Visceral Wisdom and Music—How Diana Goetsch Got (and still gets) into Writing

Sylke Jackson: Did you write when you were a child? If not, when and how did you start writing? 

Diana Goetsch: No. Sports were my main thing as a kid. I once wrote a report on Saturn copied directly from the encyclopedia. “This is great!” I remember telling myself, as I copied what someone else wrote into my notebook, feeling totally like an author. I was seven.

I started writing as a senior in high school, in a creative writing class where we were basically encouraged to turn our literal experiences into literal scenes. It was mostly about the thrill of self-expression, which teenagers can’t get enough of, and a kind of narcissistic revision, making yourself look how you want to look on the page, which you may not have looked like when the actual thing happened. The creativity was buried; it was there in the shaping of scenes, especially description, but there was little imaginative training. I came out of that class wanting to be a fiction writer, but I never was able to turn the corner on a story, which I now know comes from surprising oneself. I would have had to train in that, which is what started to happen when I switched to poetry, and began doing some actual writing, about ten years later. I guess I had a late start.

SJ: So how’d you switch to poetry?

DG: With me, I first stopped creative writing altogether. That’s what college and intellectual writing did. I was very good at philosophical analysis and lit crit shit and research—stuff that matters to zero people. As someone prone to analysis, it took time for me to crawl out from under the shadow of all that impressive bullshit, and it was poetry and its music that lured me. I’m probably most known as an image poet, but it was the sounds and rhythms of Whitman and Eliot, and later Frost and others, that drew me to what the heart has to say. Poetry woke up my body, and I sensed its wisdom was far deeper, and infinitely more interesting, than the thinking mind—which actually is incapable of wisdom or insight, only analysis. Nowadays, even when writing prose, which I’ve come back to after these many years, I listen for the music. I’m looking for the vividness and physicality of images, but above all I’m listening. What Duke Ellington said—“If it sounds good it is good”—is as true for writing as it is for music.

SJ: What draws you into writing now?

DG: These days I will start a piece of writing with the slightest glimpse, a snapshot of a moment, which might be just an image. But the snapshot needs to be sharp—like from a camera a Sports Illustrated photographer might use, one that works at high speeds with small apertures—for me to trust it. What I trust is a kind of visceral wisdom in the image, which allows for sense exploration that will lead me to other images and moments that are also wise. It is far better for me to locate wisdom “out there” in these sharp moments, and go with them, than to try and plan some big systematic thing, like a bank heist.

Lately I’ve been working on a memoir about my life, during most of which I assumed I was a man sentenced by some mysterious force to live alone. It’s a huge subject, one I can’t possibly wrap my head around. So each day I begin with a snapshot. One snapshot was just me sitting on an orange couch at age 17, staring at the ceiling and trying to imagine a future. Another is at age 24 crossing Adams Street in Brooklyn on a brutally hot summer day, thinking for the first time that it would be better if I were dead, then thinking if I was going to die I might as well go out once dressed as a woman. These moments function as manageable portals, through which I can enter areas of my life that have been too overwhelming or toxic to write about.

SJ: So working with image circumvents analysis and allows you to engage potentially overwhelming feelings without being crushed by them. That’s cool. Does your process start with description of the image, free association, or just whatever happens?”

DG: It starts with description—the orange couch, for example: how it looks, smells, how it is to sit in, the room around it, what’s out the window. I put my body fully in the space, then I go to the moment, extending to thoughts, memories, sequences of moments. But I could also come back to that couch, anchoring my body in the space.

SJ: Description, body in the space, the moment extending into the thoughts… and in that flow you find music?

DG: Sound turns out to be as vital for writing prose as it is for poetry. This is especially so when I want to convey an idea. I don’t actually trust my own ideas unless they are accompanied by a compelling rhythm. Here is a fairly conceptual passage that comes at the end of a chapter from the memoir, which I wouldn’t have allowed unless it had music:

“Buddhists have a view called sacred outlook, which holds that every event in the universe, and therefore everything that happens to us, is an expression of love. It is an outrageous idea, and not something to be said out loud when, for example, a friend calls you in shock at having just received a cancer diagnosis. Nevertheless, it is the view that mass murders, as much as colliding galaxies, are, from an ultimate perspective, expressions of love. In my case, the bullying, from a certain distance, was just my family and friends, or life itself, pointing out to me that I was different. I had a different journey I needed to make, one there was no visible model for, and I had better protect that journey. I stayed alone as a young adult, isolating myself, which was excruciatingly painful, but it protected me. It wouldn’t be until I was 50 before I came out to myself. I could say I couldn’t take it anymore. I could also say I was waiting for a time when my culture began to make space for my kind. I could call this cowardice, but I could also call it love. With sacred outlook, every story is a love story.”

I suppose it’s image that lets me enter subjects, and sound that lets me out.