by Ted Downum
Every writer struggles with motivation. Sometimes, a writer’s own body throws up a test of motivation—the eye strain from staring at the screen too long, the writer’s cramp, the carpal tunnel. Sometimes you might feel too sick to work; it’s that much harder to create an insightful comment on the human condition when your own condition leaves something to be desired.
Like a lot of people, I revert to toddlerhood when I get sick. I do better than some, I think, but not nearly as well as others. If, for instance, I’m waylaid by a rhinovirus, my natural tendencies toward self-pity and misanthropy shift into a higher gear. I want to be left alone on my couch with my clogged sinuses and my bad TV. I don’t want to do anything physically or mentally taxing… which means I don’t want to write.
When this happens, when self-pity has gnawed on me for a little while, eventually I think of a particular writer I’ve admired for many years, and the thought of him doesn’t so much inspire me back to the page as it shames me back. Truth be told, I’m not sure he would have bothered with something as fatuous as “inspiration.”
This acerbic spectre, Dennis Potter, wrote novels, films, and journalism, but mostly he wrote for television. He wrote most of his work while suffering from a severe case of psoriatic arthropathy, a chronic condition that struck him in his twenties and plagued him for the rest of his life. When it flared up, Potter became a very sick man. His skin erupted in raw psoriatic lesions; arthritis would paralyze his joints, leaving him bedridden. Sometimes his temperature rose high that he would hallucinate.
Across a thirty-year span from the sixties to the nineties, his plays for British television pushed back the corners of the small screen, leading his audience between the past and the present, the wished-for and the real. Potter’s plays toyed with dramatic conventions: in some, adults played the roles of children, and characters in other plays expressed their feelings by lip-synching to the popular music of the author’s childhood. In Blue Remembered Hills, Brimstone and Treacle, and Pennies from Heaven, among many others, Dennis Potter explored the twilight regions between innocence and experience, love and lust, the idealized then versus the compromised now.
In The Singing Detective, Potter’s quasi-autobiographical masterpiece, his protagonist Marlow also suffers from psoriatic arthropathy, and Potter’s script stages his hallucinations as bizarre musical numbers, both unnerving and funny: “Dry Bones” scene from TSD 1986
In Potter’s everyday reality, though, the effects of his disease were a constant burden. The repeated attacks of arthritis caused his hands to close up: his fingers curled and fused into permanent, gnarled fists. He couldn’t type. With these new limitations, he had to learn to write again—something else that made its way into The Singing Detective:
The pen strapped to the fist makes a useful metaphor for writerly persistence. As a writer myself—albeit only an aspiring writer—I try to apply myself with a little of Dennis Potter’s bloody-minded persistence.
To write well is to test your determination. How determined are you to express your ideas clearly and artfully on the page? How determined are you to get it right, no matter how much revision that might take—and how determined are you to sit down and do it at all, when life puts up barriers, eats up your time, saps your energy? If you do finish something, how determined are you to get it published? Would we write differently, push to get published, if we wrote with urgency, like we had received a terminal diagnosis?
Potter died in 1994, of cancer that might have been caused by medications he took to mitigate his psoriatic arthropathy. After he received his terminal diagnosis, he resolved himself to finish two final scripts before his death. He achieved that goal, working with the help of precise pain management and driven by his own commitment to writing--what he called, very sincerely, his vocation.
In his last days, he found an unexpected serenity in the practice of his craft. In the introduction to the posthumously published edition of those two final plays, Potter described what he experienced as “now-ness,” the beauty and the immediacy in his every perception:
Writing brought Dennis Potter through his illness; it let him recapture the dignity that his illness took away. As his death approached, the act of writing brought his appreciation of life itself into a crystalline, triumphant focus. I have often thought of him when I don’t feel well, in body or in mind, and I don’t want to sit down and do the work of putting each and every little word in order, of thinking about their value. His example helps me to take up my own pen—to be ready to strap it to my hand, if necessary—and go.
by Ted Downum
I come from a proud Irish-American drinking family. Even by the high standards established by my mother’s ancestors--even by the standards of my grandfather, who drank himself to death when he wasn’t that much older than I am now--I was a high achiever in the field of alcohol abuse.
Though I’m now several years sober, I have usually shied away from delving too deeply into my personal experience of addiction (or my family’s experience). Who would want to read what people in twelve-step programs would call “war stories”—sordid tales of alienated girlfriends and vexed relatives, lost jobs and DUIs, trips to the emergency room and various rehab clinics? Why would I want to relive those experiences, fictionalize them, and put them on display for the world?
I never saw myself ever fictionalizing my life as artfully as other fiction writers until I read Lucia Berlin's stories. Because of her work, lately, I feel less hesitant about using a real event as the seed for a work of fiction. In reading Berlin, I realize that the central aim of her work--like any conscientious writer of literary fiction--is to unearth and present to her readers, the humor and devastation embedded in the human experience, which is probably the most powerful aspect of writing.
In carefully wrought and deeply affecting stories often drawn from her own unusual life, Lucia Berlin displays lives thrown out of balance by addiction, poverty, cultural displacement, and simple, powerful human urges--for love, belonging, and comfort. If you’ve never read a Berlin story, you need to add her to your reading list.
As an aspiring short-story writer (and one who shares many of the same thematic interests as Lucia Berlin), I found a great deal to admire in the posthumous collection of her selected work, A Manual for Cleaning Women (2015), published eleven years after her death. The pitch of emotion Berlin summons in her stories, with language that somehow manages to be both spare and rich, is painfully intense and incredibly engaging. Her stories about alcoholics—Berlin herself struggled for much of her life with a crippling alcohol addiction—have all the unsparing honesty of Raymond Carver, but where Carver’s drunks are often lost or numb, Berlin’s alcoholic characters suffer terribly, and she makes us feel every twinge of their thirst.
“Unmanageable,” one of the short stories in the collection, follows the efforts of its Berlin-surrogate narrator to secure a drink in the early hours of the morning. The story holds a bitter irony in its title: though the narrator’s drinking problem has clearly reached the point where an outside observer could call it “unmanageable,” the narrator displays focus and determination that no alcoholic in the maintenance stage of her drinking would find surprising, or even especially remarkable. "Taking the bottle with her, she went to the bathroom then. She showered and combed her hair, put on clean clothes. Ten more minutes. She checked to see if the door was locked, sat on the toilet and finished the vodka [...] She moved the laundry from the washer to the dryer. She was mixing orange juice from frozen concentrate when Joel came into the kitchen, rubbing his eyes. "No socks, no shirt” “ (153).
Berlin is concerned with engaging the reader in her characters’ desperate everyday realities, such as the alcoholism of the narrator in “Unmanageable.” Through the recovering alcoholic’s journey, she asks readers to connect with their own humanity, recognizing that life can be messy and unromantic, and fraught with its own kind of peril.
Berlin once said in an interview that, "I think writers want to change their realities in some way. You want to show what’s lovable and beautiful and so you sift through your life and you can look at it one way, or you can look at it another. And writers, I think, are people who need to affirm, need an affirmation about their life. And to me, it’s a way to make things positive, not in a corny way, but to make beauty out of negative things or difficult times, or just to make sense” (Lucia Berlin: Writing Advice And More…).
Indeed, Berlin’s ability to sift through her life, to mine her personal experience for story material in an attempt to make sense of it, is quite artful. Having herself raised four sons while working assorted odd (and sometimes degrading) jobs, locked in a long battle with alcohol addiction, Berlin honed her talent for portraying everyday human struggles to an amazing sharpness. She excels in capturing the moments of grace and beauty that arise in the midst of family dysfunction, economic struggle, and substance abuse. “This sounds funny now, but it wasn’t then when she was sobbing, sobbing, as if her heart would break. I patted her and she flinched. She hated to be touched. So I just watched her by the light of the streetlamp through the window screen. Just watched her weep. She was totally alone, like my sister Sally is when she weeps that way” (Panteón De Dolores 251). While she conveys breathtakingly lovely demonstration of empathy for her characters, Berlin, still never glosses over their struggles, or the hurt and bitterness her characters feel.
Lucia Berlin's clarity of language enables the reader to share in her raw, hard-won honesty about her addiction, about the damage it permitted her to do to herself and her life. She reminds me that employing my own experience--however uncomfortable that might be for me, the writer--is crucial to the emotional depth of my writing. Berlin reminds me that writing good fictional characters is about revealing what it means to be human, and that experiences are not the only place I should look when I set out to create a plausible character, but to always look into my own heart.
Learn more about Lucia Berlin
Other books by Lucia Berlin