I was seventeen. I understood viscerally then what it took me years to understand intellectually: that writing is a way of detaching yourself from pain. If you are reporting on an experience, you’re outside it. I’m not sure if all writers find themselves dissociating in this way when facing trauma, but I know I’m not the only one. While Susan Sontag was dying miserably of cancer, her son, writer David Reiff, says he refused to take notes on the experience of watching her, of suffering with her. “I thought that to do so would be to seek and perhaps gain a measure of detachment I neither wanted nor felt entitled to,” he wrote in a 2008 article for the British newspaper The Observer. “And for a long time after my mother died, I believed that I would not write anything.”
In fact, to create art that moves other people, you have to do nearly the opposite of detaching. You must actively attempt to channel strong emotions, represent them in some way, and pull your audience into the experience. If you’re not feeling it, your readers won’t, either. It’s a writer’s paradox: you need deep empathy, so you can feel what others are feeling and share it; but you also want detachment, so you can observe accurately.
A few years ago, I took a class in mindfulness meditation, which culminated in a day-long retreat at a Zen center. Nothing but silent meditation. All day. Our instructor taught us that to survive this experience without running screaming from the room (which does happen), we had to become expert observers. Whatever thoughts were in our heads, whatever itches were in our bodies, we had to accept them. Not react to them, not try to change them, but simply observe them. With six weeks of preparation, I was able to build up enough meditation muscles to make it through the retreat and even enjoy it. I was aware of my own discomfort, ranging from muscular cramps to highly intrusive thoughts, but I could simply watch these reactions. And they would pass.
From that class, I learned that writing and meditation have something in common: they are both about observing. Observation is the tool they use to bridge this paradox of extreme feeling and extreme detachment. By going straight into the sensation and then watching it, you are neither squelching it nor flooded by it.
Writing can be quite meditative for me in this way, which isn’t to say that it’s soothing. Sometimes, it’s quite the opposite. But it is about feeling and observing. Writing takes those two essential bits of mindfulness and tacks on a third: sharing. Looking back, I think one of the reasons I wanted to write about my car accident wasn’t just to distance myself emotionally from the situation, but to share the impact with others: to distribute the load. If someone read my story and had been through something similar, she might think, “I reacted that way, too. It’s not just me. I’m not alone.” And if someone read the story and hadn’t experienced anything like it, well then, he’d be that much closer to understanding it. Finding or creating bits of shared humanity, especially in distress, is immensely comforting.
So this is the ultimate challenge of the writer: to be inside something completely, yet able to see the whole thing in perspective, as if from a distance. To be the forest and the trees, at the same time.
p.s. Hat tip to Suze for her recommendation of the book "Nerve," which sparked this post.