Writing for your life

Originally published in Fest magazine, August 2011.

The 2011 EIBF programme is unequivocal in its support for those using writing to understand the vagaries of human existence. Perhaps the most striking example can be found in Chris Adrian’s work. A practising oncologist and a writer, in his event with Audrey Niffenegger he told her that as a doctor he responds to trauma by “eating a lot of cookies and going to bed – or by writing.”

Pain from his professional and personal lives—his brother died when he was 25, and Adrian says that “it’s obvious there’s some things you never really get over”—clearly affect his work. Yet in his novels, he allows his characters transcendence from often painful existences by creating a world where reality shifts between, in Niffenegger’s words, “the real, the less real, and the outrageously unreal.” Evidently, mirroring the way he lets his characters deal with loss, the very act of writing allows him to leave behind his own unhappy realities.

As with the writer, so with the reader: in reading works such as Adrian’s, we can simultaneously escape and come to terms with pain. Pure fantasy would serve as escapism—which is sometimes totally necessary and justified—but this is rather more clever. The reader survives alongside the characters, feeling their trauma and then sharing in their absolution from it. We can side-step our own reality, in the way Adrian skips from truth to fantasy, to find the space required to deal with problems.

Writing can also serve to rationalise and bring meaning to life. Early in the festival, William McIlvanney told his audience that he “always wanted not just to have a life but to understand it” and for him and many others, words are a mechanism by which to scrutinise existence and subsequently give it significance. Here, too, the author and reader both benefit: the writer unravels truths and finds answers for themselves, and the reader is presented with something tangible to consider. Whether we accept or reject writers’ attempts to do this, they at the very least provoke contemplation – and perhaps our own ideas of purpose.

For those who missed Adrian and McIlvanney—or those simply in need of more contemplation—the theme continues in Philippe Claudel’s A Profound and Moving Love Story, where the French writer and film director will discuss his novella Monsieur Linh and His Child, the story of two elderly men, who—despite not even sharing a language—battle solitude and alienation together.

It is rare to find someone who cannot say that a book changed their life somehow. We read to find empathy, understanding and clarity, to have something to contemplate, or just to laugh. It is easy to forget that authors share these purposes and that the act of writing is just as healing, life-affirming even, as reading. A mutually beneficial relationship, certainly, and one to be embraced.

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