The sky today is grey, toneless, a single hue of cement and shoreline stone. I’m sick, up in the night lurching to the bathroom to toss my cookies, and should be back in bed, ensconced with a good book, a fat pillow, and my electric heating pad.
This sudden illness seems to fit my mood, because lately, like many of us, I’m sure, I’ve been thinking about how crappy everything is: yesterday’s events in Ottawa, Ebola, those dead babies found in a storage locker in Winnipeg, the fact that only five white rhinos remain in the world.
I don’t know if it’s the season – winter nearly upon us like a smear of threatening land through a nautical telescope – but life’s been getting me down, and that’s most evident in my writing.
The short stories I’ve been working on these days are mainly flat. Bad things happen, people feel like shit. Unreconciled conclusion. The end.
Not very interesting.
I remember a friend of mine, who writes, talking a lot about shades, about the need to pull out layers of human emotion – joy next to sadness, humour next to the dour mood – in order to create a complex work.
And not long ago, at a reading I gave, a woman lambasted me for the ugliness of the garden in the excerpt I read aloud from my short story, Rhubarb. People want beauty, she said, shaking her fist.
She hadn’t actually read the story, which is interwoven with a complexity of emotion all its own, and didn’t really seem to hear the description of the garden, not exactly ugly with its “deflated orange tomatoes glowing on the lawn.” And, still, I find I’ve been thinking a lot about what she said (despite her rudeness).
I’ve been wondering where beauty fits, where joy fits, and, mainly, how to write a story about, oh, I don’t know, 35,000 walruses desperately beached onshore in Alaska because the Arctic ice is melting without it being as toneless as the sky up here today.
I don’t know the answer to that.
Maybe you do? Maybe you have thoughts?
In the meantime, before I lurch back to bed and leave you thinking about it, I wanted to point out that the photos in this post are from beautiful Amisk Lake in Northern Saskatchewan where J. and I spent Thanksgiving weekend, where I felt the soothing effects of gorgeous nature, where I began wondering more deeply about the place where/how beauty and happiness fit in the work of writing about a dire time…
Ha! Great post. Sorry to hear you are sick. One of the best passages I’ve read that created beauty out of a horrible, sad moment is the ending of A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalen Hosseini. The beauty of the writing made it possible for the reader to stay with the character. So I think beauty is the door through which we can go to face the otherwise unbearable. Great blog!
Thanks for the comment and the recommend, Angie!
” like many of us, I’m sure, I’ve been thinking about how crappy everything is:”
This is how it was when I gave birth to my younger son forty-some years ago; a civil war consumed my home country, apartheid was alive and thriving in South Africa and it seemed the “me” generation was creating self-centred monsters.
Life in all its messiness evolves and the only sense is seeing creativity all around us. South African artists never created more eloquently than in those years – we live in a messy world and beauty erupts unexpectedly. The mean-spirited are always there. Sad but so.
So interesting. I wonder if living in the age of the Internet will affect the depth and breadth of creative responses to our times… But thank you – perspective is always valuable. I was thinking today as well about T.S. Elliot, the Wasteland, the work that echoed the brutality of WWI and how important it was.
Ugh. I hear you, but I have no advice besides what you have already attempted by going away Thanksgiving weekend; immersing yourself in nature. The state of the world can be depressing, but there is still a lot of beauty left, too. Even in the little things, like your dog and the frost on the window. I hope you feel better soon!
Thanks, Naomi. I appreciate that!
Hi Lauren, sorry to hear you are sick, but thankfully, it will pass, unlike so many of the issues troubling our world (and you and me) today. The utter assault on our beloved planet. The state of national and international affairs. It’s almost a daily battle to keep depression from swallowing one whole. I live on a pretty little farm growing organic foods, a stone’s throw from Lake Winnipeg. Isn’t that enough? No, the news pulls me in and I am tormented again. I turn off the radio (thankfully I have no t.v.) and try to stay away from the computer, but still, no relief. My need to know always draws me back into the quagmire. But one day I was struck by a realization, a real forehead smacker: despair is useless. It doesn’t alter any outcome; it doesn’t make anything better. If it did, well then, I’d just endure it for the greater good. But it doesn’t do anything helpful at all, it only takes me down. It has taken me a scary number of decades to figure this out but I’ve got it now. My go-to mantra now when I feel myself slipping is “despair is useless, despair is useless,” and Lauren, I swear the pain leaves me. I still have to bear the reality but it doesn’t kill me like it used to. So, on the teeny-tiniest chance you have yet to stumble on this fact, am sending you this note.
I really value your posts. Your insights are thoughtful and compassionate, an antidote to the general meanness of the day. Even though you are often in psychic pain you are still lifting your readers up.
Get better soon.
Thanks, Hallyhook. That means a lot to me. I haven’t tried that mantra and will. One of the things that I sometimes think, that I thought about a lot when writing Swarm, is that at least writing about it is doing something, at least witnessing it means something, especially in this day and age when it is so easy to turn to the celebrity news or the funny cat videos or whatever else on the Internet and away from the horrors. I remember Margaret Atwood saying this too: that imagining the horrible future of Oryx and Crake was an act of hope. But there does need to be balance too – as Naomi said: appreciating the small things of beauty like our dog, frost on the window. Thanks again for your kind response.