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?