I was handed a gift yesterday.
It’s a sheet of heavy paper like the kind you would find used as packing inside a produce box. It was folded in sixths, and it has writing scrawled all over it.
A coworker found it inside the mailbox at work, crammed in next to the bundle of newspapers.
“I thought you’d be interested,” he said.
“Why would you think I’d be interested?” I was wide-eyed, turning the heavy paper over in my hands.
“Because it’s bizarre,” he replied.
I kept it. Folded in its original sixths, it fits in my shoulder bag. The writing on it is frantic, and difficult to read in places. What is legible are the writings of a crazy person. These artifacts aren’t always easy to find, and they certainly aren’t commonly handed to one in ones place of work. In tone, the writings remind me of the writings a roommate once left behind in my trashed apartment after threatening to kill me and forcing me to spend a week sleeping on my brother’s couch. His opus was scrawled on the walls of the unit and on the acrylic cutting boards in my kitchen in ballpoint pen… one of the cutting boards just had “PTSD” written all across it. The content of this is different, and separated from me by the gulf of unfamiliarity. I intend to work on transcribing these individual paragraphs scattered across the paper over the next few days.
Now you might ask, and understandably so, why such a thing might be considered a gift.
The work of the writer, and the artist, is based in truth. We take what we know, and we strip away from it the identifying factors, and turn our story into mankind’s story. This removal of identity is key, because it depersonalizes the information and makes it both safer for us to share, and more digestible and useful for the audience. The poet depersonalizes his truth similarly, but using a different strategy… he relies on the lyrical structure to turn it into a kind of incantation.
And nobody tells the truth as they see it more boldly than a crazy person.
Sanity versus madness is not a binary condition; no creature with our level of emotional engagement and self awareness can be cognizant of its own death and be called truly sane. We are ranged along a spectrum from the mildly neurotic to the completely insane. Sanity is the measurement of one’s rationality, of one’s awareness of and attachment to the outside world. A person may take the same pieces and put them together in a different way, or one might be using different pieces entirely from those that the rest of the world uses. Either way, this constitutes a breakdown in the ability to draw correct conclusions from stimuli.
When people write like this, they are so overwhelmed by these thoughts that they seek to control them by putting them to paper… the thought is that if they can arrange them in some way, categorize them, group them, that one might slow their repetitive litany. The thoughts themselves are perceived as the danger, rather than a symptom. And in committing them to paper, the person in question is writing down what is most important to them at that moment in time.
In this sense, the writer is laying down truth of a purity that the rest of us have a difficult time mustering… because we fear the truth.
I think we all fear the truth on some level… we lie to ourselves, we maintain fantasies about ourselves, our lives, and our futures. We sometimes live in fear of being found out, of being exposed. The honesty with which one must write exposes one… it creates an emotional intimacy, which is also a vulnerability. And so, we write in code; poetry, novels, and short fiction. Or we transmute the truth into a visual form that can move the viewer’s heart; it can expose them to the truth without putting them in danger.
This is one of the great paradoxes of the artist… that we must strive for truth and at the same time carefully avoid it.
This is not a bad thing, really… we obviously cannot be vulnerable to everyone who reads our work. I don’t know that there’s any way for one to live as a social mammal with that high level of personal investment and emotional risk.
But the insane recognize different dangers. The pressure of racing thoughts and compulsions poses a greater existential threat than the risk of emotional injury from the outside world, a world that already largely rejects them. And so, they are able to commit their thoughts to writing with a much higher degree of honesty. Some of what they will write will make a kind of sense; some will not. But there’s a jagged purity to it all that we can learn from.
In addition, these voices normally disappear… they are thrown away and rendered illegible rather quickly by the process of decay, never to be reproduced by the writer who in all likelihood already exists in a state of marginalization. Was it an accident that this paper ended up in the mailbox at my work? Probably… who knows? But once I have these words transcribed, they will be one more little voice, however deranged, that has a slightly longer life than it would’ve otherwise. Maybe it’s silly of me, but I think that’s actually kind of important.
These words are a verbal representation of someone’s mind, someone’s soul… no matter how broken. And that gives them weight.
I’ll post what I can after I’m done writing it all down. Probably next week sometime.