Tuesday, April 10, 2012

When bad things happen to good writers

I am enjoying a gorgeous run of spring weather and for the first time in a long time, I am having a hard time reading and enjoying books.  I have been reading a lot of articles and stories from on-line news and magazines.  Most of what I read can fit into short time spans (or maybe that should be short attention spans.)  My book pile grows, but I can't seem to focus.

I came across an amazing article in the New Yorker this weekend which reminds me of the simple fact that when bad things happen to good writers, the result is often an amazing narrative that brings home heartbreaking truth.

The Aquarium by Aleksander Herman in a June 2011 issue details his families' witness to his baby daughter's brain tumor and ensuing death.  It is not an easy story to read.  It is every parent's nightmare told in sad and all to true detail, but he makes some interesting observations about the power of storytelling to bring us comfort and healing.  Herman, while watching an older, healthy daughter cope with her sister's illness, beleives that the older daughter develops narrative abilities simply to survive.  He equates storytelling with survival: a basic human need.

I recognize this need and believe that we all share this same propensity to tell stories.  We tell the stories we tell to learn about ourselves, to reflect our own experience to the wider world--asking ourselves the questions: am I sane?  am I real? am I who I am supposed to be?  Am I like you?  Aleksander Herman is quite correct, our ability to relate in story is and probably always has been second to only food, water, and air as vital to life. At our dying breath, it is final words we have to say to end the story, and nothing else.

I don't think many of us are lucky enough to be able to write it. Writing for me is filled with solace and import, and I feel grateful that I have been given the gift of being able to use the written word.  I recognize that for most of us simply being able to tell our story out loud or paint our story or perform our story is also soul satisfying.  

I can only imagine that this lovely piece of writing was for Mr. Herman only a small start at healing what for him will be a lifetime of pain, and his daughter's imaginary friend, who she imbued with all the qualities of her sick sister, was also only a stab at understanding the enormous situation playing out in front of her.  For me, it was a chance to relate and to understand, storyteller and listener, as we take part in a great tradition of understanding ourselves, healing ourselves, and making connection, through the power of writing.

I recommend this story.  Thanks Mr. Herman.


Steph said...

Wow - a tragedy reviewed in thoughtfulness like this must be helpful. Enjoy the springtime! We're finally getting some of that, too.

Ellie said...

i just read this. it's nice to read such eloquent thoughts about grief. my favorite part: "One of the most despicable religious fallacies is that suffering is ennobling—that it is a step on the path to some kind of enlightenment or salvation. Isabel’s suffering and death did nothing for her, or us, or the world. We learned no lessons worth learning; we acquired no experience that could benefit anyone." I think that's true. Thanks for sharing.