September 26, 2011
If you’ve never read it, Tillie Olsen’s Silences describes those events in life that have kept writers from filling blank pages with words. Work needing to be done. The raising of children. Caring for a sick loved one. Poverty. And illness. And, when I began writing this, I thought I’d be writing about silence, my own these past several weeks. But no, I’m finding that I’m not writing about silence at all.
I’ve had a silence. At first, self-imposed. An entire month of not writing. August, it was. I wanted to see what it was like not to write, not to write anything. Not chunks of a book in progress. Not scribbles towards an essay. Not journal. Not a blog entry. Not anything. Welll, not not anything. I wrote “to do” lists like I’ve always done. I wrote a few lines now and then about books I read. I wrote a plan about what I’d do when I resumed writing – organize my book about writing, write its introduction, rewrite some of my essays; get to those final chapters for the book about my parents’ lives during World War II. Writing I was – am – eager to get back to.
I haven’t had many silences in my writing life. I remember writing the introduction to a collection of Irish women’s stories I co-edited while I recovered from an operation on my leg – a rather serious one. I remember writing with a sick child sitting on my lap. Those were the days of electric typewriters, and he vomited into it and destroyed it. Lucky for me I was renting it. Lucky for me, the salesman thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard: a fancy electric typewriter destroyed by the vomit of a sick child. And so he replaced it free, and I was off and running.
I wrote while my father was recovering from heart surgery. He was staying with us, and I took care of him, as I penned lines about him that wound up in my memoir Vertigo. I wrote the day my mother died; the day after my sister died. It seemed that nothing stopped me from writing.
But August has turned to September and I haven’t gotten to those promised projects. I have, I must confess, written much in my journal.
And why? A diagnosis of breast cancer. All the attendant doctor visits and tests that accompany such a diagnosis. A writing life put on hold, temporarily. At least that’s what I hope, though how temporary, I can’t say now, for surgery awaits me tomorrow.
Like every patient (how I hate that word)….Like every person awaiting surgery, I’ve been advised to get a good night’s sleep the night before; I’ve been assured that my surgeons (there will be four plus an anesthesiologist plus goodness knows how many nurses and assistants) will be getting a good night’s sleep. And they’ve suggested that I take a calming drug, and I have, though I don’t “do” drugs, never have, except for those necessary to recover from Lyme Disease, to help me with asthma. So hear I sit, at my desk, writing. Writing to all of you. Thanking you for being my audience. Promising that there will be more to come when I’m ready.
And who knows the shape this “Writing a Life” blog will take.
I don’t want to go through what’s been on my mind. Why I haven’t gotten to my desk. If you know – and I know you do know – some one like me whose gone through something like what I’ll be going through tomorrow, you don’t need to be told what you already know.
But for the first time in my life, all I’ve wanted to do was take walks, look at children playing, be with my family, talk to my students via email, read, take baths. And not write. At least not at my projects. But I have written a bit about what I’ve been going through which might, or might not, turn into a book about this experience.
Like most of us writers, getting through a hard time often entails experiencing it, and watching yourself experience it. This double vision – call it detachment if you will – has served me well in the past. Like you, I’ve tucked away conversations as I was having them; I’ve noted some incongruity when I’ve experienced it; I’ve talked to someone and noticed something in the background that I might use in my work. And that’s been happening to me too.
The truth is, that if you’re a writer, you’re writing even when you’re not writing. I told that to a writer friend once, a long time ago, when she was writing an enormous trilogy – she was on the second of the three when we talked. She was beating herself up because she hadn’t written in awhile. How could she have? Her writing mind needed a rest. It needed to just go blank for awhile so it could fill up with words once again. But even as I told her this, I didn’t quite believe it. At least not for myself. For I’d been able to write no matter what. And I believed nothing would stop me.
Arrogant. That’s what I was.
And so here I am in a brand new place wondering where my writing life will be a few weeks from now. (Throughout this week, I know, I’ll be flat on my back, healing, looking at movies, perhaps, funny ones, reading, maybe, sleeping a great deal, I hope.) And I hope to check in to let you know.
But this is as much about you as it is about me. There are times when life trumps art. For all of us. Even for the most steadfast. And this is one of those times for me. Though I have written this, and it has felt good, being at my desk, though now I’ll go back to bed, hoping to sleep the night the way I’m supposed to.