A few years ago, I was in a small classroom in one of the cozy house-like buildings that makes up California College of the Arts’s Oakland campus, younger still, relatively naive (aren’t we all?), and listening to my poetry teacher Joseph Lease tell us at the beginning of class that in order to write poetry, we must read poetry. He likened it to inhaling and exhaling, and said that if we only exhaled (wrote poetry) all the time, we’d eventually be out of breath.
I think that Joseph wanted to teach us about the creative feedback loop. To remind us that an exhale is only made possible after breathing in, to use his metaphor. I learned nothing, though, back then. The portfolio of poems I submitted at the end of the semester reeks of emotional teenagehood, the aesthetics of social media poetry (where meaning is made bite-sized), and an overuse of the sun as a main character in my writing. Apparently, all I did back then was exhale. I think I was 19 or 20 years old at the time, living halfway across the world with far too much to say. The world was a consistently impressive place, which left me wanting to express. This is almost inevitable, of course, like physics.
Reading the poems I wrote, I feel all sorts of things towards my undergrad self: sympathetic, understanding, even a right amount of cringe. But mainly, as someone who works in the creative industry now, I feel like I’ve lost something. It’s not so easy for me to be creatively productive (for a lack of a better word) in the way I was back then. The world is still an impressive place, and there’s somehow even more impressions being made. This is to say that so many people are so good at expressing themselves. Yet lately, all I have been doing is inhaling. What I’d like for Joseph to teach me now is what to do when I am too full of breath. How do you move on from taking it all in?
It’s not news that there is an abundance of information in the world, and that the way we use technology in culture is like drinking from the firehose. It’s also not news to want to react by shutting everything out. There’s a good surplus of articles, books, videos, captions, and cultural chitchat about detoxing from things like social media, sugar, and bad attitudes. I do my part and try to keep my relationship to all three at bay. But my issue, funny enough, is that I am not overwhelmed by it all. I like to think I have healthy boundaries with the world at large. It’s simply that I don’t know what to do with the things I am taking in. Maybe the better question is: do I even have to do something with it?
Last week, I read Zadie Smith’s Intimations. It’s a small collection of short essays that I read front to back over the course of a few days, mostly at breakfast and in a pool. I almost couldn’t remember the last time I finished a book—I’ve been stuck reading this other book about translation for months. But I was on vacation in Qatar for three days, and decided to just do things. So I started a different book. I wore a dress. I listened to spa music in a hotel bathroom. I rode the metro, and I hadn’t been on public transport for at least two years. I tanned. I ate chicken strips that were surprisingly seasoned with thyme. I know it doesn’t seem like there is much happening in the way I describe my life, but it’s precisely in that not-happening where I feel like my life mostly happens. Not in recounting it, or expressing it elsewhere, like here.
I was talking to my friend Sneha through voice notes the other day, about how once I demystify a small part of something I am curious about, the whole inquiry resolves itself for me. A part of me wonders if that’s an excuse I make to justify quickly losing interest. Another part of me worries that I don’t have the attention span for industrious expertise. But the thing that moves me the most is thinking about what it might mean if I resolve my desire to express.
In Intimations, Zadie Smith says something about how writing is just another thing to do, like baking banana bread. I read that part of the book twice, took a picture, and sent it to a friend who doesn’t work in the creative industry. Reading that gave me relief over so many things. Relief that, first and foremost, writing is not morally superior to making banana bread. Relief that there is no inherent magic in the process of writing. Relief that the existence of a life maybe isn’t only measured by what is documented and represented, but what is experienced. I guess you could say that I’ve been feeling guilty for not having the desire to create something these days. It’s almost as if all of my interests have flat-lined, or that I have nothing to show for them.
The guilt doesn’t last, though. I find that sprinkling chia seeds to make my yogurt look more delicious is, in fact, an expressive act. That my adamancy to wear all black in 50-celsius summers and qualifying it as feeling goth is too obvious a form of expression. That running is perhaps not measurably expressive, but it feels like expressing something. If I were to turn to Joseph’s metaphor—the cycle of creating and consuming to the process of exhaling and inhaling—I find relief in it, too. In the inevitability of exhaling. It might be that at this point in my life, everything that is happening is just not something I can put on my resume. Now there’s a can of worms for me to explore.
*Photo courtesy of Yasmeen Khaja