memories of finding and losing myself in words


Part One: A Perspective from March 2010, Finding Myself in Words

Alice Walker

As I work on my dissertation I’ve been reading essays by some of my favorite authors. Most of them are women. One of them is Alice Walker. For some reason I’ve been particularly teary today. While taking a break from my reading and writing, I cried over a Buffy, The Vampire Slayer episode (“Amends” for my fellow Buffy fans). Before that I teared up at one of the more poignant Death Cab for Cutie songs. Now I am tearing up after reading portions of In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. I’ve read it before. Some of the essays I’ve even read dozens of times, and they’ve always affected me deeply. Writers like Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich, Toni Morrison, bell hooks (to name a few) resonate deeply with me and often my first readings of the works that affect me most remain imprinted on my memory. Perhaps it is like this for other readers as well, visceral memories of when they first uncovered a favorite text and felt their lives change. Truly, I am not being hyperbolic here; words have changed my life. I would go so far as to say that they have saved my life. In my most difficult hours I have turned to the solace of books. It’s why I studied creative writing at SC Governor’s School for the Arts when I was a teenager. It’s why I became a scholar. Even more importantly, it’s why I teach and study writing. In particular my early exposure to these writers made me even more committed to writing about the voices that aren’t often heard, voices like those of trauma bloggers.

I’ve always been an avid reader. During the summer my mother would often drop me off at the public library when she went to work and pick me up that evening when she left. Inevitably I would be carrying several bags of books, a habit I have brought with me into adulthood (the carrying of excessive numbers of books). On the weekends, she would drop me off at the outlet mall near our home where I would spend the day scavenging through the books at a remainders store, searching for hidden treasures. That book store is probably why I belong to an almost assuredly small population of people who read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being at age fourteen. There were other great books to be found there. At thirteen I read Benazir Bhutto’s autobiography and Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People. It was there that I found my first Alice Walker novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy. (I know what you were thinking, but The Color Purple came later.) After that I became obsessed with learning more about female genital mutilation and the activism surrounding it. Believe me when I say that I was quite popular after choosing FGM as a presentation topic for one of my middle school classes. What can I say? I was a strange kid.


Part Two: The Present Tense, Finding and Losing Myself in Words

Photo by Jennareally CC Licensed
I’ve been reading a lot lately, and not my usual diet of academic essays, theoretical and critical works, philosophical treatises, and infinite news sources, blogs, and magazines. Of course, these have still been a steady part of my diet. They are, after all, my meat and potatoes, my sustenance. However, lately I’ve immersed myself in fiction. Some of it excellently crafted and “literary;” others of a more purely visceral pleasure. Some, I would go so far as to say, delve into the realm of “guilty pleasure.” Long on plot and intrigue but short on poetic language and insight. I’ve been indulging in dessert words. Some of it strong dark chocolate filled with antioxidants and rich pleasure that lingers on the tongue while others are more drugstore candy–sweet in its momentary enjoyment but leaving little lasting memory. In fact, some of my recent forays into fiction have been saccharine, leaving me wondering why I consumed them at all. Of course I do know the answer to that question. It’s one of the things that is at the heart of my love of fiction. True, my love of reading is at its core the knowledge it brings, the insights it reveals, and the questions that raises deep inside of me. But the other side, the pure desire for fiction, is in its ability to provide escape. I’ve needed a lot of escape lately. Reading, you see, is my drug of choice. It saved me from sadness and loneliness as a child, a teenager, and continues to do so through my adulthood. The desire for that escape into fiction is also a kind of warning system, a signal alerting me when I near depression’s abyss. I know when my depression descends into an anhedonia where even books are unable to comfort me that I’ve reached a danger zone. That’s when I have to shift from avoidance to kicking my own butt. Then it’s time to drag myself away from the edge by any means necessary. Sounds a bit dismal, doesn’t it? A perhaps unhealthy attachment to reading? My perspective on it–if you’re going to have an addiction, reading seems like a pretty good one given the alternatives. I think the key is that reading is more than just an escape. It shores me up, helps me build dunes against the erosion that threatens my well-being. The dunes keep me from being beaten down so that I can pull myself away from those dangerous riptides. Pretty impressive mixing of metaphors, huh? Blame it on the fiction overload and the voices of various authors and characters echoing through my head right now.

As I mentioned in my previous post, life has been overwhelming lately. This time in my life has been a seemingly contradictory opening for losing myself in fiction. It has been a time where I’ve had the luxury to indulge¬† in what has been a necessity. For various reasons (including the financial resources available to me and the unexpected consequence of unemployment) I have had the luxury to escape, to lose myself. Some might argue with my assertion as to the necessity of doing so. But I know myself well enough to know that the only effective strategy for saving myself in these times is to escape. There may be other ways; I just haven’t found them yet. Sometimes you have to lose yourself to find yourself again. I don’t know that I’ve completely accomplished the latter, but I am ready to try again.

But here’s the crux: it’s rare that you have the luxury of living in the extreme peaks and valleys that have been my method of survival. In the past I’ve worked through semesters never indulging in those times of escape and pure pleasure, mostly because I fear that I’ll respond like an addict and ignore the duties of my real life for the joys of escape. When the work is done for the semester, I go on a fiction bender. I fall into the escape until I have to force myself out and face reality again. Ultimately, I know this can’t go on forever. It might be cathartic, but it’s too much and not enough. It’s not healthy. I binge on catharsis then go cold turkey letting reality chip away at my psyche until I can batten down the hatches and find my cathartic shelter before returning to the storm. So, I’m working on a new strategy, and it’s going to take some serious cognitive restructuring. I have to make time to integrate those times of catharsis into my everyday reality. If I don’t, I think that I’ll either be swept away by the storm or forget how to open the hatches once they’ve been shut. It’s going to take willpower to unlearn a behavior thirty two years in the making. (Yes, I realize that I couldn’t read at birth, but my preliterate life was still filled with the escapes of childhood fantasy.) So, how am I going to do it? Well, I have a few tricks up my sleeve. Nothing too impressive. As with any good strategy, it doesn’t rely on one single foundation but a network, so that should one portion fail another should pick up the slack. Built in redundancies have served me well in running websites, maybe they’ll work with running my life as well. Suffice it to say that I don’t have the energy¬† to go into full details here, so you’ll just have to wait for the next post. (Kind of pathetic in the cliffhanger department, huh?) So, tune in next time to hear how a reading social network, a contest for accountability, a set (but not too rigid) schedule, and a new feature for this blog is going to help my direct my life back towards the tracks.

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