Thursday, December 18, 2014
12/18: Eva Saulitis on The Art of the Personal (Cancer) Essay
I heard it first from the editor of my last book, when I talked to her about what I was working on now. I told her I was writing a lot about my cancer, in daily, reflective, flash-non-fiction bursts, and thinking about a memoir. I was adding most days to a computer file labeled unimaginatively, “Cancer Thoughts.” It all started as therapy, a blog suggested by my counselor, a way to write my way out of breast cancer’s psychological aftermath. After my initial diagnosis, in 2010, having undergone eight months of harsh treatments in an attempt to eradicate the disease, I found myself episodically (and literally) weak in the knees with fear, unable to shake the experience, to move on, to confidently wear the badge of “survivor” or to sport a jaunty pink-beribboned sun visor. “I want you to start keeping a daily blog,” my counselor said. All through my treatment, she (a writer herself) had strong-armed me to write, mostly poetry. I’d resisted; during the worst traumas of my life, I’ve retreated into silence. But the daily blog assignment worked in unexpected ways, from the first post. To the dismay of my husband, I named the blog Alaskan in Cancerland (he wanted us both out, not in, Cancerland, and fast) and shared the link with a few friends and relatives. For years a writer of long essays, I found myself compressing each entry to 500 words or less, without pre-meditation. From the first post, I fell into the craft of essay—my first love in terms of form. The fact of the blog helped in this, meant someone else was out there, reading my words.
It wasn’t hard to keep up my commitment. It became obsessive; it was therapeutic; it became a spiritual practice, one of transforming rawness and anxiety into something else; it became a striving toward art. What in lived experience had been scattershot terror arising amidst a constant anxious hum transformed into meditative essays with an emotional and metaphoric arc. My triggers were mundane, often descriptive details of the view out my window. A flickering of insight arose out of close attention to the everyday world. I kept this up through two years of recovery and the return of the cancer in 2013 as Stage 4. I wrote a book-length poem sequence during that time, but always, the flash essays kept coming, a kind of discursive conversation side-by-side with the moments (prayers, I called them) conveyed line-by-line, image by image, in the poems. Friends who read the posts kept asking, “Is there a book in there?” And I imagined there must be, but I had no sense of what form it might take, especially after my editor weighed in.
She told me that there’s a “glut” of cancer memoirs on the market; I’d have to find another angle. So I searched for what that might mean. I read a few literary cancer memoirs and essays to check out the lay of the allegedly glutted land. A very few suggested that there might be ways of reframing the notion of a “cancer memoir,” which, I came to learn, had its non-market-minded detractors.
A Google search revealed a critique on a website called Vice: “Cancer Memoirs Are Breaking Out Like the Plague” by Brendan O’Neill, written in late 2012. O’Neill’s rant focuses his ire and disgust upon the culture (aka, readers): “Ours is a morbid era, obsessed with disease, and we implicitly incite the sick to tell us everything, to keep nothing bottled up.” Which justifies “the pornography of death” he sees in this trend. As someone who experiences the isolation of and silence around terminal illness, I found his assessment of our culture puzzling. His first example is Christopher Hitchens, whose essay collection Mortality appeared earlier this year, after his death from complications of esophageal cancer. It’s a compilation of essays he’d written for a Vanity Fair column called Topic of Cancer. While I wouldn’t put pornography past Hitchens, the idea of him being, even in his last travail, incited by anyone (much less some vague, voyeuristic readership) to do anything against his will is laughable. What would have incited Hitchens was implied censorship, someone telling the sick writer to shut up and suffer his physical indignities in silence and decorum. Which is ironic when you consider that one of the topics Hitchens wrote of, devastatingly, was his fear of cancer robbing him of his voice, his ability to banter and argue out loud. His speaking and writing voices were, for him, intimately related, a fascinating notion. Another persistent seam through the essays was his atheism, his refusal to make a death-bed conversion. As he had all through his life, he kept up his philosophical arguments with himself and with his interlocutors. Here was one individual and one idiosyncratic approach to death. He spared no details, but that’s not what kept me reading. I was certainly no cancer voyeur. The last thing someone with metastatic cancer wants to indulge in is lurid spectatorship of someone else’s physical ordeal. But what of O’Neill’s proposition: healthy readers hungry for gruesome details of grave illness?
Sure, it’s conceivable there’s a readership out there, people who’d go out of their way to gobble down narratives focused on bodily degradation, whether it be cancer or rape or addiction. But it seems a stretch to think they’re the norm of literary non-fiction readers, who come to the genre seeking so much more. It’s absurd to think such a readership could drive serious essayists and cultural critics like Hitchens and Susan Gubar and poets like Christian Wiman and experimentalists like Joshua Cody and lyric essayists like Judith Kitchen, who write of their cancers (and around and through and beyond their cancers) to feed their appetites. I doubt they’d buy Mortality, or Judith Kitchen’s The Circus Train, or the book I want to focus on, Christian Wiman’s book-length essay My Bright Abyss.
All of them, Mortality and My Bright Abyss and The Circus Train, are composed of essays or essay fragments; they are not memoirs. It could be that the essay form (and the essay collection) is a subconscious way writers turn away from an audience of potential voyeurs or from charges of cancer exhibitionism (read confessionalism, read navel—or in this case tumor—gazing). But I believe it’s more, an essential way for the writer to rise out of his or her particular cancer narrative. Perhaps the essay collection or the extended essay, as a form, as a genre descended from Montaigne, resists the narrative just enough for such a writer. An essay collection can subvert narrative drive and chronology and reliance on scene in order to advance ideas, to circle and dive around the apparent subject matter of cancer in order to approach something else, something larger. It can, like The Circus Train, dive wildly in and out of time, without regard to chronology or story line. Literary non-fiction readers demand both brute honesty and artfulness, both complexity and experimentation in writing out of bodily or psychological travail. They demand what, for instance, Joshua Cody achieves in his wild, inventive, irreverent cancer memoir [Sic], as described by Gregory Cowles in the New York Times: “The resulting G-force of sex and death and insanity — and also, improbably, of music and math and modernist poetry — is the only evidence you need that for all its seeming formlessness, '[Sic]' is in fact as artfully constructed as a Tarantino film.”
In contrast, in a 2010 review of three cancer-related books, also in the Times, Dana Jenning writes: “The authors of these three new cancer memoirs, knowingly or not, employ narrative strategies that distract us from the potentially important stories they have to tell. They use literary flourishes and the tools of journalism as a kind of placebo to avoid delivering the strong medicine the reader craves. When it comes to cancer books, we need the thing itself, not the window dressing.” But do we?
Being a writer (and reader) with metastatic cancer, I seek literature that addresses my preoccupations—which are not, at heart, those of side-effects or disease outcomes, but those of the great unknowns—death and dying and how one might approach them with something more creative and enervating than raw terror. I don’t need “the thing itself,” but what spins outward from “the thing” that is cancer and its ravages. I actually crave the window dressing, and the window, and the view past the window. This is what turns story—even a cancer story—into art. I crave the architecture the writer builds to support metaphor, to carefully place that particular window in that particular wall, with that angle of light, and that view. I crave the weaving of life and passion with death. That is what Christian Wiman achieves in My Bright Abyss. I can cruise the cancer chat rooms if I want to know how to negotiate my small cancer narrative, the daily round of “and then, and then.” I don’t need a memoir or an essay for that. What I seek is the larger narrative the writer/cancer sufferer participates in: the conversation of life and death that transcends any particular diagnosis, and any particular historical moment.
In his preface to My Bright Abyss, Wiman describes the essayist’s art perfectly, in a justification for the short piece (not included in the collection) “Love Bade Me Welcome”: “And the essay itself? It was about despair: losing the ability to write, falling in love, receiving a diagnosis of an incurable cancer, having my heart ripped apart by what, slowly and in spite of all my modern secular instincts, I learned to call God. It was my entire existence crammed into eight pages.”
Despite what we’re taught in workshops, the best personal essays are, on some level, our “entire existence crammed” into a limited number of pages. Not in terms of content, but it terms of voice and force, the layers of thinking, writing and living one has accumulated. (It strikes me that, experiencing a diagnosis of mortal illness, or perhaps I should say, the moment just after, one’s entire existence is crammed into, hones down to, one life-altering intake of breath). Everything we are, have been, everything we’ve experienced, comes to bear upon the current writing problem, doesn’t it? And each new essay builds upon it, like a process of geological deposition. As Wiman puts it, that first essay he published, though addressing multiple levels of experience, demanded another essay, and then another, and eventually a collection of essays, and a collection of poems, and a completely new direction for his writing and his life.
Love, God, and death, Wiman’s primary subjects, are the perennial subjects of literature; it’s a very long conversation. In earlier times, writers faced death in different ways, but the basic questions, those of love, divinity and heartbreak, remain unchanged. The presence of a specific illness in literature isn’t secondary to the presence of death in literature; it’s a reflection of one’s times, of one’s social class, and of all the metaphorical weight placed upon the diseases that run through our culture, from the plague to TB to AIDs to cancer to radiation poisoning to ebola. A prevalent way we face death in our culture is cancer. The word fills us with dread, and so into that metaphoric container we pour all our dreads. Though its incidence is slowly falling in the US, still twelve percent of women (and a much smaller percentage of men) will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in their lifetimes, and 20-30% of those people will eventually receive a metastatic, or terminal, diagnosis. Cancer is the #2 cause of death in the US. AIDs was a metaphor of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Cancer is a metaphor of now—the era of climate change, rampant development, runaway capitalism, content gone viral—tied as it is to genetic mutation, to our own cells gone haywire. The question of why there are so many cancer-related memoirs and essays goes way beyond the knee-jerk claim of ours being a voyeuristic society, just as the appearance of childhood sexual abuse in the literature in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s was far more than a way to feed base urges. Writers respond to the times in which they live. Essayists provide an alternative view, and a more complex one, to the vehicles of pop culture: the reality TV show, the talk show, the pink ribbon campaign, the self-help book, the advertising industry which wraps its toxic products in pink “for the cause” (including, this last October, “breast cancer awareness month,” a pink, fracking drill bit). But no matter the times, death is present, in whatever garb it comes. How a person faces the “wild darkness,” in Harold Brodkey’s parlance, is instructive to us all.
In the preface to My Bright Abyss, Wiman explains the presence of cancer in what is predominantly (and on the surface) a collection of spiritual essays. We can hear him squirm, perhaps anticipating critics like O’Neill, when he writes: “Initially I thought this book wouldn’t even mention my illness . . . I wanted to avoid any appearance of special pleading, wanted to strip away the personal and get at ulterior truths.” But he realizes that “every act and thought . . . occurred in that shadow,” the shadow of cancer. “Without the impetus of serious illness, my work would not have taken the particular form it has.” And always, we approach “ulterior truths” and gain credibility through lived experience.
Wiman’s form (like Judith Kitchen’s), as he describes it, is “fragmentary and episodic,” as well as “very much a mosaic, not a continuous argument or narrative,” which reflects the course of his illness, a waxing and waning. The white space between each short meditative section signifies time, some unwritten personal and time-bound narrative, and then the arrival of another reflective space. The narrative of cancer, the treatment regimen, the anxiety, the suffering, largely exists out of sight, within those white spaces. A person with a terminal cancer lives acutely in time, and often, that living borders on the unbearable. We seek ways to transcend time, by slowing down certain moments in a practice of attention, and through art-making. The episodic contemplative moment is a way an individual transcends time—mind and spirit lifting out of the physical, the quotidian, if only for the space of a paragraph. A daily meditative or prayer practice also mimics the structure of Wiman’s book. Prayer or meditation exist—or allow us the illusion that we can exist—if only momentarily—out of ordinary clock-time. And yet that lived experience, grappling with it on or off the page, the pain and existential struggle, life at the edge of the unbearable, are the impetus that drives the writer to transcend his or her givens and the limits of imagination.
The mosaic structure of My Bright Abyss allows Wiman to approach his questions from a variety of voices, tenses and rhetorical stances, allowing for an argument to take place with the self, and with God, on the page, and allowing the reader to be invited to participate. Two sections in the first chapter begin with that conditional “if,” as Wiman puts forth some proposition he then must ground-truth, overturn, revise, or elaborate upon. Here the opening phrases of each section making up the opening essay:
My God my bright abyss [poem fragment]
In truth, though, what I crave at this point in my life
When I was young, twelve years old or so
If you return to the faith of your childhood after long wandering
On the radio I hear a famous novelist
I don’t mean to suggest that the attitude of stoic acceptance is not
If God is a salve applied to unbearable psychic wounds
Be careful. Be certain that your expression of regret about your inability
It is this last complacency to which artists of our time are especially susceptible
Christianity itself is this—
When I think of the years when I had no faith
When I assented to the faith that was latent within me
They do not happen now, the sandstorms of my childhood
Lord, I can approach you only by means of
These phrases suggest not memoir, but a spiritual argument with the self. Cancer and mortality hover at the edges of this opening, are an occasion, that “triggering town” Richard Hugo terms the inciting event that launches a poem, that is oftentimes erased from the final version. In Wiman’s case, cancer diagnosis so urgently drives spiritual grappling that it cannot be erased. Yet it isn’t until the second chapter, page 25, that illness enters as actual narrative thread: “Not long after I learned that I was sick, in the dim time of travel, multiple doctors, and endless tests, when it seemed I might be in danger of dying very soon, I began to meet every Friday afternoon with the pastor of the church just around the corner from where my wife and I lived.” Then he describes the “arguments” about faith their conversations became, the arguments that continued in his head and on the page. Here is that ghost narrative of the book, appearing and reappearing the way the death of Peter Matthiesen’s wife from cancer threads lightly (but so memorably and impactfully when it enters), through The Snow Leopard, which is, at its heart, a spiritual pilgrimage—not a grief—memoir.
* * * * *
In the loose draft of what is not supposed to be a cancer memoir, I wrote yesterday of the multiple narratives by which I live since my metastatic diagnosis. There is the quotidian, time-bound narrative, which might be a living-through of side-effects following a chemotherapy infusion, the daily march from nausea to pain, or it might be the stress of delayed treatment, or the unbearable waiting for test results. And there is another narrative, in which a particular moment appears to rise out of time, and suggest a larger story holding the pedestrian story within it. It might be a memory, or a present-tense incident. This narrative allows me to step away and see myself almost as a character in an ongoing dream. The questions that have haunted me all my life populate this dream with perplexing characters and scenarios; they create metaphor I write my way toward unraveling. Recently, it was coming upon an abandoned and crippled calf on a hike along sea-cliffs bordering a cow pasture and wondering what it meant. When we resist relying on the tension of the first type of narrative (Will her cancer go into remission? Will her marriage survive this?), we must acknowledge a deeper tension, which is, in the simplest sense, “How does this one human being face her mortality, how does she deal with ultimate loss of everything, how does she manage her burning love of life on earth?”
Wiman points the way, both in form and content. In his case, the spiritual narrative carries the greatest weight, receives the most space in the book, far more than the cancer narrative. Any reader hooked on the cancer narrative will either be seduced into the spiritual questioning or put the book aside. Whether you are a believer or not, My Bright Abyss is a book that can be read again and again, because the deeper questions that drive it cannot be resolved within its 178 pages. The reader enters the meditative space of each short section in order to think, to consider, rather than to discover “what’s next.” They are not so much mini-sermons as queryings, a spiritual seeker’s notebook. One short segment takes a stab at truth, and the next might overturn or modify it, as the writer’s thoughts evolve, or as life throws up new crises. I constantly found myself applying ideas Wiman proposes about faith to the craft of essay-writing itself: “It is why every single expression of faith is provisional—because life carries us always forward to a place where the faith we’d fought so hard to articulate to ourselves must now be reformulated, and because faith in God is, finally, faith in change.” And so is faith in art. It is why essayists and poets tumble the same questions in poem after essay, gradually wearing away the outer layers, revealing complexity rather that rehashing what’s been said before. “Nothing was ever settled,” writes Wiman about his conversations with the pastor. It’s why as readers, we return again and again to certain writers, to certain works. We return to illness memoir or essay not for the story of the illness (that is fixed; events are not contingent) but for how it’s told, what it asks of us, and continues to ask of us, after it is closed. Wiman devotes many pages to the notion of God as contingency (an argument he works through with himself, with readers as witnesses and participants). A work of art is contingency as well: changing from reader to reader, from reading to reading. In this way, writing, for Wiman, and for some of us, is a form of prayer—not a careful rote utterance, but a teeth-gnashing, authentic search for meaning in the face of annihilation.
Wiman’s essays become for me a consideration of the nature of prose and of the essay form. Why would a poet turn to prose at this juncture? No one can ever answer the question of why a particular subject or moment leads a writer to prose or poetry. For Wiman, I believe, the self-consciousness of his lifelong art—the question of audience and form, and what he calls, in this book, and in his previous essay collection, “ambition”, is circumvented. He’s lived his life channeling ambition through poetry; through prose his drive turns inward. He allows himself to muse on the page. Beneath this musing is urgency, grappling with a question that is life-and-death for him.
Scott Russell Sanders, writing in the Washington Post, describes the way that My Bright Abyss differs from other “cancer narratives:” “it uses grave illness to focus on the question that lurks beneath much, if not all, religion: “What do you do, what do you say, what in the world are you going to believe in when you are dying?” Sanders, who is an essayist, suggests the impulse that drives Wiman, and the rhetorical stance he assumes, is not the narrative, not the proposition, and not the argument. It is the question. That is what undergirds the personal essay, and why, in the end, My Bright Abyss is not an essay collection (though it is divided into stand-alone chapters) and not a spiritual treatise and not an illness memoir but a book-length personal essay, like Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby.
“Forged out of pain, like most masterpieces,” says writer Eliza Griswold of Wiman’s essays. The key word is “forged.” The forge, a kind of hearth, heats metals to a temperature where they can be shaped. “Work hardening” can no longer occur. The unforged experience of cancer (or any trauma) can easily ossify into chronological narrative, a litany of increasing indignities, and the act of essaying resists this tendency, through the power of the reflective “I,” which can draw from multiple lines of inquiry, and view events from various lenses. In this malleable state, the raw material is transferred to the smithy’s anvil to be hammered into shape. In the “slack tub,” the piece is rapidly cooled in a large body of water. The forge of Christian Wiman’s cancer experience is his grappling with Christianity, and the forge of his faith is his cancer. He’s a modern-day Job, whose body and life God smites, challenging his fair-weather faith. In Wiman’s essays there’s degradation of the body, there’s suffering, and also transcendence. But one doesn’t ultimately prevail over the other. As it was for Job, it’s the degradation of the body that triggers the ultimate questioning the essayist thrives upon, and though the body may not survive cancer, the ultimate questioning will. As Judith Kitchen puts it, “I failed myself often, failed others as well. Failure too will fade. But words did not forsake me as they made their precarious way from the writer’s mind to mine.” Words can survive one’s life and one’s moment. “How to live?” was Montaigne’s question, and it’s Wiman’s question. Wiman adds, however, another: “What do I believe?” So he essays forth: “So I set out to answer that question . . . “
The title essay, which opens the book, is born out of a failed poem:
My God my bright abyss
into which all my longing will not go
once more I come to the edge of all I know
and believing nothing believe in this:
I love that colon opening out to nothing, to white space, at the limit of a writer’s knowing. I love what it says about the art of essaying, and about the moment when all one’s givens collapse, all one’s notions of a future, all one’s assumptions about the past. The essays that follow attempt to forge ahead into the place the poem would not go, where the writer could not go before. The last essay returns to this stanza; in fact it is the book’s closing sentence; through the chapters, it becomes an answer to itself, both the book’s question and its reply.
Rereading this book one year later, and a year and a half after the return of my cancer, I come to the chapter called “God’s Truth is Life,” and I underline and underline and mark passages with parentheses and stars. I realize that the value of an illness-derived work of essaying is driven by vital necessity, not by ideas of a market or an audience. There is, I find, a gift in my editor’s steering me away from writing a cancer memoir. In the absence of external direction or deadline or plan, I did what my agent told me to do when I asked him if he saw a book in my cancer writing: “Right now,” he said, “don’t think about that. Don’t think about publication. Just write what you’re writing, write what you’re driven to write. Don’t think and don’t stop.” Barring any encouragement (besides that of my blog-followers, mostly friends and relatives and other cancer sufferers) that would feed into ego, I kept going, and I keep going still, not out of ambition, but out of imperative, the need to understand what it is I believe, about life, about death, about spirit, about earth, about the meaning of putting words down on a page. Writing (I mean the writing of others) feeds writing, and Wiman’s feeds mine (along with Cody’s, and Kitchen’s, and Hitchens’, and Gubar’s and Brodkey’s). These writers drive me on, not because they offer any comforting narrative, any model of heroism or bravery, any miracle, any answer, any arrival at final certainty, but the opposite: they remind of me how hard the work is, how challenging, how many-faceted, braided, contingent and complex. A grad school mentor once told me, “You know, it only gets harder, this essay-writing thing,” and I responded, without thinking, “I want it to get harder.” An essayist spins outward from circumstance, creating a sometimes violent whirlwind that attempts to draw in all the resources one individual has accumulated over a lifetime, bringing them to bear upon the narratives we live by, enlarging them. Essayists like Wiman and Kitchen, memoirists like Cody, offer a method, a way of entering experience that is, in the end, not about cancer, and not about death (what do I—what does anyone breathing—know about death, after all?), but about living in death’s sight. They renew my faith in the essay as a form, a vehicle, a spiritual practice, a way of life, an art.
Eva Saulitis' most recent book is Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas. Her essay collection, Leaving Resurrection, was a finalist for the Foreward Book Award and the Tupelo Press Non-Fiction Prize. A new poetry collection, Prayer in Wind, will be out in early 2015. Her essays have appeared most recently in Orion, OnEarth, Ecotone, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Catamaran Literary Reader. She teaches in the low-residency MFA program of the University of Alaska Anchorage.