Inspiration from the Bookshelves

I arrived at my writing table with a mug of strong coffee. My laptop was alone on the surface, and I imagined books, my black hardcover journal, and pens surrounding it and creating a sense of intimacy that without my imagination didn’t seem to exist at that moment.

Coffee wasn’t enough. There was something invigorating about a cluttered writing space. Perhaps the sight of untidiness motivated me to create order in my mind. Books and writing paper scattered around my writing table were always welcome. Maybe the laptop was an unwelcome and impersonal object during these initial creative moments before I started to create sentences outside of my mind.

Papers, pens, and books that appealed to me made the writing experience real. I often read from one or more books before and while I wrote. The books seemed to choose me, and when the writing went well I felt that the images, words, and ideas that became part of my text originated in the paperbacks or hardbacks, in English or in Spanish, that I imagined had spoken to me from the bookshelves.

Reading at my desk seemed to help me move into a writing state of mind. Coffee also helped, but I needed the inner presence of an author or authors to reach a mental place where I felt at one with my own imagination. I set my coffee mug down on the table. It was time to spend the decisive moments before my bookshelves.

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Two Readers on a Train

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.

Inner Logic

A thirty-three year-old book refused to return to the shelf. Its one hundred eighty-five pages didn’t seem an obstacle to my afternoon writing, or did they? I wanted to write threat, that the contents of these pages printed in 1984 didn’t threaten me. In reality, the hardcover that had once been a library book and which now had my name written on the flyleaf, was becoming an obstacle to my writing a page of words about something, something which had yet to reveal itself to me. Its contents had nothing to do with those of the two other books on my writing table. That wasn’t true. The mind didn’t work that way. Everything in my head, at any particular moment, was connected somehow. In a way I didn’t yet understand, I felt that the twelve chapters of this thirty-three year-old book had something important to say to me as I wrote these sentences. A logical argument was presented in them about whether or not psychoanalysis should be considered a scientific discipline. The author was a scholar and a psychoanalyst. The pages of his book seemed to focus on whether or not objective truth could be obtained about a single patient. Objective truth reminded me of its opposite, subjective truth, which I searched for, or it searched for me, in these sentences. It was 3:41 on a wet, windy Tuesday afternoon in Seattle. Both of the two other hardcovers before me on my writing table contained the same letter that Sigmund Freud wrote to his colleague and friend, Otto Rank, in August 1924. In one of the two volumes, the letter appeared in English. In the other, the letter appeared in Spanish. I was surprised that I’d never realized before that I could read some of Freud’s letters in two different languages. I’d never read this particular letter before, in either language. Or had I? Its contents felt familiar to me somehow, and I wondered if this was so in one or both languages. Experience told me there was some sort of logic to what was happening in my mind. Perhaps I imagined that I could find objective truth in my own subjective experiences, in this case the subjective experiences of reading a particular letter in two languages, English and Spanish, neither of which was the original language in which the letter was written. In both versions of the letter, I sensed tension in Freud’s words. He wanted to know why his younger colleague hadn’t been telling him more of the recent details of his life. Maybe I thought I was hiding things from myself in these sentences. I imagined all three of these books speaking together in one voice. Was that possible? I hoped that my own inner logic would let me know.

Inner Reader=Narrative Structure

Years ago I wrote an essay about the role of the reader in my writing. I was referring to an inner reader that I imagined read my sentences as I wrote them, similar to a psychotherapist listening to his or her client during a fifty-minute session. Somehow, this image and idea of an inner reader helped me to see structure in my paragraphs where before I’d sensed series of sentences disconnected from each other. Therapy and writing process became connected in my mind. I realize that I was searching for ways to explore my own mind through the study of what I’d written. My intuition seemed to suggest that I needed to know, or imagine, that someone was listening to me as I wrote one sentence after another. I lived in Madrid when I wrote that essay on the reader. I wrote notes on the subject. An imaginary reader soon became my imaginary psychotherapist. This was during my initial years in Madrid, while I studied Spanish at a language academy and started to read psychoanalytic texts in Spanish translations. I imagine that I wanted my writing process to become my own inner experience of what I imagined psychoanalysis to be (I hadn’t experienced it as a patient or analysand): a dialogue between two unconscious minds, in addition to a conversation between two human beings. So I hypothesized that in most paragraphs I wrote, at least a sentence or two was written by what I thought of as my inner reader or inner therapist. Soon I started to see this structure in every paragraph I wrote, as if I were conducting a scientific experiment. I felt as if I were both writer and therapist (my own) while I wrote at my desk, with the sounds of Madrid traffic four floors below reminding me that there were no other sounds in the room while all of this activity was happening inside of me. My imaginary inner reader and inner psychotherapist have become real to me again. I feel as if I’m connecting with both my writing past and future, in the present.

X Number of Minutes in Imaginative Time

Eleven minutes passed without my eyes leaving the words. The number eleven came to me first. I could’ve imagined any number of minutes that the letter and I communicated with each other. I have no idea for how many minutes or seconds I was able to read this letter written one hundred and seven years ago without averting my eyes from the text. Perhaps the colleague of Sigmund Freud who wrote it would’ve been pleased to know that more than a century later someone would refer to these paragraphs of his personal correspondence as a text. I imagine that I’ve been studying it as a source of a writer’s subjective reality on the page. I probably could’ve chosen any one of the hundreds of books on the shelves in this room and found the same kind of material. So why have I spent x number of minutes with sentences that I imagine Ernest Jones wrote late one night before going to bed? He was around thirty years old and would live for another forty-eight years or so. A thought comes to me: when he died, in 1958, psychoanalysis was alive and well. When he wrote this letter to Freud, in 1910, he was just starting to work as a psychoanalyst, or so I imagine. He hadn’t yet experienced psychoanalysis on the couch himself, which he would a few years later. This has been a new kind of reading and writing experience for me. Hopefully the letter will let me know when it’s done with me.

All of Me

I just took a hardcover from one of the shelves a few steps from where I’m seated, opened it, and was surprised by what I saw on the flyleaf: I bought it one year ago today. In a way, that day feels like yesterday. In another way, it feels like many years ago. Much can change in a person’s life in a year. Over a beer or glass of wine, one might talk about what one has done or experienced in the last twelve months. If I were the one speaking, I would probably focus on things that have happened outside of my own mind. But for me, the last ten or twelve months have been all about mind experience. That’s interesting: the book I just took from the shelves is entitled, In the Mind Fields: Exploring the New Science of Neuropsychoanalysis, by Casey Schwartz. I believe a year ago today was a sunny day in Seattle. While I was out during lunchtime running errands, I decided to spend a few minutes in my favorite bookstore. The moment I was inside the store, my body knew where I wanted to go. I felt as if I had the shelves to myself. There appeared to be few people, and all of me seemed focused on what I was experiencing. The place could’ve been filled with people and I would’ve felt alone in the building. The psychology section on the second floor was familiar to me, and I could probably have found it blindfolded that afternoon. A book was waiting for me, and my body made sure the hardcover and I met. Looking back on last May, I read several books on psychoanalysis, then in June I started to search for a psychoanalyst, and in mid July I found myself on the couch for the first time. What I remember most clearly about the book I walked home with that day was the author’s ability to immerse herself in what she was writing about. She dedicated several years of her life to the project. I remember what happened later on during May 2 of last year, when I prepared myself coffee and read the first several chapters of In the Mind Fields: there were a series of moments in which I felt alive, completely present, as if all of me were experiencing the book. I must have been yearning for meaningful inner experience, which has not been lacking in my life since I started to speak on the couch.

Creative Reading

My imagination wouldn’t leave the words on the page. I read one sentence, two sentences, and I was far away, in my mind, both times. Reading each sentence became an imaginative experience. As I read the first sentence, I found myself on a small island in a Norwegian fjord. As I read the second one, I imagined myself on another island, in the San Juan Islands, grasping a tree during a storm. The sentences themselves were written by Carl Jung over a hundred years ago, in which he said that fantasies were important, and that historically they’ve been an integral part of how the human mind has worked. I enjoyed experiencing that the words left the page. I became a creative reader. I was studying Jung’s words, and my imagination seemed to study me, as if it were creating mysteries about me in my mind. It’s a collaborative effort, mind and imagination together, an inner voice said. Aren’t they the same thing, I imagined myself asking this inner voice. You’re learning, it responded.