On Writing: What Can't be Written

Wednesday, 11 January 2012


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.


Mariella said...

There is a quote once I read about which was said to belong to Samuel Beckett that goes like this: "try again, fail again, fail better". I don't know if Beckett is really the author but it quickly became sort of my mantra..this post made me think about it

yelena bryksenkova said...

i've been listening to chopin for the last two days...i think of his music as perhaps the lighter side of sadness. you're right though, i wouldn't want to be able to put the feeling into words either. when i was younger i used to cry hysterically at music that moved me, because i couldn't "deal" with it in any other way, especially verbally.

i read that haruki murakami composes his novels to resemble the structure of jazz music...


hila said...

oh great quote Mariella! I've never heard of it before, thank you. I shall go investigate if it was indeed Beckett who said it - it sounds like him.

Nancy Baric *negfilm said...

sometimes when words fail me i think...maybe it's less about the intellect and more about the emotion, no?

Naomi Bulger said...

I think you have encapsulated why I like poetry and storytelling so much. Sometimes, direct description and illustration fail. That is when, through the ages, we have turned instead to myths and artistic expression. It puts me in mind of a point in "I Capture the Castle" when Cassandra realises the folly of her initial plan to "capture" her family in her journal. And of my brother, a philosopher, who talks about "fuzziology" in terms of "the closer you look at something the less clear it becomes." I think there is a singular beauty in things that are unspoken because they simply cannot be spoken. And clearly you have sent me on a most pleasurable thought-ramble!

Hotly Spiced said...

Writing is such a battle and often I experience writer's block. But I think that's the way it is with a lot of things like composing music. You just have to believe in yourself and keep going. And if it's something you love to do, it's really not that much of a chore even when inspiration is hard to find.

Petra said...

people always envy what they don't have, to some extent, the good kind of envy, I think you know what I mean. I used to get so depressed when I read someone who was oh-so-sure with words. for me writing is always a journey, it's always self-exploratory. that's why I could never write fiction, or rather, could simply describe something. or at least I wouldn't enjoy it much...

on an entirely different note: do you have any thoughs on Nabokov (in case you have written about him before I must have missed it and I appologize)? he was - still is - my guiding star when I transitioned from one language to another and lost my voice for a while...

annelouiselikes said...

oh, hila!

it seems that i now have writers block...your blog post has provoked me in the exact way your described; enough to comment, but in a way that i don't know what to say..!

so i will just leave it at the ever-intellectual


B said...

A beautiful and inspiring post. Currently reading Calvino's Six Memos; somehow, this post seems to link perfectly with that. I'm still on the first lecture: lightness. Not pinning things down, not stopping motion. A little like the flow of music, and your "dancing around the edges" with words. I highly recommend the book to everyone here.

kate (littlehouse) said...

I love the image of you as an old woman still joyfully yearning to express the beauty of being alive. I think the quest to find a language that fits one's feelings is a fine lifelong pursuit. To feel deeply is a gift: to think deeply to find the words to convey those feelings to yourself and to others is another form of gift. Enjoy the journey :)

Jane Flanagan said...

I love this post. The unutterable and the role of silence in art and writing is a major preoccupation for me.

And I recently had a long correspondence with a friend about how, more than literature or plastic arts, music remains fully ineffable to me. And I don't know if that leaves me even more moved by it, or a little alienated.

I think failure, and perhaps that's the wrong word altogether, is implicit in the endeavour and it's in butting up against those edges that we find novel ways of expressing. If plain language always worked, there would be no poetry.

Jane Flanagan said...

PS - yes Mariella's quote is Beckett. It goes "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." - from Worstword Ho.

Sanna said...

I couldn't resist:

Calvin: Isn't it strange how smells are so evocative but we can't describe them?

Hobbes: Oh, I dunno, that fire has a snorky, brambish smell.

Calvin: I should have known animals would have words for smells.

Hobbes: It's a little brunky. But the low humidity affects that.

Calvin: You're telling me that animals have their own words for specific smells?

Hobbes: Well, sure.

Calvin: OK. Whats the word for how leaves smell?

Hobbes: 'snippid'

Calvin: Whats the word for how I smell?

Hobbes: 'terrible' Woo Hoo Woo Hoooooo...


rooth said...

I can't agree more with your statement about writing about love or what you love and how it's inexplicable really yet compels expression. It's so much easier to get it all out when you feel passionate, yet so much harder to find the right words. I suspect this is why I never find the right things to say and end up with something cliche

naomemandeflores said...

I'm glad you accepted the failure because now you don't have to feel frustrated after listening to Chopin. How amazing is that?

Camila Faria

MissJW said...

Wonderful blog entry. I love the part about how love is such a popular topic, difficult to express in words, but nevertheless deserving of expression. I listen to music when I write and still find myself frustrated when I cannot express the depths to which I am moved by it (or a character is). Thanks for another lovely blog entry.

wingeddeer said...

brilliant. thanks, Hila!

erica-knits said...

I was utterly dumbstruck by my attempt to describe what jasmine smells like after reading that suggestion in your post. That question just stopped me in my tracks. How profound it must be to be able to describe the smell of jasmine.

My partner is a poet, and I will be sharing this post with him. I'm sure he will be touched and inspired by it as I am.

Writing creatively is something beyond my grasp, and I deeply admire those who can, like yourself, express abstract ideas so clearly and beautifully.

Chuck said...

I agree with Mariella, this reminds me of the Beckett quote. So interesting, if occasionally frustrating, trying to write about intangible things. There is a whole bunch of theory but it is definitely a wonderful spark to the imagination.

Re The Marriage Plot: I thought there were positive things about it. I liked his depiction of university and theory and academia. I just found that overwhelmed by the wasted opportunities and the snide-ness. Someone does need to write a great marriage plot novel though. That could be great!

hungryandfrozen said...

Beautifully worded. I like what you said about failure. The search, the climb, can be so rewarding.

Also I must've spent about five minutes trying to describe jasmine, it's a toughie! :)

Sasha said...

This was a joy to read. I've often had moments of thoughtfulness when contemplating my inability to articulate the things I most want to. This post has definitely added something lovely to my thoughts.

Victoria said...

A friend and I were talking about this the other day. I think there's great value in writing, to exorcise those things inside us that we can't get out any other way.

I always think I'm going to be satisfied with my writing, but the hunger is insatiable.

gilead in bloom

Ella said...

lists are always good! and this one takes the cake :)

hila said...

mariella: thanks again for the quote, I love it.

yelena: I read that too - and it actually helps to make sense of a lot of his writing, and his style.

nancy: yep, you're probably right.

naomi: I like the concept of "fuzziology", it seems quite accurate.

hotly spiced: anything worthwhile is usually difficult!

petra: I admire his writing style, but I'm not a huge fan of him. Especially not of 'Lolita'. I know a lot of people love that novel, but I just don't.

annelouiselikes: 'lovely' is good! and thanks :)

b.: thanks for the recommendation!

kate: thank you :)

jane: you're right, if we didn't come up against some block, language wouldn't expand and change. Perhaps 'failure' is not the correct word, but that seems to be the common term applied to that feeling of disappointment when you haven't quite articulated all that you wanted to.

sanna: maybe animals are just smarter than us? I suspect that's true :) I shall use 'snippid'.

rooth: yes, I agree - and I think that's why everyone says 'I love you', which is a total cliche, but also an attempt to express genuine emotion.

camila: ha, that's true!

missjw: well, you're not alone in that feeling. But I think frustration sometimes works with us, rather than simply against us.

wingeddeer: my pleasure!

erica-knits: but that's just the thing, I wonder how clear I actually am to other people, I wonder how much of what I'm saying actually translates to another human being. Which, I suppose, are insecurities that are common to most writers. Thanks for your kind words, I hope your partner enjoys this post.

chuck: oh I agree! I hope he either develops on the marriage plot idea in another novel, or that someone else will do that. It's such an interesting concept, it deserves to be explored deeper.

hungryandfrozen: it's tough to describe huh? I tried too, it didn't work.

sasha: thank you!

victoria: yes, I know what you mean. Sometimes I just write to make the 'noise' in my head stop, to get the words out and feel relieved for a while.

ella: hi ella! do you mean the list in the above post?

heleen said...

Hi Hila, this article here has been one of my favourites of you because it so deeply resonates within me. Anyway, I recently read 'The Angel's Sorrow' by Jón Kalman Stefánsson, an Icelandic author, and while I was researching some background information on him, I stumbled on this lovely interview in which Stefánsson expresses the same instinctive feeling with regards to poetry and music: "I think poetry is the deepest form and it has elements that can move you like no other form can with the possible exception of music." It's just one sentence in an entire paragraph of describing his style of writing etc etc., but it struck me because it was so similar to what I read here. (the rest of the interview makes a lovely read too, and made me appreciate him even more as a writer; http://www.grapevine.is/Author/ReadArticle/Jon-Kalman-Stefansson-Interview )
Anyway, 'The Angel's Sorrow' is the only novel I read from him so I can't vouch for the other works, but I do think you would really enjoy his way of constructing a plot and his descriptions of people, life, nature & the importance of words.