One of the most provocative and inspiring experiences for a struggling writer is to read or watch an author being interviewed on their writing process. In downtown Los Angeles, the [ALOUD] series at the Los Angeles Public Library often provides this valuable experience. Last week, Thomas Curwen of the Los Angeles Times interviewed the incomparable Pico Iyer about The Man Within My Head, Iyer's new book on his fascination with Graham Greene.
In the book, which Iyer said cannot be categorized and is meant to push the boundaries of genre, Iyer examines why he has always felt a simpatico literary kinship with Greene, “a writer who got under my skin.” In his efforts to explore this and to understand why Greene appealed to him, he spoke of going to the places within himself that he’d never touched. And that’s when the ceiling opened up at the Mark Taper auditorium and the heavenly light of inspiration shone down and the trumpets of epiphany sounded: because that’s what we do as writers. We try to write about the places inside ourselves that we never touch, the spaces in between the things we think we know about ourselves.
We try to explain the inexplicable. This revelation made me understand why writing is difficult, why it feels like my words can never quite get it right.
Flash forward a few days: I am lying on a massage table (a birthday present from my girlfriend!), and the warm hands of someone I don’t know are kneading and stretching the muscles of my body. Immediately, touch became the most visceral and deeply personal of my senses. Touch has always been challenging for me because, while it can be the most intimate and comforting, it can also violate and intrude.
Even physical touch to the muscles of my body can elicit those places in my mind, the spaces in between that I rarely reach. On that table, I felt sadness one minute and contentment the next. She released the histories and mysteries, which, though stored away in my muscle fibers, had not been forgotten. As abstract as “touching the spaces in between” sounds, it’s amazing how our bodies are truly the physical scrapbooks of our individual experiences. Muscles are the keepers of those spaces we can’t see but only feel, the keepers of our losses and longings, our pains and pleasures, our private memories that only we can know and interpret. These are the spaces that become the touchstones of meaning and encompass who we are.
So when another writer's work touches me in some way, I know it’s because it “touched the spaces in between," and was able to reveal the hidden language in those spaces. And although sometimes I feel that writing is hopeless - because it’s all been done before and done better - I've realized that writing isn’t about saying the same thing differently. It's about explaining, as ourselves or through our characters, what we hold inside, and hoping that we’ve found the universal in the intangible. As writers, we try to get to those places inside of us that we are afraid to touch so as to move the reader, to illuminate, even if only for a small moment, those spaces in between that are elusive and primal.
So back to writing I go, with a better understanding of what my job is as a writer. Back to discovering my truths, my characters and their spaces in between, back to exploring the unknown, and back to discovering how to touch.