On the writerly necessity of forgetting

Wine helps.

It’s like childbirth (I’m told): if you remembered it in detail, you’d never do it again, and that’s why your body makes you forget. A novel seems to be the same. I’ve watched several novels come into being as the partner of writer who makes money and has people read her work (as opposed to my field). It’s messy and painful and full of challenge. I’ve even tried to write a couple. Madness. Why do you people do that to yourselves? Anyway, this piece in Granta talks about the necessity of forgetting and how that clears the slate so you can write again. Happens with poetry too. I spend at LEAST six months after each book just noodling and churning out stupid stuff until I feel like I can get enough distance from the previous text and voice to start again. Been almost a year this time and I’m still walking around in a daze.

There’s a kind of necessary amnesia that sets in after you finish writing a novel. Like childbirth, you must forget; the future requires it of you. If you remembered, really remembered, then surely you wouldn’t do it again. Or perhaps it’s that the experience itself of writing a novel is a kind of sustained forgetting, a controlled fugue.

I am reminded of a John Berger essay, ‘Seker Ahmet and the Forest’, from About Looking. Berger, in his essay, looks again and again at Ahmet’s late nineteenth-century painting, which depicts, in a haunting play of perspective, the forest as both classical landscape ­– self-contained scene with its edges visible in the distance – and a forest in all of its dark intractability, experienced not from the outside, but from within, by a woodcutter and his donkey passing through it, or as Berger suggests, swallowed by it. ‘The attraction and the terror of the forest,’ Berger writes, ‘is that you see yourself in it as Jonah was in the whale’s belly. Although it has limits, it is closed around you. Now this experience, which is that of anybody familiar with forests, depends upon your seeing yourself in double vision. You make your way through the forest and, simultaneously, you see yourself, as from the outside, swallowed by the forest.’

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