On Writing: What Can't be Written


I woke up this morning thinking about Jennifer Byrne's interview with Christopher Hitchens, which was recently re-screened on Australian television after his death. Although most of the interview was very interesting, one line that Hitchens said caught my attention and made the rest of the interview pale in comparison. He said that for him, one of the reasons why certain authors have a gift that others do not is bound up with music. I'm not sure what exactly he meant by this, but the way I instinctively responded to it may have little to do with what he was actually saying, and more to do with how I chose to interpret it.

Music for me encapsulates what I can't write about. It reminds me of a moment I had with a class of students a few years back where one girl asked the class to describe what jasmine smells like. The normally talkative class became silent. We tried to explain to her, but our words failed us. Certain things are beyond words. I get a similar feeling of blocked articulation whenever I listen to music, particularly classical music and my favourite, Chopin.

I used to find this frustrating, I used to take it as a sign that I'm just not a good enough writer. And I may not be a good enough writer, but that's probably not the point. The point is, maybe I'm supposed to skirt around the edges of this music, rather than fully penetrate it or understand it. In fact, some of the most prolific and enjoyable writing I've produced is ironically about the things I cannot write about.

I personally think this is why we write about love so much. Not simply because it's a fairly universal topic, but also because it's a feeling that cannot be expressed in words, but yet still compels expression. Rather than fully articulating the experience of love and desire, we skirt around its edges, we create many metaphors to probe around it, and we ultimately fail. But in failing, we produce some of the best literature.

I'm starting to see failure as productive, and perhaps even necessary for my writing. When I listened to some Chopin on the weekend, I was once again filled with this intense desire to explain to someone, somehow, what this music makes me feel. I wanted to make my feelings visible with words, to bring the notes to light, to make someone else witness my feelings by making them external. But the best I could do was come up with a few metaphors, a few symbols, a few descriptive passages of imagery inspired by the music. I sat back in my chair, waiting for that familiar feeling of disappointment when I can't seem to capture in words a strong emotion. But you know what? It didn't come. Instead, I asked myself this question: what would happen if I were able to capture this emotion, would I be happy then? The answer was a definitive 'no'.

If I were able to neatly tie-up my emotions into words and express everything I want to express, I think there would be little point in writing for me. I would just stop. And consequently, I would be lost. That's the deepest irony of all. So I'm starting to make friends with failure and blocked language, because it's simultaneously moving me forward and creating an instinct to write more. I rather like the idea that I'll still be sitting in a chair as an old woman, listening to Chopin, dancing around the edges of its notes with my words, and failing spectacularly. Maybe writing isn't about being satisfied, but about being constantly hungry. Maybe it should ask more questions than it answers. So here's to failure.

Image credit: Violinist Jascha Heifetz playing in Mili's darkened studio as light attached to his bow traces the bow movement. Photographed by Gjon Mili, New York, 1952.