Creation is Grace: Notes on Daniil Kharms

I’ve been reading I Am a Phenomenon Quite Out of the Ordinary: the Notebooks, Diaries, and Letters of Daniil Kharms (published 2013) and trying to get a picture in my mind of the kind of person Kharms was.

“Creation is grace,” he writes. You can’t force inspiration: you need to be in the right place (at your desk, or out for a walk) and have the right attitude (mind focused on your work, or mind free and alert for new signs), and when the time is right the ideas will come. You’ll sweat them out, or they’ll fall on your head like raindrops.

“I’ve begun writing in my notebook every day. Dangerous, might stop living.” He keeps writing to stay sharp and alert, but it is always a compromise: how much of life can I miss out on to make sure I see the life I do live with the eyes of a writer?

The notebooks and letters, as they are presented, are fragmentary and disconnected: ideas for stories unwritten, plans made and unmade. One of my favourite parts, a to-do list for an evening in May:

For May 12, 1926

“7pm – 10:      Read Dostoevsky The Village of Stepanchivoko.

“After dinner:  Memory exercises.

“12 midnight:  Lights out.”

And the very next line:

“Lyonka came by and the plan changed.”

It’s such a wonderfully ordinary human story, of plans made and thwarted. And leaves so much to the imagination. And it tells us what these notebooks are all about: possibility. These notebooks are like a talisman for Kharms, and by clinging to them he holds close to himself the possibility that things might turn out right, that he might not fail as a writer after all. Because it’s important to be joyful, to do the thing you love for its own sake, whatever is happening in your life. So keep writing.

“I’ve got to really hurry to get the next thing written. How to speed that up?” It’s not as simple as just sitting down and writing it. Anything of value will arrive in its own time, and cannot be hurried. Hard work is the least you can do.

Kharms often appears very superstitious. He opens a Bible at random or rolls some dice to tell his fortune. He knows that something else, some power other than his own, is required for everything to come together. You can’t do it alone – no one ever has.

When you’re lost, every step you take is an experiment, every direction seems as good as any other. In Kharms’s notebooks, diaries, and letters you can see vividly the struggle of an artist as an ongoing cycle of experimentation.

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