Darker With The Lights On
Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, David Hayden writes about Darker With The Lights On from Little Island Press/Carcanet Press (UK) and Transit Books (US).
On Forgetting and Writing
Last week, last month, three years ago; on the bus, in a café, at my kitchen table; I sat down to write. What was in my mind? I have forgotten. What is the second line of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘One Art’? I have forgotten. What was the exact disposition of boughs and leaves and blossom of the apple tree in my aunt’s garden in Coolock, North Dublin, under which I sat in the summer of 1986 with three books, not reading? I have forgotten. But I have a somatic memory of light, warmth, mental disarray, loss; a hinterland of impressions of all that was fleeting; that is to say, of everything. The books too, I remember.
Forgetting limits the harm caused by the presence of everything, prevents the remembered from filling every internal space and, ultimately, blotting out the world around us. The ability to remember all of experience, at once and continuously, would mean the end of invention. Forgetting allows us to make things up, to recombine the ‘was’ with the ‘might have been’ and the ‘never was’, or even, the ‘never could have been’. An excess of memory, or a failure to forget properly, might well have been why a strong desire to write and the incapacity to do so coexisted in me for so long.
The remembered squats in the dark, edging into sight only partially, daring us to look away. Some memory paralyses the eye, throws the heart out of rhythm — clotting the flow of time and event, killing the cells of thought — this has, for most of my life, shaped a silent surface, or at best given rise to scatterings of words that fled each other, refusing to mean.
One day I wrote Hay. The words began to gather in strings and layers, to echo off one another, to mean. When I returned to them a first time I was able to see that some of those words should be excised, rearranged or interpolated with others, and the second time I could see a few more, and so on until I had noticed as much as I was capable of. That was a moment of finishing and, also, a beginning. The beginning of using the space opened up by loss and forgetting to notice what could be invented, what could be sensible, which words might haunt themselves, the intent of things, the more-than-real, and finding in these things, and others, my own small means of invention. None of which helped much in writing the next story, except that I understood that something was generally waiting to appear out of nothing, and that something might be a story.
The realm of all writing is the past. Writing is a practice that takes place in an unfolding present. Writing is a mediated form of touch. Everything that is touched turns to time. Writing about exteriors is always, at the same time, about the interior. Everything is lost as it is set down. The lost is ever present. The present presses through the forgotten and is as tangible, and as uncertain. History, the discipline, at its best, makes careful accommodations with the lost, and, with proper hesitancy, weighs and shapes the found to tell and explain the known. Fiction is the invented that can be true but cannot prove it. Only the reader can do that.
I wrote a story of Chicago in 1993, many years after 1993. Most of what I set down was not there at that time but none of the fictional people, thoughts, streets and buildings would have appeared without the city in its time. I had a copy of the first edition of the AAA Guide to Chicago but I did not refer to it until after the story was written. I needed to be sure that the building I had invented — the Batten Norris Insurance Building — was definitely not, and had never been, in actuality, there. The story became the place and reading would take one there.
What we forget does not forget us. The forgotten is not unthought but remains lost. Forgetting — the forgotten — are part of the realm of the sensible. That which is in the bone, in the body dark, in the body’s flows and sparks, can be made available through the words that are found by noticing. What comes in through the ear, the eye, the skin, can be rematerialized as words for the reader to make sense with, to live with, to remember or forget. I had to learn how to trust that deep presence, to look into the blank page and begin. Holding memory present but at a distance, I learned how to make marks, of any kind to begin with, on paper or screen, and this was how I learned, at last, how to write. The intolerable everything could, for a short duration, fall away to a faint background buzz and out of the near silence could come something new, something untold. As I learned to pay attention to the results of these short moments of invention, I found that I could feel around them, push against the mystery that the words bordered and find, or rather make, more of the story.
Memory masses underneath each of the stories that became Darker with the Lights On, helping to give rise to them, although very little recollection made its way onto each page. But developing the ability to forget made it possible to write and, eventually, to find the stories that became the book.