October 5, 2010
MILKS: Live Through This is really its own thing, very nurturing in a certain way — perhaps because it emphasizes the creativity side of the [creativity and self-destruction] equation — and also far, far from any self-help books I know. Can you talk about your conceptualization process? What prompted you to put this together?
CHAPADJIEV: . . . I was very, very conscious to focus on the creative aspect of the book, not only because I was talking about the role of art in the process of self-destruction, but because my entire desire was to promote creativity as a way to help those dealing with these tendencies.
Too often, self-help books end up being instructional manuals for self-destructive behavior. Most of the ones I read were written from two very different perspectives, 1. Doctors trying to deal with self-destructive patients, and 2. People who’ve survived and had their stories become a major part of their public lives. In the first case, the doctors would always fascinate in how these self-destructive tendencies manifested, i.e., ‘The subject came to me with cuts made by…’ — there was always some sort of explicitly gross fascination by the variety of ways ‘patients’ would hurt themselves.
Well, those types of details often intrigue and teach people different ways to hurt themselves. People reading those types of books for help, actually might learn other ways of self-destructing. I didn’t want the book to be an instructional manual for the variety of ways we can hurt ourselves, especially because this is the first book that I know of that was grouping all of these behaviors into one mass group ‘self-destructive’. There are many books on cutting, anorexia, alcoholism, drug abuse. This is the first one I know of that talks about the variety of ways that women can destroy themselves, and while I wanted to create a communal spirit in the lives of powerful women who’ve felt these inclinations, I didn’t want someone that starved themselves suddenly read an essay about cutting and try that instead.
I was very clear with the authors that I was more interested in them talking about how they created — those environments, more than the environments and methods where they destroyed themselves. I do a workshop on art and self-destruction. In one exercise, we describe the physical environment where we hurt ourselves — where do we do it — what’s happening. We write this anonymously and read — and it’s always the same room. It’s always the same dark room, and the shades are drawn, and the air is crystallized with an uncertainty of our fate. We know those dark places so well; we don’t need them described.
What is far more important, is seeing the environment of the way out. In Carol [Queen]’s essay, I asked her, ‘describe your desk — describe your journal — describe the act of writing’. In anonymous’s essay, I asked her to talk about dance as viscerally as possible. Continually, I preferred authors to describe creating, because the actual work of creating art is often hidden. We see a painting. Boom — it’s beautiful. We don’t see the artist struggling, we don’t see their pain, and their beautiful painting can be almost overpowering — you can stutter in front of some people’s genius once it stands before you. I’ve been marked powerless by pieces of work, and I remember feeling worthless before them, thinking, ‘I could never create something that great.’
That’s why getting someone like bell hooks was beyond important for this book. bell is brilliant — her power as a theorist is absolute. People can read her work, and never think she was insecure, or cried, or thought of killing herself. It is that type of humanity that allows us to create these works though — once we survive ourselves. Too often the final product overshadows the quiet moments, the work that was put in. It was terribly important to me to reveal those moments: to detail and highlight the rituals of those solitary moments where we create ourselves as opposed to when we destroy ourselves.
. . . there are several reasons this popped into my head [as a project.] As I talk about in the intro, I’ve forever had a magnetic resonance with people that burn too brightly. The first artist I felt I was in some way absolutely linked to was Sarah Kane, the playwright. I was really entrenched in playwriting at the time and knew that I had found an ally in what I hoped to do with theatre. Her suicide left me vacant. I had been battling my own demons, all of which had lead me to writing, and her exit made me terrified that suicide would eventually be my only recourse.
I didn’t know any strong women artists at that time who I admired who hadn’t killed themselves. Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Virginia Woolf. It also shocks me, the more that I dug into the topic, that most of the female heroines of literary novels I’d been drawn to found their final redemption in death: Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, even in the seminal feminist work — The Awakening. Over and over, a woman couldn’t bear it anymore; her great feminist movement, since there was no other place in society for it, was the great act of taking her own life. And that became romanticized. The only character I knew of where a strong woman didn’t kill herself was in Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” At the end, Norma leaves. She just leaves. But where does she go?
Of course, at the time, I didn’t know of the wealth of feminist and women artists beforehand – because they weren’t as famous as Hemingway or Salinger. Or if they were, I didn’t realize they were women. I didn’t know that The Good Earth was written by a woman, that Pearl S. Buck was a woman. I didn’t know that Harper Lee was a woman. I’d never heard of Radclyffe Hall or Djuna Barnes. I’m recently convinced that Shakespeare’s work was written by a woman, something that has been contested through the years. I didn’t have other examples of women who had the great strength and vibrancy and lust for exploration and life that I wanted to live.