by Eleanor Morse
Spalding MFA Faculty Fiction
In a letter to his brother, George, in 1818, John Keats wrote, “There’s nothing stable in the world—uproar’s your only music.” This was, and is, not new. Every age has its uproar, and our age’s uproar feels deeper and wider and more treacherous than any that’s come before, but I doubt this is true. There has been chaos and sorrow and cruelty and violence before, and there will be again.
The slaughter of innocents in Beirut and Paris last Thursday and Friday has left a residue of fear in the air that’s palpable. We are once again collectively reminded that the unthinkable can happen anywhere. That fear, of course, is the flywheel that sustains the engine of both terrorism and totalitarianism. The feeling, if one gives into it, leads to shrinkage, to a primal urge to hide; fear translates into avoiding public spaces, becoming smaller in language and action, less visible and exposed.
In an odd way, the fear unleashed on the world this past week has led me to think about how a different, much subtler fear can inhabit those of us who write. Compared with terrorism, this other fear hardly registers on the scale, but there are parallels.
I recall a number of years ago while I was working on my first book, a good friend offered me three weeks in a remote cabin in Nova Scotia. I jumped at the chance to step briefly out of a life in which multiple platters spun crazily and regularly clattered to the floor: work, marriage, children, aging parents—as Zorba the Greek said, ‘the full catastrophe.’ I drove up to Nova Scotia with a computer and printer, books, notes, provisions, a few clothes, and set to work. The nearest neighbors were far away. The cabin looked out onto a harbor and across to a small fishing village, and except for the scream of gulls, the call of loons, and the putt-putt of boats coming in and out of the harbor, it was utterly quiet.
The place was beautiful, the isolation a relief. When I settled in, though, I realized I was scared of something. I felt the butterflies in my stomach every morning when I woke. When I finally figured out what it was, it turned out that I was scared of writing. I’d never known this before and could identify it in the wilds of Nova Scotia because all the usual hullabaloo and distractions had dropped away, leaving only the bare bones of thought and feeling.
That fear still lurks. I don’t fully understand it, but I think there are two sources: doubting my own capacities, and a fear of what I may uncover in the process of writing, what chaos will be unleashed, what will be hiding under some rock I overturn.
In her book, Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, Jane Hirshfield writes:
One of the penalties and graces of consciousness is waking each day to the awareness that the future cannot be predicted, that the universe’s foundation rests on an incomprehensible receding, that bewilderment, caprice, and the unknowable are among the most faithful companions of any life.
It’s a joy to live and to write into the surprise of the unrevealed. And it’s also joy’s opposite, to live and write toward potentially dangerous and unexplored territories, like sailing a ship into the regions labeled on old maps: “Here Be Dragons”.
For those of us who write, we have consciously or unconsciously signed up for responsibilities beyond the necessities of daily living and getting by: to approach what may frighten or dishearten us, to reject sentimentality—the attitude, as Flannery O’Connor says, that does not confront reality squarely in the face, to open the doors wide to feeling, to not duck what’s unpalatable outside or within us.
David Grossman, who wrote To the End of the Land and who lost his son in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said in an interview published in The Paris Review:
One night when my son was three years old, as I was putting him to bed, I explained that it was the twenty-first of December—the longest night of the year. I tucked him in and kissed him good night. The next morning, at first light, he burst into our room, all sweaty and excited and relieved, and he shouted, Daddy, Mommy, it’s over, this night is over!
Can you imagine what landscapes he had wandered through all night? Because he did not take it for granted that the sun would ever rise again.
When I write, I try to bring myself to this point. I want to be betrayed, to be taken to a dangerous place that jars the basic presumptions I have about myself, my family, my country.
To ‘betray’ ourselves in the sense that Grossman is talking about, to be more attuned to the world in both its beauty and terror, is a double-edged sword: to the extent that we’re open to what comes our way, we participate more fully in all that it means to be human, and we’re also more vulnerable to fear.
The act of pushing through fear, however, does give something back. The solace is that courage begets courage. I’m convinced that if I weren’t a writer, I’d be lazier in the face of what I don’t want to see and feel. Writing has taught me that if I hide from dragons, I become smaller, and my writing diminishes in ways that I can’t respect. Writing has a way of strengthening the backbone, or perhaps we choose it partly because we know this.
In a 1961 interview, James Baldwin said,
Most of us, no matter what we say, are walking in the dark, whistling in the dark. Nobody knows what is going to happen from one moment to the next, or how one will bear it. This is irreducible. And it’s true of everybody. Now, it is true that the nature of society is to create, among its citizens, an illusion of safety; but it is also absolutely true that the safety is always necessarily an illusion. Artists are here to disturb the peace.
Yes, and yes again. Not only others’ peace, but our own.
Eleanor Morse has written three novels. Her first, Chopin’s Garden, was published through Fox Print Books in 2006. An Unexpected Forest (Down East Books, 2007), won the 2008 Independent Book Publisher’s Award (IPPY) for best regional fiction (Northeast region) and the 2008 Maine Literary Award from the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance for best published fiction. White Dog Fell from the Sky, her third novel, was published by Penguin Books in January 2013 and was a Publishers Weekly ‘pick of the week’. The audio book version received an AudioFile Magazine Earphones Award.
Eleanor received a Master of Arts in Teaching from Yale University and a MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives on an island off the coast of Portland, Maine. Visit her website at www.eleanormorse.com