The reader became the book; and summer night was like the conscious being of the book— Wallace Stevens
I became a book a long time ago. Or perhaps I am possessed by the memory of the experience of that book and the place in which I became it. Which book in particular, I cannot say. Only that it happened after I turned five and that I can still feel it with me to this day. Yet, in early 2011, I faced down a question that had been burning in me for some time. On my final day as an undergraduate student of Creative Writing, our fiction professor challenged the class to come up with a theory about writing. I remember speaking ahead of myself that words contain energy. And then came the cold-hot sweat, because, how on earth could I substantiate a claim like that beyond recalibrating emotional details from my reading and writing experience? But there was something more in me; the folk stories that my grandmother had delighted my brother and I with night after night until she no longer remembered the words. Still, I had expressed something true, I felt, but I could not express how or why I believed this other than through the words that I was learning to write. Almost immediately, somewhere deep in me, I knew that this sentiment was very old. At the same time, I was pushing against some learned tendency to cancel feelings that were my own. What was fascinating to me was the degree to which my relationship with language was different that that of my peers’. How easily they slid into those works we studied and offered insights that struck me as quite provincial. How often they took up spaces of possibility that were not really open to me. Again, I found ways to cancel these suspicions. I asked myself, have the works in the cannon not transcended both time and their own limited contexts? Isn’t that what makes you appreciate them? And I would often revisit this idea of transcendence and it’s profuse features when I thought of the works that I felt most expansive within.
It was only in retrospect of my response to that theory-of-language question that I realized I was reaching for some concrete way to explain the transformative, creative, troublesome nature of the written word. Even as I write this, I am only sure of one catalyst for my insanely paradoxical fascination with words: imaginative otherness. Where else can I render this thing more alive than in story, in poetry?
Writing is an act of transmitting ideas through time and space. To begin, we are cast under spells, those made possible by the energy of words. I believe that energy, as a concept, can help us understand the workings of a living work of art. I refer here, specifically, to the literary arts—mostly because I would rather avoid the audaciousness of broad-telling that supposes none of these things is not like the others (though I will likely fail before the end). What possesses me is this: how does a writer move from the disorder of reality into the order of writing, into the reasoned connectedness of words? How does this process encompass something shot through with experience and memory? And if we can name it, what is said thing? This question begs an impossible answer if we insist on the dominant idea floating about the liter-ether that, for example, “fiction is a lie.” To you I say: fiction is not a lie. If fiction is to have any worth at all it cannot be false information; rather, fiction draws from nature’s bounty—atomic to the cosmic, truths that are tolerant of invention and transformation. What does any of this mean to the poet? Poetry is magic. Poetry is spell-casting. It is so because words have meaning, which inscribes them a particular power. And since writers must always use words, we operate in modes analogous of witch or wizard (because we ultimately manipulate and replicate nature). Okay, you may be wondering, of what practical significance are these scattered observations to the writer? Writers process the energy of words because of our relationship to the world and its information. But the concept of information is one of the most broad and most difficult to grasp. This may very well be the reason most writers are inarticulate about their work, about what mechanisms are at play when they write. So I offer that: a writer’s notion of the elements of writing is based in the information technology of writing as governed by her sense of place, language and reality. Why? Because information cannot be divorced from the physical world—to which we are irrevocably linked.
Writing, then, is the single greatest human invention. Every human invention has at least one root system deep in the heart of information, which has its formation in the written word, which has its inception in energy. For this reason it is easy to undervalue writing itself, especially in our contemporary world where new universes have been discovered, where God particles have been theorized and discovered, where temperatures colder than interstellar space have been contained and examined on earth. With all this otherworldly grandeur it is easy to reduce writing to a supporting role, a mere mechanic of meaning, a means of getting things done, a way of adhering to communicative standards. Therefore, especially in our current intense climate of “fake information” when we hear replayed phrases like “poetry is dead” and “death of the novel” and “decline of high literacy,” phrases that aren’t new in themselves, we must know that we are speaking of things that do not depend solely on semantics. This doom-saying can cripple if we forget that, for example, the book is an invention and if it does not survive as a context for poetry, story and language and information, something else will carry on the book’s vital work because the raw materials that led to it existed long before as something other. Such is the work of evolution, which, as intelligence itself, led to literacy. Did we not learn how to manipulate the universe, how to influence nature, through the power of information? Is writing not a byproduct of those processes? And do we, writers, have no share in this deeply human, hyperactive tendency to—upon becoming experts—impose simulated structures on everything? What else would lead us into philosophical absolutes that risk undoing under the right conditions? How do we carry out this work with generosity and integrity and compassion? Think of the world, how it would be if writing were never invented, mastered and disseminated.
Send me an email to let me know how that’s going.
If Richard Powers is right in suggesting that in some strange way, our capacity to shape stories and construct a sense of self within those stories, may be a happy by-product of our sense of orientation, then the energy created from that orientation will individually and emphatically be alive in the work. That is, the shape, pattern and form of energy in the work is what becomes recognizable to us as things like style, aesthetic, voice.
We’ve gone from iconic to phonetic to alphabetic language—each development of writing came with peculiarities of their places of origin—their geographies and associated realities. The clay tablets of Iraq, Ancient Mesopotamia and the Sumerian cultures—pictographic depictions of ideas—developed into a system of recording the spoken into the symbolic (the picture of “rain” and a “bow” = rainbow). Cuneiform script developed into the phonetic alphabets of the new Assyrian era. The hieroglyphics of Egypt, the letter, Morse Code, 19th century telegrams, and so on. These represent transferences of energy from one form to another—the sonic to the written. Imagination, ideas, speech, literature—the soul’s infinite outpourings, immortalized.
Perhaps style is linked more strongly to the way a writer views the world than to their geographic origin but their stylistic choices are inextricably linked to their sense of place, and this can influence every critical writing decision the writer makes. What can be said of the subconscious? I heard it once asked whether Bob Marley’s rhythms are separable from the hills of Jamaica? Are Aime Cesaire’s rolling, staccato, polemical poetics apart from the seascape of Martinique? You’d have a hard time convincing me otherwise. Style is the essence of something much more complicated than the mere ordering and choice of words on a page. It is a way of gathering information and of attaching agency to a work. And everything required to make this work is harnessed from nature. To what effect is a matter of energy, how the writer uses the energy of words—conscious or subconscious.
Now, I recognize the impossibility of pinning down exactly the nature, causality and shape of this “energy” to which I so recklessly refer. But it is a conversation worth having, especially in a scene that includes both established and novice writers, especially with all the recent attention on literary diversity (and the lack). The fact that much of a novice writer’s chance of getting published (in literary magazines where most writers get their start) depends on editors’ “tastes” is an entirely frightening thing. Many novice writers take rejection slips as an argument for poor quality work (though sometimes true) but are there other factors based on systems of idiosyncrasy that we aught to catalogue and call to account? Of course, there are other factors involved: the bent of the publication, the kind of work readily published therein, etcetera. But it appears to me, that much of what leads a reader to “prefer” one text over another is due to the energy of the writer’s words, such that it informs the writer’s style and how these channel a readerly appreciation for the work.
But the astonishment, the strangeness of the literary word is in its ability to own the strange and move us with it. In its individualized energy (by way of the writer’s style) we find a way of being and seeing that allows us to safely abandon our own certitudes for the sake of the new journey, the new world offered by the writer and, yes, for the lives at stake within it—everything that can cut through to the unconscious and cause us to feel.
Who can separate sound from air?
Is a photon like a paintbrush?
So we’ve taken the poem and the story from the voice to the sheet to the pixel?
Can the play be divorced from the stage?
What does the painting owe to the canvas?
How does a writer’s sense of place shape the work? I was born and raised in pictorial St. Lucia and then moved to metropolis Toronto at seventeen. To me, the world had always been an oral, hyperactive place in which artistic inheritance mimed a grandmother just as hooked on storytelling as I would ever get. What would I have become if she hadn’t told me and my brother stories, mostly folktales, every night in her dark bedroom with the window opened, with the light of the moon spilling in and brushing over everything that ran the distance of the valley? What kind of life—if any—would my writing suffer: If she hadn’t sung folksongs, too; and if the fireflies never swarmed about us while she gripped us—mind and soul—with her wicked tales? What did I ferry into the Canadian literary sphere that begs relevance, authenticity, reverence to my new place? Is hybrid my only option?
What causes a reader to submit to the world within a book, to feel for the characters and lives contained in it and believe in them? The unmistakable skill of the writer, but also, and of equal or greater importance, the writing’s ability to communicate the kind of heightened perception that lets the work live. It is the energy of the words themselves that causes us to cry, laugh, feel anger, distrust, to judge, to speak out loud to the book no matter who is listening. The transfer of energy from the written word to the reader is a compulsive enterprise, all the more so because of its superabundant subtleties.
With this, I hope you will join the brilliant writers I’ve invited into conversation with me about the work of writing in our contemporary world. These discussions that follow are meant to put on display writers thinking through the choices that they make when they write, to (re)evaluate their motivations for writing and to explore what we think are the effects of writing in as real a sense as we can possibly get.
Join us as we envision what it means to be, today, The Writer in the World.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Canisia Lubrin was born in St. Lucia. She has had work published in literary journals including Room, The Puritan, This Magazine, Arc, CV2and The City Series #3: Toronto Anthology. She has been an arts administrator and community advocate for close to two decades. Lubrin has contributed to the podcast On The Line, hosted by Kate Sutherland for The Rusty Toque. She studied at York University where she won the President's Prize in poetry and the Sylvia Ellen Hirsch Memorial Award in creative writing. Lubrin holds an MFA from the University of Guelph and teaches at Humber College. She lives in Whitby, Ontario.