What I love about my role as contributing editor for AWW in the area of Diversity is the sheer range of viewpoints to which I’m exposed through the books I read and the reviews I collate. It fascinates me to see and understand the impact that heritage, sexuality or disability can have upon a writer’s craft. Disability has certainly influenced Honey Brown’s writing, as she outlines below in the first guest post for our focus on Australian Women Writers with Disability over September.
Honey’s books (there are five so far) are the sort that should come with a warning: they will keep you up at night and you will be tired for work the next day (but it will be totally worth it!). The psychology of her characters is incisive, insightful, and sometimes a little unnerving. She muses that this might stem from the trauma and sadness she endured after her accident, and writes, ‘It’s both comforting and a little disturbing to think that the depths of human emotion need to be reached so that our creative cogs can begin to turn.’
We have a book giveaway for Honey’s latest novel, Through the Cracks (thanks to Penguin), as well as three others from authors who will be guest writers this month: Donna McDonald’s The Art of Being Deaf, Kate Richards’ Madness: A Memoir and my own novel, Entitlement. If you read and review a book by an Australian women writer with disability, or a book by an Australian women writer that features a character with disability, you’ll be in the running for a book! Links must be posted by 30th September through this form. You can also find authors on our list of Australian Women Writers with Disability.
Light and Shade
With each new book I write it’s as though I’m a novice again, and my five published novels fall away, my writing ability feels fragile, and I have to remind myself of the most basic and fundamental writing rules. A similar thing happens when I’m asked to reflect on my disability – I’m unsure all over again. What do I feel? How has it changed me? How does my disability impact on my work? No matter what I’ve said in the past or what I’ve believed, it all seems to fly out the window and I’m left feeling uncertain and none the wiser for my fourteen years living with paraplegia. Creativity and adversity share quite a few traits in that way. Just as there’s no set formula and no guarantees when it comes to overcoming hardship, so it is with the process of creating. There are guidelines and lots of helpful advice, but it all comes down to an intangible thing inside us in the end. And just because I may have hit upon a winning strategy and achieved a goal once before, doesn’t necessarily mean it will translate to success a second time around.
I was 29 when a farm accident left me with a spinal cord injury and unable to walk. Although at the time I’d written some short stories, and had tinkered with the idea of writing a novel, I wasn’t serious about the craft or about being a novelist. After my accident I wasn’t able to go back to the sort of employment I was used to – hospitality work, casual odd jobs, customer service – not only because of the wheelchair, but also because I struggled to cope emotionally. My sadness impacted on every part of my life; I felt as though I was unable to return to who I had been as a person. I didn’t feel like I was a mother anymore, or a wife, or a friend, or an effective sister or daughter. Suddenly, all it felt like I had, the only thing that made me get out of bed each day, was my writing.
Without realising what I was doing, I turned to my creative side as a way to reconnect with myself. That alone says a lot about how honest and personal the act of creating is. When we create, we’re tapping into our most private self, we’re making our own rules and revealing our uniqueness. My first completed manuscript reminded me of who I was. There I was, on the page in front of me – not spelt out in memoir fashion, but in the subtext, in the descriptions, within character reactions, in the ideas fuelling the story. Each manuscript revealed a little more of me. My depression lifted enough for me to feel some pride again, and with that came the want for the words I was using to do my storytelling more justice. I believed that if I put some study and academic effort into writing, I might enjoy the process even more.
If not for my accident I wouldn’t have been pushed to write with the sort of seriousness needed to write well. The joy in creating comes saddled with a fair whack of torment. Getting better at something goes hand in hand with becoming more critical. One minute I’d be smiling at a stunning line, I’d be gloating over a masterful plot twist that I hadn’t even seen coming, and then in the next moment I’d be holding down the delete button and fearing not even that would work to erase such horrific writing from the face of the earth. But without this type of yin and yang, the highs of writing wouldn’t have soared and excited me as much as they did, and the lows wouldn’t have stood out as much as they needed to. My writing would have flat-lined and been mediocre.
Creativity is in us all, there to be unlocked. It might not manifest artistically. The arts aren’t the only way people express their creative side. Problem solving, and striving for change, is a form of creativity. Elite sportspeople are creative souls; they have to find new ways to improve, they put in all the basic training and work, but they have to rely on an elusive inner magic to truly shine (anyone who’s listened to Ian Thorpe talk about his relationship with water knows he’s tapping into a unique place in order to perform). My sense of wonder and adventure has been me with all my life. I was dreaming up stories as a child. At age ten, I was mouthing dialogue as I walked to school. I never grew out of my imagination. Even if not for my accident, I believe would have knuckled down and written in earnest at some point, but probably much later in my life, when I’d stopped being so exclusively a mother and a wife, a sister and a daughter. And, maybe, without having experienced the trauma I have, without the resulting emotions to inform my work, my writing wouldn’t have had much gravitas, my characters might have lacked light and shade. Looking back, it can only mean that adversity feeds creativity. Those two things entwine in so many ways.
We all have moments in our lives when we struggle, and we all have moments when we’re creative. It’s both comforting and a little disturbing to think that the depths of human emotion need to be reached so that our creative cogs can begin to turn. My experience of writing with a disability makes me think (for now at least) that this may well be the case.
Thank you for such honest insight into your writing process, Honey.
I’m really glad you enjoyed it, Kandy 🙂 Regards, Jessica.
Honey’s beautiful and candid post reminds me if something Salman Rushdie said when he was in Melbourne last week: that it is difficult to have art without pain, and that ‘pain is an extraordinary window that opens up the world’ to the writer. Though I would never wish Honey’s pain on her, as a fan of her books, I’m grateful she was able to turn tragedy into creativity.
I’m in full agreement, Angela, and thank you for mentioning Rushdie’s quote – it is particularly apt – and I think in tune not just with this post, but with others that are coming up.
Great post – thanks Jessica and Honey. Honey’s comment that ‘It’s both comforting and a little disturbing to think that the depths of human emotion need to be reached so that our creative cogs can begin to turn’ is a little discomforting. I think it’s the “need” to be reached that I wonder about. Are we saying great art is impossible without reaching the depths? That’s disturbing on two counts – first that people MUST suffer deeply to create and second that people who don’t suffer deeply can’t create?
I honestly don’t know Sue, but I’ve read a number of articles that talk about the links between creativity and mental illness. This one (a long read), suggests that a substantial number of creative people do have mood disorders, but another part of the suffering (which is there among people like scientists too), comes from taking risks, not being understood, and failure, yet still having the courage & persistence to get up again and keep going:
I bumped into Kate Richards at the Brisbane Writers Fest and bought her book and will read it as soon as I’ve finished wading through Daniel Deronda – it might yield more answers!
Wading through Daniel Deronda? You’re not enjoying it? I did enjoy it though I must say I probably read it before you were born which is a LONG LONG LONG time ago – ha ha!
I’d love to read Kate Richards – but there’s so much I’d love to read so right now I’ll wait for your response. But yes, I can see the connections between suffering/mental illness and creativity. My concern, still, is Honey’s use of the word “need”. Did Mozart suffer terrible stuff ie unusual for his times? I’m not sure he did. He was, it seems, born a prodigy?
Ah Sue, I have been enjoying Daniel Deronda but it goes on *forever* and there are so many other things I need to read that I’m getting impatient (did we need a great long nebulous discourse about spirituality, argh!).
You’re right – Mozart was born a genius so it doesn’t seem that creativity is contingent on suffering. However it does seem to do something magical to the mind, & while I would never willingly have wished to be deaf, by the same token I’d never be a writer without a disability.
Now I’m trying to think of other people who were amazing creators without such trauma! Perhaps the myth of the tortured genius is too pervasive. But then, even Georgy Eliot was cramped by being a brilliant woman in less enlightened times, and that contributed to her works. Anyhoo I will stop rambling or this will turn out like one of her novels.
Thanks Jessica! I don’t think it is totally a myth – I think suffering can get the creative juices going – I just want to give hope to those who don’t suffer great trauma that they may – just may! – still be able to create!
I don’t think Jane Austen was a tortured genius, but she was a genius (to my mind). She had her troubles but there’s no sense from what we know of her biography that she was “tortured” above and beyond the normal trials and tribulations of a woman’s life at her time. Her romances didn’t work out, she and her mother and sister were left on the edge of poverty after her father’s death (until her brother rescued them), etc. But her ability to cast an acerbic eye on the society within which she moved and to write about it with such wit is genius!?
As for you, we’ll never know but I wouldn’t say you’d “never” have been a writer. Who knows?
You needn’t respond to this if it means not reading Daniel Deronda, btw!
Ha! Yes, Jane is a good example of a non-tortured genius! And yes, her lovely, unruffled (but biting) tone does carry into her work. I think I would have much a much more boring and less empathetic person if I wasn’t deaf – I can’t imagine those qualities lend well to writing, but like you say, you never know 🙂
I’m finishing Deronda tonight – gotta make room for some other authors in my life!
Sue, I finished Kate Richard’s memoir (which was amazing). She didn’t really delve into the links between creativity and mental illness (though she does reference them), so I asked her a question about it in an interview – it should be up next week!
Oh, good for you Jessica … I look forward to the interview.