Confessions of an Anxious Memoirist

This is a talk Astrid Swan gave at Creative Mornings Helsinki on January 26th. She discusses anxiety as fuel which drives her everyday being and her new role as a chronically ill memoirist at the age of 36.

This is a talk Astrid Swan gave at Creative Mornings Helsinki on January 26th. She discusses anxiety as fuel which drives her everyday being and her new role as a chronically ill memoirist at the age of 36.

Juulia Niiniranta

Anxiety as annihilation

At 35 years of age, I began writing my memoir.
I had been writing for years of course, but this time the intention was clear: to leave a mark.
To have some trains of thought between book covers. To do this before it’s too late.
At 35.
There was urgency in becoming a memoirist, just as much as there was resentment.
I had been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in May. Just three years and four months after being diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time.
Barely two months after the release of my album that describes me coming to terms with illness, death and carving out a new position for myself.

Let me explain what anxiety looks like: it’s me collapsing to bed after a day of organizing my album release shows, writing a PhD and doing interviews. It’s me being rude to my family. Not a single breath of air left in my lungs for another word. Complete exhaustion. It’s me dreaming of dying to get out of tiredness. It’s me abstractly hoping for chemo. It’s me lingering in disappointment as I realize that at the time of releasing the results of my hard work over the last years – my songs – I am unable to enjoy the moment.

It’s me dreaming of dying to get out of tiredness. It’s me abstractly hoping for chemo. It’s me lingering in disappointment as I realize that at the time of releasing the results of my hard work over the last years – my songs – I am unable to enjoy the moment.

Anxiety was at first an unformed gray matter, like a cloud, persisting to follow me to my most beloved activities and to my favorite times of day. Then it was a clear-cut and well-defined character, stopping me from eating and then stopping me from entering a food store. Forcing me to disengage. It became a familiar, larger-than-life companion, as I quickly deteriorated struggling to walk or talk. Yet still walking and passing others. Struggling to ask for help.
For in asking for help, I would have to admit that something is wrong.
I would have to find out what I already anticipated: that cancer was back.

After I visited emergency rooms, had CT scans and phone calls from doctors, it was confirmed:
I had dangerously large metastasis in my liver and little dots of cancer in my bones. I was permanently ill. Living with metastatic breast cancer.
Now living with the uncertainty of how long do I have left.

This is the moment, a clear spring day in May 2017, when all side murmurs and peripheral struggles regarding writing about my life, suddenly quieted and I knew I would write.
I would do so from the moment I was living in. Representation of others – a disquieting problem previously, now just seemed like other people’s struggle. A petty grievance resembling an excuse. I would write, without letting the dissonance and unfinished nature of life, or the painfulness and partiality of my perspective to bother me into silence. I started a blog, talking about the emotions I was experiencing as I positioned myself into a chronic cancer patient.
I was writing in various word documents and in a paper journal. And I continued to write new songs… even though they sounded like somebody breaking into bits.

Writing during disintegration was a choice to remain living and using my voice. While I can see why others have called me brave, I am writing, seemingly, to gather and hold myself together.

Writing during disintegration was a choice to remain living and using my voice. While I can see why others have called me brave, I am writing, seemingly, to gather and hold myself together.

Previously, the feelings of my closest people, anticipations and imagined frailties felt so ominous and unpassable that I did not write anything, except songs. They felt safe enough, so I could reveal everything. But no fiction and no memoir – nothing long-form, nothing for the books. My sense of time was, that there would be enough to do writing after a lengthy gathering period. A dormant writer, that’s what I was. Potential in deep-freeze waiting to be fully activated.
But this dormancy began to transform in 2014.

During my first round of cancer, I left no traces from the moment. I trusted that I had time to look back and make art later – and I did. This time a trust in such future time seems like a luxury item out of my reach. Instead of staying in that dream-lust-luxury-hope state I just accepted that this is my time. To do EVERYTHING.

SO I TRY.

I try to deal with anxiety and to write at the same time. That’s my task.
And so I have become a resisting, yet hopeful memoirist recording from the dot.

PS. It helps that an editor approached me and asked me to write. It helps to be responsible to an outside reader who demands chapters every month.

Anxiety as a creative companion

It has taken me a long time to realize that I should not and cannot shed my life-experiences off me like a snake changing their skin. Even the language of therapy can sometimes be misleading (or the dreams we attach to therapy). There is a dream of a purified, condensed and finalized version of me. Me just the Right Way. A Perfect version. All shards sanded into soft round curves. This dream is a source of anxiety and a way to hold on to anxiety forever. But in a non-productive, silencing way. Because, really, therapy is not about bottling the past and putting it up on the shelf. It is about living on. Living right now.
And outside the room of my therapist, life is not suitable for taxidermy either.
It is something entirely else.

Lidia Yuknavitch writes: “Death, grief, and trauma are alive in our actual bodies. We carry them our whole lives, even if we act like it’s possible to “step out of them.” Writing, making stories, drawing and painting, and making art doesn’t release me from loss or grief or trauma, but it does let me re-story myself and my body.” (“It’s A Myth that Suffering Makes You Stronger”)

Yuknavitch’s words are an affirmation to me.
She knows what she is talking about, as she is a woman who thrives and writes and shares and teaches – and carries with her immense and unfair losses and hurt from childhood abuse and the loss of her daughter.

Father down she continues:
“Thirty years later the quality of my sadness has changed so radically that I can only understand it as pure creativity. In every book I have ever written there is a girl. And there always will be. My grief and my daughter’s death and my suffering were not something to “get over” or medicate or counsel out of me. They were generative of the most important forms of self-expression I’ll ever create in my lifetime.” (Yuknavitch in “It’s A Myth that Suffering Makes You Stronger”)

For me anxiety is a description of feelings related to loss, irreparable change and the anticipation of what’s to come. Anxiety is an effective positioning taking place in the “thick now” as Karen Barad would define our present moment.
I cannot delve into her theories about quantum physics and feminism here, but it is crucial for my talk to stop and conceive of time as a THICK NOWNESS. A point in which everything –past, present and future – stretches out and is here.

This is why anxiety is not something I am trying to stop myself from feeling. It is my companion. It is my creative co-partner. It pushes me towards expression.

Juulia Niiniranta

This is why anxiety is not something I am trying to stop myself from feeling. It is my companion. It is my creative co-partner. It pushes me towards expression.

Living is dying

I can only take in the realities, the edges of and the finitude of time and breath a little at a time.
Most of the time, I draw the curtains and I go on. Living.

But there is a question I allow myself to linger on every now and again, as my perspective is changing:
How do I prepare for dying?

Oh, I don’t know.
By living, I guess.
But I am going through various strategies. Some take me to the next stop in less than a day, some I am finding useful for a longer period of time.

I’m building a library of sorrow.
I am buying all the books I can find on cancer and dying.
I am learning about grief and taking notes. I am doing this for myself and for my loved ones. Even though I have no idea if it will help them. It is my greatest desire to ease their pain.
I know it helps me.

It also helps to go on living.
It helps to turn grief into artefacts.
It is helpful to sing and write and talk. It eases my position, if I am leaving traces.
Is this me marking territory? Marking territory that is entirely evaporating? Am I doing this in desperation or in love?

So what I’m saying is that after my diagnosis with metastatic breast cancer, I have bought and read books in large quantities. I have poured over fiction, memoirs, illness narratives and medical literature. Partly, this project is fuelled by my writing a PhD. That doesn’t explain it deeply enough, though. I am reading to make sense of my experiences. I am reading to connect.
I am reading, so I can write; so that I can continue with living.

I am reading to make sense of my experiences. I am reading to connect.I am reading, so I can write; so that I can continue with living

In 2016 I read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. His memoir was published posthumously. He died at 38 of lung cancer. He was a neurosurgeon and a scientist. It is different reading a book about dying and living with the awareness of death as a chronic patient than as a person with hope of recovery. In 2017 I reread the book.
There’s a difference in understanding death as an abstract fact and experiencing it as a personal acute reality. Right now, I am somewhere in between these positions. Hovering. Thinking it may in fact be against my abilities to really understand death.

You need to read Paul Kalanithi’s book, I assure you.
I will quote from this memoir next, because it leads me back to thinking about becoming a memoirist myself. It leads me towards my anxiety.

This is how Paul describes his choice of writing while he lives out what is left of his life:
“Lost in a featureless wasteland of my own mortality, and finding no traction in the reams of scientific studies, intracellular molecular pathways, and endless curves of survival statistics, I began reading literature again […]” (Kalanithi 148).
He continues: “The privilege of direct experience had led me away from literary and academic work, yet now I felt that to understand my own direct experiences, I would have to translate them back into language.” (Kalanithi 148-149)

If there is an argument in my text, I think it is for the practices of reading and writing as essential survival. My argument is about holding actual copies of books in your hands and living with them. It is about writing and its importance in making sense of our entanglements.

So here I stand (and talk and write) in front of you, as a memoirist nevertheless. A reluctant one.
But one with a publisher, a schedule and hours behind and ahead of me. Hours of writing, hours of living and remembering and constructing. I also stand here, as a currently privileged metastatic breast cancer thriver, whose situation is as good as it can get.
And here I’m talking both somatically and mentally.

I cannot promise you an end-product; a book, a publishing schedule and a book tour – but I am embracing this position of a memoirist, because it appears to signify condensed meaning to me.
Writing as a memoirist, appears to be a way of stretching the NOW into a “THICK NOW” as described by Karen Barad. Writing intensifies my presence.

I am becoming a memoirist although in a wrong time and place, out of necessity rather than choice.
I am writing from the point of anxious shifting and changing. I am remembering and piecing together narratives which take on various relationships to my past. I am uncertain about my ability to recreate embodied experiences. I make no claims for a Truth (with capital T). I am uncertain of the necessity of such recreations. Still, I am compelled to write as Me. In fact, both politically and through my acute awareness of NOW, I find that I have to remain in the vicinity of my ‘truths’. That somehow, at this point, writing fiction appears almost dangerous in relation to time. Or the lack of time. Or its complete uncertainty. As I find myself in this position of a cancer thriver and a memoirist, I am searching for shreds of narrative that may illuminate part-ways of how I got here.
I think I’m also making space for what often gets rendered invisible, silent and forgotten. I am reaching towards the past and towards the future, in this moment.

I am uncertain about my ability to recreate embodied experiences. I make no claims for a Truth (with capital T). I am uncertain of the necessity of such recreations. Still, I am compelled to write as Me

With my limited capacity to grasp any larger significance and with my gift for imagination.

Juulia Niiniranta

On Imagination

As I live on with a stinging sense of reality, I believe more and more that reality unfolds around us as we imagine it. I want to underline and linger with the POWER that is IMAGINATION.
Nothing exists here without our ability to imagine, name, recognize and realize. This is the key. This is our simple superpower and a possibility through which to define what happens next.

This notion, a simple secret, is as crucial in the everyday moments, where we choose to recognize the beauty of something or we choose to pass it by. That moment holds the same importance and carries the same effects as the choice of style in encountering another human being in a conflict, a gala, in public as much as in the privacy of a bathroom.
We can afford different styles, we are not always – and maybe never – free to choose, but my wish is that we take more and more time to try. And that we continue to learn about how our entanglement with each other, and all living material, inevitably creates our existence.
I know this sounds a little crazy and a lot complicated. I hope, I’ll be here in this Present Moment long enough with you all, so that we can discuss it more. I hope I’ll have ample time to write about it.

As I live on with a stinging sense of reality, I believe more and more that reality unfolds around us as we imagine it

I hold the present close to me, seeing its fractured beauty and I know that the future will be so very beautiful. I know death will be a smiling, serene bliss. I think of death as a futurity – and a location that is an already-here – a calm fulfilled place. An inner laughter. I also imagine it as a non-place. In fact, death does not scare me. It seems to be about the only completely equal measure we have left. It is living with awareness of timely limitations that can be anxious-making.

In fact, death does not scare me. It seems to be about the only completely equal measure we have left

Yes, I believe so much is out of my control. So much suffering lies ahead of me and ahead of us, as a humanity or at least a planetary experiencing, living and breathing togetherness.

Still, I’m never hopeless.

And when I do feel anxious and completely entangled with infrastructures of care, health, illness, fear and capitalism, I know that this too will pass. But in the meantime, I write with anxiety as my ink, my alphabet, my fuel, my driving force and my inspiration.

REFERENCES:

Barad, Karen. Lecture  (last accessed 18.1.2018)

Meeting the Universe Halfway. Durham: Duke University Press 2007

Kalanithi, Paul. When Breath Becomes Air. London: The Bodley Head, 2016.

Yuknavitch, Lidia. “It’s A Myth that Suffering Makes You Stronger”  (last accessed 18.1.2018)

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  • Astrid Swan - One Quart

    I am a co-founder, editor and a writer at One Quart Magazine. I am also a songwriter and a performer, with five albums under my belt and a sixth one on the way. I a...

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