First person

December 1, 2016 § 3 Comments

Other people’s words about … writing

Back in my room, I put down my bags, undressed, wrapped myself in blankets, put on Christmas music, and watched the snow fall outside my window, a picture-perfect postcard winter scene, wide lawns of white, thin black arms of trees holding up the white sky. I thought of writing. But what would I have said? I’d long since stopped writing, real writing, my own writing. No words ever came anymore. I’d lost the sense of first-person, the sense of being in the world that writing requires. I guess I had nothing to say for myself. I turned my face into the pillow and slept.

from ‘Wasted’
by Marya Hornbacher

It is a strange thing, but the words above — which form part of Hornbacher’s memoir about anorexia — speak to me as much about writing as they do about starving.

(Let me pause here to say, in passing, that Hornbacher writes about anorexia better than anyone else I have ever read. She writes with a vividness and intensity that is rare and moving and unforgettable. At the time she is describing in the passage above, she was at her lowest weight, close to death. She could not work, or eat, or read, or sleep. Of course she could not write.)

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I don’t know if you could call what Hornbacher is describing here ‘writer’s block’, although certainly she is describing an inability to write. I don’t even know if writer’s block exists. I do know that, like many writers, I have experienced times when I have been unable to write anything I deemed meaningful or worthwhile. For me, like Hornbacher, that feeling is powerfully tied up with a sense of despair, of loss. The despair comes first, and then the inability to write — not the other way around.

We like to tell ourselves that there is a link between depression and genius, between suffering and artistic ability. (Mozart, anyone? Van Gogh? Plath?) But most writers who have been through a period of depression will tell you that they write despite their depression, not because of it; and that they write their best material after a period of depression, not during it. Even those writers who choose to write specifically about their depression — like William Styron in ‘Darkness Visible‘, and Andrew Solomon in his particularly fine book ‘The Noonday Demon‘ — do so after the fact.

Is despair a different thing from depression? In the clinical sense, I guess, it is. Whatever its cause or pathology, it can certainly affect a writer’s ability to write. It can certainly keep her quiet. I’d lost the sense of first-person, Hornbacher says, of her own encounter with illness and despair: the sense of being in the world that writing requires. And that is how it feels.

The corollary of this, for me at least, is that when I write — when I can, when I do — it comes from a good place. Because here’s the thing: to have a sense of being in the world is to have a sense of belonging, of groundedness, of being alive. It is to have a sense of joy.

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I will leave it to Matt Haig, another writer who has chosen depression as the theme of one of his books, to close this post:

I want life. I want to read it and write it and feel it and live it. I want, for as much of the time as possible in this blink-of-an-eye existence we have, to feel all that can be felt.

from ‘Reasons to Stay Alive
by Matt Haig

Those are words that can keep you alive, if you let them, though they will not keep you quiet. I want. I want. I want.

Quietness, anyway, in my opinion, is overrated.

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