Box of Charcoals

by Sven Birkerts

I’m hunting all through the house for something, and though I can’t find it anywhere, I’m also almost seeing it each place I look. As if it cannot not be there. The certainty keeps me going. It’s a long narrow box of charcoals, once bought for one of the kids—who then didn’t use it. But now my son wants it. And I know we still have it: it’s exactly the kind of thing you never throw out or give away, because ‘one day someone will want this.’ That day is here, someone does—and where is it? The art of losing itself may not be hard to master, but making peace with the idea of loss is. To not be able to find something you know has to be right here. Has to be because I put it in a place so that it could be found when needed. Which means that looking for it is really more like looking for myself as I was—a version of getting inside the mind of the criminal to solve the crime. If you know the motive and the psychology…

What does this have to do with writing? Nothing, everything: as usual. Because some version of ‘where is it?’ attends the process, always. The part of what we put to the page that we don’t fully know is the why of doing it—we trust that the process will deliver it and free us from the restless chafe of at least that one incompletion. ‘I know it’s here somewhere, I can almost see it.’ Almost, that beautiful word.

In the last workshop of the January residency we were having a general conversation about writing. A student described how she’d been day after day scrambling to note down everything she heard that she thought might be useful, which is to say noting down a great deal—for who ever knows when any given idea or piece of advice might not come in handy? I then proposed the counter-theory (a reflexive move, but in this case, I think, true) that there exist important levels of forgetfulness, and that writers might learn to use them. These are different for everyone, of course. Myself, I very deliberately do not write down the fleeting images and phrases that come to me while I’m driving, grinding coffee beans, pedaling on the infernal stationary bike (ideally there would be something called a ‘stationery bike’ set up to record your best thoughts automatically)… I don’t make notes out of laziness, true, but there is also an aesthetic conviction: that if something is at all worthy, the psyche will retain it; and that thing will resurface when most needed. Indeed, this is the way such important elements ought to come— as resurfacings—and not as notations retrieved from a notebook and inserted because the conscious writing mind decides that they belong there.

What I’m saying here relates to the metaphor that has been in my head these last days—the needle bumping back again and again on a nick in the vinyl (another metaphor). It’s from the lecture Jo Ann Beard gave at the residency in which she compared waiting for an idea to ripen to holding a beach-ball submerged far under the surface of the water. At least that was the interpretation I put on it at the time. The image invokes ideas of patience and abiding, but also suggests that the truths we seek as writers live at a depth and do not yield themselves up easily. Further, they cannot usually be gotten by straightforward strategies of harvesting. As often as not, they are tricked forth from hiding by the solicitations of rhythm or those of quasi-poetic idea-association. And when they come they carry a crackle of surprise, but also, if this is not a contradiction, a certain meshing sense of rightness.

What does this have to do with remembering and forgetting? For me the whole business goes back to with the ancient Greek concept of anamnesis, the gist of which is that all knowing is a remembering—that we have no basis for understanding anything that we do not already in some way know. This is a highly compressed way of saying—as certain philosophers did—that we are born with the basic structure of knowledge inside us and that our learning is a process of recovering this implanted knowledge. This understanding was the essential basis of the Platonic dialogues, where the master, Socrates, modeled how through the asking of the right questions a person can be brought face to face with his own profundity.

I don’t know if I accept this as an overall description of mental functioning, but I do think it bears on what we do. Imaginative writing—which is to say most of our writing—proceeds not by invention so much as by creative uncovering. One is basically arranging what is already there. But the arranging is less a matter of selecting what is ‘on view’ than of making oneself available to what is associatively most apt: readying oneself to recognize its rightness. The conscious/conscientious ‘I’ has to cede authority, sit shotgun, for its main aptitude is the logical and sequential manipulation of materials. Which is useful, yes. But when were you last thrilled in your soul by a logical-sequential anything? The big question remains: what prompts this rather than that to seek a place in the sentence that I am writing? It’s mysterious. I feel the words coming alive in the ear just a half a beat ahead of the figurative pencil-point—how do they know to do that? Neuroscience gets at many things, but this so far is like those areas marked ubi leones sunt (where the lions are) on certain ancient maps.

As for that box of charcoals—I was so sure it would turn up in some perfectly obvious place, but it hasn’t yet. Except, in a sense, here: as a kind of prompt. Do we ever know what anything is for?

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4 thoughts on “Box of Charcoals

  1. Beautiful. And what came up for me, in reference to the charcoals I hope you found was a line from James Schuyler’s ‘Hymn to Life,’ a line so simple that you’d think I would’ve forgotten it, only I didn’t, and even managed to sneak it into my last book: “This is something he will like, or use.”

  2. Sven, so perfectly said. I have often envied people who took the time to write down absolutely everything they experienced or thought in a day. My brain is just not wired that way. For me, there is undoubtably an element of laziness in my process. And yet, there is a wholeness (and even a bit of counterintuitive freshness) to my thoughts after a bit of stewing time.

  3. John Coats says:

    A big YEP!
    How many talks, lectures have I enjoyed/engaged less than I might have because, pencil and notebook in hand, I was too busy writing to listen…

  4. rbshea says:

    Provocative and thoughtful as always, Sven. For me, it raised the paradox of intention versus outcome.

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