“[O]ne never knows if he is responsible for what he writes (if there is a subject behind the language); for the very being of writing (the meaning of the labor that constitutes it) is to keep the question Who is speaking? from ever being answered.”--Roland Barthes S/Z (italics his)
We sat on the floor in a circle writing, our bodies at sloppy angles, as sloppy as the words spilling forth across our pages. This was how things were done in Ruth Danon’s classes, during New York University’s Intensive Summer Writing Institute.
Day after day, Ruth, or one of her teaching colleagues sat with us, silently watching while each student wrote at a steady pace sprawled across the plush carpeting trying to find the words. Were one of us to get stuck, signaled by a pen hovering anxiously in mid-air, one or the other of our teachers would crawl across the circle, whisper in our ears, and gently urge us on.
We spent hours in those rooms composing. The presence of our teachers was serene, yes, but forceful too. For this reason we sometimes resisted their influences, claiming fatigue or a lack of ideas, something for which they had no patience. They’d offer prompts. They’d stare us down. They’d slip hastily written questions into our palms, and, inevitably, we’d regain our flow, and back across the circle they’d crawl.
Only later did I learn, Ruth had developed her techniques by studying psychiatrist D. W. Winnicott’s theories of child development and play.
Though we were not children, I found the careful silent presence of our teachers affected my writing in unexpected ways. That summer, it went places it had never gone before, places I might never have taken it on my own without someone who “held” the environment and witnessed my “play”––concepts which Winnicott explored in great depth.
Since that summer, I’ve thought more about the role witnessing plays in the production of fiction
Our teachers watched us to write, yes, but what were we doing while writing? Where did our words come from? Over the years since I last sat in Ruth’s classes, I’ve come to believe that the writer, like the teacher, is also a kind of witness.
Perhaps because of my experience at the institute, when I’m descending deeply into a character and become uncomfortable with what I find there, I am now more willing to carry on. It could be that what imagination reveals is uglier than what I want to be writing, or it throws my plots and plans into disarray.
At such points, I find it helpful to acknowledge: it is not me who directs the action on a page. No, I merely discover it. My job is to be a careful, conscientious recorder of what imagination reveals, imagination at once being both inside and outside the writer simultaneously.
For example, in a novella I’m working on called Household Tale, I once found it nearly impossible to write about the character Hansel’s sexual interest in his child bride. It was crushing to discover his predilection because I knew him to be a once starving boy neglected and abused by a terrible stepmother, one he would later learn to forgive.
Were I to feel I’d invented Hansel’s pedophilia, I could not go on describing the child bride’s dress and how he delighted in her scent. But as I kept writing through my discomfort––a skill largely developed in Ruth’s class––I began to feel more and more that I had simply climbed down a chasm in order to describe what I saw: Hansel’s greed and sense of entitlement; the absence of caring adults at the end of a brutal war; and the first moment he saw his malnourished future bride.
At such times, the idea that the writer is merely imagination’s witness brings me courage. It means I can surprise myself rather struggle to surprise my readers. I need only look and smell and taste and hear what is already in that chasm (or perhaps that sky) and bring it back and onto the page. It’s so much easier that way, and, I think more likely to be fresh than something I might plan.
The experience I had in Ruth’s class, with her generous teaching colleagues, who watched us with intensity over many hours, first opened this concept for me––the writer is merely a witness of the imagination, which itself works in a manner too mysterious to ever fully comprehend.
With my teachers prodding, the idea that writers are not conjurers but instead witnesses became more than a metaphor. For me, it became a close and physical part of the creative process itself.