It occurs to me that one can be too conscious. The metacognitive processes involved in writing require, for those of us with hoarding minds, the same kind of patience, stamina, and downright courage it takes to clean out the attic, to assess the contents one by one. Metacognition can be like making the decision to leave that more functional part of your home, to ascend the dusty steps, and to take several hot looks at what you have collected while off living your life. Everyone has an attic, everyone has neglected items collecting dust there, but not everyone has or takes the time to assess this annexed situation. In this lightning-paced era, the old-fashioned commodity of thinking itself comes at a premium, let alone the deliberate act of thinking about how one is thinking, about what one is thinking. This summer in our apartment in Amsterdam, I have enjoyed the luxury of both modes. I have spent a lot of time in my mind.
Writing—to continue the analogy—is like taking an imaginary or real audience up to your attic with you, selecting one of your items, finding where the light hits it best, and then trying to demonstrate to your audience why you have held on to it, why it is dear to you, why it is worth keeping. The writer, bold soul, wants to lure you to her cramped and chaotic spaces and then to convince you of the value of the components of her mind. Sometimes, in the act of trying to do so, she stutters, she blunders, she cannot justify the value of the item at hand. She wants to set it back down and she wants you to leave.
Why not try a rough draft? Well, drafting itself is a cognitive performance that assumes an audience, and the process promises no locking of the attic door while you sit alone, crafting the draft. The shuffle of consciousness is always about. For example, the apparition of a creative writing professor I had in college is in here with me right now, sitting over there in the corner, taunting, Writing about writer’s block is dangerous territory. (I have faced that exact admonition in a college classroom, stuffed it abashedly in my pocket, and brought it to the attic.) Yes, I get it; writing about writing is like luring someone to your attic simply to state with exasperation that you have so much in here and you do not know where to begin with it all. In that case, best to bring a psychologist to help you sort your neuroses.
Prone to introspection as far back as I can remember, I have maintained a rich inner life, confusing and overwhelming as it may be at times. Openness and receptivity to the world result in many collected items. Through childhood, I had the luxury of a private bedroom, and this was my “attic,” my place to collect my belongings and myself. This was also the place, at age seven or eight, where I began to keep a journal.
Journaling is peculiar in the sense that you are the only member of the audience, but yet, before bleeding your messiest, most cumbersome thoughts onto that pretty white sheet in your trusty, companionable little black book, you consider the eager eyes of posterity, potentially alighting on your unfiltered, unrefined parts—the image of your great grandchildren stumbling through your attic in the dark, bumping into objects of thought you could never adequately identify or reconcile during your lifetime. This consideration, silly though it may be, is crippling! Your journal is there for you to explore the terra incognita, but you fear the permanent mark you will make, for, writing makes concrete the abstraction of thought. Even in your private writing, the army of consciousness attacks before you give yourself a chance to claim your territory. Manifestations aside, the act of thinking is a private, sequestered affair. Conversely, the written word is a sharing, a surfacing, a mark upon the world.
One cannot help but stop here to link the terms conscious and audience. Consciousness is that receptivity to the world: that proclivity of the mind to host all that is happy to invite itself in. Consciousness draws the crowd. While writing this piece, I am conscious of Anne Frank in an attic in Amsterdam; of the fact that, surely, someone somewhere has parsed his or her relationship to thinking and writing in these same terms I borrow from the English language; of Freudian diagrams and the man himself cringing in his grave at the New Age conclusion I intend to draw later on—a conclusion regarding the attics we keep; and of various other things.
To carry on with my convictions, though, I must ignore these reasonable associations, these respectable members of the audience. I must not be too conscious. I want to appear poised in my chosen fashion, and they are cramping my style, however stylish themselves. I want my expression to take form in sharp, sophisticated points, emanating from my center and not stalled by theirs.
A true writer recognizes, point blank, the danger of this aim. True writers—conscious thinkers, careful creators—consistently entertain the notion that their attic and items of thought are no prettier than anyone else’s, no more original, no more presentable, no more accurate, no more valuable. Yet, writing should begin with the accommodation of the self, the commitment to one’s own mind in the face of all others, and “writer’s block” is a house too full, an inability to claim one’s own space, however influenced or occupied that space has been by others.
In this spirit that is so common of the American breed—individual and persevering to the last—, I shall satisfy my objectives and end this exposition with swift, sententious point making. Here it is, my grand conclusion, my mind’s offering: Empty the attic. Or, more precisely, collect and cultivate your thoughts in the living room, or some more-functional—however private—room of the house. Attics are neuroses; attics are your unnecessary thoughts unkempt. Exercise your relationship to consciousness; become aware of which objects of thought you let pass your threshold; manage those you grant the prime real estate that is your mind; become adept at filtering, and filter faster. I should not have held on to my professor’s advice: that whole bit about the dangerous territory of writing about writing. I should have written whatever was in my heart to write about. I should have set out across the terra incognita.
Thoughts and perceptions are mere visitors, consciousness is hospitality, and your mind is your home. Construct it, explore it, write it, and reconstruct it as you wish. Welcome guests, but do not entertain dreadful company for long. As for Anne Frank and Mr. Freud – as great as they look on your sofa, remember that your living room is your living room. They are pleasing, appreciable features, there to be acknowledged but not to claim the space that is yours and always will be.