I ran across a fragment from the diaries of Anais Nin recently, advice she wrote to a aspiring young writer. Leonard was only 17, but the words spoke to me with equal force at almost four times his age:
I like to live always at the beginnings of life, not at their end. We all lose some of our faith under the oppression of mad leaders, insane history, pathologic cruelties of daily life. I am by nature always beginning and believing and so I find your company more fruitful than that of [one] who asserts his opinions, beliefs, and knowledge as the ultimate verity. Older people fall into rigid patterns. Curiosity, risk, exploration are forgotten by them.
How does one live “always at the beginnings of life?” Where is that place? What does it mean to “begin and believe?”
Intimations of Nasty-Tasting Plastic
I think Wordsworth identifies the place where we might live at the beginning of life. The opening lines of his poem Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood are a vivid anamnesis of an experience common to almost everyone:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
I don’t know about you, but those verses just flood me with the primary colors and undiluted tastes of my earliest memories, from which palette comes many of the shades and colors of my writing.
The bright colors of the airplane that flew in my window while I lay in the crib.
The horrid taste of the yellow-green cylindrical pieces in my snap-blocks set—so electric that I had to taste it again and again.
Now, of course, I see those two memories as contrasts in verity. No airplane ever flew in my window, but those blocks, if I found them in a thrift store, would likely still taste awful. (I’ve found some old screwdriver handles that come close.)
But at the time, and for a long time after (or so it seemed), that wasn’t a distinction that arose. They, and many other impressions, were a seamless background in the strange, uncontradictory and timeless experience of childhood.
The Bottomless Pool
Timeless is another way of saying eternal, and so Wordsworth writes later:
…those first affections,
Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain light of all our day,
Are yet a master light of all our seeing;
Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence…
Unfortunately, silence, with or without the initial capital, is something in short supply for most of us. Stillness is even more rare. But that’s where the words come from. Not in the earthquake, not in the wind, not in the fire, but in a “murmuring silence.” Only there can we live in the beginnings of life.
Remembering also from childhood the murmuring silence at the bottom of our swimming pool, I think, not of a fountain, but a still pool, with no bottom ever plumbed. Here time does not operate, and from the vantage of our later selves we can toss a stone of telling into the water and read portents in the ripples. With a big enough rock (or dynamite), we can summon monsters from the deep where we all live. And, as Hobbes’s Calvin famously observed, sometimes they laugh.
Ye Must Molt Again
But the way to that pool is narrow and the gate is strait. As we grow, as Nin observes, we put on certitude. Our carapace grows too thick for the eye of the needle. Finally we have only the memory of the pool. Perhaps this is like to what happens when writers begins writing the same story again and again. They have their reward.
In John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider the protagonist meets a woman named Kate, and arrives at her apartment to find her, as he thinks of it, “bayquaking” her apartment, clearing out virtually everything, even painting over the beautiful murals on the walls:
…the latest of perhaps five, perhaps six annual demolitions of what was threatening to turn from a present into a past, with all that implied: a fettering, hampering tail of concern for objects at the expense of memories.
Kate was molting, shedding her carapace, living out Anais Nin’s advice to begin and believe. Be born again, come out, be naked. It can be a violent process, or a gentle one, and we don’t often get to choose which. But it’s key to the writing life, and key to a humane life.