Unsystematic searching / scratching in glass
Finding myself far from the familiar, I am more aware of the world. Everything I read seems somehow connected, as if each book or blog post I come across is a mark on a map I am just beginning to understand. My brain is attuned; I keep making connections without trying. Living in a new place makes it easier to see things differently, to notice all the little details. Hardly knowing anyone here means my world is quieter, and I write more. I feel a fullness of purpose I haven’t felt since I lived in Montreal.
This clarity is perhaps because I have been reading a lot. Moving was an opportunity to pare down my library. Most of my books are in boxes in Newfoundland, lending a new essentiality to the ones I brought. A few days ago I chose four thin volumes to reread: John Berger’s And our faces, my heart, brief as photos, Don McKay’s Vis à Vis: Field Notes on Poetry and Wilderness, Bashō’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, and The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald. Books about channelling firsthand experience into memory and meaning.
I am writing in the university library, at a small table lit mostly by sunlight. Nothing urges me to write more than a chair beside a window. A moment ago I overheard two students at a nearby table talking about a history class. One described his visit to a distant historical site, an apartment made famous because a writer or writers had lived there: “The windows were full of writing; they scratched poems to each other in the glass.” My muddled impression is that he was talking about New England, but a little web research seems to suggest Robert Burns.
Writing in public has always felt best to me; I prefer coffeeshops, libraries and parks to the tiresome quiet of a desk at home. Used bookstores and chance conversations are my favourite ways to research. I do my best thinking while walking. These methods leave room for serendipity. I know I am on the right track when I feel slightly uncertain about the work; a little uncertainty leaves space for reinterpretation. It suits my work to feel a little unfinished, rough around the edges, liminal. Sometimes I work best when I’m not sure what I am working on.
“As you walk along, you find things. I think that’s the advantage of walking. It’s just one of the reasons why I do that a lot. You find things by the wayside or you buy a brochure written by a local historian, which is in a tiny little museum somewhere, which you would never find in London. And in that you find odd details which lead you somewhere else, and so it’s a form of unsystematic searching […] And the more I got on, the more I felt that, really, one can find something only in that way, i.e., in the same way in which, say, a dog runs through a field.”
— from The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald