In her preface to Grief Lessons, Anne Carson’s translation of four plays by Euripides, Carson asks, “Why does tragedy exist?” She answers (of course; if Carson knows anything, she knows that if you ask a question, you must answer it. Akin, I suppose, to Chekov’s gun). “Because you are full of rage,” she writes, “Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.” I’ve been thinking a lot about grief lately. Well, if I’m being honest, I’ve been thinking about grief now for several years. I wrote a novel full of it, its reality in me, its rage pouring easily out of my heart into metaphors and fictional structures that I could imbue and embed the secrets of my own pain so that it might be masked, even slightly, on the page. It was a love affair with feeling; a quick and full obsession, one that still fills me both with pride and dread.
I’m now writing a second novel, one that deals more directly and upfront with grief. In plain language I am writing about friendship and death, about suicide, heartbreak, tragedy. My characters are more like myself and the world I inhabit than any other fiction I have written. The main character is stolen from my very own soul, and the other characters and events resemble my direct spheres more concretely than I would like to admit. It is perhaps the best writing I have ever done, but it comes out painfully slow, like something being forced out from hiding, an arm here, a leg there, and I am pulling with all the power of the gods. But still, the story only emerges in thin strands, like the rubbery almost hardened glue whose bottle we turn upside down in hopes that a small bit of liquid might reach the orange nozzle. To put it simply, the book is not easy, nor is it an obsession. I do not love it. Still, it does not leave me, the grief of it, the ghost of it. The gnawing life it has inside the reflective world of my laptop, the cloud it sits on in its digital universe whispers like a spirit, telling me of unfinished business
Like me, the main character is a writer who has had difficulty publishing her first large project, and who avoids the second like the plague. She refers to the living project as “an unhappy marriage, a burdened thing that she could not release simply because the spark, however dull, remained at the center of the book, somewhere under the ash of edits.” This image is fitting for Anna, whose heart is driven by pathos but whose mind clings tightly to the rational world of academia. Like me, she has lost her closest friend to suicide, like me she finds herself in the in-between of pain, the moment after the wound has healed around the knife. Like me, she is beginning to forget the initial confusions: that windy cocktail of rage, violence, and weakness; the breaking of things; the need to be satiated; a lustful desire for validation – to feel both seen and unseen, to disappear, to be consumed.
At the start of the novel, Anna is no longer in the throes of it all. She has crossed the line into a saner and more stable place. She is, for all social intents and purposes “well”, but she is not well. She has found herself in the bog, and like Brontë’s Heathcliff, she wanders in an uncomfortable but natural haze. The small Connecticut town she has sought refuge in is both normal and eerie, perfect and slightly off. There is something wrong with her, yes, but there is also something wrong with the world. She is not trapped; there is no paralysis that so much talk on writer’s block suggests. She is not stuck, she is haunted. The book haunts her.
But what are ghosts? I teach a college class on horror in literature every other semester. We tend to focus on monsters and murderers, physical manifestations of evil. Tangible beings, solid things that feel, and eat, and stink. Things that can kill the same way we can kill. These monsters often lack magic or spells, and even when they do have the dark forces behind them, that magic is usually not what delivers the final blow. Instead, it comes with a knife, a fist, a bite. The monster tears into the flesh the same way we tear into flesh. The monster hunts us the same way we hunt deer, the same way we hunt each other. There is nothing too different from us and them, which of course, is the point. Freudian readings of vampires, zombies, and other monstrous creatures suggest a repressed or hidden desire. The monster expresses the want we cannot face, and so becomes a thing to be feared; the thing – our desire – that will kill us if we do not kill it first. We and the monster are reflections of each other. Like Dorian Gray, the creature comes from within, the ugliness is simply the body turned inside out.
But a ghost is not a tangible thing. It is not a solid, physical mass. It is thin, transparent, and at times invisible. Ghosts are not “like” us, they are us, or at least what is left of us when the material and the tangible are shed. When we are not what we used to be. Draped in the thin shreds of the soul, the ghost comes to warn, to teach, to deliver the message. According to most folklore, the apparition appears when there is unfinished business. But what if the ghost has no task? What if this isn’t about business at all, but grief? What if the ghost is simply a reminder, a constant signaling of what has been lost, what will not be gained? Because of death, possibility, the ghost reminds us, is cut off.
Like Anna, I am haunted by the book, and like Anna, I am asking the book what it wants. For her, the ghost appears as a naked woman in the woods, standing bare and exposed in the strange suburb where she is house-sitting. Like Anna, I too stare out the window and wonder quietly if I am losing my mind or if the apparition is real, if it is a Bertha of sorts, a manifestation of my own self somehow escaped from the attic of my own making. Is it desire we are seeking? I think not. The woman in the woods is no monster. Who is she? Unlike Carson, Anna and I have yet to find an answer. I suppose we will keep on writing.
Jessica Denzer is a writer and educator. She received her B.A. in English Literature from Fordham University and her M.F.A. in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She is a researcher in residence at the New York Public Library and writes fiction and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in various literary journals and anthologies, and she supplies a range of editorial contributions to West Trade Review, L’Esprit Literary Review, and Four Way Review.
This mediation was originally published in Quarterly Volume I, Fall 2022
One response to “Haunted by the Book: On the Grief of Writer’s Block”
This may be a totally useless reply. My apologies if so, but I suggest you write at least three of the best times of your life. It can be something that happened years ago or minutes ago. Write it with as many details and as beautifully written as your essay above. Then weave it into your unfinished novel. See what happens.