Theme Essay by Martha Nichols
Uncaging My Circus Animal Sin
This confession may surprise those who know me as an editor or feature writer. I haven’t destroyed anyone with my temper. I haven’t trampled on delicate egos with my reviews or trashed student work. I’m really quite nice to most people.
But inside I’m angry. Very angry.
At times, I’ve poured my rage into words that are powerful and true. And yet, too often, I’ve suppressed my creative fire. For too long, I've ridden my anger like a beautiful tiger, running, running—on the attack, until I panic and swerve in the other direction, locking away all that glorious strength.
It’s the struggle to contain my anger—not the feeling itself—that has cost me dearly as a writer.
• • •
My mother used to yell at grocery store clerks and gas station attendants. They weren’t “respectful,” she’d say. When asked by one chef how the food was, Mom snapped back, “That was the worst pizza I’ve ever eaten in my life.”
She’d vent her fury in public, which embarrassed me so badly I wanted to disappear. My father, the academic, would try to explain. Your mother is just emotional. She’s Sicilian. My brother and I got the equivalent of him leaping on a grenade to protect us, but nobody ever mentioned that anger could be normal.
We learned only two approaches for handling rage: venting or suppression—with nothing in between.
Your mother is sick. I can be clinical about it now: My mentally ill mother never saw a boundary she wouldn’t cross. My overly rational father suppressed his own fury. My brother once likened our smiling dad, who could slip in a cutting remark in the friendliest voice, to a boiling teakettle ready to blow.
Caught in the tension between explosive anger and locking it down, I backed away—fast. I retreated behind words, descending into the imaginary realms of fantasy and science fiction, where there were logical reasons for blasting slimy-tailed villains into oblivion. I wrote poetry, because that was the safest place to let my feelings come to life.
No one in my family, including my poor bipolar mom, knew whom to blame. We felt helpless, and helpless fear is often what lurks under inappropriately expressed rage. You can scream and lob Molotov cocktails. Or you can obliterate what you can’t control, erasing everything else.
• • •
After he retired, my father liked to needle me with his plans for the “great unwashed.” He had a practical solution for unemployment, he’d say. Just shackle anyone who didn’t graduate from high school to a giant wheel. Then they could trudge in circles to generate electricity for the rest of us.
Suddenly, his gentle façade was gone. Savonarola glared at me, on a crusade to torch the irrational and useless. At such moments, my father—the former political scientist and well-loved student adviser, the poor kid who grew up in the Denver slums—became the wrathful judge of all who didn’t measure up.
This is the third approach to rage I later learned, yet my dad’s surface calm made it seem like the only choice: Punish the weak-minded; rely on your intellect; never show what you feel; justify whatever hostility leaks out by being right.
By college, a sweet boy might look hurt when I joked about his longings. “Why are you so sarcastic?” one asked me, point blank, as we crossed the bridge that led to our dorms.
We’d been holding hands, but then he jerked free, leaving me alone in the middle of that bridge over a tiny canyon. I don’t even remember what I’d said.
It was dusk; a star glinted through the trees. I stood there, as if I’d been punched in the gut, wondering if I should throw my keys or my books over the bridge. Should I make a scene? Like Mom? Yes. No. Under the deep-blue sky, I felt exposed by an instant of existential clarity—I am alone—before it flickered out just as fast.
I will always be alone. The beast inside crouches. It can’t be controlled.
• • •
Wrath is the warrior sin, and it can seem heroic. Many theologians have distinguished between the everyday anger of humans and the cleansing heat of divine wrath. Psalm 7:11 of the King James Bible puts it plainly: “God judgeth the righteous, and God is angry with the wicked every day.”
Think of the great political satirists, too—of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (with that echo in my father’s giant wheel), of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Wrath against injustice of all stripes can be a potent weapon.
Except these days we’re marinating in diatribes and judgments of the foolish. Think Fox News; think The Daily Show. Like lust, wrath is the kind of good/bad demon that many contemporary authors and pundits don’t mind claiming. It’s channeled fury in the name of a higher cause, which is why it’s so seductive for writers.
Wrath gives us an excuse to let loose, even when we’ve trained ourselves to be dispassionate observers, and it has many guises. The impulse to judge can be subverted into ironic detachment. It dissembles with cynical laughter. The wrathful judge can even seem nice, with her soft, controlled voice.
Yet, being “angry with the wicked every day” can twist our better natures, and it’s in this classic sense that wrath really is a deadly sin. It makes you feel like a god. It’s the destroyer. When I’m so angry I want to scream—at robo-callers, or at a driver who cuts me off, or at whatever deity has slapped my father with Parkinson’s Disease and my mother with Alzheimer’s—I am living large for a few seconds. I am powerful. I expand rather than contract, and the feeling of rightness is almost orgasmic.
The trouble for my writerly soul is that such wrath soon turns inward. In my everyday world, people are routinely annoying and demanding, and it can take prodigious amounts of mental energy to maintain the outer cool I present in public. Meanwhile, all my strongest emotions stay trapped inside.
My lifelong battle to restrain and contain has smothered other feelings that would illuminate my writing. I flog my own wicked weakness—take that, you whiny bitch!—yet the anger doesn’t simply evaporate. I’m dogged by a constant inner tirade that sometimes seems like one long angry conversation with everyone who sets me off: my distracted husband, my ailing parents, my jerky neighbors, stupid Verizon, sleazy United Airlines….
It’s my tiger, caged and pacing. Always pacing.
• • •
In my first attempts at fiction (most never published), the characters seemed to have no feelings. They were satirical cardboard. Some of the stories were science fiction, but that didn’t get me off the hook for creating convincing protagonists.
My early poems were more successful than my stories, yet storytelling called to me. By graduate school, I had no problem setting up a narrative fraught with tension. But my characters started out bitter and weary; their dulled emotions turned to forced repartée or learned helplessness or just plain rage, which was really my own helplessness as a narrator: Where do I take these people? What do they care about? Why?
Writing group friends told me my protagonists seemed angry for no reason. A close friend said of a couple in one short story: “They’re fighting like cats and dogs before you even know who they are.” This same friend said of the dialogue in a later novel manuscript, “It’s all snappy answers to stupid questions.”
While I continued to conjure hosts of angry characters, I spent much of the 1990s shifting from book publishing to magazine journalism—and writing epic customer complaint letters in private. These “bitch letters,” as I called them, always detailed my Kafkaesque interactions with faceless service people or managers, often studded with dialogue and scenes far more compelling than anything in my fiction.
These old letters make me laugh, too. (“My Apple guy kept using my first name in the most patronizing way: ‘Martha, I’ve never heard of that problem—do you understand what I’m saying, Martha?’”) Unexpectedly, my sarcastic wrath impresses me, at least a little. (“As an aside, you might tell your phone trainees to avoid that kind of conversational ‘technique’ like the plague.”)
But why didn’t I pour this kind of heat into my article writing? In these letters, I'm a prisoner inside my own head, pounding metaphorical fists against the walls.
• • •
When I read The Lord of the Rings as a girl, Aragorn was my favorite character. I loved his brooding silence, his valor, his righteous rage. Yet, it’s his earnestness that captures me now, the fact that he also sang sad love songs into the darkness beside a campfire. Tolkien’s fantasy world is old-fashioned, but it successfully pins down evil: hatred of weakness, gleeful destruction, the sarcasm of minions.
My first drafts are often sodden and filthy with anger. The real challenge, though, is allowing all my other sloppy feelings onto the page—the “weak” feelings, too, not just my fist-shaking fury or punishing judgments. I’m terrified of nobody listening. I’m scared of being without my parents, of being left alone. When I resort to sarcasm, I not only hide these very human emotions; I cede my power as a writer.
It’s not that I need to be less angry. Of course I must rage at evil—or at the dying of the light—but not at the expense of other responses, like fear or grief.
Sometimes, I want to ride my tiger, crashing through the underbrush, roaring at anyone in my path. Its crackling energy is my peculiar gift, whether by karma or a genetic toss of the dice. Still, I can no longer let that beautiful, savage, panicked creature destroy everything inside before I even start to type.
Consider my latest unpublished novel, which I’m now rewriting. In the original story, I killed off my best character. I turned her yearnings into satire and got rid of her fast. Now it seems absurd that I eliminated a creative woman in her fifties who doesn’t suffer fools but is also kind. She’s made big mistakes. She’s angry, oh, yes. But she has good reason to be, and this complex character at last drives my story.
Martha Nichols is editor in chief of Talking Writing.
An e-book edition of Martha’s Bitch Letters: How Apple, Staples, Mitsubishi, and Every Airline Known to Humankind Ruined the 1990s for Me may be available in the uncertain future. When it is, she expects to make a million.
In truth, she’s been touched to see how much her parents’ rage has softened during their extended illnesses. What remains is not necessarily peace, but perhaps it’s love or a fragile kind of acceptance.