Patrick Ward words, code, and music

Frozen Seas

In a letter to a colleague, Kafka once wrote:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? …we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.

It’s a violent image, but it has ignited inside me the passion I felt for literature and writing. It reminded me of why I wanted to be a writer and why I read to begin with.

And then, in a wonderful occurrence of synchronicity, my grandparents sent me a lecture series called “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft”. How perfectly appropriate and thoughtful a gift! It’s the very catalyst I needed to resume this heady goal of mine.

I don’t presume I’ll ever attain the heights of such great writers as Kafka, but I have found that writing allows me to explore my own frozen sea; one that grows colder every year. Just as a great book can break open my misconceptions of the world and wake me up with it’s blow to my head, I feel the act of writing provides me with an even larger ax to wield. It forces me to look into that shadowy self I hide from the world.

As I looked over my accomplishments last year, I kept thinking that the fiction I wrote pleased me the most. It’s not great by any means, but it was something that stirred me more than anything else. It was probably the least noticed of anything I did last year as well; and probably not nearly as practical an endeavor as writing software or improving my health. But, it allowed me to explore all those ideas, fears, and emotions that I tend to store away, like forcing all the undesirable parts of me, the not so nice parts, into a bag I drag behind me.

Robert Bly talked about these bags in “A Little Book On the Human Shadow”:

Behind us we have an invisible bag, and the part of us our parents don’t like, we, to keep our parents’ love, put in the bag…We spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourself to put in the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again.

Most of us do this, especially in my American culture. We’re taught to be nice little boys and girls, to put our anger, our sexuality, our wildness, our impulsiveness, and our freedom into these bags and seal them up. They are not to be let out.

Bly says we “came as infants ‘trailing clouds of glory’, arriving from the farthest reaches of the universe, bringing with us appetites well preserved”, but that we’re rejected before we can talk, taught to fit in with the expectations of our societies.

I think that’s what Kafka was talking about. He was describing why we need stories to begin with, to remind of us of these chilly, unconscious pieces of ourselves that we methodically store away into our private bags. We need to break them open, to face the hostility of our shadow selves. Because, otherwise, they regress, sitting in the dark, growing in hostility until we finally open them again; and we always open them.

Like so many others, my bag has grown long and heavy, becoming a shadow that grows forever long, darkening the atmosphere around me. For me, the stories I read and write are the very ax I need to break open this seal, to chip away at the icy sea inside me.

So, this year, I’ve decided to continue to claw my way towards that elusive writing life I’ve been searching for and step further into that labyrinth of great literature I’m drawn to. If there is ever a time to break open this frozen sea, it’s now.