Writing: Finding “The Limit”

My writing friend Jeremy Paden shared this essay with me today, and now I share it with you.

This writing cracked something open inside of me, and that is a good thing. It needed to happen, and it needed to happen in this moment.

Maybe you are writing an essay about your childhood, about your past. Perhaps you are stuck, not knowing why it’s not moving forward. It may also be that your essay is complete, but you wonder about your feelings in writing it.

Should I have told that? It’s all factual but somehow seems less true now that I wrote it down. Are other families fraught with this kind of pain, will I be standing out there alone, or maybe I’ll wish I’d never found out who I’m standing next to.

Christian Wiman graduated from Washington & Lee University, one year before my husband did the same. I’ve never been to West Texas, never loaded and fired a gun, never been the child of a family ripped by divorce and betrayal. And yet this man’s writing tells something so familiar to me….some of it is because of my intimate relationship with someone who knows violence in childhood. A large part of it is my connection to avoiding writing something, not because it’s difficult so much as because it can never be on the page what it is in my life. No matter how well written, something falls away in translation.

Make time for this essay. It may require some pauses and walking away to return later, it is not easy reading. It is overwhelmingly beautiful writing.

Christian Wiman

To be a writer is to betray the facts. It’s one of the more ruthless things about being a writer, finally, in that to cast an experience into words is in some way to lose the reality of the experience itself, to sacrifice the fact of it to whatever imaginative pattern one’s wound requires. A great deal is gained, I suppose, a kind of control, the sort of factitious understanding that Ivan Karamazov renounces in my epigraph. When I began to spiral into myself and into my family’s history, it was just this sort of willful understanding that I needed. I knew the facts well enough.

But I don’t understand, not really. Not my family’s history and not my childhood, neither my father’s actions nor his absence. I don’t understand how John could kill someone, or by what logic or luck the courses of our lives, which had such similar origins, could be so different. I don’t understand, when there is so much I love about my life, how I could have such a strong impulse to end it, nor by what dispensation or accident of chemistry that impulse could go away, recede so far into my consciousness that I could almost believe it never happened.

It did happen, though. It marked me. I don’t believe in “laying to rest” the past. There are wounds we won’t get over. There are things that happen to us that, no matter how hard we try to forget, no matter with what fortitude we face them, what mix of religion and therapy we swallow, what finished and durable forms of art we turn them into, are going to go on happening inside of us for as long as our brains are alive.

— Christian Wiman,  his essay “The Limit” in Threepenney Review

Image credit: Washington and Lee University