THROUGH THE WINDOW I watched big flakes of snow fall. Sixty students from around the country and one from England, another from Australia and a third from Switzerland had come to a workshop at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in New Mexico. This was the morning of the fourth day. They stomped their boots, peeled off their hats and gloves, shook out their coats. Upon registration back in August or September—whenever they signed up—they had been given the titles of three books to read. I held up Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron.

“How many of you liked this book?” A smattering of hands went up. “OK, someone who didn’t like it, please tell us why.” An Ohio woman in the back, who yesterday had written a funny piece about her small dog Astro, spoke up. “Well, it masked some of the real grueling parts about depression.” A man from Alabama, who had told me at breakfast that seeing the snow on Taos Mountain was worth the whole trip, said, “It didn’t go into Styron’s own experience enough. I was in a deep funk for three years and I could hardly eat or stand up.” Uh-huh, I nodded. More hands were up, but I cut the discussion short.

“Great,” I said. “Now we’re going to forget all of our opinions. This is a writing class, not a psychology class. A study of depression isn’t our aim. Let’s make our minds level, like a horizon in Kansas.” (A student from that state was in the class and I had teased her several times, saying to the group, “Find out what Kansas knows.” In truth, it was I who wanted to know what she knew, living her whole life in one place.) “With that even mind let’s penetrate this book.

How did Styron do what he did? How did he transmit what he wanted to say? No author can cover everything on a subject—leave that for a manual. Obviously, Styron is not comfortable with personal accounts, or with psychology, therapy, growth movements. He normally writes fiction. He says it right in the book: the only reason he is sharing his experience is that it might help other people.” In truth William Styron is of that Southern White Male Educated class of writers. “You may no longer be interested in that group,” I teased. (The class consisted of fifty-six women and four men.) “But the man is good at his craft, he’s been at it a long time. Even when he turns his mind to something he’s not comfortable with, he’s able to do a good job, to communicate clearly. It doesn’t matter what we feel, we need to study how he does it. Take advantage of his years of writing, his confidence, his schooling. As a writer you should go to a book thirsty and suck it dry.”I then smiled at everyone to prove I wasn’t as cutthroat as I sounded. But the truth is you have to be—not cruel, but hungry, lapping up every drop of those words.

How does Styron begin? I asked my class. He doesn’t start with: I was miserable, depressed, crazy. We might have closed the book right then—ugh, another complainer. Instead he takes us to Paris—ah, city of cities—on one particular chilly evening, late in October, 1985. All this in the first sentence. We’re caught—our minds cling to specificity. Styron signals that he’s going to tell us a story, just as if he had begun, “It was a dark and stormy night …” Then he takes us back to his first time in that romantic city, to the spring of 1952, when the young writer stayed in a room at the shabby Hotel Washington replete with bedroom bidet and “toilet far down the ill-lit hallway.” Now, thirty-five years later, he is about to receive the prestigious Prix Mondial Cino del Duca, given annually to an artist or scientist. How can we resist? This is one of the best and oldest stories: how a poor young fellow rises in the world with nothing but his wits to help him. We imagine how wonderful it would be to win a literary prize, to be acknowledged and honored for all our years of faithfulness to writing. But the story has turned inside out. Styron is at the top of the world, and he can’t enjoy it. In an instant we grasp the real horror of depression. It’s not sadness—there are many moments when suffering is exactly what should be happening. Instead there is deadness even when everything outside is telling him to rejoice. He can hardly wait for the ceremony to be over so he can take the first jet home. Then—horror of horrors—he loses the twenty-five-thousand-dollar check he had been given at the luncheon in his honor, a luncheon where he’d had no appetite for the special seafood dish they placed before him, where he couldn’t even muster fake laughter and finally lost any ability to speak. We imagine the French rolling their eyes: what an American loser. Now we, the readers, are riveted. This is too delicious. We’re willing to go on Styron’s ride of madness. A writer is a great seducer—how can I get you to listen to me? Did Styron stealthily plan this opening? I don’t think so, not consciously. He’s an old practitioner. By this time he knows intuitively to choose a high moment to tell a low one. And, of course, he knows the power of story.

But this is nonfiction, someone in the back calls out. I lean in close as if to tell the real secret of writing. “Don’t be so rigid. If you learn a good move in one genre, use it in another. Fiction, nonfiction,” I toss my head, “are a breath away from each other. Grab the reader’s mind whatever it takes.”We think Styron is now going to go on with the story of his madness, but instead he shifts his focus. There’s a break in the page, a new section starts, and he begins to call up a whole pedigree of great artists who also have been tormented by depression. By god, he seems to be saying, he’s not doing this alone. As a southern writer he understands the importance of lineage—he is steeped in it. He has Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, to name just a few, at his back. So in dementia, too, it’s natural for him to align himself. This roll call bolsters Styron, gives him credibility and backing. Why, I look around me, he declares, and everyone’s miserable. (For me, Natalie, this is no consolation. It makes me nervous. Why are writers so unhappy?) Styron recalls Albert Camus, whom he loved, and conjectures on Camus’s recurring despair, alluding to his death in a car crash as a semisuicide. He tells about another close friend, the fine writer Romain Gary, and his eventual suicide; of Gary’s wife, the actress Jean Seberg, and her overdose of pills—found dead in a parked car off a Paris avenue. The City of Light is woven through these deaths, and Styron realizes that after his own severe affliction, he may never see Paris again.Now Styron leaves France and casts his net wider. He starts out with Abbie Hoffman. This is a surprise after the other lofty cultural names: isn’t Abbie Hoffman too fringe? But it acts—and on this my whole writing class agreed—as a splash of cold water. We were descending too quickly into the dark madness. Abbie, too, committed suicide, but the surprise we feel in encountering him refreshes us, only in another page to plunge us deeper on the descent. Styron invokes Randall Jarrell, that fine poet, then Primo Levi, the remarkable Italian writer and survivor of Auschwitz—how could he have endured Auschwitz and then succumbed to suicide?More artists: Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton. Most of us who are in love with literature at some point wanted to be these people. Weren’t they the ones really living and feeling their lives? How could it have happened to all of them? Styron has built an elegiac dirge that hums in my blood for the rest of the book. Only now does Styron approach the word itself: depression. Writers do not take things for granted, especially words. They investigate them. In a way, by holding off until this point, he’s avoided becoming simply a “diagnosis.” He’s given us the living reality, not the label. We can’t toss it off and put him in a category. We’ve tasted an artist’s suffering; it’s buzzing in our veins. Only after “the word” has been explored and he has declared the lineage behind him, only on page forty of an eighty-four-page book does Styron veer in more closely to his own disease, his hospitalization and his near suicide. Note how before he revealed himself, he wanted to set the stage, to make sure you would read with understanding rather than criticism. This is not simply because he is reticent personally, but because he understands how to lay a solid foundation for his book and then to lead his reader, room by room, into the center of his experience.

Near the end of the class I asked: “Who can tell me what the physical structure of the book is?” The class halted. The physical structure? So far we had been examining the internal structure, but I wanted them to be aware of something so basic that we often fail to notice it altogether. A long silence ensued. I waited. Then a hand shot up. “The book is in ten sections, marked by roman numerals.”“Yes, what else?” A long pause. “I’m asking something obvious. You don’t need to think, just look.” Still no raised hands. Finally, I answered my own question. “Only a small space marks the section breaks. Usually in books each new chapter begins on a fresh page. It’s not a major point but it affects us unconsciously as we read.” This kind of physical spacing paces our reading and creates blocks of meaning. In some books this spacing allows for big discontinuities. You can start a new part “ten years later,” and the reader can follow. Jump ten years to the next paragraph, however, and the reader would probably feel confused. Yet even this isn’t always true. James Salter in his novel Light Years sometimes makes a whole shift in scene from one paragraph to the next and the result is a feeling of movement and fluidity rather than discontinuity. “Wake up to everything about a book,” I told the class. “If you do, it will become alive and take flight.”

stem: Natalie Goldberg
titel: Memoir of madness
perspectief: Boek over het proces van schrijven en de writing practice van Natalie Goldberg. Deel van dit boek gaat over lezen, Goldberg behandelt enkele schrijvers die haar boeien.
bron: Thunder and lightning (2000) – Cracking open the writer’s craft
mopw: meerstemmige encyclopedie