On Being Afraid of the Work (Flowers and Toads)

Over the weekend I read (for class) an excerpt from a book called I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Mainly My Own by Australian anthropologist Michael Taussig. In chapter 2, Taussig discusses the failures of written notes at recording and communicating his experiences in the field and the ways in which he has found drawing pictures (quick sketches, diagrams, etc.) to be more immediate and fruitful. What he describes as the failure of fieldnotes can, I think, be applied to any attempt at a faithful record of events or expression of an inspiration–in the transcribing, something is lost or changed; what is important remains elusive and what is unimportant intrudes on the page (or the canvas, or the stage, etc.) in a rather unsatisfactory way. Taussig quotes the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé: “the flowers that fall from my mouth are changed into toads.” *

This, I think, is one of the chief reasons why I have so far failed to really really commit to my work as a writer. Sure, I’m writing, I’m writing papers and blog posts and the occasional stage piece for a friend, but this is not my work. I do have a specific work, (images lodged in the back of my brain, sentences scattered across notebooks and computer files) but it is always the very last thing I attend to. Of course, I am good at coming up with reasons for why this is so, the main one being that all of the other writing I do has deadlines and my “work” does not. Only I will know if there is still something owing, and it is likely only I will care. And I get busy. And I get lazy. And the only person I’m letting down is myself, so I don’t do the work.

I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that I would do the work if I were braver, even if it was time-consuming. I obviously don’t mind writing–I’m writing right now!–but I do mind failure, especially when it comes to something that, while it remains little more than a shadow with a few defined edges, has been internally nurtured and kept safe for a not insignificant period of time. I feel a responsibility to get it right, to do justice to whatever whisper found its way to me. I know what creative failure fails like, and it is sour, and it is indelible, and it stains the beautiful ideas that had given themselves so perfectly and trustingly to me. I am in possession of delicate buds that I hope upon hope will burst into bloom, but I am afraid to touch them lest they turn into toads in my clumsy hands.

Photo: Brayden McCluskey

Photo: Brayden McCluskey

[* Sadly, I could not find this quotation on the Internet so I do not know from whence in Mallarmé’s oeuvre it came.]

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