Sentenced to Writing
Excerpted from the introduction to Walking with Moonshine: My Life in Stories (iUniverse, Incorporated, August, 2013)
Writing has been a significant presence in my life from the very beginning, but over the years our relationship has shifted dramatically. I learned about writing as a small child because our family owned and ran a major newspaper in Raleigh, North Carolina. After writing editorials, my father spent all his spare hours writing books in our home library with my mother beside him re-typing his manuscripts. As a lonely cross-eyed preschooler locked outside that library in our walled garden, I was painfully exposed to the prestige and exclusivity of being a writer. On summer afternoons, when I could hear the typewriters through the open windows, if I went close enough to be seen, Father would yell at me to not disturb his work. Also, as one of four daughters in a family that accepted only male editors for our newspaper, I was desperate to find some way to overcome my worthlessness. And given how books and editorials contributed to the importance of Father and Grandfather both at home and in the world, writing was clearly the most valuable course.
So I started and used my partnership with words to earn good grades in elementary school. But at 15, when Seventeen published my story “Goodbye Bobbie,” that major success marked the first big shift in my relationship with writing. It triggered such extreme exacerbation of my already present anorexia nervosa that George School, the Quaker boarding school I attended, insisted I not return until my illness had been effectively treated.
Six years of isolation followed. During the first year, spent at home, I lost 40 pounds until I weighed just under 60. After that, I spent five years confined in mental institutions where I received radical treatments—ECT, insulin shock, and tube-feeding, but no psychotherapy. For the first two years I was so shocked out of my brain that I could not remember the start of a sentence as I read or tried to finish writing it. But after that, as my mind recovered, I became aware of my isolation—I was a young girl locked up with insane women, all at least 30 years my senior, with no therapist to talk to. Since there were no schools in mental hospitals, my parents paid for me to take correspondence courses in French and creative writing. Once I had completed them, I remembered it was writing that had once made a difference for me. It could no longer overcome my worthlessness. Nothing could. Yet in this wild place with no one to talk to, I thought it might help me maintain myself.
I began writing a novel. And when I had to go out to a day job, my doctor gave me permission to get up ninety minutes early each day to write before I left for work. I wrote just to have a companion to keep me alive, never expecting my words to be read. My subject was the conflict produced by the Brown decision in a black family like that of my kind childhood caretakers and my parents’ cook.
When I finally left the hospital and returned to Raleigh to try to pursue life as a high school dropout and ex-mental patient, I had to work at our family’s second paper, The Raleigh Times, because doctors at the University of North Carolina would not let me be accepted there unless I underwent psychoanalysis which my father would not let me have. While I was working at the paper, Father asked to read the novel I’d been writing in the hospital. To my surprise he praised it and just a few months later it was published as Caleb My Son by J. P. Lippincott and became a bestseller translated into several languages. On my way to the Today Show where I was a featured guest on the day of its publication, I was amazed to see Caleb hailed as the “book of the day” by reviewers in both the New York Times and the Herald Tribune. Again, however, I could not accept writing success. I felt the book could not be as good as critics said or that if it was, I myself was not as good as the book. My father disagreed and urged me to apply for a Guggenheim fellowship. Then, of course, when I won that prestigious award, I had to write another book!
Writing again became a relatively comforting companion. But by then, I was married and busy, and halfway through that effort, I gave birth to a son. By the time that novel about a mental hospital was published, I had a daughter as well. High on a Hill, published by McGraw-Hill, was positively reviewed in several major newspapers, but it was not a best seller. As a result, I decided I was not a writer and would not try or pretend to be one anymore.
So I gave up writing and lived the best I could without it. I raised my four children and when my marriage was ending and I needed to be able to earn a living, I went to college and graduate school to become a psychologist. And ironically, it was becoming a psychologist that brought me back to the written word. You see, I felt I needed to undergo psychoanalysis (as recommended but denied me 18 years earlier) in order to be a good psychologist. But the idea of returning to writing came in 1979, the fifth year of my analysis, when Dr. John Howie asked, “What about your writing?”
That made me mad. I told him I believed that giving up writing had been in my own best interest, as I was no longer willing to humiliate myself in order to please my parents. But as a result of Dr. Howie’s prodding, I did try writing again, and eventually made the discoveries that have illuminated my work as a writer and a therapist. In 2002, I published my memoir, With a Woman’s Voice, and three years later The Eyes of the Father, my first novel in 40 years, as well as Dreaming Your Way to Creative Freedom, a brief account of the psychological process needed to get beyond silence. Even more valuable than the publication of these books, however, are the personal discoveries I made while producing them. They include:
• The best way to write is the way I wrote Caleb My Son at age 20, while a patient in a mental hospital. Not expecting it to be read, I let the story write itself. I just wrote down by hand what the story told me to write.
• What I’ve feared unconsciously all these years is SUCCESS, not writing. I’d learned at an early age that being valuable was something I did not deserve and was despicably greedy to seek. I’ve also harbored fear of my voice in general—of its being destructive when strong or humiliating when weak.
• The years when I abandoned writing and lived for myself and my children and patients did not destroy writing for me. They just made me more separate from it by interrupting our association.
Now that we are back together, I hope my newly published collection of stories, Walking with Moonshine, will reveal the greatest personal discovery of all—the important relationship between my life and my writing. They are now increasingly separate but equal. Neither looks to the other for value in the world. Yet the continuing interaction between the two enriches both, and makes them mutually inspiring.
And with me a practicing psychologist, this relationship has become even more complex. Of course, I do encounter story material in clinical hours. And while I’m conscience-bound not to use it, I’m sure that such experience enriches my imagination. Clinical exposure (as therapist, tester, professional colleague) has also made me aware of certain professional dilemmas that I want the world to know about. And fiction can help with that. Then, too, there’s the issue of how clients deal with me being a writer as well as a therapist. These and other themes flow through the Walking with Moonshine stories.
But now, the publication of this collection, which freed my time and attention to work on new stories, has had dramatic effects on both myself and the writing. Before this I regarded writing as a transitional process which enabled me to keep growing personally and in print as I left behind the confines of childhood abandonment, mental hospitals, and my return to the world as a ruined person. So, despite writing having remained an essential object for me most of my life, now, at eighty and beyond, pursuing this relationship into old age has brought an amazing discovery. Our roles are reversed. As writing independently turns its products out, I (the psychologist? or thinker?) have become its assistant. When I started my seminar for people involved in creative endeavors twenty-one years ago, I named it “Our Problems as the Roots of Our Power.” But only now can I recognize the full meaning of that title. And who knows? Certainly this growth process began with the writing of Caleb My Son in the mental hospital. But maybe I only discovered the true power of being separate while composing the final piece in my new book. I’ve chosen its title to name the collection, because Walking with Moonshine illustrates the strength possible when determination and creative luck bump into each other.
From Walking with Moonshine: My Life in Stories by Lucy Daniels, Copyright © 2013 Lucy Daniels