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Delicious descriptions: Fiona Wright on writing and hunger

March 20, 2016

Fiona Wright, Small acts of disappearanceIn my recent review of Fiona Wright’s Small acts of disappearance, I focused on her analysis and her experience of anorexia, but, as I mentioned in the review, she was, already, a published writer. An award-winning poet for a start: her poetry collection, Knuckled, won the Dame Mary Gilmore Award for a first collection. Her poetry and essays have been published in several literary journals. Consequently, it’s not surprising that writing makes an appearance in Small acts …

In her essay, “In Hospital”, she writes:

I know now that the impulse I have to starve comes from exactly the same place as my impulse to write: hunger, like writing, is a mediator. It stand between me and the world, between my self and the things that might cause it harm. Hunger is addictive, and it is intensely sensual, pulling the body between extremes of hyper-alertness and a foggy trance-like dream state. And like writing, it lets me stand clear, separate and intact; it lets me stand on the outside. I spent years determined to stay on the outside.

Is this a common experience of writers, that it separates them from the world, I mean? I guess so, in a way, because writers tend to be observers – and it is hard to observe and be part of something at the same time, isn’t it?

In “In Miniatures”, she discusses how the enjoyment of miniatures involves narrowing one’s focus and attending to detail. However, “detail-oriented thinking” is psychologically related to hunger because the malnourished brain becomes intensely focused: the world shrinks, and becomes small enough to handle, to not be a threat. The trouble is, she writes:

detail has for so long been the stuff and substance of my poetry, my craft: the accrual of small, odd things, contradictory things, the things that undercut or illuminate the social world. It has always been detail that I’ve thought makes the worlds we write specific, poignant and, in essence, poetic. And it’s hard to contemplate that my writing, the thing I feel has kept me sane, may very well have been based on nothing more than cognitive pathology.

Hmmm … That “nothing more” is perhaps her being harsh on herself. I suspect that even if “detail-oriented thinking” is part of the anorexic pathology, Wright’s writing comes from a bigger part of herself too. But her fear that in losing hunger she may also lose her writing is palpable.

And then, in “In Group” she writes at length about John Berryman’s Recovery/Delusions, two books in one – his unfinished novel, Recovery, and a collection of poems, Delusions. Recovery is an autobiographical novel about an alcoholic man in a psychiatric hospital. Wright writes at length about Berryman’s character’s experience of group therapy and her own, and in so doing also discusses writing, its impulses and sources. I won’t share any more of this: it’s better that you read her book, rather than my ramblings on it!

Instead, I’ll conclude on one little point. Recovery is unfinished because John Berryman committed suicide while writing it. Wright comments:

the novel simply stops, in a suspension … Part of me thinks this is exactly as it should be: an unintentional but radical inconclusiveness, a denial of the three-act structure that biography is often made to fit …

Novel, biography, the same thing in the context of narrative, I suppose. Anyhow, this reminded me once again of EM Forster’s wish (in Aspects of the novel) for novels to be able to end when the novelist gets “muddled or bored”. Instead, he says, “most novels do fail here – there is this disastrous standstill while logic takes over the command from flesh and blood.”

Wright concludes her essay with her own intriguing idea about “logical and fixed conclusions” versus “the unfixed and uncontainable”, but I’m leaving it here. If you’re interested, you know what to do.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. March 20, 2016 12:14 pm

    Your posts are encouring me to think that she will win the Stella Prize. I hope so.

    • March 20, 2016 4:13 pm

      Such a hard one Meg … This is so different but would be a good win on multiple fronts wouldn’t it?

  2. March 20, 2016 3:04 pm

    You’ve hooked me, she seems to be a very fine writer. Re the impulse to starve/the impulse to write it seems similar to what some manic-depressives say, that their art arises out of their illness, that they cannot afford the ‘dumbing down’ that comes with treatment.

    • March 20, 2016 4:16 pm

      Yes, good point Bill. I have heard that too. What a quandary to be in. Sometimes I feel grateful that I’m ordinary. So many of our great artists have such hard lives. We benefit, but the cost …

  3. sharkell permalink
    March 20, 2016 4:24 pm

    I had to break my triple tbr dare to pick up this book – I don’t feel too guilty as I had been doing very well and this book was shouting out to me. I am only about a fifth of the way through but I am finding the book captivating – Wright is able to describe her experiences so vividly that she sheds a lot of light on the horrible phenomena of eating disorders.

    • March 20, 2016 7:40 pm

      Haha, Sharkell, that’s saying something – I’m so pleased that you are so far feeling it was worth going out on a limb for! I don’t imagine your interest will wane now that you are into it.

  4. March 21, 2016 9:20 am

    Thanks for this, WG. The book sounds fascinating. I read a lot of non-fiction for research, so I tend toward fiction for relaxation, but you’ve really tempted me, especially in the connections between writing and hunger. I’ve read quite a bit about medieval mystics and their commitment to fasting, often as a way toward transcendence — though that’s way too simplistic a description. But Wright seems to be talking about something different again…

    • March 21, 2016 10:19 am

      She is Robyn … though to some degree the end result might sometimes be the same (until it goes too far). She does talk about heightened alertness and awareness. But there’s a complex physical/psychological nexus that happens where the brain actually starts to change physically when it is starved.

  5. March 23, 2016 3:02 am

    I want to read this book! I had better get published in the US. Fascinating the things she equates with hunger and why.

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