As I Lay Dying: random thoughts on the creative process

As I Lay Dying: random thoughts on the creative process

(A version of this article was published in Tyoepad on August, 2008)

I

It had started innocuously enough. First, they picked me up from the gutter and fed me. Then put a roof over my head and clothed me. And then, they left me there to die.

No use telling them to stick to basics – just a room with a view so that I could read and write. But no! They had to go the full mile. 

It’s always like that with people with money. They think money can buy you everything.

It’s a nice pad, really – one bedroom, a functional kitchen, a decent size living room, even a den to do some writing and whatnot. Furnished, too, including pantry and the fridge. I won’t starve for a month, that’s for sure. Best of all, it’s all paid for. So who am I to complain? Compared to the hole in the wall I was in, it’s a palace, any bum’s dream.

But that was in sunny California. This is H-town.

II

It’s been over a week now since I was left thus to my own devices, each passing day more unbearable than the last, and I’m going nuts. No one to see, nowhere to go. I don’t know how much more I can take. Which will go first, my mind or my will? It occurs to me they’re interchangeable.

The two books they’d left me with I devoured. “It’ll keep you busy for a stretch,” was their word on departing. And they have – for two straight days and nights, too. I’m reminding myself there’s more where it came from – two thousand volumes give or take, still in transit, many of them unread. It’ll keep me busy for the rest of my life if that’s how I’d choose to spend it.

Somehow, I’m not very hopeful.

III

“Which single book would you rather have, knowing that you’ll be shipwrecked on a desert island?” (Many say, “the Bible.”)

It’s a preposterous idea, completely out of touch. Likewise with Robinson Crusoe, the fable. Why bother trying to survive, let alone read anything, if you’re destined to spend the rest of your life alone? Even hope would be useless, for any such hope must center on the idea of “beating it.” That’s why all the clinging and clawing and scratching. Indeed, only with the appearance of good boy Friday does the novel assume the aura of credibility. 

The Lord of the Flies is by far a more realistic portrayal. For all the inherent evil and the darkness of the human heart, both thinly veiled by upper-class upbringing and the veneer we call civilization, at least the boys have one another. They form a community.

Aristotle had once said that man is a political animal. Utter nonsense! He’s a social animal first and foremost. 

It’s not a book that will keep you from going insane on a desert island, no musical composition or the finest work of art, but human interaction. Barring that, you’ll have no chance in hell.

IV

A scene from The Cardinal of the Kremlin, by Tom Clancy, comes to mind. It’s a new KGB, more humane, above such methods of extracting information as torture, waterboarding, and whatnot. Sensory deprivation is the latest thing. 

They put you in a tank for a day or two, and you’re floating. No sense of gravity to tell you which side is up or down, no bodily movements to orient yourself by. 

You’re in total darkness, deprived besides of all sound except perhaps the beating of your own heart, and after a while, even of that you’re not certain. Yet your mind keeps on racing as never before, and your imagination is at its most active, craving for input, any input, but none is forthcoming. You experience nothing except your own disembodied self. Soon enough, even this, you begin to doubt. Am I dead or alive, in heaven or in hell? Any sensation, even excruciating pain, would be better, infinitely better, and more welcome than the state you’re in. And so it was with Svetlana:

V

She was lying on a gurney when he got there, the wetsuit already taken off. He sat beside the unconscious form and held her hand as the technician jabbed her with a mild stimulant. She was a pretty one, the doctor thought as her breathing picked up. He waved the technician out of the room, leaving the two of them alone.

“Hello, Svetlana,” he said in his gentlest voice. The blue eyes opened, saw the lights on the ceiling, and the walls. Then her head turned toward him.

He knew he was indulging himself, but he’d worked long into the night and the next day on this case, and this was probably the most important application of his program to date. The naked woman leaped off the table into his arms and nearly strangled him with a hug. It wasn’t particularly because he was good-looking, the doctor knew, just that he was a human being, and she wanted to touch one. Her body was still slick with oil as her tears fell on his white laboratory coat. She would never commit another crime against the state, not after this. It was too bad that she’d have to go to a labor camp. Such a waste, he thought as he examined her. Perhaps he could do something about that. After ten minutes, she was sedated again, and he left her asleep.

VI

I’ll never understand a recluse. It’s a genetic defect or product of maladjustment. Both perhaps! How can people like that go through life is beyond me.

A writer’s retreat is another oxymoron. And I don’t mean “workshops,” for they are a community. I mean, rather, the condition of self-imposed solitude, as when you withdraw yourself from your natural habitat for art’s sake. All art, in my view, is a by-product of interaction – the artist’s response to his or her environment. To deprive oneself thus of the needed stimulus is not only foolhardy but ill-fated as well. It’s like removing from under you the ground you stand on or extinguishing the fires.

Memory is not enough. You need constant egging and agitation, aches and pains, a sense of accomplishment born out of struggle, agony and ecstasy, intensive engagements and strategic withdrawals. Like the rhythm of life itself with all its ebbs and flows. A creative process must reflect such a cycle since art is life in miniature. Otherwise, it’s sterile

VII

There’s no greater punishment than solitary confinement and no hope of escaping it. Give me a rowdy prison or Solzhenitsyn’s gulag, sodomize me many times over, but don’t deny me your presence. A concentration camp would be better than the jail I’m in.

I think of God as I write this, and I cry. All-consciousness and no one to share it with, all in vain for lack of connection! The Creator exiled from her own creation. 

There’s no greater pain, no greater loneliness, no greater suffering. Hell would be a thousand times better. I pray there are angels in heaven – for God’s sake!

Why write under these conditions? Right now, it’s the only meaning I can attach to life, my only connection with my past, my present, and even less certain future.

VIII

I must diagnose my present situation, put the finger on what exactly is ailing me, identify the cancerous growth and remove it. I know that sitting on my butt all day long or twiddling my thumbs aren’t going it cut it. It’s a recipe for disaster.

For as long as I remember, I was never conscious of time. There was never enough of it. If anything, I’d always run out of time, wondering all along what I’d done with it, when and where it had gone. But now? 

Time has become my constant companion, a fellow traveler, a shadow. And I can’t seem to get rid of it; whichever way I turn, it keeps on following me like a phantom. It’d become my worst enemy. 

Imagine – all the time in the world and nothing to do!

IX

I’m thinking of strategies.

Perhaps if I introduce rigor into my life, I might beat it. For all the drawbacks of living in a rural town, there are some advantages. For instance, everything’s spread out.

Just think: the nearest liquor store, two miles from my involuntary confinement; a smoke shop, mile and a half; a full-service supermarket, another two miles give or take. But you get the idea. So daily walks, I’m thinking, along with upper-body workouts, and I’ll be in shape in no time. I realize it’s artificial to be structuring your life so – it’s so foreign to me! – but I have a bigger fish to fry. And now the immediate object, it seems to me, is to overcome the lethargy that’s slowly setting in and taking over, a kind of numbness which gradually descends on both body and soul and is reminiscent of dying. A self-imposed regiment and Spartan lifestyle may well be the ticket.

X

There’s still the matter of quality. One would think an artist could create amid turmoil, that some of the best works are born in fact out of some such and no other circumstances. 

Nothing could be more false! Where one usually goes wrong is about the nature of the struggle: it’s not with oneself but with the material. And while emotional conflict, hopelessness, despair, any of the above, may serve the artist as a necessary backdrop – indeed, as a powerful resource for the work in progress! – there’s also a sense in which that struggle must essentially be over. One must first come to terms with oneself, with his or her situation, before tackling the extraneous problem of taking control and giving shape to the composition. 

I’ve got a long way to go—hence this frantic effort to pull myself by my own bootstraps and stress on the physical.

Yet I know I’m deluding myself. It’s not my body that needs overhauling but my mind. Total catharsis! Mind and spirit have always been the prime mover for me, the body merely following. So let me plug away with my writing though I know it stinks. Who knows, I might surprise myself one day and have a good laugh.

XI

I intend for this work to be autobiographical after the manner of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer – a kind of mélange of personal experiences and reminiscences put together into a coherent whole. 

I realize it’s a tall order, him in the City of Lights and me in H-town. No colorful characters here, no memorable episodes, no heroes, least of all, no city which always holds its allure and forever keeps you captive. Right now, it’s just a diary – how well I know it! – a veritable record of my wretched state of mind, but give me time. 

Contrary to popular belief, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag was not a random collection of notes hurriedly jotted down on sheets of toilet paper but a reconstruction. Well, I’m in the same boat, imprisoned and with no means of escape. And I, too, hope to put these notes to good use someday, to make them into a readable whole, one that’d be compelling and flowing and all that. But first, let me throw this albatross off my neck so I could breathe again. I’ve got to get back to the rhythm of writing. How else am I to justify my existence?

XII

Meanwhile, I’m beset by images from my past. The other day I dreamt of Alameda. Apparently, I was visiting there with the idea of returning. It was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky, typical California weather. It seemed like a holiday or a Saturday at least, and the signs were abundant. Park Street was a promenade, teeming with life and people strolling leisurely with no care in the world. 

I ran into Nick and Yvette. When I told them I’d moved to Kentucky, Nick exclaimed: “How could you do such a stupid thing?” I wanted to play chess, but they had other plans. They promised though to call me the next day so we could have a few games.

And then there was Nancy. As she boarded the bus I was on, imagine, we started talking. She was as real as can be, every single aspect of her from head to toe, her voice and smile, too, so real, in fact, I felt I could almost touch her. 

It’s been long since my dreams were this vivid. It’s my mind, I guess, compensating for the unreality which surrounds me.

XIII

In Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller remarks: “It is not difficult to be alone if you are poor and a failure. An artist is always alone – if he is an artist. No, what the artist needs is loneliness.”

It may be so. Consider, however, that Miller is residing in Paris, his true home. He’s got plenty of friends among the émigré community, friends who sustain him through dinner invitations, conversations, and whatnot, even if he is on the bum. And when worst comes to worst, Paris itself can become a friend. 

Hence the corrective: “Loneliness” doesn’t work with “being alone” as a backdrop. Quite the contrary, it needs stimulation to be effective. Intensive engagements and strategic withdrawals!

But I had better stop my ramblings and thoughts of self-pity. Better times are sure to come.

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