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"Each offering from bell hooks is a major event, as she has so much to give us." (Maya Angelou)
"hooks infuses the best of these essays with a personal tone that sheds warm light on this particular writer's life." (Publishers Weekly)
writing from the darkness
I remember childhood as time in anguish, as a dark time--not darkness in any sense that is stark, bleak, or empty but as a rich space of knowledge, struggle, and awakening. We seemed bound to the earth then, as though like other living things our roots were so deep in the soil of our surroundings there was no way to trace beginnings. We lived in the county, in a space between city and country, a barely occupied space. Houses stood at a distance from one another, few of them beautiful; always a sense of isolation and unbearable loneliness hovered about them. We lived on hilly land, trees and wild honeysuckle hiding the flat spaces where gardens grew. I do not remember darkness there. It was the blackness enveloping earth and sky out in the country at Daddy Jerry's and Mama Willie's house that gave feeling and meaning to darkness. There it seemed textured, as though it were velvet cloth folded in many layers. That darkness had to be confronted as we made our way before bedtime to the outhouse. "No light necessary," granddaddy would say. "There is light in darkness, you just have to find it." That was early childhood. From then on I was terribly lost in an inner darkness as deep andthick as the blackness of those nights. I could not find my way or see the light there.
I was a child and his words had given me confidence. I believed with him that there was light in darkness waiting to be found. Later unable to find my way, I began to feel uncertain, displaced, estranged even. This was the condition of my spirit when I decided to be a writer, to seek for that light in words. No one understood. Coming from country black folks, seemingly always old, folks with the spirit of the backwoods, odd habits and odd ways, I had no way to share this longing--this ache to write words. In our world there was an intense passionate place for telling stories. It was really some big-time thing to be able to tell a good story, to as Cousin Bo would say "call out the hell in words." Writing had no such place. Writing the old people could not do even if they had been lucky enough to learn how. Folks wrote only when they had to; it was an awesome task, a burden. Making lists or writing letters could anguish the spirit. And who would anguish the spirit unnecessarily?
Searching for a space where writing could be understood, I asked for a diary. I remember early on getting the imitation-leather red or green books at holiday times, with DIARY written on them in bright gold letters, and of course there were those ever-so-tiny gold keys, two of them. Keys that were inevitably lost. Whole diaries gone because I refused to pry them open, not wanting what was private to be accessible. Confessional writing in diaries was acceptable in our family because it was writing that was never meant to be read by anyone. Keeping a daily diary did not mean that I was seriously called to write, that I would ever write for a reading public. This was "safe" writing. It would (or so my parents thought) naturally be forsaken as one grew into womanhood. I shared with them this assumption. Such writing was seen as a necessary stage but only that. It was for me the space for critical reflection, where I struggled to understand myself and the world around me, that crazy world of family and community, that painful world. I could say there what was hurting me, how I, felt about things, what I hoped for. I could be angry there with no threat of punishment. I could "talk back." Nothing had to be concealed. I could hold on to myself there.
However much the realm of diary-keeping has been a female experience that has often kept us closeted writers, away from the act of writing as authorship, it has most assuredly been a writing act that intimately connects the art of expressing one's feeling on the written page with the construction of self and identity, with the effort to be fully self-actualized. This precious powerful sense of writing as a healing place where our souls can speak and unfold has been crucial to women's development of a counter-hegemonic experience of creativity within patriarchal culture. Significantly, diary writing has not been traditionally seen by literary scholars as subversive autobiography, as a form of authorship that challenges conventional notions about the primacy of confessional writing as mere documentation (for women most often a record of our sorrows). Yet in the many cases where such writing has enhanced our struggle to be self-defining it emerges as a narrative of resistance, as writing that enables us to experience both self-discovery and self-recovery.
Faced with the radical possibility of self-transformation that confessional writing can evoke, many females cease to write. Certainly, when I was younger I did not respond to the realization that diary writing was a place where I could critically confront the "self " with affirmation. At times diary writing was threatening. For me the confessions written there were testimony, documenting realities I was not always able to face. My response to this sense of threat was to destroy the diaries. That destruction was linked to my fear that growing up was not supposed to be hard and difficult, a time of anguish and torment. Somehow the diaries were another accusing voice declaring that I was not "normal." I destroyed that writing and I wanted to destroy that tormented and struggling self I did not understand, then, the critical difference between confession as an act of displacement and confession as the beginning stage in a process of self-transformation. Before this understanding, the diary as mirror was a place where that part of myself I could not accept or love could be named, touched, and then destroyed. Such writing was release. It took the terror and pain away--that was all. It was not then a place of reconciliation and reclamation.
None of the many diaries I wrote growing up exist today. They were all destroyed. Years ago when I began a therapeutic process of retrospective self-examination, I really missed this writing and mourned the loss. Since I use journals now as a way to engage in critical self-reflection, confrontation, and challenge, I know that I would be able to know myself differently were I able to read back, to remember with that writing. Those years of sustained diary writing were crucial to my later development as a writer for it was this realm of confessional writing that enabled me to find a voice. Still there was a frightening tension between the discovery of that voice and the assumption that, though expressed, it would then need to be concealed, contained, hidden, and ultimately destroyed. While I had been given permission to keep diaries, it was writing that my family began to see as dangerous when I began to express ideas considered strange and alien. Diaries provided a space for me to develop an autonomous voice and that meant such writing, once sanctioned, became suspect. It was impressed upon my consciousness that having a voice was dangerous. This was reinforced when my sisters would find and read my diaries, then deliver them to our mother as evidence that I was truly a mad person, an alien, a stranger in their household.
This tension between writing as an expression of my longing to emerge as autonomous creative thinker and the fear that such expression and any other manifestation of independence would mean madness, an end to life, created barriers between me and those written words. I was afraid of their power and yet I needed them. Writing was the only space where I could express myself freely. It was crucial to my fragile sense of well-being. I was often the family scapegoat--persecuted, ridiculed. I was often punished. It was as though I lived in a constant state of siege, subject to unprovoked and unexpected terrorist attacks. I lived in dread. Nothing I did was ever right. That constant experience of estrangement was deeply saddening. I was brokenhearted.
Writing was the healing place where I could collect the bits and pieces, where I could put them together again. It was the sanctuary, the safe place. Yet I could not make that writing part of an overall process of self-recovery. I was able to use it constructively only as an outlet for suppressed feeling. Knowledge that the writing could have enabled transformation was blocked by feelings of shame. I was ashamed that I needed this sanctuary in words. Confronting parts of my self there was humiliating. To me that confession was a process of unmasking, stripping the soul. It made me naked and vulnerable. Even though the experience was cleansing and redemptive, it was a process I could not fully affirm or celebrate. Feelings of shame compelled me to destroy what I had written. Diary writing, as a record of confession, brought me face to face with the shadow self, the one we spend lifetimes avoiding. I was ashamed that this "me" existed. I read my words. They were mirrors. I looked at the self represented there. Destroying the diaries, I destroyed that shadow. There was no trace of her, nothing that could bear witness. I could not embrace that inner darkness, find the light in it. I could not hold that being or love her.
Undoubtedly this process of destroying the diaries, and the self represented there, kept me from attempting suicide. There were times when I felt that death was the only way I could escape that inner darkness. I remember even now how much I longed to be rid of the wounded me, that secret shadow self. In Lyn Cowan's Jungian discussion of masochism she describes that moment when we learn to "embrace the shadow" as a necessary stage in the psychic journey leading to recovery and the restoration of well-being. She comments: "Jung said the shadow connects an individual to the collective unconscious, and beyond that to animal life at its most primitive level. The shadow is the tunnel, channel, or connector through which one reaches the deepest, most elemental layers of psyche." Confronting that shadow-self can both humiliate and humble. Humiliation in the face of aspects of the self we think are unsound, inappropriate, ugly, or downright nasty blocks one's ability to see the possibility for transformation that such a facing of one's reality promises.
That sense of profound shame evoked whenever I looked at the shadow-self portrayed in the writing was a barrier. It kept me stuck in the woundedness. Even though acknowledging that self in writing was a necessary anchor enabling me to keep a hold on life, it was not enough. That shame had to be let go before I could fully emerge as a writer because it was there whenever I tried to create, whether the work was confessional or not. When I left home to attend college I carried with me the longing to write. I knew then that I would need to work through these feelings of shame. One early journal entry from that time reads:
Writing, and the hope of writing pulls me back from the edges of despair. I believe insanity and despair are at times one and the same. And I hear the voices of my past telling me that I will go crazy, that I will end up in a mental institution--alone. I remember my oldest sister laughing, telling me that no one would visit me there, that "girl, you ought to stop." Stop thinking. Stop dreaming. Stop trying to experience and understand life. Stop living in the world of the mind. That day I had sat a hot iron on my arm. I was ironing our father's pajamas. They were collectively mocking me. I asked them to leave me alone. I pleaded with them, "Why can't I just be left alone to be me?" I did not want to be molded. I was something. And when the hot iron came down on my arm I did not feel it. I was momentarily carried away, pleading with them. I stood there in the hallway ironing and even when the stinging pain was there I continued to iron. I stood there struggling to hide the pain and sorrow, not wanting to cry, not wanting them to know how much it hurt. I was trying to be brave. I know now that an anguished heart is never a brave heart. It's like some wounded body part that keeps bleeding, that can't stop itself. Writing eases the anguish. It is my connection. Through it and with it I transcend despair.
Writing, whether confessional prose or poetry, was irrevocably linked in my mind with the effort to maintain well-being. I began writing poetry about the same time that I began keeping diaries. Poetry writing was radically different. Unlike confessional prose, one could use language in writing poetry to mask feelings, to hide the experiential reality leading one to create. Poems on the subject of death and dying did not necessarily make explicit to the reader that I was at times struggling with the issue of whether to stay alive. Poetry writing as creative process was intimately linked with the experience of transcendence. Unlike the diary writing, which became a space where I confronted pain, poetry was the way to move beyond it. I never destroyed poems because I felt there was nothing revealed there about the "me of me."
Then and now I remain a great admirer of Emily Dickinson, often marveling that she as living presence seemed always absent from her poems. To me they do not stand as a record of her experience but more as expressions of what I believe she felt was a fitting and worthy subject for poetry. Her poems are masks, together creating a collective drama where the self remains in the shadows, dark and undiscovered. It is difficult to look behind the poems, to see, to enter those shadows. Poetry writing may have been just that for Dickinson, the making of an enclosure--the poem as wall, a screen shielding her from the shadow-self. Perhaps there was for her no safe place, nowhere that the unnamed could be voiced, remembered, held. Even if it is there in the poems, we as readers cannot necessarily know or find it. What is clear is that writing was for Dickinson a way to keep a hold on life.
Writing that keeps us away from death, from despair, does not necessarily help us to be well. Anne Sexton could confess, "I am trying a flat mask to hold my sanity up ... my life is falling through a sieve" and then "the thing that seems to be saving me is the poetry." I remember her, Sylvia Plath, and not so well-known black women poets Georgia Douglas Johnson and Clarissa Scott Delany because they all struggled with dangerous melancholy and killing despair. We know that poetry does not save us, that writing does not always keep us away from death, that the sorrow of wounds that have never healed, excruciating self-doubt, or overwhelming melancholy often crushes the spirit, making it impossible to stay alive. Julia Kristeva speaks about women's struggle to find and sustain creative voice in the chapter "I Who Want Not to Be," which is part of the introduction to About Chinese Women. There she addresses the tension between our longing to "speak as women," to have being that is strong enough to bear the identity writer, and the coercive imposition of a feminine identity within patriarchy that opposes such being. Within patriarchy woman has no legitimate voice. Her voice is either constructed in complicity or resistance. If the choice is not radical then we speak only what the patriarchal culture would have us say. If we do not speak as liberators we collapse under the weight of this effort to speak within patriarchal confines or lose ourselves without dying. Kristeva recalls the Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva, who hanged herself, writing: "I don't want to die. I want not to be." Her words echo my longing to be rid of the shadow-self, the "me of me."
Writing enables us to be more fully alive only if it is not a terrain wherein we leave the self--the shadows behind, escaping. Anne Sexton reiterated again and again in her letters that it was crucial that the writer keep a hold on life by learning to face reality: "I think that writers must try not to avoid knowing what is happening. Everyone has somewhere the ability to mask the events of pain and sorrow.... But the creative person must not use this mechanism any more than they have to in order to keep breathing." A distinction must be made between that writing which enables us to hold on to life even as we are clinging to old hurts and wounds and that writing which offers to us a space where we are able to confront reality in such a way that we live more fully. Such writing is not an anchor that we mistakenly cling to so as not to drown. It is writing that truly rescues, that enables us to reach the shore, to recover.
To become a writer I needed to confront that shadow-self, to learn ways to accept and care for that aspect of me as part of a process of healing and recovery. I longed to create a groundwork of being that could affirm my struggle to be a whole self and my effort to write. To fulfill this longing I had to search for that shadow-self and reclaim it. That search was part of a process of long inward journeying. Much of it took place in writing. I spent more than ten years writing journals, unearthing and restoring memories of that shadow-self, connecting the past with present being. This writing enabled me to look myself over in a new way, without the shame I had experienced earlier. It was no longer an act of displacement. I was not trying to be rid of the shadows, I wanted instead to enter them. That encounter enabled me to learn the self anew in ways that allowed transformation in consciousness and being. Resurrecting the shadow-self, I could finally embrace it, and by so doing come back to myself.
That woundedness that I was once so ashamed to recognize became for me a place of recovery, the dark deeps into which I could enter to find both the source of that pain and the means to heal. Only in fully knowing the wound could I discover ways to attend to it. Writing was a way of knowing. After what seemed like endless years of journal writing about the past, I wrote a memoir of my girlhood. It was indeed the culmination of this effort to accept the past and yet surrender its hold on me. This writing was redemptive. I no longer need to make this journey again and again.
Excerpted from Remembered Rapture by Bell Hooks Copyright © 1999 by Bell Hooks. Excerpted by permission.
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preface: rapture from the deep
writing from the darkness
women who write too much
a body of work: women labor with words
remembered rapture: dancing with words
writing without labels
writing to confess
telling all: the politics of confession
from public to private: writing bone black
class and the politics of writing
a life in the spirit: faith, writing, and intellectual work
divine inspiration: writing and spirituality
intellectual life: in and beyond the academy
catalyst and connection: writers and readers
the writer's true home
black women writing: creating more space
zora neale hurston: a subversive reading
emily dickinson: the power of influence
the legacy of ann petry
hansberry: the deep one
writing with grace: the magic of morrison
writer to writer: remembering toni cade bambara