This month on The Gloria Sirens, we challenge ourselves–and you–to venture into the dark spaces of your lives. Cup your hand around the flame and creak up the stairs into the drafty attic. Grab the flickering flashlight and creep into the basement. That’s what the month of Halloween is about, bracing ourselves for the approach of darkness, gathering enough strength, wisdom, and pumpkin chai to face our fears.
The human animal needs to be afraid. If we don’t have a war spraying bullets and shrapnel, a plague dropping every other likable person, or the Tsavo lions dragging us out of our tents, we will invent bogeymen in novels, movies, games, and nations. Our own minds, too, are excellent spook houses, and if we tiptoe into the dark of our memories, a thrill will surely leap. I sometimes think we simply hate to be bored. If we achieve too much comfort and stability, we will sabotage our careers, families, or bodies just for the suspense.
Scaring yourself has survival value. As foolish as it may seem–especially if you’re in a horror movie–it may actually be smart to find out what’s drooling under your bed. E. O. Wilson, the award-winning naturalist and author, argues that the human brain evolved with the impulse to seek out that “sweet sense of horror, the shivery fascination with monsters and creeping forms that so delights us today even in the sterile hearts of the cities,” because doing so “could see you through to the next morning” (Biophilia, 101).
My students used to complain that all literature disturbed them. Did writers never write about the placid, the pleasant? But we are by nature compelled to examine closely what most threatens our peace and eludes our understanding. Some of the best writers are those intrepid enough to expose and reflect upon the bogeymen they have known–or been.
Personal essayist Kelly Sundberg recently suggested a cure for writer’s block, attributed to Joy Castro. Write about “the most hurtful thing anyone ever said to you.”
“I’d argue that the desire to read about these very private moments in the lives of others is not simply voyeuristic. It isn’t simply gawking,” wrote Dinah Lenney in “From Confession to Craft. “It’s a human instinct to witness another’s pain, to attempt to understand it, and, ultimately, to learn from it. We want to better know the human experience, the human condition; readers and writers of memoir are both in pursuit of thoughtful reflection.”
Those who write confessional poetry and literary nonfiction aren’t simply throwing open the windows of their own mental sick rooms to give them a good, narrative scrub in search of catharsis, but of meaningful connection to others. We seek to release into sunlight the personal subjects that fester under tacit communal quarantine. We unearth the cultural wild boars that might gore us all–religious, political, environmental. As award-winning essayist, Philip Lopate said in an interview, “One of the ploys of the great personal essayists is to take a seemingly trivial or everyday subject and then bring interest to it,” and one of the most thrilling ways to explore that interest is to be the one to dare look at it in the dark.
“One of the things that literature does,” Lopate said, “is it allows us to be more understanding about human frailty, about error, tragic flaws, and therefore, makes us more forgiving, and more self-forgiving. That’s a kind of wisdom.”