In Joyce Carol Oates’ new book, “A Widow’s Story” in which she explores grief in the aftermath of her husband’s death, she apparently decides art is a poor consolation. To be honest, I haven’t read the book, but I thought it was an interesting thing to say. I had to ask myself whether or not I expect writing to be a consolation. Do I?
I don’t write for consolation. I write because I can’t NOT write. As I’ve said before, I’m saner when I write than when I don’t, so it’s best to continue. (My Best Beloved agrees.) For consolation, I go to The Ineffable and to the people who love me.
I have a dear friend, a brilliant writer, who lost her husband of many years two days ago. She’s in agony, and knows she will be for a long time. We haven’t talked about writing. It would be, frankly, absurd and a little perverse to talk about writing just now. We talk about Her Best Beloved, and her pain, and how exhausted she is, and how she’s not sure she’ll be able to cope with the flood of relatives about to arrive. The long term . . . nobody’s thinking that far ahead. One of the things about grief is how immediate everything becomes. Just brushing your teeth takes focus.
There will be time for discussions about writing in the months to come, if she wants to talk about it, or not. She’s not only dealing with mourning, she’s also dealing with cancer herself. Although she’s written all her life, now she finds she’s writing less. She says she doesn’t want to write about the apple orchard at her home in France, she just wants to sit it in. She finds that writing actually distances her from life. I can see that.
Will she write again? Possibly. Possibly not. But I doubt she thinks it will provide consolation.
My two brothers killed themselves, which I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog, and never once did I feel urged to write about it for consolation. I wrote about it, and will do again, to try and make sense of it, which is different from consolation; it feels more driven than a need for a set of broad shoulders on which to rest, or a wing under which to nestle. I’ve begun writing a fairy-tale-based novel about their deaths, and I do so because I need to know what I think, what these deaths mean in my life, how they have altered my view of the world, of life and of death and in what ways. I don’t know what conclusions I will draw–I’ll only know that when the book is finished.
For me that’s what writing is for: to reveal to myself the meaning behind the events in my life, and in my world, and hopefully to help others look at their lives and their world in a new way. But I can’t accomplish that in the immediate stages of violent emotion. It’s too raw, too wild to be released in tidy little strokes of the pen, or in little taps of my fingers on a keyboard. At those times the soul’s howl can’t be contained on a page; it blasts forth from the pit, spewing rocks and ash. In the early stages there are no words. It takes time, and perspective, and a sort of emotional composting, for me, before ragged emotion can be turned into art. Only later, when the dust has settled, and my vision has once again cleared, can I take my experience to the page. Only then can I sift through the cinders, the bits of bone and wreckage and pull out the pieces that, examined closely, make meaning of the whole.
There may come a time when, like my friend, I know myself well enough, and am at peace with the world to an extent that writing is no longer necessary for my sanity. I can see that, too, and I’ll be okay with that. But not yet.
Maybe if I worked in a different medium — threw paint, or carved stone, or danced — it might be different, but for me, my writing isn’t consolation, it’s what I do when I’ve crawled out of the desolation of the tornado.