by Robin Black
Robin Black′s path through loss and survival delivered her to the writer′s life. Agoraphobia, the challenges of parenting a child with special needs, and the legacy of a formidable father all shaped that journey. In these deeply personal and instructive essays, the author of If I loved you, I would tell you this and Life Drawing explores the making of art through the experiences of building a life.
“I couldn′t separate my emotional history from the work that I do. I couldn′t write about my own history and not weave craft throughout, nor write about craft without wandering over to tell stories from my life. The two are so intertwined as to be inseparable. I just hope that the result speaks to other writers, and also to other people who may be sorting through emotional issues, and complex family legacies of their own.” — Robin Black
“The Persistence of Demons”
When I was a 20 year old undergrad, back in 1982, I had a dream, an actual sleeping dream, in which Leonard Woolf and Vanessa Bell escorted Virginia herself into my dorm room and announced that she was mine now, to take care of. She was very delicate, they told me. Tending her wasn’t an easy job, they said—while she only glanced downward from beneath the great rim of her hat. Being all of 20 years old and thinking myself a writer I took this to mean, not that I had best watch out lest I have a mental breakdown (which was true and might have been helpful advice at the time) but that I was to inherit the mantle of genius.
Within months of having that dream, I dropped out of school for a bit, moved back in with my parents, had the aforementioned mental breakdown, eventually became engaged to (and later married) a man I barely knew and stopped being serious about writing for the next 20 years.
In my life it has been an ugly word. My father, gone 14 years now, was a bona fide genius. He was the sort of genius for whom even the people who roll their eyes at the word genius make an exception. And the fact that he was also one of the unhappiest, most personally dysfunctional people I have ever known did little to protect me from the message he delivered, both explicitly and also in more poisonous, potent forms, that to be anything other than a genius—anything less than a genius—was to be, well, at best, a little sad. Pitiable. Pathetic. Unless we could be him, the implication was, we might as well not even try.
My knowledge of his private miseries may have done little to protect me from this view, but his death in combination with more therapy than I’ll ever admit to did quite a bit to diminish its power, which is part of why, at the age of 39, just about two decades after having the dream that amplified my misguided conviction that genius should be my goal, I was finally able to write.
And write I did, mostly short stories, but some essays too. None of which caused anyone to use the G-word, nor caused me to feel that they should, or even to long that they would. I felt, for the first time in my life, that I was doing something as well as I could, which was all that seemed to matter. I had frustrating days of course, but overall the writing made me happy. Happier than I had ever been. Maybe it was the deceptively unambitious-seeming nature of short forms that let me relax. Maybe it was the gusting exhilaration of finally stepping out from within the dark of my father’s shadow and from under the weight of the tragic standards by which he measured his own lonely, unhappy success. Whatever the cause, I was productive and I was enjoying it.
A happy ending, yes?
Well, yes; and also, no.
Because then there was a novel. Unfinished. And often uncooperative. And just look at what a big thing it is—a novel. Look at how huge an impression it might make. How excellent a vehicle it could be for being declared a you-know-what. . . or, more realistically, how it will surely make it evident that one is not. And look at what sustained faith it requires. How difficult a task! What room that massive task leaves, within those frustrating days and all those inevitable missteps. . . Look at what space is created for the demons to creep back in.
If it isn’t to be a work of genius, it isn’t worth writing, you know. . .
I found myself struggling again with that thought—as I realized that I was not in fact writing Mrs. Dalloway. Or Ulysses. Not reinventing the form. Not revolutionizing literature. As I understood very well that my personal best is not Virginia Woolf’s best—and never will be. At 19, at 20 I dreamed it was. At nearly 50, I knew better. And if I was to believe my poor father, that made this whole writing pursuit pretty pointless.
If it isn’t to be a work of genius, it isn’t worth writing, you know. . .
Ugly. As I said. But that was the message I was given, loud and clear. Quiet and clear. At every imaginable volume—and always clear.
Sometimes, when I have tried to explain the damage this viewpoint has done to me, the difficulties it newly caused while writing that new book, I have struggled to define the distinction between my father’s blind drive for admiration on the one hand, and a healthy ambition for excellence on the other. The best way I have found to parse the two is to say that in the emotional landscape of a person like my father, doing one’s best is only a meaningful goal if one’s best is better than everyone else’s best. The simple knowledge of having achieved a personal best is a sorry consolation, at most.
If you think about it enough, that is one of the saddest possible ways to look at life. Certainly, one of the loneliest. And had you known my father, you could have traced that sorrow, that solitude in his every gesture, every glance.
It is difficult for me sometimes, this writing thing—as it is for us all, I know, in our different ways. I am haunted daily by that other idea, not my own, of what my goal should be. It takes up my brain and crowds away the reason that tells me what dangerous nonsense it is; then it bullies my lyrical side into babbling doubt. I become a study in blockage, in self-sabotage. Never mind the questionable wisdom of taking life advice from one person whose misery I witnessed daily for almost 40 years, and longing to follow in the footsteps of another who did, after all, walk into a river and drown herself. Demons are not creatures of logic. Demons are no geniuses. They don’t need to be. They are just persistent as hell.
And if you think about that, there’s the seed for optimism right there.
Because it turns out that persistence is a powerful thing. One of the most powerful allies any one of us has. Directed demonically, it can shut you down for decades at a time. But it can also be the engine that keeps you daily typing, that causes the clattering keys to drown out the voices that would have you stop. Persist, persist. Be more stubborn even than your own demons. Persist. Persist. Not for any reason other than that you promised yourself you would. Just for long enough to get it all out on the page.
For my father, bona fide genius and eternally unhappy man, it took that kind of fortitude to face the business of living through every day. I would study the pain of it settling into his bones, beaming out from his light brown eyes. I would watch him scrap and cobble his broken self through many an hour, often ungraceful, sometimes unkind, occasionally memorably generous, startlingly empathic. But always in profound psychic pain.
Our stories are strange things, all of ours. And the logic through which our narratives unfold is often both obvious and paradoxical. Even as I battle the toxic standards of success that my father breathed into my dreams, I find myself grateful for his example of how fiercely one can try to fight a demon down.
Robin Black, who started writing just before turning 40, is the author of three books. Her short story collection, If I loved you, I would tell you this, won the Philadelphia Athenaeum Literature Prize, was a finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Story Prize, and was named a Best Book of 2010 by numerous publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle and The Irish Times. Her novel, Life Drawing, was one of NPR’s Books of the Year in 2014, and was longlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, the Impac Dublin Literature Prize, and the Folio Prize. Her newest book, out this week, is Crash Course: Essays From Where Writing And Life Collide, an examination of how life and art influence one another, which Karen Russell has called: “beautiful and hilarious and searingly honest articulations of questions both unavoidable and unanswerable.” Robin begins teaching, this coming fall, in the Rutgers Camden MFA Program. The mother of three grown children, she lives in Philadelphia with her husband.
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