Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Old news

Yesterday in my creative nonfiction workshop a student offered that the ending of Joan Didion's essay "In Bed," felt clichéd. We'd been having a lively discussion, and he seemed hesitant to bring up the observation. I got it. These are accomplished essays we're reading; some of them are "famous." How can they be clichéd? I found myself at first hesitant to agree with my student, but then realized, on site, well, yeah, sure, we're all big fat clichés, Joan included. That is: our discoveries and epiphanies, those cloud-parting moments that startle and sometimes redeem us, and that drive us to write or exclaim to our friends or take a solitary walk or stare at the ceiling were experienced by someone else yesterday, a decade ago, a hundred years ago.... We're all really just enacting the myth journey of humankind, with tweaks here and there given our cultural or gender identities, perhaps, or membership in groups—say, family—with rapidly shifting definitions. But even those twenty-first century identities will soon be stepping through the same old stories.

In the essay Didion's describing one of her debilitating migraine headaches, and the "usefulness" that follows the agony once that agony lifts: a reawakening to the beauty of the ordinary, ignored world. "For when the pain recedes, ten or twelve hours later, everything goes with it, all the hidden resentments, all the vain anxieties," she writes.
The migraine has acted as a circuit breaker, and the fuses have emerged intact. There is a pleasant convalescent euphoria. I open the windows and feel the air, eat gratefully, sleep well. I notice the particular nature of a flower in a glass on the stair landing. I count my blessings.
Cliché? OK. The paradox of art-making, I guess: what's old feels new. The blessed relief for Didion and the surprising revelation that pain might have a use beyond torturing us sure didn't feel hackneyed to her when she experienced them, and, moved, felt compelled to write about it. Here's another cliché: all clichés originate in head-lifting moments from somewhere in the eternal past. And though my experience is no more unique than yours, my epiphanies feel like breakthroughs, sudden insights, that are mine only. Until I look around. But still, it keeps us writing, talking, rushing to someone to share the news. That old cliché.

Photo via pinterest.

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