I will stop writing (from Lost Poems of Croggon)
I will stop writing and walk out, and in the clamour of commerce I will consider the value of truth.
When I return, the evening light will be yellow and the bird that whistled all day will have fallen silent.
Once again I will discover that I have nothing to say. Perhaps a bright instrument may flash then, in my empty hands.
1. Nadia kindly asked me about techniques for staying focused. She meant well, as not so long ago, I was reading, note-taking, and writing regularly. Sure, much of the writing may have been worse than useless, but the immediate result isn’t always terribly important.
That seems counterintuitive, I grant. What good is production if nothing important, beautiful, or thoughtful emerges? There’s plenty of incoherence, messiness, and narcissistic ranting in this world. Shouldn’t art in general afford a bit of clarity? Shouldn’t a writer, at the least, force herself to be clear, if only to understand her own thoughts?
My one technique for staying focused, for making organization in anything one does a priority, follows from this advice Rilke gave a young writer:
This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.
Regarding writing, Rilke says to ask yourself nothing less than “Must I write?” If you answer “yes,” then you build your life, your whole life, “in accordance with this necessity.” This may initially feel overwrought and far too dramatic to be serious advice. I do encourage reading Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, though, where the above quote comes from. Rilke does a masterful job of instructing the young poet – I wish I could be a hundredth of the teacher Rilke is – and the poem the young poet eventually produces speaks for itself.
Ultimately, I do think focus is pretty much a matter of priority. The things we consider most important we work at relentlessly, finding how we can be efficient at them. I should be clear that I am not trying to make some obnoxious grand pronouncement of the “no one needs techniques to be focused” sort. On the contrary, I need post-it notes, a calendar, to-do lists, e-mails, texts, phone calls, and people reminding me verbally and with violent, angry gestures what I need to do any given day. My best days at work I come in with a game plan, where I write down the larger goals I want to achieve (i.e. “keep things positive, keep people motivated, show generosity works”) and break them down into smaller goals before I’ve even entered the building.
There are worthwhile techniques for staying focused. The reason why I’m saying “staying focused is a matter of priority” is because it’s the truth. Like all truths, it involves deep ironies and contradictory consequences. Alison Croggon’s meditation on not writing, on leaving pen and paper behind for a time to experience the world, introduces those problems.
2. “I will stop writing and walk out, and in the clamour of commerce I will consider the value of truth.” A writer can be frustrated in many ways, but one of the worst involves wondering whether one does any justice to the truth, whether one’s own words meet the measure of their intrinsic worth. Walking away, into the world, moves one from the realm of words and ideals into something prior, messy, and real. The “clamour of commerce” begs to be articulate, creating a space for one to feel, think, consider.
Still, “the value of truth” continues to place a high burden on the writer. The struggle is to find the nerve to find focus again, to write again. Of necessity, our narrator returns home. The “clamour of commerce” has withdrawn, and her observations concern the natural: “When I return, the evening light will be yellow and the bird that whistled all day will have fallen silent.” There’s a brightness, mellowness, and quiet marking the end of the day which might tempt us into thinking it a panacea for all times we confront frustration. I think it worth noting that this had to follow the “clamour of commerce:” nothing has been written yet.
3. In fact, it is unclear if anything can be written. “Once again I will discover that I have nothing to say,” the poem announces. Frustration and losing focus aren’t simply obstacles to be overcome. There is nothing easy about truth; the link between knowledge and utility deceives at least as much as it enables. To be clear, the narrator has stepped away from writing in order to see the world again. She’s paid attention to nature and described it as welcoming of her voice. Yet despite both these things, saying something is still difficult. The very fact that our focus requires having a sense of priority points to the objects of art being beyond us. Heck, something about our own selves is beyond us.
Importance lies in the preparation. One stops writing in order to cast a spell, in order to invoke a power nearly magical: “Perhaps a bright instrument may flash then, in my empty hands.” It sounds ludicrous, like a facile, cynical conclusion. But it speaks most directly to the importance of writing, as well as the irony of focusing on anything. The things that must be done well are also worth not doing, ironically enough. The drive that pushes one to pay close attention and produce something also pushes away from production. Lacking nerve and hesitating come from knowledge as much as they do from cowardice. It’s strange knowledge can put one in situations where one might not be able to know more, but that’s what it means for most of us to live in this world. The only appropriate response: one’s writing is a form of magic. One embraces the frustration, taking ordinary, incongruous elements, mixing them together, testing whether one has any power or not.