Experiments with White Heat

Melissa Mesku

Oct 25, 2018

That exalted moment when, out of nowhere, you are obliterated—completely, blissfully destroyed—by a voluptuous euphoria. A lightning flash of inspiration. That is white heat.

It doesn’t last long. 

The first time I experienced it I was fourteen. I barely had a self to obliterate, but there I was, sitting on my bedroom floor, writing, when what felt like a divine pool of light cut into me. Materiality disappeared. I stopped to pay attention. I watched the spikes of the palm tree outside cast jagged shadows across the room, and for no discernible reason I felt the truth of the world revealed to me. Within a few seconds it was gone. 

I told all my friends, but of course no one knew what the hell I was talking about. It’s probably better that way—what kind of self-respecting outsider is immediately understood? If anything, this gave me reason to try to capture it. Make sense out of it. Bring it back.

My early attempts were simple. I would go around waiting for it to appear. When it showed up, I’d drop everything and start writing. I used to carry around a notebook for this express purpose. I’d write until the moment subsided, and then a little longer, trying to document it honestly and in language that matched.

But paper is a feeble catchment device. When I’d go back later to read what I wrote, I was always disappointed. Invariably it were as if the page had drowned. Metaphors bled into each other, colors ran. I remember there being sparks, heat. My handwriting was dagger-like with precision. But what I wrote was like water: fluid, shapeless. Without a point. 

My later attempts were more involved. Maturity (hah!) demanded that I take this inspiration thing more seriously. Rather than drop everything and run after it, I would hunt it. Trap it. I’d call in sick at work and hole up with a stack of Rumi poetry, or Henry Miller, or whatever promising paperbacks someone had said were wild and manic: Speedboat by Renata Adler, or Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. I’d lie in bed and do nothing but read until I reached a breaking point. Two days in, the edges start fraying. By the third day, you’re rabid, even if you’ve been eating, showering and sleeping (a.k.a., cheating).

All of this was just the ramping up. Three days with your head in some intense, cracked otherworld is not enough. You’ve got to do like the Scandinavians do: bake in the sauna to the point of exhaustion and then dive head first in the snow. After the hibernation, I’d go out. Somewhere insane like the airport, the supermarket. Really, everywhere feels insane when you go out this raw. But—no notebook. Not even a pen. Just go out and be. See, talk, wander around. Ask someone out, lay down in the middle of the road, buy a homeless man a sandwich, put your wallet in someone’s pocket. Just: don’t write.

Only then would I let myself come home and get to work. It wasn’t a guarantee, but I was usually able to write for three or four days straight afterward. Fevered writing, white hot. Unlike anything I’d ever written or read. Elemental and close to the source. Or so I recall.

A few years ago, I found and read a novella I wrote during one of these bouts. It was instantly precious to me. But as to its quality, I had my doubts. What did come across was the pursuit, the search for the elusive animus within the wild heart. But I worried it didn’t work. The whole thing was too slippery. There was nothing to hold on to. No characters, no plot, no scenes. Just flashes of illumination waterlogged by amorphous prose. I was moved, but it wasn’t clear to where. 

Yes, I enjoyed it—but only because it was mine. It would be turgid reading for anyone else. So, back in the closet it went: a work in pursuit of something it could never quite catch.

The odd thing about all this is, since then, I’ve learned I am not the only one with a white heat novella in the closet. Some of my closest friends (the ones who know what the hell I’m talking about) have written uncannily similar things. Only, it wasn’t the zeitgeist uniting us, nor the rudiments of what we’d been taught. It was accidental. We each, alone, had had a mystifying liminal experience and chose to pursue it in writing. We each created our own lexicon, parameters, process. Some were manic like mine; others, less jarring. Yet, for the infinitude of possibility, the work we produced is disturbingly alike.

This, to me, is even more mysterious and bizarre than everything that led up to it. 

Just this year, I encountered Água Viva by Clarice Lispector. In its amorphous prose and plotless pursuit of the intangible, I saw again those unpublished white heat novellas. More than anything, it showed me we were on to something, we who worked in isolation, intuiting our process. It has made me want to exhume all that waterlogged prose we’ve locked away in the closet. Examine it, get closer to the mystery. Of how to communicate the ineffable. Of how to convey the thing that many have words for but no one can define. I suspect it is not achievable, for its very nature may preclude the possibility, but to me that makes the documenting of it all the more significant. For what is a novel if not a chronicle of our trials, our attempts to find meaning in our pursuits? And what pursuit is more worthy of words than trying to locate the source behind them? Every attempt I’ve read has been beautiful but has failed to make sense. Now, I am starting to think it need not make perfect sense in order to make perfect sense.