The Soul of a Writer (essay)

“You don’t know why you are in despair. You only know you don’t feel like yourself anymore, but the crows have eaten all the breadcrumbs back to who you once were.”

I tend to think of myself as a writer. Since I was an elementary school kid writing bizarre Garfield (and yes the cat comic) fan fiction where Jon suddenly and inexplicably suffers from one catastrophe after another until he dies miserable and alone, I’ve always been someone with an inclination for writing. When kids are bored they find some activity to pass time. For me it was to write.

My parents worked a lot and my brothers didn’t like to play the same type of make-believe games I did. I was a timid kid, so I usually went along with whatever my school friends wanted to do.

Writing then, was about control. I invented an imaginary cast of characters whom would interact with myself and the world exactly like how I wanted them to. It’s like playing tea party or house, only I was too poor to have all the props so I wrote it all out instead.

As I grew older, writing became less a form of entertainment and more a tool I could use to understand the world. I used story to put form and shape to the chaos around me, and with time, concrete meaning unravelled into the abstract. My concerns leaned towards the metaphysical and I often thought about death and the unconscious. I wanted to know what lurked under the surface of experience.

I wrote and thought so deeply I occasionally felt like I was losing my mind. I would stare at words, rearranging them until everything had lost all of its meaning. If you spend enough time practicing one artistic medium, at some point you’re going to scratch the surface of your own soul. It’s an exhilarating experience full of suffering, but at least the suffering was ennobled with meaning.

Many of my favorite authors died by suicide. The journey through one’s own mind is full of despair. Sometimes you catch glimpses of demons and you know they live with you and will always live with you. There’s a lot of pleading involved. Prayer too, and crying, even if no real tears come. You don’t know why you are in despair. You only know you don’t feel like yourself anymore, but the crows have eaten all the breadcrumbs back to who you once were.

However, it’s not the end all be all. The writer’s journey will only help you glimpse one facet of the fractal soul. That’s why I always tell thinkers who suffer from depression that they’ll never “think” themselves back to good mental health. While it’s certainly possible, it’d be a long and treacherous journey. It’s better to act first and force the mind follow. It’s more effective to just dive off the edge and see how far the bungee rope of your free will take you before pulling back.

To think you can know your soul just by sitting around and looking within is a mistake. Such stagnation only breeds foul air and you begin to see your cowardice as stoicism.

That’s why I’ve since stopped asking myself “what is the meaning or purpose of life?” I’m not any closer to that answer than anyone else, it’s just that in order to answer that question, you’d first have to know what “life” is first, and to know life, you’d have to actually live it, not just think about it really really hard.

It’s there outside of yourself too. The Self. The Soul. Just as music doesn’t exist inside the instrument, the formation of your life reaches far beyond the physical confines of your body. There is you, and then there is the rest of the world, but that is also you because you are experiencing it. And whether life imitates art or vice versa, experience is alchemical in nature.

The writer negotiates by means of writing with her own soul. It’s not a give or take. There’s no exchange involved. There’s only discovery and when all the seemingly random pieces come together, you catch a glimpse of that unknowable and indescribable something, and it moves you to tears. You don’t know the meaning of life, but you don’t feel compelled to ask anymore.

You don’t feel like yourself anymore, but that’s okay, because you’ve become a bit more than just that.

12.9 Who I Used to Be

Do you ever marvel at old drafts? Some of those lines are so beautiful, I’m a bit envious of the person I used to be, who was less knowledgable, true, but who had more passion and could write with such explosive zeal.

But the past is always seen through rose-colored lenses. I actually suffered a lot back then. The smallest things set me off into an emotional downward spiral and I’d often fall asleep in the fetal position begging the powers that be to keep me from losing my mind. However, I felt ennobled by my mental illness because many of my favorite authors suffered from severe depression. More than half of my top authors committed suicide. I thought it was a rite of passage for being a good writer.

The truth was, those beautiful lines had been glimpses of light at the end of the tunnel for me. I spent the supposedly “best years” of my youth in utter despair. I cried a lot, for no apparent reason. I might publish that writing one day. I’m not sure if it has any value to outside eyes, but I’m not being hyperbolic when I say writing saved me. After all, I write to create space, and without those lines, my depression would’ve completely suffocated me.

So I guess I’m not envious of who I used to be—that’s not the right word. Actually, I’m proud. Good job past me!

12.06 On Writing (Poem)

I write to create space.
That’s all there is to it.
I take a piece of this, a piece of that, a piece of myself,
And I rearrange it to my liking,
Fixing the words like adjusting a picture frame
A little to the right, or a little to the left.

I write because the world happens too fast, or not fast enough,
And like a scientist, I put the most interesting parts
Inside a glass cage, and work it through an intricate maze.
I collect samples to put under a microscope
To watch the cells divide and grow, or die in vain.

I write because sometimes I overthink or I can’t think at all.
I need relief! I’m exhausted and I want to sleep!
I write to create space.
That’s all there is to it.