What causes suffering? Gaston Bachelard believed the source of our first suffering “lies in the fact that we hesitate to speak…it is born in the moments when we accumulate silent things within us.” Maya Angelou agreed. “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story within you,” she once wrote. To suppress the dark side of our psyches, to enshroud our childhood traumas in a thick cloud of denial, to hide from our heartbreaks and sorrows is to hinder our ability to heal. Our stories, no matter how devastating or disturbing, demand to be told. Unless they find a healthy outlet, a mode of expression such as art or painting or music, our demons will destroy us.
For Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton, poetry was a transformative way to process her trauma and transmute her pain into something useful. In her altogether illuminating interview in The Paris Review Interviews: Women Writers at Work, she suggests writing can offer salvation to the seemingly irredeemable. Creative expression, particularly writing, which requires we make sense of our experience and give voice to our innermost selves, is a release of pent-up emotions, what the ancient Greeks called “catharsis”— a psychological discharge through which we can achieve liberation from turmoil and a state of moral and spiritual renewal. To Sexton, one of the founding poets of the confessional movement, the page was quite literally a confessional booth, a sacred place where she could speak the unspeakable: her near unendurable struggles with depression, her dysfunctional upbringing, her childhood abuse.
When asked why she didn’t begin writing until she was almost thirty, Sexton explained she wrote as a way to cope with her demons after she had a mental breakdown:
“Until I was twenty-eight I had a kind of buried self who didn’t know she could do anything but make white sauce and diaper babies. I didn’t know I had any creative depths. I was a victim of the American Dream, the bourgeois, middle-class dream. All I wanted was a little piece of life, to be married, to have children. I thought the nightmares, the visions, the demons would go away if there was enough love to put them down. I was trying my damnedest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up, and it was what my husband wanted of me. But one can’t build little white picket fences to keep nightmares out. The surface cracked when I was about twenty-eight. I had a psychotic break and tried to kill myself.”
Sexton suffered from what pioneering feminist Betty Friedan befittingly called the “problem that had no name”— a despairing but difficult-to-place existential angst that afflicted countless women in 1950s suburbia. Stifled by her bland Wonder Bread existence as subservient, self-sacrificing housewife, Sexton became more and more unstable. The tedious duties of domesticity— changing diapers, washing dishes, doing laundry— offered no solace to the troubled yet-to-be poet, who needed a goal to challenge her intellect and imbue her directionless life with a sense of purpose (As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, groundbreaking positive psychologist behind the theory of flow, once said, “Contrary to what we usually believe, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable…The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”)
After her harrowing descent into madness, Anne sought the advice of her psychiatrist, who recommended she find a “difficult, worthwhile activity” to occupy herself. Her rich imagination and agile intellect, he believed, had no outlet in the home. Writing soon became her salvation and sustenance, a reason to continue living despite her loathing of herself and the world:
“I said to my doctor at the beginning, ‘I’m no good; I can’t do anything; I’m dumb.’ He suggested I try educating myself by listening to Boston’s educational television station. He said I had a perfectly good mind. As a matter of fact, after he gave me a Rorschach test, he said I had creative talent that I wasn’t using. I protested, but I followed his suggestion. One night I saw A. Richards on educational television reading a sonnet and explaining its form. I thought to myself, ‘I could do that, maybe; I could try.’ So I sat down and wrote a sonnet. The next day I wrote another one, and so forth. My doctor encouraged me to write more. ‘Don’t kill yourself,’ he said. ‘Your poems might mean something to someone else someday.’ That gave me a feeling of purpose, a little cause, something to do with my life, no matter how rotten I was.”
A treasure chest of compelling interviews from Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou, Women Writers at Work supplies a rare behind-the-scenes look at the creative process of our era’s finest writers. Whether you’re curious to learn how the most prolific writers seem to possess an inexhaustible spring of ideas or whether the most celebrated women of letters advocate keeping a journal, Women Writers at Work will inspire and engage you.
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