Writing through adversity

cold-remedies

Silk’s Post #132 — After all that rah rah excitement and recommitment to writing generated by our terrific writing retreat only two weeks ago, here I am finally getting to my Monday post on Wednesday. Do shots of enthusiasm last only a week? What happened?

The Mother of All Colds, that’s what happened. It’s so exhaustingly, frustratingly miserable that I’m tempted to regard it as something higher up the food chain of infections … bronchitis, pneumonia, some kind of exotic flu that has a name so long it’s known by its dreaded acronym.

But no. It’s nothing fancy. Just a cold. Something that doesn’t really impress anyone because we all get them, and then we all get over them. I won’t gross you out with the details, but the consequence of this (so far) 10 days of mind-numbing, energy-draining phlegm production is that I’ve been working at about half speed, at best.

(Newsflash: my husband just walked in and told me that, after careful research down in the village – otherwise known as local gossip – he thinks what I have is the latest plague raging around our island, a new mutation of the old Hong Kong flu from the 1950s, or 1970s, anyway sometime last century. Apparently it lasts a month. Goody.)

But no matter. It all started me thinking … what if I really did have some awful adversity to cope with, something that wasn’t going to go away anytime soon? Or maybe ever? Am I in any way prepared to overcome that, to write through it?

The truth is that I’ve had a reasonably easy time of it since I’ve been here on Earth, as lives go. My improbable chain of luck – one that statisticians will tell you beats the odds at a lottery-winning level – began with being born in the first place. All those competing sperms, and mine won the race! Of course, if you’re reading this, you can also count yourself a winner from the get-go for the same reason.

I was also lucky to be born where and when I was – a wealthy country in the 20th century. There were no bombs falling (although we were, we thought, all prepared in case some did by having air raid drills in elementary school). People weren’t running around shooting each other, at least not in our neighbourhood. There were good drugs around (like antibiotics and polio vaccines), but not many bad ones (like crack cocaine and meth). And even though we ate stuff that everyone now knows is horrible for you (like Twinkies), and all the adults (including virtually everyone on TV) smoked like chimneys, we were pretty healthy. At least compared to the many countries in which children, we were told whenever we pushed our perfectly good spinach or lima beans to the edge of the plate, were starving (and, no you can’t send your leftover spinach to them, just eat it).

I grew up “middle class,” (Hey, remember those good old days when there was a big one?) Yes, I realize not everyone in the United States and Canada had the same lucky experience, and that’s just my point. Even my lifetime circle of family and friends has been, generally speaking, stable and supportive. Sure, a few heartbreaks, but nothing truly devastating. My health (apart from this #@%*&!!! cold) is also pretty much in the middle of the spectrum. Not perfect, but not dramatically debilitating.

In other words, I have little experience coping with real trauma. With life-changing adversity. With fear and terror. With displacement. With truly painful, chronic, disabling or life-threatening illness or injury. With abuse. With addiction. With stifling prejudice or oppression. With hunger or poverty. With war or threat of war where I live. With untimely, gut-wrenching loss of loved ones. With natural disaster or devastation.

No. My drive and determination can be slowed to a crawl by a simple cold. What a wimp.

It made me think about the incredible hurdles writers and other creative people have had to overcome to produce their art. There have been some true heroes, though they’re rarely celebrated for their bravery and persistence in the face of adversity.

It’s almost shocking how many famous authors are said to have suffered from dyslexia or a similar learning disability, for instance: granddaddy of fairy tales, Hans Christian Anderson; novelist and screenwriter, Stephen Cannell; legendary American novelist, F. Scott Fitzgerald; children’s author (Captain Underpants), Dav Pilkey; Pulitzer Prize-winning short story writer, Richard Ford; Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright W.B. YeatsFried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe author, Fannie Flagg; celebrated American author (World According to GarpJohn Irving; prolific British author, Bernard Taylor; and Madame Bovary author, Gustave Flaubert.

The grande dame of cozy mysteries, Agatha Christie suffered from a related disability called dysgraphia, which is described as “a writing disorder, characterized as a learning disability in the category of written expression” whose sufferers may have difficulties with certain letters, often will write the wrong word when trying to formulate their thoughts on paper, and have problems with both motor and orthographic skills and spelling. Apparently, she couldn’t even balance a chequebook.

There’s also a long list of authors who are thought to have struggled with what we now recognize as ADD/ADHD. One of them was George Bernard Shaw, who wrote more than 60 plays and won both a Nobel Prize and and Oscar for Pygmalion. Science fiction pioneer and godfather of steampunkJules Verne, who had trouble in school and reported having a hard time focusing, was also thought to have undiagnosed ADD or ADHD.

Of course, there’s an even longer list of writers who have famously suffered from depression, from Mark Twain to Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Anne Rice and Stephen King. Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling, who today is probably the world’s most commercially successful writer, was once a suicidal 20-something single parent and struggling writer. She sought help for her clinical depression and obviously overcame this writing hurdle in spectacular fashion. Not so fortunate was poet Sylvia Plath, whose treatment with antidepressants in 1963 began, it seems, too late to stop her suicidal compulsion.

When it comes to authors who have overcome physical adversity, addictions, personal tragedy, poverty, abuse and a whole spectrum of other obstacles, a whole book could be written. But here are some extreme examples that make me feel ashamed of myself for being distracted from writing by my own insignificant hurdles.

There was Irish author and poet Christy Brown, for example. His famous autobiography My Left Foot documented his struggles as a cerebral palsy victim who was incapable of deliberate movement or speech for years (except, of course, his famous left foot). His family life no doubt toughened him up, as he was one of 13 surviving children out of the 22 born to his Catholic parents.

French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, once the editor of Elle, suffered the rare neurological condition known as Locked-In syndrome after coming out of a coma after a heart attack. While his mind was normal, his entire body was paralyzed. In the last two years of his life, he “wrote” an entire book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which he composed in his head and dictated one letter at a time to a (very patient) interlocutor, by blinking when the letter he wanted was reached in a repeated recitation of the alphabet. His book was published two days before he died.

And do I even need to mention the deaf, blind, prolific author Helen Keller?

Well, that’s made me feel so much more ambitious and less sorry for myself that I’m going to just blow my nose, swig some cough syrup, and get back to work.