Ask TCI: How do I reconnect with my creative self after a tragedy?
FROM : Anonymous (via Ask TCI on our homepage)
Q: How do you find your way back to the things that creatively fulfilled you after a tragedy?
A: What a good and challenging question. I ask myself a question like this most days, which then reminds me that I am, even year three, still grieving and still grappling with the effects of trauma. I am hard on myself when I am not being productive enough or when I don’t feel creatively and productively functional. And then I think, well maybe this is who I am now. And I have to look at the qualities of who I am now. Maybe I’m approaching my life and the integration of suffering differently? How do I embrace the person I’ve become? Why do my poems look the way they do? Why are they are more prosaic now? But then my life became more prosaic. Over these last several years I looked for the poem not to fulfill but to reflect my reality and my thought process, and be as honest as it could in matching this new, difficult and challenging reality. (I didn’t want the poem to perform a kind of mysticism or sublime beauty that I didn’t truly embrace or that felt real to me.)
Maybe the question to ask yourself: Is it too much pressure to be “creatively fulfilled” after you’ve been changed by tragedy or trauma? For me, I think there are phases and stages to finding your way back to meaning and being “fulfilled.” Some months I feel like I’ve learned so much about myself and my creative self—and it feels deeply cathartic—but other months I feel like I’ve lost lots of my former self—the one who thrived in certain ways before Dale’s cancer and death. Plus I struggle with the shame of thriving—surviving after Dale’s tragedy of death. Why am I here and he’s not? He loved making art even more than I did. Why did he suffer such a brutal cancer? So I wonder if fulfillment is something we get to subjectively shape and approach and hold? And it could mean something differently each time we approach the craving of being fulfilled? I’ve come to feel that fulfillment is letting myself be known to myself in an honest way, and that the process of writing could get me close to that feeling, but maybe the feelings are also retrospective, too? Maybe I won’t always know in the moment that I’m fulfilled? My poems have come to grow in this space with me. I have let me be as honest as I can.
On the opening song, “Real Death,” you address the difficulty of turning the death of a loved one into art or into poetry.
I wanted to address the contradiction that’s in the whole album. Not contradiction exactly, but there’s something crass about it… There’s a distinction between real death and the conceptual death that I’ve written about for the whole rest of my 20 years, without knowing what it actually felt like.
With Geneviève’s sickness I was just thinking about mortality and loss everyday, all day. That felt like it was exempt from words or music. There was something crude about putting it to music. I guess I’m conflicted about it still, even though I’m releasing the album and doing a PR campaign for it, which is so gross and weird from a lot of perspectives.
And I do still feel like I’m a little bit in the trauma of Geneviève dying, however many months ago. There’s this shift in perspective that feels mostly bad, but also, there is a positivity to it. It’s difficult to explain. It’s like a broader awareness or something. It’s also easier to keep my priorities straight. Being a single parent, I just have to do so many things every day. I make so few choices of my own. I think that that’s informative in a good way.
I’m not a tough guy. I’m not brave. I’m just curious. I’m very well aware of how quickly life goes. You know, Ian [MacKaye] and I both have a lot of dead friends. Everything from suicide to overdose to wrong place, wrong time. There’s a lot to get done. Whether you want to deal with that or not is up to the individual. You just make up your mind, like, “I’m gonna write this book.” How many people are gonna read it? I don’t care. How can I control that? I just want to do the damn thing. That allows me to go unrestrained.
To go from Planetarium to then writing songs about my dead mother was really traumatic. I found it much more difficult to grapple with some of these very horrible personal tragedies in song. It didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel just. It didn’t feel comfortable and it didn’t feel artful. There were these attempts, little lyrical and literary gestures here and there, to try to make sense of this loss through analogy and mythology but they were so unsatisfying. They fell so short of the experience that I felt like my artistry and my creative methods had kind of failed me. It was interesting to have to just accept that and reckon with that. In the end I had to just allow that to be what it was and accept it as just being this one chapter in my creative life.
Is it like coming to terms with the fact that sometimes it’s never going to feel 100% right or recognizing that this is as good a way as I can address this?
Yeah. It’s as good as it gets or it’s all I have. It’s all I can give. It’s a real uncomfortable kind of environment in which to reside when you’re having to reconcile with resignation… and that’s really what a lot of those songs on Carrie & Lowell are about. It’s about resigning myself to this feeling and to these facts and to this event. There’s no artful explanation of that experience. It just is what it is.
When we toured the record though, we spent a lot of time on reinvention to allow ourselves some distance from the content. Even though it was very much grounded in mortality and rooted in these folk songs that were very simple and kind of pure and plain on the record, we allowed it to transcend until the arrangements and the show itself became almost like a spectral memorial for my mother, for death. We very carefully augmented it. We found ways to perform it that alleviated some of the tragedy. That’s how I got through it.
Because the project involves you processing the loss of your mother, Lorraine, I imagine it was hard taking other people’s ideas into consideration.
Yeah. That is true. It was about my mom, but it was also about a lot of other things, just because half of it was written before she was ever even sick. So, in that way, I guess it is kind of collaborative, because a lot of the album is also about my friends and my relationships. That’s all in there and, you know, as I was working on it, the people that it was about knew that I was writing it about them. [laughs]
You wrote a part of it before your mother had passed, when she did die, did you go back and rework things, or were you able to maintain the material you’d already made and make it cohesive in some other way?
That’s the weird part—it already felt cohesive, and I’d already been thinking about grief in a more general sense of projects ending, friendships ending, lots of other things. So, when my mom did pass, it sort of… That was the most jarring part for me; what I was working on beginning to make sense already. That was really sort of shocking and that made the project have a lot more weight.
You’ve been candid about depression. Has talking and writing about it helped?
I realized talking and writing about my depression normalized it in my own mind. And that’s all I needed. The fact that people started opening up to me, and we could bond over sorrow, showed me how important mental health is and that the stigma is holding back a lot of creative people. I wanted to be open about it and hopefully allow someone to feel safe talking about it, too.
More often than not, I just don’t have the time or the strength to heft all the dots I want to connect in my mind. Finding the time to put it all down and having the skill to articulate it into a form that’s understandable by someone else—that’s the challenge. Rarely is it a case of “I’ve got nothing.” Sometimes when I’m really depressed, there’ll be nothing there because I’m grappling with depression. But as soon as that lifts an inch, I can get my fingers under the door, jam it open, and get out.
Most people struggle with a lot of stuff and often we need help figuring out how to deal with our feelings. When it comes to sadness, particularly people who struggle with depression, there is usually this feeling that you’re gonna feel this way forever. People need to have hope that there’s the possibility they can get out of it, that these feelings will eventually go away. I often think the best way to feel that is to hear the words of somebody who knows exactly what that feels like. That’s the value of art or literature, hearing one person saying, “This is what I’ve been through.”
The reason why I’ve always said we’re lucky is because I think there are hurdles you have to get through to get to that place, and I think it is unfair, to some extent, because not all people make it through any relationship long enough to reach that point. You get through painful things, but then you get to this place where things are fluid. I don’t think fluidity is sustainable either, though. I think that you will always find some kind of obstacle or thing to work through, and it’s not like when we’re working it’s this constant paradise. It’s just that, like Alex said, when you lay bricks for enough years, you start to have patterns in how you do things, so the hurdles aren’t as traumatizing.
The Italian philosopher Vico had this theory that time moves more in a spiral than it does in a line. He believes that’s why we repeat ourselves, including our tragedies, and that if we are more faithful to this movement, we can move away from the epicenter through distance and time, but we have to confront it every time. I’ve been thinking about trauma—how it’s repetitive, and how we recreate it, and how memory is fashioned by creation. Every time we remember, we create new neurons, which is why memory is so unreliable. I thought, “Well if the Greek root for ‘poet’ is ‘creator,’ then to remember is to create, and, therefore, to remember is to be a poet.” I thought it was so neat. Everyone’s a poet, as long as they remember.
I think everybody handles trauma differently. I think oftentimes it’s just that you shut down to protect yourself. Whenever I’m making my work it’s this fine balance. I’m making work that’s a memorial in some sense. It’s an image, it’s a record of maybe this model who’s no longer here, or it’s a memorial to the person who originally consumed the imagery. That’s sort of how I think about it, it’s the people who originally consumed the images and where they are now, but there need to be to be these moments of levity, right? There have got to be playful elements to it, because there has to be pleasure. It’s not just, okay, everybody is dead. There needs to be that balance and striking it… sometimes that’s really hard to do.
My whole entire life, there’s been something about me where I have a really good fight or flight response. If I’m ever in a crisis situation, maybe it comes from experiencing trauma, but I know that I’m someone where if something burns to the ground, I can get up and go somewhere else and completely start over. I have no fear of that. I know that If I literally lost everything, with 20 bucks I could go somewhere and make it fucking work. I know that about myself. I’ve always been that way. This can also be a problem–and I’m trying to mature out of this way of thinking–where if something went wrong I was quick to say fuck this, fuck everything, I’m out. It was too easy for me to do that, actually.
Prageeta Sharma is the author of Bliss to Fill (Subpress Collective, 2000), The Opening Question (Fence Books, 2004, winner of the 2004 Fence Modern Poets Prize), Infamous Landscapes (Fence Books, 2007), and Undergloom (Fence, 2013). Sharma obtained her BA in English from Simon’s Rock College of Bard, her MA in Media Studies from The New School, and her MFA in Poetry from Brown University. She is the recipient of the 2010 Howard Foundation Grant. She is currently an associate professor in the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Montana-Missoula, of which she has also served as director.
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