Kathryn Harrison, author of True Crimes: A Family Album, has some simple advice for her writing students: Please stop thinking. In our conversation for this series, she discussed a favorite Joseph Brodsky poem in which a man has a beautiful, restorative fantasy about a person he once loved—a dream that’s possible only with the lights turned off. For Harrison, the poem is a metaphor for the way writing works; good things, she says, happen in the darkness.
True Crimes is an essay collection, and the subtitle is apt: The book portrays a series of blood ties—examinations of the people to whom Harrison has been daughter, mother, wife, protector, victim. But it’s a work of self-portraiture, too. The short works are consumed with questions about how identity changes over time, how selves die and are replaced, and how the mask we confront in the mirror appears to ourself, and to others.
Harrison is the best-selling author of novels including Envy, Enchantments, The Seal Wife, and Thicker Than Water, as well as the memoirs The Mother Knot and The Road to Santiago. Perhaps her best-known book, 1997’s The Kiss, was a harrowing, courageous, and artful memoir about being coerced by her father into an incestuous affair. At the time, several prominent male critics questioned the book’s candor; in The New Republic, James Wolcott wondered out loud whether some secrets are too unseemly to be told. One hopes it has become more acceptable, if not easier, for victims of sexual abuse to publicly share their stories. If so, it’s in part because of the efforts of writers like Harrison.
Kathryn Harrison spoke to me by phone from her home in Brooklyn.
Kathryn Harrison: I don’t know when I first encountered Joseph Brodsky’s poem “On Love,” but I know what reawakened my interest in it. I was in Boston looking at the collection of Rothkos at Harvard, and a line from the poem popped into my head—as if the Rothkos had summoned it.
It’s a poem about a man who has dreamt about his dead partner. The possibilities that were destroyed by losing her are restored in the dream: the idea of their making love, and having children, and being in each other’s company. It ends by underscoring the commitment that extends beyond mortal life—in a realm that is not conscious, not present here, not material, not cerebral. You might call it the realm of the mystical, or the ineffable. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a realm I believe in.
Throughout the poem, Brodsky sets up a contrast between light and darkness. With the lights out, memories of the dream-woman consume the narrator—so much so that she seems to become real. When he flicks the light on, though, she vanishes:
And with the bulb turned on
I knew that I was leaving you alone
there, in darkness, in the dream, where calmly
you waited till I might return ...
Many human transactions take place in this realm of darkness. On unconscious planes, through dreams—even, on some level, in people’s ability to communicate without words. By darkness, I don’t mean black, as in lacking light. I mean dark: the aspect of life that is not accessible through our conscious processes of analysis.
The poem’s essence is in this line:
For darkness restores what the light cannot repair.
I think Brodsky means that light can “repair” things in the material world, but that there are limitations of that kind of fixing. Medicine, for instance, can heal in the light. But if the spirit isn’t well, there is no life. And there is no way to restore what’s lost, sometimes, other than through dreams and imagination.
I don’t think I’m saying something sad when I say that. There’s huge redemption in the fact that there is a world that is dark, or opaque, to conscious life. The realm of darkness that heals and restores, and allows memory to bind up, provides the present with a kind of solace that is almost holy. The line is about the holy and generative properties that exist within us. And so, I think the line is about God. A realm that God inhabits.
We could probably say that about a Rothko, too.
The line also defines writing, at least writing the way I experience it. For me, writing is a process that demands cerebral effort, but it’s also one informed by the unconscious. My work is directed by the needs of my unconscious. And through that dark, opaque process, I can restore what might otherwise be lost. In a novel, I can restore lost voices—usually a woman’s—and give words back to the silenced. Or in memoir—The Kiss restored my voice, broke a silence imposed on me.
I have to write. It’s not an option. When I write, I am literally building myself a place in which to live. Once I’m firmly established within the narrative I pop awake in the morning and it’s the first thing I think about. Not in an analytical way, as in “Oh, I haven’t really reached the crisis point and it’s already page 200—I’d better work on that.” It’s very much just running towards and into the place I most want to be.
When I can’t go to that place, I feel anxious and unhappy. I love writing, and I’m miserable without it—and as time goes by, the people around me are miserable also.
It’s funny, I teach writing, and before I taught I never would guessed the thing I say most often is: “Please stop thinking.” But people really write better without thinking, by which I mean without self-consciousness.
I’m not calculating about what I write, which means I have very little control over it. It’s not that I decide what to write and carry it out. It’s more that I grope my way towards something—not even knowing what it is until I’ve arrived. I’ve gotten better over the years at accepting this.
Of course, the intellect wants to kick in—and, in the later drafts, it should. But in the early stages of a book, I deal with potential self-consciousness by literally hushing the critical voices in my head. The voices that tell you: “Oh, those aren’t the words you want,” or “you shouldn't be working on this part now,” or “why not use the present tense?”—on and on. Anyone who’s ever written anything is familiar with that chorus.
Writing a first draft, you can become paralyzed by these thoughts. So I literally tell the voices to quiet down. I praise them for their perspicacity, and I tell them how much I need them—that I will want them later. But I cannot listen to them right now, because I am confused by them.
And I don’t sit there waiting for that perfect, beautiful sentence, because I know I’m going to sit there forever. So, as I tell students—start out by tripping, why don’t you? Then get up and fall over again. Just as long as you go.
When I’m writing the way I want, the way I love, which is without thinking about what I’m writing, a strange thing happens: I feel simultaneously the most myself I could possibly be, and at the same time totally relieved of self. I become, I guess, a version of myself that isn’t filtered through the detritus and clutter of experience. We can’t control so much of what happen to us in life. Even our own actions unfold in time in ways we can’t possibly imagine. But there is someone inside who remains untouched by all of that. That person may not really exist in the light, but she is there, waiting, in the dark.
Once a book is out of my hands, I have no illusion that I have much control over its future in the world. It’s like giving a radio to a reader: They turn the knob, it plays, and they think, “Oh great!” Or it doesn’t play, and then they throw it out. Giving a book to critics is different, and worse—more like watching your radio being taken apart, not even hearing it play.
I don’t really like publication. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful to be making a living doing what I love. But though I love to write, I don’t much like being a writer. I don’t really have much sense of who Kathryn Harrison, the writer, is. She has little to do with me, actually.
Sometimes, I have to run out and pretend to be that person for a while, which requires a lot of energy. I’m very much an introvert. But I am also a willing and cooperative person in terms of serving the thing that I care about, which is writing. So if that means that I show up and give readings and interviews, even if it takes a lot of energy just for me to work myself up to appearing in public, that is something I’m happy to do. I’ll present myself to the world as a writer if it helps me continue writing.
I always think of that beautiful Kafka quote: “A book must be an axe for the frozen sea within us.” I want art to be that axe. I want art to tear through the veil between the dark and the light. Art has to exist that way, because art is material even though what it expresses is ineffable. A book might be inspired by darkness, but it is a material, concrete thing made from words—real things that, put together, mean approximately the same thing to me as they do to you. That’s what I do, what a painter does, what it means to engage in any creative act: balance there, on that line between the dark and the light.