Marina Benjamin is the author behind celebrated works such as, ‘Insomnia’ and ‘The Middlepause’ as well as Senior editor of the digital Magazine Aeon.
Marina recently appeared at the Sydney’s Writers Festival to discuss her latest memoir, ‘Insomnia’ as well as giving workshops on the craft of memoir writing. Marina uses confession as a trigger for reflection, looking into herself to deconstruct the everyday experience of being female.
I’m very interested in this, in not having it be calm and business like and male - but having it be all the drama, if you like, of the female experience which has traditionally been domestic, to be part of public life
The following interview has been transcribed from audio and edited for clarity with the intention of keeping it as accurate to the original conversation as possible.
In your book ‘Insomnia’ you describe writing as being collage-like, in the sense that it is both random and curated. How did this process inform your memoir writing?
M: I think what I was trying to capture there is that the writing process is partly conscious partly unconscious. And the best way, when a writer is in a flow as it were, is when those two elements are working together. It's what I sometimes call, when I’m teaching writing, ‘the best creative state.’ It’s as if you are very aware of your unconscious ideas bubbling up and at the same time you are practiced enough with your craft to be able to select, well not exactly select what will take you further - although that is part of it. Part of it is being able to make choiceful selections of the ferment that’s bubbling up but also acknowledging the two-way traffic between the conscious and unconscious minds.
I actually try to do this physically when I'm sitting at my desk by having a notepad and computer there at the same time. The computer is there for the formal structuring of sentences and the notepad is there for the blurting out of ideas. Sometimes I think you can eclipse that or muffle those ideas if you just work on screen. So, I like to have paper there beside me and I might doodle or write rubbish or write something completely irrelevant - but try to capture those things as they come up because I think they are trying to tell me something. And this process is something that I have cultivated. And for a similar reason, I think taking a break in the middle of something quite productive to flip over to twitter can have the same effect because it’s like turning on a different tap and seeing what turns up.
Parts of your book were written whilst in a state of insomnia. How does this differ to your daylight writing?
M: Yes, I think it did in some way. I think some of the more reflective parts of the book came from the sleeplessness but also the more anguished parts. And that was helpful as I was really trying to capture the altered states of mind that insomnia delivers up. So yes, to be able to, I won't say bleed it onto the page exactly, but to be very aware and try to capture those parts of the mind.
You talk about your ‘nighttime self’ which arises in relationship to your insomnia. In periods in which your insomnia is lessened do you feel as though the ‘nighttime self’ is no longer? Do you find comfort in this nighttime self?
M: No, I actually feel a little bit mournful when I’m sleeping well - to have lost that altered self. Occasionally I even sneak the cup of coffee before bed to have a sleepless night, to know that I can recapture that. And I think what it is that I’ve come to value about insomniac state, as irritating and deliberating and anguishing as it can be, is that I do feel incredibly manifestly present. There's a state of awareness, presence and vigilance that is there in that insomniac state. That I feel, it speaks to me, it’s like having a conversation with yourself. And there is no one else to have a conversation with when you are up at night, so there is that element. Writing this book was partly about getting myself into a more comfortable space with it. And I don’t mean that in terms of writing as therapy... I mean that in terms of having my curiosity sated. I wanted to understand; I came to insomnia from an unknowing perspective. And there's this sense I think at the beginning of the book, I hope, of a kind of bewilderment at the strangeness and the irritation and all the lapses that insomnia seems to call forth. And I think that through the course of the book I charted I suppose a deeper understanding, a journey through my own insomnia. Having done that, I now treat my insomnia differently, having arrived at the point of understanding and accommodation and appreciation of insomnia. I’m now much calmer about it all - so I will really enjoy my reading time or my working time in the middle of the night. I don’t angst about it - I just switch on my computer, paying no heed to those people who say electronic devices are the demon of sleep.
One in four women will experience insomnia across their lifetime, which is commonly during menopause. What do you think about our current conversations about menopause?
M: I think that figure might be very low balling it actually - I think it’s much higher. I’m sure I’ve read stuff that would suggest it’s much more women. I think insomnia is a very common experience of menopause. And I think that it comes partly with other related experiences of menopause like anxiety. So, there are peaks of anxiety in menopause - and the two are very closely related. The way the mind works in insomnia is very much the way the mind works in anxiety, it obsessively goes over things, one thing leads to another, the mind catastrophizes, there is a lack of perspective and there is paranoia and doubt and all the negatives. In that sense, in menopause Insomnia by night is just an extension of the anxiety by day. So again, is this book I have tried to capture how insomnia is not just about being a depleted zombie by day, but there is something about the anxious edgy on tap energy that is carried over to night.
I think that very recent years have seen menopause become much more an acceptable topic to talk about, even since I wrote my book on it. So, I feel very recent - and I think it’s great that women are talking about it because they are also prompting more medical research into the symptoms and causes of menopause. Estrogen depletion for example, was very poorly understood - people only understood it in reproductive terms. The more you delve into it the more estrogen emerges as a complex hormone that actually governs all kind of things like cellular maintenance, brain health - I’m sure the levels of anxiety have something to do with it, immunity - there's lots of things that estrogen actually does . More high-profile conversation can bridge the generational gap and open pathways for younger women to enter womanhood without that huge dark void of ignorance ahead of them. And I think motherhood was like that too women often didn't talk about birth, their birth experiences. That too, having children, not having children, process of labor, process of pregnancy, miscarriages, endometriosis - all those embodied realities of women are being discussed now.
And if you were to ask me, why now? Why not in the 1970’s when first wave feminism appeared. I think there was a real flight from the body in that wave of feminism because women wanted to show they were equal and cerebral and had a public life so lots of their material reality was tamped down and denied. I think now we have moved on from the very basic essentialist debate that dominated feminism in 80s which sort of changed woman to the body. I think now we are freer to talk about our bodies because we are in public life and we want to bring our bodies and our materiality to public life because they are part of our reality. I’m very interested in this, in not having it be calm and business like and male - but having it be all the drama, if you like, of the female experience which has traditionally been domestic, to be part of public life - and menopause is this too because it’s not equilibrium.
In ‘Insomnia’. you bring up that women know the risk ‘of not being seen, the risk of not managing to achieve oneself.’ As a published female writer how do you suggest women deal with this anxiety?
M: That was a very hard paragraph for me to write in the book. It was a paragraph of great sadness, because I think many women can’t achieve themselves - and it was a nod to that. I can only write descriptively - that’s why it is not self-help, I don't recommend anything, I don't want to be asked, ‘help me I am an insomniac what pills should I take?’ So, this question plays into where I want this book to live which is to offer women some sort of comfort in the idea of, we all suffer from this debilitating fear that we can’t achieve ourselves. Because society is not made for us. Because we are always on the backfoot. And being a writer, or indeed doing anything in public life, I think women face this same enormous wall of self-doubt.
What role does honesty and vulnerability play in your works? And did this come naturally to you?
M: I do not get on well with memoirs which are purely confessional. Even though I understand that readers want to know, that there's a curiosity about intimate honest details. I’m very happy to share these. However, I don’t think they go very far, unless there is reflection, otherwise its gossip. It’s not ‘art’ or ‘literature’. I mean it got to go beyond confession. It’s got to go beyond spilling the beans. What I like to do is to use my inner world as a window or a lens and probing that inner world as a window onto a subject. I want to use it as a sort of forensic tool. I open up in order to look outwards. I also am very interested in the everyday. Everyday existence everyday feelings. The reality of routine. Things like sleep. Things like female materiality. Those ordinary everyday modes of existence are things I want to write about. Female subjectivity is what I’m talking about. It's a useful critical lens.
I think in terms of protecting myself and the tendency to overshare or reveal too much, and by that I don't mean prurient detail I mean anguish. I think it boils down to learning craft or teaching yourself craft. It's a about knowing the balance between how to reveal and conceal at the same time. It’s to be honest and to say something that's difficult to confess, or that you might want to keep private, in a way that doesn't expose you and that protects those around you. I was very conscious about doing this with, for example, my marriage which I did want to be quite honest about. But also needing to protect myself and my husband, because I Wasn't wanting to expose or examine the details of my marriage, but I did want to talk about relationships and intimacy and presence and absence.
You mentioned the notion and influence of female subjectivity earlier. Did you feel at any points in your career that this idea of female knowledge was questioned?
M: Yes absolutely. By myself even. I you look at my books, they are quite different from each other. My first book I wrote is a complete example of ventriloquism - I was a woman trying to write as a man. I have very little fondness for that book now. I think that it was symptomatic of the time. At the time if you were a nonfiction writer there was only one voice you could write at the time. And that was the literature that I read, that was published. It was august and authoritative - non-fiction couldn’t be this unstable territory which is now what I really love about nonfiction. And I now find those authoritative books absolutely unpalatable and not only impossible to read, but I find they don't tell me very much. They don’t actually tell me what I want to know about a subject.
Do you find that there are limitations to honesty in this style of writing?
M: Yes, there are. But I don't find them debilitating. I don't think they compromise a book. Because I don't think honesty is the most important thing. I’m not saying you should be dishonest; I’m saying that there are other things, other qualities and desirable elements that you want. Honesty is a baseline and you build up from there. I think there is a very porous relationship between fiction and nonfiction... and that's a good thing. I'm not suggesting you should make things up about your experience, but you can spin out from your experience into a more imaginative world.
Due to the honest, reflective style of your writing do you ever experience anxiety in the process of publishing?
M: Yes, I do, I’ve actually realised, often when people ask me ‘what do you right?’ And I say this a distancing mechanism. Because it is actually a lazy way of describing what I am doing. But I feel exposed when that question is directly posed to me. So, I need to come up with a better way to explain my work. And if I say nonfiction people immediately assume, I’m writing about medical subjects or self-help in regard to menopause or insomnia. And I’m so not doing that - but I can't find a language. I can't find an easy way in to explain my own work, so I really enjoy the longer conversations and interviews because it gives me the opportunity to try and explain.
And I love reading hybrid forms, and experimental works and poetic nonfiction. It’s no coincidence I think that a lot of writers that write poetry also write nonfiction. There's an interesting intersection between interrogation of the world that nonfiction writers and poets do. I’m using nonfiction writers a s way of excluding that masculine unitary authoritative, ‘I’m going to tell you everything about this subject because I’m the expert’. Exclude that. I’m not interested in that non-fiction.
You’ve used the description ‘wandering brain’ to discuss the limitations of mindfulness. Have you felt mindfulness stifles creativity?
M: Yes, I think it can, I think it can do both. It can access creativity - the same way the notepad at the side of the computer screen can, because it can put you in a relaxed enough state that you can notice things that are sort of on the peripheral of your vision and your thoughts. So, in that sense I think mindfulness is useful. But the continual effort to vacate oneself, one’s head… I fear, I fear it - because I worry that the vacuity of the clean house, or the clean mind, the empty mind has too much sterility. I wonder as I discuss in the book, that meditative nirvana might come very close to stupefaction. It’s like far left and far right meeting full circle politically. There's a point that is strange and distant and uncanny, I think there's that same strange point in mindfulness... in which it meets idiocy.
Has being an editor as well as a writer influenced your writing?
M: Absolutely. Absolutely - I mean you will see the book is thin - it has been edited many times! The amount of times that I have moved these paragraphs around and rewritten them so each one takes you somewhere is because I am an editor, And I love editing, And the two things in parallel are wonderful together. I prefer editing other people's work rather than my own. But yeah, it can be enjoyable – I do rewriting - I write more when I edit. It’s not just about cutting back; it is also about pushing forward and reshaping and honing.
How long did this ‘reshaping’ process take with insomnia?
M: Well there's always a little gap after you deliver your piece to a publisher while they read it. And that's a fruitful gap, because it’s a gap where you can be book free. And most writers I know have a ball because they can't believe they are free of the thing which has been obsessing them for so long. And it's actually very fruitful to do that. It's like the notepad and the computer. Go occupy another part of your brain. And then when the book comes back with comments, there's a natural distance and freshness to it. So, I had about a month off before comments came back - they were very quick about giving me comments. Both the American and British editions came back at the same time with different opinions and I found it really stimulating as I felt I was ready to tackle the book again. I think they gave me a month. And actually, more writing went in - so it wasn’t just about cutting things out. Sometimes they were like, ’this is really interesting - do you have anything more to write here,’ or I thought of something new to write based on something they said or something that they felt emotionally. So, it's a process of back forth which took about a month after that.