We’ll Be Okay
January 13, 2016
I’ve been reading Augusten Burroughs’s wonderful This Is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More. For Young and Old Alike. His chapter, “How to Be Sick,” is the best advice I’ve read about how to live a life with/in illness. His cogent insight, borne out by my own experience, is this: “Thinking about something that could happen to you is always worse than when the very thing you dread actually happens.” Put another way, no matter the illness, no matter the declining condition of a person you love, “once you’re in it, it’s okay.” Or rather, it can be okay if we adopt Burroughs’s advice that we must be in it, not “in a state of refusal” about it.
I love this essay because of his insights about how much time we waste on anticipatory anxiety, how much energy we waste worrying about how much worse things can become. If I’ve learned one thing as a writer and as a teacher of writing, worrying that we won’t be able to write about something difficult, painful, perplexing, horrifying, embarrassing, humiliating, exasperating, or worrying that we’ll fall apart while we’re writing about that moment, is good writing time wasted, is good life time wasted. Ditto worrying about whether the writing will get harder as we progress; whether we’ll be able to finish the piece/the poem/the book. We expend a lot of time worrying that we won’t be able to write about something, or that we’ll never finish the work we’ve begun, or that writing about something will cause us enormous pain. It would be far better for us to be immensely curious about what happens to us when we allow ourselves to be present to our experience of writing.
I tell my students we can’t predict what will be hard to write. I’m currently writing about my sister’s suicide. I’m working a little at a time because that’s all I can do right now. “Isn’t it awfully painful?” a friend of mine asked. I could give her the inaccurate answer, and say that yes it is, but that it’s something I need to/want to do anyway. But the truth is that it’s not all that painful. And sometimes it’s not painful at all. Sometimes it’s even fun.
I’m not saying that I’m without feelings as I write, or that something I write doesn’t spring from feelings I have, or that writing something doesn’t elicit feelings in me. I’m saying that writing about this tough subject isn’t as painful as I assumed it would be. And why? To repeat what Burroughs has said, “Once you’re in it, it’s okay.” At least that’s been my experience in my own work, and in witnessing my students writing theirs. And let me say that it’s okay even if it’s hard.
The most difficult thing I ever wrote was this, and I never could have anticipated it: writing about how my mother would turn over our cereal bowls at night as she set the table to make sure no dust would get inside them. Writing that scene knocked me out. Unexpectedly. In a good way. Because in writing it I understood so much about her: how we’d lived in a filthy working class neighborhood where, by breakfast, the cereal bowls would have been filled with traces of soot from nearby factories; how she kept this habit even when we lived in a house in the suburbs; how caring and yet how crazy I thought the gesture was; how I wished I could have been empathic to her when she was still alive.
I’ve witnessed writers smiling as they’ve penned the most difficult scenes imaginable: being raped by a trusted friend; being abandoned by a parent; watching a loved one die. I’ve also witnessed writers connecting with powerful, difficult feelings while penning the most terrible scenes imaginable. I do know this: we can’t predict how writing about something will affect us until we’re in it. But however the writing affects us, it’s okay, we’ll be okay. And we’ll be far better off than if we don’t write.
Of course there are those who argue that writing about difficult material can push us over the edge. Witness Plath.
I’ve written before about how necessary it is for us to take care of ourselves as writers. And many writers whose lives I’ve studied do. And many writers whose lives I’ve studied don’t. Being okay while we write about difficult things assumes we’re taking care of ourselves as writers. Sylvia Plath didn’t: taking on too much (beekeeping after childbirth), acting as if she had superhuman strength, not asking for help, drinking too much, marrying a man who harmed her the day she meet him. Henry Miller, not at first, but in time, did. To take care of himself as a writer, Miller often took an afternoon nap. In his pajamas. Which is what Burroughs recommends doing. Taking a nap when we’re going through a rough patch. Or having soup. Or a brownie.
Good advice for those of us writing about difficult material. Rest. Eat soup. Reward ourselves with a brownie.