Virginia Woolfe wrote an essay called “The Angel in the House,” explaining that women have to kill the angel voice inside them in order to be powerful writers. Truman Capote didn’t have any problem with that voice. He wrote about anything he felt like writing about with scathing and scalding clarity.
Virginia Woolfe never wrote about what many speculate was childhood sexual abuse. Maybe that restrictive angel, the one who advises women to hide unpleasantness, would not die. At 59, Woolfe killed herself. Truman Capote died at the same age of liver disease; he had poured gallons of alcohol over any censoring angel inside him, allowing him to release some of his demons before his liver succumbed.
I believe that many writers today, mostly American and mostly women, are pulling punches, letting their most powerful blows be either held back by that old “Be nice” angel or the new “Be numb” Prozac mentality. But one cannot write strong literature without risking being disowned by strangers and loved-ones alike. One cannot write strong literature while wanting to be liked by everyone. The gift a writer gives is some truth that will expand a reader’s mind and heart. Pretty lies don’t do that.
I hide in historical stories. I put my experience with sexual abuse in the 19th century in New Mexico. I put shameful and painful aspects of my relationships in 6th century Ireland or 19th century Paris. I put my own immoral and dishonest traits in a man taking a train from Boston to New Mexico in the 19th century. I put my years of promiscuity and the trauma of my son’s death in 14th century Ireland.
So I’m much more of a coward than Truman Capote. And I’m certainly not as successful as he was.
What I can’t write honestly about are the people in my life who wield power over me, whose approval I want, and even more futilely, whose unceasing affection I want. I can’t let fly with their stories and my reactions to them. I sort of did that once, in a fictional context in which only the person targeted knew what was going on, and I got a psychic and emotional whipping for it. I couldn’t stand the heat.
What I can’t write about is the suffering I’ve caused to innocent people, even animals, because of my unresolved and out of control rage. I can’t write about the Iago-like evil I’ve felt capable of – how I’ve wanted to ruin lives out of resentment. And that’s another reason I’m reluctant to go after the objects of my obsessions in writing, because I very well may be doing so out of resentment rather than out of a desire to reveal truth.
The catharsis of writing can be so powerful and purging, if one is willing to deal with toxic levels of anger and coldness.
Disdain, contempt, backs turned to me, icy glances and exclusion – those are the elements of my nightmares that keep me huddled in a corner of potential.
I also can’t, or don’t yet have the nerve to, write forthrightly about my spiritual experiences, because I am not yet willing to endure them being ridiculed, or even ignored.
Currently, I’m researching a woman whom I plan to write about, either in non-fiction or in a novel. She is the subject of the song I wrote and that my band The Vagibonds performed on a You Tube video. I haven’t been able to go beyond the ballad of her experiences on the Titanic, though I spent three weeks in France researching her time as a medical volunteer on the French front during World War I. And the reason for this particular writer’s block is that to really say it, I will have to come out of one of my closets, because half-truths are no gift to readers.
How I came across this woman goes against all the cynical intelligence of a large number of people who matter to me. It has convinced me of what Hamlet said to his dearest friend: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Vehemently contradicting the philosophies of others and exposing oneself to ridicule and rejection are not easy. Go ask Virginia and Truman; look at the lackluster, easy reading that has become American literature today. Increasingly, my students write about vampires or romantic failures due to a chronic lack of caring. Their vapidity isn’t so much a result of the angel in the house as it is of the cynical adolescent in the house — the one who seems to be running the publishing world.
Yes, I’m bitter. My last two manuscripts haven’t found a publisher. That also adds to an urge to give up, have a drink, pop a pill and hang out with the angels. More compelling than that, more compelling than fear or even pride – much, much stronger – is the urge to write. But for me, that means I need to keep digging when the hole gets darker but the treasures get richer, no matter who reads or doesn’t read, likes or doesn’t like what I bring to the surface.