When I do a free-write, I always discover something new. Or not new exactly. It’s more like I re-discover a truth I need to face again and again. Maybe some of the most fundamental and uncomfortable truths are like that: we can only think about them for a short time and then we have to re-bury them.
So at a New Directions weekend a couple of years ago, I was in a Saturday morning writing group. Our instructor had spread out on the table several dozens of post-cards. There were some in color, some in black and white; reproductions of paintings, sculptures, photographs, even cartoons. It was a cornucopia of images, perfect for evoking all kinds of associations and projections. As we filed in, we scanned the table, picked up one or another post-card for a closer look, murmuring reactions, our creative juices already beginning to flow. We sat down and our instructor told us to pick a post-card and write for twenty minutes about whatever that post-card brought to mind. The room fell silent as twenty intense women, all of us peculiarly psychologically-minded, set to work.
Nothing is random, of course. My problem is I’m always trying to stay one step ahead of my unconscious, a tiresome and Sisyphean task indeed. So I gaze at the table and find myself unable to choose between several cards. What if I don’t pick the “right” one? Or do I mean “write” one?
I notice others have picked and are already scribbling. A familiar anxiety threatens to overtake me: what’s wrong with me? How come it seems easier, less conflicted for them? Maybe I don’t belong in this group after all. But it’s too late to quit now. I’m committed and I’ll just have to see it through. Go for it, Sylvia, I say to myself encouragingly.
My hands are drawn to two post-cards and, before I even know what I am doing, I have chosen to write about both of them. I pull my chair away from the table and begin typing on my lap-top. This is a first for me and a big step. For too long I have been unable to use the computer as a friendly tool, an extension of my thinking, creative self. The thoughts begin to flow and my fingers are flying. This is what I write:
I am torn between these two photos. (One is a sepia-toned photograph of a lovely young woman in a 1920’s low-waisted dress, gazing at a flowering tree, with a melancholic expression on her face.) This sepia one is so sad: it makes me think immediately about my Aunt Zofka, the one I never knew, the one I’ve named my daughter Sophia after. She was born in 1920-something (so many of the details of her life are unknown to me) in Poland and was killed by the Nazis. I think I look like her. This photo evokes Europe and the sad, gray past that I can never quite escape. In the front-yard of my house in NJ, there is a magnolia tree. Every spring, its glorious blossoms last for a few short, wonderful days, making me feel acutely the passing of each spring and each season and each life. So Aunt Zofka is looking off into the future, seeing her premature, violent death, in the lovely flowering branches.
Must I write about her? (Here come the tears, always at the ready when I write….)
Must I memorialize my murdered relatives and eternally live in the shadow of my
father’s grief and rage?
Must I always and forever atone for surviving or.
Can I give myself permission to luxuriate in the other postcard? (A photo with vibrant colors, of a patio-garden in the foreground and a gentle hilly landscape in the background.) Also in Europe, but so very different. Sunny Greece or Italy, where the Mediterranean climate grows flowers almost all year long. The patio is well-tended, but empty, clean, inviting. Someone is taking good care of this home. The vista of houses nestled into the hill-side evokes townspeople nearby but not impinging upon me. We all have enough space. I can be alone but not lonely. I can write and paint and day-dream all day long. Make love and take a siesta when the afternoon sun gets too strong. And then a walk down into the village with my love for a leisurely simple dinner. Life would be so good.
And there you have it, in a nut-shell. Part of my conflict about writing is that I feel I should be writing about the Holocaust, I should be fulfilling my father’s commandment for me to perpetuate his life-work in some way. (He was a psychoanalyst.) After all, didn’t I say in an early session on the couch “my father wanted me to write his auto-biography,” not even realizing my slip until my analyst pointed it out to me. From a very young age, I somehow felt that I had an obligation to make up for my father’s unspeakable losses. I was to be mother/father/sister/son all rolled into one. I didn’t feel like my life was my own to be chosen and lived. And to leave him would have been out of the question. So I lived at home through college and not far away through medical school. Fortunately for me, my father died when I was 23, and I was nominally free to pursue my own destiny. But it was too late: I’d already been shaped and scarred by the burden of being a Holocaust survivor’s child.
But slowly, slowly I am emerging from that shadow. I am struggling to find my own voice, to express my own unique experience, even if it means a lot of crying along the way. My father always hurried me along, warning me “Life is short, Sylvia, life is short.” Maybe now, at long last, I am realizing that some things cannot be hurried. I can grant myself permission to take my own sweet time and follow as many detours as my heart desires. This is MY life, the only one I’ll have, and I’ll write IF I feel like it, WHEN I feel like it and about WHATEVER I feel like.
Now I have to figure out how to get onto that sun-splashed patio with the to-die for view.