Writing, the Beating of Metal, and Self-Transformation

I have been greedily raiding Divisadero‘s stores for little gems to excerpt here. But with writing that lovely and illuminating, there is little cause for shame. So once again:

Sometimes truth is too buried for adults, it can be found only in hours of rewritings during the night, the way metal is beaten into fineness.

I like this description of ‘hours of rewriting’ and the comparison with ‘the way metal is beaten into fineness.’ I like the invocation of the malleability and ductility of metal for a simple reason: we think of metal as hard, shiny, resistant, an archetype of unbending resistance, the epitome of heaviness; it always sinks, always hurts when it makes contact with soft, resistant flesh. In forming these associations, we forget the science lessons that introduced us to the systematic study of metals: when we were informed of metals’ distinctive physical properties in the domain of ‘solids’, that metal could be turned into wires and films, into shapes of our wildest imaginings. The way in which that was done, by repeated hammerings and drawings out, by all manners of tools, also introduced us to the notion of metal as transformable, as flexible. Metals belied expectations in many ways: they weren’t liquids, but would flow when subjected to the right temperatures; they were hard but not undeformably rigid; they gave a little, if you pushed a lot; if you persisted, you could turn it into wafer thin coverings, like those films of silver used to cover Indian sweets.

For many reasons, the comparison of the beating of metals into fineness with the process of rewriting is a good one. We think of our written words as cast in stone, as impervious, they resist our sternest imprecations to magically read better, to be better than they are. But we need to change them, to transform them, to not be put off by their seemingly metallic nature. Sometimes I describe the act of persistent rewriting as a ‘massaging’ but that description does not work as well as Ondaatje‘s does. The ‘massaging’ speaks of a caress, a gentle moulding; the beating into fineness summons up better the imposition of will that a determined rewrite or deep, sustained, judicious edit demands.

Lastly, the bit that begins that sentence above: self-discovery and transformation, the digging up of archival materials left untouched for too long by those who have grown up, takes attention, work, persistence and diligence; it can be aided and accomplished by writing, by bringing it forth. Much like the ‘beating into fineness’ of the metal produces an entirely new shape, look, and feel, the act of persevering at writing can, by steadily dredging up the subterranean, produce a new self.

So writing is not just productive of the written word, it can also make a new self. And just like the metal was previously imagined to be cast in the mold that had first produced it and yet somehow, transformed, we might find more flexibility, more wiggle room for maneuver than we might have imagined.

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