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Writing with Etty Hillesum

I didn’t turn to Etty Hillesum to consider writing. Earlier this year some mentors urged me to read the work of this young Dutch Jewish woman as a source of spiritual insight, testifying to the profound impact her writings have made on their own lives.  Furthermore, knowing my affection for the writings of Simone Weil, another bright Jewish woman who grappled with questions of faith amidst the Shoah and the Second World War, they thought I might find another kindred spirit in the pages of Hillesum’s diaries and letters, as so many others have.  While a collection of her diaries and letters sat on my shelf for months, I began to come across references to her work in the other books I made time to read.  Suddenly her name seemed ubiquitous.  It appeared that I would not escape her.

Last week when I followed up on the recommendations and began to read her diaries, I learned that Hillesum died at the age of twenty-nine at Auschwitz. On a train en route to the gas chambers, she had released a postcard out the window. “We left the camp singing…” it reported. I suspected when I read this that she would indeed capture me. I’ve long been intrigued by people who retain such hope amidst the horrors and tragedies of life. In view of the praise of my mentors and the facts of her biography, I anticipated her spiritual wisdom, reflections on suffering, commentary on evil, and a testament to enduring hope.  What I did not expect, however, was how much of her writing focuses on, well, writing.

Like many others who enjoy writing and appreciate the good writing of others, I am fascinated by reflections on the craft of writing.  There is a way to approach texts about the craft of writing in a “how-to” fashion, as if learning the details of another person’s writing practice could enable one to replicate the method and quality of his/her writing.  I’m quite convinced that this is a very limited, if not totally misguided, way to engage the self-reflection of other writers.  Hillesum would agree with me that one can only write oneself. That is, one can only write well according to one’s own particular method and style. There is no single formula for the craft or product of good writing.  Yet Hillesum would also agree with me that for many of us it is easier to think about writing authentically than to actually do it. It is this struggle, recorded throughout Hillesum’s diaries, that intrigues and surprises me.  In fact, I think it is this struggle that intrigues me about so many authors’ reflections about the craft of writing. I read it, selfishly, because I relate to it. I read it for companionship in writing.

“There is a strange little melody inside me that sometimes cries out for words,” writes Hillesum, “But through inhibition, lack of self-confidence, laziness, and goodness knows what else, that tune remains stifled, haunting me from within.  Sometimes it wears me out completely.  And then again it fills me with gentle, melancholy music.” How well this characterizes my experience of writing!  Often, I have something to share, some drive to communicate and connect with others through reflection on a topic or experience—and yet something gives me pause. Something—insecurity, laziness, whatever—leads me to doubt my ability to convey what I want to convey. I question whether what I have to convey is worth any reader’s time and effort.  This leads to total self-defeat, of course.  For even when my writing is often lost to these inhibitions, I do not lose that “gentle, melancholy music” that stirs within me, and “cries out for words.” So, with Etty, I too often find myself compelled to write but held back my own doubts, however silly they may ultimately be.  Too often I can’t even bring myself to try it.

Some days I feel so overwhelmed by my doubts and inhibitions that the only thing I can bring myself to write about is my writer’s inhibition itself.  And when I do, it never escapes me how unproductive and self-indulgent this can be. I might be better served to move ahead—to just write already!—rather than wallow in my interior hang-ups about it.  This, too, is a tension I see in Hillesum.

On one hand, she chastises herself for her self-indulgence, for her mental “masturbation,” and for all the factors that serve as obstacles to her writing. “I protest too much,” she writes, “I have all the time in the world to write. More time than anyone else, probably. But there is that inner vacillation. Why, I wonder? Because I think I must come out with nothing but brilliant ideas? Because I haven’t yet worked it all out? But that can only come with practice.” She spares no harshness when she turns on herself in these pages.

On the other hand, as I have already noted, she does frequently indulge her inhibitions by dedicating entry after entry, page after page, to her doubts about her ability to be a good writer. At one point, she even presents a moving justification for the energy she dedicates to exploring her interior life, with all its anxieties and irrationalities.  “I imagine that there are people who pray with their eyes turned heavenward.  They seek God outside themselves.  And there are those who bow their head and busy it in their hands. I think that these seek God inside.” “There is really a deep well inside me,” she observes, “And in it dwells God.”  Hillesum truly believed that interior exploration would help her discover God, and in discovering God, she would be free for authentic writing and a more loving, peaceful engagement with the world.

It is this back and forth between self-reflection and action—between reflection on writing and the act of writing itself—that fascinates me in Etty’s writing (among many other things, too).  It has helped me to think differently about my own writer’s inhibitions, and now—with this post—to act differently—that is, to actually write, even if all I can do today is write about my inhibitions.  Hopefully, if I continue to address my inhibitions while continuing to write, all while hedging against the rut of self-indulgence like Etty tried to do so earnestly, then I will, actually, come to write more freely.

Etty once wrote, “I really must abandon all that laziness, and particularly my inhibitions and insecurity, if I am ever to find myself, and through myself, find others.” Perhaps today this is my charge, too.

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2 Comments

  1. Stephen says:

    About a year ago I started reading Etty’s diary and letters. I was blown away. And as I got into the book, I seemed to be seeing God and meaning everywhere in my daily life. On a blog I captured what I thought were he better quotations. The oldest entry on Etty is here:
    http://reflections-stephenmbauer.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-most-profound-thing-that-etty.html

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