Write as if you were dying.
Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying patient that would not enrage by its triviality?
–from “Write Till You Drop,” The New York Times, 1989
I’ve had this quote from Annie Dillard on my corkboard since that interview came out in the NY Times in 1989. At the time, I was writing Place Last Seen and so, spent all my time trying to imagine, and convey, the terror of turning around to discover that your beloved child is simply not there.
And now we’re up against it. There’s a family member who got a terrible diagnosis this week. It’s not my story to tell, but this person is deeply loved, and lives are going to be changed forever.
Those of us who love them — what can we do? What can you say that’s going to make any difference at all? Why do we even do this? The writing of things on pages?
I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, as I’ve returned to my ongoing memoir project, a project that it’s taken me decades to get a handle on. While the book circles around the experience of losing both my brothers, 30 years apart, it’s taken so long because I don’t want it to be just about that. The dread “misery memoir” of the early aughts. While it’s true that losing the person you survived with is an utterly destabilizing experience, if there’s anything I’ve learned in the last few years watching the generation above me lose their spouses, and their friends, and finally, their own lives — it’s that no matter how happy our passage through this life has been, the Buddha’s first noble truth is still, well, true. All life is suffering. Everyone is, has been or will be subject to suffering. There’s no escape from it. We can’t buy our way out of it. We can’t “wellness” our way out of it. We can’t pray our way out of it. I keep thinking about Marc Maron, after he lost his partner Lynn, so suddenly and out of the blue. “Look,” he keeps saying. “First of all, this didn’t happen to me, it happened to Lynn. And second, it’s utterly normal. This is going to happen to every one of us at some point. It’s terrible, but it’s normal.”
Which doesn’t make it any easier when the gun is pointed at someone you love. When people you love are going to have to suffer. Actually suffer. Real physical and emotional pain. When you can see it coming like this.
I started writing a memoir for a couple of reasons. One, I was a writer, it's what we do. I was taking notes from the minute the coroner drove away from my curb. But I also started, I suppose, to keep myself company. To keep Patrick near by and alive in my mind, in my heart. What I discovered was the converse. The more I tried to write about him the less accurate it seemed. “No matter how hard I try,” I wrote in an early draft, “I’ll never be able to get Patrick on the page.” A reader, another writer (because that’s who we show our work to, other writers) queried, “why not?” Which seemed to demonstrate a kind of optimism toward writing that I found both touching and alienating.
I could not get Patrick on the page because Patrick was a living, breathing human being with a complex interiority, some of which I had access to, but much of which I did not. He was not a character, not a story.
And he was gone.
I've been thinking I'll send Derek Jarman's Modern Nature to my person. If you're ill, the nice thing about books written in small chunks is you can dip in and out of them, and Jarman is good company. He was also up against it. Jarman was one of that wave of irreplaceable human beings we lost to AIDs in the days when there were no treatments. He's famous in the UK for having been out when that was taboo, during the days of Section 28, the laws that banned "promotion of homosexuality." You know, the kind of bullshit the right is trying to bring back here, anywhere they can get away with it. But that aside, I thought of Jarman because he was hopeful in the face of dreadful news. “I refuse to believe in my mortality, or the statistics which hedge the modern world about, like the briar that walled in the sleeping princess,” he wrote. “I have conducted my whole life without fitting in, so why should I panic now and fit into statistics?”
Jarman writes precisely and beautifully about illness. He was in and out of the hospital through most of the writing of Modern Nature. He writes about night sweats, and not being able to breathe, and finally, about going blind. And he writes with great joy about getting sprung, even if only for the day, and driven out to his beloved Prospect Cottage, where he was building a deeply odd, and very lovely garden, a garden that changed the course of English garden design ever after. He was also writing and making films and keeping up with friends, some of whom died before he did. He was very much, and very actively engaged with life and the world up until the very moment he was wrenched out of it.
I had a classics professor at Beloit I adored, John Wyatt. A few years after I graduated I contacted him about something, only to learn he'd left Beloit and was working in LA for an organization that had brought him in to teach Classics to AIDs patients. "They're really up against it," he said in the most matter-of-fact way possible. "The least I can do is try to give them some context." Wyatt spent his career at Beloit asking us, a group of fairly spoiled suburban white kids, to think about not just the works we were reading, but about what kind of death we wanted. About how we would live our lives so as to have a meaningful death. Most of what Wyatt taught us came down to thinking about our lives in the context of Spinoza's concept of sub specie aeternitatis, that we should live under the aspect of eternity, constantly looking at how our actions are impacting the world and the future. Wyatt spent a lot of time pushing back on the American idea that life is a pursuit of "happiness" and instead, like the classicist he was, kept reminding us that a life of virtue, a life well lived, is a specific and more lasting kind of happiness.
Jarman's Modern Nature is very much written sub specie aeternitatis. It is a book about joys. Joys of the body (including cruising forays into Hampstead Heath) -- even as that body fails. The joy that comes from living authentically, despite what the government or anyone else says. The joy of family, in this case, a found family centered on his beloved Keith Collins, a younger man Jarman met at a movie festival, who came to live with him and take care of him and help him make his last several movies, including Blue, the movie he made while nearly blind — and who lived out the rest of his days in Prospect Cottage.
John Wyatt died of cancer about fifteen years ago, too young, but after a life well lived. He was a good and decent man. I wouldn't have a PhD without the phone call he made one night when after I wrote him a long letter about a crisis, a trap of Theory I couldn't navigate. I thought I might have to quit. I couldn't see a way to proceed without giving up principles that were core to my artistic project, core to my personhood. Fifteen years after being in his classes, Wyatt called me on the phone. He talked me through several approaches to the dilemma I was in. He reached out. He did what he could.
Which is, I suppose, all we can hope to do for our loved ones in these situations. There's absolutely nothing I can do to make this situation any less terrible than it is (well, there may be some wrangling of Problematic Older Relatives, a sword I will throw myself on). We can send packages. We can make phone calls, even if all we can do is sit on the other end of the phone line, breathing together, as my cousin Elizabeth did for me in those months after Patrick died. We can think of Marc Maron’s reminder that this isn’t about us, it’s about them. We can try to channel Derek Jarman's faith that someone has to be in the right side of all the terrible statistics, so why not us? Why not our person?
As for the other question, why we write when writing cannot save our loved ones? We write, I suppose, because it’s what we do. We write, or make art, or build gardens, or put up the ephemeral peaches of summer in jars because we are alive, and to turn away from that gift is to betray all the people we loved who we have lost. We go on because the world does. Because even as terrible news comes over the phone, even as all my people call and text and circle back with one another in the wake of this, there are hollyhocks of such a deep pink blooming in the yard that they make it clear the world goes on. The world sends up pink hollyhocks even in times like these. And it’s our job to witness them. To celebrate them. To make something of them.