Sunday, June 6, 2010



In Yosemite on Thanksgiving
after the summer of your suicide,
I wake to frosted morning meadows,

each blade etched in white,
the white-shrouded spokes
of horse parsnip. Underfoot,

beaded with ice crystals,
scarlet-veined maple leaves.
How could you stoop to drink

the blank water of Lethe?
How could you give up
the heart-breaking

beauty of the earth?
In school I fell in love with
ancient voyages – as if Athena

touched me on the shoulder,
sending me like Odysseus
into a storm-lit world.


In a fraying whisper you said,
“I want to do something great.”
For greatness, one has to be

wounded, hurt exactly enough.
I’m still Odysseus, in love
with the heart-breaking

beauty of the earth.
But a companion has been lost –
a frosted leaf

trampled under that
wounding and immense
life you wouldn’t have.

~ Oriana © 2011


Several of  my friends were particularly struck by the lines, 

For greatness, one has to be 
wounded, hurt exactly enough. 

In a prose commentary, I'd like to amend "greatness" simply to "outstanding achievement." 

Asked “What does a writer needs most?” Hemingway famously replied, “An unhappy childhood.” Add to this what someone else said: “Genius is the way we invent ourselves out of desperation” -- combine it with all that’s been said about “extreme effort,” and you get a picture of creativity that is far removed from any myth of easy-going bohemian bliss.

The thought of a virtuoso practicing for eight to twelve hours a day before a concert is unnerving enough. We know this can’t possibly be pure joy. In fact we wonder how come their hands don’t bleed (in some cases, they do). Critics of Schenk’s book have indeed pointed out that his theory of extreme, deliberate practice does not explain why it is only an exceptional person who is willing to practice until their hands bleed. Obviously, we have here the mystery of exceptional drive.

Persistence, like intelligence, appears to be a genetic trait, but that explanation goes only so far. The environment also has to be just right. Totally nurturing, with ideal parents and supportive teachers? Oddly enough, when we read the biographies of great achievers, we encounter crazy parents who today would be called “dysfunctional”; we encounter harsh childhood, sometimes poverty; an outright trauma, such as being an orphan, is perfectly common. (True, there is often just one person who is supportive; more of this later.)

It seems that Hemingway was right. Even minor achievement (and that is already a great deal above the norm) seems to be connected with a great deal of unhappiness in early life. Yet common sense indicates that the trauma can’t be so overwhelming as to destroy the individual (though that depends on the individual), or so minor that anyone can overcome it without resorting to unusual behavior. It needs to create sufficient desperation so that the person does indeed need an escape from oppressive reality – and what I call “extreme effort” is a particularly effective escape.

To make the picture even more “incorrect,” the achiever definitely does not lead a “balanced life.” If the person is not compulsive-obsessive enough, then s/he is not abnormal enough to accomplish anything out of the ordinary, at least in areas that require many years just to master the craft (the usual rule is that it takes ten years of disciplined daily effort; with poetry, it may take longer – note that there are no child prodigies in poetry). 

I also think that the right trauma (again, I emphasize that it does not have to be childhood) makes a poet's poem more urgent, full of emotional intensity. And intensity is one criterion I go by when I ponder a young poet's potential. 

Here is Una Hynum's poem that touches on (without naming it) her father's alcoholism: 

The Blueberry Pickers
Up where the blueberries grow
on tall bushes, my mother
in shorts and halter is picking
rhythmically, her breasts swing
heavy and the pail is quietly full.

At the edge of the shadowy woods
I sit on the ground among the low bushes,
eating as many berries as I pick
so each one I keep resounds
on the bottom of my galvanized pail,
a knell that tells my mother
I am not doing the job, which is
to pick enough berries for dinner.

The sky is blue like the sheen of my berries.
Her berries, the ones too high for me
to reach, are darker like storm clouds.
Are you hot? she asks, but she
is thinking of the wash she should
be doing, the sun brushing her shoulders
with its bronze of heat.
She is sweating, smells of menthol cigarettes
the doctor prescribed to calm  her nerves.

Lately she is not really here with me,
as if my father is the child.
I am hot, and sticky and ants
are crawling on my legs. I don’t
answer her question – just look deep
into the blue cluster that finally
covers the bottom of my pail.

Why does she cringe when he comes
in the door? Why must I be rushed
to bed when the sun is still up,
the air rich with electricity,
distant thunder and the mournful
sound of a whippoorwill.

            ~ Una Hynum
Now, on the angel side (much of material on creativity reads like a devil’s bargain) – what about the supportive person or persons? Isn't there always someone during the formative years whose believes in the gifted child's potential and nurtures his or her talent? 

This may be true for most. However, as someone who’s found waiting for the right teacher to be just like waiting for the Prince, I was glad to have come across a more complicated paradigm that finally fit my personal history. Oddly enough, instead of mentors, I kept hitting on “anti-mentors,” the foremost among them being a mother-figure at UCLA who told me I had no talent. She was the one who delivered what the visionary writer P.K. Dick calls the “sentence that kills.” If you are lucky, you will eventually meet a person who will deliver the antidote, Dick says. Three painful years later, I fell in love with a man to whom I wrote a few letters while out of town. He told me, “I was about to break off with you, but those letters were an eye-opener: you have talent!” Now I know that statements about talent are pretty meaningless, since talent takes so much development, but back then that was exactly the antidote I needed.

I was lucky: I did receive the right antidote. But it’s only now that I see I was lucky also to have had a life “rich in sorrows” (to translate that interesting German adjective, schmerzenreich). Those sorrows were sufficient to make me crave an escape, provided by creative work, and yet not so crushing as to push to commit suicide (though the thought of suicide and automatic suicidal imagery have been my constant companions until quite recently, when I realized it’s simply too late for suicide – see ).

My other piece of terrific luck was the fact that my genes favored compulsive-obsessive activity rather than substance abuse. Otherwise, given the level of stress in my youth, I’d be a goner. In fact, though just a few years ago I saw myself as terribly unlucky, I now see that I have been very lucky! 

I have known those who have not been lucky. In particular, one young man, dear to me, committed suicide. I wrote many poems in the aftermath of this tragedy, including the one that opens this post. 

So that's the "dirty secret" of great art and of exceptional achievement in general: suffering and abnormality (e.g. Asperger's syndrome, or being highly compulsive-obsessive) -- in addition to everything else that also has to be there: the right genetic component of "talent," the necessary minimum of support (at least one person who believes in you), the right peers (again, at least one person), sufficient health and energy, plus all kinds of factors we can only guess at.

Friends often ask me if I would have become a poet if I'd stayed in Poland. There is no way of knowing. Possibly so, but not in the intense way that I am now. Sometimes I am haunted by the fantasy of meeting, at seventeen, someone very wise who tells me, "America will not make you happy. It's much easier to be happy if you don't leave your homeland. But if you do go to America, you will suffer enough to become a poet." 

Because of the high esteem in which poets were held in Poland, I retroactively imagine myself accepting this bargain. Bonjour tristesse. Now, having lived in a culture that has no such esteem for poets, my audience miniscule at best, I wonder. Many, many times I couldn't help but think that leaving Poland was the tragedy of my life. Once Warsaw was lost, my life went downhill. I could never regain what I had then. But, given my colossal delusions about America, did I have a choice? 

Besides, I had an enormous drive to "see the world." Ironically, that didn't really happen; by contrast with my Polish cousins, I am not well traveled. But I did become a poet. And in order to preserve my sanity, after having experienced every variety of depression, I can't afford to think too much about this matter, now that I finally committed myself to not being depressed. For me, the only alternative to depression, that slowest and most torturous mode of suicide, is creative work: writing and teaching. And thus I proceed, without asking about meaning, audience, or any other matters. I proceed by blind faith. I walk on water.

I read this: a woman said (of her alcoholic father) "if he hadn't been who he was I wouldn't be who I am."


One woman I knew said, "If I'd had a happy marriage, I would have never done anything with my life." Actually I've heard this from several women. So it doesn't have to be childhood. If the unhappiness happens later, and you have the right genes and persistence and luck, you just get a later start. Misfortune can make us or break us. Those artists and other achievers who made it not just in spite of misfortune, but in large measure because of being challenged by misfortune are assumed to have had greater talent. But I see talent largely as a personality variable. As someone said, "You have to have talent for talent." 
I'm certainly not advising that anyone seek trauma in order to become a writer, or a better writer. Trauma happens. The person may or may not survive. 
There is sacrifice, since it’s a god-eat-god world and every god is a jealous god. In order to safeguard her time and energy for writing, a woman can make the painful decision not to have children. A painter may give up a lucrative commercial career in order to follow his passion. Is the choice real, or only apparent? Rilke says that a poet needs to ask himself only one question: If I didn't write, would I die?

I used to ask myself that question from time to time, always answering yes -- until one day, to my astonishment, I answered No. Thus began the eight years of journalism, which I don't regret; for one thing, I learned that I could make good money, and I experienced the amazing joy of being offered jobs and turning them down. But I missed the beauty of poetry. I couldn’t deny my love for poetry. In the end, love won. Grief followed almost immediately – as result of po-biz, i.e. all that's connected with "recognition," and not as result of writing poems. I need hardly point out that creative work has its agonies, but it also provides great joy, and in that sense a poet's life is quite rich and rewarding ("An artist is never poor").  

One more quotation, Hemingway again: “You have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt, use it – don’t cheat with it.” 

Below: Ernest Hemingway as a baby, 1901


  1. Oriana, I've have a number of friends, smart, creative, wonderful people who have given up. Chosen death rather than life. These were people with gifts so powerful that I felt lucky to spend any time with them at all. They chose death because they were alone with their talent.

    Did the talent isolate them? Make them seem peculiar to others? Make them afraid of others or uncomfortable with others? I think it did. I wish I could have kept each of them alive, convinced them of my friendship, but they never heard my voice offering it.

  2. Hi, Oriana, thank you.

    This past winter a woman who had been supportive of me, the poet Rachel Wetzsteon, took her own life. In her last email to me, sent in autumn, she said she was having a hard time. I told her that she'd been supportive to me, and I offered to be supportive to her. She never took me up on the offer.

    I am Catholic and suicide is a big no no in Catholicism. I agree with that stance when the suicide has resources and loved ones.

    I believe that those suffering unendurable suffering, with no resources and no loved ones, have every right to commit suicide.

    There really are people on this planet about whom no one cares, and we have no right to judge them.

    On this question of genius and suffering, etc, as ever I'll offer a link to my own blog. I wish I knew how to make these links active. Let me try this. I don't think that posters are able to edit comments like this, so if this doesn't work, i won't be able to go back and edit it.

  3. Thank you, John and Danusha.

    It's such a common tragedy, the suicide of the gifted -- who are also typically the walking wounded, full of pathology that may be inseparable from whatever it is that we call talent. Deborah Digges, who, in spite of widowhood, had so much to live for, whom everyone adored, who was beautiful and successful, etc, jumped to her death last year, the day before my birthday -- again making me wonder how come I survived my Years of Tears (more accurately, Years of Howling). The temptation to end all suffering was very strong. I went through a number of theories, including my "Polish spirit" -- I come from a family of war heroes, and felt they'd be ashamed if I died by my own hand, rather than "with honor." But there is no solid explanation; possibly my accumulation of trauma stopped just short of destroying me; possibly, more than anything, it was luck. Yet somehow I don't think so. I suspect that my knowing, since early childhood, countless stories of people who endured much, much worse than what I was enduring, including Auschwitz, left a huge imprint on me. Oriana

  4. A quick PS to what John says about the isolation and feeling different and uncomfortable with others. I constantly feel that I am "from another planet." It's difficult enough to have come from another culture, to have lost my peer group (in the sense of shared childhood experiences, shared language, books we all read, music we listened to). But I am also not a family person, definitely not a "people person" (except with rare kindred minds -- then I am a fiercely loyal friend), and of course spend endless hours alone with books and at the computer. But already in childhood I felt different, so I am extremely used to this. Nevertheless, I can't deny an intense longing for finding a group that could act as a real family -- companions with whom to share the same joys, the same passions. But I don't let loneliness overwhelm me (as I did in the past -- but that was a self-indulgence). There is always more work than I can possibly fit in the day. And more great music to listen to. Mozart is one reason I've survived. Schubert. And all the great books. Once I had a dream that I decided to commit suicide and was walking around a (generic) campus, saying goodbye to strangers. Suddenly I found myself in front of the library. I woke up repeating the thought, "So many books . . . so many books."

  5. Oriana, you wrote:

    "I suspect that my knowing, since early childhood, countless stories of people who endured much, much worse than what I was enduring, including Auschwitz, left a huge imprint on me."

    Getting "Bieganski" written and published has been a Via Dolorosa, and that is NOT hyperbole. John Guzlowski knows much of the story, and he can back me up here.

    I often despaired, but I never quit. Never. Even after the most twisted, the most scandalous, of behavior on the part of the univeristy presses who had the book before actual publisher.

    These betrayals were not just of one person (me) or one book (Bieganski). They were, as the editors / board members / publishers / professors often openly admitted, were betrayals of truth, of courage, of underrepresented people. But they "had to do what they had to do."

    I would feel the blade go into my chest ... and sit down at the computer, and begin seeking new outlets, typing up new query letters.

    And it's EXACTLY because of what you mention, above. When you are reading, and writing, everyday, about people like Wladyslaw Bartoszewski and Janusz Korczak ... you can't quit. It's like anti-venin.

  6. It's the "never give up" ideal. My mother tried to instill it in me. Nevertheless, when I think of all the time I spent despairing, I wince. It seems a miracle that I am still alive.

    I wish I could see my past in a more heroic light, in keeping with the life stories of my relatives. It was quite an experience to see the family name on a monument to war heroes! My life seems to have evolved in a strange, almost chaotic manner, and only now I am breaking through to some clarity (I think). Nevertheless, because of my relatives, at least I felt ashamed to be considering suicide. I felt that dying with honor was the only option, and for me personally it meant to keep on living and trying.