“One day I am sweet, another day I am sour,” says the Irish trickster god Manannan mac Lir in his guise as the disheveled traveling buffoon whose hat is full of holes and whose shoes squish with puddle water when he walks.
This is my kind of god.
It is nearly impossible to take writers seriously, and when you are a writer, this can be a problem. Writing is the kind of thing that almost everybody thinks they can do, and for the most part they’re right. It’s hard to take yourself seriously when the whole world is jabbering on, billions of people putting words together every minute of every day, stringing them along extemporaneously as if they were born to it. Pretty much anybody can conjure a whole castle of conversation out of thin air. It’s enough to make you cringe when you realize you’ve spent hours mumbling to yourself over your keyboard, painstakingly crafting sentences a syllable at a time, leaving thoughts half-finished like abandoned scaffolding because your dreamed-of spiral staircase turns out to have a wobbly step or two.
This is why I normally hate to write about writing. But someone told me that readers like to hear about “the process,” and since my work isn’t the kind of thing that makes for a photogenic Pinterest post, this is the best I can do. So here’s my process: one day I am sweet, another day I am sour. It’s Monday morning. Guess which one I am today.
Maybe you started out with a clear intention, compelled to write because you had something you desperately felt needed saying. Not me. I’m like the painter who paints not because she has something important to say about agriculture, but because she finds the beauty of sunlight on hay bales captivating, because she truly, honest-to-gods loves watching the way paint dries. I’m the worst kind of writer: the kind who likes to hear herself talk. I drool over delicious turns of phrase because of the way they feel in my mouth. I shiver pleasantly over puns. I write because there is a constant narrative voice in my head rehearsing the inflections and intonations of lightning versus lightning bug, and I might as well put that down somewhere. It’s the only way to make it stop. Also, I think I’m pretty good at it.
Awful, isn’t it? To think you’re good — maybe even really good — at something anybody can do. And the better you are at it, the more the results are supposed to look effortless, full of easy grace. There is a story from the ancient Taoist sacred text by Chuang Tzu about a butcher who is a master of his craft, with knives that never go dull. Of course everyone credits the knives. The townspeople speculate that the butcher must have discovered some magical metal so strong that it never needs sharpening, no matter how many cows he slices open. But the truth is, the butcher explains to them, that his knives are actually quite ordinary. They never go dull because he does not actually cut through flesh and bone — he simply finds the spaces that are already there, and slips his knife inside.
Sometimes I like to think that I’m aspiring to the same kind of mastery as the butcher, working with quite ordinary words, finding the spaces within things to slip in syllable by syllable until the world splits open. Such work takes patience and precision. Sometimes you have to wait a long time for those spaces to open up before you. A rushed job can leave you with nothing but a bunch of blunted clichés, unappetizing tripe trailing behind you like a bit of embarrassing toilet paper stuck to your shoe.
As much as I might aspire to some modest mastery, there are other times when I remember another story from the Chuang Tzu text. This one is about a withered old tree that escapes the forester’s axe because it is so bent and twisted that its wood is good for nothing. There is a blessed freedom in being useless. There is a kind of beauty in being defiantly true to your own knobbly nature. (If the act of mutilating the sacred world with a thousand vowel-edged knives weren’t scary enough, the gangs of new media — ragers against all things “poetic or naïve” — make success almost more dreadful than silence. In an online world of machismo-ridden barroom brawlers, no one roots for the girl who brings a knife to a fistfight.) Sometimes having something to say makes it worse, and the pressure to articulate the world, to slice and splice, to always be sharing some deep insight into the blood-soaked guts of reality… is enough to make me want to put down my knives and go learn how to paint landscapes.
What I’m trying to get at is that writing with any kind of intention or commitment is rather terrifying. I recently read an article about what’s known as the “Pratfall Effect,” which is basically the strange psychological phenomenon that makes someone more likeable when they make mistakes (like spilling a cup of coffee). This basically terrifies me because, like most people, I’m a fraud. My livelihood is based on the illusion of selective competence, when the reality of my life is much messier than that. There are days when I’m convinced that I’ve sabotaged my own career by being too much in love with my medium, too concerned with writing beautifully, too entranced by the sharp and shiny edge of the knife. They say that an artist uses lies to tell the truth. The writer, at his best, tells lies so well that he disappears entirely from view, leaving only the lies themselves as imaginary castles in the air so well-built that for a time the reader believes herself to be a welcome guest. But how is the writer who disappears from view supposed to casually spill his coffee? And if he does it intentionally — if he writes in the coffee in its wobbly cup, being sure to mention the broken handle and the logo that reads “I Hate Mondays” — just to put people at their ease, doesn’t that, too, make him a fraud?
Manannan appears in folktales sometimes as a buffoon and sometimes as a richly dressed traveling bard of talent and renown. When he is a buffoon, he is scoffed at and ridiculed, but his words are sweet and his music sweeter. When he is a master of his craft, he is welcomed with open arms into the highest courts, where he inevitably comes off as a fake and an ass. When he is at home, he is a king whose otherworldly castle is thatched with white birds’ wings. (We’re back to impossible castles again.) But the half-thatched homes of the mortal bards will never be complete. While the poets are out gathering more feathers, the winds have already swept away the last day’s work.
Which is the real god? The king, the poet, or the wandering buffoon? Which is the real writer? Which is the real me? Do I want to be famous, or do I just want to be heard? Is it even possible anymore to separate the desire to be heard from the need to market yourself as a celebrity brand? I’ve said that I love the sound of my own voice, but that was a lie. I was being flippant. What I love is the sound of many voices, and the way they play off one another. Within that cacophony, I sometimes catch a strain of melody, the Song of the World that sings through all beings. If I can play along with that melody for just long enough — if I can get myself and my opinions out of the way long enough to do justice to that beauty — where is the “real me” then? Buoyed up by the beauty? Or hidden away behind the words? This piece of writing here, this is not my voice. Not really. When I write, I’m almost always doing an impression, even if it’s just an impression of myself. I’m always adopting a voice, even when that voice is ostensibly my own.
How do you put the “art” back into “artificial”?
I love the ambiguity that good writing embodies, when that ambiguity is played intentionally. I love when the space within words sings like the body of a well-tuned guitar. (How many different ways are there to read the title of this post? Nobody likes you because you’re perfect — nobody likes perfect people; being perfect is not why they like you.) How closely do you attend to the multiple meanings of things?
They say that in jazz there’s no such thing as a wrong note. Improvisation is a risky business, but there is also a certain freedom within the structure of chord changes and drum solos. Any note can become the right note — the perfect note — depending on the notes that follow. Jazz is about the on-going creation and re-creation of context.
Some folks adore jazz as the earthy, evolving music of a messy, complex humanity. Other folks think jazz musicians are convoluted, insufferable frauds squeaking and squawking their way towards a false elitism.
The son of the sea is a jazz musician. He’s my kind of god.
• “Manannan mac Lir Statue, Northern Ireland,” by Rodney Harrison [source]