I don't know what I feel until I write it down (and then I still don't)
When writing a personal essay, there are moments when I have to lift my fingers off the keyboard, fold my hands in my lap, close my eyes, and ask myself, "Wait, what actually happened?" And then there's another layer of emotional depth when I ask myself, "How do I feel about what happened?"
Sometimes I'll even see my own delusions in rough drafts. I'll re-read the draft and then I'll come to a part of the story that doesn't make sense. When I investigate further, I realize that some part of the way I've told my story is actually not true.
This is a light-bulb moment because this is my internal dialogue. My rough drafts are often just my stream of consciousness, so they reveal what I actually think. But what I actually think isn't always true.
Writing forces me to be explicit about the thoughts I am thinking and the emotions I am feeling. Sometimes, I have a sense that I think or feel a certain way, but when I start to write, I realize that I think or feel a different way.
Joan Didion once said, "I don't know what I think until I write it down."
This is a unique quality of personal forms of writing (e.g., memoir, diary, journal). With fiction writing, there is no question of truth. It's all made-up. With other forms of non-personal writing (e.g., historical, academic), there is a truth to the matter, but it has nothing to do with you. Finding the truth involves cross-referencing other records or applying the objective rules of logic.
When it comes to writing about yourself, however, there is only one source of truth, and that's you. Nobody else can tell you how you think or feel. Sometimes, you can't even tell yourself how you think or feel—I would actually say that this is the case more often than not, based on my own experience.
We think we know what we think, but these mental constructs that we believe to be so sturdy can often be obliterated with a one-word question: why? Oh, so you think this, but why? And you think that, but why?
You think that murder is wrong, but why? You think that democracy is the best form of government, but why? You think that the table is really there, but why?
Perhaps you can give an initial answer. Because the Bible says so. Because the people of democratic nations are free. Because I can touch it.
So you've advanced past the first level, but can you advance past the second? Why is the Bible the authority on right and wrong? Why is freedom the standard for good governance? Why is tactile sense sufficient evidence for an object's physical existence?
And there is a similar shakiness with our emotions. When someone asks us how we are feeling, what are the common responses? Good, all right, fine. If we are slightly more descriptive, we might say: happy, sad, angry.
But of course these simple words cannot contain the complexity of our emotions at any given time. When someone says they are fine, and you ask them, "No, seriously, how are you really feeling?" If they are willing to be vulnerable with you, they will start to say so many more words about how they are feeling. And oftentimes, they are still beating around the bush, which isn't their fault. It's difficult, perhaps impossible, to describe exactly how we're feeling.
The ineffability of emotion is a symptom of a more fundamental problem with using words to explore how we think and feel. They don't get us all the way there.
To some extent, using words as a means to self-discovery is effective. And it has something like a therapeutic effect. The truth will set you free. It can be hard to face sometimes, but when you can identify your thoughts and feelings as they truly are, you become more aligned with reality, which is better than operating under the assumptions of lies.
But words are just words. They aren't the thoughts or feelings themselves. Words are just derivatives. They are convenient symbols that have played a role in the dominance of our species and have thus become popularized. Words are not reality.
Realizing this has caused a serious identity crisis for myself as a writer. It has made me realize that writing is not bringing me closer to the true nature of reality. What began as a curious intermingling between my writing practice and my meditative practice has now become a tension.
My most successful writing happens when I just pay attention. It can be anything. I can sit by a window and look outside and watch the workers on the job site and the cars on the highway and write a story about the city. Or I can close my eyes and look into myself and write about what I am thinking and feeling.
And this is not much different than my meditative practice. When I meditate, I also pay attention. The difference is that when I write, I have to convert whatever is occurring to my attention into words. This causes a break in the meditative practice. I go from just paying attention to whatever, to fixating on one thing and trying to describe it with words.
What I have concluded from this is that the personal experience of the present moment is the most true art form that exists. To be a human with a mind and a heart and a soul and five senses is to have been granted admittance to the greatest show in the universe.
And you have a part to play! There is no assigned seat for you in the audience. Every movement of your body is a dance. Every noise from you vocal cords is the note of a song. Your body is a sculpture. And there are other actors and actresses. They are here with you, dancing and singing. And it's all one big performance or play or film.
What they have written in the pamphlet about the play is a derivative. It is not the real thing. It is a teaser. Put down the pamphlet. Step up on stage and play your part.
And here is where I am having a crisis as a writer. Why am I writing the pamphlets when they are just a tease? Why would I take you away from the experience of your present moment? Why would I take myself away from the experience of my own present moment?
Of course, I am being too hard on myself. Writing and reading are parts of our experience. Both are included as scenes in the grand performance. But still, I sometimes feel that I have seated myself in the audience and looked up at the stage and opened my notebook and started to cram what is on the stage into the derivative words and missed the whole point.
It is all happening and the words are not it. Then again, they are, because they are. They are here on my laptop screen, appearing as I press the buttons on the keyboard. I can see them, read them. They are translated into thoughts in my head. Perhaps you are now reading them. And they are being translated into thoughts in your head. That is what is. That is reality.
But the part that really bugs me is when I start to write. I am being present. I am flowing with what comes to my senses. I am dancing to the music. But then it just gets to be too good to let go, and that's when I sit down in the middle of the dance floor and start to write.
Why do I feel the need to do this? Why must I write? At some point, it was certainly because of my egoic desires. I wanted to be regarded as a talented writer. I wanted to write a masterpiece that people would adore. Now it's just something to do. I get bored otherwise. And I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I do like it when people appreciate my writing. Maybe it's as simple as that. But at what point is the joy of people liking my writing less than the joy of being present? When it reaches that point, will I stop writing and just be present?
Alas, I have rambled. Oh well, I feel less need lately to bring it back and summarize and conclude and make it make sense. It has flowed and ended up where it has, which is here. And now I am tired and would rather have dinner than keep writing, so here is where I will leave you. I sincerely hope you are well.