By Robin Lippincott, Spalding Low-Residency MFA
If a wound is great you cannot turn it into something that is spoken, it can barely be written. —Michael Ondaatje, Warlight
I want to write about not writing, because sometimes we don’t; and sometimes when we don’t, we don’t because we can’t. (Of course, there are numerous reasons why writers don’t/can’t write, many of which are chronicled in Tillie Olsen’s seminal book, Silences).
As some of you know, I recently experienced the death of my partner of 36 years, Lee Salkovitz. Two years ago, during the fall season, Lee was experiencing some of the troubling symptoms of ALS, signs we knew all-too-well because his father and one of his four brothers had died of ALS (yes, this had for a long time been an albatross hanging over us). Lee was finally diagnosed in December 2016, and he died on the 6th of May, 2017. During that time, all I could offer was a minimum level of care and comfort for his suffering: it was, without question, the worst thing I have ever experienced, (and having grown up gay in the rural south in the 1960s, I’ve experienced a lot of bad things).
Despite the advice of some to “take notes” during Lee’s illness (the thought of which, honestly, nauseated me), I didn’t, nor could I write at all—not in the worrisome months before his diagnosis, not during the harrowing days of the fast-moving, hideously debilitating disease itself, before he died, and not, for a long while, afterwards.
Then, my friend and colleague Debra Kang Dean generously reached out to me, and suggested we write renku together. I didn’t know the form, but Debra taught it to me, and for over a year that was the only writing I did, and it was a lifeline: to say that writing renku with Debra may have saved my life is not hyperbole. Three of these renku were published in Diode Poetry Journal, Volume 11, Number 1.
But now what? is what I’ve been asking myself. Lee died a year and five-plus months ago, and because I’m a writer and have been a writer for all of my adult life, it would seem that I will have to write something about what he and I went through, perhaps before I’m able to write anything else. But what? And how? And when? I know that many people have experienced similar tragedies in their lives, that Lee and I are not unique in this. And yet, no one experienced what we experienced in the way we experienced it; and of course, getting that down on the page is one of the great values of writing.
Now what? Six or eight weeks ago, I finally wrote a piece of prose, the first in over two years. It is one page, and it is “about” my response to Lee’s illness and death. “Only one page?” you might ask. Yes, that was all I could manage. Can manage. Right now. Because to write about the experience I have to, to some extent, re-live it. And there is also the question of how to write about it in a way that’s of value to others, and that bears witness to how bravely Lee faced the disease, how proud I was and am of how he maintained his dignity, remained very much himself, to the very end. I don’t know. Thus, that one page, though now I have also written this.
Has something happened in your life that stopped your writing, and that, in turn, made you feel as though you would have to write about it, but you were unsure how, or when? I would love to hear from you, and also for this blog to serve as a reminder that you are not alone.
The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say, ‘What are you going through? —Simone Weil
Robin Lippincott has been a member of the Spalding MFA faculty since 2001. He has published six books, most recently, Blue Territory: A Meditation on the Life and Art of Joan Mitchell.