Third time's the charm
There’s a lifting in the world around me. White fuzz seeds drift out from a cottonwood tree a few feet away from the cafe where I sit working.
Everything is beginning to open up, or has already. Sweat is dripping down the outside of my calf, a single bead of sweat.
A UPS truck idles on the corner of 7th avenue and 7th Street.
A giant blue truck with the fat letters PORKY rolls by, a hungry looking pig mascoting the inside space of the O.
It looks like the start of a blizzard in the seed-bearing air; it looks like the start of summer on the streets. It’s an easy 80 degrees, and the world is filled with life, passers-by in their new, light, summer styles.
And I, I’m beginning to recognize, really recognize, what it is to decide in any given moment how I will feel, how my world will go, what the path ahead will look like.
A springtime, a summertime path, growth, flowering; an end to winter rust in the bones and hibernation of the will.
I really, truly decide: this is the feeling. I’m writing for this feeling.
Accompanying my recognition—the recognition of this new-seasoned feeling, the recognition of the pregnant possibility of true decision—there is the recognition that this kind of decision doesn’t happen instantly. Instead it is a decision that is taken continuously, over a time, over more time, over maybe a long, long time. The decision of who I am to be, in short. Any truly fundamental, truly real decision is just this decision: the decision of who you are to be (think about it, think about it, think about it).
This decision includes many other tributary decisions. The decision of how I am to act, how I am to see myself within the world, how I am to see what I can create and make actual what wasn’t there before me. How am I to see others, how am I to understand what they are to me, to understand what I can be to them, understand how our separate worlds might meet, interact, intersect, perhaps intermix, interexist.
The world of another, of a you: a world that is not my world, a world seen from your eyes, not my own, never my own. But there is certainly such a thing as getting closer.
How close can we get? That’s what I decide to discover, to learn.
And to decide in this way, the decision needs to be decided over the longest period of time, over the greatest numbers of “yes, I choose!” and “yes, I choose!”.
We think of “free will” and we think of decisions that simply get made once. One and done. Buy that candy bar. Go to this specific college. Fly to Italy.
But no, no, there’s the mistake: true decisions don’t get made just once, they get made again and made again and made again. Again and again and again. An I, a new I: an I and an I and an I.
Outside the seeds pour out, the seeds cover the street. The passers-by watch and marvel.
My head rests against a painting on the wall of this cafe, which shifts inwards towards the wall crookedly but stably on its hook. I wonder what the painting is of, and I scrutinize it–is it cake? An abstract cake floating in a sea of white, topped by vertical extensions of its cakeness? More and more cake layers— topping it up, crowning it off?
No, no, it is a staircase, and those upper levels of the cake are nothing more than more stairs.
It’s just a simple basic painting of a staircase, a bit cartoonish even.
But I like it.
I haven’t been writing all that long.
In my life, I mean.
Like, I’ve been writing my whole life, but not really writing. I might have thought I was really writing before. But no, this—what I’ve been doing lately—is what really feels like writing.
Maybe writing is like love: when you finally find it, you no longer need to ask the question, “do I really have it?”
But I’m not here to talk about love or my history of writing. I’m here to talk about the decision, the “who am I to be?” Writing is what teaches me this decision right now, this awareness that the decision even exists. Maybe it isn’t the only teacher, but it is certainly one of the more insightful and empathetic ones.
It’s writing that shows me how to decide to be a certain way, to not be a certain way. Why would that be? Well, it is my experience that my writing is eminently a reflection of a given me at a given moment.
To put a finer point on it (because what exactly does it mean to be a specific “me”?) my writing at a given moment is the function of a feeling. That feeling could contain multiple feelings, could morph itself mercurially into this feeling or that feeling. But if the writing works, really works—if I get to the end of a piece, give it a day or two to harden and set, come back to it and still feel like it deserves to see the light of day—that feeling will be consistent. It will be singular, able to stand alone. It could be the feeling of a memory, the feeling of a possibility, the feeling of a story, the feeling of a thought. It could just be the feeling of a feeling, the feeling of the me that I am right then.
Does a piece of writing—a real piece of writing—have a soul?
Is that what I mean by, “a feeling”?
“Playing with feeling,” “he’s got soul,” these kinds of expressions are familiar to music, at least jazz. Which, let me venture: isn’t that the most similar genre to autofiction? The improvisation, the riffing off of whatever’s present, the breakdown and deconstruction of primary motifs, the feeling like one is not necessarily going anywhere but just playing, and playing, and playing?
But I think it’s true of all art. What is art but the synesthetic transformation of feeling, of soul, in all its forms?
What is the artist except a bottler of fireflies? A chronicler and preserver of the endless fragments that we are made up of, that constitute our infinite experience?
Earlier this morning, I felt the resurrection of a feeling: European airport, or Latin American, or maybe Hawaiian. Warm, tropical even. Warm air, warm night, what’s ahead of me is still unclear, not made any clearer by the mind’s experiences, existing patterns and familiarities, existing expectations. But beautifully so, so beautifully so. Everything is open, everything possible in that empty night. Even if I don’t know it, I am free of those expectations and familiarities that will soon establish themselves, soon disabuse me of my innocence, as I explore the place I have begun to visit. There is an unknown, still, and therefore a thrill, fresh eyes.
When I first typed out this paragraph, I followed it with the question: “Now those patterns, once created, can’t go away, but they can be ignored, can’t they?” And I don’t think it’s a bad question. But it’s precisely the kind of cliffs-edge I start to notice as I reflect on the whoness of my present meditation.
I am not here right now to ask a question like this. I am not trying to pose to you the kind of statement that can be ended in a rhetorical “can’t they?” I have, to be sure, asked other rhetorical questions in this piece. But this specific one doesn’t work. I can’t precisely say why, beyond appealing to a sense of fidelity.
Fidelity to a feeling, fidelity to a tone, fidelity to an intentionality and comportment of self: this is what it is, spiritually, to write well—to be faithful to the feeling. This, anyway, is the thesis that incubates in the constructed nest in my chest—this is my heart’s thought, presently.
We talk of artists “having a muse”; one never talks of an artist having “many muses”. Inspiration comes from a singular source, a singular taproot of the soul, even when subsidiary roots might also grow therefrom.
Martin Heidegger: "Every great thinker thinks only a single thought.” Does every artist channel only a single feeling?
And if so, is there a way to teach precisely this sort of emotional focus? To cultivate it?
I wrote two completely different versions of this essay before writing this one.
The tones of those previous essays were not unlike tones I had written in previously. And yet they are dead wrong.
(I distract myself for a moment: on the maroon-colored wall I sit besides, on my left side, there is a small ant that crawls about energetically. I put my index finger to it, inviting it to crawl about on my hand. But it is wary of me, and the more I try to thrust my finger against the path his scurrying legs cut, the more frenetically he tries to avoid me and set his course firmly elsewhere—away from me.)
These tones, these tones have become stale. I started the first version of this essay thusly:
(wtf am I really going to start out a piece declaring I’m starving?)
Oh but friends (my friends my dear friends) I feel not only hungry but like the very essence of nutrition has been sucked out of my muscles, my marrow, my very existence (corporeal incorporeal and, now, belletristic).
Stale, stale! Or, no, maybe the tone hasn’t become stale, so much as caricatured. My uppercase harangue of emotional description; my apostrophe to my “dear friends” as a way of addressing my diffuse and abstract audience; my parenthetical aside casting self-judgmental aspersions on what I said in the paragraph before—in order to provide narrative tension? to make clear my own constant self-judgment? to anticipate and disarm your own readerly reservations?
Have these devices already become unavailable to me? Have I already exhausted the potential of these aspects of my unique voice, my unique style?
Or no, no, have I just not had the discipline to realize that such devices are spices, not the meal itself? The inclusion of raisins in a salad: one cannot overload the salad with raisins, or they will cease to be the treat and contrast that they are.
My focus in both of these pieces was on hunger. You see, I had been sick with the stomach flu for several days, earlier in this week. I had intended to publish something this week, because I have had a streak of five weeks of unbroken publication so far, my best I’ve ever maintained in my writerly career (and I want that career to stretch long into the distance from here, friends! permit your Fearless Author a little boyish earnestness for a moment!). And, look, we writers need our disciplinary routines and superstitions as much as everyone else out there (more so! much more so!).
I decided to write about hunger, because I was hungry. I was coming back out of my convalescence, regaining my appetite, starting to eat again. I named it CLEARCUT because… I wanted to. Because I liked it. A little secret: that’s the only reason I ever write anything. Why write for any other reason! Want or die! Like or die!
And hunger: I wrote about hunger because hunger interested me, coming out of a period where hunger didn’t come simply. And because other experiences of life seem to follow the phenomenological logic of hunger—hunger for connection, hunger for meaning, hunger for life. And that was the thread I decided to follow in my second piece, to ask, what is hunger, exactly? What laws does it, and its cousins through metaphor, follow? What is its phenomenology?
“Phenomenology” says: what are the laws of our actual experience? For instance, forget the argumentative wankery around centuries of debates around “is there free will” and “the existence of God”. Instead, start from the recognition that we experience such things regardless, and therefore, therefore, how do we describe such experience and its significance for us?
That’s all phenomenology is, and it’s the only philosophy worth a damn anymore. (Eat me, everybody!)
But this second piece, this phenomenology of hunger—well, I started writing that piece, started thinking about hunger, started writing about hunger… and what I wrote ended up even worse than that first piece.
I titled it, “Sketch: A Theory of Hunger” and started it thusly:
Hunger! What in the world can a “theory of hunger” mean? You have hunger or you don’t, no?
No, no. It’s not to be. I wrote 1,246 words in this second draft, and I now repudiate them. I wrote 1,325 words in the first draft, the original CLEARCUT, and I now repudiate each one of those words. Without 1,324 appropriate words to accompany any given one of those words, they are all useless to me!
My eyes scan over the whole topology of these drafts without finding a single hook, a single sprout. The seed didn’t take hold in the soil. The townsfolk have abandoned their inchoate village.
Cut, cut. It’s clear to me: they both must be cut.
And in the way I need to be now, the way of my current I am, the way I was searching to find in myself all week, I can now say to you all:
Hi, friends. Happy Friday. Thanks for sharing a little time and space with me.
A little announcement: in the coming weeks, I’ll be doing a Substack Letters series with my friend and fellow Foster writer, the excellent Theresa “Sam” Houghton of The Journey Continues. We’ll be discussing the sometimes circuitous experience of finding one’s creative/life path and how spiritual exploration can help shape that path. Stay tuned!
And if you want to really get serious about your own writing, check out Foster’s Season 3.
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