Literary Therapy

John Updike wrote in Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism, “I want to write books that unlock the traffic jam in everybody’s head.” Me too. But until that day, as I battle the gridlock in my brain and either pound, snub or tentatively caress my laptop with conciliatory keystrokes, I continue to read fiction for entertainment and inspiration. As we do. And once in awhile, a phrase or sentence reaches out of the book and plucks a string in my core. Truth, figured in inked black symbols on a flat white page, unlocks light and sound somewhere inside me (my brain? my gut? my soul?) It is a miracle every time it happens, and it is why I write.

I had such a moment recently. I have been going through a particularly grim love/hate, approach/avoidance conflict with my writing for some time now.  No matter how many helpful people I discuss this with, or how many instructive articles and books I read, there is still a poisonous little voice in my head that hisses they don’t get it, you are SCREWED UP. Then I read a book recommended by hot-off-the-wire on Goodreads: The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver. In this novel, the main character, Harrison Shepherd, is the quiet center of a whirling storm of mercurial characters and events. For him, writing isn’t a problem; it is an outlet, his therapy, his way of reinventing the world to make it a more bearable place. A traumatic event results in him withdrawing from the world until he has the greatest difficulty even imagining leaving the small town where he has settled. When he feels conflicted over an invitation to visit a friend he confides in his clear thinking and plainspoken assistant, Mrs. Brown. He describes the exchange in his diary:

“We discussed it again this afternoon, or rather I talked. Justifying my absurd fear of travel and exposure, despising it all the while. My face must have been the Picture of Dorian Gray. At the end, when he goes to pieces.

She used the quiet voice she seems to draw up from a different time, the childhood in mountain hells, I suppose.

“What do ye fear will happen?”

There was no sound but the clock in the hall: tick, tick.

“Mr. Shepherd, ye cannot stop a bad thought from coming into your head. But ye need not pull up a chair and bide it sit down.””

Those last two sentences stopped me in my tracks. Resonance. Truth.

When those self-defeating and crazy-making thoughts come…I don’t have to make them a nest? I don’t have to cajole or argue or submit evidence to their contrary? I don’t have to analyze them exhaustively? I imagine rolling my eyes, saying, “Oh, you again,” and firmly shutting the door. Peace. Let the jackals wait outside. That’s where they belong. No doubt someone has suggested this to me before, but in that quiet room with Mrs. Brown, Harrison and his agony, the message made it through the bottleneck in my head. Did it fix me? Sadly, no, it did not, but perhaps that is unrealistic. I suspect this is a road I’ll never get off entirely, and that traffic jams will come and go, but for now the cars have shifted and I am back at my keyboard.

What passage or author has unlocked a traffic jam or stopped the world for you?

11 thoughts on “Literary Therapy

  1. Carrie Rubin

    There was a passage in Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections that resonated with me. And of course, Susan Cain’s book on introverts that I now call my bible. Good luck with quieting that inner voice. We all battle with that, I think.

    1. lynnettedobberpuhl Post author

      I have never read Franzen, but I recall your post on introversion that referenced Susan Cain (wasn’t there a TED interview on that?) Those resonating passages can come from anywhere, thank God, because those whispering voices do too! I just finished Scourge of Seneca by the way! Good job! I had goosebumps and long intervals of page turning frenzy, when I maybe should have been attending to house guests. Thanks for the escape!!! Good luck on (dare I say it,) the next one!

  2. kerbear

    You mean I don’t have to say “welcome in” to those nasty threads that create total agony in my day? I can just say “Bite Me” and move on? Liberty!!

    Family memners are great. Girl, you I torally get you!

    1. lynnettedobberpuhl Post author

      A. Viva la Liberte`! B. That second comment is so odd as to be spam. If I didn’t know you I would wonder WTH? I am assuming you were either having keyboard issues or were drunk. I will settle with keyboard. Love you!

  3. amysmuddledmusings

    The world is all ok, Lynette is back! And just so you know, YOU unlock the writer in me!

    Loved the phrase “analyzed them exhaustively”. The thinker in us is determined to figure out why bad birds leave their droppings in our minds. But it isn’t always necessary to know! Sometimes it’s just enough to say ‘begone!’.

    The author I go to when I need the writer to be unlocked : Anne Lamott. When I need to be spiritually unlocked: Philip Yancey, without a doubt.

    Great post!

    1. lynnettedobberpuhl Post author

      Thank you! I have also loved books by Anne Lamott and Philip Yancey. Max Lucado gets me to settle down when I need to sometimes, although I haven’t read him in awhile…so many books, so little time! Thanks for checking in, Amy!

      On Sun, Dec 2, 2012 at 10:03 PM, wordtabulous


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