How to Navigate Depression in a World That Polices Women’s Feelings
Heather Christle on writing "The Crying Book" and why you should google that lump in your throat
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Told in poetic bursts, Heather Christle’s The Crying Book paints a complex, personal, and far-reaching picture of the universal and under-explored phenomenon of crying. Previously, she’d written four books of poetry, and she writes with the precision only a poet can achieve.
Heather Christle and I talked on the phone about white women’s tears, how to navigate depression in a world that seeks to police women’s emotions, and why you should google that lump in your throat.
Katie Simon: Your background is in poetry, but this is your first nonfiction book. On the first page of The Crying Book, you wrote that you wanted to map every place you cried. Was your decision to write about this map idea via a nonfiction book intentional?
Heather Christle: No, it was a very different desire. What was really at the core was not so much a desire to actually map that out, because that wouldn’t reveal all that much—it would just show every place I’d ever cried. But what it did lead to a series of conversations with friends where I would bring up this idea, and we would begin talking about places that we had all cried. And people would start to sort of share their own experiences of crying and it made me realize that this was a conversation that felt rich and meaningful and like it connected to a lot of other things that I might be interested in thinking about. But I still didn’t know it was going to be a nonfiction book.
I sort of sat down one morning, and just started writing, thinking maybe it was a prose poem, maybe it was just getting some things down that wouldn’t be anything around crying. And it felt like there was more to say. It felt like I had more questions. And I started to do some research just for the sake of my own curiosity and began to incorporate some of that into what I was writing. And then I found myself with more questions and started to look into some databases and realized that you could put crying into any database, any subject, and something really interesting would come up and. It became apparent it was probably going to be a book. But it’s very much shaped by the material. It wasn’t that I said, I’m going to write a nonfiction book. What should I write a nonfiction book about? It was much more of a process as I think this the content revealing the form.
KS: Many of the themes of the book, like women with mental illness or women expressing emotion, and how women are perceived and judged, are in the zeitgeist. How do you think your book fits into the larger public discussion? And do you feel like our culture is changing in a direction that allowed you to write this book?
HC: Part of what I wanted to do in this book was to investigate patterns around crying, and around how people respond to it, in all kinds of contexts. But then, so many of those patterns are harmful—men dismissing the tears of women or white women’s tears being weaponized to incite racist violence. I wanted to note those patterns, but not to reinscribe them; to find ways of intersecting with them differently, of constellating behaviors differently, and noticing all of the many other possibilities that exist. I think that there’s a lot of beautiful work happening, and has been happening for a long time. But I think, particularly right now, it feels to me that there is an increasing urgency in the mood to shift these patterns and to imagine other possibilities. And for me, that’s not only in the case of looking at women crying, but it’s looking at access to mental healthcare. It’s looking at the possibilities of prison abolition. It’s looking at the possibilities of access to reproductive healthcare and justice. So I hope that my book can be a part of the shifting of those patterns.
KS: Did you find that you were writing in defiance of expectations in some way, of how you’re “supposed” to write about these things?
HC: So one of the things that I love about writing poems is the way that it feels possible for them to resist some of the forces that limit our imagination. They have this sort of anti-gravity to them that I think is exciting and full of possibility. It’s harder for me to maintain that kind of propulsive imagination through prose and through a book-length nonfiction project, because there are these forces that seek to limit our imagination and to hold it down into a space that can easily exist in white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. It is possible, but I had to work harder at it and there were many times where I would write and then I would notice that I was succumbing to those forces in one way or another. And then I would put that aside and I would try again. I think I found it.
KS: When a woman writes a book in which there is a romantic relationship, there’s this pressure to categorize it as a “marriage” book or a “relationship” book, or a book exclusively about women’s feelings. That’s obviously not what this is, but I did find myself really connecting with your writing about your marriage, like when you write “One of the ways Chris loves me is that he waits while I cry. He tells me it will pass. He does not leave. And when the fog lifts, he makes space for me to write.” After reading those sentences I texted them to a friend because I was like, this is what I want for myself. Like please, Heather, write my dating profile! I’m curious how that relationship found its way into the book—was it always going to be there how you mentioned friendships were so central?
HC: So much of this book is about relationships between people and between ideas, between texts that might want to speak to one another. Of course, my relationship with my partner Chris is tremendously significant to me, though I didn’t want to center it above the other relationships—I think it exists as one thread within this knotting work that I was doing. But I never really thought to write it out of the book. There were times when it was difficult, as any relationship is difficult, and the representation of any relationship is difficult, but I ended up feeling that it fit within the broader framework.
KS: Was there anything that came up in your research that you got really into, but didn’t actually manage to find its way into the final book? Something cool we should all be googling?
HC: There is! There’s so much that could have gone into this book. But there came a point where I was like, I have to just stop now. There are only so many pages. It’s not meant to be exhaustive at all. So, you know, the sensation of a lump in your throat when you’re crying? It turns out that the reason for that is that when you’re in emotional distress, your body creates this physical physiological reaction where it tries to get as much oxygen from the air as possible because you may need it. And in order to do that the muscles of the throat hold themselves open. When you try to swallow, you feel the resistance of those muscles and you experience it as a lump—a lump that is, in fact, an opening.
KS: Whoa. So It’s like the opposite. I’m always worried my throat is going to close up, but there’s actually more room! You just reassured me and probably a lot of other people that we are not dying.
HC: Your body is actually taking care of you in that moment.
KS: Like a form of self-care. I don’t think we discuss that enough in the literary world. There were a lot of heavy, personal threads in this book. How did you take care of yourself while writing?
HC: I think one of the best things that I did was to stop writing. I had to periodically tell myself that it was okay if I didn’t publish the book, that it didn’t matter that I had spent five years, eventually six years, writing it, that it would be okay for me to not publish it. It was the only way I could get through. It served as a kind of safety net.
KS: It sounds like you figured it out—taking breaks and resting. Did you ever turn to a residency to get the work done?
HC: I did do a sort of residency, though it wasn’t an official one. I went and stayed with a friend, a poet who was my professor at school. I went there to work on the second draft of the book. I had generated all this material, gotten all this feedback and then knew that I had some major cuts to make and some major rearranging to do and wanted to have the ability to be in another space to get that done. So she gave me her bedroom to stay in for a week. I woke up early every morning and drank coffee and chatted with her and then went upstairs and worked until the afternoon and then I napped. It was beautiful. I recommend it as a form of residency, to be with a friend. And I was near other friends that could go and have a drink with in the evening. So I was able to both have the separation and also the support.
And I think also, sometimes we get so caught up in imagining that institutions are the only way we can get things done. I imagine at some point I would like to go to a residency for my next project. But we can make these things happen for each other. We can be there for each other, and we don’t necessarily need institutions to make writing happen.