Writers on Writing #27: Monica Berlin
On the Topical, or What's Coming in off the Wires
I started writing because there were things in the world I couldn’t change, and it seemed the only way I could find to reckon with that. In time what I couldn’t change or stop became the primary backdrop against which I’ve written almost everything, or the very subject matter itself. Mostly I suspect that to be true for a good lot of us. Helpless, I turn to the page—first other people’s pages and then my own. It may be a kind of faith, now that I say it, having long believed that people with religious faith seem more capable of dealing with the crashing in of grief than those of us who do not. And so being someone uncomfortable with religion, I made a holy place of language—a temple of poems and stories and plays and essays that offer the kind of solace I imagine mosques and synagogues and churches do for others. Literature as sanctuary. Literature, as close to salvation as I deserve or desire.
As I write this, a storm is barreling toward the East Coast, and I think of Wallace Stevens, The weather and the giant of the weather, / Say the weather, the mere weather, the mere air…. By the time I finish writing this, the storm will have moved inland, sputtered out, become the kind of history we remember but that may not make the textbooks our children read in school. The damage caused will start being quantified by insurance adjustors, government agencies, relief organizations. By the time I finish writing this, we’ll have a clearer sense of scale. By the time you read this, hopefully, people will have returned to whatever is left of their homes and will be able to start doing whatever they must and can—and I hope they’ll be able to do so in the absence of cameras and reporters, in privacy, without intrusion. I’m pretty sure the most difficult things we do we do alone, which isn’t always of much comfort. Still, I hope for their privacy, even as I wouldn’t wish these days on anyone, even as I wish I could trade places with someone, help clear away that ruin for even one person.
For the next 48-hours, I’ll have TheTimes up on my computer screen, and in other windows the news coming in from the wires. I’ll keep turning on and off the television to flip between The Weather Channel and CNN. For the next 48-hours, between trying to make sense of what I’m seeing and managing to do what I’m still expected to do no matter the weather, I’ll read everything I can find about meteorological phenomena. I’ll stare at maps of the Atlantic Coast. I’ll try to figure out the height in relation to sea level of any number of landmarks I can call up from memory. I’ll wait for updates on friends’ safety. I’ll sit in my living room, helpless. Sometimes I’ll pace. Sometimes I’ll cry. I’ll wring my hands. I’ll stare at the screen in horror. I’ll stare and stare. I’ll spend a lot of time looking at the sky here, which is clear and blue, and which on days like these always seems to be clear and blue. I’ll not write a word. And then, eventually, I will.
When I pick up The Times to find news of the storm isn’t above the fold, when I open my computer to find other headlines have replaced the ones I’m looking for, when I have to search hard to find out if the power is back or to hear what’s left, when proof of our collective interest demonstrates a short attention span, then I turn toward the page. It’s true that the aftermath of weather isn’t national or international news for long because maybe there’s nothing new to be added. How many ways can media outlets report dire and catastrophic and immeasurable before they turn hyperbolic or sensational? Here, to my mind, is where the writer can begin. I think it’s one of the jobs of literature to pick up there, after the news stops making headlines. There may be no action. There may be no new happening. If there’s plot, it’s a plodding one, toward picking up the pieces, toward hauling our ruined lives to the curb or dumpster—if there’s even anything left, toward trying to figure out how to go on. In what is most likely the dénouement of the story, the one that is our lives, we can begin to find meaning, to make art. Writing may become a way to stave off my helplessness, but it’s also the only way I know to recognize the perpetual deep sadnesses of our lives, which are not merely topical, despite the news of the day.
The news of the day impresses itself on the very words I pick, on the images I turn over, on the inherent rhythms of every line and sentence I try to craft. In that news, the headlines and the stories, I’m searching for a way to reconcile the disparity of our lives, of our centuries of horror. Having been born in the last quarter of what Muriel Rukeyser called our first century of world wars and living through that and into another such century, this century, the truth is I don’t ever recall a time when I turned to the news and was not worried or scared or helpless. I want to make poems and essays that try to acknowledge the kind of longing and despair so acute and that we all find ourselves facing every single day, and also the joy, those smaller and often forgotten moments that keep us going. For now, most of all, I want to try to make things that say, or try to say, “I remember you.” That say, “After the cameras are gone, after the news stops making headlines, you are still there.” That say, “You will not be forgotten.” Those faces, those personal struggles are real, and they go on and on. Literature should tend to this best it can, when it can. Not that I’m writing literature, no, I’m just making little objects that may or may not ever fit under such a calling. What I mean to say, here, is that I turn to literature for these reasons, and I turn to my own pages because in all that enormity—the height of all that isn’t always your own, stacked up, and threatening to topple—there’s always so much waiting, so much uncertain.
And look, the truth is, nature keeps happening. By which I don’t mean, Today, on my way to pick my son up from school, a chicken stood pecking at the grass in my neighbor’s yard. Nor do I mean the possum near my garage keeping vigil—that strange creature that never fails to scare me, which, by the way, is the only North American marsupial, and that fact doesn’t endear me to it any more. I may live in the more rural Midwest, but I don’t live out in the country. What I mean about nature is the natural world. What I mean about how it keeps happening is weather. I think about weather a lot. Most of us do. Most of us talk about it more than we talk about what’s on our minds, matters of the heart, the work that keeps us up at night. Ask someone how they’re doing and the response will be physical. Sometimes the question itself will reflect the season. Stevens, again: We are physical beings in a physical world.
Stevens: The state of the weather soon becomes a state of mind.
Weather turns, and then it becomes our default—something we all have in common, the shared experience of living in weather, even if our reactions to the elements are different. Maybe we turn our conversations to it because unlike what we now call “political matters,” we aren’t likely going to fight. Or maybe we can talk to each other about weather because most of the time we can get away with a kind of half-listening, and sometimes I’m convinced that half-listening is what drew me toward writing about it in the first place. If we listened more closely, if we heard the other half, too…what then? But maybe I’m only half-paying attention, still. After all, as I type this, the news is coming in. From the East Coast, a kind of horror. What looks like disaster. The photographs make New York and New Jersey a world I’ve never seen. Surreal, yes, but the scale, the proportion…every single angle is unfamiliar, unreal, devastating. How to say that now? Too soon. For now, I can only think, again, The weather and the giant of the weather, / Say the weather, the mere weather, the mere air…
I never thought myself a writer particularly focused on the environment or on current events, or as a reader who preferenced those subjects. In fact, I used to worry that making poems and essays that concerned themselves with the more topical issues of the day would mean the work would have an expiration date. Would stop being relevant sooner. But that hasn’t been my experience. This storm they’ve named Sandy finds me returning to great works of literature about other storms, other disasters. When I mute The Weather Channel, in my ears I can fully hear Patricia Smith, Nicole Cooley, Katie Ford, Dave Eggers, Teresa Cader, Natasha Trethewey. I hear William Faulkner, always. And Robert Penn Warren, who wrote that there were no explanations, Not of anything. All you can do is point at the nature of things. There’ll come a time when those lives altered by the nature of things stop being told above the fold, then fall off the front page, then will move deeper and deeper into the paper’s sections until gone completely, and then, maybe, a small mention in a brief column a few years later, a retrospective maybe or just an after-thought in an article about something else. But those lives—our lives—keep mattering, even when they’re undone.
So, in trying to understand our predicament of being alive, of being in this world, I’ve turned to what I know we share, our common ground. Like that every one of us was once a baby. Like that every one of us moves through the world, in whatever ways we can. Like that every one of us exists in a life that is somewhat dependent on the weather, on seasons and time, even as we may recognize those with different measurements or using different tools. We share a moon, the sky. The horizon isn’t the same here as elsewhere, but every elsewhere has horizon. We may not all be in places where there are fireflies, or deep soaking rains, or winds that kick up enough dust to cloud the skies, but there is measurement—of day, of night, of a season—by crop or light or migration or the depth of the river or by the human hand. For now, it feels important for my writing to try to recognize all that.
Monica Berlin’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in TriQuarterly, Ninth Letter, Diagram, Crazyhorse, The Cincinnati Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Quarterly West, ellipses…, Third Coast, Witness, Rhino, The Southeast Review, The Missouri Review, Passages North, New Orleans Review,Memoir (and),among others. She is nonfiction editor at Fifth Wednesday Journaland project director for The Knox Writers’ House digital archives of contemporary literature. An associate professor of English at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, Berlin teaches creative nonfiction, poetry, and fiction, focuses on late twentieth- and twenty-first-century American literature, and serves as the associate director for the Program in Creative Writing