This Is the Beginning of Writing

Lauren Elkin

Fall 2018

To know that one does not write for the other, to know that these things I am going to write will never cause me to be loved by the one I love (the other), to know that writing compensates for nothing, sublimates nothing, that it is precisely there where you are not—this is the beginning of writing.

—Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse





I often come across writers I love talking about the beginnings of what they do. Why and where it starts, what gets in its way. It’s a preoccupation of the essay, you might say. A trope. I suppose I’m only now noticing it because I’m at the beginning of a few projects, trying to decide which to devote myself to first. Each has its own hold on me; each requires the exclusion of the others. If I make a decision in any of several directions, that’s the next few years of my life.

I’m at the beginning of another kind of project too, a more personal one, a project of self-definition or self-assertion. It comes down to asking for more than I’ve had in my marriage, wondering if perhaps what I’ve been settling for is enough. Again: my future, and someone else’s, hang in the balance, here at the beginning—or is it somewhere toward the end?

There is someone off to the side, making it difficult to see what I have or could have, generating work that I didn’t count on or allow for. I won’t go toward this person, except in writing, but in writing, I am willing to go very far. I think.

The beginning of writing, like the beginning of love, is a period of risk.






Roland Barthes wrote a whole book about being kept in a state of unfulfilled longing by his erstwhile lover. He writes that it is futile to write to this lover, because the utopia or atopia of language (as he calls it) can never bridge the gap between them. He tries anyway.

Like Barthes, I do not believe that writing will cause me to be loved by this person on the side, but the attempt both reveals and conceals an impulse, a going-toward, that we all share: me, Barthes, and the side-person (that is, you).

Knowing you will read what I write gives it a tension, tightens the pitch, the sail of it. This is one of the laws of physics, and desire: directionality will always condense energy. If I write with you in mind, if I know you are reading, the cast of the wrist will be taut with what I feel for you.

The focusing audience: the friend, the lover, the stranger. We pitch it differently, depending on who we imagine is reading us. But you’re the strangest audience of all: not friend, or not only; not lover, or not yet. You and your ambiguities, you draw me out. You make me write.

“Writing for nobody? Impossible. You fumble, you stop,” writes Félix Guattari in the Anti-Oedipus Papers. For Guattari, someone known or idealized strings the lines across the page. Somebody draws them out of the writer.

Spiders do something similar: when they weave, they produce their own silk as they go; they just need a prompting, it can happen in a split second and they’re off on their lines.  Or they’ll quickly spin a bit between their claws, and leap onto their prey to swaddle them in it. Or they will climb to a high point, raise their abdomens to the sky, spin a strand into the air, and let themselves be ballooned off into the world.

Writing doesn’t require any more than that—a suggestion, an impulse—to weave and wrap a veil of desire around an idea, or to release a thread into the air, so the breeze might carry it off. But this impulse can also be a lack, a longing, that drives us to the page. Hervé Guibert, in Ghost Image:

If I mask my desire, if I deprive it of its gender, if I leave it vague, as others have done more or less cleverly, I would feel as if I were weakening my stories, or writing carelessly. It’s not even a matter of courage (I’m not militant), it has to do with the truth of writing. I don’t even know how to say it more simply.

I don’t know how to say it more simply: it is desire that makes us write.

Lauren Elkin is a writer, translator, and, most recently, the author of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2017). She lives in Paris.

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