I’m starting my writing day, and just about everything is ready: coffee mug and banana are on the table beside me; my notebook’s open to my last feverish jottings; laptop’s aglow— as Hemingway advises, I left off yesterday in mid-sentence. I’ve even drawn the shade to my study window, heeding Annie Dillard’s counsel to avoid a room with a view “so imagination can meet memory in the dark.” But I’m still not ready to begin work—and I’m momentarily paralyzed by the fear that overnight I was transformed from a real writer into a clueless “wanna-be.”
How do I condition myself to begin? If writing were a 5K race, I’d know how to warm up—light jogging, stretches, a few sprints. But once I’ve coerced imagination and memory to join me at my desk, how do I induce them to converse? How do I create the mood for writing?
This final stage of my daily writing prep is highly personal—I’m sure all writers have “getting started” tricks of their own, and I offer mine only as an example, not as a prescription. (Can you sense that I’m delaying, tip-toeing around my revelation?) Okay—what I do to get started is dig into my vast store of humiliating moments, pull one out, and relive it until I feel my fingertips quiver and the blood rush to my cheeks. When I’ve exposed myself to myself—when I’m as raw and as honest as I’ll ever get, I’m ready to write.
Kafka wrote that a work of literary art “must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” My practice, when beginning to write, is to polish to transparency a patch of my own ice-covered sea—and peer down into the dark waters for a familiar flash of scales that makes me squirm. The feeling I’m looking for—the sense of heightened awareness—is something like Rosencrantz’s in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead when the Player challenges the character to “[t]hink, in your head, now, think of the most . . . private . . . secret . . . intimate thing you have ever done secure in the knowledge of its privacy. . . . Are you thinking of it? Well, I saw you do it!”
What I’m describing is the use of my catalogue of personal humiliations as a stimulus, not as a source of subjects. (With the understanding that this catalogue is always available when I am at the subject-searching stage.) And I should make it clear that by “humiliations,” “embarrassments,” and “mortifications,” I’m not talking about revisiting the tragedies we encounter in life. Tragedies are too grand in scope to suit my purpose—I can’t contemplate a personal, historical, or literary tragedy quick enough for a useful warm-up exercise. And the relief that comes from catharsis, the purging of pity and fear that Aristotle claims to be the end result of literary tragedy, is the opposite of what I’m looking for when I’m beginning my writing day. Bring on Rosencrantz’s shock at being caught—at something.
What about happy moments? Not for me—too warm and fuzzy. Like Tolstoy’s happy families, happy times are basically all the same—picture the cast of Disney on Ice skating to canned cartoon melodies, performers and audience blissfully unaware that Mickey and Minnie’s glittering blades threaten to slash through the surface of Kafka’s frozen sea.
Exhuming a past humiliation requires not warmth, but a tolerance for a kind of lonely coldness — I choose a mortifying moment to suspend in memory, and its icicles drip onto my cheeks. When my chill blush seeps down my neck to my shoulders, my shiver tells me I’m prepared for work: by daring to hide from nothing, I’m free to write about anything.