THE LETTER /// RECENTLY /// YOU SHOULD READ THIS /// NEXT TIME
I have been grieving for several months after a loss. My personal health has been affected—my hair has thinned out—I started eating pastries almost every morning. My favourites were the custard and raspberry ones from Baker D. Chirico in Carlton. They’re wonderful.
It is a coping mechanism: to throw yourself into work when you aren’t well. To try and control one aspect of your life, to thrive it, to celebrate something. My manager seems to do this quite a bit; I tend to be kinder, more empathetic towards her when I start to receive emails posted at 1 o’clock in the morning. I think of myself as high-functioning but I'm far likely to be erratic: my weekdays range from reading four books a week to barely consuming half a paragraph. Sometimes writing an essay-length newsletter, then letting four months go by without a word. Sometimes I've accomplished six impossible things by breakfast but my laundry hasn't been done for two weeks. I'm behind on two deadlines, and I've just pitched a third book review. I’m surprised that I have been legible at all in any form for some weeks.
I don’t want to fetishise being overworked – it seems like that’s the covetable lifestyle as of late. Remember the era of ‘being busy’? Yuck. As though there’s no other choice. So, own it. You have to live it, so why not be self-effacing about it? Why not act like you have a semblance of control over it?
We know the reasons why we do this: we have to freelance to supplement our incomes, we work overtime because we do the jobs of three people in one role. We have an arts industry complex that is reliant on people performing this way, and we don’t have the means to change this. So we celebrate this performance as a strength, and those that break, who can’t live this life, are seen as weaker. In my grief and my depression, I wanted to romanticise my life with work. To disguise how I felt with the illusion of productivity, with busyness, leaving too little time to think about what else was going on.
“Invisible pain is both a blessing and a curse”, writes poet Ada Limón in her recent collection The Carrying. Because it gives you the capacity for empathy, but learning that compassion comes at a cost: grief is very heavy. After a period of mourning, you’re expected to carry on; life becomes a performance. It is hard to perform every day.
Writing, also, unlike other writers I have read, is not a cathartic experience for me. I don’t use it to rid myself of ills, I don’t feel that way about it. I imbue my writing with my experiences, but I don’t want to /write/ about my experiences. When Coco asked me, & fellow writer Chloe, ‘Why do you feel compelled to write (as opposed to painting)?’ I think we found ourselves at a loss for words, temporarily. Like most writers, you rehearse the answer in case you get asked, but to answer sincerely, poetically, to be quotable? Pfft. I don’t know why I write. It feels instinctive, it is an activity that compels you, in the same way, that you would start running if a black bear comes after you, or start swimming after you sight a shark fin in the ocean.
I’ve been thinking about how editors, especially those in volunteer roles such as myself, often don’t have any mental health or trauma-based training – yet many pieces submitted and edited by us are concerned with identity, and identity politics, and the trauma-induced quandary that comes with those territories. There is an assumed duty of care to our writers. And when working with marginalised and emerging writers, you need a degree of sensitivity, kindness and empathy that I’ve noticed has gone remis when I’ve worked with other editors. It makes me realise how much of the literary community – while sometimes spiteful, insular, at ends with each other – depends so much on the goodwill of some specific individuals within it. I want to say, don’t doubt their efforts, don’t wear them out. Don’t treat your editors as your therapists. Easy to say. We want to show solidarity with writers when they reach out. To inspire them when they cast doubt on themselves and their stories. And how else can I be expected to behave in my role as an editor?
I attended a West Writers Forum with Maria Tumarkin a few weeks ago – one of my best writers workshops to date – which fundamentally changed my perspective about what it means to be a writer and an editor in Melbourne. The crux of the workshop was about listening, speaking and bearing witness, resulting in a heightened self-awareness when it comes to working with other writers. I am aware of my responsibility, but I am aware that I am also responsible for myself and my health. I can’t pass that onto others.
I have spent the last four months writing a piece (tentatively) titled ‘Assault on Memory’ about trauma and Slavic storytelling, with a particular focus on Svetlana Alexievich, Maria Tumarkin, Olga Tukurchuk and many others. The literary journalism runs along a personal essay (because of course it does) about intergenerational trauma. The production of this piece ran alongside an enduring family trauma that came to an apex two weeks before the essay was due. It affected my ability to produce writing consistently, and it continues to fuck with my understanding of honesty. My mental health, my ability to look after myself. Kindness to myself, compassion to others. I exchanged honesty for kindness, when I told my editors that I was not going to make the deadline. With this piece, I have – for the first time – relied on writers and friends around me to let me know what I should say and how to say it. They have not let me down, they have looked after me.
I read The Rapids by Sam Twyford-Moore two weeks ago, in the same vein as Traumata by Meera Atkinson and then Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin. I recommend them all, of course, but read knowing that you’ll sink slightly deeper into a little pit of despair that our world is currently orbiting, but, also, you hear James Baldwin say: ‘You think your pain and heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, and then you read.’
YOU SHOULD READ THIS
Naturally, Ruby Tandoh's new article in Eater, on sugar, its insidiousness and how it's been used a weapon in our culture: ‘For black Americans, sweetness was an essential ingredient in Jim Crow-era stereotypes designed to keep newly emancipated people from their rights. Those stereotypes persist — and even generate profit — today.’
Jennifer Down's ‘When Writing Is Your Job, Researching Trauma Can Be A Workplace Hazard’ in Lithub: ‘I thought acclimatizing to atrocity meant I was metabolizing it appropriately.’
Patricia Lockwood's ‘How Do We Write Now’ from Tin House: ‘Read Georgie O'Keefe's letters and say the Stieglitz hatefully to yourself as you piss. Read The Woman Warrior and think yourself on that mountain with her, undergoing the same apprenticeship, until you can point at the sky and make a sword appear.’
Trust Poetry: an interview with Ada Limón (of The Carrying – buy the book) in BOMB Magazine, on grief and joy: ‘I lose joy sometimes. It makes me feel hopeless and it’s not a livable space. I need to point out the things that are good, that are worth living for, that make me laugh, the dog sleeping on my face in the morning, the smell of garlic and onions on the stove, the friend’s text that makes you laugh, the robin poking his head into the sprinkler, food and shelter, safety.’
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