Searching for the Art Beyond the Struggle

March 2, 2022 § 11 Comments

By Rae Pagliarulo

“I’m having a writer/identity crisis,” I say to my therapist, whose smile is glowing from my laptop screen.

“I know!” she blurts back. “The very best kind. This is huge.”

I have never been one to buy into that narrative that to make art, a person has to suffer. The Struggling Artist trope is tired and typical, I think, and it only exists because capitalism doesn’t reward creativity – not because suffering begets it. But here I am, trying to navigate my own relationship between the two, and to be honest, I’m totally lost.

For as long as I can remember, I have been 3 things: the resentful daughter of a high-functioning alcoholic, a person dealing with undiagnosed unipolar depression, and a writer. Most of my writing has been about navigating and making sense of the first two things. I’ve always felt like I had no control over either of them. No matter what I did, my dad careened between Father of the Year and a loopy, self-destructive drunk, crying on the floor, and my depression seemed to come and go as it pleased, never really going away, just lightening up enough that I could function half the time. Even if there were ways to make things better, my depression wouldn’t let me see them – I could not imagine being another way. This mindset was all I knew.

By the grace of someone (more likely Joan Didion than God) I managed to eke out a writing life, and for all the many times I tried to work out the puzzles of my codependent, obligation-filled existence, there always seemed to be more unanswerable questions to essay my way through. My father’s impact on me and the tinge of depression-gray affected all areas of my life, hurling me into conundrums in my romantic relationships, friendships, even work. Now, not only was I thoroughly steeped in this mindset, but I had also created an external narrative, a writerly identity, defined by that mindset. It wasn’t just a perspective, my mounting essays and articles insisted – it was reality.

Then, in the last couple of years, all while navigating the pandemic, two big things happened. First, my father unexpectedly died. Second, I finally decided it was time to go on antidepressants. During this time, there was no creativity, no journaling, no writing, no generation of anything new at all. I was just figuring out how to live.

Now, I am 2 ½ years out from my father’s death, and 6 months on Lexapro, and I find myself in a peculiar, totally unfamiliar place.

I am, for the first time in my life, good.

After much reflection and prayer to the Universe and digging into ugly, hidden places, I feel like my relationship with my dad has healed (maybe even improved?) since his passing, and I haven’t had a depressive episode in months. There is room in my brain for things I haven’t considered before – good things! Positive things! Possible things!

But when I sit down to journal or write or even scribble nonsense, I find myself coming up empty. The two biggest factors which defined my narrative – my reality – are now forever altered, and even though I am feeling so good as a person, I have no idea who I am on the page.

What do I have to say, I wonder, when there is no crisis to puzzle through? When my perspective is clear? When all the resentment and obligation I felt towards my dad has been replaced with forgiveness and affection? What do I have to say now that the two big hairy problems that made my existence such a struggle are transformed?

I know that this is not a new problem, but it’s complicated by the question of voice as well. Was my persona on the page fully informed by my past reality? Is it possible that now, without feeling the tension of pushing against my circumstances, that my very voice has changed? My ability to find a moment of levity in the middle of heartbreak – what happens to that after the heart is healed?

My instinct tells me that it’s too soon to answer any of these questions. And perhaps the answer isn’t waiting in some reachable place – perhaps it’s a journey of starting over. Of coming to the page anew, without the trappings of the past weighing me down. As a nonfiction writer, it feels scary not to lean on retold stories from my life, but perhaps this is the exciting place of possibility that my therapist is so thrilled to witness –  the ability to find out what I think, what I feel, what I believe, what I wonder, within a completely new context. Not just to reach back and say, “This is how I got here,” but to also extend forwards and find a way to say, “This is where I’m going.”

Rae Pagliarulo (she/her) is the Associate Editor of Hippocampus Magazine and has published poems, articles, and essays with Full Grown People, the Manifest-Station, r.kv.r.y quarterly, Bedfellows, the Brevity Blog, and more. She is the co-editor of Getting to the Truth: The Craft and Practice of Creative Nonfiction from Books by Hippocampus, and by day, she works as a consultant, helping Philadelphia nonprofits to achieve their missions through strategy and fundraising.

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§ 11 Responses to Searching for the Art Beyond the Struggle

  • Nina Gaby says:

    It’s almost time to set up my computer to be that smiling cheerleader over tele psychiatry and I look forward to sending some of my patients over to this today when our 30 minutes are up. Your words fit beyond writing.Patience and openness to change. Perfect.

  • napoleonomama says:

    Thank you for the courage to share this piece, it is engaging, well written and speaks on so many levels about the writing process and finding ourselves when least expected.

  • kperrymn says:

    I love this essay. Your candor about your writing persona–past and possible–is inspiring. And witty. 😊 Congratulations on your new discovery.

  • Rae, you beautifully describe this period of vulnerability. You will find your new voice. I think you’ve channeled the voice of the possible before – I see it in the last paragraph of your “Me and Mrs. Bee”. And your voice in this Brevity piece is no less compelling than it is in “Bee”. While that may have flowed from your personal hardships, the “Bee” piece could have been as powerful if the tensions had only been those of others instead of your own. Perhaps another question is where do you want to spend your emotional time and energy as a writer? If you’d like to shift to a different kind of tension, I wonder if it would help to play with exploring opposites and then the spaces between them, just as an exercise (e.g., winter vs summer, a rich or poor experience of a place or thing). I wish you luck, and look forward to reading more from you.

  • You capture that feeling of bewilderment that creeps up on us in strange and unexpected ways. Your story reminds me that I am not alone in straddling the known and unknown, but oh, the possibilities remain endless. Thanks for the inspiration and encouragement.

  • Your statement: “There is room in my brain for things I haven’t considered before – good things! Positive things! Possible things!” really inspires me. As the dutiful daughter of an alcoholic mother, I realize I have shut myself off from many new experiences. Ah, but the Possibilities! Thanks.

  • Bluejay says:

    Went through a similar transformation after I quit drinking. Best of luck on your path.

  • lgood67334 says:

    Such a well-written reaction to the upbeat changes in your life. You’ll find more to write about. There’s always Russia and Ukraine–and the rest of the world.

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