On Writing Naked, Bloody, in Exile

Caroline Hagood
February 7, 2018
Comments 6

Drew Coffman

Write naked. That means to write what you would never say.

Write in blood. As if ink is so precious you can’t waste it.

Write in exile, as if you are never going to get home again, and you have to call back every detail.

—Denis Johnson

When I read Denis Johnson’s rules of writing, I picture a writer who has learned to talk with clothes on but write with them off, metaphorically speaking—with all the ugliness and bashful beauty of the denuded human form.

In our little metaphorical theater, this form is both the ghostly body of our imagined writer and of her written form: the genre of the naked, the bloody, the exiled, a land I hope to one day inhabit.

I picture our writer dipping her quill in her own blood before composing. It’s biological, a writing fed by the body as organism. Body and writing: both intricate structures of interdependent elements whose relationships are defined by how they work together as a whole.

What strange and satisfying symmetry.What better way to build our sentences than with our own blood jet, our literal life’s blood? If we use too much, though, we lose our very existence. But maybe that risk is the point, writing with your life on the line.

I imagine this risk would yield creations characterized by, to borrow Johnson’s own language from Jesus’ Son, a kind of “brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there.”

If she writes incinerated diamonds to life in there, what I want is to journey into this envisioned writer’s body. I want to see where that blood ink comes from. I am after origins. I want a genealogy always of any wondrous creation.

In addition to this imagined writer typing away, naked and bloody (figuratively or otherwise), we have another intriguing play of speech and imagination here: the exile that casts the hero/ine’s journey not as storyline but as story of the writing itself.

Here, the hero trying to return home after an astounding adventure is not only Odysseus but also Homer, not only Fuckhead from Jesus’ Son but also, and most crucially, Denis Johnson.

The writing process is catalyzed by this state of exile self-imposed for creative purposes, this sense of longing back the past by way of writing, resurrecting each lost moment through language and desire.

This state is shot through with nostalgia for a home to which you can never return, a home that probably never existed in the first place, itself a myth created by that numinous recipe of thought, language, and longing that is writing.

Your mission should you choose to accept it, is to create the entirety of this place, its people, its underworlds, its infrastructure.You have to write yourself backwards.

If you succeed, your reader will be able to see what you saw. An instance of allowing an outsider, however briefly, to walk around inside you, look back through your eyes. It’s a magical act really, a conjuring, and it’s also a haunting.

You’re asking the particulars of that life you’ll never again have to revisit you, to be with you again for one shining moment. And you vow in return to show that moment to your reader, as though both of you could ever go home again.

6 thoughts on “On Writing Naked, Bloody, in Exile

  1. I counter the idea of capturing a transient moment from the past with the idea that writing is immortalizing. I contrast the denuding process for the writer with the reader’s desire to be fed subtlety, complexity, and mystery.

  2. “And you vow in return to show that moment to your reader, as though both of you could ever go home again.” Indeed, there is no returning home; we can pick up objects/memories and turn them in our hands and minds, but what is behind us is gone–is dead, and maybe that’s what writing bloody is: to pick up a corpse and manage to extract some blood out of it. And if you can’t get blood, there’s always bone.

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