What’s in your White Room?

A few days ago, while finally unpacking all of my things for the summer, I read through an old journal I had slipped into my backpack with my computer, novels, and season one of The Wire. I scanned the pages, but instead of being struck by the strangeness of reading forgotten words in my own handwriting, I found that I vividly remembered the writing passages – probably because most of what I wrote was actually about writing. “I need an extremely strong sense of self if I am going to write,” I had decided in the journal, “so hopefully I will begin to hear my own voice and fine tune it to a pitch without arrogance or presumption or narrowness or conceit.”

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Two years later, my goals have not changed, but my creative process has developed in a few interesting ways. I’ve learned that if I want to publish a blog post, I need to write it in one sitting. I’ve also learned that however striking an image may be, it’s hard to write about it without feeling like I’m underestimating my reader’s ability to understand why it’s interesting. For example, I was at the zoo a few years ago when I encountered a large group of Amish tourists. There was something thrilling about the image – people coming to the zoo to ogle exotic animals but also ogling the Amish, members of our own species. I tried to write about it, but the essay came off feeling a little empty and frankly somewhat disrespectful toward the Amish. To write about that experience, I need to put it into conversation with something else, to use the image to illuminate a more abstract concept. Until I stumble upon the opportunity to use it, I’ve tucked it away in my mind, a pearly gem packed away for who knows how long.

In a recent op-ed for The New York TimesAndrew Bird deconstructed his songwriting process. Embedded within the article are audio files tracing the evolution of a song from a few notes whistled into a cell phone at the airport to an intricately textured recording featuring rough strumming, piercing plucked violin notes, and hinted vocals yet to be filled with lyrics. Bird writes,

The goal is not to arrive at a perfectly crafted melody and stay there but to find fertile ground where that spark of conception keeps firing every time I play.

I’ve found that I tend to produce my best writing if I’m in a state of what I think of as synaptic buzz – I can feel ideas or an atmosphere brewing just below my awareness, and if I wait long enough, the words will flow. That “fertile ground” just needs to be watched closely for a while, until green sprouts poke up through the soil. But what lies beneath that soil? Why not hasten the process by digging?

David Grossman explores this question in See Under: Love, a novel exploring the interaction between writing, truth, fiction, and trauma. Grossman plunges his main character, Momik, into a deadly struggle to immerse himself in what Momik’s lover names the White Room – a mental zone where encounters with the purest essence of the story can occur while one’s own essence is mixed and exchanged. Fiction and reality blur and merge as Momik becomes consumed by the story of his grandfather Anschel, and in turn the story his grandfather is telling in the story. These nested layers of fiction remarkably carry equivalent senses of reality, stacking up stories that pulse with life and risk. The stories each have a life of their own, and Momik and Anschel can only report their characters’ lives, which continue whether or not the stories are actively being written. Grossman’s vision of the White Room is a vision of fiction as a risky negotiation in which one can become lost, unable to keep track of different realities.

Bird also views creative works as potentially risky ventures. In the final paragraph of his article, he obliquely alludes to information that he has excluded from public knowledge:

I’m getting the urge to write about something that’s happening right now that’s too personal and painful to discuss in this forum. But then why is it O.K. to put it in a song? Why is the song safe? Is it safe?

It seems to me that stories pulse all around us – the secret pain that each coworker or classmate carries, the musty pages of books on shelves, in a song – but until connections are made between these parallel stories, they swirl without touching each other, safely wrapped in privacy. Those moments of contact and sharing are what carry risk, whether it’s contact between Bird’s personal life and his audience or contact between Momik and the story that is consuming him.

In “Once More, With Feeling,” a post I published a few weeks ago, I crossed that line by sharing the story that drives me. I had wanted to write about being adopted for years and eventually hope to explore this topic in a full length nonfiction book. It’s easy to think about publishing this type of work when I imagine my readers as unknowable and distant, but I feel squeamish about the concrete nature of published words on the page. Collateral damage may come in the form of betraying the parents who raised me or by exposing the biological parents whose later lives may be built on secrecy about my existence. To answer Bird’s question: No. It isn’t safe. In fact, that type of public sharing is one of the riskiest things there is. But once the White Room seizes you, all you can do is write your way out.

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