Writerhead Wednesday: Andrea Barrett in Writerhead

Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author talks about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.

A few months ago while teaching a personal essay writing workshop, I happened upon an essay called “The Sea of Information”* by Andrea Barrett in which she documents her ascent (descent?) into writerhead. She’s looking through a handbook called What You Should Know About TUBERCULOSIS that was passed out to high school students in New York City between 1910 and 1920. The handbook is full of photographs of children deformed by tuberculosis and young people “taking the cure,” a drawing of a Tuberculosis Tree, a map marking the cases of tuberculosis in a particular New York neighborhood, and condescending passages that describe tuberculosis as a “disease of the poor–of those on or below the poverty line.”

The tuberculosis handbook goes on to say: “We must further realize that there are two sorts of poor people–not only those financially handicapped and so unable to control their environment, but those who are mentally and morally poor, and lack intelligence, will power, and self-control….”

After describing the handbook in detail, Andrea Barrett shares the way her experience with this handbook prods her into writerhead. (No, she doesn’t call it writerhead, but that’s what it is.) Listen…

“The sound of that language–the officious, pushy, condescending sound of that–along with the eerie photographs and the remarkable drawing of the Tuberculosis Tree, made me want to write a novel. The feeling was as sudden, as intense, and as irrational as falling in love.”

And there she was. In writerhead. A feeling that was “as sudden, as intense, and as irrational as falling in love.”

Love it.


* “The Sea of Information” (which I read in The Best American Essays 2005, p. 10) was originally published in The Kenyon Review (Summer 2004).

Image: Sura Nualpradid / FreeDigitalPhotos.net