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Posted in Commentary & Musings on April 20th, 2009 by bonniekozekblog

UNDER THE INFLUENCE: Writers and Depression and Choices Chosen
Bonnie Kozek
March 2009

The writer suffers. London, overdose. Woolf, drowning. Mattheissen, leap. Hemingway, gunshot. Plath, gas. Berryman, leap. Inge, carbon monoxide. Sexton, carbon monoxide. Brautigan, gunshot. Levi, leap. Kosinski, overdose. Gray, drowning. Wallace, hanging. Mishima, ritual suicide culminating in assisted beheading. This accounting, even in the extreme, barely skims the surface.

The American psyche has long been acculturated to the idea of the “suffering writer” – the “mad artist” – the connection between creativity and insanity. Moreover, American writers, as referenced in the above abridged list of suicides, have substantially contributed to the incontrovertible nature of this broadly accepted “tradition.” Indeed, beginning with research first conducted in the 1970s, the scientific community has attempted to explain the phenomenon of the “suffering writer.” In her book, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, Kay Jamison, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, reports that writers are as much as 20 times as likely as other people to suffer depressive illnesses. Why? There appears to be two principal reasons: First, illness brought on by individual biology and/or traumatic experience, and secondly, a predisposition by way of birthright. Couple this with the inherent downsides of the profession — isolation, loneliness, rejection, financial insecurity – and the glamorization of the suffering writer – so prevalent that it has engendered a kind of “suffering competition” – (Upon learning of Plath’s suicide, Sexton is reported to have said covetously, “She took something that was mine! That death was mine!”)— and there you have it: A foregone conclusion.

However incontrovertible, an examination of the links between writer and depression – and the questions that logically arise from such inquiry – continues to be written about and debated by scientists, psychologists and writers alike. One subject of contemplation is the age-old question of whether psychological suffering is an essential component of artistic creativity. There are those who, based upon the mountain of empirical evidence and technical research, conclude that it is. Others disagree – citing literary giants – Shakespeare, e.g. – who had no significant psychopathology. Both positions are reasonable and, effectively, indisputable. Ergo, there’s no clear victor in this particular piece of the dispute. Yet, how can both be right? During a recent interview I was asked why I chose to be a writer. I answered that I have an irrepressible attraction to the words, to the letters – that I sense something beneath the surface – a kind of code. That I’m forever trying to break the code – to decipher the mystery – to find in the words something that is true – to craft a story that someone will want to read. And then I added, “But then again, I’m not so sure if I chose writing or if it chose me.” And, there it is — the articulation of uncertainty about the “choosing” or the “being chosen” — that offers one possible answer to the question.

Writers are born of two distinct and disparate sources. Some come to the world with innate talent – a talent which is either recognized early on, or discovered and nurtured in time. Their gifts are immense. Their minds are healthy, or rather, comparatively healthy. Others come to the world with burden. They write to survive. Of this latter category, the two-time Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author J. Anthony Lukas once said, “All writers are, to one extent or another, damaged people. Writing is our way of repairing ourselves. In my own case, I was filling a hole in my life which opened at the age of eight, when my mother killed herself . . . ” (Lukas, diagnosed with depression ten years earlier, hanged himself in 1997.) This category of writer starts with a less intellectual methodology. The personal risks are titanic. Talent, not wholly inborn, is learned and earned through the sweat of the flesh and the letting of blood. Some writers of this sort are able to effectively compartmentalize their suffering – fight their personal demons on the battlefield of human relations – between themselves and others – rather than on the written page. In this case, the resultant work may be indistinguishable from that of the writer unburdened by disease. Others are capable of redirecting and baring their pain in less conspicuous ways – through plot, character, and subject matter. And then there is the writer whose entire body of work is drawn solely from the wellspring of personal despair – a seemingly bottomless and unforgiving pit. This writer’s illness devastates – subjugates every aspect of her life. Her world becomes small, her purpose compulsive and single-minded. Such crushing depression may eventually suck all the oxygen out of her being, extinguish what flicker of hope has managed to survive the storm of her insidious affliction. Ultimately, this writer is consumed by the illness that fueled her creativity. There seems no way out. But might there be?

What if a writer under the influence of depressive illness became “un-depressed”? What if some combination of treatment – drugs, electric shock, psychoanalysis – was successful? Would the writer’s creativity – would the writer’s work – become negatively impacted? Would the writer stop writing about “depressing” subjects like defiant human emotion? Would, for example, an Artaud, Baudelaire, or Poe start writing “happily-ever-after” prose if “cured” by Zoloft? Of course, we won’t have the technical answers to these questions until future researchers – basing their findings not on the work and lives of dead authors but on the work and lives of writers currently living with depression – both in and out of treatment – provide them. Yet, un-technically – via experience, observation, and intuition – answers can be deduced. A Samuel Beckett, even partially restored, would not produce a “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The “change” for the writer, I submit, would come not in content, but rather in fecundity and endurance. For, when the annihilating destruction of depression – the “storm of murk” as William Styron so aptly described it – is muscled into symmetry with the writer’s purpose and faculty – when creative juices are feeding not just a single monster – there is an opening up of the universe – a vision that allows the writer to “rewrite” the inevitable – to comprehend what had previously been incomprehensible: That when it comes to writing and living, there is a choice. And finally, this writer, given the option, may choose not one or the other, but both: To write . . . and . . . to live.

When reflecting upon the vast, poignant, and enduring anthology of work produced by writers who have suffered from depression – as those mentioned in this article – and assuming that literature is necessary – that it matters – that it enriches all humanity – it is not hard to imagine that the “freeing of will” would bestow gifts far beyond those given to a single beleaguered soul.


Posted in Commentary & Musings on April 20th, 2009 by bonniekozekblog

Bonnie Kozek
January 2009

“… when good is hungry it seeks food even in dark caves, and when it thirsts it drinks even of dead waters.” (Khalil Gibran, The Prophet, “Good and Evil”)

This is it! The kind of provocative prose that does, in a single instant – intuitively and simultaneously – draw the entire “Big Picture” – the raison d’être – for my next book. The book will be about a character so starved for – fill in the blank: Love; Sex; Fame; Fortune; Salvation; Redemption; Meaning; et al. – that there is no line she is unwilling to cross, no depth to which she is unwilling to sink in order to sate this hunger. The Right hemisphere of my brain – the half identified with “creativity” – so stirred, catches fire. I can hardly contain myself. Yet, experience teaches that I must. Because, left unchecked by self-discipline, such avidity can quickly turn a controlled burn into a raging fire. Such a blaze – uncontainable yet confined and limited to only one side of the brain – can quickly burn itself out. Thus, if I hope to actualize the “Big Picture,” I’ve got to employ the other half of my brain, the Left hemisphere – the half identified with “logic.” I don’t mind. Although, as an artist, I tend to be prey to the Right hemisphere, I know that the true genius – the under-recognized hero – of fiction writing lies in the Left hemisphere of the brain. Besides, when it comes to writing, I’m an enthusiastic advocate of recruiting into action every single cell in every hemisphere of my brain! Moreover, when it comes to the brain I wouldn’t know shit from shinola if not for the brilliance of one Roger W. Sperry.
In the 1960s, Roger Wolcott Sperry, a neuropsychologist and neurobiologist, developed a revolutionary concept about the brain called the Right brain/Left brain or “split-brain” theory. (In 1981 Sperry received the Nobel Prize for this research.) His theory challenged the established and accepted view that the brain, although comprised of two hemispheres, was basically one entity with interchangeable parts. Through experimentation, Sperry showed that instead of being composed of interchangeable parts, the circuits of the brain are largely hardwired – each nerve cell tagged with its own individuality early in embryonic development. Once tagged, the cell becomes fixed – no longer modifiable. Further, Sperry showed that if the two hemispheres of the brain are separated by severing the band of fibers that connects them, the transfer of information between the hemispheres stops. Thus, the coexistence in the same individual of two functionally different brains was demonstrated. The Left hemisphere is the one with speech, and is dominant in all activities involving language, arithmetic, and analysis. The Right hemisphere, although mute and capable only of simple addition (up to about 20) is superior to the Left in, among other things, spatial comprehension – in understanding maps or recognizing faces, for example. Until Sperry’s experiments, it was doubted whether the Right hemisphere was conscious. But Sperry proved that a conscious mind exists in each hemisphere. By devising ways of communicating with the Right hemisphere, Sperry showed that this hemisphere is, to quote him: “. . . indeed a conscious system in its own right, perceiving, thinking, remembering, reasoning, willing, and emoting, all at a characteristically human level, and … both the Left and the Right hemisphere may be conscious simultaneously in different, even in mutually conflicting, mental experiences that run along in parallel.” The discovery of a dual consciousness opened up new doors of brain research. And today, these concepts continue to be explored by biologists, philosophers, artists, writers, and me!
Me? I’ve got the “Big Picture!” Now all I need do is fill in the details. To do this I must enlist the part of my brain that is supremely qualified for the job: the Left hemisphere. Once engaged, I will start to look at the parts, not the whole. I will take these parts, line them up, arrange them in logical order, and piece them together to produce the whole. It’s analytical, sequential work that will no doubt take months to complete. (It’s the perfect counter-balance and repose before I embark on the glorious and torturous years I will spend in the Right hemisphere, using imagination and invention to actually bring the “Big Picture” to life; to write the book.) So armed, I begin.

I launch into some of the back-story and plot-lines: A hard-boiled, soft-hearted, misfit, with a truckload of troubles and a tragic and haunting past – a past that has left more than a few dead bodies in its wake – skips town after the gut-wrenching murder of her only friend – a homeless drunk – on the rough streets of Skid Row – a murder that thrust her straight into the murky, seedy world of sex, drugs, and greed. To escape the past, the pain, and her affection for an unavailable and happily married cop – a cop who took a bullet in the head for her – a cop who made her foolishly believe that she could fit in as well as the next guy – a cop who told her she could have something she’d never had before: love that didn’t hurt – a cop who knew entirely too much about her – she drives balls-to-the-wall – south – till she runs out of gas just outside a small town near the Mexican border – pop. 836. Desperate for a place to alight – a place where she can fit in, become ordinary, quietly lick her wounds – and befriended by the owner of the only motel in town – a wide-assed gal whose husband ran off with another wide-assed gal years before, and whose twin boys are in a whole heap of trouble with the law – the woman accepts a room in exchange for a little menial labor. But since her relationship with women is even more problematic than her relationship with men, she quickly moves out – trading her broken down car for an abandoned trailer on the butte behind the motel. She hires on at the only watering hole in town. She tries to blend. She gets a hair-do. She goes to church. She takes a stab at normalcy. But just when she thinks she might actually pull off this charade, the weight of her past – the emotional quicksand that has crippled her for her entire life – starts to pull her down again. To dull the pain she starts to drink – heavily. The booze doesn’t help. She feels lost, hopeless, doomed. She starts to want – badly. But what does she want? A pardon, a panacea – something that will generate complete and utter insensitivity. And where can she find such a palliative? There’s only one domain that she knows will produce such total oblivion: Sex. And although she’s been off of it for awhile – to avoid the life-threatening consequences that have attended all such relationships – she cannot stop the yearning for the one thing that she knows will deaden the pain. And then it happens. A chance encounter that will take her down a path from which there may be no return. She meets a man. He’s wearing a long black coat and quoting from the Bible. There’s something about him – strange, hypnotic, greasy – irresistible. Just what the doctor ordered. He looks her in the eye; she feels a tingle down her spine. Two words come into her mind: Devour me. He licks his lower lip and extends his hand, but instead of shaking he grips her hand and slowly lowers it, wrapping it around the large, stiff hard-on that’s hiding beneath his coat. She whimpers. He smiles and says, “Say hello to daddy.” And then . . . and then things go from worse, straight to Hell.

Oh, joy! Oh, bliss! Oh endless possibility! It’s time to press my Left hemisphere into further action: Research. First, the Protagonist. Providentially, it just so happens that I know her well! Honey McGuinness already exists among the scores of idiosyncratic characters that live in my head. So, I move on. The small town. I start reading maps. I’m looking along the Mexican border. There are several options, and although the maps, library, and Internet provide me with copious amounts of information – something is missing, something tactile. I decide to take a trip. I explore the southern border of California: Jacumba, Calexico, Yuma. I head into Arizona: Lukeville, Nogales, and then I hit the jackpot: Bisbee – a tough little town a hop, skip, and jump from the border. I spend a couple of days at the Bisbee Inn. I observe. I walk around, eat, drink, socialize some – ask lots of questions. By the time I leave town I know I can write about the place. I know the color of the sky, the feel of the earth. I know the shape of the people, the cadence of their voices. I know the way they walk, eat, drink, think. I move on. Back in my studio I concentrate on the man “wearing a long black coat and quoting from the Bible.” Who is he? What’s he doing in Bisbee? How will he feed the starving Honey? How will he take her down into the abyss? He’s an outsider, an outcast. He knows how to manipulate. He knows how to use sex. He’s in control of his universe. So, who is this guy? I think. Bingo! He’s the charismatic leader of a religious cult! He and his followers live on a ranch secreted in a mountainous area on the outskirts of town. Okay. Now I’ve got to study religious cults, brainwashing, the use and mechanisms of sexual exploitation of cult members. Outstanding! (This is one of the best parts of being a writer: It provides a legitimate excuse to delve into any and all facets of life – even those that are more than a bit dodgy!) And so, I initiate contact with a religious sect just a few blocks from my studio. (As it turns out I’ve got a choice; there are several such cults in my neighborhood?!) I speak to members under the guise of possibly signing on. I attend a couple of get-togethers, and lastly an indoctrination meeting. Next I turn to the FBI for brainwashing techniques. (They are surprisingly accommodating.) As to the issue of sex, I seek out and meet several times with an author who memorialized her experiences and escape from just such a sect. (I decide to take the vicarious route on this particular issue for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that I can just hear the last question my husband asks me before packing his bags, “You did what?!”) And so the research goes, month after month – one character, one subject at a time – until I have analyzed each part, pieced them together, and arranged them into a whole. And then one day I find myself sitting alone in my studio. Notebooks of Left hemisphere data are at my fingertips. I am now ready to draft my Right hemisphere into service, and put the story down on paper – one magical word at a time.

Of course, it’s not this black and white. There are times throughout the process that the split-brain theory doesn’t bear up. Times when the Right and Left hemispheres ooze out, spill over, burst at the seams – times when the brain works in a state of holism. But whether the hemispheres are working separately or together, there yet exists in the brain a deep, sumptuous, and seemingly bottomless reservoir of fact and fiction – science and art – upon which the writer can draw to achieve her single-minded purpose: To write. To write a story.


Posted in Commentary & Musings on April 20th, 2009 by bonniekozekblog

By Bonnie Kozek
December 30, 2008

Late 1990s. December. I write “The End” on the last page of my tough-guy, hard-boiled, noir crime thriller. Though it’s after midnight, below zero, and the streets are covered with a thick layer of ice, I hop on my 3-speed Raleigh and peddle home through the slick New York City streets. After three years, the book is finally finished! It’s time to celebrate! A few friends come over. (Aside: I’m so relieved not to disappoint them again by answering “I don’t know” to the single recurring question they’ve been asking every time they’ve seen me during the past year or so, “Are you ever going to finish?”) It’s a great night. We all agree: All I need to do now is find a great agent – someone who will believe in me – someone who will get my book published. Hope springs eternal . . .

And not in vain! A couple of weeks later, I luck out! I get a great agent who believes in me! It’s Thomas Ganer of a now-defunct literary agency in the DeNiro building in Tribeca! Wow! My new great agent takes me to lunch at the Tribeca Grill (Wow!) and cautions me: It’s going to be a tough sell; the market for this genre is small; editors are looking for books with “mass appeal.” Read: Money-makers. (Hey, I can’t blame them. Everybody’s in the business for one reason or another. And everybody wants to get something out of it. Me? It’s pretty simple: I want to write. Oh yeah, and I want people to read what I write. And, okay, I wouldn’t mind a little recognition. And well, making a few bucks wouldn’t be so bad either, I guess.) By the end of lunch I’ve signed the contract. Oh, joy! I’ll soon be a published author! Big Time here I come! I’ll be laughing all the way to the bank . . .

Or not. I wait a couple of days for Thomas to call with the good news. I can’t wait to hear him say the words: Black Lizard, Vintage, Ecco, they all want you! He doesn’t call. I wait another day. But my great agent doesn’t call, again. What the f*#%! My paranoia and narcissism perk up: You’re not good enough for them: You’re too good for them! They battle. But I hold them at abeyance for another day. After all, Thomas represents other writers, I tell myself. (But really, who cares about them? asks a ruthless little voice in my head.) I spend the following day waiting, staring at the telephone. Literally. (This is the first time I experience “waiting” as an action verb.) (Aside: I’ve actually become so talented at waiting that I can no longer undertake any other – and I mean any other – action while I’m doing it.) The day comes and goes. No call from Mr. Great Agent. Nada. Bupkis. I manage to contain the obsessive egotistical beast that’s just this close (hand gesture) to blowing its top, for one more day. In the morning I pick up the phone and I call him. (What a strange, magnanimous, and brilliant idea!) I get his assistant, introduce myself (as if I need an introduction!), and ask to speak to Thomas. “Mr. Ganer is not available,” I’m informed. I repeat that it’s me, Bonne Kozek, calling. And he repeats himself – a little louder this time. Ouch. My eyes start to puddle up. Oh no you don’t! I fight back the tears, swallow a big lump of pride, and leave a message. After I hang up I take a big breath. (Hmm. How long has it been since I last took a breath?) I blow my nose and throw cold water on my face. I’m surprised: I feel oddly anxiety-free. I mean, Thomas is definitely going to call me any minute now because as soon as he gets my message he’s going to drop whatever it is that he’s doing and make himself available to me immediately. (In fact, he’ll probably give his poor dumb assistant the axe when he finds out that he was snippy with me!) So reassured, I once again settle into the arduous and exhausting task of waiting. And then the unbelievable happens: He doesn’t call, again. Six o’clock, seven o’clock, eight o’clock. Nothing. A chasm cracks my brain in two, and the blood rushes in. I can’t think. I can’t eat. I can’t speak. And I definitely can’t write. (I’ll never write again!) I stew throughout a sleepless night and by morning I’m simply beside myself. Literally. Something has snapped: I can no longer distinguish right from wrong; I don’t know what’s good for me. And it’s in this delightful and convivial state that I decide it’s high time that I take matters into my own hands. Ergo, I fax Mr. Big-Shot-Literary- Agent-Who’s-Such-A-Bigwig-Hot-Shot-That-He-Won’t-Even-Return-My-Call, an ultimatum – issued on a single sheet of paper and written with an extra-wide black Sharpie. And here it is: He can, 1) return my manuscript to me within 24-hours, or – here it comes – or, 2) “Or else.” Or else? Yep, or else! (And this is where I spell out what some people could interpret – if they wanted to be sticklers about it – a somewhat alarming threat to his person.) A moment later the fax machine spits out the confirmation: The fax has successfully been delivered. Man, do I ever feel pleased with myself. No more waiting! No more torment! No more holding my breath till I hear from my great agent that my life is worth living! Oh, joy!

Half an hour later I’m catatonic. What did I do?!? How can I undo it?!? The doorbell rings. I shuffle over to the intercom. It seems that Mr. Muckamuck Literary Agent chose option number one: Mr. Thunderball Express won’t give me my manuscript until I sign for it. “Return receipt required.”

The next few days are a blur. I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I can’t speak. And I definitely can’t write. (I’ll never write again!) I’m filled with remorse, regret, and unbounded shame. I go into mourning. I’m miserable. Life is over. But wait! What’s wrong with me? Things aren’t so bad. I mean, when you really think about it, what I did was kind of amusing – maybe even hilarious . . . in an unfunny kind of way. And if I got one great agent, well surely I can get another one! (Rationalization and delusion are as alike as two peas in a pod.) Within a couple of days my rationalization turns to fantasy. But within another couple of days my chimera comes tumbling down and all hope goes straight down the toilet.

It happened one evening at a fancy schmancy dinner party at the home of a celebrated book critic, which party was attended by some of New York’s most legendary literati. At first things went swimmingly. I mingled. I participated in clever repartee. I even made some guy with thick black-framed glasses chuckle. And then the shoe dropped. Mr. Celebrated Book Critic took me by the elbow and excitedly introduced me to a rather large group of Very-Important-People. The introduction was followed by a curious and uncomfortable few moments of silence, which was followed by a shared rebuff, as they one after the other whispered, “Oh, she’s that Bonnie Kozek,” and summarily spun around on their heels and sauntered off. That was the moment I knew: I had burned all my proverbial bridges.

I had to face the facts. I wanted an agent. I wanted to be published. I wanted to write. Yet I was clearly incapable of making all three of these things happen at the same time – chalk it up to immaturity, lunacy, short-sightedness, arrogance, impulsiveness, egotism, the inability to separate myself from my work – or all of the above. So, since I couldn’t do all three, I had to make a choice. The odds of me finding another agent were slim to none. Plus, even if I did, I had to consider that the odds of me landing in the pokey for following through on what some people might consider – if they really wanted to be sticklers about it – a somewhat alarming threat – were definitely greater. (Becoming a convicted felon didn’t seem like a particularly good career move.) I considered publishing my book, but at the time that wasn’t feasible. That left fact number three: I wanted to write. Now that was something I could do! And that is exactly what I did.

Fast forward. 2008. I’ve written three and a half novels, two oral histories, a lexicon for lovers, and a book of poetry. And, since no one can ever accuse me of learning from my mistakes, I even tried to work with another great agent: Sterling Ripley, of a distinguished Chelsea agency. Sterling is a wonderfully talented agent who, by the by, has a very dumb assistant. (I ask myself, Is being dumb a job prerequisite for an assistant to a literary agent? Or am I just bitter and hypercritical?) (Aside: See below for answer.) Things were swell for a while with me and my new really great agent. He said he loved the novel I was writing – and even used words like “remarkable” and “brilliant” about the work. But in the end he changed his mind – right after his dumb assistant read the manuscript and told his boss he couldn’t follow it. (See above Aside for questions, to wit I answer: Yes. No.) When I received the final email rejection from Mr. So-What-If-I’ve-Been-Telling-You-The-Work-Is-Brilliant-For-The-Past-Two-Years, I went into shock – which may have accounted for the fact that I fell down two flights of stairs, drove my car into a ditch, and walked like a zombie into a stranger’s home and proceeded to join the bewildered little family at their dinner table where they were just about to partake of a really nice home-cooked meal – and boy, could I have used a really nice home-cooked meal right about then!

Anyhoo. It’s 2008. I’ve got all this work – all these lonely books – piling up in my studio. And suddenly I realize: Hey, it’s 2008! Writers have choices! I’m a writer! I have choices! In fact, with a minimal investment a writer can get her work published and into the hands of readers who can decide for themselves whether or not her work is any good. And unless you are the kind of writer who just writes for herself – which I am no longer – that’s really all that matters. A few months ago I took the plunge: I decided to self-publish. I got a website and, when the book went live (meaning it is in print and available online and in bookstores) I got a publicist. And now all I have to do is wait – Oh, joy! – for the reviews to come in!

In conclusion, and to answer the question posed in the title of this article, To Write, To Publish, or To Commit a Felony? My answer is this: Write and Publish. Hey, two out of three ain’t bad.

Note: The names of literary agents in this article have been changed in order to protect the innocent, the not-so-innocent, and the downright guilt-ridden.


Posted in Commentary & Musings on April 20th, 2009 by bonniekozekblog

Bonnie Kozek
January 15, 2009

In 2005, the Naples-born sculptor, Giancarlo Neri, created a work entitled The Writer – a 30 foot tall table and chair made of wood and steel. Exhibited in the middle of a grassy field in London’s Hampstead Heath – as homage to the famed park’s associations with Keats and Coleridge – spectators interacted with the sculpture in a variety of ways. Some viewed it from a distance; others circled its perimeter. Some lay beneath it; others looped the massive legs on bicycle. Its grand scale and curious posturing dwarfed both viewer and nature. At length, the sculpture produced an unsettling impression: It didn’t fit. It would never fit it. For all its commanding mass, it remained distant, disconnected – communicating perfectly the crushing loneliness – the aloneness – of the writer.

Loneliness springs from a number of sources. It can be the product of emotional or mental illness. For such symptomatic loneliness – beyond personal control – treatment is readily available. But loneliness – aloneness – can also be a consequence of individual choice. For example, the artist who chooses aloneness so as to fulfill one purpose and one purpose only: To make art. It is this self-inflicted – immensely problematic – aloneness of which I write. This category of loneliness – subject to personal control – can’t be cured with Prozac or Paxil. The only “cure” is for the artist to make a different choice. Sounds easy enough. Why not simply concede this aloneness? Because to do so may be in diametric contradiction to the artist’s raison d’etre, and, once surrendered, may lead to a sacrificing – or even forgoing – of this single purpose. It is possible for an artist who has chosen aloneness as a condition of creation to avoid this thorny issue, but those with family obligations, like me, are unlikely to escape it.

In the song, “Finishing The Hat”, from the 1984 Broadway musical “Sunday In The Park With George,” this subject is intimately and passionately examined. The song is poignant and heartrending. (I first heard it performed by Mandy Patinkin, which explains, in part, my irrepressible sobbing, sniffling, and nose-blowing. The other part of the explanation is the exquisite empathy it stirred in my soul.) The song begins with George (the protagonist, based on the painter Seurat) sitting in a park, madly sketching. He’s alone except for a prop dog made of wood. The lyrics express how he has to “finish the hat” – his drawing. (The hat, of course, is metaphor for whichever piece the artist is currently creating – a painting, a drawing, a poem, a book, et al.) He sings about the artist “entering the world of the hat.” It’s a private world, with only enough room for the hat and the artist. No one and nothing else is permitted entry. He sings about the artist watching the rest of the world, as through a window. It is a world that the artist will always be separate from – because living in the world of the hat will always keep him apart. He emotes about the rapture of finishing the hat – of being “dizzy from the heights.” “Look I made a hat! Where there never was a hat!” (The artist’s work: To create something from nothing – so simply, so inscrutably . . . so perfectly defined!) And then, reconciled, George avows that his single-minded concentration has alienated him from those he most cares about, and acknowledges that he will forever lose the woman he loves because he will always be too late – too late returning to her – coming back from the world of the hat. And yes, he may wish she would stay – wait for him, but he knows she will not. He cannot give her what she needs. He is alone.

I understand. As a writer, aloneness and I are close and constant companions. Yet, I know it’s a double-edged sword – and as such I am both devoted to it and disquieted by it. So disquieted, in fact, that I spent many years trying to escape it. During those years I chose compromise. I wrote at home; I wrote in an office not far from home. I worked 9 to 5, more or less – going to and coming from work in sync with the majority. Instead of spending evenings and weekends writing – alone with the internal narrative in my head – a narrative incessantly whispering the secrets of invented characters and conspiracies – I spent time with real people, in real conversation. It worked a bit: I managed to produce some. But, frankly, it never worked well. Because once that door – the door leading into the world of the hat – a world where gossamer thoughts and nascent ideas can, in measure, become hard-wearing – once that door is cracked, the whole raucous outside world comes jangling in. And when that happens, the world of the hat spills out, and soon all those inchoate whisperings are drowned in a cacophony of noise! (Oh, the noise! When asked what the orchestra should play while he was dining at a posh London restaurant, George Bernard Shaw replied fittingly “dominoes.”) Plucked from the world of the hat and plopped back into the stuff of life, I quickly found myself so preoccupied with that stuff – small, medium, and large – that I got lost. And it sometimes took weeks, or even months, for me to find my way back. Eventually I could escape no longer. And so, I came face to face with the agonizing truth: If I chose to write, I had to be alone. The only other option was to forgo my work. The choice could not have been more crystalline – nor could my election: I chose aloneness.

During the writing of my next book, I went away. I cut myself off from the world. I took a hiatus from ongoing commitments. I postponed or canceled both near-term and long-term plans and obligations. I said no to friends and family. It was as radical as an amputation – and expressively unsettling. I had doubts. A debate commenced – intellectual and philosophical – methodical and illogical – passionate and persuasive – between the writer and the other roles I embraced in my life – wife, mother, friend, community member. Yet, even this noise I held in check. I was resolute – no matter the decibel – I would not be distracted from my purpose. I anticipated a six month seclusion. Six months turned into two years.

As it turned out, my aloneness needed a collaborator: discipline. And not just any ordinary discipline: military-style discipline. Thus, I instituted a rigid and brutal schedule. My every activity was charted – day by day, minute by minute. I went to bed and arose at set times. I ate meals – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – no snacking – at appointed times. I wrote, took breaks, exercised, and bathed on a timetable. And I also took a compulsory day off from work. These conditions were absolute, because, as I would quickly discover, if I deviated from the drill – even one tiny bit – everything, but everything went straight to hell. (At one point I considered that such inflexibility might be an indication that something was seriously wrong with me. Had I contracted OCD? I decided to add this to the long list of concerns waiting to be addressed once I finished my book.) Within a short period of time the aloneness and discipline started to pay off. I was writing. And although the work was tough – complicated storylines with complex characters, written in a four-part, first-person narrative – I had done it. I was in the world of the hat!

Life inside the hat . . . it was a wonder. Just as the depths which we experience one emotion is in equal measure to the heights which we experience its opposite, so it was. The unyielding restrictions I had imposed with regard to isolation and discipline were in exact intensity to the boundless freedom I encountered. Relieved of the weight of the outside world and the daily bombardment of routine decision-making, I was creatively unfettered, unguarded, vulnerable, open, spontaneous, and unstoppable. Day by day I became more concentrated, immersed. I also became fearless – not just re-working, but deleting words, sentences, paragraphs, entire pages – if they weren’t working – if they weren’t perfect. Some days the work was blissful, more often it was torturous. But either way, the story was coming out not in full strokes, but word by word. I could spend three days, four days, an entire week searching for one single word – the exact word that would follow the last exact word that I had written. I surrendered preconceptions. I simplified entanglements and snarled others. I followed the characters, allowed them to change. I unwound them – allowing the good to be bad, and the bad to be good. And slowly, word by word, I wrote a book. I finished the hat.

I hit a few bumps along the way. They didn’t interfere with the work, but they were curious. And although I can’t say I understood them at the time, I now see that I was unconsciously compensating for what would naturally occur: Loneliness. I got lonely. It manifested in both predictable ways – talking to myself – and odd ways – talking to things other than myself. I talked to and named the two jack rabbits that appeared, like clockwork, in the yard every single day. (Apparently, they also ran a very tight ship!) I talked to and named the flycatchers – small unspectacular birds – as they nested. At some point I moved from animate objects to inanimate ones – shoes, toothbrush, food – and then eventually to gadgets – pedometer, garage door opener, stereo remote control. By the time the two years were up, I had a large menagerie of anthropomorphized nonhuman confidants. (As if it is possible, under any circumstances, to describe a tiny rubber frog as an intimate.) At first I was a bit concerned about this extremely idiosyncratic behavior, but again, I decided to deal with it at some unspecified time in the future. Nearly three years later I was delighted and relieved to read in the February 2008 issue of the journal, Psychological Science, that a study on loneliness conducted by Nicholas Epley, Assistant Professor of Behavioural Science at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business – showed that it is quite common for lonely people to confer human qualities onto nonhuman objects – and that such conference may be of psychological and physical benefit to the conferrer. Epley’s study, however, did specifically draw the line when it came to “gadgets.”
Setting all else aside, my affair with aloneness and writing has left me with questions – some which I can answer, some which I cannot. Do I think it possible for a writer to write without entering the world of the hat? For me the answer is “no.” Does that mean that the only way to write is through isolation, disengagement, and aloneness? Is there not some other door through which the writer can enter this world? Are there other options, perhaps something more balanced? And, if there is, would the trade-off be too great? I don’t know. But, as I prepare to undertake my next book, I am sure to find out.
Ultimately, I can extrapolate from my experience that the process of aloneness and writing offers both reward and consequence. On the consequence side of the equation, I alienated and disappointed the people I love most in the world. It will take some time to close the divide and repair the damage. On the reward side it’s simple: I can say, “Look I made a hat! Where there never was a hat!”