On writing and distress from a story by Isak Dinesen

On writing and distress.jpg

In a story by Isak Dinesen (“The Young Man with the Carnation”), a writer pleads with God through a night in a crisis of despair. In the morning God makes a covenant with the writer: 

“I will not measure you out any more distress than you need to write your books. Do you want any less than that?”

This is from a scene in a short story and not God speaking from within a canon of divinely-inspired scripture, so it's not theology, but it is literature and it has the ring of truth about it. Not in that sense of, "God will never give you more than you can handle." No, not that. But more along the lines of that you usually go through a few tough spots before you have something to give other people in the way of wisdom, encouragement, and insight. I think this is true whether you're a writer staring at a blank page or a friend sitting across the table from another friend.

I thought about this yesterday as I sent in a final manuscript for an anthology about pregnancy loss and infertility, which is being published by Kalos Press. My contribution to the anthology is a reprint of a short essay I wrote several years about my experience with pregnancy loss, which was first published at Harpur Palate. The publisher's goal for the anthology is to "assuage some of the sense of isolation. We want to offer a literary companion to others on the sometimes-lonely path that these issues require." It's a reality that you need to have traveled a road yourself before you can offer a certain kind of companionship to someone else on that same road.

In a way, the lines above from Dineson's story suggest a scary thought, because it is basically a guarantee that distress in one form or another is a pre-requisite to writing or being a person who longs for wisdom in any sense; but in another way, it is also an odd sort of promise of provision of raw material and brokenness as preparation for the tasks ahead. As much as anyone, I want and pray for burdens to drop away, but somehow out of acute and chronic burdens a tenderness and wisdom can grow that perhaps the kind of writing I want to do, or the person I want to be, just can't be without.


[Photo: taken of bench in the lobby of train station, Red Wing, Minnesota.]