As a writer, has any personal sense of vulnerability or mortality affected what you write, how you write, or even how you present your work to the world?
—Richard Solly, St. Paul, Minnesota
Richard, light question that this isn’t, I feel it’s worth addressing even though it’s far from my favorite line of thought. There are plenty of writers, maybe poets in particular, who are death and darkness obsessed. Their writing may even be an attempt to defy mortality, or at least to keep it at bay. I have one friend who’s told me there’s a streak of depression in her family that she feels she’s somehow skirted by being a focused and serious writer. And there have often been efforts to establish a correlation between creativity and depression and studies that suggest some of the same brain circuitry is involved in both.
I realize you’re not really asking a question about depression, and I’m only bringing it into the picture because I suspect a lot of writing that focuses on death, even in a mocking way, comes from writers who fear it particularly because of the recurrent depression that is part of them.Though I have had times in my life when I’ve felt a level of desperation, I’ve never really thought of death as a shotgun rider. Nor has it has drawn me as a particular subject. And yet I’ve written war stories, which are also death stories. I’ve written about Nell in The Second Magician’s Tale, who is trying to deal with the incomprehensible loss of her husband. Loss and the fear of it thread their way through Time Stamp and, really, much of my other work. In general, I think part of the inventiveness in both stories and characters for many writers—maybe most—comes from a need to deal with this dark current that’s so integral to life. I’m no different. Yet whether that derives from my own sense of vulnerability as a human being or my writer’s role as an observer, I don’t really know. I’ll hedge and say both.
To make this a little more personal (which I know you want me to do), my mental sense of myself is of a person about to swim laps or run flights of steps in my neighborhood with people who’d be as excited in New Orleans at the scent of the hotel gym as they’d be at the aroma of Cajun food. That’s me. Yet there are times, including now, when I’m not that person and serious illness has made me feel vulnerable. The honest answer is that it has affected how I write more than what. When I feel a sense of urgency about getting the work done—getting everything downloaded from my brain while it’s a living and functioning organ—it makes me a highly focused and driven writer who works on an unforgiving schedule, or as unforgiving as illness allows. I don’t think that’s unusual. I think we often have moments in our lives when we have real clarity about our priorities and push everything else aside—times when something precious to us feels imperiled and we work over our heads.
Perhaps the more interesting question is whether that sense of being at ultimate risk has affected how I’ve thought about getting my work into the world. Again, the answer is yes. I would say that I’m generally a pretty compliant person. I don’t think I’ve ever taught a class I wasn’t prepared to teach. I take responsibility. I’ve followed recommendations from the medical community even though I believe what some medical students report—that they’re told half of what they’re learning is right and half wrong but nobody knows which half is which. I don’t take unnecessary risks. I wait my turn.
But as a writer who has had the epiphany, obvious though it may be, that a writing life is a finite thing but that work does not have to share whatever the writer’s personal fate might be, I’ve had a real feeling of liberation. Once you experience the sense there’s nothing to lose, it’s an easier choice to go long. In deciding how my work will enter the marketplace, that’s what I’m doing, and it’s been great. I love being the only person who has to say yes.