Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block and the Creative Brain

Alice W. Flaherty

New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004.


I write because when I don’t, it is suffocating.  I write because something much larger than myself comes into me that suffuses the page, the world, with meaning.  Although I constantly fear that what I am writing teeters at the edge of being false, this force that drives me cannot be anything but real…. (266)

So ends Alice Flaherty’s fascinating look at the twin disorders of writing: writer’s block and its opposite, hypergraphia. 

Flaherty’s book was quoted in Lee Gutkind’s creative nonfiction how-to book, Keep It Real, so I hunted her down to read more of her delicious brain talk for myself.  She examines two areas of the brain often neglected in discussions of writing: the temporal lobes and the limbic system, the seat of emotion and drive and feeling inspired.  Damage to the temporal lobe can sometimes result in hypergraphia, the unstoppable urge to write, and manic depression shares many mood and personality characteristics with temporal lobe epilepsy, with hypergraphia being one of the symptoms in the manic phase.

Dostoevsky had temporal lobe epilepsy.  So did Lewis Carroll.  Ditto Gustav Flaubert.

*I* have temporal lobe epilepsy.  It cost me my driver’s licence, and I’m bitter about its limits on my freedom.  I also suspect it is the reason for my awful memory.  Bitter again.  I was hoping to discover something about it in this book, a balm for bitterness in more knowledge, but since my seizures only result in episodes of profound deja vu, which she mentions only briefly, and since I have not written an Alice in Wonderland or a timeless classic of a novel, I found out little about myself in Flaherty’s book. 

Luckily I found a lot of other things.  In the end, the science is not what enthralled me.  It was Flaherty’s own experience with hypergraphia that most moved me.

In part, this book emerged out of Flaherty’s own experience of mental illness.  She was hospitalized for a psychotic breakdown after giving birth to twins who did not survive, and one of her symptoms was hypergraphia.  Her husband found her on the floor of her office surrounded by post-it notes on which she was maniacally scribbling in miniature writing.  She did not feel at all in need of help.  She was not troubled by her unstoppable urge to write, but because it was unstoppable, she accepted his judgement.

In some ways, this book feels like work on the symptom.  Often, this read as a book in search of a thesis, and its focus was pulled in too many different directions: science, psychology, psychiatry, literary history, literary criticism, memoir.  The chapters are clearly organized, and she examines writer’s block both as a mental state (psychological) and then as a brain state (physiological), but the book does not have a clear drive.  In fact, the hypothesis she is testing, proves wrong:

I began this book with the suspicion that writer’s block might be the opposite of hypergraphia from a neurological point of view as well as from the viewpoint of productivity and pleasure.  Hypergraphia—and metaphor, and inspiration—are associated with altered activity in the temporal lobes.  Might writer’s block be the opposite temporal process?

The more research I did, however, the more likely it appeared that writer’s block is a frontal lobe process rather than a temporal lobe process.  (Granted, the two lobes influence each other strongly.)  Block shares the strangled muteness of Broca’s aphasia, the inflexibility of perseveration, and the task specificity and stress dependence of writer’s cramp—all frontal lobe neurological disorders.  And the two psychiatric disorders most closely tied to writer’s block are depression and anxiety, both with evident neurological underpinnings and both showing decreases in brain activity that are especially severe in the frontal lobes. (147)

She has this wonderfully dry wit that pops up unexpectedly in the middle of a discussion of scientific facts.  This is her quip about the debates about the use of drugs or behavioural therapy in treating mental illness:

People fear drugs, rightly, because they fear the very real side effects.  But behavioral techniques have significant side effects, too, and not effects we can necessarily predict.  A student who goes to college to get a liberal arts education may inadvertently pick up values that turn her into a stockbroker. (110)

That wit kept me engaged.

She also captures beautifully the ambivalence of healing after a mental illness:  “While my hypergraphia felt like a disease, it also felt like one of the best things that has ever happened to me.  It still does.” (11)  It is her autobiographical excursions that stay with me, and I am grateful for her teasing out, not the science of the brain as it relates to writing, but her own mixed feelings about her own work:

during my postpartum break I discovered a mystery: I loved my sorrow.  It was as if I had been preparing all my life for that event, that I had entered into my birthright.  When I was in graduate school, my husband and I lived in an apartment over a ruined garden that had a grapevine as thick as a child’s body, coiling up the fire escape to my window.  At night I could lie in bed and reach out into the dark and pluck grapes to eat.  My grief was like that, as if it had given me access to a shadowy world that lies so close to this one that when I concentrated I could push my arm into it and pluck dream fruit.  It is a world where beauty cannot be separated from pain, and should not be, as when a scalpel is needed to expose the exquisite organs of the belly.  A pen can be a scalpel too. (205)

This book counts towards my 3.14, easy as pi, science book reading challenge.

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David Denby

Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

 In the fall of 1991, at 48, David Denby went back to school.  Thirty years after entering Columbia University, he returned to repeat the two required core curriculum courses, Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization, the great books courses that have been on the curriculum at Columbia since the 1930s. 

Like Susan Hill’s year of reading from home, this is another one of those brilliant ideas I wish I had had, and I know I’d make better work of repeating courses from my undergraduate years than I would of swearing off buying new books, at which I have failed, albeit rather gleefully.  (At least it’s not shoes!!)  I feel ready to circle back, and that is precisely what Denby has done so beautifully in this book.

Denby’s decision to repeat his great books courses originated in his irritation with the debates in the culture wars, but underlying the irritation with others is the realization that he has forgotten much of what he studied:

I had read, I had forgotten, and I felt the loss as I did the loss of an old friend who had faded away.  I was filled with longing and curiosity.  What was the actual experience of reading such books? …  I needed to start work on this book in part because I no longer knew what I knew.  I felt that what I had read or understood was slipping away.  I possessed information without knowledge, opinions without principles, instincts without beliefs.  The foundations of the building were turning to sand…. 

Denby’s account of the year has three main threads.  First there is the course content itself, which he summarizes and with which he engages in a thoughtful and focused way.  This is no Coles Notes version of the great books; he concentrates on one theme from the text and explores it in depth.  He also gives us sketches of the students (anonymous) and faculty (by name), and thus provides a wider cast of characters for this year of study.  This is a necessary strand, and he lays out the works, the academic setting, the changing seasons and moods on campus as the ground on which he paints his own encounters with the texts.

There is also frequent discussion of the debate about the place of the Great Books in the university curriculum.  He is for their inclusion, and though he empathizes with the views of those who bridle at not seeing themselves reflected in the course content, he argues that recognition is rather beside the point.  The point is to examine those texts that have shaped, and that continue to shape, Western civilization.  This is the most plodding of the three themes, but since the idea to go back to school originated with his fulminating about the culture wars, and his wife challenging him to do something about it, he has to address it directly.  Polemic is never my favourite genre, and at more than 400 pages, the book could have been tightened up in places; much of his discussion about the general merits of the Great Books could have been more concise.

Nevertheless, this was a compelling read, and Denby’s prose is just a delight.  Most interesting by far is the third strand of the book: how he attaches the goings on in the ivory tower to his own life as a movie critic, husband and father, former teenager, New Yorker, son and citizen.  Why do we read if not to be enlivened by the material, to take it not only into our intellect but into the machinery of our daily lives?  He has an existential crisis about his career in the world of spectacle after reading Homer and Plato; he reads Hobbes and Locke through his experience of being mugged in the subway; he remembers his years in the 60s, throwing tomatoes at politicians, through Rousseau; he connects his fear of street crime to women’s fear of rape when he attends a Take Back the Night rally and reads de Beauvoir; and gloriously, gloriously, he falls in love with Virginia Woolf after 30 years of loathing her. 

And over and over and over again, he gets it, he gets a glimpse into the shimmering greatness of a work as it slips into place in his life and intellectual history.

His chapter on King Lear, a version of which appeared in The New Yorker as “Queen Lear,” is worth the price of admission alone.  Denby compares his mother to the needy king, and his raw account of her difficulties and demands in old age is enriched by girding it with this comparison.  He pays tribute to her life as a canny, successful and independent business woman, and he describes how her independence and strength all but disappeared after the death of her husband.  It was a total transformation, and she became a needy handful.

…when [my mother] died, my tears were produced as much by relief as by sorrow.

The devastating power of King Lear, I now realized, is derived from emotions that we barely admit.  We are obsessed, so many of us, with power, with work, with money, with love, sex, and art, and meanwhile two of the most essential and unfathomable tasks in life—raising our children and lowering our parents into the earth—pull away at us steadily, unacknowledged and sometimes unattended.  After all, there is a structure to professional success; once you get over the early tremors, the early opposition, you learn the way, and there are many places to pause and take stock.  But no rules or guidelines, no training or expertise, really helps you take care of children or elderly parents. 

The play brings you back to the inescapable struggle for power between the generations.  It suggests that the basic human relations in begetting and dying can be intolerable.  … Lear is hardly the only parent to demand too much love from his children.

I love that last line, the colloquial ordinariness of his assessment.  He forgives Lear his foolishness; he sees that his mother is not the first unreasonably demanding parent.  His own experiences with his mother give him insight into the king’s folly, and by reading Lear, he can find the missing guideline for his struggle with her, a struggle that was all the more puzzling for its late appearance. 

This is what great essays do: they connect the very personal and local to the tectonic plates that underpin our culture, and, as Denby argues, those tectonic plates are in part the great books themselves.

Great Books, Great Essay, Great Read.

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Small Beneath the Sky: A Prairie Memoir 

By Lorna Crozier 

Toronto: Greystone Books, 2009. 


My copies of Lorna Crozier’s early poems are heavily scored and annotated, they bear traces of myself in my early 20s, full of the consciousness-raising ire and disequilibrium that are the lot of the emerging feminist. 

I picked up Small Beneath the Sky because I wanted a key to the poems.  More precisely, I wanted the key to the (often hilarious) penis poems from Angels of Flesh, Angels of Silence.  Who were the men behind the penises?  What was her sexual initiation?  Who told her the story of the boy who turns his penis into a bird, so that it can visit the girl he loves?  His penis flies back 

a little worse for wear 

like a tattered crow 

with some feathers missing, 

maybe enjoying flight 

more than it should, 

the boy anxiously 

watching the sky. 

If you are looking for the key to Lorna Crozier’s poetry, penis-related or otherwise, this is not exactly the place to look.  This is not the key to all the Crozier mythologies, but it is a love letter to the prairie landscape that so often appears in her poems.   

Lorna Crozier was in Toronto for the Luminato Festival, and I went to hear her read from Small Beneath the Sky.  I asked her about what had influenced her form for the memoir, and she credited Kathleen Norris’s Dakota: A Spiritual Geography and John Berger’s And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. 

Interspersed between the chapters of the memoir are short prose poems she calls first causes, after Aristotle’s hypothesis that there is an immovable force, a first cause beyond the chain of cause and effect.  These are the forces that shaped her: light, wind, story.  Crozier’s first causes are written in the second person, and while they are named for an immovable force, they are themselves very slippery: light becomes water, sky becomes earth, wind becomes grit and insects, noise.  

The second-person voice, I think, is not an entirely successful one, and I found myself impatient with it, impatient to get back to her memoir.  Who is this you?  She seemed to speak to an earlier self, and while the formal structure is interesting, I am not sure that its execution was fully realized. 

Having said that, there are some luscious motifs to trace in this book.  She writes about wedding dresses in a way that is fresh and startling.  She describes her first marriage thus: 

Walking down the aisle in my white gown, I knew I was doing something wrong, something untrue to myself, though I couldn’t have said who that self was or would turn out to be.  My husband was a good man, and it would take me ten years to learn that the last thing I wanted then was goodness.  … If I’d bought a dress to leave that marriage, it would have been bright red with a wide skirt that swished and swirled as I strode away. (132) 

Her descriptions of her mother’s dark velvet wedding dress, “the colour of pooled ink,” I went back to again and again: 

If it’s true that our spirits exist pre-birth in some kind of ether, looking down, I’m sure I chose my mother when I saw her in that dress, the material so plush it briefly held the strokes of fingers.  In spite of the harshness of the setting, the failed crops and dust, I picked the prairies as my home because she lived there; I opened my eyes to the startling light pouring around her as she stood on the church’s top step. … From the day of her wedding, I waited for my time to live inside her, the velvet she had chosen the same colour as the dark water that would hold me ten years later in her womb. (133) 

It is the story of her mother that most drives this memoir, and I very much felt that this was her chance to write her mother’s story, to tell her side of things, and, yes, to settle some scores.  This memoir is not all tender recollection; there is bitterness and gall. 

I went to this memoir to find some trace of the writer who had been part of my formative years as a young woman; I found a story that spoke, instead, to my most recent self, the self who has recently lost a mother, the self who struggles to write memoir without her mother’s cache of memories. 

People would stop [my mother] on the street and ask why I was so big-eyed and thin.  What was she feeding me?  The truth was I’d eat almost nothing but bacon.  Outside on the porch on a wooden chair she’d leave pieces for me to snatch as I flew by like some wild child, not wanting to come in from playing.  Who else could tell me that?  Who but my mother held those small pieces of my childhood?  Where would they go when she was gone? (159) 

Crozier’s stories about her mother’s life and death are the backbone of this memoir, and the success of the book lies in its most concrete and tangible passages.  The artifacts of the lives once lived, these are what stay with me.  At the reading, Crozier also quoted David Malouf, who, in response to the question “Did this really happen?” said, “Yes, but some of it happened while I was writing it.” 

Passages in this book that stretch credulity are those in which Crozier’s mother visits her after she has died, but they are so heart-breakingly real:  

“Okay,” she said, “one more thing.  I’m glad you took the dresser.  The first time you saw your face, almost sixty years ago, was in that mirror.  I held you up and introduced you to yourself.  Baby, I said, this is you.  Think of that and maybe you won’t feel so sad.” (184) 

The dresser, the mirror, the self first seen, and now, seen through a glass, darkly.  

Concrete.  Tangible.  Heart-breakingly real. 


“Human existence, it seems to me, is a forlorn clutching after shortlived things. Artifacts remain in cases, unchanged year after year; so much else just slides from my hands.” 
from a story by Carolyn Black, “At World’s End, Falling Off,” originally published in Event and winner of an honourable mention for fiction at the National Magazine Awards.

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Stet: An Editor’s Life

By Diana Athill

London: Granta, 2000.

Diana Athill had a walk-in part in Helene Hanff’s Q’s Legacy as André Deutsch’s business partner, so I decided to follow that trail for my next book about books.  (Athill returns the favour, and Hanff gets a brief mention.)

I’ve seen many references to Athill’s memoir about her years in publishing, and I have long been curious to read it.  Having done so, I can only think that I am missing the proper cultural context to fully appreciate the work.  I felt often that there was an implicit reliance on the reader’s knowing her better, of the reader’s being more familiar with her place in British culture and letters.  It is, in other words, the kind of memoir that is written by someone who already has a public profile, rather than by a relatively unknown author who has a pressing story to tell (I’m thinking of Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood, or Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club.) 

Nevertheless, she endears herself immediately with her absolute honesty and her dry wit.  Part I of the memoir is an account of her time with André Deutsch, first at Allan Wingate, which he founded just after World War II, then at his firm, André Deutsch Limited, of which she was a director.  There is a wonderful combination in her voice of humility and absolute confidence. 

This is never more clear than in her discussion of her low wages at André Deutsch Limited: “All publishing was run by many badly-paid women and a few much better-paid men: an imbalance that women were, of course, aware of, but which they seemed to take for granted.”  Her own attitude to unequal pay is equal parts indifference and “amused resignation.”  She has the confidence to say that there were benefits to being perceived as second-class and being left alone to do the job she loved: “I hadn’t just loved being an editor, I had also positively liked not being treated as the director I was supposed to be.  This was because … I loathed and still loathe responsibility, am intensely reluctant to exert myself in any way that I don’t enjoy, and am bored by thinking about money (in spite of liking to spend it).”  That is a woman who knows her own mind and her own worth, regardless of whether her salary reflects it.

In Part II, Athill devotes chapters to her relationships with individual authors, including a tantalizingly short chapter on Mordecai Richler and Brian Moore.  I would have liked to have known more about Richler, but what she offers is generous and kind.  He is, she writes, one of the rare examples of an author with whom she was able to enjoy a genuine friendship. 

In these chapters, on authors Alfred Chester, V. S. Naipaul, Molly Keane and Jean Rhys, Athill negotiates the boundary between professional and personal relationships with the authors, and the question of the authors’ likeability arises often.  Again, this can lead to something too close to gossip for my taste, but her chapter on Jean Rhys was pure pleasure.  In exposing some of the many difficulties of Rhys’s life, I felt she gave me a much better appreciation of Wide Sargasso Sea.  She also created a portrait of the circle of caring people who can sustain an author.  When there are no government grants, no royalties pouring in, no financial safety net, it is the generosity of individuals that can come to the aid of an author who is a recognized genius. 

I did find myself impatient with the gossip in the book.  Is that a Canadian thing?  If you can’t say anything nice…?  I very quickly got my fill of references to André’s affairs or his penny-pinching; it did not enlarge my appreciation of V. S. Naipaul to read about his arrogance; I did not need to know quite so much about Jean Rhys’s ugly drunkenness.

What stays with me is Athill’s wonderful honesty.  She writes this book because, “I shall not be alive for much longer, and when I am gone all the experiences stored in my head will be gone too—they will be deleted with one swipe of the great eraser, and something in me squeaks ‘Oh no—let at least some of it be rescued!’.  It seems to be an instinctive twitch rather than a rational intention, but no less compelling for that.”

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Q’s Legacy

by Helene Hanff

Q’s Legacy is the final installment in the Hanff trilogy of books about books.  Part memoir, part journal, it is—stick with me here—a book about a book about books.  It begins as a memoir of her introduction to the great books through the published lectures of Sir Arthur Quiller Couch, the eponymous Q, at whose prompting she bought so many of her treasured books from Marks and Co.  This is the back story to the 84, Charing Cross Road phenomenon.  She brings the reader up to the moment when she decided to make a book out of her correspondence with Frank Doel at Marks and Co.  She then records her experiences with fan mail, fan phone calls (!) and observing the transformation of her book into television and stage adaptations.

Like Hanff, I was introduced to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch as an undergraduate student.  I met him in the final pages of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.  He is one of the few men she cites without rancour, and she cites his On the Art of Writing in order to underscore the importance of money to a writer: “we may prate of democracy, but actually, a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born.”  Woolf uses him as the punctuating voice for her argument about the significance to the aspiring woman writer of the five hundred pounds a year with which to make use of the room of her own.

The link between Woolf and Hanff resonated often for me.  In this memoir, Helene continues to expose the penury of the writing life.  As she has in the other books, she tells us exactly how much she makes for her writing.  She gives us the appropriate context in which to understand her joy at staying in an apartment in London that has more than one room.  Helene did have a room of her own in New York, but it was just the one room.  (That room, her “palace,” is so lovingly described in the first chapter that I want to reproduce the passage whole.)

Hanff’s memoir begins with the financial necessity of leaving Temple University after just one year.  It is the Depression, and her scholarship has been revoked: “This was a great blow to my parents, but a secret relief to me.  In my year at Temple, I’d learned nothing about English literature or the art of writing, which was all I wanted to learn.  In the fall I would be free to find my own teacher.”

She heads off to the library, asks where she can find college textbooks on English literature, and is faced with a double aisle of bookshelves: “Standing there, staring at the long shelves crammed with books, I felt myself relax and I was suddenly at peace.  I knew who I was and what I was doing there, and I had all day to find what I was looking for.”

I have long envied Helene Hanff her ability to turn a phrase, but what I wouldn’t give to have had that kind of self-possession before turning 20.

She meets Q in the stacks after an epic search.  Beginning with A, she searches the whole alphabet, looking for a teacher with the right credentials and the proper scope of the task at hand.  How easily her search could have been abandoned! 

She finds him, she finds him funny and she finds that he has the right credentials (Oxford-and-Cambridge), so she takes home On the Art of Writing and the first volume of his lectures. 

So begins her education from Q, and his legacy is a great one: “I owed him whatever literary education I had—and enough training in the craft of writing to have kept myself alive by it through the sixties.  I owed him my shelves full of books—and my choice of Marks & Co. over the … New York bookstores.  Wherefore I owed him 84, Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street—and the hundreds if not thousands of friends both books had brought me in the mail and over the phone.  It was an awesome legacy for a Cambridge don to have conferred on a lowly pupil he never knew existed three thousand miles away.” 

Q is also famously responsible for the phrase “murder your darlings,” which is something I’ve had occasion to say often of late.  I invoke the phrase when I have a sentence or a paragraph that I need but am reluctant to strike, and I have always thought of it on that small scale.  Helene was also familiar with his particular brand of violence, but she commits it on a far bigger scale.  She reports at least half a dozen acts of murder: entire books that go into the incinerator because they do not work.  Imagine putting an entire book into the fire.  Six times.  Murder your darlings, indeed. 

I rather like how Helene’s beloved Q stands in counterpoint to Woolf’s despised Professor von X, author of The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex: “His expression suggested that he was labouring under some emotion that made him jab his pen on the paper as if he were killing some noxious insect as he wrote, but even when he had killed it that did not satisfy him; he must go on killing it; and even so, some cause for anger and irritation remained.”  In the absence of gods, I find my mind filled with incarnations of other judges, and I have had the image of that wicked nib engraved in my mind since I read Woolf’s description of him. 

Helene stopped her search through the alphabet when she found Q, but I like to think that she would have been able to make quick work of von X had she ever had the occasion to meet him.

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