Dear Rick Moody: How Do I Accept My Illness and My Inability to Write?
On Writing as a Field of Communications and Expressions of Self
Dear Rick Moody, Life Coach:
I’ve been ill for a few years, mostly bedridden. While there is reason to hope I’ll find some form of recovery in the next year or so, it’s not a given—and in any case, I want to cherish my life as it is today. I am writing you because I don’t know how to do that.
I’m a writer, but mostly unable to write. Such a huge part of my identity has been ripped from me. Many days I’m simply unable to think over or through the physical pain. However difficult, satisfying, tedious, or inspired, writing was always the nucleus around which my life and my sense of purpose and self-worth orbited. Now I feel scattered, the parts of me disparate—some of them having drifted away altogether. I feel alienated from who I was and who I am. Often, I feel alienated from the world outside my apartment, which I rarely leave.
I’m grateful to be able to maintain the relationships that matter most to me. In fact, my marriage and closest friendships have only deepened through my illness. Previously independent to a fault, I’ve learned a humbler way of relating to others. I value community, love, and friendship more than ever. I’ve learned to ask for and receive help, and I’m especially eager to help others—because I care deeply, I certainly have the time, and doing so makes me feel like my life is worth something. I’ve become a better listener, quicker to forgive. I have a heightened awareness that there are so many experiences that cannot be fully appreciated unless I’ve lived them, no matter how much imagination or empathy I may have, and I’ve become more sensitive in the way I offer support to people going through profound changes (whether becoming a new parent, losing someone close to them for the first time, facing the end of their life, finding their own path into adulthood, etc.).
I do all I can to find and instill meaning and to be grateful for whatever wisdom and growth this long illness has given me—yet I can’t stop fixating on what it’s taking away. I cry almost every day for what I’m losing. If I don’t write (which is most days), I feel like I’m wasting my life. Serious illness makes life seem shorter than ever, and it’s swallowed so much time and aged me so much; as a result, all that I hoped to accomplish has been whittled down and clarified and underscored. Writing, traveling, and becoming a parent are currently out of my reach, yet feel more urgent than ever.
My questions is: How do I accept this illness and not being able to write—a huge part of what makes me who I am? Why does writing define me when I also cherish my marriage and friendships so much? Instead of being angry and living so often in grief, how can I dwell in a state of gratitude for the many wonderful people in my life and the good qualities that I retain? Or should I accept that life is a mixed bag, and I’m in a gray zone of some kind—holding the good along with the bad?
There is so much to cherish and admire about your letter. There’s so much to mull over, to think about, and to save for later when one needs courage and determination. It’s easy to look up to you. You have been brave, and you have, in this letter, made bravery seem right at hand. The paragraph that catalogues some of the good that has come from your illness is one of the best such pieces of writing I have encountered recently (“In fact, my marriage and closest friendships have only deepened through my illness”). It is alchemical in intent, this paragraph, and manages its transmutation through simple determination. It changes your circumstances by describing your circumstances in detail.
But the main thing about the letter is: the letter is written! Despite your difficulties writing, you did manage to write this letter to me, describing at some length your inability to write. Apparently some writing can take place, and even if this is a minor amount of work from your point of view, the letter, after all, was the beginning of the 18th century novel. The letter was the origin of prose storytelling during the Enlightenment. Letters, if you take Richardson as a starting point, or Fielding, are a way to signify the genuine complexities of intimate contact, but with the reflective distance that Derrida ascribes to Poe’s famous “Purloined Letter.” The letter is intimacy and reflection at once. You have written a letter, that is, and it has been correctly sent to me, its recipient, and thus you are able to get a letter through. From letter writing may come great things.
“If everything is poignant in just the way your letter is poignant, if everything can tell us something beautiful and important about what it means to be alive, then there is no particular need for ‘high literature.’ ”
And yet: I don’t want to get hung up on the fact of your letter, its materiality, because that’s just one way to think about what you have done by writing of your struggle. I want to talk about writing itself, and what it means, really, to be able to write. To put it another way, I take your difficulty not to be about the physical inability to write—though I understand your pain and disability, and do not wish to minimize these. But I understand your wish to be about writing in a certain way. Your letter is, in part, about having a conception of what writing means. In part, Anonymous, you are saying that mostly it is books that count. Or: the long form. If, in this view, your disability is such as to make typing at any length impossible, what kind of writer are you, but, for example, a writer who is falling away from a normative idea of writing as a thing that is contained between covers. It is totally reasonable to have this conception, because the world supports it, ratifies it, and does not often think about alternatives.
But what if books and their cachet, the publicity machinery, and the opinions of others, have nothing to do with writing? Or are only one way of doing this thing called writing? It’s at least worth asking this question. It’s at least worth the thought experiment. What if writing, most importantly, has little to do with barometers of the work that are primarily mercantile?
Writing is a kind of mark-making, that is what I would like to propose, and a wrestling with language, broadly construed, wrestling with codes, that does not have to be between covers. Writing is a trace of self, a remainder, a reminder, of self, for the time when self is no longer here. The limitations of this mark-making, in instances when the writer is not at liberty to roam across the page in this way that involves covers, a dust jacket, etc., are not really limitations, unless you understand yourself to have some baseline minimum that is non-negotiable about what constitutes the work.
If we expand what writing is, so that writing meets us where we are, then it begins to acquire a flexibility and generative value that is much richer and more varied than the pages between the covers. The physically afflicted and challenged, in this view have infinitely more opportunities than we originally imagined them to have—if writing is understood more broadly to be mark-making or the remains of mercantile capabilities.
For a long time, Anonymous, I taught writing to art students at various schools, and I always really loved doing this work. The reason I loved it was that art students had no idea how to write, in most cases, and were often very afraid to undertake to do it at all. They had scriptophobia. The first assignment I often gave them, in recent years, was to use the predictive writing feature of their phones, and with this predictive feature turned on, make a text simply by choosing whatever came up in the little prompt box of possible words to select. This often produces a fine result. I’ll give you an example, right now:
I’m glad to see that justice
Has a United Wise man.
Come now and the
Defense of Kansas
Will bring the money—
Zone out there;
Everyone should love
The new version.
This poem was just produced by my phone with minimal cerebral activity, in the time it took to type it. Am I the author? I’m not sure. It may be that my subconscious is the author. I will leave it to exegetes to parse these differences. My point, however, is this: the literary act, in the final analysis, does not have a specific shape. It’s a field of communications and expressions of self. It is about mark making, and it is about language construed in the broadest possible way. The cave paintings in France are a literary act, the Roman graffiti of the second century is literary, the poems made of refrigerator magnets are literary.
Given that this is the case, that the mark making of a literary sort is just as valid as a “book,” whatever that word means now, we should, ideally, come to understand that a letting go of the book form is not settling. It is meeting the creative act where it can actually be practiced. It is transformative labor of the feasible. There is nothing that any of us must produce, there is only the things we make by sacrificing specific types of ambition, and contenting ourselves with the what-might-actually-be. I could, as of today, continue only with predictive typing process-oriented poems (which do bring me a lot of joy), and you could choose some entirely abstruse method of production that involves blowing into a tube. I use this example because it resulted in Hawking’s Brief History of Time.
If everything is poignant in just the way your letter is poignant, if everything can tell us something beautiful and important about what it means to be alive, then there is no particular need for “high literature,” or, at least, the distinction between the high and the low is not meaningful in all cases, or even in most cases. Nor is the distinction between the genres terribly meaningful. Which means, Anonymous, that you can do whatever your body will allow you to do, however it will allow you to do it. You could draw three green lines on a blank pad with one of those extra-large crayons, and I would be convinced of the value of the work, actually, especially in context of your predicament.
A lot, as you correctly suggest, is lost in chronic illness. And your life today is not your life before. These are incontrovertible facts. But we do not require of your writing that it be exactly as it was before—no one, not even the most able bodied writer, remains static in one approach—nor that your writing share the concerns of before, nor that its themes are the themes of before. On the contrary, I am most interested in the complex you of this very moment.
In truth, your letter is all the things you ask me for. It’s very well composed, and beautiful, and poignant, and much more accepting than you say you are. One could make the argument that your next work should in fact be made of such letters. Which leaves only one last query from your letter: how to accept?
Sometimes acceptance is impossible, and that is human, and all you can do about that is be patient. However, on the days when there’s a flickering of awareness, here are some possible routes to self-acceptance, which is at the heart of your request of me: watch a cardinal or a video of a cardinal, eat a salad that has fresh mint in it, rejoice in Richard Straus’s “Four Last Songs,” think about a painting by Mark Rothko, look out a window, look out the same window at a different time of day and in a different seasons, support a friend in whatever way is useful, sleep in, pet a house cat, listen to the room tone, say a prayer, in whatever way is meaningful, make your own list, and append it to the above. Gratitude can start anywhere and often begins simply with being.
The language with which to make work again can emerge from this place of gratitude. And this language can be the beginning of a new practice that is from the you of now, as opposed to the you of then. Trust that your story is valuable, because it is, and know that your practice is just, and that you need not worry over any deadline. Be where you are now.
I admire you and I look forward to what you write next!
Rick Moody, Life Coach
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