The Sorrows of Young Werther is a book by a long-dead German dude. Werther, he of the sorrows, kills himself because he can’t have his girl. The book was bigger than Twilight and Harry Potter put together. People dressed up as Werther, young men quoted him to their beloveds, and a girl drowned herself with the book strapped under her skirts. The novel was widely believed to be autobiographical. But Goethe didn’t commit suicide, he wrote about it.
That’s what I learned to do with my pain: write about it. My decrepit oven fireballs my bangs and I can’t afford a new haircut: write about it. The thing I thought was hypochondria turns out not to be: write about it. My knuckles, my eyelids, even my cuticles ache from a sadness whose source I can’t locate: write about it. But what do you do when the problem is that all your words are misshapen, ugly, choked up lumps?
A long-dead Hungarian dude, Lukács, said that all protagonists are lonely and that “such loneliness is not simply the intoxication of a soul gripped by destiny and so made song; it is also the torment of a creature condemned to solitude and devoured by a longing for community.” To be the protagonist you have to be special, distinct from the mass of background characters. But to be special you have to be different and to be different is to be lonely. This is doubly true of writers. You hope you are unique enough to have an idea worth expressing. Then you pray you are not too different to be heard. And there is nothing lonelier than being unable to write or speak. Being wordless can feel a lot like being worthless.
It took me a long time to figure out what to do in those mute moments, days and weeks. Sometimes I still forget that the best thing to do when you want to be heard is to listen. Listen to your loved ones, but also to strangers. The two women with their starched hair, brooches and varicose veins in the booth behind you at the Chinese restaurant are exchanging news. Last night one of them fell in snow. It was black behind her house, she had no phone, she shouted but no one came. For an hour she thought she might die in the bleak winter. But slowly, she found the strength to crawl a yard, then up a step, then to pull herself level with her door. She rubbed herself with salve, took a bath and posted a Facebook status that got 43 likes. Listen to books, read them out loud for the joy of feeling something fluent emerging from your lips. Listen to the friction of your fingertips brushing the hair out of your own eyes, the half whisper of knowing that you are still here. If you listen closely enough to the world, more often that not, you find your own reply.