I’m not sure if other writers feel this way (if this is ‘normal’ or if it’s created or intensified by the conditions of my illness) but the thought of my book being released has been met with a swell. I can’t be still; I feel I’m not doing enough for it. How can I fail an object I wrote? I’m itching, and not eating enough of the ‘right’ foods. I’m consumed with wanting it to be read widely, but also scared of it being read at all.
Hysteria was originally going to be published in May. But, the pandemic happened. So now, it’s September. So, the swell came twice, split by a period of rest in which I tricked myself into thinking it was a while away. Now, I can relax (I can never relax).
A few years ago, I was awarded a mentoring session as a part of a writer’s residency. I remember a brilliant woman sitting on the arm of my office’s armchair, telling me that my life would not be any better once I had a book published. Aching for the feeling of having made something (made it?), I nodded along, but didn’t fully believe her. Of course, now I understand. We adapt to our circumstances, and ambition can never be fulfilled. It becomes about the next thing. The next push; the next ache.
At the moment of writing, my desire is less about the pages becoming a product and more about the act of writing and feeling the joy of it. I am silent so much of the time in how I move through the world, and while I am comfortable with this, the freedom of the almost-dissociation of words coming out through my fingers is the thing that makes my life better. Waiting for the days to tick over to the release date of September 1, I try to focus on this instead of my desire for my book to be read.
I’ve been thinking about how the act of writing the book means that part of my life is now an object. Carmen Maria Machado writes in In the Dreamhouse that ‘the memoir is, at its core, an act of resurrection. Memoirists re-create the past, reconstruct dialogue. They summon meaning from events that have long been dormant.’ I’ve thought of my own work as writing as understanding. Typing out the words—the shape and nuances of my life, and illness—has helped me to understand, to process. So, I wonder what happens after the meaning is summoned, the pages printed. I know the book becomes object, moves away from the writer and to the readers. But really, I’m asking: what happens to me?
I remember being eleven years old and crouching over my Bart Simpson notebook, writing a stand-up routine (I cringe at this—how funny that this disclosure, not the intricacies of my mental illness, is the one that makes me tense). This is my only memory of writing as a child. I do not see myself in other writer’s accounts of being lost in novels for much of their childhood; I was more interested in reading thick hardbacks on dog breeds and trying to understand the world through biography. Cross-kneed on our itchy cream carpet, after writing out and reworking the words of my jokes, I would take the notebook and push it deep into the back-right corner of my closet, beneath the lowest drawer. Each time I took it out, I had to rub the cover against the carpet to remove a layer of dust.
I still remember this act of writing. Sitting by my closet so I could stash the notebook if my parents were to come in. Looking at the flat-pastel-blue wall as a joke brewed in my mind. Smudging ink through my notebook, onto my hands. I have no memory of performing the jokes; my instinct is that I never shared them. I was frustrated that they weren’t polished enough, probably. Perhaps it felt too vulnerable to speak them. I imagine that one day I put the notebook back in its spot underneath the closet drawer and never reached for it again. As if I had decided, I am not funny in this written-down way and moved on, forgetting the joy of writing something down.
After I signed the contract for my book, I was depressed for weeks. (Am I allowed to say this? Does it read as ungrateful?) It felt as though the push that had been driving me for years –what felt like my life’s goal—had been achieved. I was left with nowhere to go, no direction. What now whatnowwhatnow ran through my head as I cleaned the stove of grime and played sudoku on my iPad, leaving a neat grid of smudges where my finger had tapped again and again. Mum took me to a coffee chain around the corner so I would leave the house. We sat in the sun, her tearing bits of a cream bun and feeding it to my dog’s quivering lips. Mechanically, I lived and acted until I forgot I was forcing my body into moving. I returned to myself, forgetting the whatnow and falling into the distraction of the everyday.
This is the moment I’ve gone over in therapy, again and again. I wonder if my therapist is sick of hearing about it. My worry is: I’ve written a book about my experience of mental illness and so I am inviting questions about my lived experience. I don’t mind this in theory. But it’s the questions that dig into the guts of me I fear; ones built on an assumption that I am less than I should be. My therapist’s solution is to reply, ‘can we move to the next question, please?’ and I nod at this very sensible suggestion that I know I will never be able to enact.
Whenever I feel overwhelmed or unsure about writing about mental illness, I watch a two minute and 40 second YouTube video of comedian Maria Bamford on ‘The Gift of Mental Illness’. While crinkling her eyes, she begins, saying, ‘Mental illness. People aren’t crazy about it.’ I can’t tell you why this is a comfort (laughter breaking the thought loop of worry about disclosing illness?) but it is. I hold this one silly thing close; a two minute and 40 second balm.
Alexandra Perloff-Giles interviews English Professor Leah Price for the Harvard Gazette on books as not just a collection of words, but objects. ‘I’m interested not just in words—the verbal structure of a book—but also in the material object,’ Price says. She continues: ‘It can hide your face on the subway. It can decorate your coffee table. It can be burnt by political opponents. And it can establish relationships between two successive readers, as when [Barack] Obama was sworn in on [Abraham] Lincoln’s Bible.’ I think of the American I knew who underlined his books, filling up the margins with his own words. It was his favourite part of reading. My own dog-ear system: a fold at the top or bottom of the page holds a different meaning. When a book is from the library, I take photos of pages, my finger pressed to the line that interests me; the photo stream on my phone a field of white. In these ways, our books become moulded to the shape of us. Yet on the other side, as someone who has typed the words of one little book, it feels strange imagining a person out there underlining a phrase I wrote while shaking after experiencing a seizure alone on the street. I know that once it is out of my hands, it belongs to the reader to interpret. But, still. How can I not think they are holding—underlining—a part of me?
Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been struggling to speak about how I feel. I’ve cancelled therapy appointments, preferring to curl up by my dog and listen to the sound of her sleeping breath. I forget to leave the house: last week, seven days passed, and I did not realise I hadn’t stepped outside. Not to sit in the garden, not to walk around the block. I suppose it’s a hibernation of sorts. I cannot speak what is happening.
Lately, I’ve taken to watching furniture restoration videos. I love the sound of someone hand-sanding wood, no music in the background, just the tssh tssh tssh of wiping away a layer of something worn. My partner has started joining me, and when we see an ink stain blotting out onto wood on the screen, we nod at each other. Oxalic acid. After watching another cabinet restored to a shine—old to new to then become old again—we talk about stripping off the dark scratched up stain of our kitchen table. It’s second-hand from my great aunt and we speak as though we know what we’re doing. As though the tssh tssh tssh is a lesson and not a much-needed portal into a quiet and methodical way of living.
In 2018, I attended a masterclass with Sisonke Msimang. She said that she tries to ‘write scars, not wounds.’ I still think about it often; I’m not sure where my work sits on the continuum of processing.
Books are a part of the archive; they are also an archive in itself. Hysteria is an archive of my illness over the two years in which it’s set. Reading the proofs earlier this year, I found myself rereading experiences I had since forgotten. In one way, it makes sense. I was writing scenes as they were happening. After a medical appointment, I would write smudged notes as the bus bumped its way back to the city. I would lie on my couch and type fiercely until the scene was finished and I was left with no anger to push me forward. After, sleep would come. But to read a part of myself—my experience—that I cannot remember is strange. Harder still, is rereading the deepest wounds. The ones I could never forget; the trauma of an experience that still sets my jaw to think about. Checking a trauma again and again for typos, clunky sentences, feels like cut upon cut.
Carmen Maria Machado writes that through writing her memoir of a past abusive relationship she ‘enter[s] into the archive that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon, and that it can look something like this. I speak into the silence. I toss the stone of my story into a vast crevice; measure the emptiness by its small sound.’ Machado sees herself as entering an archive that had previously been something unspoken. My experience is different to hers but—as I think we all do when reading memoir—I see myself refracted through her. I feel what it is to toss lived experience into the crevice.
For the past two years, I’ve been working with archives for another book (one that I tell myself is less personal but I see all parts of me creeping into the pages; I remember hearing Elizabeth Gilbert once say that she felt her fiction was much more revealing than memoir). I learn that archives have gaps; they privilege some stories over others. But for the lives I catch glimpses of, it feels as though I can see into the person through the objects they left behind. I read letters written on typewriters and edited by hand. Touch photographs of people I’ll never know with names and dates written in looping hand on the back. I feel a part of their lives.
It’s an intimacy that I feel, too, when I’m reading memoir. A generosity, a willingness to meet someone at their experience. To live within it; be beside them in the moment as their life happens, even while knowing the event has long passed. I begin to think that maybe this is the most beautiful iteration of a book. Moving past ‘work in progress’ to ‘object’ to something that lives within a reader’s hands and heart. To let go of a book, for me, is to let go of an ownership of experience. Right now, my book is winging its way to readers and I’m full of love and fear, but this messy combination feels exactly right.
Katerina Bryant is a writer based in South Australia. Her first book, Hysteria: A Memoir of Illness, Strength and Women’s Stories Throughout History, is out now.