The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Seen it or read it? I had read it about three or four years ago, and I’m not saying I think it’s a masterpiece or that the author is entirely likable, but the fact he wrote what he wanted to write and surmounted a massive obstacle to do so is commendable enough for me (not to mention makes me wonder what the hell I have to whinge about…).
The book is less than 150 pages, but if you’ve read it, you understand that there was nothing “short” about the process. If you aren’t familiar with the premise of the book, it chronicles the memories of a man (Jean-Dominique Bauby, former editor of French Elle magazine) diagnosed with “locked-in syndrome,” thus paralyzed from head to toe, other than the ability to blink one eye. The prison of his own body, then, became his enclosing “diving bell,” and after initially suffering an understandably defeatist attitude, he came to realize that his greatest mobility and freedom—his “butterfly”—was his mind and the imagination and memories it held. He learned that in this way he could escape to anywhere in the world, dine on the most sumptuous feasts, and do whatever else met his fancy. And thanks to the persistence of a hospital therapist, he learned he could write a book.
Unable to speak, unable to move, this man wrote a book. And I speak of him in the past tense because he passed away within days of this book’s publication in 1997. But it wasn’t about the publication; it was the process itself that helped preserve his will to live.
And, clearly, the way it came about is remarkable. In my second-to-last post, I talked about editing on a chapter-by-chapter, to paragraph-by-paragraph, to sentence-by-sentence, to word-by-word level; well, how about writing on a letter-by-letter one? As the woman transcribing his memoir would read through a special alphabet (arranged in order of the most frequently used letters), he would blink when she said the letter he wanted. Now imagine approaching writing this way; this is a time-consuming, surely exhausting effort, so you’re certainly not going to waste any words getting to your point. Yet it’s the presence of description that I remember astonishing me when I read the book. He “wrote” vividly, expressively, demonstrating that some detail is worth working for; it’s necessary to conveying the true idea.
So as I’ve written before, as we hack into our own pieces and try to reduce word count, it’s important not to strip those ideas of their joy. Every word needs to matter, however, so we must be discerning in our choices. And we must remember what we’re doing it for. Is it in the hope of being published so everyone knows our name and kidding ourselves that it’ll make us rich? Or is it the sheer achievement when the odds may have been against us? The joy of the act itself and of sharing it with others? Think of the celebration it is to pen the triumph of one’s mind, capturing in words the life we’re infused with through imagination and memory. It is tremendously difficult work, yes, and yet doesn’t inspiration sometimes flutter through us in a blink…peppering our pages with butterfly kisses from the lashes of our mind’s eye…