If it’s not your voice, it’s the voice of death.
Whenever a writer starts anew, they face the white space of the empty page, the white screen. There is an absolute freedom in this moment. They might have a story they want to write or a desire to discover something inside themselves through the act of writing and bring it to the surface of the page and into existence where it might live, or die; when the story first lies naked on the page, the chosen words may not, unfortunately, support its being. The writer might even desire to negate their spoken voice—the one used for small talk, for business—through fiction, where the written ‘I,’ the authentic ‘I,’ replaces the spoken ‘I,’ the ‘I’ that is a functioning member of society. I recently read a Paris Review interview with Luiza Valenzuela where she said of Julio Cortázar that when the moment in which he was ready to write came, ‘he had to go to the typewriter and pull the story out of himself as if he were pulling out some kind of creepy creature, una alimaña’.
The writing may or may not be fully formed inside the writer, but it is not made of words. Pulling it out, writing it out, is to face failure. To borrow one of Jean Paul Sartre’s phrases: ‘Existence precedes essence.‘ The story exists inside the writer, the essence—that is, the nature of the story—is fluid inside the writer, it exists like a dream. When pulled onto the page, it becomes the words and is transformed into something new—a merging of its original existence with its new essence. The resulting story can never be what was first imagined. It is absurd to believe it could, but if writers didn’t persist in believing this, they would quit (or admit to their being masochists). Instead, writers learn to work in graduations of failure.
The existential perspective, which I will adopt for this essay, is that the individual enters the world with a certain amount of givens: when we are born; our height; genetic dispositions; etc. After these, as Sartre wrote:
Man is condemned to be free: condemned, because he did not create himself, yet nonetheless free, because once cast into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.
We are condemned to be free because life is essentially without meaning: it has no purpose, no explanation. Our existence is all we have, beyond that the reason for our living is a mystery. Heidegger writes: ‘we are thrown into existence‘ and, later, we are thrown out of it. We create ourselves through the choices we make. Life, then, is a finite series of choices. Seen this way, each choice is loaded with importance. This brings responsibility, and the anxiety that goes with the responsibility of trying to live in a way that fully accords with our feelings, our thoughts and desires—trying to live authentically. Few are aware, or want to be aware, of this freedom and responsibility. Many will go to surprising lengths to keep this awareness to a minimum.
Since humans became conscious, however many thousands of years ago, we have searched for the meaning of life, of our consciousness, of death, etc. We are meaning-seeking creatures. We desire to know. And, it seems, we never will. It is the human condition. It is every detective story, every thriller, every mystery, I believe. It is the great mystery: the source of so much art.
The writer, because writers are surely individuals too, faces the empty page with whatever literary talent, knowledge of language, imagination, intelligence, writing experience they possess thus far, everything they’ve read, and all those other ingredients that go into the writing. What happens next is their responsibility.
The page then, for the purposes of this essay, is existence.
The writer is free to use any of the thousands of words they know, any infinite combination of words to represent, as truly as possible, this thing inside them. And, as any good existentialist will say, absolute freedom is paralysing. It brings too much choice. Too much responsibility. Too much anxiety. Anxiety can be translated as the fear of losing control: the fear of doing so at some point in the future. Many existential therapists suspect that every anxiety is, at its core, a death anxiety; death being the ultimate loss of control. I am sure that in some forgotten corridor within our dreams a side door will always be found, and if anyone were to enter they would find anxiety and death sitting at a table in an empty banquet hall. They will be feeding each other through linked arms, murmuring secret words. In place of the dreamer there will be an artist who tries but can’t delineate between the two, and finally draws the dancing skeleton of the tarot.
And what about the writer’s particular experience of anxiety? Their awareness of death may well increase it. Every poorly written piece takes up the time which could have been used to write something truer, to write something that might live beyond their own death so that they might exist the way all those old writers do: through their words which come alive with each new reader. Or is it only the words that continue to live? And how do they live? By destroying? Maurice Blanchot would say that to write ‘this cat‘ is to take away the existence of the cat, that to name something is to take its being out of reality and into literature: ‘The word becomes being.‘ To write the word is to sentence the word’s referent to death. Does death speak in what has been written? If so, it could only increase the writer’s anxiety when choosing what word to write next.
You would expect the writer who has read and developed their own literary canon to have an acute awareness of our finite existence—it has been the focus of enough art. Even if they have, they are likely to have done everything possible to reduce this awareness. (For example, they probably choose to focus not on the methodical destruction of the world in every word they write, but, instead, see in those words the continuing birth of their fiction.) This would not be unusual. Most people choose to ignore the fact of their eventual unbeing. As Soren Kierkegaard writes, when people RSVP to a party, they never think to say: ‘I shall certainly attend your party, but I must make an exception for the contingency that a roof tile happens to blow down and kill me; for in that case, I cannot attend.‘ Death happens to other people, that is, until it happens to us.
In his essay ‘Kafka’s writing and our reading‘, David Constantine posits Franz Kafka as a man for whom writing was an existential act. He had many opportunities to create meaning in his life, like helping his father with the family business, or living according to the wishes of his family and so on. Instead, he chose writing as the act that gave his life meaning. When his writing didn’t read true, he felt guilty. When he procrastinated he felt guilty. It seems as if the only time he didn’t feel guilty was when he was in the act—or in the immediate aftermath—of writing that which he judged to be true. Maurice Blanchot, in The Book to Come, compares Kafka to Josef K from The Trial:
The story of a man grappling with himself as with an obscure tribunal before which he cannot justify himself because he cannot find it is indeed worthy of interest, was, for Kafka… the given of his life: this guilt that is all the heavier because it was the shadow of his very innocence.
The psychotherapist Emmy van Deurzen interprets existential guilt as the call of conscience which tells the individual that ‘something is lacking, something is being owed to life by me: I am in debt to myself‘. Kafka was indebted, not just to writing, but to writing that felt true. For Kafka, as for most writers, good writing is born of truth. When his work felt false, he discarded it. He was aware of the dizzying freedom of the page, but rather than search for a guide or set of rules to write by, and thus curtail his responsibility for his writing, Kafka continued trying to write what only he could write. He would not accept anything that did not feel authentic.
If he were to have seen a therapist, it is likely he would have chosen one other than a Freudian: ‘I consider the therapeutic part of psychonalysis to be a hopeless error.‘ If there had been an existential therapist around it is probable that Kafka, considering his reading of Kierkegaard, would be interested. He would likely speak about his fiction, his father, his preoccupation with his health, the meaning behind certain sentiments in letters, such as when he wrote to his translator, and married lover, Milena, ‘Aren’t we human beings pathetic to the point of farce?‘ But, most of all, he would likely address his continual search for authenticity and his ensuing despair.
In existential therapy, living authentically means recognising and accepting one’s own vulnerability, individuality, mortality, the ultimate uncertainty of existence, and above all the responsibility that comes with the freedom of living according to one’s true nature. Authenticity can never be achieved: it is a way of be-ing. The individual is always becoming authentic, or becoming inauthentic.
By adhering to the rules of another, by conforming to society or some other powerful system without assessing its rules to see if they accord with what one actually believes, by rejecting all that is subjective in favour of objectivity, by rejecting what is individual, one is becoming inauthentic. To live inauthentically is, essentially, to avoid the responsibility of making one’s own choices.
Kafka struggled to write, and live, authentically. Many writers feel so overwhelmed by the freedom granted by the page they seek out rules by which they can constrain this freedom, or at least shirk the responsibility that comes with it. And there are hundreds of rules, tips, and tricks, which, if followed are supposed to create good writing. And a good few famous authors have provided their own. Here’s a sampling of these that accord with my current thesis, and that I would happily drop into the mouth of a black hole:
George Orwell: Never use a long word where a short one will do.
Stephen King: Timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason that timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.
Kurt Vonnegut: Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
If an author is any good, they will know that their rules come from their own experience, are tailored by and to their own way of writing. It is condescension, or ignorance, to place these rules before others and proclaim them to be universal.
Just as every individual must make their own choices, and live with the anxiety that they might have made the wrong ones (there is no escape from this anxiety, we can only change our relationship with it), the writer must make their own rules. If they don’t, the writing will be inauthentic. Writing according to the wishes or rules of another, or with an eye that is overly focused on the market, is the best way to produce dead words.
Good writing comes from an understanding, and acceptance of this, whether it is conscious or not (and yes, it may seem as if this is another rule to be shirked, and it might be—that’s up to each writer—but it is a constant in writer interviews, diaries etc., and so seems like it might be true for most). There is a fascinating interview on YouTube with Clarice Lispector which briefly dwells on the issue. Lispector was born in what is now the Ukraine in 1920. Being Jewish, her immediate family left for Romania to escape the pogroms of the Russian civil war; from Romania they sailed to Brazil. A law graduate, she married a Brazilian diplomat and lived in various countries, until the disconnect between the life of a diplomat’s wife and her idiosyncratic nature became too much and she left him and returned to Brazil. Her writing has been compared to Beckett, Joyce, Woolf, and Kafka. She was very much aware of the importance of retaining her freedom as a writer to the extent that at one point in the interview she corrects the interviewer when he calls her a professional writer: ‘A professional has a personal commitment to writing. Or a commitment to someone else to write. As for me, I insist on not being a professional to keep my freedom.‘ She would not even acquiesce to calling it a profession.
Writing that actively avoids freedom and responsibility by following sets of rules will, in a way, be similar to the protagonist of Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. Early on, G.H. realises she has only ever seen herself in the eyes of others:
As for my so-called inner life I’d unconsciously adopted my reputation: I treat myself as others treat me, I am whatever others see of me.
What others get from me is then reflected back onto me, and forms the atmosphere called: ‘I’.
I suspect I read my favourite writers to hear their voice. (And I suppose this places this essay and the literature referenced within mostly in the tradition known as modernism.) When I say voice I mean what Barthes referred to as style, and here I will quote Blanchot—mostly for the enjoyment of his own style—on this notion of style:
the obscure part, linked to the mysteries of the blood, of instinct, violent profundity, density of images, language of solitude in which the preferences of our body, of our desire, of our time—secret and closed to ourselves—blindly speak.
This idea of style is not limited to those, like Kafka and Lispector, who might be referred to as esoteric writers. P.G. Wodehouse’s for example, is immediately recognisable. This voice, this style corresponds with the individual. When read, it is recognisable as emanating from the individual, like smoke that rises and can be traced back to a certain fire.
It is interesting to compare academic writing to fiction in regard to this. In academic writing, the author rarely writes I. The use of: ‘I’—the symbol of the individual, a strong upright figure standing behind, and amongst, those words—is thought to distract and, worse, sway the reader’s opinion by means other than the idea itself. The voice of the author is relegated as much as possible. Scientific writing strives for objectivity.
Subjectivity is an essential tenet of existentialism and, by extent, of existential psychotherapy. How an individual perceives the world is, for the individual and their mental health, more significant than how the world actually is. And, I would say, subjectivity is essential to the act of writing, especially in modernist literature. If writers only wrote according to objective truths, we could write very little, and what we could write would just as easily be written by computers. When fiction and objectivity are found in competing sentences, it is necessary to introduce the author, Alain Robbe-Grillet. In the middle of the 20th century, Robbe-Grillet sought to rebuild literature, dimissing what he believed to be unnecessary features from the previous century’s literature, like plot, setting, and character. In the process he became known as a champion of objectivity. While he did aim for a certain objectivity, he asserted that it was used only to illuminate his imagination. Without subjectivity, fiction would collapse.
I recently went through a period when I read only Lispector and Kafka (I thought I’d mention this in case my repeated references to them were not enough of a clue). These are two of the most subjective writers I can remember reading. While Kafka was mostly loyal to the structure of story, or parable, Lispector often disregarded these: reading her fiction can feel like crouching alongside her on an archaeological dig of the self. They wrote from the inside out. Perhaps it is because of this extreme subjectivity that both had an interest in existentialism, and explored its concepts in their writing. Kafka wrote about his experience of reading Kierkegaard, and this can be read in his fiction. I am not sure if Lispector ever mentioned existentialism, but her writing, especially The Passion According to G.H., reveals a deep interest, and a continual attempt to understand how to exist authentically.
Art might derive from the Sanscrit rith which means manner, or mode. Art is the second person present indicative of be. Art is a way of being as experienced by others, the manner of our being. We are continuously creating ourselves in the manner of ourselves—be-ing as a form of art.
To return to that image of Cortázar rushing to the typewriter to pull the story out of himself—that difficult birth—Gordon Lish’s idea of consecution could be said to be an elaboration, or continuation of what happens after the first sentence is pulled from the body and onto the page. Consecution is another rule written by a writer, yes. It may or may not work for everyone, but, it is interesting, and worth writing about, especially as it concerns those first choices the writer makes.
Consecution is the process of pulling from each previous sentence that which will form the next sentence and building the story in this manner. Or, as Christine Schutt, who was edited and published by Lish when he worked at Knopf, phrases it, for Lish, the writer must ‘Query the preceding sentence for what might most profitably be used in composing the next sentence… The sentence that follows is always in response to the sentence that came before.‘
Accordingly, Gordon Lish believed the first sentence to be the most important part of writing a story: when the first sentence is true, the rest of the story, like a stream, will flow from it. It may not remain the first sentence in the completed story, but it is the first that opens the story for the writer. As Kafka writes:
The beginning of every story is ridiculous at first. There seems no hope that this newborn thing, still incomplete and tender in every joint, will be able to keep alive in the completed organization of the world… However, one should not forget that the story, if it has any justification to exist, bears its complete organization within itself even before it has been fully formed; for this reason despair over the beginning of a story is unwarranted; in a like case parents should have to despair of their suckling infant, for they had no intention of bringing this pathetic and ridiculous being into the world.
The thing may already be there, and it is only through authentic communication with the self, that it can be brought to the surface of the page. The first sentence is possibly the most important set of choices the writer makes. I don’t think Lish has ever referred to existentialism but there is no doubting he considers writing to be an existential act:
You are trying to produce an opening […] You have to find in yourself the bearing of a God […] The best way to start is to build more fear of dying, cultivate an awareness of its omnipresence in your life; then the consequences of your act, your utterance, are more likely to reach farther…
Here, Lish echoes something Kafka wrote in his notebook after completing his story ‘The Judgement‘:
I wrote at one sitting during the night of the 22nd/23rd, from ten o’clock at night to six o’clock in the morning… The fearful strain and joy, how the story developed before me, as if I were advancing over water… Only in this way can writing be done, only with such coherence, with such a complete opening of the body and the soul.
Kafka recognised in the writing of this story both his birth as a writer, and the birth of a method of writing which he remained faithful to despite its incompatibility with his health, work, and life. (Having finished the story at six in the morning, Kafka wrote to his boss, ‘Dear supervisor! I suffered a little fainting spell this morning and have a slight fever. For that reason I am staying at home.‘ That exclamation mark reveals so much.)
My original intention in this essay was to write solely about existential therapy and how it relates to writing certain kinds of fiction; however existentialism itself became an important part of the essay. But now, those aspects of existential therapy, which were the original seeds of this writing, can no longer remain in the background.
There is no one form of existential psychotherapy, which is fitting for a therapy that derives from a philosophy without a centre. I prefer to combine it with humanistic psychotherapy which was developed by Carl Rogers, mostly in opposition to Freud’s psychoanalysis, and B.F. Skinner’s behaviourism. While Roger’s never explicitly acknowledged existentialism, his theory shares with it the primacy of subjectivity: ‘Neither the Bible nor the prophets— neither Freud nor research—neither the revelations of God nor man—can take precedence over my own direct experience.‘
In humanistic therapy, the ability of the therapist to communicate authentically with the client is key. Carl Rogers posited three processes essential to authentic communication and, thus, successful therapy: empathy, genuineness, unconditional positive regard. If the therapist can manage to embody each of these processes, they will be doing all they can for the client; the rest depends on the client and their desire to change. As the client speaks of their experiences and memories, the therapist follows as closely as possible, forgetting themselves and yet remaining distantly aware of their role as therapist.
In writing, the writer must be both therapist and client, they must listen intently, like the therapist, and, in place of the client, they must listen to the words. Once that first sentence is on the page, the writer enters into a relationship with the words. And when the writer enters what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as creative flow, that experience of being completely absorbed by the creative act—when the outer layers of the self fall away and ‘every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one‘ (again, there are echoes of Lish’s theory of the sentence here)— this duality occurs.
The writer subordinates the self to the writing just as the therapist subordinates themself to the client, and yet both must remain active in their original roles, as therapist, as writer. This requires a deep introspection, and communication with the self. If the writer does not truthfully communicate with their self, how could they expect to communicate in any meaningful way with the reader?
David Constantine refers to Malcolm Pasley’s interpretation of Kafka’s writing as listening. Constantine extends this idea and in doing so, describes this subordination of self in Kafka’s writing. He writes of:
listening to and attending very precisely and intently to something taking place, an intense concentration that is both passive—and, at the same time, an opening up of himself to something in the process of occurring. He, the writer, Kafka, is keenly active in attending to this opening of himself, and is at the same time, active, in the hand hurrying across the page.
When I read this I thought of that interview with Lispector. Having rewatched it, I transcribed the following. Lispector is asked if it is easier to write for adults or children. She says writing for children is easy, but: ‘When I communicate with an adult, I’m actually communicating with the most secret part of myself. And that’s when it gets difficult.‘
Lispector, like Kafka, like Cortázar, like Lish, knows that to write well, to write authentically, requires this deep communication with one’s self, so as to reveal the secret voice of the self. And why must this voice be secret? Georges Bataille believed that to achieve this communication the writer must undergo a metaphorical death and so connect with the subconscious to find this voice. To visit the depths of being—which exists in opposition to society and, accordingly, is reviled by society. This communication with the secret self is then reflected in the communication with the reader. The secret voice brings evil (which Bataille understands as ‘a concrete freedom, the uneasy breaking of a taboo‘) into the writing. Writing in this way is so contrary to the demands of society that the writer may even feel guilt at placing their meaning in this act. (Coincidentially, Bataille believed Kafka suffered constant guilt because of this.) Bataille likens writing to childhood play, which is often deeply serious, and is always formed from the imagination. Both are antiutilitarian, irresponsible, freedom: a return to the desire for pleasure without caring about the consequences.
The witches in Macbeth could be said to be a metaphor for this. Without the witches there would be no play; Macbeth would arrive home and live uneasily with his overbearing wife, and the story would be a sort of royal kitchen-sink realism. Instead, the witches, those ‘secret, black, and midnight hags,‘ play with Macbeth, inspiring both him and, through him, his wife, to wreak havoc and ruin themselves and the lives of the other characters for the sake of fun. They are mischievious, a term mostly reserved for bold children, but most importantly, they are neither here nor there; as Samuel Taylor Coleridge notes, the witches’ character
consists in the imaginative disconnected from the good; they are the shadowy obscure, and fearfully anomalous of physical nature, the lawless of human nature—elemental avengers without sex or kin.
This contains echoes of both Barthe’s idea of style, and Bataille’s thoughts on writing. When the first apparition arrives, the witches implore Macbeth to ‘hear his speech…‘ I recently saw Guiseppe Verdi’s staging of Macbeth, and noticed that Verdi made a slight change to this line. It seems he recognised these supernatural beings as the secret self, the source of fiction, and thus has the witches implore Macbeth to ‘hear his secret words‘. The unnatural, the imaginative, the transgressive, in the form of the witches, sparks the story and, within the story, communicates with Macbeth: the protagonist devoured by his story. Without the witch’s desire for pleasure, there would be no play. Writing, it seems, comes from that secret place where objectivity is subordinate to the imagination.
The writer must find their own method of communicating with that secret place, and they must be authentic in that communication. From the first pulling of the story from the self, this communication continues until the last true word has been written. Kafka provides a fine example of knowing when truth has left the writing. One evening he began two stories which went nowhere. Of one he writes: ‘only the billowing greatcoat stands its ground, all the rest is invented.‘
When this subjective truth is found in writing, it is recognised and very much appreciated by the reader. I can read Kafka, or Lispector, both of whom lived in very different times and lived very different lives to myself, and recognise those deeply private thoughts and feelings which I wouldn’t reveal to anyone, those idle supposings which before I read them I barely recognised as belonging to me, those musings I had assumed to be singularly mine. It often seems that this secret communication reveals things we may not yet recognise, or fully understand, until a reader discovers it.
Kafka wrote about this mysterious communication in a letter to his then fiancée, Felice. He has just dedicated ‘The Judgement‘ to her and writes: ‘It is somewhat wild and meaningless and if it didn’t express some inner truth (which can never be universally established, but has to be accepted or denied every time by each reader or listener in turn), it would be nothing.‘
Analogies and metaphors that have come into being through the writing of this essay, including those that have been adopted and have grown unruly and incompatible with those of my own: the writer is therapist; the writer is client; the words are the client; the writer is the words; writing as a form of birth—a secret birth; writing as a negation of being, and creation of new beings (those of the words); the true self as freedom (or evil); writing as freedom (or evil); Shakespeare’s witches as writing, as style; and finally, the first sentence opens the story for the writer like a door round which the house must be built. In order to bring this succession of competing comparisons to a logical end, or at least a respectable one, and, I suppose, to do the same for this essay, taking all of the above as true, the following must also be true: the writing, the art, the style, is the essence of the writer, a proof of their being intricately tied to the imagination—a communication with their secret self. Writing is the pulling of this communication, word by word, negation by negation, onto the waiting page, onto the white screen.