A Conversation with S.D. Chrostowska, author of “Permission”

Cailin Neal: Silence and solidarity in Permission challenge the normal conceptions of silence as loneliness or empty space. Silence can be used as punishment, can deem someone an outcast, and can provide spiritual comfort. Writing is a very solitary and silent act, but what did it mean to you as you wrote?

S.D. Chrostowska: The solidarity had to be imagined. Having grown up in cold-war Poland, when Solidarity was something my family discussed in hushed tones, over the dinner table but never over the telephone, I think of solidarity as very tangible yet secret, conspiratorial. At the time, if you had any ties to the underground, you couldn’t count on seeing your friends again, or hearing from them, since correspondence was intercepted, but the sense of shared adversity kept members and fellow travelers together. I suppose the experiment I contrived for the book was an attempt to create a community of this kind, even if initially only of two strangers. In that sense, writing is an exercise in solidarity with potential readers—against atomization, disempowerment, marginality.

I’m a largely self-motivated, self-directed person, partly because of my studies, partly because my ideas and their relationship to each other are clarified on the screen rather than in direct dialogue. Most people associate writing with solitude; the writer’s craft is not practiced in a workshop, although the rise of the creative writing industry may be changing that for good. I am, incidentally, all in favour of this new spirit of collaboration, not as part of the process but as the process of writing as such. But that’s neither here nor there…

Finding one’s own voice—for many the going quest—this usually takes some doing. Social interaction, even when it is geared to honing one’s skills as a writer, remains on the feedback end of the spectrum. Something first needs to be fed to receive feedback, and our responses to this feedback revolve not around solidarity with others but, again, mainly around the solitude of the writing act, hunkering down in silence so you can hear only yourself, undisturbed. I’m not even speaking of unplugging, checking out, but seclusion so quiet you can hear a word drop.

The cliché is writing needs solitude to even get going and feelings of loneliness are detrimental to it, distracting, a sign of weakness. If when writing you are lonely, you are not cut out to be a writer. This is not quite right, in my experience. My insistence on solidarity when writing, in my writing, was a way of banishing loneliness from my little world and, by the same token, achieving this mythical solitude of mental stability. Writers’ solitude is not something I take for granted, pretending to be “gifted” in it. A writer has to work for his or her solitude, which is to say, for peace of mind. And building a sense of solidarity, having to imagine it without any real proof of it, kept me going and allowed me to work in solitude. It was a selective solidarity, with someone and by extension all those whose work is painstaking, not always cheerful, sometimes difficult and repulsive. If I wanted to connect with as many people as possible I would have written a different book.

CN: The book is a record of your emails to an anonymous artist whose silence gives you permission to continue writing. I imagine the editing process, however, to be quite noisy. What was that like?

SD C: Yes, I suppose it was noisy. It certainly wasn’t musical, more like tuning an instrument. While I am not a poet, musician, or dancer, rhythm is very important to me and I worked on many passages aloud. I have it in my head that those who have an ear for the aural and expressive qualities of language would be drawn to their cadences and melody, their emotional music.

CN: Were there ever times when you wish your reader would break his or her silence? Were there ever times of paranoia when you were convinced that you words weren’t being read or the reader disliked your notes? Or did you always have this sense of “permission” from your reader?

SD C: This was the exciting part of the experience. Any day I could be told to stop, or worse: asked about my identity. I was never sure whether or not I was being read—except maybe once. In any case, the only way the addressee could prove they understood me was by not replying. But perhaps I did not understand myself. Perhaps if they wrote something back I would have dropped the conceit and continued the book together. I’ll admit that was sometimes a wish. But day to day it was crucial to be deprived of any recognition, maybe forever. This worked well. All the doubts one had concerning permissiveness, poetic license, made it into the book: what’s inherently permitted to writers, or to artists generally, where should they draw the line, how do they respond should someone draw that line for them…

CN: You deliberately chose to email these notes to a specific person. When you were writing, did you always have him or her in the back of your mind? Do you often have a reader in mind when you write?

SD C: At all times. Sometimes that reader is me, alternately critical and indulgent. In the case of Permission it was someone. But I do not share the enthusiasm of those who set out to win over everyone so as not to have to work for the affection of anyone in particular.

For this purpose, I set up an experiment, which was to see how long I could write to someone without any confirmation or disconfirmation that what I wrote was read or even properly received. I needed a pretext to focus and occupy my mind.

CN: You say that language is a prison because there is something lost between your brain and what you produce on the page. On the other hand, it gives us freedom and without language, this book wouldn’t exist (to say the least). This dichotomy can be difficult to overcome for any writer and it is almost certain that, at some point, a reader will misunderstand your words. Would you ever come to the defense of your work? If so, how?

SD C: My impulse is to say that this work is unjustifiable and indefensible. It is on the whole maybe a bit too audacious for its own good. Perhaps my hope is that it can “defend” itself, if need be, or at least attract some good advocates? I don’t really know.

I’m far more interested in misinterpretations than in my own explications of any of it. What else can be made of the book? I know it from only one perspective. Since writing it, I have thought about it and my thinking has definitely changed. It is now part of a larger communicative strategy.

Apparently difficulty, in literature at least, is dead. Meaning should not be difficult to get, the reader should not work for it, even if the author had to. Reading should be like harvesting silk, which traditionally involves killing the worm with a needle or boiling the entire cocoon. I’m not against difficulty, any more than I am against simplicity. I like directness, and that is a kind of simplicity: naivety. Difficult topics can be reduced by means of framing and formulating questions, making them simpler than they appear in reality. But that reduction is a function of keeping focus, or vice versa. Already language reduces the richness of reality on all channels. I like to break down the teeming multiplicity and, yes, the confusion of the mind in language even further, with language. So I believe I am making things simpler. Having said that, the book represents a process of working things out, which is a difficult process. It bears the traces of that difficulty. And it keeps the original chronology. Fernando Pessoa wrote somewhere that “to transcend a thing rightly you must first pass through that thing.” Without the work there would have been no transcendence. Once you transcend your difficulties, the work simply falls away. It is what’s left, the only tangible trace of this process other than one’s own body—neither of which, book or body, is inscrutable, certainly not after death…but even then never wholly “readable” either.

This was an exploratory work, it served its purpose in my life, it kept me occupied, now it is well into its afterlife. I drew the line at publication. Who am I to imprison it by determining what it means? Besides, to have a lock on the meaning of one’s words is not to be heard, not to be read.

CN: It is true, of course, that you have only experienced your book from your own perspective. But time can sometimes offer another perspective. It’s been a number of years since you’ve written Permission. Do you have some new sort of perspective? Or have you had experiences that change the way you see certain ideas or passages?

SD C: I went from thinking of Permission as a one off to perhaps a method of writing. Dialogue seems much more appealing these days.

CN: These notes were sent once a week. What kind of writing schedule did you keep?

SD C: I composed pretty much all the time in those months. I had no other engagements. The schedule is reproduced exactly. The pieces underwent minimal editing after they were sent. So the text is very close to what it was at every point dated in the book. The road to publication was long, so I had time to tweak some phrases, add a bit of material, but I wanted to remain faithful to the experience of the experiment.

The book has a clear arc, even though I did not set a deadline and its structure emerged in the writing. A cultivated silkworm is well fed before it sets about making its cocoon, which takes only so long to make. Afterwards, if it is lucky, it is free to live out its life. I was malnourished and without prospects at the time. One day it became clear that I could not spin my thread even one day longer. I recently heard that it takes nine months to write the average book—that seems appropriate, and it is certainly confirmed here.

CN: Writing in first person and writing about an experiment that is truly your own invites a lot of invasiveness: I can imagine the room you type in, what you look like, what you’re wearing, the expression on your face as you type. I’m sure that your anonymous reader, the receiver of your emails, could also imagine the same about you. A simple question, but, how does that make you feel?

SD C: In a game of hide and seek, you look for the person, not the environment. I wanted to divert attention from myself (the physical me). But I also dropped a few things in the book that could indicate my age, for example. Also, my tone and subject matter are not ageless. Sounds like invitations to a game.

You know the Cyrano de Bergerac story: a young lady receives letters from a grotesque-looking man in love with her but in the employ of her inarticulate suitor. (The story is actually fictional.) The curious thing about being an anonymous writer of personal letters is that one inadvertently courts the extremes of imagination. I might be Gwyneth Paltrow but I might just as easily be Gerard Depardieu. Estimations of the size of the real Bergerac’s nose also varied: in all likelihood it was not the size of a toucan’s beak, but a parrot’s.

I’d like to think that this suspense, which might never be resolved, piqued some curiosity.

CN: How do you organize your bookshelf? And which writers occupy this “haunted cemetery” (I really love that idea) that is your library?

SD C: And I love the question. My library is a shadow of what it was five years ago, when I finished Permission. The books lining my shelves obscure from view other books, like tombstones in a crowded churchyard. Whatever I need is to hand. Since I began teaching full time, it has become important to know where to find certain books, a manageable number. The rest collects dust out of sight. I do have a few tomes put aside—equivalent to an Avenue of Notables in some cemeteries—which remain unfinished and which certainly haunt me. Werner Jaeger’s Paideia, Michel Vovelle’s Death and the West, Manuel and Manuel’s Utopian Thought in the Western World, Marx’s Capital, Adam Michnik’s anthology Against Anti-Semitism, 1936-2009, the works of folklorist-mythographer Stanislaw Vincenz, a mentor to Milosz, Dostoevsky’s Writer’s Diary, Thoreau’s Journal, anthologies of a largely forgotten Polish writer, Zygmunt Haupt. A nostalgic, haunting procession of spines. Then, of course, there are great masses of digital material—articles, essays, reviews—and a great temptation to stockpile them. Most are dumped in a Downloads folder, except those sorted thematically. I have not graduated to organizing software like Papers, and I do not use tags, so it is all rather primitive by current standards, among people who also handle large quantities of scholarly literature. Does this amorphous digital mass haunt me? When my hard drive runs out of space, programs crash, screens freeze, and all manner of reminders pop up on all sides. This accumulation is also an active source of distress: space is too limited. So one or another project for expansion is always in the works.

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