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Writing Against the Current

15 August, 2012

Years ago, a friend and I hired a canoe one afternoon and drifted down a stretch of the Arkansas River. After enjoying a picnic on the bank, we turned the canoe around, planning a similar easy paddle back to the hire place. What we had not realised was that now the current was against us, and we ended up having to paddle twice as hard to get back to where we started.

I have been thinking about this experience after battling a strong current of obstacles this year. So much time and energy has been expended that my writing regime has sadly faltered.

Last December and January, I was a resident artist on  Maatsuyker Island, a tiny, remote dot of land off the south coast of Tasmania. When I returned home, I had a clear plan for 2012. I would write about my dropping out of  normal life, and include the ideas of others, such as Henry David Thoreau, who had done something similar. I was looking forward to writing, assimilating my thoughts and experiences with my readings of others who had done something similar.

My brother’s unexpected death in March changed things.  I have made two lengthy journeys to Kansas, where I  felt myself drowning in the confusing, messy issues that death brings. I  also had to deal with a difficult organisational issue when I was back in Australia.

Under these pressures, my writing plans for the year dissipated. The only writing I managed during my first stay in the US was maintaining my personal diary. During my second trip, I could not even find enough energy to continue it.

During this long creative drought, I took  some comfort in Maslov’s famous hierarchy of needs:


When tragedy happens, we cope  by focusing on the practical things needing to get done–planning a funeral, resolving financial issues, handling family matters. In terms of Maslow’s needs pyramid, we are dealing with the most basic needs and while engrossed at this level, we may not be able to access or nurture our higher-order needs. Joyce Carol Oates,  in A Widow’s Story: A memoir, her account of life after her husband’s unexpected death, comments on the numbing business-like details that the survivor must undertake. It takes time to understand and handle the more delicate or complex issues that arise when one’s life is so dramatically and permanently altered.

Writing is a higher-order accomplishment, involving the mental and emotional.  When we experience trauma, we may find that we cannot write–yet. Eventually, as a sense of  normalcy returns, we may then recover our writing dreams and plans. Paddling back to our art can be a comfort, even if at first it seems we are making no progress, only working hard to hold our own against the current.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 15 August, 2012 11:50 pm

    My prejudice is that unless a writer has spent some serious time coping at each of the bottom three levels of the pyramid, the person’s writing won’t be interesting to me. In NIGHT, for example, Elie Wiesel beautifully and painfully crystallized the concept of how position changes a person’s perspective.


    • 27 November, 2012 5:41 pm

      Belated reply. I recently re-read Night, and admired the emotional economy, the small palette, in telling a grueling, difficult story.


  2. 15 August, 2012 9:31 pm

    Writing is one of those things where, right when you know it would be good for you, you just can’t sit down and do what you need to do. It’s an unfortunate paradox but that’s how it is sometimes. But as Tara Brach says, you can start again in any moment.


    • 16 August, 2012 7:49 am

      Like returning to the gym–once you get yourself there, you feel better for doing it. I’m going to the gym this morning and will be at my writing desk this afternoon. All part of the return to normal.


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