All Writing Is a Confrontation

All Writing Is a Confrontation

A Conversation Between Walter Cummins, Stephanie McCarley Dugger, and H. L. Hix


Stephanie McCarley Dugger, Either Way, You’re Done (Sundress Publications, 2017)

Walter Cummins, Death Cancer Madness Meaning (Del Sol Press, 2019)

HH: One moment that I returned to in Stephanie’s book was the sentence in the dissection poem, “It was discovery, learning the internal, / what carries life.”  Of course “learning the internal” appeals to my ear (the earn/ern sound with an l on either side), but I wonder what you think of my inclination to see “learning the internal” as a project in both books.  Does that resonate for you in relation to your own book?  In relation to the other’s book?

WC: I was also struck by that image and the entire poem “Dissection Day, Biology Lab” and the way it captures the vulnerability of the internal and the precariousness of a knife slip that would ruin the revelation of what’s inside. First, I should confess that I’m one of the few Americans of my generation who did not dissect a frog in high school biology, glad I escaped that burden. Poor frog. But without a real memory of that experience, I can only envision what I was supposed to discover, imagining the creature’s insides organized as a fleshly example of Newtonian clockwork, something like the precise schematic diagram of my MacBook. Yet, the visceral sense of the human interior that the poem’s lines immediately conjured were those of Snowden and my own.

Although I haven’t reread Catch-22 in decades, I’ve never forgotten the character of the wounded Snowden whose memory reappears to Yossarian, the novel’s protagonist, again and again, each with increasing information about that wound. At one point, Yossarian, under the illusion of control, uses his first aid kit to bandage a wide gash on Snowden’s thigh. But in Snowden’s final appearance, Yossarian unzips Snowden’s flight suit and discovers a gaping hole in Snowden’s middle, the man’s innards spilling loose in a tangled heap. I recall that the novel has Yossarian thinking, “Here was God’s plenty.”

In contrast, my own insides are less vivid to me, more a concept than objects I can picture. I was aware of that particularly when being wheeled into surgery after a malignant spot was found in the muscle of my bladder, about to undergo a cystectomy and prostatectomy, along with removal of my seminal gland and a few lymph nodes. I had no idea of what these organs actually looked like or where they were located in my belly. Before the anesthesia put me under, the term that kept repeating in my brain was “medical waste.” Afterward, I wondered what would fill the empty space—the gap—created by the missing organs.

What does this indulgence of references have to do with Stephanie’s “learning the internal”? Within the whole of Either Way, You’re Done, the final line of that poem speaks to what I consider the overall goal of the collection—“the release of what’s inside.”

Returning to the point of the prompt, “learning the internal,” I agree that Stephanie in her poems and I in my essays want to penetrate to the essence of “what carries life,” our own and everyone’s. But we employ very different tools of dissection. This contrast occurred to me before I received Harvey’s prompt. Stephanie evokes, I explain. Or attempt to explain. The open spaces of the majority of the poems slow down the reading, allow the impact of each line and image to linger and resonate, to facilitate—using a word from the poem—“discovery.” I hope my prose is more controlled than Snowden’s innards, not verbal waste. But, even at best, how deeply can we decipher the internal, excise the malignant spots?


SD: I’m immediately drawn to that question you just posed, Walt: “But, even at best, how deeply can we decipher the internal, excise the malignant spots?” It seems the impossible task in writing (and in dissecting, too). I write primarily about my personal experience as a way to decipher the internal, and I suppose since I write mostly about trauma, I’m in some way trying to excise the malignant spots, too. Of course, it’s something I can’t fully decipher or excise, can only hope to control, which is why I choose the very structured discipline of writing. Writing about trauma seems much like dissecting to me: we open up the body, see the mechanics of what is inside, but we still only see through to a certain layer of the body’s functionality. Without seeing the internal living body as it performs—as the blood is pumping, the organs acting, the neurons firing—we still can’t decipher the whole picture. Writing about trauma is like dissecting in that way; we do our best to recreate the moment but can’t fully (truthfully? accurately?) recreate it. The goal is to get as close as we can to what Walt describes in Death Cancer Madness Meaning as “the core of the experience.”

I am fascinated by the choice between writing trauma in poetry and writing it in prose. I write both poetry and memoir, with poetry being my primary genre in part because of that notion of the “core of the experience.” I’ve struggled a lot with the Truth/truth quandary (as you know, Harvey—this is the conversation that has lingered throughout our friendship). I want to reach that core of the experience, but don’t trust my own notions of truth (with a lowercase “t”). I imagine much of that comes with being a woman writing about trauma (considering how our society often questions a woman’s version of a story, demands a different level of “evidence,” or silences women in general), but I also think this is a consequence of being raised by a mentally unstable person. In some ways, poetry allows more room for that insecurity, a broader way to reach the core of the experience. In my own poems, because of the form, it leads to a very literal reshaping of the trauma.

Walt’s book does such a beautiful job of helping us understand that reshaping or rearranging that happens in writing. When he writes about his surgery and how his body is reshaped so that parts can serve a new purpose, I can’t help but see that same consideration applied to his discussion of memory and the reshaping that has to occur in order for that event to serve a new purpose. He tells us, “there is no ‘natural’ way to write about a traumatic event” (just as there is no “natural” way to excise a malignancy in the body—we must do so through surgery). Instead, we use memory as a place to start and “what results is, in effect, an inevitable reshaping that involves reimagining and re-detailing.” I agree with Walt that we use writing “to give shape to the circumstances that envelop us.”

I’ll admit, though, that I had a mini-existential crisis when I read Walt’s essay “Writing About Our Worst Experiences: Reshaping Memories.” In his discussion of writing about his own trauma, he admits that he, like all memoirists, “couldn’t avoid reshaping and, no doubt, recreating. Any of my attempts to remember those painful long-ago events are now inseparable from the details of my reconstruction.” Maybe that’s why I write about trauma! The act of recreating the event (and, therefore, changing it forever in my own future memory) is frightening, but it surely has some psychological pay-off.


WC: Stephanie brings up three related issues: Truth vs. truth, capturing trauma in writing, and prose vs. poetry. T vs. t is the overriding question. With my existential roots in Camus, I’m skeptical about the accessibility of the big T to human beings. He writes, “Yet all the knowledge on earth will give me nothing to assure me that this world is mine.” All we can be sure of are small truths—the sun is shining, f=ma, the laws of Euclidian geometry, that Louis Armstrong was born on July 4, 1900. Wait! That’s wrong! It’s what the man believed most of his life until a discovered baptismal certificate recorded his birth date as August 4, 1901. At least, we can say that a man named Louis Armstrong existed and played the trumpet. Or was is cornet? That main point is that we can accumulate and even verify great masses of information but really don’t know what it all means.

Both Stephanie and I wrote about mental illness and the pains of living with someone close to us who suffered such illness. But what illness? What does mental illness mean? Specialists disagree about what to call the same set of symptoms. At one point the same behavior American psychiatrists diagnosed as schizophrenia was designated as manic depression by British. Beyond that the Scottish-born psychiatrist R.D. Laing, author of The Divided Self, denied that psychosis was a mental condition but rather the result of social circumstances and the resulting behavior a valid expression of distress. He even believed the state could be a transformative journey leading to a discovery of important insights.  Thomas Szasz, in the 1961 book The Myth of Mental Illness, turned against his psychiatric profession, comparing it to alchemy and astrology and denying the existence of diseases of the mind.

Can we say even the term mental illness is truth with a small “t”? For me—and I assume for Stephanie—what I witnessed and what I had to cope with was hardly romantic and transformative, hardly a myth. Whatever the cause, the person was in great psychic pain with the results destructive to her and to many around her. I’ll never forget her haunted face.

As writers, Stephanie and I have the advantage of outlets to attempt to articulate the effects of trauma on our lives.  For her, a goal of the writing is “my reconstruction.” In my prose and her poetry we are both seeking the “truth” of our experiences. It isn’t any other person’s truth, even those who lived in the same houses and witnessed the same phenomena day and day. We hope our words will resonate with readers but also with ourselves as we attempt to make sense of all that we went through. My ultimate hope—I won’t speak for Stephanie—is that I’ll surprise myself with a realization of an ultimate Truth, what is all meant in some Big Picture. But I fear even the small truths we stumble on are more like Louis Armstrong’s birthday. We go along thinking July 4 and then find it’s August 4. But he had documentation of the latter, and I have only verbal stabs in a darkness.

Finally, prose and poetry. It may be my lack of any poetic capability, my prose limitation, but I’m often overwhelmed by what a good poet can achieve, at best intimations of what might be a capital Truth, an evocation of a realm far beyond the words on the page. Camus considered poetry an evasion: “You explain this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know.” Maybe not. But even if poetry cannot be definitive, it can give us access to a deeper understanding.

Camus expressed our human limitations: “This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction. … This very heart which is mine will forever remain indefinable to me.”

Stephanie’s poetry, like all good poetry, seeks to elucidate the indefinable, finding images that resonate, that convey her quest to place herself in this world, to make connections with the unknowable. In doing so, she gives voice to our own quests in our own worlds.

In the conclusion to “Counterpoint” she writes:

Swimming in the ocean,

almost deeper

than I can see

I listen to the click

of fish gliding by.

Here, sound is concentrated,


I extend my arm,

try to reach further

down, but my breath

is running out.

For me, these lines echo Camus and help me visualize my own intellectual and emotional seekings, the want and the limitations. Stephanie has provided a small t truth.


SD: And here’s the Louis-Armstrong-truth in “Counterpoint”: I wrote that poem after a snorkeling trip. I asked the guide about the clicking sound we heard underwater, and he informed us it was fish eating (their teeth scraping rock), though he didn’t know exactly what kind of fish. After the book was published, I learned it was more likely snapping shrimp, who snap their claws and release air bubbles into the water (a much more interesting image, given the context of the poem). So, I missed that small t truth in that detail.

One of the things writing has taught me is that, in agreement with Walt and Camus, we can’t really get to a big T truth, if there even is such a thing. But the struggle with what was “right” or “real” was a central motivating factor for me writing these poems (and for choosing poetry over prose). My own mental health issues became apparent when I was around 30 (the same age my mother had her first break down, the age, as Walt points out, both Zelda’s and Judy’s mental illnesses came to light). I returned to writing as a way to try to parcel out what was and wasn’t my own experiences, what was real to me versus what was real to my mother. Of course, now I understand there is no untangling of all that, but it was important for me to try. I can see Camus’ point—in some ways poetry is evasion. But it is also an act of confronting—whether that is confronting trauma, the self, the other, or the small t truth.

I suppose all writing is a confrontation. Certainly Walt’s work is an act of confronting, which he does in each of the essays in his book. He confronts his loved ones’ deaths, the eventuality of his own death, Judy’s madness, commitment, other authors, writing, memory, the list goes on. So often we think of that word (confronting) as an act of aggression, but Walt shows us that it can be an unwrapping, a gift, an act of love and acceptance, understanding. In writing about trauma, we, as Walt notices, “use the page to recreate the awful, much like picking at a scab.” That recreating is violent, but it is vital to understanding, to confrontation. I think about the frankness and grace with which Milt faces death in “Ways of Dying,” the way most of us hope to face death. Walt’s prose mirrors that candor and grace in its many confrontations. Walt tells us that dying as a quick act—“a sudden end in the midst of an active life, without more than a split second of pain, without the angst of a death sentence” sounds like the preferred way to go, but then challenges that notion with the story of Frieda, who could “confront [death] with awareness, with the opportunity to take stock of all her years and to contemplate what lay ahead.” He then guesses at his own possible future: “the hurt that won’t go away, the blood test that brings a shadow to my doctor’s face.” There is no romanticizing here—just bold, confrontation of the inevitabilities of life so many of us spend most of our time trying to ignore. More of that small t truth.


HH: Trauma and truth, yes, to which I’d add trauma and time.  Maybe it doesn’t play out exactly as another capital T small t distinction, but I’m hearing the two of you (in this conversation so far, and in your books) questioning the usual assumption about how trauma is situated in time.  When Stephanie talks about recreating the trauma as a way of “changing it forever in my own future memory” and Walt questions an understanding of trauma as “romantic and transformative,” I hear you both drawing attention to something crucial that our normal, informal ways of speaking about trauma miss.

We often speak as if trauma were a self-enclosed, discrete, isolated event, something that happened once in the past but now is over.  I experienced a trauma, past tense.  That “folk theory” leads to misconceptions, such as our category PTSD.  Post-traumatic assumes that the trauma is over, and exists only in the past.  Disorder assumes that traumatic stress is wrong, a failure of some kind.  If the event is over, then my not being over it implies that I’ve failed to get over it.

But I’m hearing you both change the verb tense: not I experienced a trauma but I experience a trauma, continuous present tense.  That seems to me truer to the actual experience of trauma than the past-tense folk theory.  Trauma doesn’t happen as an event and end: it happens and continues to exist in our present lives.  It’s not something that happened once upon a time, so that I can just “get over it” and “move on”: it is part of me, I am as I am in part because of the trauma.

That relationship of trauma to time has to do with trauma’s relationship to Truth/truth.  If trauma were discrete, confined to one past moment in time, then my memory of it would be either true or false.  But if trauma inhabits a continuous present, then trauma and the memory of trauma don’t pull cleanly apart.  My trauma and my memory of trauma are one another, so that recreating the event really can, as Stephanie puts it, change it forever in future memory, but that change is not, as Walt points out, a romantic, magical transformation but an ongoing labor.  And that means the writing, as you both point out, is not disinterested description but a way of coping, a coming-to-terms-with.


WC: Harvey certainly is right when he says of trauma, “… it is part of me, I am as I am in part because of the trauma.” In that sense, someone who has experienced a trauma can never be in a post-traumatic state. At best, with some form of therapy, the sufferer may be able to mitigate the most severe consequences of the trauma, the nightmare state that compromises normal functioning. For many, even though they may be able to get though the day unscathed, the nightmares continue to haunt. For example, we know of those who have survived military combat but decades later are still unable to talk about what they went through. More commonly, it’s childhood memory that festers. Just ask Freud.

The other day I heard from an old friend who reacted to an essay I wrote about my father by revealing how he always felt he wasn’t good enough for his father and, as a teenager, overworked in his father’s store to prove himself. This friend, put down for being a bookish boy, holds a chaired professorship at a major university and has received international recognition. Still … It’s hardly only sons. I’ve never forgotten the time I was the only male at a table of women during the wedding reception for the son of one of the women. These were people who knew each other well and I also knew well, or thought so. Loosened by a few drinks and the escalating revelations, they began ranting how much they hated their mothers, citing chapter and verse, even those who, in my company, had expressed great affection for their mother. Trauma lurked in them, exposed in mutual outbursts.

As Harvey notes, trauma is more than something that happened to us and went away like a nasty flu. Real trauma embeds in our psychic DNA, shaping who we are. While most trauma is vivid, unforgettable from the time it happened, there may be traumas we don’t even realize are marking us. Or am I just talking about myself? It’s taken me decades to finally understand the effects on me of my father dying when I wasn’t quite eight. His was one of the family deaths I wrote about in the essay “Ways of Dying” that Stephanie refers to. During that writing, I thought I was just reporting details I remembered, too young to have an emotion reaction. But writing a later essay about my lack of memories of him, I—at last—grasped how being fatherless had shaped who I became. Perhaps determined more than shaped. At this point in my long life, its’s an intellectual comprehension. I can’t summon emotional reactions to the man or his absence as I can for the impact of other traumas.

Stephanie conveys a need to know in the final lines of her collection’s title poem, “Either Way, You’re Done.” After depicting the details of a grizzly bear’s diet—moths licked from its fur, pine nuts stolen from a squirrel stash, and finally flesh torn from an elk calf, she captures her identification with the experience—bear and elk, the craving for an understanding:

I imagine what it would be like

to be part of such faithfulness

and decide I want to swarm

to be ripped open

—to know you.

And, perhaps, to know me by knowing you, to know not only what happened to us but what it all means. Harvey sees our writing about trauma one more attempt to achieve “a coming-to-terms-with.” We’re willing to rip ourselves open to seek the portents in our verbal entrails, the signs of who we are and the role of trauma in that becoming.


SD: When Harvey says that writing “is not disinterested description, but a way of coping, a coming-to-terms-with,” I think of the distinction between writing as therapy and creative writing—and I do believe there is a distinction. There is writing that does what Walt describes in “Writing About Our Worst Experiences: Reshaping Memories” with the woman in primal scream therapy—writing as “a raw, verbal outpouring.” Walt says serious writers “seek the language and the craft strategies to present our greatest unhappiness.” It’s the “craft strategies” that make the difference, and what are craft strategies but a means of control, a way to define—redefine—the trauma in our own terms, under our own command. No matter the motivation (whether it is to resonate with others or give voice to the experience), it is a coming-to-terms-with through controlled creation—recreation—and that control is the key to coping.

It’s interesting to me that psychologists also diagnose ASD, Acute Stress Disorder, which is similar to PTSD but occurs directly after the trauma. It becomes PTSD when there are symptoms after a certain amount of time has passed since the trauma. They do make a distinction between the length of time between when the trauma occurs and when we should “recover” from the trauma. But as you’ve both pointed out, trauma changes us fundamentally. As Walt points out, “In that sense, someone who has experienced a trauma can never be in a post-traumatic state.”

For myself, in many ways, writing is an explanation for who I am. Early on, maybe it was even an apology for who I am. I think about Walt’s comment about how “real trauma embeds in our psychic DNA, shaping who we are.” There are theories about epigenetic marks of trauma, that trauma experienced by our parents (and earlier ancestors) impacts their DNA and, in turn, our DNA. We can pass down trauma in DNA memory. Of course, it isn’t memory as we know it, but it does affect our being in ways we don’t yet understand. Wanting “to be ripped open—to know you” changes depending on who the “you” is here: a beloved, my mother, myself. It feels impossible to muddle through the chaos, to be able to process all of our own trauma (and know ourselves) and the echoes of traumas of those who came before us, too, especially without the stories to go along with them. Writing gives us a means to control all of that chaos, a way to understand our own (and perhaps others’) actions and reactions. In Walt’s essay “My Father in the Attic,” he writes, “Once I’m gone, which will be sooner rather than later, my father will become one more totally forgotten being, one of the millions who once existed since the first homo sapiens,” which is Walt reminding us all that we will, in our own time, be forgotten. But our traumas will keep riding along the DNA tide. Writing in poetry and memoir can leave a paper trail for those who come after us, a way to say “this is why I am who I am” to those who will be, in part, who they are because of our traumas.


WC: Stephanie brings up my point about “craft strategies,” which led me to think about an example I experienced eight years ago. That memory connects to a phone conversation I had yesterday morning with a man about to undergo combination cystectomy/prostatectomy surgery for bladder cancer. As a survivor of the same surgery (though his will be robotic and mine involved a long semicircular slashing), I occasionally am asked to call others facing theirs with fears that I consider pre-traumatic anticipation. Yesterday, the man told me he had undergone back surgery and knee and hip replacements. But this one really frightened him—“a matter of life and death.” Unlikely, I told him. The cancer was in the muscle of the bladder—as mine was—with a high percentage of survival.

In fact, I was calm before my actual surgery, curious about the procedure and knowing it would give me something to write about. But because of that slashed incision and a long healing process that involved more than two weeks in the hospital and rehab with pain and weakness and initial agony just to sit up, I found myself post-surgically depressed. Even two months later, I lacked strength and energy, sulking because I wasn’t normal—or what was normal for me.

One evening my wife and I went to my first meeting of the local ostomy support group, where I whined and felt sorry for myself. A young woman there gave me advice. When she was upset by something, she wrote about her feelings, released the emotion in words, and felt much better. All the time she was talking, I kept thinking of the stress such a writing attempt would place on me at that time. I’d have to come up with an opening paragraph to set the thematic direction for the piece, conscious that I needed a fresh approach to a subject many had written about before. I didn’t want to be redundant and hackneyed. Then, assuming I finished my piece about my condition, where would I submit it? I’d want to add this hypothetical essay to my oeuvre. But would it be good enough? I thanked the young woman and left the meeting even more depressed.

A happy ending. Several months later I did write the essay, and it’s been reprinted several times, including in the collection Stephanie is commenting on. My cancer also led to a long review essay in which I compare my experience with that of the author. I did lose a bladder, a prostate, a seminal gland, and some lymph nodes; but I got two publications. Oh, I didn’t die either. Not yet. At least, not from that cancer.

Stephanie notes that writing about our traumas leaves a paper trail (or a digital trail) for those who come after us. A number of people told me that my essay about my own surgery helped them prepare for their pending operations or to reconsider their own past surgeries. In a conversational sense, I did a version of that yesterday speaking to my new pre-traumatic friend.

But isn’t much great literature about trauma? Fiction, poetry, memoir. Hamlet and King Lear, for two. Greek tragedy? Those dramas are the sources of Aristotle’s theory of catharsis—the pity and fear aroused through empathy with the downfall of the hero leading to purification and cleansing. For those of us who have suffered personal trauma, such trauma is our version of a tragic fall, graphic realization that, like Oedipus, we are not in control of our own destinies. Cancer is not as severe as murdering your father or having a ghost reveal how uncle murdered yours before he seduced your mother. But cancer, like Dr. Johnson’s hanging, does concentrate the mind. So does an artistic vicarious experience.

Many years ago, I saw the late actor Morris Carnovsky play Lear at the now defunct and, I believe, destroyed Shakespeare theatre in Stratford, Connecticut. Carnovsky was so powerful that at the end the audience was too shaken to do more than applaud politely and shuffle out to the parking lot in stunned silence. Were we, several hundred people, sharing a collective catharsis? I’ve never forgotten those minutes.

Could it be that writing about our own traumas, despite the advice of that young woman at the ostomy group meeting, is less like to achieve a catharsis than the work of a Sophocles or a Shakespeare—or even many good poems, novels, stories, essays, films? I believe that because we aren’t distanced from the experience by our groping for words and craft strategies. When moved by the works of others, the experience is pure. It emulates our own emotional traumas, captured by someone who grasps the core of human suffering. Even if it doesn’t purge and purify, it reveals that somebody understands. There may be a profound comfort it that.


HH: Writing as explanation and apology, reading as purification and cleansing.  To me, both sound like continuations of our “learning the internal” theme.  I suspect that a lot of people have as their primary (or exclusive) expectation about literature the conveying of a moral: a practical life lesson about making advantageous decisions, or compact moral counsel.  That does seem like one valid possibility for writing, as exemplified by books for very young children and by homiletic treatment of sacred writings.  But a limited possibility: if that were the only thing available from literature, then the whole “takeaway” from reading Oedipus Rex would be not to kill Dad and marry Mom.  Good advice, but the play seems like more effort than necessary to get there.

I’m hearing both of you push toward a more capacious sense of what literature offers us, as writers and readers.  Scholars in the field of “affect theory” emphasize that emotions are not rigid givens, opposites of reason.  It’s not that we educate malleable reason (gather and apply information, learn and employ patterns of inference…), but simply endure inflexible emotion.  Emotion and reason are complexly interconnected, and we participate in shaping both.

It’s not surprising that we have to learn to play piano or calculate compound interest or splice DNA, so probably it shouldn’t be surprising that we have to learn (possibly by teaching ourselves) how to manage (how to survive, and make meaning from) our experiences of trauma.  I’m hearing you both give accounts of how writing literature and reading it both can participate in that never-ending process of emotional (self-)education.


SD: Yes, and that (self-)education is inherently tied into our interconnectedness; otherwise, we would write all of this out in a journal and keep it to ourselves. But writing an essay or poem or short story is about reaching for that connectedness with others. We write for a public audience. Why? Trauma feels lonely; even systemic traumas can feel deeply personal. In the act of writing to publish, we are reaching beyond that personal traumatic sense into something more universal. Writing literature works as Walt shows us in his point about the phone call: a way to talk to someone else about what happened (the motivation, whether that is to allay their fears or process our own, isn’t important in this consideration), much the same reason we read literature. The outcome would be quite different if this were private writing, journal writing. It’s in the reasoning—the very logically-oriented crafting of the piece—that we find the connections to emotion and, hopefully, get some semblance of (self-)education. I wonder if that connectedness in the act of writing is a way of achieving catharsis? Perhaps not in the same way as reading, (because someone else has articulated our own suffering there), but a different kind of catharsis when we imagine an audience understanding the emotional core of our work. Though that’s not a thing I’m conscious of when I write.

Even in writing as confronting, that it is still a matter of connectedness. Writing about trauma is an act of bravery. I’m always amazed when I read work like Walt’s that leaves me thinking, “I wish I had the courage to be that honest, to face things that head-on.” Work that confronts trauma gives the audience a voice, too. It articulates our fears and angers and puts the circumstances directly in front of us. No one wants to face trauma alone, so we reach for those works that help us feel braver, less alone. Or we write those works in hopes of feeling less alone.


WC: Stephanie’s notion of “feeling less alone” applies both to the writer hoping to capture and communicate a personal trauma and to Harvey’s citing of emotional “(self-)education.”

As I’ve speculated in an essay, I believe that the act of writing about trauma—once we decide to make ourselves vulnerable—involves a detachment from the trauma itself while we are absorbed in the strategies of choosing words and details and organizing the story, essay, or poem. There’s an interaction of literary creation and memory. A metaphoric image pops into your mind and can’t help but influence how an event is remembered. While writing we are literally alone amidst a complexity of images and emotions for our past, the words and structures the come to us in the present, and the influences—conscious and ingrained—of works we’re read and seen. But, while we are alone with a pen in our hand or fingers on a keyboard, we are immersed in externals in our minds, perhaps even to the point of feeling overwhelmed.

Assuming that we succeed in completing the work and have it in front of us on a page or a screen, we change our relationship to it and become readers, especially as time passes from that of the original composition. Of course, our own reading can’t help but differ from than of anyone who was not part of the original experience. And we’re aware of reminding ourselves of the decisions we made during the writing. Still, when I reread pieces about my own traumas, part of my mind engages with them like that of any other reader, informing myself what it was like for the persona who bears my name. In effect, I share with myself. I suppose that could be considered a form of “(self)education.”

Sharing the writing with others involves the hope of what Stephanie calls “an audience understanding the emotional core of our work.” We want to connect with readers and in that connection feel that we are not alone, especially when we have revealed a painful and perhaps shameful experience.

If not the exact same experience, a reader probably has equivalent memories that prey in the dark night of the soul, and in knowing ours can know that they are not alone. Previously, I speculated on the catharsis of reading, even when the material is fictional rather than biographical. Literature allows us to share human experience, not a simplistic moral of the sort Harvey rejects, but a richness of emotional complexity.

His comments reminded me of several studies of the effects of reading serious literature on the emotional development of readers. I did a search and found information about several, but I’ll quote this abstract of an article by Keith Oatley called “Fiction: Simulations of Social Worlds” that appeared in the August 2016 Trends in Cognitive Science. (I assume fiction can be expanded to include poetry, nonfiction, and drama.)

Fiction is the simulation of selves in interaction. People who read it improve their understanding of others. This effect is especially marked with literary fiction, which also enables people to change themselves. These effects are due partly to the process of engagement in stories, which includes making inferences and becoming emotionally involved, and partly to the contents of fiction, which include complex characters and circumstances that we might not encounter in daily life. Fiction can be thought of as a form of consciousness of selves and others that can be passed from an author to a reader or spectator, and can be internalized to augment everyday cognition.

That’s both “(self-)education” and “feeling less alone.”


HH: And the connectednesses are connected!  The connection between elements of an experience, the connection between parts of a poem or story, the connection between one’s writing self and one’s reading self, the connection between oneself and others, the connection between one’s own experience and the experience of others…

As this conversation establishes its own interconnections, one that I become conscious of now is that between our present attention to connection and our earlier attention to time.  It seems to me that, here and in the books, we have been alerting one another to the paradox that what secures us to one another is itself insecure, that the feeling of durable connection is time-bound.  I think of moments such as Stephanie’s lines (from “Marking the Body”)

The apple scent of shampoo

before I fall asleep—               this is when I think

I know you.

So the moment of knowing another, of loving another (Iris Murdoch: “Love is knowledge of the individual”), is fleeting, the “feeling less alone” that ushers one into the aloneness of sleep.

And I think of the horrifying image of the nursing home in the first essay in Walt’s book.  Even in the good nursing home, those who were not comatose

were aligned in front of blaring TV sets gaping at programs so far removed from the state of their existence that they could have been beamed from Mars.  Or they might be in a dayroom where chipper entertainers were trying to lead group sings of tunes like “I’m Looking Over a Four-leaf Clover,” all sound emanating from the people at the piano, a few toothless mouths barely moving.

Again, a time-boundedness of interconnection, in this case how interconnection can become impossible even before death arrives.

In this conversation and in your work, I receive from both of you a sense of how very strong, and strengthening, interpersonal connection can be, and also how tenuous and fragile and fleeting.


WC: We can consider degrees of connectedness that can vary from day to day, even minute to minute. Existence precedes essence, and it’s the vicissitudes of our lives that shape the nature of our connections. The deepest and most enriching personal connection is love. But even love can be fragile and fleeting, as hundreds of torch songs bemoan. And we don’t need the songs to remind us of the times we thought we were in love and even may have been for long periods. Then, the relationship ends in indifference and, at worst, animosity.

Other connections, free of the intensity of love, can be more enduring, far less fragile, probably because much less is at stake. I’m thinking of a friend I first met when we had different wives. The marriages ended, but the friendship continued for decades of frequent contact. But I’m also thinking of friends I see or hear from sporadically, some going back to college. Years can pass between encounters, and each new time we pick up as if continuing a conversation from the day before. Such connections help us recognize that we are part of something beyond ourselves.

My wife and I, the other day, were speaking of times in our lives when we felt a profound loneliness, the despair of disconnection, and we wondered about the statistical findings of increasing aloneness in society, the repeated opening line of the Beatles “Eleanor Rigby”—“Ah, look at all the lonely people.” The Kaiser Family Foundation in 2018 concluded that “22% of Americans often or always feel lonely.” Why? Do they crave something deeper than just human contact?

Harvey refers to Iris Murdoch and Stephanie’s poem to consider the possibilities of loving someone, and therefore truly knowing someone, the “fleeting knowledge of the individual.” But does loving mean knowing? (As I type these words, our cat Pip (Philip Pirrip) is digging claws into my thigh because he—I think—wants food. I love Pip but hardly have any idea what is going on in his cat brain other than the fact that he demonstrates what we call affection toward us and his cat brother, Jeoffry.) But, when it comes down to it, I don’t know that is going on in my brain much of the time. Writing is an attempt to do so. And that only produces a form of simulacrum.

I take my not knowing and understanding as a given rather than a defeat. Life offers many compensations—the feel of Pip or Jeoffry rubbing against me, the fall colors outside my window, John Coltrane’s “Wise One,” reading poems by Harvey and Stephanie, sharing this conversation with them. These are just some of the connections that make us far less alone, even though an ultimate aloneness awaits. But what’s the point of dwelling on that inevitability? Enjoy the moment, the sharing of it.

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