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Tajja Isen

The Writer Alone

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Tajja Isen | Longreads | September 2018 | 10 minutes (3,511 words)

Imagine the kind of company I was: Between sixteen and twenty-three, solitude lit up the part of my brain that other people save for smoking breaks. How long it had been since my last bout and how soon till the next, when I’d finally slip away and breathe easy. If the smoker’s unit of time was the splintered hour, mine was the unbroken day. Real life did not begin until I was alone. Anything done around others was merely provisional, a wavering line between two points, during which my mind was mostly elsewhere — if I even showed up. To friends, I made out like I was put upon, as though these ascetic stretches were mandated by some higher-up. As if it didn’t feel a bit like playing god to cancel plans and sever a connection. I affected regret, but I thrived on these excisions; tiny cuts that whittled my world into a zone of focus. These, I believed, were the optimal, and probably only, conditions under which art could be made.

It worked, at least for a while. I was militant about the time and space in which I wrote. I’d mimic the rhythms of different idols — Kafka’s wee hours worked well, as we shared a need for silence in houses stuffed with other lives; Franzen’s free passage from early rising to writing, an unbroken motion from one dream state to another. I briefly considered the Nabokovian retreat to drafting in the bathroom. Unpopular heroes, now, but I was very young, and men remain a benchmark for permission to take your work seriously. Franzen in particular compelled me; the way he made his dedication into a sort of faith. Stretches of The Corrections were written with shades drawn and lights off, the author blindfolded — presumably of his own accord — and his ears doubly blocked by plugs and muffs. This to keep the work “free of all clichés.” I admit to a curiosity about this method that still flickers.

Now, this kind of glass-blown aloneness feels like it’s fallen out of fashion; something consigned to a certain type of writer from the late nineties or early aughts, for whom the internet remains a thing to be poked with a stick from afar. I’ve been shaped by Franzen’s work more than it’s cool to admit, but in late 2018, it’s hard to conceive of a model of “genius” that’s aged worse than a white man alone in the dark, sensorily deprived in preparation to pass judgment on the culture. Who dares to cover his eyes, especially now? We tend, and rightly, to be suspicious of the artist who wants to hold herself apart from the quick, polluting current of opinion, yet still reserve the right to jump in and condemn it. The total opt-out has become the stuff of satire, the absurdity of privilege writ large, whether through its deliberate skewering in fiction or the razor-edged photographic negative of a magazine profile. Most people have lives. Read more…

On Not Being Able to Read

Kaimantha / Unsplash, Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Tajja Isen | Longreads | August 2018 | 14 minutes (3,869 words)

They told me I wouldn’t be able to read anymore. That the pleasure of the text, like a lover in a non-law degree, would slowly grow opaque to me — if pleasure were something I even had time to consider. In exchange, I’d learn how to do other things with words: plow through pages of bad legal prose and extract the principle like an animal’s delicate skeleton. Hold up the skull to the dim courtroom light and proclaim its equivalence to the fossils of a different era, a strange phrenology. Memorize the divots in the bones of critters past. Legal education calls this “learning to think like a lawyer.”

After a few weeks of living that story, my body and I revolted at cross-purposes. The stresses of the program congealed into physical illness, which offended me; more often, panic meant productivity. Rather than resting, I hauled myself to a campus book sale I can only recall in feverish splashes — an indiscriminate hunger to grab and possess; the close press of bodies in airless rooms; violent shivers that kept sending my stack of books askew — and somehow came home with a shelf’s width of volumes: Stendhal and Dickens and DeLillo and Mann; Maugham and Poe and Davies and Irving; Gallant and Munro and Atwood and Moore. Mostly men, all of them white, and completely in violation of my network of rules for used book condition. More striking still was that nothing in the stack seemed to call to me, which was likely strategic. Even fever-drunk — a state in which, apparently, I backslid into canonical reverence — I sensed that it would lessen my feelings of loss if the books I kept around me were not ones I burned to read. Loading up my shelves was more gestural than practical; a finger to the mythos of the law school and a memorial to a version of myself that I refused to let disappear entirely. Read more…