Writing Without Words

My life has never been “normal.” There has often been an element of the surreal and catastrophic to it. I am one of those people that things seem to “happen to.” It’s a natural storyteller’s life, gifting me as it does with so much of the fantastic and magical, with so many strange twists and turns, so many unexpected events, conflicts, and puzzles to resolve. But there was a time, not so long ago, when things really went off the rails even for me. During those years I was in transit a lot, living out of suitcases, ping ponging between lawyers, courtrooms, and hospital beds, ordinary life shunted aside. It was a time of fear, grief, exhaustion, and disorientation. The bedrock of things felt spongy underfoot. Some days I thought I might open the front door to nothingness, just a great swirling wall of fog without horizon or path on Anything Can Happen Day. It felt like I’d somehow stumbled behind the stage set curtain and into the space where all the bits and pieces of reality lay in jumbled heaps not yet assembled into anything meaningful or familiar. I guess that’s what they call shock.

From “Collected Works” by Rita J. McNamara. Asemic writing scrolls in jars.

During those years my art, when I could find time for it at all, changed. It became more abstract and I started scribbling across the pieces, a kind of script that looked like writing but formed no recognizable words. And part of me thought how strange: I’m a writer who’s writing things no one can read including me. And yet it was deeply satisfying and meaningful. I had a story to tell but no words to tell it with.

“My Paper Robe” by Rita J. McNamara. Asemic collage.

In the late Nineties, poet Jim Leftwich coined the term, “asemic” for this type of quasi writing and the practice exploded into a worldwide literary art movement. By definition, asemic writing is writing devoid of semantic content or meaning. But is it possible to create something completely devoid of meaning? Although the writing is illegible it flows as an abstract expression and sometimes includes pictograms, symbols, and sigils that speak to the non-verbal symbol-loving right brain. Sometimes the writings are arranged into paragraphs or documents that the right brain intuitively interprets as text. It “feels” like you’re reading it.

“Mountain Wind” by Rita J. McNamara. Asemic collage.

The oldest known examples of asemic writing were done during the Tang Dynasty by Zhang Xu and Huaisu, two monks famous for wild illegible calligraphy. Wild mark-making has been a part of art throughout human history and there are plenty of modern examples in dada, surrealism, and abstract expressionism from artists like Michaux, Kandinsky, Twombly, Pollock, Isou, Ernst, Morita Shiryu, Satie, and Demisache, to name just a few. At the turn of the millennium, a Vietnamese group calling itself the Zenei Gang of Five gained attention for their illegible works. Writing without meaningful words, they said, is a means of expressing that which cannot be said, the meanings that lie beyond the specificity of naming and words. It is a means of pushing calligraphy into the world of abstract art. One modern asemic calligrapher, Saitu Kaikkonen, puts it this way: Asemic art represents a kind of language that’s universal and deeply lodged within our unconscious minds…and can serve as a common language, an abstract post-literate one, that we can use to understand one another regardless of background or nationality.

Asemic writing is a very zen concept, I think: saying nothing and everything all at the same time.

From “Collected Works” by Rita J. McNamara. Asemic writing scrolls in jars.




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