“[W]e are writers and make art out of our struggle…” (Nin, letter to Henry Miller, p. 114)
Last month, I wrote in the transformative power of art. It’s not only trauma that art can exorcise but everyday pain and struggle.
In a letter to Henry Miller, Anais Nin laments about the way that pain and struggle becomes the fodder for her writing:
“It is true that I create over and over again the same difficulties for myself in order to struggle over and over again to master them; it is true that you have put yourself in critical, harrowing situations… over and over again, and have not won. But … the struggle against your own inclinations (self destructive or others) is the very stuff we live on and work with” (letter to Henry Miller, pp. 114-115).
The struggles and pains many writers experience shows up in their work in this repetitive way so they become almost like themes that inspire them. One of my favorite writers is Jane Bowles. Bowles’ body of work was very small in her lifetime but her writing touches me because her stories and play are about an emotional reality that came out of her relationship with her overpowering and overprotective mother and her desire for autonomy. Bowles struggled all her life to become an independent person and productive writer and this shows up in her work. Her only play, In The Summer House, included in My Sister’s Hand In Mine: The Collected Works of Jane Bowles reflects this kind of relationship between Gertrude Eastman Cuevas and her daughter Molly. One moment, Gertrude fauns over Molly “[a]ll my hopes were wrapped up in you…, all of them. You were my reason for going on, my one and only hope … my love” (Bowles, p. 209) while the next she laments “[s]ometimes I have the strangest feeling about you. It frightens me … I feel that you are plotting something” (p. 209). This paradoxal relationship drives the strange and horrific events in the play.
However, Nin rejects the romantic notion of obsessing over trauma and believes, as I do, trauma must be brought to some kind of closure:
“To move on is living. To be caught in a round cage, in a wheel, in that ‘inexorable constancy of the instincts,’ in the likeness, resemblance of our crises, does seem like death.” (Nin, letter to Henry Miller, p. 116; emphasis original)
For anyone, not just writers, obsessing over pain becomes counterproductive. It is death, as Nin states. But there is a healthier kind of obsession, one that transforms and works through pain and struggle by writing through story and character. Some writers chose to do this in autobiography or memoir but others, like myself, find that seeing struggle through the lens of a fictional world helps to gain perspective.
In my first blog post more than a year ago, I spoke of a novel I wrote during one of the most difficult periods in my life. It was my first experience in dealing with my own psychological reality through fiction. My struggle against isolation and my own journey to emotional autonomy came through in story and in one character in particular. These are things I revisited when I decided to separate the novel into three novellas for my Waxwood series. The character I most identified with because her struggles came out of my own is the character of Gena Flax from The Claustrophobic Heart.
If you take a close look at the writings of your favorite authors, you’ll probably see the same themes over and over again in their work. This may be the writer’s attempt to work through pain and struggle, whether they are conscious of it or not.
Bowles, Jane. “In The Summer House.” My Sister’s Hand In Mine: The Collected Works of Jane Bowles, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976, pp. 203-296.
Stuhlmann, Gunther. A Literate Passion: Letters Of Anais Nin And Henry Miller 1932-1953. Harcourt, Brace, & Company, 1987. Kindle digital file.