“So, Rachel, you want to be a writer?” the cook asks me.
I’m at work but it’s a slow night so I linger in the kitchen to chat with the staff.
I nod my head and the cook says, “To be a writer, you have to touch reality.”
Of course. Write what you know. I’ve been working in a restaurant for the past four months so I feel pretty qualified to write about working in a restaurant. But then again, do I really know the ins and outs of restaurant work, the tallies and trump cards, the social dynamics and all their micro-power-shifts? Have I truly touched the reality of working in a restaurant?
When Derrida talks about touch, he says, “I cannot touch the heart of the matter; touching you, I only ever touch the very outside of you with the very outside of me,” meaning quite literally that we can never touch a person’s soul, our skin only touches their skin. “Contact is only ever at the absolute limits.”*
So as a writer, if I want to touch reality – reality, with all its people, businesses, systems – I can only ever touch its surface, writing on how a cook behaves, how the restaurant functions, how a customer appears to feel. I could write about how a customer truly feels but I will never know if it’s accurate. I guess that’s when I can get creative. But then, that creates an interruption. I would no longer be writing on fact. It would be fiction. Would I still be touching reality?
With touch, “something always intervenes to disrupt the apparent immediacy of touch… touching presupposes interruption, lest touch simply vanish into consubstantiality.” If I physically touch you, “the resistance of skin as I feel myself touch you is testimony to this interruption.”**
There can be no touching without something resisting the touch, otherwise the touching thing will become one with the touched thing. I can’t touch reality with my writing unless reality resists my writing – it resists by featuring gaps that I can’t fill without my imagination.
So hence our need for fiction, whether it’s in creative writing or everyday gossip. In order to touch the souls of people and of things, in order to touch reality, we need creativity, we need unreality. Reality and unreality touch and create human understanding. It’s faulty and requires the humility to acknowledge that it’s faulty, but that’s just how we understand things. We use our imaginations when reality runs out.
So to be a writer, you have to touch reality. You also have to get creative when reality says, “You can’t touch me!”
*Derrida, Jacques. On Touching. Jean-Luc Nancy. Trans. Christine Irizarry. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2005, pg. 267
**Maclachlan, Ian. ‘‘Long Distance Love: On Remote Sensing in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 109.’’ Sensual Reading: New Approaches to Reading in its Relations to the Senses. Ed. Michael Syrontinski and Ian Maclachlan. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2001, pg. 58