New Year, New . . . Rapture?
On bell hooks and the privilege and joy (maybe) of writing
bell hooks (1952–2021)
If you’ve been following this newsletter for any length of time, you know that I tend to wallow in the more frustrating aspects of the creative process: the blocks and dry spells, the bouts of self-doubt and procrastination, the masochism and obsession and pervasive uncertainty. Personally, I find these stories comforting—it’s such a relief to know I’m not the only one flailing around with my work, with only the dimmest sense of forward progress.
But I want to kick off 2022 by acknowledging the other side of the coin: that making stuff can also be a sheer joy, not to mention a tremendous privilege. These are facts I was reminded of through the late writer bell hooks’s 1999 book Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work, which I first picked up while researching Daily Rituals and revisited after the sad news of hooks’s death last month at age 69.
Unlike so many writer-at-work books, this one does not indulge in poor-me shenanigans. Instead, hooks professes to love writing and savor the time she spends at her desk. In fact, the “rapture” of the title is . . . writing itself (!). Here’s a representative passage, from the preface:
I began to write in my girlhood. And I am writing still, moving swiftly into midlife with a body of words I have made into books beside me. No passion in my life has been as constant, as true as this love. No passion has been as demanding. When words call, to answer, to satisfy the urge, I must come again and again to a solitary place—a place where I am utterly alone. In that moment of grace when the words come, when I surrender to their ecstatic power, there is no witness. Only I see, feel, and know how my mind and spirit are carried away. Only I know how the writing process alchemically alters me, leaving me transformed.
I should probably admit here that I’ve always felt suspicious of people who profess that they love to write or, even worse, long to write (as hooks says of herself at another point). I’ve tended to subscribe to the idea that, as Roland Barthes once put it, “A creative writer is one for whom writing is a problem”—i.e., that if you find writing enjoyable, you must be doing something wrong! But, revisiting hooks’ memoir, I really appreciated how she frames writing as a privilege, and how she used that knowledge to push through its inevitable tribulations. Reflecting on the enormous obstacles that have historically faced Black writers, and especially Black women writers, she writes:
Knowing that black writers had faced difficulties that inhibited their capacity to write or complete works that had been started did serve as a catalyst challenging me to write against barriers—to complete work, to not be afraid of the writing process.
And she adds later:
I often ponder the paths that [Lorraine] Hansberry might have taken had she lived longer. Her death and the early deaths of Pat Parker, Audre Lorde, Toni Cade Bambara, to name only a few, stand as constant reminders that life is not promised—that it is crucial for a writer to respect time. Without urgency or panic, a writer can use this recognition to both make the necessary time for writing and make much of the time.
This feels to me like the right attitude to bring to the New Year, especially in light of all the brilliant writers who passed away in the last month (RIP, Eve Babitz, Joan Didion, Greg Tate, and E. O. Wilson!) and the perilous state of the world in general: Without urgency or panic, to make the necessary time and to make much of that time.
ALSO: GET UP FROM YOUR DESK!
One of the big themes of my Daily Rituals books—and something I’ve recommended in the advice column—is the importance of getting up from your desk to take a walk, take a shower, water the plants, do the dishes, whatever, because so often that’s when our best ideas arrive. But I’ve never spent much time thinking about why that’s the case; I just kind of figured, you know, that’s how it is. So I was really intrigued to hear a partial explanation from The Extended Mind author Annie Murphy Paul on the Ezra Klein Show:
[W]e are these biological evolved creatures who are meant to be moving. Being still is not necessarily our natural state, certainly not for long periods of time. And so when we have to be still in an office or in a classroom, we have to inhibit our natural urge to move. And that uses up some of the mental bandwidth that could otherwise be applied to our learning or our work.
Maybe this is obvious to others, but to me it was a revelation that sitting still is a drain on our mental resources—and thus moving around is helpful because it lifts that cognitive burden.
If you find this stuff intriguing, I really recommend the entire episode (which I’ve listened to three times now)—Paul is full of insights about how our brains actually work and the implications for our working environments.