Writers and Illness

My daughter and I are both ill today--nothing serious, just a tummy virus, and not even a very bad one. Too bad we initially thought her illness was related to her unwise binge on Sour Patch Kids and Doritos! I'm just praying none of the persons who have been around us for the last 36 hours will catch the bug. I can't stand being a Typhoid Mary. But since my husband is not down yet, I hope that means that this virus is not highly contagious.

Still, the bug has brought our activities to a grinding halt. Now we're resting on couches in the living room, slowly adding one food at a time back into our diets. And I do mean slowly. We're up to dry cheerios and chicken broth, not simultaneously. I'm drinking Diet Mountain Dew because it's the safest bet to replace coffee when I still need my caffeine fix.

Anyway, I've had plenty of time to think about illness and writing, as we convalesce.

The lives of many famous authors include a period of childhood illness. Henry James, for example, was always sickly, unlike his more gregarious, manly brother William. His fiction is intensely introverted: exactly the kind of thing you would expect from someone who had too much time on his hands to analyze relationships because he couldn't go play with the other kids. I'm not knocking Henry James. He writes beautifully. It's just not fiction that makes me want to go out and do anything. It just makes me want to eat chicken broth and languish on a couch.

William, his brother, is perhaps the most famous philosopher America has produced. Now hold on a minute, you may be thinking. Philosophy's not exactly a red-blooded man's day at the ball park with hot dogs and good buddies. Point taken, but the thing is, William was writing for others. He wanted his work to influence his readers to think and live in new ways. So in that way, William's writing was extroverted. Henry wrote primarily from his introverted desire to produce something beautiful and please himself, and whether his work appealed to others was a distant second. I can't imagine someone reading the last page of any of Henry's works and going out to make a major life change that very day. Unless, perhaps, said reader was an American, about to marry a dissolute European aristocrat who would make her life miserable, and Henry's work opened her blind eyes to the reality of her situation. Ha!

Illness can be one event that triggers a child's observational nature. But sickness is not the only childhood catalyst that produces a writer. Sometimes, children become very observant for their own protection, if they are intelligent and they live through unsafe situations. They learn to pay close attention to the moods and characters of those around them in order to avoid unpleasant consequences.

Other times, a child's simple curiosity will cause her to become observant. Smart children learn early that other persons are not puppets in the child's world, but real, complex creatures with hidden thought lives that scroll through their skulls. If a child is naturally interested in puzzles and the unknown, she may begin to observe others closely in order to solve the mystery of their behavior. My daughter does this. A few weeks back, she said something to me along these lines: "Mom, I don't know if you've noticed this, but I'm not like a lot of other kids. When adults are talking to each other about adult stuff, I listen to what they are saying."

Yes, I had noticed that trait. :-) It makes my life more difficult occasionally, as my daughter will occasionally ask us something from her eavesdropping station in the back seat of the van, to which we must respond: "That's adult stuff and we're not going to tell you yet."

Another factor in my daughter's desire to ferret out our adult secrets may be her viewpoint as an only child. If she had a sibling, they might distract one another more. As it is, she has a powerful incentive to listen if she wants to be a part of the conversation.

So are you an observer of others? Is that much of what drives your writing process? And if so, what do you think first made you interested in others more than in your own thoughts and desires?