I hadn’t written on a train in my imagination before. My favorite Spanish novelist, Javier Marías, was with me in my mind as I imagined the two of us creating a sentence together. It was a bilingual act of creation. We spoke both in English and in Spanish as we wondered aloud what we might write, and in which language. In English I said that I wanted to approach our task first and foremost as a reader. He glanced at me as he lit a cigarette. “Perhaps we could write a few sentences in Spanish, read them, then translate them into English, and from there create our own text.” His words were so real in my imagination. They were really his in my imaginative act. We were seated alongside each other in a Spanish AVE high-speed train, and no one around us seemed bothered by the author’s cigarette smoke. Time has seemed to slow down in my mind while I’ve translated these images into words. Before writing the previous sentence I’d almost forgotten that the present tense was still with me, as if the scene on the train in the past tense had become the present to me. I’ve been immersed in the writing, reading, rereading, and rewriting of my own words. Maybe Marías and I have written these sentences together in my imagination. Why not? “The text chose us,” I imagine him saying as one of us writes this sentence, the last one of a text with its own imaginative style.
It’s been a long time since I dreamed of pacing in an airport terminal, waiting to board a plane. These dream images from several years ago feel more real than what I imagine I might experience next month, a week before Christmas, when I’ll fly to Madrid for the first time in six years. I can’t remember what associations I had to that old dream. The image of myself pacing brings to mind the words risk and danger. Airports make me anxious and flying reminds me of death. Writing these sentences has made me anxious. Writing the words has been the easy part. I’ve been pacing this small room in between sentences. Two books have divided my attention while I’ve read sentences in one and then in the other (one is in English and the other is in Spanish), as if I believed that I must discover some truth in one of them before I can finish composing my thoughts related to the dream image of myself pacing in an airport. Perhaps the tension has been a good thing. I am afraid of taking risks here at the keyboard, which isn’t easy to admit in a sentence. Writing isn’t a neutral activity, is it? I don’t have time to wonder what that question might mean. I must catch a bus. I have fifteen or twenty minutes to read before I must leave, and I imagine that I’ll either choose one of the two books or spend most of the minutes pacing this small room. Then I imagine myself running to the bus stop. Or I could forget about the bus and remain here at the keyboard and take some risks.
An image suggests a writing experience that I might have had or that I might have in the future. I’m surprised by my own sentence. It seems to say that my imagination knows best about what kinds of writing experiences I’ve had. The image makes me anxious. I’m alone in a small windowless room, seated at a small table, glancing at a manual typewriter and at the few sentences of text I’ve typed, and I worry about the flickering light from the bulb above me, that at any moment darkness might make it hard for me to find the door.
Such a dark place couldn’t be my writing home. But there’s still light in the room. Maybe part of me prefers to face a manual typewriter in the dark. I have vivid memories of writing sentences on such a machine in Madrid fifteen years ago and feeling as if I had no option but to attempt to forget about time as I struggled to move from the first word to the last one. What surprises me most is that I bought it. I remember thinking that I would use it to practice writing sentences in English. At the time I was immersed in learning Spanish, and the more I studied Spanish grammar the more I doubted how well I understood the English grammar I’d learned in school. I told myself I would learn English grammar all over again, which I did. Perhaps I felt that since I had two languages in my head I would have to learn how to write in English from scratch. In a way, that’s what happened. I rediscovered myself as a writer during the years I lived in Madrid. Or maybe I discovered the writer in me for the first time.
I’m imagining my mind as that small windowless room. It’s a real place, in my imagination. I remind myself that anything is possible in imaginative reality. I close my eyes and imagine the room again: two large windows allow me to enjoy the afternoon light. I see myself replace the light bulb. The manual typewriter has disappeared. What will I replace it with?
A door to my mind appears locked. Why don’t I try to open it in my imagination? Where else would the door be? Perhaps the key to open it is here, in these words. Isn’t this part of why I write, to open locked doors in my mind? Maybe I write every day to find anew the keys to those locked doors.
What is it about writing words on paper or on the screen that feels so liberating? Part of it is discovering, often at the start as I compose the opening sentences, what I’m going to write about. Another part is allowing myself time to exist in my imagination.
Maybe my sentences are the one place in my mental life where uncertainty can become a friend, or where enough inner space emerges so that I can pause and realize it’s not a foe.
I’m imagining that what I’m doing right now, writing sentence number X on the screen, happens in a mental laboratory that appears and disappears on its own. The “I” in this imaginative play becomes an observer in the universe that is one’s mind. What am I trying to discover in this laboratory of the mind? Maybe that: my own mind.
These sentences have given me time to be part of their creation. The observer in me has become tired. I’m anxious. A locked door appears again. Perhaps more sentences would help me find the key to open it. Something inside of me says I should stop for now. If I’m lucky, another key will come to me in my imagination tomorrow. A glass of red wine awaits me, both in my imagination and in reality, which at this moment I imagine become one.
I’ve decided to write one word at a time. Familiar comes first. On bad days, or perhaps they are the good ones, I criticize myself for being too comfortable with the words I know, which appear in many of my sentences. The word creative comes to mind, followed by a seemingly unrelated sentence: I know it when I see it. Is this how I feel when I’m writing words at my desk and I’ve found my rhythm, when I trust that what comes to me belongs in a sentence? I would like to think that I’m comfortable in these moments, but the writer in me says no. Discomfort leads to creative work. It’s as if first I must feel uncertain about everything, or at least something, to write well, and then feel enough inner certainty to write one sentence and then another. Sometimes unfamiliar words or images come to the rescue. I know it when I see it. For instance, the word vernacular comes to mind. I know what it means, don’t I? I respond to my own inner question: it depends both on which sense of the word I’m focused on and whether I want to use it as an adjective or as a noun. Uncertainty fills me. I don’t know which sense or form of vernacular I’m interested in. The word came to me on its own. I’m about to look it up in my online dictionary when all of me says no, that I should wait and see what comes to me next. As I listen to this inner voice, I feel room to breathe inside of me that I imagine didn’t exist moments earlier. Vernacular remains somewhere in my mind, in an uncertain form, which writing experience has taught me is a good thing. Maybe vernacular isn’t done with me yet.
After a long day, I thought it was time for my mind to rest. Yet three different decades, three different years, and three different men demanded my attention simultaneously. I sat back in my chair. Also, the blog post on the screen before me wouldn’t vanish. I’d read it three times. I felt connected to it, as if I wanted a copy of the three paragraphs to have near me while I wrote every day. Her sentences felt oddly familiar. I felt an affinity to her as a writer. Twenty minutes earlier I hadn’t known she existed. She wrote like me, but much, much better. Maybe with a lot of work I could write like her one day. Her three paragraphs reminded me of something that I would like to have imagined myself. Yet three different mental events and subjects had repeatedly interrupted my reading enjoyment. That morning I’d read eleven pages of a book on psychoanalytic attitude by an author whom I realized, after a brief Google search, would soon turn ninety-six years old. I wondered whether he still practiced psychoanalysis. I remembered buying the hardback at a secondhand bookstore, which I reminded myself no longer existed, on a sunny Sunday afternoon six years ago. Much had changed in my life since then. The eleven pages took me less time to read than I’d expected, and I had both enough time and coffee in my mug to read something else, which I hoped would somehow help me to focus on that day’s writing. Without thinking about what my hands were reaching for, I grabbed a volume of Freud’s correspondence from the shelf and opened it to a page and started reading, and moments later I somehow knew that the letter would help me. Freud was frustrated with his friend and colleague Sándor Ferenczi. I reread the date at the top of the letter: November 17, 1911. The psychoanalyst published his book on psychoanalytic attitude in 1983. I glanced at the clock and realized that I had to start my day, but before I reached the shower the seven minutes and forty-nine seconds of an NBA game from 1998 in which Michael Jordan scored forty points against the Houston Rockets that I’d watched the night before on YouTube returned as if it had something important to tell me. I thought I recalled watching the game on television nineteen years ago when, although I was already thirty-two, my life still seemed in one of its opening chapters. I was still sitting back in my chair. I wanted to read the blog post a fourth time, maybe even a seventh time. It would depend on how many other things came to mind at the same time.
The two books interrupted each other. How was that possible? My own sentence presented it as something that happened. Language created a subjective experience. Six words created a series of images. Or were the images present before the words? I found myself imagining ways that the two books alongside me, on my writing table, could have collided with each other, and I imagined something similar happening in my own mind. The laws of mind seemed in control, and I wondered what they were. I pictured my mind screaming: Write these things down! I touched the hardcover and paperback to make sure I wasn’t in a dream (how could I have known if I wasn’t?). Then I created a document on my laptop and started typing. Two books interrupted and collided with each other. I imagined the hardcover falling to the hardwood floor. Wham! I almost leaned down to pick up a book that wasn’t there. More sentences needed to be written. I wanted to reach the end. Minutes passed while images and words helped me to create sentences. One of the two books was on the painter Jackson Pollock. The other was on language and dreams in psychoanalysis. I realized I hadn’t been in control of my own words. They were responsible for whatever nonsense I’d written. I reread these sentences and was relieved that I hadn’t interrupted myself. I hadn’t done anything. My mind had been in control.