Here’s a topic: the literature of exhaustion. That genre may cover numerous varieties of collapse, whether physical, mental, emotional, spiritual,… Maybe, as in my case, all of the above and more come together into a welter of hopeless confusion that may leave everyone ready to throw in the threadbare towel and creep into a subterranean cranny until the onset of either miraculous recovery or total global destruction.
Whether or not readers feel like tackling these sorts of messes, I’ve known quite a few writers (myself included) who have few, if any, coping skills outside of putting words on the page. Exhaustion is enough in itself to make a person feel as if she’s losing it– but I wonder how or whether that heavy state of fatigue might have contributed and/or been related to the long tradition of substance-induced literary output, from DeQuincey to the Beats to Hunter S. Thompson and more. Sure, sure: we’re all well-versed in the ineffectual escapes many a desperate person will sample in the face of despair– but I’m wondering if, say, the benzedrine that pushed Kerouac to bang out (large parts of) On the Road in a continuous scroll helped induce not only a burst of mind-addled energy, but the editor-killing exhaustion necessary to just let it flow– and in expelling all those words, dislodging as well huge chunks of anxiety and restlessness and complete cluelessness as to how to live a life.
I’ve been pondering the literary uses of exhaustion over the last week, wondering if and when my own interior floodgates will finally burst– when my emotional infrastructure will be unable to bear anything else, and will release in bare, truthful fashion all the words repressed and piled up over decades into some coherent and elegantly executed narrative. With much less sleep than usual and many a stress egging one another on of late, the super-quick long-distance trip I took this weekend was probably inadvisable, where physical health and the resilience of my neurons were concerned. But I’m wondering if the much-needed burst of camaraderie and dancing with old friends, squashed in between transportation flubs, power naps, and an upcoming meeting, might end up providing some sort of trigger that will bring down vulnerable barriers and force me to follow the continual, nagging imperative to vomit out the Platonic ideal of a novel or short story or whatever that’s been staring accusingly at me ever since I learned how to read.
Back in a period that was so dark I resorted to The Artist’s Way as a potential source of well-being, I became sort of convinced that author Julia Cameron might have been onto something when she alleged that the production of great literature does not require drugs or booze or horrible behavior. It’s not that I haven’t held on to that possibility– and I’m certainly not going to dive into some trite underworld of slow destruction in the hopes it’ll make me a Real Writer– but I can’t shake the reality of the related fact that bouts of burnout and inebriation are usually the only times I speak fluently in a foreign language– that the worried perfectionism shuts off, and I can just have a free-flowing (if probably stupid) conversation.
Where writing is concerned, I have become more comfortable over the years letting people read what I put down on the page– a development not synonymous with not caring what my readers think, but rather with a growing conviction that just producing something may be more important than receiving accolades for it. Here’s what may be the rub, then, after all this pondering: getting to a place where the words flow with honesty and freedom may have less to do with heart and brain being under an external influence, and more about attaining the conviction, however that’s achieved, that you have nothing to lose. And when all your defenses are too tired to stand up for themselves, you may be pretty close to that coveted position.
Oh, geez. I don’t know why I thought it wouldn’t happen, not with this one, the poet so many upbeat and vaguely spiritual people turn to when delving into inspirational go-to-it manuals such as The Artist’s Way. I’m talking about Theodore Roethke, and I’m referencing a piece of petty misogyny I would have thought him too smart to have partaken in, even given the poem’s production in the late ’50s.
I knew it couldn’t turn out well when I saw the title: “Reply to a Lady Editor.” Allow me to engage in a brief, linguistically unsophisticated outburst by stating that I really hate this shit: namely, tagging on a genderizing adjective to a role or professional title or whatever when the person holding said position happens to lack a certain genital appendage. In Roethke’s day, I’m guessing it had more of a sense of patting the cute thing on the head for trying hard and being brave enough to attempt a futile run with the big boys, and less of a sense of today’s use of the practice: namely, to point out that you/your company/your faith community has a girl in an important role, and so we can all rest easy having put our liberal creds out there. Whatever the intention, what it ends up doing is reinforcing the assumption* that it’s not the norm to even think of women holding or undertaking said role, and that we’ve got an exotic curiosity on our hands.
But I’ll move on, and just reproduce the whole thing in full:
Sweet Alice S. Morris, I am pleased, of course,
You take the Times Supplement, and read its verse,
And know that True Love is more than a Life-Force
–And so like my poem called Poem.
Dan Cupid, I tell you’s a braw laddie-buck;
A visit from him is a piece of pure luck,
And should he arrive, why just lean yourself back
–And recite him my poem called Poem.
O print it, my dear, do publish it, yes,
That ladies their true natures never suppress,
When they come, dazedly, to the pretty pass
–Of acting my poem called Poem.
My darling, my dearest, most-honest-alive,
Just send me along that sweet seventy-five;
I’ll continue to think on the nature of love,
–As I dance to my poem called Poem.
The letter Mr. Paternalistic was answering, from the literary editor of Harper’s Bazaar? “If the Poem (beginning ‘I knew a woman, lovely in her bones’) in The London Times Literary Supplement has not appeared here, we offer you $75 for it. Could you wire us collect your answer?”** I’m guessing, had said editor been Alan Morris, we never would have had to deal with this particular poetic insult or its thoughts not only on Alice Morris’s non-serious editorship and the low intellectual quality of Harper’s (how surprising that someone there would read the TLS!), but also on women’s “true natures” or their assumptions about love and desirable living in general.
In short, I’d like to barf, but then the ghost of Roethke might achieve a brief victory, having allowed this doggerel to cause such an unpleasant reaction within my delicate feminine constitution. So I’ll ask: is there any legitimate criticism in there, regarding ideas of love that are sold to people? I’m tending toward no; the thing is such a blanket accusation, and pulls that “true nature” bologna as an apparent support– leaving at best a nano-smidgen of space for the reader, recipient, and whoever else to think, “Hmm; maybe a lot of women who read Harper’s have some pretty crazy expectations about love here, and maybe we could look at them and ask why that is in a funny way.” Instead, the whole thing, with its invitation to “lean yourself back” if you’re lucky enough to get a visit from some brawny Cupid, conjures up the swift self-tanking of an early ’90s Texas gubernatorial candidate. Initially leading Democratic rival Ann Richards in the polls, the lovely Clayton Williams declared to his quick doom that the state’s weather was like rape: “If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.”
No, it’s not an even comparison, and you can’t expect everyone to overcome the prejudices of his/her day. Were he writing in 1990, I’m guessing Roethke wouldn’t have scribbled out this blemish. But I never thought I’d make a mental link between a West Texas good ol’ boy and a massively celebrated, prize-winning poet. But there you have it. I should cease to be surprised.
* And I’ll assert it really is/was an underlying assumption, because otherwise, no one would have (had) to specify just how peachy-keen it is that a lady bears the title.
** All this courtesy of Theodore Roethke, The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (New York: Random House, 1991), 109.
So, a repeat interview on NPR this morning with poet Stephen Dunn had me returning to a question that recirculates in my head every now and then. At Dunn’s admission that he “was not a particularly good student,” I couldn’t help wondering if excellent writing has some necessary link to its creator’s having not really bought into the whole school thing. And that proposition woke a semi-regularly occurring flurry of concern– because, and this is said without the pride one would think should attend such a statement, I was a kick-ass student. I dutifully did all my assignments, often slaving to a disturbing degree to please whoever was at the receiving end of those formulas and essays and exams. I loved imbibing knowledge and memorizing dates and putting it all together, from kindergarten right through to my doctoral exams. But at some point in high school, I started to feel a sneaking suspicion that I was turning into some sort of caricature, or at least some pigtailed irritant out of Mark Twain.
When I first entered college, the best I could come up with, in terms of addressing that suspicion, was pretending not to care about grades, throwing out unoriginal phrases such as “D for Diploma,” in an attempt to be accepted as a normal human being. (In addition to all the usual reasons that particular plan was stupid, it was also doomed to fail, since I kept on studying like a maniac, even while assuring people I was just, to quote Dazed and Confused‘s Wooderson, “l-i-v-i-n.”) And secretly, I worked at what I’d always wished I could be good at; I kept writing bad poetry and little bits of stories, and kept getting frustrated at the fact that everything felt stilted and maudlin and overwrought, and that I could never possibly show anything of what I produced to the truly easy-going writers who showed up to class half-awake, smelling like stale cigarettes and without a clue as to what they were supposed to have read. (One of the benefits of age, I’m realizing, is that all the supposed brilliance that came from the pens of those people I was assured at eighteen would be the next big literary thing– well, it was most likely just as crappy as what I was putting out, just less ashamed of itself.)
But I kept going with my day job: I kept churning out dutiful academic treatises, because that was at least a route to a pat on the head, even while the only things I truly loved were beautiful fantasies by apparently not-very-nice people who at the very least laughed at duty, typically defined: Henry Miller, Kerouac, Nabokov. What did they need twenty years of official education for, when they could so clearly portray everything around them, both out in the open and unwillingly revealed? Theory and impeccable grammar would have killed it all– would have turned it into something I’d written.
In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron assures her faithful readers that writerly success does not necessitate drug addictions, alcoholism, lack of sleep, & etc. My general feelings about that handbook will have to be saved for another day, but I’ll just note here that I don’t remember her saying anything to negate the possibility of having educated oneself out of a creative writing career, or of destroying the prospect of achieving authorial skill by squandering one’s abilities in youthful conformism.*
As I said, this bundle of anxiety only rears its weird head every now and then, and I’m not truly concerned anymore about churning out the Great American Novel. And I’ve also just chosen to accept my love of learning, and the dorkdom that goes with it. But I do have to wonder: what might I have become, if I’d taken trig functions and the periodic table and Strunk & White just a little less seriously in my formative years? Fortunately or un-, forward is the only way I can go, and I’ll just have to leave the past to muddle over itself.
* N.b.: none of this rule-following, on my part, at least, equates to being a good person; the discussion of what the differences are between doing one’s assigned duty and acting in truly ethical/moral fashion is an old and daunting conversation, to be taken up another time. For a personal glimpse, though, I’ll just say that I pass at least a dozen homeless people every day without sharing anything with them, even a hello, and feeling like a complete asshole. For another thing, while even a snippet of the Eric Garner video empties my stomach and boils my blood and starts tears flowing faster than I can even identify what’s happening, here I am blogging in my living room, having signed a few petitions, while people are out for the third night in a row marching in the streets. Bergman could so easily have used me and my guilty Protestant conscience in any number of features…