“Living With Ghosts” by Ellen McLaughlin
It might seem odd that I would begin a speech about writing by talking about how I can’t seem to write, but I have been asked to talk about something I have a certain amount of expertise in and, well…
Anyway, what I decided to do, since I was having so much difficulty just writing this speech, was to examine that difficulty. The first problem I encountered was that I realized that it felt false, given that I am addressing a group of women writers, people like me who are dedicated to the form and have made sacrifices to practice it—and some of you have had to make far greater sacrifices than I have ever had to make—it seemed wrong to speak to the likes of you as if from a position of authority. How to offer rather than declare? That seemed to be the crux of the matter. And I realize that the only thing I can offer as the truth is my own experience. It’s a matter of speaking, as Ursula le Guin writes, in the mother tongue, which is intimate, common, conversational, spoken to be answered to, as opposed to the father tongue, which is declarative, authoritative, relegated to announcement and judgment. It presents itself as the truth, the real goods to be meted out to the uninformed for their betterment. I can’t pronounce anything from a mountaintop to you. I can only view you as my peers, my fellow writers, and so must speak to you in the mother tongue. I will confide in you rather than pronounce to you. So that’s the first difficulty, the problem of status and the language in which I’m going to speak to you. The second problem, which is not so easy to solve, is that I can’t fucking write because the voices in my head are so loud.
I can’t believe I am alone in this difficulty. So what I’ve decided to do, and I hope you will hang with me on this, is to use this time together to stop trying to shut the door on these voices or drown them out or ignore them or pretend they aren’t howling away in here. I’m going to open the door and face them for once and see who they are, why they have come and what the hell they have to tell me. Maybe by this means I can shift at long last the psychic dynamic I have been suffering with all of my writing life, which is a long time at this point. Maybe, instead of pretending to speak from some enlightened peak of expertise, I can actually learn something by writing this speech. Maybe, with your help, I can become a wiser, freer writer.
I suppose that there must be enlightened, blissful souls out there, writers who never experience the days, weeks, even years when the syrup won’t pour, but I have never met them and can’t even imagine such creatures, mysteriously free of self-doubt or depression, people who have never known the blank afternoons, the empty mornings when one wakes to think “I will never have another original thought, never work again. That’s it. I’m tapped out. Whatever I had, if I ever had it, is gone.” No desert in the world, certainly not the one we are in right now, has ever been as dry as the deserts of the mind one inhabits in such states of being.
But however dry, my deserts of the spirit are never silent. There is so much yammering going on that it is literally hard to think. Who are these people? So much of the time one is just trying to hear the faint voice of the soul underneath the din of the inner critics sneering their contempt or urging caution, warning that I’m going to hurt myself or others if I continue, telling me to get up, perhaps make myself a snack, stop, please, would I please stop writing? If one of them gets hoarse from yowling at me, another will always take over.
Ask any writer about his or her voices and you’ll get a slightly different answer, but we all have them. I recently asked a writer friend to tell me about his. He is Marty Moran, a gay man, a former Catholic, who has written shatteringly insightful and tough work, called The Tricky Part, about his struggles to come to terms with sexual abuse he suffered in early adolescence at the hands of a man in the church. He said, well, of course there are the bigots and the homophobes, but I can’t take them too seriously at this point. The ones who get to me are the voices of neighbors, friends of my parents, former teachers, the religious members of my family who feel that I have exposed too much, that I’m not taking it like a man, that I’m sentimental, weak, a sissy…the list, as such lists do, went on.
He, like me, has a voice who is constantly telling him that he should grow up and stop navel-gazing, that he’s got to face up to the grit and harsh demands of the reality of the adult world, whatever the hell that is. It’s the same voice as the one I hear saying, who do you think you are?—some chick who has never even been on a battlefield–how dare you presume to write about war? Leave that to the people who know what they are talking about, stick to the tiny circle of your own concerns and experience. You have no right to that material.
According to that voice, writing is a silly, girlie, self-indulgent business compared to, well, any number of noble things. Why, I could be devoting myself instead to human rights, politics, medicine—work that involves improving the state of things, actively bettering the lot of others. This is one of the hardest voices to tune out, well nigh impossible of late, since of course, those voices have a point. The world has never been in more dire need, it seems. (But is it really crying out for me, at my age, to start medical school?)
Who else is in there? Well, of course there are the voices who devote themselves exclusively to competitive comparison. They sneer that while I’ve been sitting there trying vainly to come up with something, So-and-so has already dusted off her hands after having written another Pulitzer Prize winner or whatever. There’s the why-not-me? whining voice of wound-licking envy and bitterness, as if the creative life is a zero-sum game in which another writer’s success, merited or not, will always be at the expense of mine.
And then of course there are the voices whose only purpose is to distract you—who tell you that your time would be better spent walking the dog, working on your taxes, calling a friend, doing a little more research, going to the gym, really anything, anything other than continuing to sit there… They are totally shameless, those voices, they’ll say whatever it takes to get you out of the chair—Is that gas I smell? The doorbell I hear? A child’s cry? The basement flooding? Get up, get up, step away from the desk, head for the hills while you can, flee as if your life depended on it from the mortifying, ridiculous, impossible endeavor of writing whatever it is you are trying to write.
I had a friend who literally tied himself with his bathrobe sash to his desk chair every morning. I was always cheered by that image. Similarly, Mark Salzman, author of Lying Awake, one of my favorite novels, a short, luminous work, wrote a charming piece in the New Yorker years ago about his struggle with at least five drafts of that novel, each one more painful than the last. During the fourth, he was having difficulty in his home office with his cats, who always wanted to sit in his lap, which was interfering with the rewrite. He heard that cats don’t like the feel of tin foil so he would wear a sort of lap skirt of tin foil, which meant that they would leap onto his lap and then leap violently off of it, upsetting themselves and him. Eventually they started trying to settle on his shoulders until he foiled them (ha, ha) with a sort of aluminum shawl, which drove them to trying to perch on his head. A tin foil hat, standard crazy-person attire, was the inevitable final result, until he started working in his car where the cats couldn’t get to him and he didn’t need so much costuming. One day he was scribbling away in his Saturn, balancing his work on the steering wheel and trying not to sound the horn when he bore down, cramped and uncomfortable, his office abandoned and full of sheets of tin foil while his cats were yowling, pacing and circling on his car hood, peeved with him, until they settled on the sun roof above him. At one point he looked up to see three cat butts directly above his head and thought, “What the hell am I doing with my life?”
I can relate. Can you?
Then there is the problem the critic Harold Bloom has called the Anxiety of Influence—a phenomenon that, once I heard about it, caused me, well, a lot of anxiety. It’s one of the oldest and most reliably loud voices—the one that tells me that whatever I’m trying to accomplish has already been done better by someone else.
Of course this is to some extent true.
After Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, William Shakespeare, and Emily Dickinson have weighed in, just to pick a handful from the sea of luminaries who come to mind, the given is that whatever I’m going to come up with on a Wednesday morning might not stack up. But you know, I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter, finally, that their greatness is unapproachable. Their greatness has very little to do with what we’re grappling with at our own desks during our own days of silent struggle except as an example of what human beings are capable of. Because their work was their own no less than ours is ours alone, and their work is done. We can no more do their work than they can do ours. That’s the good news. And the bad news.
It’s a matter of how we choose to live with the greatness of those who came before us. We can either tell ourselves that their work makes ours irrelevant and unnecessary before we’ve even done it or we can decide that their work makes ours possible. The choice is ours. But we do need to make a choice because the fact of the matter is that those we deem great are part of the furniture in our heads no less than our worst inner critics are. We all inhabit the haunted houses of our own minds, so we have to figure out how to live with these ghosts if we’re going to get anything done. How do we do that?
I had a friend who grew up in a haunted house in New England. There were a number of entities in residence—a lady in white on the stairs who wasn’t so much disturbing as just sad and a little clumsy. If you sat talking on the stairs, as once happened to me, you might feel a nudge on your shoulder, as if a foot slipped as she tried to step around you going upstairs on some sort of ethereal errand. There was an indistinct but masculine grey presence who sometimes seemed to shimmer on the lawn at night, looking lost, and who occasionally tapped at the windows, as if in search of someone who might have once been able to recognize him and do something for him. And then there was what the family decided was a child, who just seemed frustrated and bored and a bit mischievous. Every now and then he or she would create a great flurry in the pantry, flinging mops and brooms around and knocking cans off the shelves. The family called in a ghost-buster at some point who tried to corral the ethereal inhabitants of the house and get them to “move on,” as they say, but no one seemed inclined to leave and the family just got used to it. I asked, well, weren’t you scared? And my friend said, “Not really, it was like having mice or something. You just get used to putting the cans back on the shelf every week or so.” I have come to the same conclusion about my ghosts and voices. They are just the creaks and groans of the house my psyche lives in.
And it’s crowded in there. There are the ghosts of every writer I have ever loved, ever held up as a standard of what is possible. But there is also the ghost of every person who has loved me and every person who has ever hurt me. They are all milling around like vagrants at a bus station. Virginia Woolf is perched somewhere in the upper right side of my brain, perpetually sitting in her study in Monk’s House, her note pad on her lap, smoking and looking out toward the garden as the rooks lift, flap and wheel in circles over the trees. Sometimes, it is just after breakfast, the morning when she wrote the sentence, “Mrs. Dalloway said that she would buy the flowers herself” and looked at it on the page and thought, ah, this is how it begins. Sometimes it is the morning she saw the sky darkening over the world, the war and her madness overtaking her, and thought, ah, this is how it ends. But she is there, of course she is, my Woolf. She will always be part of me, my Woolf, because she has meant so much to me. And of course my Woolf has little to do with the woman who was born in 1882 and died in 1941, she is what that woman’s work has meant to me, what I’ve made of her. The real Woolf who died before I was born and whom I shall never meet is beyond my reckoning. She is lost, dead, and as such I can’t hurt her any more than she can hurt me. So my Woolf is my creation alone, a ghost I constructed because I needed her presence. I can use her as a scourge, a reminder of how paltry my own efforts are always going to be by comparison. Or I can let her be a benign ghost, someone who occupies a privileged and sister spirit in my head, another writer before me who struggled and felt it occasionally, that ecstasy, the flow. I can think of her as she sat—not so different from the way I sit when I write, staring into the silence, just as I do, listening hard, waiting for it, trying to hear the mind of the novel speaking to her. I know she had good days and bad days, just as I do. I know that she must have spent some of that time as she sat on the verge of writing trying not to worry about the toast crumbs on the carpet, the cigarette ash on her cuff, whether there was any milk in the house for tea. (At least she never had to deal with the wild distraction of that ping one hears when an email arrives in one’s inbox.) I have to believe that she also dealt with all the psychological chatter that is unceasing in any human life, even when one is attempting to drop into the flow of writing, the sorting through the sand of daily consciousness and event. Was I unkind to my husband this morning? What did my friend mean yesterday when she said what she said? Did I just spend too much money on that thing I thought I wanted so much? (It’s a wonder we can do anything at all other than vacuum and write letters of apology.) Am I a selfish person? Am I an attractive person? Am I loveable? Do I really look as dreadful as the old woman who looked back at me in the mirror this morning? What will I die of? How did I get that spot on this shirt? And I know, like me, she was rocked off her center continually by reviews, her terrible vulnerability to them. Despite all her success, all her genius, she went through harrowing anxiety about them before they came, and skidded into dangerous depression if they were even slightly mixed.
Oh, the buzz of all those voices! But look at all those novels she wrote, and book reviews! And she also ran the Hogarth Press with Leonard, for god’s sake. While two major wars raged, while Modernism was birthed into the world and she was one of the midwives. And in thinking that, once again I risk letting her be a means of making myself feel like a slovenly idiot by comparison. I can’t even finish this paragraph without wandering off into a little eddy of speculation about what I’m going to have for lunch while she, despite madness, rampant misogyny and so forth, got all that done. What a loser I am, but mostly, oh, mostly, how sick I am of the sound of my head.
Because of course, all those clamoring voices are one voice, yours, a skein of sound that you have unraveled into multiplicity, tricked into ventriloquism, a chorus. And what they all want, it seems, is to be heard above the quiet but clear small voice of the self, the one who is tapping in the dark of the labyrinth of your own psyche, your walnut mind, trying to get to the truth. But that voice, the voice of your soul, the voice of the writer, is the one you want to hear, if only you could, if only you could get the rest of your voices to shut up. And since plugging your ears isn’t going to do the trick, perhaps what’s needed is to change the relationship to the voices.
With real ghosts in the house, the solution seems to be to live with them, accustom oneself to picking up the cans and putting the brooms back in the closet every now and then. With the ghosts in the head, it seems to be a trickier business; perhaps it’s a matter of listening to them and trying to understand why you have let them in in the first place. Because, whether you want to hear it or not, the ghosts want to speak.
I wrote a play called Tongue of a Bird in which the main character, Maxine, is haunted by two ghosts. Maxine is a search and rescue pilot and one of the ghosts is of the girl she’s trying to find—a teenager abducted by a man in a black pickup truck who drove her up into the Adirondack Mountains in the middle of winter. The other ghost is that of her mother, a woman who committed suicide when Maxine was very young. The girl, Charlotte, appears in surprising and troubling ways, banging on the cockpit window, suddenly next to her in the plane or just emerging from Maxine’s bed when she’s trying to get to sleep. Her mother always appears to her in the same way. She is standing in the air dressed in an old-fashioned flight suit, ala Amelia Earhart. Both Maxine and her mother are a bit embarrassed by this, how obvious the symbolism is, but Maxine is disturbed by it as well. They discuss who is responsible for the nature of this haunting, but the mother is elusive about it, basically saying, how should I know? What both ghosts end up saying is, “I’m all yours.” The question with ghosts, I realized as I was writing the play, is not why they appear—they just do—but what they have to say. Because every ghost, from Hamlet’s father on, has come to say something. Perhaps all they want us to do is actually listen. When Maxine finally stops questioning the existence of the ghosts or trying to figure out the logistics of how they operate, when she finally says, “All right, what have you come to tell me?” the play breaks into its revelations.
And then there are the monsters. They exist in us too—as I say, it’s crowded in there––they are just harder to talk about, and few of us have ever looked them in the face. But we know, if we are honest, oh, we know they are there, the parts of ourselves we have walled up inside our personal labyrinths. We can hear them howling at night, or tapping on the wainscoting. They call to us, our monsters, and if we are to write the truth, it’s just a matter of when and how we decide to find them, because we will have to find them. They have too much to tell us.
Rilke says that every monster is really just a part of us that needs to be embraced. He wrote, “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”
We are storytellers, so we know from monsters. There are several different kinds you run into in myth and, like any mythic hero, we have to encounter every one of them if we are to write our own stories. There are the guardians of every important threshold in myth, the monsters who make demands upon the traveler who seeks the transfiguration of real adventure. Trolls under bridges, three-headed dogs at the gates of the Underworld, dragons at the base of trees and so forth. These are the monsters who demand that we drop everything we thought made us who we are—our definitions of ourselves, strengths, weaknesses, charming little quirks––in order to proceed. They tell us that the only way to cross the threshold and make the passage toward enlightenment is to give up the sense of the self we thought was the self, the ego. We must lay down all our weapons and go forth alone and empty-handed into the darkness, armed only with an impetuous hunger for self-knowledge. And then, if we can do that, we might be able to encounter the most important monster, the monster I’ve heard keening on the dark nights of the soul when I have been alone with my truest self. I’m talking about the monster at the center of my labyrinth. It’s the shadow part of me I have relegated to darkness, an aspect of the self that needs to be understood rather than shut in the dark where its screaming can only be muffled but never silenced. The force in me that wants to chain and ignore that monster is always going to have to struggle against the part of me that is curious, that senses the suppression of the monster as a real loss to consciousness. The mythology is always about an adventurer going forth to kill a monster, but the truth of the matter is that the self wants to simply meet the monster, because the self knows on some level that it needs the monster, the self will never be whole without it. The monster knows something that must be brought out into the light of consciousness. But the adventure is daunting to consider; just about anything would be easier. Who wants to head into the darkness and encounter such a creature? How is it even done? Luckily, we have all of mythology, every story that has ever been told and every writer who has ever come before us, to show us the way. It’s just a matter of getting the red thread of narrative firmly in hand.
I do think of it as a red thread, I don’t know why. I don’t think any myth mentions the color of the thread Ariadne gave to Theseus. Do you know the story? This is how I tell it. (One of the things I love about the Greeks is that there is no orthodoxy, no sacred text; the story is told according to the storyteller.) The civilization of Crete was ancient even to mythological characters—which is to say, beyond time—intimidatingly mysterious and sophisticated in ways that the mainlanders couldn’t fathom––and yet it had at its center two great cruelties, two great shames. Pasiphae, the queen of the Minoans, fell in love with a bull. She became so infatuated with it that she asked the great inventor of the kingdom, Daedalus, to come up with some sort of mammoth sex toy, a construction that would allow her to mate with the bull. One imagines a sort of fake cow outfit made of wood in which she could lie in wait, panting with desire. (I do think the Greeks had a sense of humor; I mean really, how else can you see this image except as comic?) Sure enough, she got her wish and was indeed impregnated by the bull, which led to an awkward situation with the king, Minos, who was not amused and who banished the Minotaur, the son born of the union, a hybrid who had a bull’s head and tail but a man’s body, to a labyrinth he had the ever-resourceful Daedalus construct, a maze at the center of which the dreadful child lived in solitude, howling with loneliness and hunger. And in that hunger lay the other cruelty, the other shame, which was that the Minotaur could feed on nothing but the bodies of virgin men and women. So every year, or, depending on who you talk to, every seven years, such victims needed to be rounded up to be systematically sacrificed to him. But the Minoan civilization being as powerful as it was, with many colonies on the mainland and on islands all across the known world, the victims could always be supplied in the form of yearly tributes, young men and women sent by subjugated states all across the far-flung empire, particularly Athens. These sacrifices would then be fed into the labyrinth where they would be eaten one by one over the course of the year until the next boatful of victims arrived at the dock with the annual high tide.
I have to admit here that what I particularly love about this whole scenario is what inspired it, which is the actual Minoan civilization, a seafaring empire based in the spectacular city of Knossos, which was indeed immensely powerful, and the most highly developed culture in the ancient world, producing wonderfully lively and graceful pottery, murals, and astonishingly complex, clean cities with running water and peaceable ways. There are no defensive battlements, no signs of brutality, oppression, or violence at all. The ruins of the civilization give off what can only be called a kind of joy. The authority was matriarchal, priestesses seemed to run the whole show, and their male consorts apparently dressed in bull’s heads. The sex, judging by the direct gazes of the bare-breasted, snake bedecked priestesses in the murals and sculpture, seems to have been just dandy. No need to construct a fake wooden cow if your partner is just a man wearing a detachable bull’s head. (I always think of that song, “You Can Leave Your Hat On.”) Which brings one to the bull dances, which seemed to take place not in a labyrinth but in the open air and were attended by everyone. Indeed the dancers are young people, you’d have to be, but unlike the Spanish bullfighters, who torture and then kill a bull which is the sacrifice, the Minoan murals show young people dancing with the bull, leaping over his back in spectacular acrobatics, vaulting by means of his horns and being tossed high in the air. There is no image of the bull being killed, or even harmed. This seems to be a kind of exuberant worship, dangerous, to be sure, but intended as a ritual of celebration. As for the labyrinth, there are theories that that was a mythological response to a kind of weaving solo dance each dancer had to learn, a mesmerizing series of steps that, just like Arthur Murray’s, was mapped out on the floor and that would work, if done properly, to hypnotize the bull at the beginning of the dance in order to make him easier to work with.
Anyway, back to the story. One year, Theseus, a young hero at the beginning of his epic adventures, steps off the boat with all the other tremulous lads and lasses, but he is already different: he is a prince, the son of Aegeus, the King of Athens. Theseus has decided to sacrifice himself if need be so as to end the wretched system whereby so many of the younger generation from all of Greece are being killed every year. So, with great chutzpah he volunteers—much against his father’s wishes––and climbs on board with all the others to sail what they think is their last voyage across the Mediterranean to Crete, there to die. What happens is that Ariadne, the legitimate princess of Minos, sees him and immediately falls in love, as he does with her, and in one of their secret meetings she offers to free him, let him escape alone, but he refuses, confessing that he has a larger project in mind; that in truth he has come to topple her civilization by killing her half-brother, the Minotaur, then destroying her palace and her city, so that no more tributes would ever need be made. And here is where every story is different: the moment of decision for Ariadne. It’s an ethical decision, whether to honor the brutal system of her native country, her mother and father and everyone she’s ever known, or turn her back on all that, let that extraordinary civilization be destroyed in the name of justice, in the name of love. She decides to help Theseus navigate the labyrinth by giving him a magic ball of thread. He will use it to track his entrance into the maze and to make his exit when the time comes. Sometimes it is actually rolling before him, showing him the way, sometimes it is just his means of getting out once he has to make his escape, but it is always the key to his success, the thread I picture as being red that he can tug on in his blindness as he makes his passage through the darkness to where the terrifying monster sleeps. It isn’t only Ariadne who is the traitor here, it is also the inventor Daedalus, who has the idea of the thread as an aid to navigation. But it is she who gives it to Theseus and who stands by at the entrance to the labyrinth keeping watch and awaiting his return. It is also she who helps him release his comrade captives and escapes on the boat with them, watching her city burning behind them, growing smaller as they sail away.
As so often happens, the traitor is in turn betrayed. It happens to Medea, it happens to Hippolyta. These women sacrifice their family and country, breaking every code of honor, putting themselves into perpetual exile and dependence for the sake of a man who then betrays them, abandons them for other women or just for the next big adventure. And in each case, the traitor who is in turn betrayed is not just the usual interchangeable woman, some blonde in a chiton, the mythological equivalent of a trophy to be traded. These are clever women, women of particular talents specifically necessary to the men who then abandon them. Medea is a sorceress who provides crucial help to Jason when he steals the fleece from her father. Hippolyta, the greatest of the female warriors, the queen of the Amazons, betrays her tribe by going soft over the same man Ariadne betrays her people for, the fast-moving and feckless Theseus. Such women, it seems, must be cut out of the greater narrative, silenced and abandoned. Cassandra is another exceptional woman whom the chugging engine of the heroic narrative shoves to the sidelines. She is gifted with the ability to see the truth and the desire to warn her people of it, but cursed by Apollo, whose advances she had the temerity to reject, never to be believed. She can scream her woefully accurate prophecies but no one, no one at all, will ever hear her. We pity her feelingly because we know such women, some of us have been such women, speaking what they know is the truth, always to be ignored or simply misunderstood. They are always excised from the public record, now no less frequently than they were back in mythology. It’s not surprising. They draw too much attention to themselves, keep bending the light toward themselves and away from the heroes. They are too much for these narratives to handle, so they are thrown overboard at the earliest opportunity. The heroes of Greek mythology leave a host of such women in their wake.
Ariadne, for instance, is left at the first rest stop along the route away, the island of Naxos, where she is pitied by Dionysus, who dries her tears and makes her his mortal queen. We might be able to see her diadem tonight in the night sky, where he had to put her after she died her human death because he missed her so much.
But about that red thread, the gift of the clever woman who risks everything for love of the hero who needs it.
I think that’s our way out of the labyrinth of our doubt, confusion and the dinning of self-consciousness and fear. We have to grab the thread of story and let it lead us out to the self who is waiting in the light and the end of the adventure of the soul’s revelation. That thread is story and it is our only salvation. And story, I have to say, is female. We have always been the storytellers, we are the mothers after all, the ones who speak the cultural narrative and teach it through…well, old wives’ tales, which is to say, the ancient, subversive and immediate mother tongue, the language of metaphor and myth. The mother tongue is our first tongue and we’ve all shared it, men and women, in the first meaning that was ever communicated to us in language. Who told any of us our first story? Our mothers did—even if it was only the story of where we came from, which we knew—because we remember it without remembering it––was from them.
I was very lucky. My mother was not only a gifted storyteller––she is a novelist in her own right––but a mother who taught my brother and me to weave our own stories from a very early age. When we were stuck somewhere, in line for a ferry, in a doctor’s office, sitting at a table in a diner, waiting for a meal to arrive, she would point to someone and quietly say, “Tell me her story.” And then we’d be off, spinning a tapestry, rich and complex and increasingly real as we put in the time, godlike in our ability to endow reward, punishment, and tragedy at our childish will. These are characters my brother and I still think about, the length of our lives away from them, the people we constructed from, for instance, the lost look of a lady in a blue coat with frayed cuffs sitting across from us in a coffee shop in Natick, MA, in 1969. Why we were there in Natick, what we were waiting for, where we were on our way to, what we were doing––all that is lost, but not that woman–no, that woman I will know until I die because I made her. Her name was Connie St. Vincent and she kept goats in the back yard and she missed her husband, who was a sailor and had been lost at sea… If my mother had never given me anything else I would always be grateful to her for giving me that woman.
The image of the storyteller as a spinner of a tale, or yarn, and as a weaver of a tapestry, becomes literal in some mythology and is generally associated with the female. This was certainly true in classical Greece, where a woman’s primary occupations outside child-rearing were spinning and weaving. The loom and the spindle were tokens of the sphere where she held complete authority.
The association of a thread to a life story is perhaps inevitable, which gives the act of creation to the female, but also hands her the shears. The notion of a life as a thread to be spun, measured, and cut by the Three Fates originates in Greece, but then crops up all over the Western world. Oldest of the deities, they are also the most feared. They are mysterious, implacable, and indifferent to negotiation; they hold the scissors for all of us, even the other gods. But then female divinity is often as bound up with death as it is with birth because it is always bound up with story. We all begin our stories by exiting our mothers at the length of an umbilical cord and still feel that pull, the sense of our life story as a linear, fragile link to our past, which is the female. And since the earth is generally perceived as female, we sense that we will at some point in our lives turn to make the journey back to the mother, the earth, which will receive us in death.
But we are suspicious of stories, even those of us who spin them. Spiders are nature’s weavers and are associated with the female, and our feelings about spiders are complex, despite our wonder at their artistry.
One sees that ambivalence always in Woolf, for instance. Female figures like Betty Flanders, who is seen several times trying to write letters, always to men, in Jacob’s Room, or women who paint, like Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse, are awash in self-doubt and clumsiness. These women know that whatever they manage to do will be belittled, ignored, or misunderstood. In Jacob’s Room, Woolf refers to “the unpublished works of women, written by the fireside in pale profusion, dried by the flame, for the blotting paper’s worn to holes and the nib cleft and clotted.” These women haven’t had the kinds of education their brothers and their fathers had; they have no pretensions and no resources. The materials are always so shabby and the efforts, by their own standards, so often ludicrous. That Woolf clearly likes these women because she knows the source of their self-contempt does not make them any the less vexed as portraits of creative women. She knows what they are, their petty envy, their self-mockery and occasional hectic grace, because she knows what they are up against—the roaring machine of the masculine world, with its institutions, prejudices, and ingrained exclusivity, the oppressive power of the father tongue. What Woolf herself struggled all her life against is rehearsed constantly in her work. Her artists, high and low, are desperately overmatched, pushed to the sidelines, denigrated, and condescended to. They are as pathetic as they are occasionally striking and well nigh heroic, as Lily is at the end of the novel.
Alone on the last morning of the novel, she sets up her easel, determined to capture something, the essence of the family summer house, which is to say, the dead woman, Mrs. Ramsay, who once animated it and without whom the soul is gone from the place. Lily is returning to a canvas she began years ago when Mrs. Ramsay was alive, back in the first chapter of the book. She left it unfinished then after struggling with it. I remembered that there was a passage in that chapter about her difficulty and was heartened to see it a few days ago as I was finishing this speech, as if to hear Woolf echoing, in her inimitable way, everything I’m trying to get at.
We are in Lily’s head here:
“She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed. It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child. Such she often felt herself––struggling against terrific odds to maintain her courage; to say: “But this is what I see; this is what I see.”
But she loses her courage to those terrific odds, the “forces” as she puts it, “that do their best to pluck her vision from her,” reminding her of “her inadequacy, her insignificance” and she abandons the painting of the house in the beginning of the book. She only takes it up again, years later, at the end of the book, when so much has been lost and as she is visiting a house she senses she will never visit again and trying to see it for the last time. Once again, she has been frustrated by her work, alternating between self-doubting stabs at trying to capture something and giving her work up to muse on the recently dead Mrs. Ramsay, her mystery and her fascination. As the time passes, her thoughts wander and the scenery shifts:
“But the wind had freshened, and, as the sky changed slightly and the sea changed slightly and the boats altered their positions, the view, which a moment before had seemed miraculously fixed, was now unsatisfactory. The wind had blown the trail of smoke about; there was something displeasing about the placing of the ships.
‘The disproportion there seemed to upset some harmony in her own mind. She felt an obscure distress. It was confirmed when she turned to her picture. She had been wasting her morning….What was the problem then? She must try to get hold of something that evaded her….Phrases came. Visions came. Beautiful pictures. Beautiful phrases. But what she wished to get hold of was that very jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it has been made anything….Let it come, she thought, if it will come…”
But it evades her until the very end and then appears to her as if by accident, in a kind of vision.
“Mrs. Ramsay…sat there quite simply, in the chair, flicked her needles to and fro, knitted her reddish-brown stocking, cast her shadow on the step. There she sat.”
The ghost appears, in other words, and provides the missing shadow, a triangle of meaning at the center of the painting that makes all the difference. The ghost of the novel––who is the ghost of Woolf’s mother, a figure who unsettled and haunted Woolf all her life––bestows her benediction on the character most like Woolf herself, the marginalized and odd Lily, painter of paintings no one but she ever cares much about. No one except, of course, the author of the novel, who gives Lily the ultimate gift, the final paragraph of the book, which is this:
“Quickly, as if she were recalled by something over there, she turned to her canvas. There it was––her picture. Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did it matter? she asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.”
Which is to say, Woolf has had hers. But what matters most to me here is that in giving Lily the gift of that vision, Woolf gives it to us as well. And that act is a profound gesture of generosity. We are one with the act of creation. And now, with your help, having seen that moment in the novel for what it is, I can never turn Woolf into an instrument of self-torture again; she can only rightly live inside me as one who has bestowed grace upon me in the moment she found it in herself. Now when I encounter her ghost, I can just nod to her in kinship and gratitude as we pass in the corridors of my mind. I can claim her as my own creation at the same time that I acknowledge that my writing self is to some extent her creation. All those ghosts, all those voices, I see them as moths, battering the candle of my spirit, circling the flame of that part of me that is always waiting patiently for me to come back to the desk and work. They teem in me, those ghosts, I feel the press of their wings fluttering inside my chest when the writing takes hold at last, hear the almost inaudible murmur of their thought as the wave of creative life surges and I begin to ride the long crest of it to a shore I have never visited.
And in writing this, what I have realized is that my plays are so often about the attempt to have a vision, tell a story, despite self-repression, despite the distrust of the very act of storytelling. My plays often reach their climax at the moment that the story is finally told; the truth comes out, the repressed returns. They happen, much as my plays happen to me, when I stop running from the voices, the ghosts, the monsters, and simply turn to them and let them speak to me, in me and from me. The point, I suppose, is to know your ghosts, your monsters and your demons, yes, face them and hear them out, but then to grasp that fragile yet mighty red thread and head for the light, towards the self that stands waiting in the warmth of day for news of your adventures.
Meet the ghosts, listen to them, and tell the story anyway.
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Ellen McLaughlin Artist Statement:
Ellen McLaughlin is an award-winning writer and playwright whose plays have received numerous national and international productions, including Days and Nights Within, A Narrow Bed, Infinity’s House, Iphigenia and Other Daughters, Tongue of a Bird, The Trojan Women, Helen, The Persians and Oedipus, and most recently, the critically acclaimed Septimus and Clarissa. Ellen is also an actor and has worked on and off Broadway as well as extensively in regional theater. She is best known for having originated the part of the Angel in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, appearing in every U.S. production from its earliest workshops through its Broadway run. Other favorite roles include The Homebody in Homebody/Kabul, Pirate Jenny in Threepenny Opera (Elliot Norton Award), Mrs. Alving in Ghosts and Agave in The Bacchae at LaMama. Her most recent publication, by T.C.G., is The Greek Plays.