The Imaginary World and the Real World

The Canadian Rockies on a cloudy day

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

This excerpt, taken from page 99, describes how my creative life and my real life run parallel, emotionally speaking. If I’m feeling positive, my stories are positive. If I’m sad, the stories in my mind are also sad. And if I’m ill in real life, it takes a lot of mental strength for me to picture healthy, active characters. This doesn’t mean that I can’t write about happy events on sad days. It just means that it requires more willpower.

For this reason, I counsel part-time writers to hoard their emotional strength and not to beat themselves up and try to force themselves to write when they’re feeling too drained to cope with it. I also suggest that part-time writers try their best to work on fiction-writing early in the day. The novel a part-time writer writes in the predawn hush before the children wake up will be quite different from the novel that same writer writes at the end of the day, after things have gone sour at work, the dog has thrown up, and the baby has refused to fall asleep.

The events related in the excerpt below take place immediately after my older daughter, Valerie, ran away from college and cut off all ties with her doctors and her family. Valerie had been struggling with severe depression and anxiety for two years at this point, and she had spent time in two different hospitals, with one stay lasting eight weeks. When her therapist strongly recommended another hospital stay, Valerie refused to consider it, and she took off into the unknown with two friends she had met on the Internet. She counts herself very fortunate indeed that those young men turned out to be the honest, well-meaning people they had purported to be. Many young women in Valerie’s circumstances haven’t been so lucky.

I crumpled. I did. After a solid year of worry, of anguish, of panicky insomniac plans for how to drag my family whole and entire through the next day—the next week—the next year—I curled up under a mound of blankets and shut down.

I had no more thoughts. No more hopes. No dreams.

I lay motionless and watched gray blobs float across the salmon-colored dusk inside my eyelids. Or I opened my eyes and watched the flimsy shadows of tree branches slide across the cool blue wallpaper of the bedroom. Occasionally, stripy cat Tor might jump up and make a warm nest at my feet. Occasionally, a bird might sing outside. In the evening, Joe or Elena would come in and stand by the bed. But when I heard the door open, I would pretend to be asleep.

I hid my injured soul away inside my safest, most comforting daydreams. I lay in bed, and my imagination brought me other worlds where characters lay in bed. They lay between crisp sheets in a tuberculosis hospital, surrounded by snow and fir trees and the clean, clear, ice-cold mountain air. Or they lay paralyzed in rose-scented hot baths while encouraging attendants massaged their shattered limbs.

The best doctors and nurses tiptoed in and out of my daydreams and brought my characters relief and care. But they couldn’t get better because I couldn’t get better. They would never get well again.

A part of me was missing now, torn out of my soul. Call it trust. Call it hope for the future. Whatever it was, that piece of my soul had kept me going through all those anxious months.

But it was gone now. My daughter had taken it with her.

And my daughter . . .

My daughter was gone.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of the Canadian Rockies on a cloudy day copyright 2010 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

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