In her 1930 essay “On Being Ill,” Virginia Woolf is downright laudatory about “the spiritual change” that sickness brings. She muses that even love should be “deposed in favor of a temperature of 104.”
Today only someone with a Victorian sensibility would argue that invalidism can confer a creative edge. AIDS has accomplished what tuberculosis failed to do: It deromanticized the dying artist. And yet a variation of the myth has persisted. Many of our contemporary writers and artists have credited poor health and convalescence from injuries, particularly in childhood and young adulthood, as the reason they began to think creatively in the first place. Nadine Gordimer told an interviewer that she started writing at the age of 9 after she got “some strange heart ailment . . . . I time it with this illness, you see.”
The kind of illness I have found mentioned in a startling number of artists’ and writers’ biographies, profiles, and obituaries–tends to be temporary. Injuries heal; diseases are cured. And people return to the world, often looking no different from how they looked before their lying-in. But as many of them tell it, they have been transformed, having undergone a kind of creative apprenticeship.
Many of these “cases” note that the isolation of the infirmary can heighten the already intense experience of childhood reading. “Perhaps it is only in childhood,” wrote Graham Greene in The Lost Childhood and Other Essays (1951), “that books have any deep influence on our lives.”
The writer Leonard Michaels told me in a letter: “I had pneumonia twice and read and read and read. Couldn’t walk. Missed a lot of school. I was about 9 or 10 years old the first time, then 12 the second. I’d been a reader, but pneumonia made books the same as life.”
The rhythm of reading and dreaming and waking up to read some more seems just the right way to imbibe fiction. Dreams often continue after a book has slid away from us and we have dropped off to sleep again, especially if we are drugged, even by something as mild as aspirin. A dreamer becomes an author the moment when the plot continues to drive on to its conclusion, unfettered by a waking self.
Julia Alvarez, the Dominican-born writer whose novels and poems often explore the stresses and strains of her outsider status here in the United States, told me that even though she was not a sickly child, her parents punished her transgressions by sending her to bed. “I probably honed my storytelling skills on long boring punishment days, stuck in that bedroom, trying to entertain myself,” she says. “Certainly the time to muse, which being put to bed allows, is a contributing factor in any developing artist’s life. I keep worrying that kids now are kept so busy that they don’t have that necessary time to get bored and delve into inner resources that allow worlds and words to unfold.”
Flannery O’Connor once said she thought Virginia Woolf was a nut. That was a judgment of Woolf’s novel writing only, not her views on the connection between illness and inspiration. Surely the notoriously blunt O’Connor, who was ill with lupus for 13 years before she died at age 39, would have refuted the whole notion that sickness makes people more creative. Still, I like to think that the no-nonsense O’Connor might have seen herself in Woolf’s statement that there is “a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals.” And truth-telling is one act we all rely on our artists to perform.
Adapted from Doubletake (Winter 2001). Subscriptions: $32/yr. (4 issues) from Box 56070, Boulder, CO 80322.