One of the hardest things to do is to carry on despite disability and the depression that comes with it. I’ve been talking with a friend about Hemingway and his depression at the end of his life, how he stopped feeling that he could write and spiralled into a dark place of no return. I’ve also written here about coming back to life and trying to reclaim a writing life after many years of distraction and illnesss.
None of us likes to think about this, I conjecture– our own darkness and demons. I would personally like my own to stay away for good.
But I think about who I would be if having them didn’t push me to write. I mean by that, as someone living marginally, recently disabled after a roller coaster life, the making of art has on the worst days been a productive distraction and on the best, a living up to my gifts. I think of Hemingway’s extraordinarily detailed description of the wounded lion in Macomber: it tears your heart out. You want to reach into the pages and strangle the character for missing the shot, and then you want to strangle Wilson for killing beautiful animals, and this absurd code of manhood….but then, you realize you are reading well-crafted fiction. And, how artfully the story is told, of a man become a man in an instant and extinguished in an instant. At least, that is one interpretation.
The point is that when this was written, when any of us writes, we are engaged with our subject and with language. We are in another dimension apart from whatever might be going on with us at any given moment. In writing at this moment, I forget that I got no sleep last night and woke up bitter and angry that my life is so damn hard. I mustered myself to sit down and revise this post as a beginning on making something of this day.
Yesterday didn’t go so well. I broke into an archive box-full of poems tucked away for an embarrassingly long time. I’ve started pulling together a manuscript of poems; it needs to be forty-eight pages and I don’t want to pad it with poems I don’t think are strong or that I don’t like anymore.
I found myself hunched over the box, reading and reading, far into the afternoon, a good ream of poetry that a more objective reader might have viewed more kindly: what struck me was that there was so much darkness and sadness in these poems.
They span two decades and several relationships– lots of living. I felt badly for myself, to be honest. Had I been in so much pain? Out of the richness of a Western life and so many adventures with people and animals, why do the prose pieces have a lighter tone, when the poetry delineates so much suffering?
I took a look at what I have for a manuscript thus far. There is far more balance in the recent work– still some hard moments addressed, but a tempered “elan vital” and embrace of a spectrum of experience comes through.
Ultimately, I was so overcome by the evidence of how low I had been, and for how long, that I nearly threw everything away– my thesis, everything. Why inflict so much morose work upon the dwindling reading public, were my mss to be published.
Then, I called my companion and told him that my entire oeuvre– to use the word du jour– was dark and sad.
Don’t throw them away, he said. You’ll regret it. Put them away.
I argued that I was making a new start in a series of short stories and in the flash memoir I post here, and that I needed to jettison the past in some palpable way.
Then, I reconsidered. It became obvious that I just needed to stuff everything back into the archive box and put the box away, and do all of that winnowing piece by piece, when I’m not tired and when I feel more charitable toward my early work, perhaps even to myself: after all, I’ve kept on through everything themed in my own life and in even my best early poems.
If I don’t have enough strong work for a contest manuscript this year, fine by me. I have about thirty poems I would like to share, as in put out another collection; maybe that’s enough. And, I can try sending out a few for homes in quarterlies first.
Many artists have had terrible setbacks. Leon Fleischer, the great pianist– Jacqueine DuPre, the great cellist, afflicted with MS. Fleischer made a comeback. VanGogh cut off his ear but he kept painting.
Perhaps I am being cavalier and uncharitable, but I long to be ever more obsessed with life and the wealth of material it offers we writers. It was natural for me, as a young writer, to train my artistic vision on the tragedy in my family– in many respects I thought it was my job to articulate all of that, but they’re gone. They rest in peace. How long do I keep excavating a lousy childhood, and haven’t a multitude of us had lousy childhoods? Do we really have to write about it and sing the swan song of victimization until we drop in our tracks?
I like the pieces I’ve posted here about trying to be unburdened of my virginity when I was young, about a goat I rescued, and albeit it is tinged with sadness, about the brave little girl I was. I like them because they say to me that I can dwell among the living as a writer, that my writer’s eye can gather in the luminous moments that reveal a variety of things about humanity and aren’t only about me. That is extremely liberating, to feel that I have grown as a writer to the point where if I write autobiographically I am also telling a larger story.
Yesterday’s solution to impasse and frustration and today’s, if I push myself too hard and get another case of good old Colorado cabin fever, will be the same. I bandaged my legs and put on a brace and long pants, got my car keys and the dog, and went out into the day, where in the mere driving down Jefferson Street for me there are forty years of history, to Highway 287. Then, I was nearly side-swiped by a U.S. Mail truck barreling through an intersection. Finally, I went shopping at the little Mexican store at the side of the road, so that an hour later when I came home, in my grocery bags I had some imagery in butcher paper, and fresh narrative waiting inside a ripe avocado when I cut it open.