Hunger was constitutional with him,
wine, cigarettes, liquor, need need need
Until he went to pieces.
The pieces sat up & wrote.
–from John Berryman’s “Dream Songs”
Hunger is relative. It can be physical hunger, yes. We all know the feeling of an empty stomach, the weakness in our limbs. Hunger can be mental as well, the need to know, all the questions we ask as writers, as human beings: who are we, why are we here, where did we come from, where are we going, and so on. But a deeper hunger we all experience is one we take for granted, is more hidden, less accessible. Yet it may be the most important one of all: hunger of the soul. Who doesn’t intimately know that chronic sense of meaninglessness in what we call “daily life?” There is no lab test for this hunger. No microscope or telescope to see it. No app to follow its course. No ultimate “authority” to turn to for answers. Not for this hunger. And unabated hunger of the soul can have extremely nasty results including anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses, suicide, homicide, war….
Yet at least two multi-billion-dollar industries thrive on “relieving” this hunger: pharmaceutical and medical. NPR recently interviewed Atlantic magazine editor Scott Stossel about his book, My Age Of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, And The Search For Peace Of Mind. Stossel talks about his phobias and anxieties. His fears include turophobia, a fear of cheese; asthenophobia, a fear of fainting; and claustrophobia. He says he wrote the book to help him understand and find relief from — or redemption in — anxious suffering. He’s a very high-functioning anxious person and in fact, before this book, most of his colleagues were unaware of his problems.
“Unaware of his problems.” Indeed. We carry on with our smiling faces, meet other smiling faces on the streets and in the hallways of our lives. No one but their owners knows what goes on behind those smiles packed like suitcases, ready to go off, literally. Yet we all maintain, somehow. For the children’s sake. To keep show some backbone. To not cave. To hang tough. To win the war. No excuses. No apologies. We have to keep up appearances or lose our jobs, our reputations, our fill-in-the-blanks. We are afraid of both death and living. Fear of living (vitaphobia) is similar to writer’s block, no? Someone (I can’t find the reference), probably a writer, was recently ask to sum up our daily existence in a meaningless, fragmented, alienated society in a single word. The reply? “Cold.” I’d call that an apt description.
Again I’m writing about something here that may not seem to have a connection to writing fiction. But isn’t fiction all about wanting something and not getting it? About tension, conflict, and frustration? What a perfect subject, this inescapable discomfort, this incurable anxiety we all know deeply as we breach the past and future here and now. Isn’t fiction about catharsis and maybe even transformation in both our characters and ourselves? Let’s be honest. Why else do we write? Yes, writers are notorious for substance abuse, and who can fault us as, along with other artists, the barometers of our societies? But novels and stories can give meaning inside a vortex of meaninglessness. Not to say they give “hope,” because as Dickinson wrote, hope is a thing with feathers on it. Hope assumes a way out, which is problematic at best. So, I don’t know about you, but my heroes are all unsung, the ones who are drowning and abused and hurting and crying out, everyday heroes like you and me who feel that hunger of the soul and in the onslaught of defeat, sit up and write about it.