Janice Pariat, author of Boats on Land, Seahorse and The Nine Chambered Heart, in one of her instagram posts, talks about a writer’s life as being characterized by retreat. ‘Long periods of silence. Of aloneness. Of deep listening. Of noticing seasons.’
‘A writer’s life is stark, humdrum discipline,’ she says. ‘A writer’s life, no matter how individually disparate, involves retreat. And always, resurrection.’
Those are beautiful, true words.
But in many ways, also ironic.
Silence, aloneness and retreat can very often be privileges not available to every writer.
For some of us, silence and uninterrupted moments of retreat are rare. In a life punctuated by domesticity, motherhood, and myriad mundanities, this is not what being a writer looks like.
For the writer who is also a caregiver, a nurturer, the writing life is defined by working deep into the quiet of the night, exchanging the comforting arms of sleep for the enticing embrace of the muse.
Snatching moments of quietude from the midst of an endless barrage of innocent young questions flying at you with the speed of curiosity.
Writing inside your head while listening to an elderly parent’s complaints about their life.
This, then, is also often what the writing life looks like: surreptitiously stolen islands of solitude within a volley of sounds.
The ‘immanence’ of a writing life that is punctuated by domesticity, and caring for children and the elderly – as spoken of by Simone De Beauvoir in The Second Sex.
At first, I thought this immanence was limited to the lives of women, who have to squeeze spaces and moments from life for their art.
But then I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, and realised that the immanence of mundane life, of domesticity and the demands of making a living, extends beyond the concerns of gender. It envelops every person who is either a nurturer or a provider–even if it is only for himself or herself. In other words, the person who has to make a life, while also making art.
“People don’t do this kind of thing because they have all kinds of extra time and energy for it,” writes Gilbert, ” they do this kind of thing because their creativity matters to them enough that they are willing to make all kinds of extra sacrifices for it.”
“Unless you come from landed gentry,” she adds for good measure, “everyone does it.”
Very interestingly, she gives the example of the famous Herman Melville, who wrote a ‘heartbreaking’ letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, complaining of the lack of time, and how he was pulled ‘hither and thither by circumstances.’ He longed for ‘the calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose.’
But then, Gilbert points out, Melville never got that sort of environment. Yet he somehow managed to write Moby Dick.
And that is how writers find themselves forever caught in a state of immanence, surrounded by the clutter of life’s responsibilities and demands. “And yet they still persist in creating,” remarks Gilbert. “They persist because they care. They persist because they are called to be makers, by any means necessary.”
That, precisely, is how even within that immanence, we create our spaces for transcendence. Much like the Sufi understanding of Divinity, which reveals that the Divine Essence is, at all times, both immanent and transcendent — both merged with the Universe and the life forms in it, yet at the same time somehow beyond it.
The writer from a family responsibilities, nurturer or provider background, then, curiously becomes a reflection of the Divine. She, or he, becomes both at the same time: immanent and transcendent.
In this then, I agree with Pariat, that a writer’s life involves transcendence. But for some, that transcendence is purely internal. The ability to withdraw within yourself, the swirling mist of your own thoughts, even in a crowd. To be able to cocoon yourself from the rush, roar and clamour around. Within the hustle and bustle of family, day jobs and domesticity that defines life for some of us , this is our path of transcendence. The ability to be beyond, while being within.
Immanent, yet transcendent.