I necessarily have a job that consumes me for weeks at a time when I go a bit mad for lack of silence/writing. But it’s been my great luck right now to have a six-month leave from that job, so I have been blessed with writing days.
I’ve been eating and smoking history. Specifically, for a novel, 1961-1977, when the Pentagon trained its sights on Vietnam. But I have a poor memory for everything other than my domestic misdemeanours, so I have to transform history into just that, a domestic misdemeanour. This takes a lot of time: much research, reading, writing, rewriting, to inhabit, incorporate, compress the external with the internal frame to create a story. A story, as you know, is a complicated organism.
I recently spent the first three months of my six-month leave in a small city where I had almost no contact with people. For days at a time I would speak only to my husband. He is handsome and interesting so it was fine, but lonely, being separate from my family and friends and home. I got so lonely for the sound of poetry I went to a Mennonite church. I’m not Mennonite, not even Christian, but the church was a marvellous house of kindness and literacy. It was Lent, and one sermon (more like a scholarly lecture: she didn’t try to save my soul) addressed Satan tempting a starving Jesus to turn a stone into bread. This, Jesus would not do. I loved being in the church (children were among the congregation, rustling and chirping so it was like being in a big aviary) but I can never be a member because it’s my job to turn stones into bread.
During this particular exile there were some bad days when the stones didn’t budge. But sometimes I could write without looking at the keyboard or the screen; sometimes the novel was writing me, while I studied the squirrels in the trees outside my window (very lucky: a window). I learned that squirrels can become embarrassed, that they are show-offs, jealous and competitive, that squirrels are not duplicates. At equinox, crows, yes, a murder, descended on tall thin pines in purple dusk. That was the moment when I would permit myself the first glass of wine that might fuel tomorrow’s cadence. This was bliss. Bliss is a weird state.
Now I’m still on leave, free from my job for another few months, and writing every day, but at home where there are many more interruptions. When I first got home I thought I was finally going crazy: I was fractured, shattered, yet had no actuality.
There’s a wonderful letter by Sam Melville written from Attica State Prison where Melville was imprisoned for bombing buildings to protest the violence of the American military-capitalist system of permanent war (this was 1971). The composer Fredric Rzewski took Melville’s letter (published in Letters from Attica) and dis-assembled it into an epic yet minimalist work called “Coming Together,” which I’ve performed with small orchestras: an exhilarating experience. (You can find various performances of this piece on YouTube.) Here is part of Melville’s brilliant letter:
I think the combination of age and the greater coming together is responsible for the speed of the passing time. it's six months now and i can tell you truthfully few periods in my life have passed so quickly. i am in excellent physical and emotional health. there are doubtless subtle surprises ahead but i feel secure and ready.
As lovers will contrast their emotions in times of crisis, so am i dealing with my environment .… i read much, exercise, talk to guards and inmates, feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.
Shortly after writing this letter, Melville was murdered by state police in a revolt over prisoners’ rights.
In another of Sam Melville’s prison letters he writes that Revolution is inspired by desperation and a desire for ecstasy. I’m enlarging my tiny existence with this story, this text, these references, to supplement the fact that I went to watch my grandson play hockey this morning (an enduring happiness, to see his beauty), and to try to portray a constant, obsessive relationship with language (to read like a safecracker). And what I get in return for all this tunnelling and tapping are souvenirs, the occasional book or story or lyric. Souvenirs can be mass-produced but they share in the intensity of the original moment, which, for a writer, is an intensity of attention.
It’s often observed in this blog, these descriptions of “Writing Days,” that there are no writing days; that the decline of writers’ value and therefore income means that we spend our days trying to make our living, and spend our nights in desperation seeking ecstasy. In some ways we live in a prison that has exploded, become total. All data is collected. We are massively significant and none of us is powerful.
It must be love, this engagement with silence and solitude that is occasionally interrupted by semaphore with the guards and other inmates. Like you, I have to write and cannot stop any more than I can stop loving my family. But we are living in an age where the ministers of culture (and education) despise culture (and education), when the products of our imaginations and our intellectual work are often met with condescension, even by other writers. We are too many. There are not enough resources. We must turn inward for resilience while we try to pay close and loving attention to the indifferent world.
Margaret Sweatman’s novels are Mr. Jones, The Players, When Alice Lay Down with Peter, Sam and Angie, and Fox. She writes essays, song lyrics and libretti, poetry, plays, and short fiction, and is a vocalist and harmonica player. She lives in Winnipeg.