Therese here. Today’s guest is aspiring author Lisa Ahn, who is busy seeking publication for her first novel while she dives into her second. She has published articles in the journals Criticism, Texas Studies in Language and Literature, and Twentieth Century Literature. Currently, she writes for a fun online site called Real Zest. She’s written a post for us today about “the ways that a love of writing also writes us,” and I know you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.
I have one of those brains that gets stuck in the spin cycle, an unbalanced load galumphing across foundations. When the clattering of ideas reaches a pitch, I imagine smoke curls from my ears. I walk into rooms without remembering why, or snap at the kids because I just tripped over the same doll for the third time and I’m burning the oatmeal while writing in my head. You know, every writer’s day, more or less.
These days, most writers have other occupations, other obligations to claim the scattering of hours. We scribble sentences on scrap paper, napkins, and the margins of scattered notebooks while we pour coffee, teach algebra, make photocopies, or mend carburetors. We assemble plot arcs while driving our children to swim lessons, piano, or soccer. We build worlds and stitch backstory while mowing the lawn or washing the dishes or pounding the treadmill. Few minutes, few non-writing minutes, are linear. We stuff each day and then we stuff its cracks. The shifts do not always come easily.
I’m not good with cars or math, and my coffee is nothing to brag about. When I’m not writing, I am usually busy homeschooling my two daughters. We spend our mornings on literature, history, math, science, and art. We dance through African legends and Chinese myths, through pyramids and multiplication and phonics. Our kitchen table is splattered with paint, the aftermath of science projects, models of ancient architecture, and an assortment of puzzles and crafts. It makes me crazy – and I love it beyond words.
My writing is born within that same eclipse, my love of words just past what words can say. It’s crazy love, love gone a little mad. I imagine I am not alone in my compulsion. Why else, as writers, do we balance ourselves so precariously between the hours, always split between? Crazy love. Why else do we make ourselves into palimpsests, parchments overwritten?
In the narrowest terms, a palimpsest is any type of writing surface that can be scraped clean and used again. Waxed tablets, vellum, and parchment all served this purpose before the invention of cheap, wood-pulp paper.
In literary criticism and especially in poetics, a palimpsest refers to writing that bears traces of other writing – other texts, other versions, other readings. Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts are a great example because they often include alternate wording, variant possibilities. Within the folds of revision, we are all writing palimpsests, strikethroughs bearing witness to paths we still might take. The version on the bookshelf is just one possibility, one avatar of words. The final draft is nothing more than the one set loose.
As a writer, I sometimes feel that my life itself is the layered text, meanings overlapping, the underwriting always half exposed. Each moment a different version surfaces – parent, teacher, wife, friend – as one possibility, one incarnation of me. Always, there is the writer, scribed to the bone, watching the flow, taking it down. Inside the gaps, I find the tales I’ve told, the ones I’m telling, and the ones that remain, a tickle on the mind.
I keep a notebook by my bed, ready to catch filaments of story that only appear when everything else slips away. I carve out a few hours each afternoon to coax, push, and slap stories into being – or let them break the dam. Those hours are a luxury, never unadulterated. They come mixed with requests for snacks delivered, knots untied. A single hand upheld, palm out, means that an idea is fleeting: please wait. My husband doesn’t blink when I jump up from the table in the middle of dinner, abstraction in my eyes. My kids fall asleep to a lullaby played out on computer keys.
Mind spinning, smoke curling in the slipstream turbulence, I am the palimpsest, my surfaces layered with meaning, tough enough to bear erasure and reinscription. I am scraped clean and rewritten each time I chose to attend to the writer in the background, the inclination to make everything a story, the play of words. Under constant revision, I am certainly undone, gladly.
Lisa, thanks again for such a lovely post.
Readers, you can follow Lisa Ahn on Twitter. Write on!
Photo courtesy Flickr’s Robert S. Donovan