Monday, December 26, 2011

Of Forests and Trees

The EMT was framed in a now-glassless window. The night was filled with sirens and flashing lights, and it was bitter cold. “Hang in there,” he told me. Even with all his gear on, his teeth were chattering. “We’ll get you out soon.” I looked back at him and — after several failed attempts at speaking — managed to say, "It's okay. I'm going to write about this. I'm a writer."

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.


  1. Sister Steph,

    Thanks for sharing a little bit of your personal history with us. I'd never thought about this, but I think you are absolutely right when you mention the writer's paradox (feeling vs. detachment).

    Although I've never experienced such strong physical trauma as you have, I've used writing (letters, fiction, diaries) to find relief in stressful or painful situations (and it has helped.) I think this is why a lot of people have diaries.

    When I started reading your article, I immediately thought about Isabel Allende. When her daughter Paula fell into a comma, Isabel wrote her a letter "so she wouldn't be too lost when she woke up" (I'm paraphrasing here.) The letter turned into a wonderful book about Isabel's family history, her beginnings as a writer and Paula's illness. I now think that consciously or subconsciously, she was doing what you're mentioning here: detaching herself from the pain.

    Interesting thoughts on meditation. I don't know if I could do it (I'm extremely impatient). But to be able to reach this nirvana you mention, must be wonderful.

    Excellent post!

  2. This is an interesting subject, Sister Stephanie. What part should our emotions play in our writing? It depends on our audience. Writing an account of a traumatic experience might help exorcize the trauma, but our account would vary according to who is going to read it. If it’s a journalistic article we are bound to be more restrained and detached than if we were writing a diary or a personal letter to a friend.
    When it comes to fiction is a complete different story, as you say we have to channel our emotions in order to awaken our audience´s empathy, so we become observers of human tragedy, we don´t really get involved. I find it easy since I chose to write about “exotic” experiences that I never went through, but once in a while something I actually experienced creeps into my narrative and then it´s hard not to let my emotional memories interfere.

  3. Merry Christmas Stephanie! Great post as was the previous on style which I hadn't read. This post here underlines the fact that everything, or nearly everything, is grist for the mill as they say, when it comes to the experiences that underlie our writing.

    Thanks for the reminder.


  4. Lorena, I'm very impatient, too! I visited a Zen center in college as extra credit for a World Religions class, and after about 20 minutes I thought I was going to lose my mind. It took a lot of training to be able to make it through that day-long retreat. I doubt I could do it again now, without a few weeks of prep.

    Violante: I agree that type of writing is audience dependent. About detachment: I was also thinking, after I wrote what I wrote above, that sometimes a very detached voice can be *more* emotionally compelling than expressive prose. A few short stories spring to mind: "A Small, Good Thing" by Raymond Carver, "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson, and "A Day's Wait" by Hemingway. They leave you feeling kicked in the gut, though the tone of the stories is almost journalistic.

    Denise: Thank you, and a Merry Christmas to you and yours. :)

  5. Very interesting post, Sister Steph. I, too, experienced something similar with my car accident. I found myself immersed in a story that took over the pain I experienced for so long. It drove me so crazy that I finally had to write it down. It had nothing to do with my accident, but everything to do with my pain. I was able to project all that misery onto a fake person and it helped me in many ways. It took my mind off what was going on and that's something I really needed.

    I still find parts of myself in different characters I create, whether it's a Swedish couple living in upstate New York, a French widow living in the Midwest, or a woman simply trying to figure out her life. I think when an author completely separates his/herself from the story, that's when it feels generic with no real feeling behind it. As authors, we need to keep little bits of our lives and those we know in our work or it will feel too distant or too far removed.

  6. Violante's last paragraph about writing 'exotic', or totally imagined scenes, perfectly describes my need, (or compulsion) to write fiction.. What really happened to me would make dull reading unless I embroidered and exaggerated a lot. Happy New Year to all. Getting to know the Sisters and the blog helped make 2011 a great year for me. Regis

  7. As a reader, I used to be so impressed by a good author's ability to seem to understand the human psyche so clearly. I used to think that the author must have studied psychology. Now, I understand that the author has, as you said, most likely observed his or her own thoughts and emotions and retold them.

  8. '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.'

    I think what needs to occur is a sort of dissolution of ego which we can only sustain in brief flashes -- a bit like leaping, we always come back down. There's a fair amount of grace that has to happen while writing (well) -- and that's not something we can be in command of. Like so many have said before, we just have to show up (consistently.)

    Steph, I think this was post was beautiful both in its transparency and its evidence of struggle, growth and painfully slow but present illumination. I really liked it.

  9. Thank you, Suze. That means a lot to me.


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