Top Left to Right: Adela Florence Nicolson, Alejandra Pizarnik, Alfonsina Storni, Amelia Rosselli, Ana Cristina César, Anne Sexton, Beatrice Hastings, Charlotte Mary Mew, Deborah Digges; 2nd Row Left To Right: Inge Müller, Ingrid Jonker, Gertrude Bell, Jane Aiken Hodge, Elise Cowen, Katherine Lawrence, Penelope Delta, Robin Hyde, Pamela Moore; Bottom Row Left to Right: Helene Migerka, Sara Teasdale, Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva, Sarah Kane, Rosario Castellanos, Sylvia Plath, Veronica Micle, Victoria Benedictsson, Virginia Woolf
Writing; Death As A Possible Side Effect
“Natasha, you’re a crybaby!”
My cousins would tease when I was little. Running to take refuge in the arms of my aunts, I cried until hiccupped sobs only remained and fat tears streaked down my face. I was rocked in the comfort of their arms, quietly being assured everything would be okay.
At the time, I was the only girl in my extended family. My cousins ensured I was subjected to the random taunts most little girls at the age of seven have the pleasure of bearing. I was teased for everything I did and couldn’t do; crying only made it worse but I couldn’t help myself.
In my young mind I couldn’t understand and always wanted to know “How could they be so mean to me?” After all, I hadn’t done anything to them but trip on my own shoelace or couldn’t draw as well as Daniel. But in one thing they were right—I was a crybaby. And 30-some-odd years later I still am, sort of.
Today, I am a combination of being innately sensitive and slightly insecure. Each trait is mixed with a certain ‘awareness’ of brutal truths life imparts. In some ways because of this I do not differ much from that tanned Puerto Rican girl of my past. Creatively speaking the petri dish of my life has, at times, created a crippling affect in my ability to cope with the disappointments most of us can face. But more than that it has helped me become an intuitive person to life and people.
This complicated mix has been a curse and a blessing, both in my writing and understanding of others. For so long I felt alone in this acute knowledge. I was the only one screaming in a room of silent spectators. However, in becoming the writer I strive to be I’ve come to comprehend (some) artists and writers swim within the same realm of sensitivity, awareness and creativity.
DEATH BECOMES HER
“Artists are so sensitive.”Perhaps. And while there are many deeply rewarding aspects of being creative and highly sensitive person, it seems to me, this way of being, way of perceiving life and people can take an emotional and mental toll on writers, fine artists, actors, singers and comedians.
Each of the women depicted in the image above are Pulitzer Prize Winning poets, authors, story tellers and creators of real and imaginary worlds. They took their own lives (violently and otherwise), and the stories that still lied within them to the grave..to be forever untold.
But what makes us so different? Are we more susceptible to Mental Illness like the doctors and scientist try to correlate? Why are some of us pushed enough through the threshold of hurt, pain and disappointment to want to end it all? We want to stop asking the questions of why or looking for hope, however small it may be?
As a writer I will take a biased stance. It seems some artists such as painters and sculptors can utilize their medium to exorcise their internal demons. The monsters they wrestle with can be force outward on a painted canvas and given a physical so that the creator can be relieve of the their burden. Writers however, can grapple with their monsters internally and dwell within this chaotic world for long periods of time before they can expulse the heaviness away from themselves.
When I write, I am always asking the question why. Why is love often pushed away? Why do parents turn a blind eye to their children in need? Why do we fail even when we work our hardest?
At times I use portions of my life to help ask and answer these questions. This seemly simple act requires me to relive some of my most hurtful life moments again and again. I do it once as I outline and another hundred times as I write and then edit. Play, rewind and repeat. Play, rewind and repeat.
The constant sourcing of one’s own life becomes taxing. It can wreak havoc on any writer’s emotional state, especially if you are close to the work of which you are writing about. It’s an issue of reliving and revisiting the monsters that have been tormenting you either consciously or subconsciously.
This is not to say all writers and artists are tormented creatures seeking the answers and meaning to life. But one cannot deny the many instances where the pain of a writers life translates on the written page affects not only the reader but writer themselves.
Take Dorothy Allison, author of ‘Bastard Out of Carolina’. Writing late nights after working all day on legal pads, writing the story of her life, and the abuse she experienced. From it came the semi-autobiographical book that became pivotal to her life and work as a writer. This constant revisiting can be overwhelming for a writer. Even Stephen King wrote a large portion of his most infamous works, while high on cocaine and alcohol. Was ‘Cujo’ a written manifestation of his own internal monsters?
Certain gifted writers can have extraordinarily high standards for themselves; they have low tolerance for mediocrity and develop a strong level of frustration during the execution of their work. They can have acute awareness of life’s complexities and consequences while having a strong need for self-determination and self-actualization; each ideal applying a level of pressure on them. In some cases this weight is enough to push an artist to extreme measures of abuse and suicide.
I Am Woman, Hear me Roar.
What is it about the inherent demands on female writers that lead to so many deaths of women writers? Is it the clashing of who we are as caregivers, lovers and strong holds in the home front all the while grappling with our identity and self-worth, a convergence that leads to disaster? From Anne Sexton to Rosario Castellanos, each creative maverick taking their own lives while coping with loved lost, death, abandonment and abuse; each having an “acute awareness” leading to distress over their own personal and social conditions. Quite possibly an existential dread creating depression causing their own death.
Lady Lazarus herself, Sylvia Plath, not only tried once to end her life, but it was on the dreadful third attempt did she finally succeed. At approximately 4:30 am, Plath had sealed the rooms between herself and her sleeping children with wet towels and cloth, placed her head in the oven, and turned the gas on. They found Plath dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. She was 30.
Although not suicidal, there are many times I feel the world I live in is not meant for me. When I know the heart I have easily breaks when the hope I have fails. Sometimes my active awareness is good but many more times I wish I wasn’t so sensitive. There are days, weeks and months that go by where I don’t want to understand the unspoken actions and behaviors of people or the inevitability of our lives. At times having the distinct feeling of not belonging, of feeling too different.
By no means am I comparing myself to Woolf, Hemingway, Burgos or any of our past writer heroes, but even at my level, swimming within the waves of awareness, sensitivity and creativity, has not always been easy to navigate. It has caused me to see life with a sense of futility as well as hope. And instead of taking refuge in my writing I at times become stunted. I stop completely, letting the weight of my pain, personal setbacks or hurt take over.
It isn’t until I read the work of others or speak to a caring friend do I remember what I had forgotten, that there has been and will hopefully always be calm under the words and in the worlds I’ve created within my stories. Although trudging through the unpleasant actions of my characters, mulling through the muck of the repercussions is not easy, I try to push through, always seeking out the reasons why.
Now, far from the tender age of 7; my life and its hurts have become more complex and colored within many shades of gray. Yes, it often does lead to some tears shed. I also realize my willingness to give has left me opened and exposed. I’m exposed in my writing, exposed in this post and in my love for others. In the end all I can be is myself and use my openness to help me become a better writer while hopefully achieving some internal peace.
Virginia Woolf, Died March 28th, 1941– Drowning