By Rebekah Hall
“Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how, you begin to die a little. The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark. - Agnes de Mille
Leap after leap in the dark.
I repeat the phrase like a mantra. It locates me as a point on an intricate map, provides light for foreign routes I’ve overlooked for fear I’d stray the path. Leap. When I’m about to forsake my novel-writing duties, again, to explore a completely different idea, to discover a whole new set of questions. To follow curiosity is to risk becoming lost, but the pleasure is inspiring. Liberating. Addicting.
The moment you know how, you begin to die a little.
The illusion of certainty is an inescapable four-walled pit. I’ve decided to eliminate shoulds, as in, I should work on the novel that lies cold and neglected in stacks of shuffled and hacked pages in a crate under my bed. It recently occurred to me that I may have lost my novel when I designated it to the structural constraints of a form and bound it with certain rules. As if I already knew what it was and thus, the exploration over. This, of course, isn’t to suggest that rules and forms and planning don’t also bring creative ideas to fruition. But those things don’t work for me right now. I’m under the titillating spell of curiosity. I’m addicted.
The artist never entirely knows.
I’ve been writing something unexpected and undefined, and like a brand new love affair I’m consumed and feverish with desire for it. The mystery of it, the possibilities, the lack of limitations and baggage. I don’t dare give it a name.
I recently tried to describe Claudia Rankine’s Citizen to a friend, which is tricky because it doesn’t fit into established genre. It ranges from visual to poetry to prose to references to YouTube videos to documentary scripts to several in-betweens and beyonds. Citizen is bold in both style and content. Rankine takes our hand and pulls us over the edge with her, into chasms that are not only ugly, but fresh and terrifying and heartbreaking and illuminating. All of those entryways essential and necessary to explain race in America:
“You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.
You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.”
Facts on victims of police brutality and organizational discrimination and government neglect are interspersed with poetry that digs into the hurt:
“Some years there exists a wanting to escape--
you, floating above your certain ache--
still the ache coexists.
Call that the immanent you--
You are you even before you
grow into understanding you
are not anyone, worthless,
not worth you.
Even as your own weight insists
you are here, fighting off
the weight of nonexistence.”
Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how.
Rankine once said she doesn’t think much about genre, but about the writing. I can’t help but think were she to limit herself to established boundaries, her work wouldn’t quite move me the way it does.
I wonder if perhaps this diversion I’ve taken will eventually lead me back to my novel, wide open to its world. Not having the answers is what allows us to empathize, to listen, to see without preconceived notions, to create real connections, to find truths. In living, and in writing.
Rebekah Hall writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, holds an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and is a cofounder and coordinator for HI typ/O Salon, a Chicago-based, multidisciplinary artist collective. She also cofounded Mixer Publishing.