It’s 1986 (or thereabouts) and I’m sitting with about fifteen people in a room that’s – well I don’t remember the details – but I think it is a room with long, horizontal windows set deeply into concrete walls, and that the building is not particularly old. It’s a relentlessly sunny day: we’re happy to be inside, in a room that’s barely above ground. We sit in a circle, on couches and low chairs.
The details have faded with time, but I do know for sure that the speaker was W.O. Mitchell, and that all this took place in Banff. He was telling us about the writing life, about what to expect now that we were about to graduate from his six-week writing workshop, and about how to conduct our lives as writers. Here’s what I remember of his advice:
— We were not to expect the frequent breakthroughs we had enjoyed in Banff. “These are not ordinary days,” were his words.
— We were to get married as soon as possible, to someone stable and tolerant.
— We were to go to teachers’ college.
— Our lives would be tough, but if we continued writing we would enjoy a special kind of health, a health that was more profound than what other people could hope for, people who weren’t artists. This would come from expressing ourselves, and from living out our dreams.
For some reason, his last point was the only one I believed.
It sustained me through the years of fear and loneliness, poverty, heartbreak and exhaustion that came from not taking the other pieces of advice. The belief that the quest to express myself and live out my dreams was making me better in some way. I believed the inverse as well: that not doing it – that giving up – would make me sick. Come to think of it, the stick of sickness was more influential than the carrot of health. Whatever it takes, I guess.
I didn’t give up, so I don’t really know whether Mitchell’s insight was correct, but lately, I’ve been starting to question whether writing really is healthy. Or whether in fact, it’s just the opposite.
I say that because I’m as close to a life of self-expression, as close to living out my dreams as I’ve ever been. I spent the winter immersed in rewrites on my first book, which is coming out in the fall (more on that later). I’ve been having the kind of bracing and respectful editorial discussions on my work that I crave and that many others would envy. A long-incubated project is at last coming to fruition. I haven’t had a day job. Writing has been “it.”
And I feel terrible.
I mean, physically. And I mean, terrible.
I am coughing consumptively, as I have since October when the first cold arrived, which turned into the second cold, which gave way to the flu, which morphed into my third and fourth colds this winter. My glands are swollen, my throat is sore, and the skin on my face is livid with a crop of painful, subterranean pimples. My joints hurt. My calf muscles ache, as if I’d been climbing hills, when in fact I’ve been doing little else than sit at the desk. And migraines. Oh the migraines! August and September consisted of one long migraine. This eased up slightly when the cooler weather came. But with the cooler weather came the colds.
This is probably just a sign of some emotion that I’ve been hiding from myself. Fear, for instance. Or guilt. Or anger. Who could forget anger? Of course: my grandmother – the subject of the book – spent her fifties enjoying three hour, three martini lunches. She got the cocktails, I got the footnotes. For my sins. (See guilt, above.)
Or is it just fatigue? Is writing – even without a day job – just really, really hard? Hard enough to make you sick?
Just now, I googled: “writers illness,” and found a lot of websites about writers and mental illness. A study that came out in the American Psychiatric Journal in 1987 (around the same time as I was in Banff) said that writers and their first-degree relatives have a “substantially higher rate of mental illness, predominantly affective disorder, with a tendency toward the bipolar subtype.”
So W.O. (Or Whoa! as some of us called him) was going against the medical literature of the time. I think I knew that. But what about physical health? Does writing make you sick?
Let’s try: “Writers disease.” I get lots of websites talking about The Midnight Disease, which refers either to writing itself or to writer’s block, but with the pea-sized amount of attention I usually accord my google searches I didn’t bother to investigate further.
Because I have what I was looking for. Writer’s block. That’s what W.O. was talking about, I think. Writer’s block, which is merely a chip off the older, bigger and more dangerous state of Blockedness. Of the mind. Of the self.
His method was called Freefall, and the idea was to sit with your typewriter(!) in a quiet room and let everything come out. Don’t censor yourself. Write what comes to you. Better out than in. (Or rather, “Be’er au’ van in!”) This was the phrase my mother used, to make me feel alright about throwing up, calling up a cockney accent to remind me to take pleasure in earthy things, to laugh at the body’s frailties. May she rest in peace. And Whoa! too, while we’re at it.
The idea that something that’s inside you – that’s meant to come out – turns against you and poisons you is based on elimination. It’s often applied to creativity. There was even a joke going around among my fellow students in Banff: Have you had your Freefall today?
Not that I have anything against Freefall. I have it to thank for all my university essays, which seemed to garner pretty healthy marks. It’s a good method. But I don’t believe that the elimination model applies to anything more than removing waste matter from our bodies. I don’t believe it applies to emotion or creativity or words. Or dreams.
Especially now. I’ve written something very personal, something I always longed to be able to share. Do I feel emptied of something that needed to come out? No. Most emphatically no. Maybe I will feel that some time in the future but so far the process of writing about my own life and experiences has been one of holding back, of extreme self-restraint. I have faced dilemma after dilemma, how to phrase things, what to leave in, what to take out, all in the interests of taste or sparing the feelings of the living and the reputations of the dead, or just sounding like a decent person myself. It has been the opposite of cathartic. It has felt like being forced back to a time when I had no choice but to hide things, to keep things in.
I guess that’s healthy in itself, returning to what was once a compulsion with a new sense of choice. But it’s not catharsis, and it doesn’t feel good. It’s hard work, too. Hard enough to make my joints ache.
The book is about the consequences of keeping secrets, about the importance of remembering history and telling it as truthfully as we can. I hope I’ve written persuasively on the subject, but it doesn’t feel like I’ve lived it.
I remember seeing a Laurie Anderson show called The End of the Moon. If I’m quoting correctly, she said, “The moment you realize you don’t get to tell your whole story, your own story is the moment …” What? Did she say it was the moment you begin to write, or the moment you begin to live? I don’t remember. All I remember is the part about your whole story, your own story. That you don’t get to tell it. Not really. And that you have to come to terms with that.
I’m not hiding anything from myself. I know what I feel: tired. And scared. Scared of getting things wrong. I am writing about my grandmother’s strange way of representing the truth. In my book, I deconstruct that, and look at the facts that it was based on. But taking the authority of the narrative has only reinforced my self-doubts. Steeped in the memory of how her memory was altered over time, I have lost faith in the reliability of my own. If that faith were ever there to begin with. This has not been a process of gaining confidence; just the opposite, at least for now.
And so, I don’t feel better.
I feel obliged to ask these question because, reluctantly and with ever-wavering commitment I’ve taken on the role of health educator through my Feldenkrais practice. People come to me because they want to feel better. They believe – well, let’s face it – I believe I may have some answers for them.
Whaever you do, don’t try to express yourself. Would I give anyone that advice?
Of course not. Why? Because of the stick. I ask myself what it would be like not to be doing this. Not to have something that I care enough about, to make myself this tired. I’d probably be achy anyway. That’s what happens when you’re going on fifty-two. Life itself wears down the joints.
I don’t believe there would be something stuck inside me, but I do believe I’d be dissatisfied. And possibly bored. And it would bother me to feel that I hadn’t done something useful with my experiences. I do feel better knowing that I have made something from them, than I would if I had not.
Is that health? It’ll do for now.