Monday, April 13, 2015

Steve Wasserman on studiously ignoring what he's supposed to be reading

From: Steve Wasserman
Date: 7 March 2015 at 15:00
To: Ander Monson and Craig Reinbold
Subject: PITCH - The Essay That Wrote Itself

Dear Ander and Craig,

I'd like to write a thousand words springing from a title that popped into my head a couple of days back as I was getting my early morning cardiovascular with Noodle in the park: "The Essay That Wrote Itself":


Sounds like a kind of high-spirited bird song, doesn't it? Dartford Warbler? Great Crested Grebe?

There are three pieces I'd like to converse with, reflecting a kind of conceptual Holy Trinity of found (i.e. already written) texts:  
1. Aaron Kunin's "Secret Architecture": the essay writing itself from the sporadic accumulation of one's own thoughts. 
2. Masha Tupitsyn's "Laconia": the essay writing itself from one’s personal twitter feed. 
3. Noah Eli Gordon's "The Source": the essay writing itself from the holdings of Denver Public Library, or any other outpost of Borges/Berners-Lee's Babel.
I think what I want to explore/remind myself in writing this piece is that the kind of essay I like (yours!) comes as much out of the ardour of play as from the ordered iterations of slog. I think I've forgotten that emancipatory notion of late and would like this conversation to take me back into that flow.




10 April 2015 

Maybe going back on one’s word is the most dynamic way forward? As in Janet Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts on the artist David Salle, or Evan Lavender-Smith’s book-length essay, substantially made up of unrealised ideas for other projects:

“Essay arguing that Aaron Copeland is the best American composer. Essay arguing that Aaron Copland is the worst American composer…. A critical/theoretical essay, strainedly objective, which disintegrates/evolves into a strained subjectivity.

Does not the existence of aphorisms, lyrical poems, and the pick-and-mix essays on this site show us that pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds are tasty enough in and of themselves without ever being planted, watered, laboured over?


There is a part of our brain's dorsal attention network that is always four year's old. Ask it to choose three toys to play with, and now to play only with those toys for the rest of the week, and it will quite quickly decide that the purple and green Leapfrog Lettersaurus (Kunin), the orange and white VTech Baby's First Smartphone (Tupitsyn) and the multicoloured Bath Tub Floating Alphabet (Gordon) are the very three things in the whole (Amazon) universe that offer nothing of interest to it. Nothing. This reckoning also cuts into phenomena as disparate as marriage, dissertation topics and whatever pizza you've just chosen from the menu.
                Grass --> Greener
                Plate --> Envy
                Current read --> Unread book


I take my three toys out into the garden shed and spend a few mornings re-reading, making notes, looking for a mise-en-scène that will yolk the three together in a way that might justify my auspicious TETWI title. The problem with the Lettersaurus, and the Smartphone, and the Floating alphabet is that I have chosen them to impress an editorial Super-Ego (aka Ander&Craig), second-guessing their needs and desires, rather than thinking about my own, and so inevitably I run up against this when I start to write. Polite, semi-astute prose, dead on delivery. 

I mean, I deeply admire my pitched texts, and like what they stand for, but the pleasure of their reading is curtailed by lack of identification.

This is how we experience the first frustrating and potentially face-losing volte of The Essay That Wrote Itself. We might call even factor this into the equation: The Essay That Is Fed By Reading Only What It Needs To Read. Or: The Essay That Develops By The Consumption of Everything Else Other Than That Which Is Germane to Its Thesis. The essay as a form of literary procrastination.

TETWI is gimlet-eyed for stuff that slips under the Super-Ego's radar. The most interesting material is that which was intended for another essay’s use. Porn smuggled into prison inside a Good News Bible. An LSD tab under the stamp on your aunt's postcard in response to a request for her lemon-meringue pie recipe. Life-changing sagacity from a radio programme you wouldn’t normally listen to (Farming Today, You and Yours), and don’t listen to, putting it on in the kitchen to keep you company, its superfluous ideas wafting and intermingling with the smell of burnt toast. There lies your treasure.


In 1970 Walter Mischel offered a 4 year-old at Bing Nursery School (Stanford) two marshmallows if she could defer her greed for fifteen minutes whilst the researcher stepped out of the room leaving one marshmallow on a paper plate squeaking "Eat-me, eat-me, EAT-ME!"

I have promised myself the mallow pleasure of reading JC Hallman's B & Me once I've dutifully written about my texts for Ander and Craig. However, as soon as Hallman becomes available to download (midnight, March 9th), I down my tools and read myself silly for a couple of hours, finding in this Other Text, this Paramour Text everything I'd hoped for but hadn't found in the Educational Toys.

My inner four-year-old loves that this is an essay engrossed, and sometimes grossed-out with bodily and literary fluids. Is this not the pleasure we all seek in text, that moment when our bodies (eyes, ears, skin, fingers) pursue their own ideas, their own greedy inclinations? Are not our first gifts, pace Freud, bodily products?


I spend the next day studiously ignoring the Letterausaurus, Smartphone, and Floating Alphabet, to finish reading B & Me, indubitably proving that I would have snarfed the marshmallow as soon as the researcher left the room and then whined for a whole bag of sweet and spongy nonessentials all the way home.

If you recognise yourself in this vignette, you're probably one of the “Low Delayers”, who couldn't or wouldn't wait fifteen minutes for a treat. All of us now adults in our 40s, numbering in our cohort levels of obesity, alcoholism, and poor career prospects exponentially greater than the “High Delayers”: who thanks to a finer nature or nurture, were able to put their gratification on hold as children; who now as adults dream up book projects, and then write them.


TETWI is OK with me going off-piste to guzzle 288 pages of Hallman. I'm sure even Kunin, Tupitsyn, and Gordon would be OK with it. JC (Hallman) is most definitely OK with it. "Literature must do whatever it's not supposed to do, and literature about literature must do the same,” battle-cries the creative/autobiographical/confessional critic. This cheers me up a bit.

But what would JC have done wrt the marshmallows? I suspect that a 4 year-old JC would have waited it out. Yes, Hallman would have emerged from the shed with a clever roman à clef about the Lettersaurus, the Plastic Smartphone, the Floating Alphabet, and two uneaten marshmallows, and a post-coital grin on his face.

In the swept-away pleasures of reading a book one admires, there can also be a kind of self-punishment borne of envy. The Punitive Parent, the Super-Ego, the Inner-Critic claw and scowl at the gratified, doting warmth we feel towards the writer and his text with slurs calcified by uncompromising clichés: “Nothing writes itself. No gains without pains. Mind over matter. Get a grip on yourself/your theme/your essay. Godamnit.”

TETWI, and B & Me too I think, seem more interested in nurturing states adjacent to, or even free of these clamped cognitions. Perhaps the "Literary Arousal" Hallman suggests is the key, which he keeps alive throughout his project by reading Baker’s work for the first time, having decided to write about him before having read anything by him. In this way we might avoid stepping back into work we’ve already taught or thought about, texts killed by poring over them with pen in hand, or by having pitched your best ideas on them to the editorial Super-Ego. If that means the Barthesian bump-and-grind jouissance we seek at both a textual and semantic level manifests more often than not in a masturbatory fashion, well so be it. "Feeling something very deeply and so compelled to shoot it ecstatically forth into the world" is a messy business, often beyond the pale.


TETWI’s voice is frequently ejaculatory, though not necessarily in an ecstatic or gendered way. Rather: more rounded, playful, inviting-of-paradox, minutiae-focused, and most especially, kind.

I hear TETWI speaking in the voice of Adam Phillips as he reads his essay “Against Self-Criticism” to us at The British Museum. Listen, if you haven’t already, to the tone of this ETWI, the well-disposed, betwixt and between thrum of it. Although what he is saying is also relevant to our theme:

"As fundamentally ambivalent animals, we're never as good as we should be, and neither it seems are other people"
"Ambivalence is the way we recognise that someone or something has become significant to us."
"We are, by definition, forbidden to find all this forbidding forbidden. Indeed we find ways of getting pleasure from our restrictedness."

Phillips says, and would like us to believe, that all his texts are Essays That Wrote Themselves:

“I admire people who struggle to articulate things, but I’m not one of those people—for me it’s more like automatic writing….I do psychoanalysis four days a week and I write one day a week, in the middle….Psychoanalysis is really difficult; writing is not, for me.” (Interview with Sameer Padania in BOMB magazine).

TETWI would like us to hold true to the notion that reading and writing need not be as fraught, as “difficult” for us as we might imagine, even though still requiring a certain kind of effort. I like the spirit of this, and I find it in everyone I’ve cited throughout this piece. I would like to get closer to this state myself. But as of yet, the how of the thing escapes me. 

 Steve Wasserman is a psychotherapist living in London. He is currently working on a series of essays about change (changing ourselves, the world, our minds). Some of these have been published here and there. @stevewasserman_ 

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