Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.”
- Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
On the morning, nearly four years ago, of my son’s birth, death blossomed into an almost tangible presence.
Being in such immediate proximity to the creation of new life brought its opposite* into striking relief. Death appeared in that hospital room much like the Deaths that Lyra encounters in Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass, when she journeys to the world of the dead: a lanky, silent, ever-present figure.
In the months that followed, my postpartum self was suddenly squeamish about TV depictions of violence and trauma, my imagination too active to finish Season One of Jessica Jones.
But I also found myself inexplicably drawn, late at night, to online essays about miscarriage, stillbirth, pregnancy loss in its myriad forms. Was it simply a morbid curiosity that led me, the mother of a healthy infant, to keep consuming these personal narratives? Or, did the act of reading them constitute some sort of ward against harm—a small, superstitious gesture to protect my child from the vagaries of this world?
Earlier this month, my book club met to discuss Alice Flaherty’s The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain. The science-meets-literature theme was right up my alley. A neurologist who quotes Proust and Dostoyevsky? Yes, please.
The subject matter alone didn’t fully explain why I devoured The Midnight Disease so feverishly, with such urgency, in that brief nightly window for reading before bed. Not pausing once, in my haste, to make sure I could later recollect the distinctions between, say, Wernicke’s and Broca’s aphasia.**
It turns out that what compelled me to barrel through The Midnight Disease like a Reader Possessed was also what compelled Flaherty to write it: the death of her two premature twin boys shortly after childbirth.
What came after this traumatic loss was a powerful drive to write, which Flaherty describes as hypergraphia. She experienced a recurrence of this drive, along with postpartum depression and a psychotic break, after she gave birth to two healthy twin girls years later.
Flaherty doesn’t lead with any of this deeply personal and wrenching backstory, however. Instead, we find these bones buried, but not too deep, among erudite references to William James and Harold Bloom.
As a reader, I was drawn to the strangeness, the surprise, of that kernel, that seed of personal grief that had taken the author on a peripatetic journey through literature, literary theory, psychology, and neuroscience. It’s like finding out that a physicist who published this Grand Unified Theory reconciling quantum physics and general relativity was actually writing equations to understand why her wife had left her.
This passage in particular startled me with its unexpected beauty, nestled as it was among psychological theories of self-expression:
When I was in graduate school, my husband and I lived in an apartment over a ruined garden that had a grapevine as thick as a child’s body, coiling up the fire escape to my window. At night I could lie in bed and reach out into the dark and pluck grapes to eat. My grief was like that, as if it had given me access to a shadowy world that lies so close to this one that when I concentrated I could push my arm into it and pluck dream fruit. It is a world where beauty cannot be separated from pain, and should not be, as when a scalpel is needed to expose the exquisite organs of the belly. A pen can be a scalpel too.
Encountering these lines, I marveled at the gift of Flaherty’s lyrical writing. The gift of her ability to forge sympathetic connections between mental health and mental illness, and between artistic and scientific ways of knowing. These gifts were all born out of mourning. Out of dark times.
Light is the left hand of darkness
And darkness the right hand of light.
Flaherty’s book set me off on this rather melancholy misadventure: to chronicle some of the art produced by grieving creators.
In the chapter “Why We Write,” Flaherty hypothesizes that writing is closely tied to our drive, as social creatures, to communicate. She sees self-expression as goal-oriented, stemming from need—the need to be heard by others, the need for someone else (even if that ‘someone’ is just the blank page) to bear witness to our pain.
I’m a bit skeptical, though. In this space, I’ve resisted the idea of pathologizing writing or creativity in any form. I’ve questioned the popular notion that art must be born out of suffering, anguish, loss. I’ve written about how the author Ursula K. Le Guin, who penned the lines above, also balked at such cultural commonplaces as the ‘solitary artist’ or ‘the tortured artist.’ She saw them as undermining her authorly credentials, calling into question the joy and fulfillment she found as a mother of three.
Still, Flaherty offers compelling evidence for the link between mental affliction and creative expression, particularly in the arts. She notes that manic-depression is 10-40 times more prevalent in writers than in the rest of the population, and unipolar depression is 8-10 times more prevalent: “So many writers write about their depression that it has become a genre with its own anthologies, such as the collection Unholy Ghost.”***
Studies have linked unipolar and bipolar disorders with disorders of mood. Creativity, in turn, has been closely associated with mood instability. The point is not that having a mood disorder is a prerequisite to the writing life, but that even in so-called “…normal writers, the neurobiology of mood and the limbic drive to write may be equally or more important than the purely cognitive skills taught in most writing courses.”
On a personal level, the idea of writing as a form of healing, or at least as an attempt to heal, does resonate. While nothing I’ve experienced comes close to the losses that Flaherty describes, welcoming a new life into my house has not been without its minor forms of losing: loss of sleep, loss of privacy, loss of focus, loss of selfhood (to name a few of the items I’ve misplaced).
In fact, the urge to make sense of the mind-altering experience of becoming a parent, and to communicate about the often invisible, undervalued labor of raising children, has ushered in a strangely productive phase for me as a writer. Maybe a need to vocalize our grief, in its manifestations large and small, is at the root of our human impulse to create…?
So, buckle up. We’re headed to The Underworld.
Stay tuned for Part Two of this essay on “The Art of Losing.”
*Or its twin?
**For the curious, Wernicke’s area is a brain region related to language comprehension, while Broca’s area is involved in the production of speech. In the disorder known as Wernicke’s aphasia, the person afflicted is able to produce language that sounds fluent but, unbeknownst to the patient, is mostly nonsensical. In contrast, patients with Broca’s aphasia retain language comprehension but have trouble producing speech. Frustrated by their struggle to communicate, they often become depressed.
***Of course, there are multiple ways to understand this correlation. Flaherty notes that people with depression “tend to be strongly introspective, a trait that may foster writing.” Another explanation is that people who experience unipolar episodes tend to write more once the depression, which can be immobilizing, wears off, as “depression may trigger rebound periods of increased energy….”