Yoko Tawada's Memoirs of a Polar Bear reminded me about some of the most rewarding and challenging parts of being a writer. Tawada blends absurdism and insight, philosophy and play, shapes this novel into both a story and a sort of tome to the act of writing and remembering and performance. I love what I learned from this book. Here's my take for the toolchest:
"A fly bumped against my forehead, or wait, not a fly, a sentence."
A writer is both receptive and perceptive. I start by engaging the senses - listening, smelling, tasting, feeling the world around me (and interiorly, in my body). A writer does this with language too, knows words have their own contours and tangs and textures. A writer treats everything inside the cavity of the imagination with the same care they treat a cracked geode. They feel it, when a sentence zings inside their head.
"The unexpected is always the most interesting: this is a lesson I learned all over again."
I follow my sentences and not the other way around. I ask what the story wants to be, make suggestions, am (trying) to be open when I sense a story shaking its head no. I felt so much trust in Memoirs of a Polar Bear - the way Yoko Tawada would linger in the interior longer than maybe my characters would, the brave way she would twist in and out of 1st and 3rd person (at one point, the polar bear Knut has to learn what 'I' is, and the whole 3rd section shifts as the reader realizes Knut was speaking the whole time - he just didn't know the name for oneself). She didn't divide her book into chapters, but three long sections, each for one generation of bear. I think one of the most vulnerable parts about being a writer is not actually having that much control. The idea of 'surprising, but inevitable' resounds to me. The story needs support - that's where the writer comes in, giving her characters and setting and structure the durability they require to do what they need to do. The writer's job is stepping back enough to be surprised and to make that surprise is possible.
"The color green smelled green. Everything red smelled red, it smelled of blood and red roses."
A writer is open to synesthesia - the overlapping of senses, where one sense (like seeing the color red) activates another (now 'red' has a smell). A writer does not have to use the technique to be open to it. I try allowing my mind beyond the boundaries of immediate logic. Allow sentences the freedom of a childhood, to let them play and experiment and break bones even. And heal over. And try again. I am trying to be open to letting go of control. Being open to not understanding, and exploring that - following (instead of erasing) that sentence.
"I didn't know of any animal called Stress. This must have been an imaginary animal the humans thought up, as if there weren't enough real animals."
Think of Stress as an animal - an imaginary animal - an animal that feeds on the imagination - that's a prowler and unproductive. I personally imagine a wolf pacing up and down outside my window. I used to dream of wolves when I was a kid in Minnesota, when my bedroom window was ground level, facing the woods. That's still how stress feels to me. It's awake and hungry when I'm trying to rest. It wants to edge its way into my mind and confiscate something from me, drains and devours. How do we tame such an animal?
Like most things, I think it begins with listening. Why is Stress clawing at the door? Write down what it says, what it wants. Usually Stress is afraid of something, is caring that's gone bad, turned poisonous. But when I write down what it wants, I can feed it something other than my attention and imagination. I can reassure the animal that we are not enemies, and care to his wounds so we can both relax, so Stress can go back into the woods, and I can go back to my desk.
"The main thing is that my heart stays warm."
Writing is like making fire. It needs to be fed, is difficult to touch, feels good to be near. We make fire to keep the blood in our bodies warm, when our bodies aren't warm enough. It feels like another person, a little. I love that the main thing is the heart.