Open Letter to Patti Smith, Day 8
Today I read this quote —excerpted from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet—somewhere on the Interwebs:
“… acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write.”
I would be dead if I hadn’t learned to write. I don’t mean learned in a sense of improving or developing talent (though I hope I’ve done some of that). I mean learned in the sense of somehow understanding that putting pen to paper was a magic to leach out of me all (well, a lot) of the anger, the depression, the fear, the despair, and most of all the powerlessness and helplessness I felt as a child, as a teen.
I—the child so scared of her mother she’d write her mother notes to find out if she could go to a party or stay afterschool for a club rather than ask her face to face—could be the puppet master. I could pick someone’s name and tell them what to wear and how to speak and what music they could listen to. I could make them fall in love. And I could make their beloved (Matt Dillon forever!) fall in love with them.
I could punish the people who hurt me in my stories. I could write a girl who got pregnant and killed herself when her mother didn’t understand why she wouldn’t have an abortion, reducing the mother to loud sobs of regret. I never got pregnant and I only once, half-heartedly, tried to kill myself,* but I did know what it was to have the sort of frustrated anger that felt like it could only be resolved with some fatal act of vengeance. (In another story I also killed off a girl’s boyfriend, she wore a wedding dress, crossed the street and stabbed him with a kitchen knife, I forget why now. I also forget the other stories I wrote then. Which is a good thing.)
In high school I somehow figured out I could take all my angst, all my teenaged pain, all my unrequited lovesickness (for cute boys, of course, but now I understand I was lovesick for my parents, too) and put lots of white space around it and then those feelings became poems.
When I started studying writing seriously in the mid-1990s, my late 20s, there were lots of conversations about whether or not the writing of poetry was therapy and if one could write as a form of therapy and still write good poems. Maybe what I was writing wasn’t therapy and maybe it wasn’t good, but it was saving me line by line.
It saves me now.
Writing saves me from my past. Writing saves me from being overwhelmed in this moment right now. Writing saves me from myself. Writing saves me from my ghosts—future and past. I am no longer as fearful or angry. I’m neither powerless nor helpless. I am sometimes depressed but seldom despairing.
Unless I’m not writing. Unless the words are stuck somewhere past where I can reach. Buried in some toxic spill of concrete. Those old feelings don’t come flooding back, but rather what remains—and so often there’s more than I think—is enough that it realistically threatens to drown me.
And I have to hold on, try to remember that I will write again though I’m convinced every single time that the last poem has already been written. That I can write enough to earn my paycheck but I can no longer really write.
I hear of writers retiring because their words just stopped, and that, to me, is more terrifying than physical death. I can’t imagine that even as my body fails me, as the organs shut down one by one (or however they do it), that the monologue in my head won’t still be steaming ahead, making metaphor from the breath’s decrescendoing and the heart’s erratic rhythm, figuring out exactly how to say to God the very first thing I want to say to him.
I will die and then the words will stop, or the words will stop and I will die. There is no difference.
*I took a bottle of aspirin in the bathroom. Lacking the will or courage or despair for a serious attempt at killing myself, I took however many was half of the maximum dose, spent the evening on the top of our bunk bed, cross-legged, stoned, swaying back and forth and hazily watching whatever was on the TV, which I could see from across the hall. I was around 12 or 13.