Writing Lab: “I start trembling at the risk.” — Susan Sontag’s Notes to Self.

{Peter-Hujar-Susan-Sontag-1975 via Tumblr}

“The only story that seems worth writing is a cry, a shot, a scream. A story should break the reader’s heart.”

It’s rare to come across a writer who not just trembles at the risk but who takes all, and makes you tremble too, on your own terms.

It’s equally rare to be in the presence of an artist of such versatile intellect that she is able to alternate between her inner and outer world with the same level of inquisitiveness and unshakable eloquence, and without losing the life thread that made her writing indistinguishable from her living.

Reading Susan Sontag is almost like seeing a musician turn into music: her life is her instrument, her writing is her hand, her mind is the context. She disappears.

There is perhaps no bigger window into a writer’s heart than his/her journals and notebooks. And it is rare that a true artist, word-alchemist & thought provocateur would not keep at least a notebook, at least scribbled with at least some kind of thought, the birth of an idea—at least.

Susan Sontag’s inner world and outer mastery are beautifully revealed through the recently released  As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980, a second window of time edited into Sontag’s writing lab by her son, David Reiff, three years after Reborn: Journals & Notebooks, 1947-1963.



What her journal tells us about keeping a journal:


“Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate.

In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather—in many cases—offers an alternative to it. . .

Why is writing important? Mainly, out of egotism, I suppose. Because I want to be that persona, a writer, and not because there is something I must say.”


In chronological order, below are a few of her most quotable thoughts on the art of life as indistinguishable from writing, as found in her second volume.



I have a wider range as a human being than as a writer. (With some writers, it’s the opposite.) Only a fraction of me is available to be turned into art.



If only I could feel about sex as I do about writing! That I’m the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond myself.




I think I am ready to learn how to write. Think with words, not with ideas.



A writer, like an athlete, must ‘train’ every day. What did I do today to keep in ‘form’?




In ‘life,’ I don’t want to be reduced to my work. In ‘work,’ I don’t want to be reduced to my life.
My work is too austere.
My life is a brutal anecdote.



The only story that seems worth writing is a cry, a shot, a scream. A story should break the reader’s heart

{Later, that day…}

The story must strike a nerve — in me. My heart should start pounding when I hear the first line in my head. I start trembling at the risk.



The solution to a problem—a story that you are unable to finish—is the problem. It isn’t as if the problem is one thing and the solution something else. The problem, properly understood = the solution.

Instead of trying to hide or efface what limits the story, capitalize on that very limitation. State it, rail against it.



I’m now writing out of rage — and I feel a kind of Nietzschean elation. It’s tonic. I roar with laughter. I want to denounce everybody, tell everybody off. I go to my typewriter as I might go to my machine gun.

But I’m safe. I don’t have to face the consequences of ‘real’ aggressivity. I’m sending out colis piégés [letter-bombs] to the world.



Not only must I summon the courage to be a bad writer—I must dare to be truly unhappy. Desperate. And not save myself, short-circuit the despair.

By refusing to be as unhappy as I truly am, I deprive myself of subjects. I’ve nothing to write about. Every topic burns.



The function of writing is to explode one’s subject — transform it into something else. Writing is a series of transformations.

Writing means converting one’s liabilities (limitations) into advantages. For example, I don’t love what I’m writing. Okay, then—that’s also a way to write, a way that can produce interesting results.



Two kinds of writers. Those who think this life is all there is, and want to describe everything: the fall, the battle, the accouchement, the horse-race. That is, Tolstoy. And those who think this life is a kind of testing-ground… and want to describe only the essentials. That is, Dostoyevsky. The two alternatives. How can one write like T. after D.? The task is to be as good as D. — as serious spiritually, + then go on from there.


Sometime in 1979

There is a great deal that either has to be given up or be taken away from you if you are going to succeed in writing a body of work.



A failure of nerve. About writing. (And about my life — but never mind.) I must write myself out of it.

If I am not able to write because I’m afraid of being a bad writer, then I must be a bad writer. At least I’ll be writing.

Then something else will happen. It always does.

I must write every day. Anything. Everything. Carry a notebook with me at all times, etc.

I read my bad reviews. I want to go to the bottom of it — this failure of nerve.



Ordinary language is an accretion of lies. The language of literature must be, therefore, the language of transgression, a rupture of individual systems, a shattering of psychic oppression.

The only function of literature lies in the uncovering of the self in history.



Making lists of words, to thicken my active vocabulary. To have puny, not just little, hoax, not just trick, mortifying, not just embarrassing, bogus, not just fake.

I could make a story out of puny, hoax, mortifying, bogus. They are a story.



The love of books. My library is an archive of longings.



Suggested next step: Get the book and let’s have coffee over it.

“I write partly in order to change myself; it’s an instrument I use.”

“Writing is a mysterious activity. One has to be at different stages of conception and execution, in a state of extreme alertness and consciousness and in a state of great naiveté and ignorance, Although this is probably true of the practice of any art, it may be more true of writing because the writer—unlike the painter or composer—works in a medium that one employs all the time, throughout one’s waking life.


Kafka said: “Conversation takes the importance, the seriousness, the truth out of everything I think.”


I would guess that most writers are suspicious of conversation, of what goes out in the ordinary uses of language. People deal with this in different ways. Some hardly talk at all. Others play games of concealment and avowal, as I am, no doubt, playing with you.


There is only so much revealing one can do. For every self-revelation, there has to be a self-concealment. A life-long commitment to writing involves a balancing of these incompatible needs.


But I do think that the model of writing as self-expression is much too crude. If I thought that what I’m doing when I write is expressing myself, I’d junk my typewriter. It wouldn’t be liveable-with. Writing is a much more complicated activity than that.”


{From a 1975 Interview with the Boston Review.} 


“The poet was always—would always be—in the process of being reborn. Definition of a genius?”

She was asking herself. And through a lifetime of mysterious rebirth, she became her own answer.



Get more Sontag mystery & mastery here: 

Interview by the Paris Review. {Edward Hirsch, The Art of Fiction, No. 143.}

WRITERS ON WRITING; Directions: Write, Read, Rewrite. Repeat Steps 2 and 3 as Needed. {Herself for the NYT.}

Susan Sontag’s cabinet of curiosities. {Lauren Elkin on The Quarterly Conversation.}






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Andrea Balt
Co-Founder/Editor-in-Chief of Rebelle Society, Wellness Alchemist at Rebelle Wellness & Professional Dream Chaser at Creative Rehab. Unfinished book with a love for greens, bikes and poetry; raised by wolves & adopted by people; not trying to make art but to Be Art. Holds a BA in Journalism & Mass Communication, an MFA in Creative Writing & a Holistic Health Coach degree from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition®. In her work she tries to reflect the wholeness of the human experience by combining Art & Health + Mind & Body + Darkness & Brilliance into a more alive, unabridged and unlimited edition of ourselves. She is also on a quest to reinstate Creativity as one of our essential Human Rights to (hopefully and soon) be included in the UN Declaration. Connect with her in the Social Media Jungle via Facebook, Twitter & Instagram and sign up for her FREE MuseLetter.


  • terra commented on October 29, 2012 Reply
    I am enthralled by your posts. Thank you for sharing yourself with words, feelings, impressions.
    • Andrea Balt
      Andrea Balt commented on March 8, 2013 Reply
      Thank you for your kind feedback Terra. So glad you enjoyed it. I highly recommend her journals. She was an extraordinary thinker and artist.
  • Signs commented on July 14, 2013 Reply
    Thank you so much for sharing this. It’s extraordinarily helpful – an answer to the question I woke up with. And what an interesting thing life is.

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