Cram Your Head Full of Weirdness (and then use it up)

I chanced upon a lecture by Shirley Jackson called “Memory and Delusion” and a certain quote lodged in my brain:

“The very nicest thing about being a writer is that you can afford to indulge yourself endlessly with oddness, and nobody can really do anything about it, as long as you keep writing and kind of using it up, as it were.”

The notion of using up the oddness and strangeness meant that somehow you had to fill yourself up first. 

As a writer, everything I see or hear is captured and collected in the garbage truck that is my brain. It’s a delusional and happily irrational heap of nonsense full of sounds, bits of dialogue and the odd metaphor. 

Jackson goes on to lament anyone who thinks that writers start writing when they sit down at the computer and stop when they leave their desk. As she says: “A writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees, always noticing.”

Any artist filters the world through the lense of their creations. A painter might sit for their morning coffee and note the play of sunlight on the table. A musician might notice the cacophony and rhythm of the honks from the road. 

Jackson relates a perfect example of this phenomenon when she (a writer), a chemistry teacher, a painter and a musician sit down to play a game of bridge. The situation sounds like the start of a bad joke and the punchline is when a green porcelain bowl suddenly shatters and throws the crowd into silence. 

“Looking at all the tiny scattered pieces, I thought that I had never realized before how final a metaphor a broken bowl could be. The chemistry teacher pointed out that someone had emptied an ashtray into the bowl with a cigarette still burning, and of course the heat had shattered the bowl. The painter said that the green of the bowl was deepened when the light caught the small pieces. The musician said that the sound it made when it broke was a G sharp.”

She goes on to say that the image of those shattered pieces might reappear years later in the description of an exploded house. The bits and ideas collected by your brain will eventually go to use provided you practice your art regularly. You get in the habit of delving down and bringing up the odd shiny coin from your personal pile of treasure. 

Jackson is very specific on this last point. As a writer, she has only a few hours to work each day. The rest are spent collecting ideas. We have to notice the world around us and be ready to capture what we see and hear. No judgement. Just scoop it up and dump it on the every growing pile in your head.

Is this dangerous? Not really. Provided you keep working and producing… using up those crazy ideas one way or another. As Jackson says: “As long as you write it away regularly, nothing can really hurt you.”

Don’t fret about the time you’ve put into your current project. Whether a blessing or a curse, art is the life you’ve chosen. And that means you are always on the job, constantly working and thinking and collecting. 

It’s those few moments when we sit at the blank sheet of paper where we finally use up some of the weirdness banging around our heads. 

Tim Kane

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