It is necessary, once a writer has made some kind of discovery or experienced some kind of epiphany, to put that discovery and epiphany at arm’s length — to contemplate it and make it the object of meditation. This may be why “automatic writing” and its associated techniques will never be able to produce a true poem or work of art; it lacks that alienation required to craft it into a communicable literary or theatrical experience. Joyce’s Dubliners is not a collection of epiphanies, but a collection of descriptions of epiphanies (whether Joyce’s own or those of his characters) that required Joyce to delineate and craft their form, one step removed from the experience itself.
The dramatist may be the writer most charged with detaching that experience from himself and place it at that arm’s length. That he is required to find form, characters, and dialogue necessitates the use of extended imagination into that form, characters, and dialogue, and it is not an easy task to juggle these extensions of himself into so many elements. At its center, Erlkönig is about mourning and loss, and it has its roots in a particular dramatic event — the death of a child, the victim of Tay-Sachs disease (though the name of the disease is not mentioned in the play) — and how it has affected various individuals in the wake of her death. The play takes place one year after the death, and the five characters of the play each have their own specific reactions. Those formal requirements of the play force me to put mourning and pain outside of myself; to imagine those same qualities in The Other, and in a time (in this case the future) other than the present that allows an evocation of the abilities of time to both heal and wound.
There comes a point at which the writer separates the work at hand from the experiences that gave rise to it in the necessity to gain that required distance. Erlkönig is the product of my own experience — the death of my parents, the birth of my children — but Erlkönig is not about my own experience at all, but about how I can imagine mourning and suffering in others, and communicate this to other individuals who have not shared those experiences.
Emily Rapp’s essay in the New York Times, “Notes from a dragon mom,” was another attempt to come to terms with and significantly communicate to others mourning and loss, that of her own young son Ronan. That was published back in October 2011, when I then started working on The Elf King; yesterday in Salon Rapp discussed the approaching death of her son, just over the age of two now, in “Someone to hold me”:
All the books he’ll never read have been moved to another room; all the toys he cannot touch because he’s paralyzed have been packaged up and taken out of sight. Two Dia de los Muertos figurines remain to guard the door. Fifteen years later I understood needing to be held in the face of abject pain — the connection between desire and death — that Stacy revealed to me on that cold winter day in Boston. It was about a white-hot, unstoppable need to act with the body, as a way of staving off the reality of death. As if the body was ever any bulwark against that fact. Death=desire. Overly conscious of the first part of this primal equation, I was brimming with the second.
Rapp’s form — the personal essay — of necessity is a more intimate form, one-to-one in the reading experience of the essay rather than one-to-many in the spectatorial experience of the play, but what she says about bringing these epiphanies and experiences into the foreground of experience is true for the dramatist as well:
What does it mean to be human, at this time, in this country? I believe it means practicing a radical generosity and empathy, especially when it’s a struggle. You must look around in the soft darkness of your waking life, which is the partner of your dream life. You must understand that accompanying you always is your animal, primal, complicated, desire-driven, calm but desperate, brutal and brilliant self, blinking and breathing gently in the dark, waiting for you to let it into the light.
I am not sure about whether that self is “brilliant,” at least when it comes to me, but the last sentence describes the aesthetic project — the self in the form of the work.