LIVE THROUGH THIS

by Lorraine Berry, , June 5, 2008

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Live Through This: On Creativity and Self-Destruction

Edited by Sabrina Chapadjiev
Seven Stories Press (2008)

In one of the first published feminist novels, The Awakening, Edna, the heroine of the story, in an act that we are supposed to see as liberatory, commits suicide. For the price of recognizing her personhood—and how the culture she lives in will forever deny it—Edna swims out to sea and drowns herself.

Some of our greatest creative geniuses—Woolf, Plath, Sexton—also chose suicide. Many women have written of the painfulness of being full awake and present in a world that still treats women as the doormats upon which many men feel entitled to wipe their feet.

Things are changing. But as a woman who has been observing the world for 45 years, I wonder whether our glacial progress will bring us to true equality before global warning renders all of it moot.

To be creative is to walk around sometimes as if the top layers of skin have been removed from your body and the world is experienced hypersensitively.

It is hardly surprising that women creatives are drawn to self-destructive behaviours. Certainly, speaking from my own experiences, they’re not intended to be self-destructive so much as an avenue toward relief. Relief from feeling too much, relief from the constant putting oneself out there and risking rejection, relief from a sense of being so different from everyone else that you don’t belong, relief from feeling like a fraud in thinking that you might have any talent, relief from life itself which on certain days just kicks your ass.

Live Through This
is a collection of 19 essays by women artists who have walked across the hot coals of their own self-destructiveness. They are confessionals, cautionary tales, but mostly, I think, they are messages of sisterhood to those of us out there who struggle.

The dedication of the book is “To the ones who think they are not going to make it.”

And so it begins.

In an essay by “Anonymous,” she describes the cleaving in two that is so common among those who are driven to create:

“Space grew between my two lives. One where I danced, another where I cut. One where I was responsible, another where I was drank too much. (sic) One where I was a feminist, another where I binged on food and starved myself. One where I accepted my sexuality, another where I had sex with people I didn’t want to. One I could control, one I couldn’t. One where I wanted to help. Another where I didn’t. I endured injury after injury and missed shows and opportunities. I became raw from having no skin and no edges, no truth I could withstand.”

Each essay tells a similar story of too much feeling, followed by numbing, followed by embracing art and life. Similar tales but all radically different. Yet each has a hook where I found I could connect myself to, even if the story being told bore no resemblance to my own. There was resonance in the voices that spoke of moving through.

Toni Blackman writes:
“You have lived and loved with the intensity of a bandit on the run, and it frightens you more than anything in the world. The very thing you seek is what you shun the most. You are thwarted by your need to know, your fear of existing in that space of uncertainty.”

And yet, despite the commonality of the hurt, it is not being in a state of hurt that makes great art. Certainly drawing on those feelings can illuminate creation, but it’s not a great place to try to make art from. It’s difficult to see when you’re sitting at the bottom of a well.

Daphne Gottlieb writes:

"In a depressed state, we might find a few words, a perspective, an idea that can move or delight us or just capture something elusive. But art demands control and perspective, and it’s only possible to make consistently transcendent art when our brains are working right.”

The first writing or painting or composing done in the face of trauma can look like vomit on a page. A symptom that someone is hurting, but not something that you wan to get close to. But, as each woman artist explains, when you have worked your way through the pain, and when you have worked and reworked the text, then there is magic.

Carolyn Gage:
"Before I even understood that I was a trauma survivor, I had already intuited that my salvation lay in presenting testimony in front of active witnesses, telling a story refined and attenuated by interminable rewrites and rehearsals until, like some kind of homeopathic emotional tincture, there remained no trace of the original traumatic affect—only the healing resonance."


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