"Express Myself?" What Self? - Notes on writing and uncontrol

The problem (/grace) with writing is that I can't ever seem to control ahead of time what the writing is going to say.

How do people write books, theses, treatises, laws that in any way stay on topic?


Artists talk about showing up to the table and getting out of the way of the words, which is what happens to me too, but sometimes I find myself simply reiterating the comfortable, the familiar shape of a mountain's spine.

Yet there are difficult things that need to be said.

So I show up and practice saying them, badly, clunkily, until eventually, slowly, sometimes, not so badly anymore.

This aspect of writing on topic makes sense: practice meets getting out of the way to create the muscle of diving into, learning the bones, the verbs of the unfamiliar. This is what I must do. I want to do. As a person with many intersecting privileges, there are places I have been taught not to see, not to talk, topics that I have been taught don't need words, or at least not mine. These teachings are violently incorrect. There has been damage done. Damage is being done. I am actively (often unwittingly or unwillingly) damaging. I cannot in good conscience and integrity write only in the realm of the familiar, my familiar. The magic and urgent importance of writing: that I can follow its tracks in the dust, out of the narrowness where I start.

To get away from the familiar or the comfortable, to go out of the house without a map.


To do this, I knit practice, over and over, to the showing up and getting out of the way. Notice what is around. Write. See what comes. This makes sense to me. The saying muscle becomes at least warm, at least flexible, with use.

But I still can't control what I will say about, or in, or from that terrain. I can intend, I can nudge, I can explore, get started, get startled, learn. But I cannot control.

And this is what gets me. I can't really control anything.

I had no idea, for instance, that I was going to write any of this. I was just sitting here, musing about how the project I am writing keeps receiving completely confusing feedback, and that no matter how many times I outline it, I find myself at the mercy of whatever comes out of my mouth or my keyboard. The pain of wanting to write a certain thesis or book, and realizing over and over again that whatever is writing itself through me bears almost no resemblance to what I had planned, what I am longing for.

It would be easy (and extremely accurate) at this point to roll my eyes, sigh, and acknowledge with begrudging humor (and frankly grateful resignation) that the serenity prayer is going to dog my heels until I get the message: mostly, I can't control things, and trying to hold myself accountable to doing so, holding a wide-flung web of absurd responsibility in my hands, keeps me from walking, writing forward into actual creative power. Response-ability.

But it's that "longing for" part that I keep coming back to.


Of course, mostly, the fact that poems happen to me repeatedly saves my life (not an exaggeration). Mostly, the humbling stumble of sitting down, showing up, and writing into that terrain, to scrabble after the dusty paw prints, widens me back up when my body seizes and wails over in the doorway, when my chest collapses in the tunnel-breathing narrow of all the stories that used to be my lifevests but are now my suffocators.

Mostly, uncontrol constitutes wild, fierce, grace.

An advisor told me: There is writing about what you already know. And then there is writing in order to know. Let yourself write in order to find out. (And yes, this does constitute viable and legitimate learning and even- dare we think it- research. Re-search: to go looking, again and again, to delve and to delve and to delve). Suddenly, I understood what had been bothering me for years about the idea of "using art to express yourself"- it was wrong. Incorrect. For me. I don't, generally, use art to express, share, or document a pre-existing self or complete idea. When I make, when I write, what I stand with, looking out into the vast wide open, is a seed in my hand, or a pain in my gut, or a question biting at the nape of my neck, go, go, go. 

I don't have a self when I sit down at the table, when I show up and get out of the way. I have an inkling, and a social context, and an intersection, a location (or seven), but mostly what I have is a longing, a wondering, a little bit of self, and a lot of no self. A lot of elipses. A lot of abyss, of universe unformed, unexploded yet.

I never got all that "just be yourself, it doesn't matter what people think" stuff. How on earth could anyone think that at seven, or fourteen, or twenty-seven, I had any  idea who I was yet? No act of "expression" for me has ever been a performance or a documentation of a shaped or extant thing (except maybe life drawing- although that probably has other identity explorations associated with it that I never consciously noticed). My clothes, my aesthetic, my gender, my writing, my art, my weird experiments with fermented foods: they are all play, conversation, tussle, exploring at the boundary, mixing, tracking. A trying on. A seed, and then seeing where it goes, where it grows. I think, maybe, that they are all poetry.

Writing discovers, constitutes. It weaves and unvweaves and reweaves me. I don't write in order to express myself. I write in order to find out my self(s). I write in order to know. I write in order to have a self at all.

And this brings me, meanderingly and wholly accidentally, to the topic of the very project that I am working on these days, but can't seem to control or even corral. Because when writing constitutes, when it is weaving me, it's never in isolation. It's never just me. Creating converses with all the things I impact and interact with, but which I do not in any way control.  Writing, conversation, play at the poems edge, unweaves and weaves me, but it also unweaves and weaves the world. Human stories don't just describe the matter around us: they shape it.

World shapes story shapes world shapes story shapes world.





That concept- story that co-constitutes the world - forms the core topic of the very document I can't control , that I am longing to render in a particular way. The rogue document that keeps jump-shifting on me, that keeps derailing itself, grabbing the steering mechanism, and running me where it wants, making off with the trip-planning and gobbling all the maps.

I understand that, given what I just said about the grace and salvation in the uncontrol of finding myself constantly and wrenchingly and gratefully re-written by poems, it might make sense for me to give in to this invitation with the rogue. It might seem obvious that I follow where it crashes through the undergrowth. It might seem a given that I should trust this crashing, as a version of the very process of rendering self and world that I am, in fact, chasing within the pages of the rogue.

But I want it to be clear. I have a longing, a longing for a cohesive thing, a document that opens to people other than me and leads them somewhere useful, somewhere readable and pragmatic and profound. And what comes through me when I sit down and put pen or keys to the rogue, is just more poetry, more wandering in the woods. Ideas, hot and bubbling in me, have been waiting, waiting, waiting for this time. They want to be said. They hunger, they insist, the chomp at the bit to say themselves clearly, concisely. I am a poet, and a verbose one. Clear and concise is not my metier. But I think it's vitally important for fairness, for access, for writing outside of some artistic or academic elite or obscure esoterric realm.

I know (sometimes) how to show up to an unfamiliar what, a topic, and practice, and let the writing happen to me. But how on earth do I become familiar with a different how, a different, on-topic, clear, intelligible, style of writing, without control? Especially when it's not how I love to write? If it doesn't feel good or right? If I sit down, and show up, and get out of the way, long, verbose, gerund-heavy poetry comes out. Even with an outline, the ideas don't want to come clear. They want to come muddy, slow and oozed. They want to circle back on themselves, a swamp, the boat crashing into the mangroves again and again and again. I know this is acceptable for art. But I want accessible, not acceptable.


Because ultimately, I want what I say to matter. I want it to help, or intrigue, or tickle. And to do that, it has to be readable. It has to render itself somewhat coherently, sensibly, trackably. It has to honor attention spans, even if it pushes them.

How do you honor uncontrol, wildness, tracking, going deeper into the woods, at the same time that you honor the grace of the people? Of the readership? There are two kinds of humility here: to the writing, and to the reader. I don't know, yet, how to truly balance both. I am longing to. I hope it's what me and the rogue will learn.