writing as autonomy

by Paul Gauguin

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My desire to write is part of an enduring search for autonomy. By “autonomy” I mean the freedom to make work that I think is good on my own terms. The thing that holds me back is my need for certainty. This conflict is within all of us: longing for independence is always shadowed by the desire for guardrails, for safety, for the mind to be cordoned off and coddled. It’s mommy-hunger, daddy-hunger, Plath’s “boot in the face, the brute.”

Creativity is inherently anti-authoritarian. As in: to be successfully creative, you have to shed the part of yourself that desperately wants reassurance. It’s only then that you can escape cliche and escape paradigmatic thinking.

I realized this year that what stays with me from books is never plot, always voice. Voice as ongoing observations of the living world and the relationships that bind us together within it. Voice as autonomy. For a long time I didn’t really know how to write in my own “voice.” I had to learn I could just say the thing I felt: that I was alienated from the discourse around me, thought that all the things people claimed were real were in fact narrativized and manufactured to monopolize our attention in certain ways. The only thing that did and does feel real to me is people and their suffering and their joy, our deep and ongoing need for connection. Which: very Terrence McKenna of me, I know. But it’s what I’m preoccupied by. It’s what I have to write about.

I think a lot of people are dismissive of their best thoughts. They can’t put their observations on paper because they’ve already censored them in their mind. They don’t have confidence that what they see is real, because to believe that it’s real requires them to believe that their understanding of the world is as valid as anyone else’s. Most people think that there are like, five people who can understand the world, and we should defer to their expert judgment. Which—if I’m a conspiracy theorist at all this is the conspiracy I rail against, that expertise is required to notice good and true things about the world.

It reminds me of an interview with Anne Boyer in which she talks about how she lost faith in philosophy because it was impossible to “read [her] way to the answer”:

The faulty narrative I always tell myself is that someday I'm going find enough pieces in books that I'm going to put the puzzle together into an answer for all of these questions that I have —not just about terrible, sad things, like why people have to suffer or why our lives are diminished by the arrangement of the world, but also the wondrous things like love, and the attractions people feel for each other intellectually and otherwise, all of it. I always make the mistake, though, in thinking that I'm going to read my way to the answer.  It’s only through my habitual disappointment with the philosophers that I am reminded that there are other experiences that have to happen in order for us to really know anything.

To write in a real voice, an alive voice, I have to trust my own eyes, what I see before I start to think. Of course my observations will be flawed—all individual perspectives are partial and distorted—but the only way I can gain autonomy is to write from my incomplete point of view. Put like that, autonomy comes from trust in the self, in subjective vision. It’s a rejection that the answer lies in any narrative framework.

I find that when I write from life and not theory, I am most able create something that feels unpolluted by all the ideas I’ve consumed, all the things I endlessly regurgitate that never provide any catharsis. I think creative autonomy is best understood as honesty without confessionalism. I don’t have to, like, name everybody I’ve ever slept with or tell you which drug I snorted last Thursday in order to write something that’s honest. I can follow the ordinary movements of the mind without exploiting my trauma for engagement. But I have to be honest. I have to say what I think is true about the muddled, morally ambivalent world, about the decisions I make that feel messy and uncontrolled, maybe arbitrary and maybe not.