|What Judy has|
been up to.
Despite working together at STU, my pal Judy Bachay and I rarely bump into each other. When we do, it becomes a quick catch-up conversation. What have you been up to, she always asks, and I abbreviate the major events. Whenever these include some kind of trauma, like a death or an illness, or some kind of emotionally laden story, she always asks me the same thing: Are you writing about it, Celia?
Judy’s assumption is common. Most people believe that suffering is de facto inspiration, and that, moreover, writing about something traumatic is therapeutic, both for the writer and the eventual readers. But writing doesn’t work for everyone this way; it certainly doesn’t for me, and Judy’s question always leaves me stumped. I’m never “writing about it.” When I’m in the middle of some personal crisis, I can’t write. Don’t get me wrong—I want to be this sort of writer. It seems to me that, as my friend Steve likes to remind me, quoting of course that wonderful film, Throw Momma from the Train, “a writer writes, always.” It makes me question whether I’m a writer at all when I spend long stretches of time without writing. Shouldn’t the impulse overcome me, shouldn’t writing be the primary means through which I digest my life? Shouldn’t I be able to write at the funeral, the hospital, in the middle of the storm, if I am really a writer?
and other collected
|Glück’s first four|
books are now
collected in one
Perhaps not. One of the most heartening essays on this subject is Louise Glück’s “On Impoverishment,” a characteristically depressing baccalaureate address she gave at Williams College in 1993. I have read it over many times and could spend the rest of this post quoting it at length—every sentence is so resonant for me. In it, she analyzes a two-year period of her life between Firstborn and The House on Marshland, her first and second books. She spent these two years without writing. Not on purpose, not as some bizarre exercise. She simply wasn’t capable of it, and assumed the gift of writing had left her. She was, of course, still able to write, and then some. But during this time she lay, in essence, fallow. What she came to realize later was that she was processing—achieving a change in her life that would result in a change in her writing. She explains:
To teach myself hope, I began, thirty years ago, to chart periods of silence in the same way that I dated poems. And I have repeatedly seen long silence end in speech. Moreover, the speech, the writing that begins after such a siege, differs always from what went before, and in ways I couldn't through act of will accomplish. And this happens even when outward circumstances don't change at all. Some work is done through suffering, through impoverishment, through the involuntary relinquishing of a self.
Despair in our culture tends to produce wild activity: change the job, change the partner, replace the faltering ambition instantly. We fear passivity and prize action, meaning the action we initiate. But the self cannot be willed back. And flight from despair forfeits whatever benefit may arise in the encounter with despair.
I have found this in my own life to be true. One of the most traumatic experiences of my life happened in 2002. My mother, 73 years old yet seemingly in perfect health, went from a simple cold to a lung collapse in the course of just a few days. On Christmas Eve she was chatting with my mother-in-law about how lucky she was to be so old and yet not have to take even one pill, and the day after Christmas we were rushing her to the hospital. We still don’t know quite what happened. Obviously, she wasn’t as well as we thought. She was self-medicating for her asthma, and back then all of us smoked. She spent a week on a ventilator. At one point I thought they would ask me to sign the papers that would turn it off. Miraculously, she came out of it, but so weak she remained an invalid for months.
|How I got through my|
Back then I was still “working on my dissertation.” We had no money for a nurse, and so I called in and asked for a semester off. I thought I could surely continue writing while I nursed my mother. Without teaching, I’d have all this free time. And I did. Nursing my mother and keeping house took time, but not all day. Yet, I didn’t write one word of that blasted thing, or of anything else. I spent my free time maniacally collecting fish and insects on Animal Crossing.
Why couldn’t I write, with all that free time? Because, of course, I had none. While I was lying in bed next to my mother, controller in hand, chasing a virtual butterfly, it may have been the case that I was “doing nothing” on the outside, but inside, whether I chose to acknowledge it or not, my mind was racing. Would my mother die? If she stumbled on the way to the bathroom, could I stop her from falling?
Could I stop her from dying?
I couldn’t face these thoughts, much less write about them. That’s why I was putting all my energy into the mindless task of virtual fishing. Moreover, I couldn’t “make” myself confront these thoughts in an attempt to force the movement from despair to whatever state follows. In our action-driven world, Glück observes, it’s difficult to accept the function of surrender:
Unfortunately, it doesn't follow that, since despair can sponsor deep change, capitulation should be immediate and absolute. The condition demands resistance at the outset; to treat impoverishment as a prerequisite to wealth, to turn it into a kind of fraternity hazing, is to deny the experience. It must be feared and resisted; it must exhaust all available resources, since its essence is defeat.
The alternative? A life made entirely of will and ultimately dominated by fear. Such a life expresses itself in too prompt, too superficial adjustments of what can, in the external environment, be manipulated, or in a cautious clinging to those habits and forms which, because they are not crucial, cannot, in being lost, do much damage. The deft skirting of despair is a life lived on the surface, intimidated by depth, a life that refuses to be used by time, which it tries instead to dominate or evade. It is all abrupt movement or anxious cleaving; it does not understand that random action is also a kind of stasis. In its horror of passivity, it forgets that passivity over time is, by definition, active. There exists, in other words, a form of action felt as helplessness, a form of will that exhibits, on the surface, none of the familiar dynamic properties of will. Fortitude is will.
Which is not, of course, to say that you shouldn’t put up a fight. The fight is part of the process, and even Glück acknowledges that surrender can go too far. There are a few actions you can take that help you through impoverishment.
During her period of impoverishment, Glück says that “nothing I read, nothing I saw or heard provoked response. And in the absence of response to the world, the act of writing, which had been, which is, the center of my life, the act or dream that suffuses the life with meaning, had virtually stopped.” But she kept reading, or else she wouldn’t have known that it wasn’t working. Even if everything you read seems dead to you, just read it. Think about why it’s dead. Keep looking until one day she comes back to you, the muse that lives so often in the work of others.
Keep a Journal
You may not be able to write formally, but the act of keeping a journal will keep the machine oiled and help you sort your feelings. Don’t worry about it making sense. Be simple and mechanical—record, rather than interpret, what you have done, seen, eaten, said. Though these mere facts may seem meaningless at the moment, later they might supply the details of your journey back.
Carve Physical and Psychic Spaces for Your WritingVirginia Woolf’s famous desire for a room is more than physical, and whether you’re writing or not, some people need “room”—both physical and emotional—more than others. Some people can write at Starbucks, and some need the attic. Figure out what works for you and make it happen or die trying. Not many of us have the material means to have the dream room, but even if it’s a small corner of the closet, having a physical space that has the specific purpose of writing can have immense symbolic value. But you also need psychic space, and that can be even more difficult to get. Fight for it. Be rude. Tell people you are writing and that you need to concentrate. Put the phone away, drug the kids if you must. Give yourself the designated space and wait for it to be filled. Much like the new bookcase you just bought, writing space has a tendency to fill itself.
Set Goals and Deadlines
When I started this blog, I promised myself a post a week, and for months I was able to keep it up. It wasn’t always easy. Some weeks I had to postpone or cancel activities that certainly were more important than a stupid blog post, like exercising or paying the bills. But I had a goal. When did I falter? When I said to myself, it’s summer, I’ve already proven that I can do the weekly post, what’s the point in continuing. Call it a goal, call it a promise, call it a vow—call it whatever you want as long as it’s binding. Whether it’s a poem a day or a story this weekend, create a goal and meet it. Make the goal realistic. Underestimate yourself—it’s much more motivating to exceed your goal than to fall short. If you can’t do a poem a day, do one a week, or a month. But do it by the time you said you would, even if it means doing it badly. Doesn’t matter if it came out good—you did it, and one day it will be good even if it wasn’t this last time.
When You Can’t Write, Revise
I’ve been milking the work I did in my late teens and early twenties for years. Back then, I was eager to write and wrote a lot—I couldn’t be bothered to revise, much less to put things together into manuscripts and go through the drudgery of submitting. Now it’s the reverse—I rarely get those spurts of creativity, but yet I’m able to edit more critically and find the mindless paperwork of submitting soothing and reassuring. I may not be “writing,” as in composing, but I’m tending to my writing, and that’s part of the process.
Don’t confuse normal life events and writerly impoverishment with illness. Addiction and depression are not writing problems, they’re medical emergencies. If you’re doing more than just not writing—if you’re drinking or sleeping (or not sleeping) excessively, if you’re alienated from others, if you’ve lost interest not just in words but in living, you’ve got bigger problems than writer’s block. People glamorize the addictions and depressions of artists to such an extent that many people believe destructive behavior is linked to creativity, but that’s bullshit. Ask Amy Winehouse.
It’s nice that today is the feast of St. Martha. St. Martha was the sister of Mary and Lazarus. In Luke 10:38-42, we’re told that she got upset with Mary during one of Jesus’ visits. Busy with the mundane details of hospitality, Martha gets upset with Mary, who’s just sitting by Jesus, listening to him speak, instead of helping Martha with their guests. Martha asks Jesus to chastise Mary for her laziness, but Jesus surprises us by telling Martha to stop fussing and let Mary enjoy the better part. When Martha looked at Mary, she thought Mary was “doing nothing,” especially in comparison to all her own “purposeful” activity. Imagine that—thinking of listening to Jesus as less worthwhile than putting together a platter of crudités or whatever the heck it was people laid out for their guests back then!
So, yes, sometimes writers write. But sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they think, or listen to Jesus, or play videogames. It’s all good.
There you go, Judy. I wrote about it.