Writing From Need
“I cannot write – and I ought not.”
– Dorothea Lynde Dix, in a letter to her friend George Barrell Emerson
I’ve been thinking of you, and your “no-thing disease”. I’ve been thinking about your conscious decision to avoid writing poetry during your no-thing seasons, while I find myself writing through mine.
I can only guess, but I’m assuming those were the times when the world was too thin, and you knew a single word could pierce deep enough to empty you. But you did write. Letters, at least.
In Norwegian, there’s a descriptor: kontaktsøkende. Literally translated, it means “contact-seeking”. In use, it means needy – with all the negative connotations. I hear teachers describe students as kontaktsøkende, with an air of judgement and (ironically) dismissal. I’ve heard them use the word in reference to colleagues, too. And I’ve wondered if they’ve used it to describe me when I’ve been frank and intense in conversations. (I get called “intense” a lot.)
The term disturbs me, in the best sense of the word. I’ve been in need of contact often in my life for a myriad of reasons, and I’ve always felt ashamed. You were described in this way, though obviously not with the Norwegian word. But as needy. And people advised you to be “less candid” in your correspondence with them. Is it horrible for me to say I was relieved when I read that? It eased my feelings shame just a bit.
Recently it came to light in a discussion, that someone I care about thought being “depressed” was wallowing in self-pity. They didn’t understand that it’s easier to tell a friend that you feel unlovable than to admit that you are afraid you may not be capable of loving. That you are useless.
I know that was your greatest fear, to be useless in regard to your talents. You were afraid to let God down. I’ve often wondered if you felt that God had let you down?
Need is misunderstood, and pity is a miserly response that leads to resentment. Or else it is understood, along with the realization that there’s nothing that anyone can do to relieve another person’s need. That also leads to resentment.
Another Norwegian phrase: “folk har nok med sitt“: people have enough on their plates. I think most often it’s used to illustrate that people are selfish. But people are also kind and generous, and overwhelmed. No doubt, if you might have tolerated me at all, we would have quickly grown weary of each other in a no-thing season.
I believe there’s a primal, unconscious fear of people whose emotional needs are obvious. There’s the mistrust: if no one else has been there for that person, there must be something wrong with them. And there’s the gut knowledge that loneliness is contagious, I guess. Monkeys shy away from the shunned and the injured, and so do most of us.
I think it’s a matter of learning how to attend to our needs obliquely.
I wonder if you realize how well you did that? I mean, once you found your voice in speaking on the behalf of others. All the good you did in the world, the difference you made in people’s lives was born of your need to “express yourself” (a phrase that I think is a poor replacement for a more accurate “make yourself visible”). Although your work was born of that need, but it wasn’t an expression of the need itself. Your needy poetry informed those masterful orations in a way nothing else could have.
“The process of writing was important. Even though the finished product is meaningless.”
– Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore.
During times like this, I look to you. I don’t stop myself from writing, but I’m conscious of the need. I find the writing therapeutic. Didn’t you? Maybe you weren’t entirely truthful? (You weren’t always.) Maybe you were writing poetry, but knew better than to share it with anyone. Maybe you’d learned not to place demands on the people you wrote to. After all: letters, poems, and stories should be gifts, not the assignment of obligations.
I have a small notebook of poems I wrote in high school: angry, hurt, resentful voices. Only one was written from a place of defiance and strength. I believe I needed to write through all the others to get to that poem; to be able to acknowledge myself, be visible to myself, before I could move on and communicate with the world. But our lives aren’t linear are they?
Sometimes I think of it as simple stitching. Running over and under the “right side” of the garment. But it all holds together in the end, doesn’t it?
We accept our seasons. Or try to.
I’m struggling with writer’s block. It isn’t that I can’t write. I’m writing a lot. But I have nothing to give at the moment, from this no-thing place. I’m not sure whether I would even be having these thoughts on the subject if it weren’t for having read yours. As uncomfortable as these thoughts are, I guess I should thank you.