard footsteps outside. It was two little neighborhood boys, Brad and Brian, who were seven and six. "Smells good in here," Brian said. So we ate the bowl of popcorn on the floor and talked. They played the harmonica; they played the recorder; they played the ukulele.
Then Brian got up and stood by my desk, on which there happened to be a pen drawing of a burning candle.
Brian said, "Is that the candle the moth flew into?"
I looked at him: WHAT?
He said, and I quote exactly, "Is that the candle the moth flew into, and his abdomen got stuck, and his head caught fire?"
WHAT? I said. WHAT? These little blue-jeaned kids were in the first grade. They came up to my pockets. Brad, on the floor, piped up, "I liked that story." Why if I was sincere in anything, did it seem to console me to repeat myself, "Oh well, he's older"?
Later, before they left, Brian made certain I understood that whatever sphere of discourse I fancied I shared with any interlocutor, I was wrong. Brian said (admiringly, I thought), "Did you write that story?" I started to answer, when he continued, "Or did you type it?"
-Annie Dillard, The Writing Life