Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, “I must be private, secret, as anonymous and submerged as possible in order to write.” Given the multiple volumes of her diary, letters and memoirs, the outward facts of her life are well-documented, but the priority she gives to the inward life, to what lies obscured in night and shadow, leaves much yet unknown.
1. “The Mysterious Case of Miss V.” This is the title of a scrap of manuscript written in 1906 about a woman who passes unknown and silent through her lifetime. The challenge is “to track down the shadow, to see where she lived and if she lived, and talk to her…” Who was the unnamed Miss V? Might she bear some relation to Miss Virginia Stephen (Woolf’s maiden name)?
2. The Unnoticed Influence of Woolf’s Aunt. Virginia Woolf’s father Leslie Stephen put down his sister Miss Caroline Emilia Stephen as “Silly Milly” who wrote “little books.” It was the way of Victorian men towards spinsters (like the fictional Miss V). Leslie Stephen’s children took up his tone towards his sister, whom they called “the Nun.” This dismissal has distracted attention from what was formative for 22-year-old Virginia during the last months of 1904 when she lived with her 72-year-old aunt Caroline at The Perch, her home in Cambridge. It was, Virginia said, “an ideal retreat for me,” following a breakdown. A Quaker convert and theologian, her aunt’s chief book, Quaker Strongholds (1890)—reprinted three times—and her papers in London’s Metropolitan Museum reveal habits of mind that are precisely those of her niece: to switch off the clamor of public voices in favor of “the witness within” and demand more than votes for women: nothing less than “the disuse of power.” She did not wish women to imitate the abuses of male power and called for women to exercise their vote collectively.
3. The first published essay. It was while Virginia Stephen lived with her aunt Caroline that she picked up her pen to write professionally for the first time in November 1904. It was for a women’s supplement to a church magazine called The Guardian. The topic she chose was a pilgrimage to the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth. In the museum, above a bank on the steep village street, she’s “thrilled” to find the little oak stool “which Emily carried with her on her solitary moorland tramps, and on which she sat, if not to write, as they say, to think.”
4. “Thinking back through our mothers.” This famous phrase, which sparked a turn to women’s history, appeared in Woolf’s first feminist treatise, A Room Of One’s Own (1929). The book originated in lectures to women students at Cambridge in 1928, the year of the Equal Franchise Act, granting the vote to all women. But back in 1906 Virginia Stephen was already exploring the possibility of women’s history in a neglected but wonderful story, “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn,” about 15th century women who maintain domestic order while thugs (recorded by traditional history as the Wars of the Roses) rampage outside their walls.
5. A Question of “Madness.” A nervous temperament was thought to unfit people, especially females, for public life. In fact, Virginia Woolf shared a predisposition for mental illness with forebears who were particularly able in public office. Her grandfather, Sir James Stephen, had “a severe nervous illness” after drawing up the Parliamentary bill against slavery in 1833. As Colonial Under-Secretary, his anxiety over the colonies (when slave-owners resisted his bill) was so overwrought as to be “a test of insanity.” He apologized to his wife for being “moonstruck.” His son, Leslie Stephen, a successful man of letters, had what he termed “Berserker fits.” Caroline Stephen, who established a women’s refuge in the 1870s, had a breakdown of sorts after her mother died.
6. A “prelude” to marriage. “To be 29 and unmarried—to be a failure—childless—insane too, no writer,” Virginia Stephen groaned to her sister in June 1911. That very month Leonard Woolf turned up on leave from his Colonial Office post in Ceylon. Ten months later, when they announced their engagement, she wrote teasingly to two single friends, “I am marrying a penniless Jew.” It is impossible to document fully what happened when their union was put to the test early on, between 1913 and 1915 – a period Virginia Woolf later called the “prelude” to marriage. Following her breakdowns during those years, her second novel, Night and Day (1919), devises a positive reply to what is a critical and even adversarial stance in Leonard Woolf’s novel, The Wise Virgins (1914) with its ambiguous Virginia figure Camilla Lawrence, who is too classy, too non-Jewish for the hero, Harry. We can have some insight into this fraught time through the way their books talk to each other, and take in what Virginia did to heal what had been hurtful to Leonard.
7. The Russian Ballet. Dates in Leonard Woolf’s diary in 1911, 1912, and 1918, record visits to the Diaghilev Ballet when they performed to enraptured audiences. Among these was a performance of Act II of Swan Lake and it’s worth exploring a link between the revelation of the Swan Queen’s outsider existence in the dark woods (versus the routines of court) and the honeymoon-versus-marriage plot of Virginia Woolf’s greatest story, “Lappin and Lapinova.” Lopokova was the name of Diaghilev’s prima ballerina during the 1918 season in London at the time Virginia Woolf first conceived this story.
8. The Outsiders’ Society. Virginia Woolf is usually seen as an insider among her Bloomsbury set, made up largely of privileged, upper-middle-class men who had been at top schools and Cambridge University. But in her treatise, Three Guineas (1938), she positions herself as an “Outsider” and member of an “Outsiders’ Society.” This is a secret and anonymous organization of women. In her diary, on February 7, 1938, Virginia Woolf considers putting out an illustrated sheet to be called The Outsider, as a way of popularizing and politicizing an Outsider party. Members work for the same aims as men who are brothers: “liberty, equality and peace.” But women do this separately, “by their own methods,” resisting militancy and the temptation to imitate men.
9. Preparing for suicide. It is a fact that Virginia Woolf committed suicide on March 28, 1941 by weighting her pockets with stones and wading into the fast-running River Ouse near her writing room in the village of Rodmell in Sussex. What is less well-known is that in 1940 Leonard proposed joint suicide to a reluctant Virginia. At that time German invasion of Britain seemed imminent after the rest of Europe had fallen to the Nazis. As a Jew, Leonard expected to be seized and his wife too. In fact, they were already on Himmler’s list for immediate arrest.
10. Silencing and Voicing. In the 19th century nice women were quiet. Virginia Woolf said that she and her sister were taught the “tea-table” manner. This was designed to keep polite, self-effacing conversation flowing. The most vital fact in her life was the contrast between this stifling of utterance, this concealment in “shadow’—epitomized by Miss V—and the ground shaking under her like an earthquake when she brought out her full-throated “Outsider” voice, protesting against military or domestic violence in favour of nurture, listening and sympathy, values which the civilized of both sexes already share. The voice of her Outsider prepares the way for the present voice of the #MeToo generation.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
In the end, Virginia Woolf went for a walk, filled her pockets with rocks, and waded into the river. After a lifetime of struggling with her mental health, the onset of another depressive episode, in conjunction with the impending war, ultimately defeated her. Since then, women writers across the world have recognized fragments of themselves in her and her work. For my part, growing up in rural Massachusetts, I used to end long winter walks standing at the edge of the pond across the field from the house where I grew up, and the gentle pulse of the water’s surface felt like a promise to take me if I wanted to go.
I didn’t have a connection to Woolf growing up. I was nineteen the summer I first read Mrs. Dalloway, lonely again in my humid hometown. At first pass, I found it dense and perplexing; it was difficult to follow the thread that Woolf masterfully weaves from one character to the next. But I was drawn to her even then, to that breathless style, to life, London, that moment of June.
Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when I finally read all of Woolf’s novels and saw myself, not only in suicidal ideation but in literary aesthetic: in that persistent, if sometimes melancholy, optimism that pervades Woolf’s work despite mounting evidence that there is little left to hope for.
This realization came in my senior year of college, when I elected to put an end to my embarrassing lack of knowledge about one of history’s most prominent women writers by taking a senior thesis seminar on Woolf. Led by notable writer and Woolf scholar Mary Gordon, we read 10 books and two personal essays by Woolf, each student producing a 30-page thesis on the writer’s oeuvre.
I came to the class as something of a lapsed postmodernist. I’d taken a course in the literary school a few semesters prior and had only recently grown disillusioned with its tenets, the nihilistic rejection of reality and truth that filled me first with existential dread, then a numbing emptiness as I tried to apply it to my own writing. Reading Woolf with this lens, I found her work to present a thorough criticism of the ideas that would characterize postmodernism after her death. It wasn’t just that Woolf was a modernist, embodying the reassertion of reason against a growing alienation that individuals felt in response to advancing industrialization—this modernist aesthetic sets her up in obvious opposition to postmodernism, given that the latter movement grew out of a rejection of their modernist predecessors. Woolf’s work goes beyond this simplistic dichotomy, acknowledging and considering at great length the ideas that would later become postmodernism, but ultimately turning away from them in favor of what Woolf seems to consider the essential truth of being human. That is, the idea that while people’s true selves are masked beneath layers of constructed identities—making meaningful connection almost entirely impossible—the point of life, the beauty in it, is to continue to search for a glimpse at that true self below the surface. For Woolf, this is what makes life worth it all.
This aesthetic appears initially in Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out. Rachel Vinrace, the novel’s young leading lady, pushes against the boundaries of society, unable to conform to the polite expectations set for her. Her entrance into “proper” society midway through the book dovetails with her eventual death, with Rachel falling ill and never recovering soon after getting engaged. Once Rachel attains marriage, “the right thing, the only thing, the solution required by everyone she knew,” she is literally destroyed. In this way, Woolf seems to argue that the arbitrary structures of society do a sort of violence to individuals, taking away their agency in favor of fitting in with what is “proper.” This echoes the nihilist reaction to society that would come to characterize postmodernism after Woolf’s death.
However, an undercurrent of optimism flows through the novel. After Rachel dies, a thunderstorm hits, and the societal conventions that everyone adhered to throughout the book fall quite suddenly away. The otherwise relentlessly proper Mrs. Flushing asks her friends if they fear dying, and they all respond in turn. Unlike earlier in the book, when people would pointedly shy away from asking personal questions, the characters begin to say real, meaningful things. Rachel’s senseless death forces them to be more than they are; to create meaning, to communicate. While the spell breaks as the storm fades, Woolf is not pessimistic about the fact that meaning is only momentary. Rather, she notes the beauty in the fact that, despite this heartbreaking, meaningless death, the other characters go on living, as if to point out that there is something valuable in the going-on-ness of life. Even though meaning only comes in flashes, like lightning, people do not grow disillusioned in the face of the fact that they spend most of their lives stumbling around in the dark. One must push through these difficulties—that is, from a contemporary lens, push through postmodern solipsism—for the hope of momentary clarity. It is worth it for these moments.
In fact, beyond simply arguing for the existence of moments of clarity amidst the stilted performance of English society, Woolf seems to argue that these barriers preventing us from accessing this clarity are the only things that keep us alive. In The Voyage Out, Rachel finds herself paralyzed when she begins to consider the “unspeakable queerness” of life, which she considers “only a light passing over the surface and vanishing.” Through this paralysis, we see how it is destructive to think about the immense and desolate fact of human existence. In this way, while the barriers put up by the conscious presentation of society do serve the destructive end of making it impossible for people to really communicate with one another, these barriers also serve the very constructive end of making it possible to do anything at all. If one thinks too much about how, like Rachel, a person can die merely by forgetting to wash their vegetables before eating them, it becomes impossible to continue. This is why, as with lightning, clarity can only exist in moments. After any more than an instant, the absolute vulnerability of humans to the most absurd things becomes unbearable to consider. In Woolf’s formulation, the best we can hope for is to glimpse clarity in fragments. Any more would destroy us.
These ideas pervade all of Woolf’s novels. In Night and Day, she remarks that “to see the truth is our great chance in this world.” One of the novel’s heroines, Katharine, continually invokes Dostoyevsky, repeating, “It’s life that matters, nothing but life—the process of discovering—the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself at all.” In The Years, it’s the distant bombing of the war heard during a quiet English tea. In To the Lighthouse, Woolf re-emphasizes the beauty in the dogged going-on-ness of life, showing how even in the face of tremendous tragedy life continues as it did before simply because it must. The house is restored. Lily Briscoe returns to her painting. They finally sail towards the titular lighthouse, despite the deaths of Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew.
Woolf is unquestionably a modernist, and the easy assumption would be to say that she has, as she might put it, “nothing whatever” to do with postmodernism as a school. Given that she died before postmodernism could begin to take hold, one might argue that her optimism has no purchase as a critique of contemporary postmodernism, and that to pose such a critique risks anachronism. But this argument falls apart under the weight of The Waves, that fluid and experimental work that firmly established Woolf not only as an extraordinary novelist but as an intensely conceptual writer fiercely pushing the boundaries of her craft.
Told in six soliloquies that ebb and break against each other, The Waves explicitly references numerous major tenets of what would become postmodernism without losing Woolf’s steadfast optimism. The character of Bernard destabilizes the strong sense of self inherent in many modernist texts, declaring, “To be myself…I need the illumination of other people’s eyes, and therefore cannot be entirely sure what is my self.” He goes further, pointing out a whole host of ideas that would later characterize the postmodern movement: the flimsy nature of socially constructed reality, the instability of language, the dubiousness of concrete knowledge. Woolf writes:
There is no stability in this world. Who is to say what meaning there is in anything? Who is to foretell the flight of a word? It is a balloon that sails over tree-tops. To speak of knowledge is futile. All is experiment and adventure. We are for ever mixing ourselves with unknown quantities. What is to come? I know not. But as I put down my glass I remember: I am engaged to be married. I am to dine with my friends tonight. I am Bernard, myself.
Throughout the passage, Bernard seems to be falling away from that optimism that carried Woolf throughout her literary career. Then, the word “but” in the middle. Despite all these grand questions, Bernard is able to situate himself in relation to his position in society. In this way, Bernard represents the point that Woolf makes again and again throughout her career: While nothing is perfect, it is all we have. While society is constructed, it is the only way that Bernard has to relate to the world, and that must be worth something. It must be worth fighting for. If not to keep it the same, then to salvage it, to turn it into something to hope for, rather than the postmodern alternative of nothing at all. As Bernard states, “Is this the utmost you can do? Then we have triumphed. You have done your utmost.”
Woolf’s relationship to postmodernism becomes more compelling when put in context with major critiques that postmodernists raised against modernism. In large part, literary criticism in Woolf’s time was dominated by men like Clive Bell, Joseph Frank, David Lodge, and John Barth. According to Patricia Waugh, a leading specialist in modern and postmodern literature, in her book Feminine Fictions, works by women were marginalized and misinterpreted by these critics. In Waugh’s formulation, fiction written by male modernists was characterized by splitting, fragmentation, and atomization of the story and of the self. In contrast, women’s writing at this time had more to do with dissolution and mergence. According to Waugh, this is because women were traditionally positioned as “other,” so the desire to become subjects overpowered the postmodern desire to deconstruct themselves. Rather, these women sought to experience their selves as strong and coherent while also acknowledging the socially constructed aspects of their identities. Thus, reading these women writers, including Woolf, with the lens of male modernists and critics would misrepresent their aims and concerns.
Furthermore, these women were not only misunderstood or overlooked in their time period, but formulations of modernism continue to misunderstand women like Woolf today. For example, Adam Kelly invokes modernism in his essay “David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity in American Fiction,” setting up modernist sincerity in contrast with his idea of the New Sincerity, a burgeoning school of post-postmodernism. Kelly asserts that the modernist aesthetic was characterized by “impersonality,” but he exclusively cites male authors such as Joyce and Eliot to prove his point. It would certainly be strange to describe Woolf’s persistent search for meaningful connections between people as anything approaching impersonal, so one might think she was left out of Kelly’s formulation, destabilizing his arguments surrounding postmodernism and New Sincerity.
What does all this indicate? Given that postmodernism grew out of mainstream critiques of modernism, and given that these critiques generally did not focus on the work being done by women writers, the very existence of the school of postmodernism becomes suspect, because it appears to exclude women writers and writers of color. Woolf’s oeuvre is proof of this gaping oversight. While the world is in many ways more equitable than it was when Woolf was writing—at the very least, women can now enter the library at Cambridge without a male companion, unlike in A Room of One’s Own–the literary world remains troublingly gendered.
Ruth Franklin discusses this gendering in her article “Why the Literary Landscape Continues to Disadvantage Women.” According to VIDA, and advocacy organization for women in literary arts, in 2013 The New York Review of Books reviewed 636 books by men and only 164 by women. Franklin notes how even today women writers struggle to be seen as writing about anything other than women, while male narratives continue to be considered universal. This echoes the sentiment Woolf expressed almost a century ago in A Room of One’s Own. She writes:
Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are “important”; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes “trivial.” And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop—everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.
If literary problems from 1929 that a prominent woman writer like Woolf considered at length still remain unsolved today, it seems fair to say that our contemporary literary schools developed out of a deliberate exclusion of women writers. This indicates that postmodernism is not only passé, but, in fact, that parts of postmodernism were never going to be useful for a progressive society. This is because postmodernism began as a movement by white men critiquing previous work by white men, never pausing to look outside of themselves to consider if people of other genders or races might have something interesting to contribute. Woolf’s contradictory relationship to postmodern tenets is proof that she, and likely others, were overlooked.
This isn’t to say that the entire project of postmodernism was useless. It did its work in exposing the arbitrary nature of many, if not most, aspects of our lives. It questioned our assumptions, our values, asked if we knew where things began and then asked us to look again. But for all its good, postmodernism has been ripping a hole in the literary fabric by failing to address this gendered critique, dragging the tapestry down as it overstays its welcome.
For my part, I think there’s nothing left to be gained from this irony, this solipsism, the extinguishing emptiness of the postmodern world. In a world where violence and hate speech are skyrocketing perhaps in part due to this rampant postmodern depersonalization, maybe what we need is not more explorations of how meaningless everything is, but a radical reassertion of that meaning, the kind of hope that kept Woolf alive.
It was the war that ultimately killed Virginia. She had been deeply unsettled by the First World War, and her diaries and letters indicate a growing sense of dread as the Second World War advanced in the last years of her life. While we’re not on the obvious brink of a world war now, it feels similarly easy to despair at advancing right-wing populism across the globe. But having grown up in postmodernism’s grasp, I would rather write towards hope, that truth that Woolf considered our great chance in this world.
In order to be productive, post-postmodern fiction must let go of the solipsistic irony borne out of exclusionary white male narratives. These post-postmodern works must allow writers of all perspectives to dismantle societal narratives and structures like a postmodernist. At the same time, such works must illuminate unseen spaces in literature, like Woolf called for in A Room of One’s Own, and they must resist postmodernism by remaining optimistic and unironic in the process. Drawing on Waugh, these writers must seek to understand their (whole) self in terms of problematic social structures rather than denying the existence of the self because of these structures.
We are never going to see the world or ourselves with complete objectivity, nor should we have to. The intrinsic failure of objectivity should not be taken as cause for despair, because this despair then masks the simple beauty that keeps us alive, as Woolf argued. That humans are fallible is part of what makes us endearing to each other. Woolf writes in Jacob’s Room, “In any case life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows.” It is merely because, “Such is the manner of our seeing. Such the conditions of our love.”
Image credit: Flickr/Laura Miller.
In the chaotic and often overwhelming world of publishing, I like to think there’s a subtle looking out for each other that happens among women writers. Even if you don’t know each other extremely well, there’s a rope that binds us, a safety net, a hand up, a knotted protection spell that’s always in the works. Of course, that’s not always the case, but I’d like to think we work in service to words and in service to each other. Though, Erika L. Sánchez and I have only met once or twice, I have been watching her exceptional career rise to new heights for some time. First I was a fan of her poems in the 2017 release of Lessons on Expulsion, and then I became a fan of her young adult fiction with her book I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter which was both a National Book Award Finalist and a New York Times Bestseller. In the interview that follows, the two of us finally had the opportunity to exchange our thoughts about, not only the nitty gritty of the writing process, but also how one navigates the joys and challenges of a living a life wholeheartedly dedicated to words. —Ada
Ada Limón: Erika, it’s such a pleasure to get the chance to talk to you here. I’ve been watching you and reading you for some time now. You are a star! Your young adult novel I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is just a year old and still doing so well (deservedly!). You’re traveling a great deal and speaking and reading all over the country. I’m positive you and I have passed each other in various airports at some point or another. Because we’re friends on social media, I just saw a picture of you with Judy Blume. Oh the company you keep. This might be a strange question to begin with, but the caretaker in me wants to ask you, how are you holding up? All of this attention for the work is always welcome, but it isn’t always easy. You’ve become a real icon and leader for young Latinx writers—how are you juggling your public persona and your personal life?
Erika Sánchez: Thank you for your kind words. It’s been such a surreal experience. I’m very grateful for the attention my books have received. When you publish, you hope for the best, but you just never know how your work will do out in the world. Part of the reason I wrote these books was because young Latinx women are rarely allowed to tell their stories. I grew up reading almost exclusively white texts. Thank goodness for Sandra Cisneros. Reading The House on Mango Street in high school was the first time I ever really saw myself in a book. I felt so invisible for most of my life, that it’s sometimes hard to believe that people actually care about what I have to say now. I’ve participated in many events, talks, and readings in the last year and a half. The picture you reference was from the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner where I received the 21st Century Award. My entire family was there and I got to meet two of my heroes. It was such an amazing night. I feel a great deal of responsibility with this new visibility. I use the platform to speak out about immigration, sexual assault, mental health, and racism, and to encourage young women of color to pursue their passions. Sometimes this work is exhausting, but I’m really grateful that I get to do this. When I’m not teaching or traveling, I’m usually at home recharging. I spend a lot of time reading in bed with my cat. I’m an introvert by nature, so I need a lot of time alone after my events.
This current administration and the consequent xenophobia is completely horrifying, but I see a definite shift in the literary world. People of color and LGBTQ folks are publishing books and winning major prizes. I can hardly keep up , which I find so exciting. I just saw you on the cover for Poets & Writers! How amazing is that? I see The Carrying everywhere and it also deserves all the attention it’s gotten. It’s truly stunning. I feel really haunted by it. The way you write about the female body is so devastating that I had to put the book down at times. Though I love writing more than anything, I know that the process of it can be so emotionally taxing. There are times that I even feel it physically. There’s an essay I’ve been avoiding for this very reason. I’d also like to know how you take care of yourself. How do you write about grief and stay healthy? How do you find that balance? And is there any advice you can offer women writers who tackle these kinds of difficult issues?
AL: Thank you, Erika. I am so thrilled to see you getting the
attention you and your writing deserves. It does my heart good. And the work
you are doing is important on many levels so I’m glad to hear you are able to
rest and recharge when you can. I agree that the act of writing is a physical
thing. It can be healthy to purge dark things, but it can also excavate old and
new suffering that needs to be attended to. The body can’t always keep up.
While I was working on The Carrying, my body was hurting quite a bit, my
vertigo was intense, and I had an overall feeling of sickness most of the time.
I feel better now and no one is entirely sure why, but the body is a mystery.
What’s interesting for me is that, regardless of how I’m feeling physically, I
really do feel my best when I am writing, it’s a place to be free, to be in the
body and the mind in a new way, to remember what being free looks like and
feels like. The best advice I can offer anyone is to do the work, but also not
to force it, not to drag it out kicking and screaming. Sometimes we sit down to
write the hard stuff, to burn shit down, to light it up and make our words a
bomb. Those explosions of rage and sorrow can be powerful, but we also have to
remember to be tender and kind to ourselves. That we are allowed happiness too.
A sense of peace. If we intend to own our suffering, we must also own our
power, our peace.
Do you find the process of writing freeing? Or does
it feel like incredibly hard work at times? I’d love to hear more about your
writing process and how you shift between both your poems and your prose?
ES: Writing is what makes me feel the most connected to the world.
It’s an act of survival, because if I don’t do it, I literally feel like I’m
going to die. That’s not exaggeration. It’s freeing in the sense that I’m able
to take suffering and transform it into something beautiful. That’s the goal,
at least. Though I do love the act of writing, it is definitely work. As I
mentioned before, it’s physically taxing. Sometimes I get short of breath and
can’t sit still. I feel the grief in my body. I pace a lot and talk to myself.
When I wrote the bulk of my novel, I was recovering from one of the worst
depressions of my life and working an incredibly stressful full-time job as a
public relations strategist. I’d write all day for work then work on my novel
all evening. Whenever I had a free moment, I wrote. I felt possessed by it. It
really helped me heal. Poetry is very different for me. It requires much more
time and silence. There are poems that take me years to finish. They usually
come in pieces. I began the earliest poem in Lessons on Expulsion when I was a senior in college, so it was about a decade of
Sometimes I wish I were the kind of writer who wakes up at 5 a.m. every day and gets to work, but I don’t operate that way at all. I’m not a morning person and I’m pretty unstructured. Writing is the center of my life so it informs everything I do. I think about it always—when I’m running, cooking, shopping for groceries, or performing any mundane task. That’s why I carry a notebook and pen with me at all times. You never know when inspiration is going to strike. I write in bed, on airplanes, at the coffeeshop. I’m also constantly reading, which, of course, is central to the process. I just finished A Dream Called Home by Reyna Grande and it blew me away.
There is so much quiet yet searing beauty throughout your collection. You take what might be considered mundane and make it sing. There’s a description of a dead animal that made me gasp. That’s what I love most about Emily Dickinson. She found so much wonder and never even left her bedroom. I kept wondering about your influences in this book. Who were your spirit guides? Who do we see in The Carrying? This is your fifth collection, so how have your literary models evolved?
AL: Oh Erika, I feel the same, I wish I was as disciplined as some
folks to write at certain times of day or for a certain number of hours, or to
plunge deeply into something even when life is calling on you. I tend to be
similar in my work, there are long moments of silence and then suddenly I am
writing more than I ever have without realizing it. The Carrying does
have quite a lot of dead animals in it doesn’t it? I laugh that the all my poor
poetry animals are always dying or already dead in my poems. Except my dog, my
dog will always live forever no matter what reality tries to tell me.
Let’s see, who is in my book? I think there is a great deal of Lucille Clifton in my book, that way she could be straight forward and searing at the same time. I think also of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and her honesty and courage in that book. Of course Lucille Clifton and Marie Howe were my teachers so their influence is with me. When I’m really writing, it’s often hard for me read poetry, I tend to read novels and non-fiction because I’m such a mimic, if I read a great deal of poetry, I’ll try to copy it! My biggest influence might have been Natalie Diaz since she and I were writing poems back and forth during this time (four of mine are in the book).
I know that I still suffer a great deal from self
doubt. There are mornings that I get up and think everything I’ve written is
horrible. I usually can claw myself back into a place where I acknowledge the
good work that I’ve done (and sometimes I really love my own poems!), but you
are who you are regardless of success. Do you think success has changed you in
any way; do you think it has changed your writing?
ES: I think hating your work is part of being a writer,
unfortunately. I have those days, too. I expect a lot from myself, and if I don’t
meet my standards or expectations, I can be quite brutal. Then there are times
in which I can appreciate what I’ve created, and that is such a gift. Sometimes
I look at my books and think to myself, I made these! And it blows my
mind that strangers all over the country are reading them.
I’ve been writing since I was a kid, and I struggled for many years before I got any significant recognition, so it’s been a long journey. I’m so grateful for all the attention my work has received because there were times I seriously doubted myself and my life choices. I didn’t have many role models. I didn’t know any professional women as I was growing up. I do think success has helped my confidence. I’ve always been very outspoken, but knowing that people actually care about what I think now makes me bolder. Might as well use whatever influence I have to try to dismantle systems of oppression. I’m tired of misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and classism—essentially, hatred in all of its forms. We are constantly faced with hate crimes now. This presidency has given people permission to act upon their ignorance and fear, and it’s truly terrifying. I’m not entirely sure what to do, but I know I won’t shut up about it.
Also, I’ve spent a lot of my life either poor or broke, so it’s such a relief to have financial stability. I can buy myself things without falling into a spiral of guilt now. I live the way I want, and I know what a gift that is, particularly as a woman of color. The women who came before me weren’t even allowed to read or write. They weren’t permitted to move freely or live alone. They were expected to get married and be cared for by their husbands. I have traveled all over and I live by myself. “A room of one’s own,” as Virginia Woolf encouraged. Though I would eventually like a partner, I have really appreciated the time I’ve had to myself.
You also live a life centered on literature. You
travel quite a bit and are very prolific. What has your writing provided for
you, especially as a woman?
it wildly lucky that we can have a life centered around our writing? I feel
grateful about it every day. When I was a kid, I could never really imagine a
“dream job.” I mean, I thought about jobs, but nothing sounded like
what I really wanted to do, which was to stay home and write and read and think
of things and then go out and talk to people about the things that I had
written. I assumed a job like that didn’t really exist. How could it? Because
my mother was an artist, and my stepfather was a writer, I had a model of a
creative life. But they also both waited tables. I always assumed if you wanted
to be a creative person then you also had to wait tables, or have some other
job that took the majority of your time (and energy). Or you worked in education
like my father. Who was amazing and inspiring as an elementary school principal
and as an administrator of instruction, but had very little time to write, play
the guitar, very little time to himself.
It wasn’t until 2010 when I became a full-time writer. I worked
for magazines for 12 years before that. And even “full-time writer”
is somewhat of a misnomer. I travel and teach and speak at universities. Like
you, I’m on the road a lot, but when I’m home, I’m fully home and my time is
very much my own. I am still amazed that I make my living through my creative
work. I’m also to the point now where I am able to say no to things. I think,
as women, we are convinced or guilted into thinking that we should give our
time, dedicate our time, donate our time. We get guilted and shamed into saying
yes to waving our speaking fees or yes to writing work that doesn’t pay. I’ve
just now started giving myself permission to say no. It feels powerful,
marvelous, like taking all my clothes off and running through a field, saying
no is a party, it’s like magical weapon, a tool I never thought I’d have access
to. This way, I get to say a big fat enthusiastic YES to my writing.
Speaking of, I have one last question for you and then I’ll let
you get back to your busy life and your exceptional writing. It’s been such a
pleasure talking to you and spending time with you here on the page. Before we
go, is there any advice you’d like to offer to a writer who is starting out?
an admirer of your work, it’s been so great getting to know you better. Advice
for the youngsters… That’s a great question, one I get asked a lot. I always
tell them that they should only pursue a career in writing if they absolutely
love it. You have to take great pleasure in both reading and writing for it to
be worth it. (Personally, it never felt like a choice to me. I believed it was
the only thing that would ever make me happy.) It’s just such a hard career
that I really wouldn’t pursue it otherwise. (Of course, you can always
“write on the side” of whatever else you’re doing.) Also, make
friends with rejection. Not everyone is going to like your work, and that’s ok.
You can’t please the entire world. No matter what you do, there will be people
who don’t agree with what you’re doing. I’ve been rejected so many times, but I
kept going because I truly believed in my work.
I also like what you said about saying no. I totally agree. We’re
often expected to work for free. I did when I was younger, but those days are
over. I volunteer my time or resources for worthy causes when I think it’s
necessary, but I still need to make a living and my time is valuable. I worked
really hard to get to this point and no one is going to make me feel guilty
about being compensated for my labor.
Lastly, I think it’s so important to build community. You have to
support other writers. The act of writing can be lonely, but then spending time
with my fellow weirdos makes it all worth it. I’m grateful to have met so many incredible
people doing this work. This is the life I’ve always wanted.
you for your generosity, Erika. What a perfect place to end: on a living a life
that we have always wanted. Now, let’s go write.
One thing you could always say for me: I was a finisher. I may not have been a great reader, but by God I was dogged, and if I made it through the opening 10th of a book, then I was going all the way to the end. Though this started as merely an inclination, it eventually became a rule, for reasons I can’t quite understand. There are, after all, so many books that deserve abandonment, and to this day I admire readers like my wife, who can jump ship after 80 pages. But I suppose my years as an altar boy left their mark, both in a too-easy conflation of negligence and sin and in a deeper, anthropomorphic sense that even a bad book might at the last minute change into something singular and not-to-be-missed. “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life,” as Grace Paley put it, in her own American idiom. And if I was to be the little god of the worlds I made when turning the pages, then who was I to let a little boredom or disappointment turn me away? I mean, isn’t the real God, if there is one, a finisher, too?
This isn’t to say there weren’t challenges. The Book of Disquiet took me over a year, and several running starts. Ditto Being & Time. Proust I read over four summers, and though there was never a moment when he sunk me in the swamps of saudade, or gave me whatever is German for brain-freeze, it took a certain monogamous willfulness to return to, say, The Fugitive when fresher titles beckoned from the shelf.
But then came baby #3. Let’s call her N. She was not, exactly, planned on, though for several consecutive springs when my manic phase rolled in I had this sense that my own open destiny would probably include throwing myself out of the fatherhood plane one more time. Capping the family at two kids would have felt like stopping Proust after book six, somehow. I hasten to say of baby N, as of Proust: totally worth it.
Except that all of a sudden I couldn’t finish anything. When N was born, back in February, The Great War raged in Robert Musil’s diary. Socialism, in G.D.H. Cole’s five-volume history, had entered its anarchist phase. Now, in December, poor Robert Musil still hasn’t reached an armistice, while socialism retains a markedly anarchist flavor.
Here was me in the first few months after the delivery: I would open a novel, read along perfectly happily for a day or two, and then let it drop. I was waiting for the thing that would sweep me up and carry me through. But perhaps my reading list was too ambitious for my circumstances. (Like, who outside of grad school reads Musil at the same time as G.D.H. Cole?) I told myself I would move, temporarily, to something more sensible. But to no avail. My study grew littered with dog-eared New Yorkers, foreshortened short stories, longreads I sputtered out halfway through. Many of which I enjoyed, and hope to finish in the near future. For now, though, my year in reading comes back to me as a mixtape, as hip-hop: a swirl of enticing samples. Bits and pieces of Laura Oldfield Ford’s ’zine cycle, Savage Messiah. Phosphorescent sentences from Jaimy Gordon’s Shamp of the City-Solo. Andrew O’Hagan’s essay on Satoshi Nakamoto. Ian Frazier’s on New Jersey Route 3. The poem “Far Rockaway” by Delmore Schwartz. The part of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything when Antinous Bellori spots some angels in the woods. The part of Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil where Virgil arrives in Brundisium and the translation hasn’t yet gone bananas. The unimprovable first paragraph of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days. And Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer,” whose allegorical valences were not lost on me. Here I was looking down from the deck of a ship, not quite where I ever thought I’d be, while down there in the water, untethered but unreachable, swam another, truer self.
Okay, so I guess I did finish the Conrad. And by summer there were other things, small things, I was managing to see to the end. Like several short stories by Mavis Gallant, including “Speck’s Idea,” probably the single most perfect piece of fiction I read this year. Gallant at her best is every bit the equal of Alice Munro, Deborah Eisenberg, or Joy Williams. Whose story “Stuff” was another highlight. As was Claire Vaye Watkins’s “I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness,” from the Granta “Best of Young American Novelists” issue.
Or like the essays in Zadie Smith’s forthcoming collection, Feel Free. Several years ago, I thought I noticed a turn in Smith’s nonfiction, a loosening of the burdens of her remarkable erudition, like an astronaut swapping out the gravity boots, or like a swimmer kicking off from land. The places she now consistently reaches in her essays—on Joni Mitchell and Get Out and Anomalisa and joy—are not only nearer to the distant philosophical goalposts of the true and the just and the beautiful…they get us there with truth and justice and beauty of their own, and with an extraordinary, dab-worthy grace. In short, I feel lucky to be alive at a time when these essays are being written.
People must have felt similarly fortunate reading A Room of One’s Own a century ago, or hearing it in its original form, as lectures. I somehow made it to 38 without having read it, and in a weird way, I’m glad I did. In a college classroom, I might not have understood it as I did this summer in Maine, as a book not only about feminism, or art (as if these were ever “only”), but about how to live, for everyone, everywhere. That was a good week for finishing things, come to think of it, because I also, finally, tackled Evan S. Connell’s Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, those sterling examples of love as an act of ruthless attention. And I read much of Neil Sheehan’s A Bright, Shining Lie, a monument of narrative nonfiction that belongs on the national required reading list.
There was, too, the compellingly terrible first couple hundred pages of Harlot’s Ghost, part of an ongoing personal Norman Mailer project I probably won’t complete short of a vasectomy. There are times these days when I find bad writing as exciting as good writing. Maybe more. And apparently it’s not just me, because Mailer seems to bring the best out of his critics. Witness Elizabeth Hardwick, in her long-overdue Collected Essays: “the demonic, original clutter of Mailer’s high style.” Or witness Jonathan Lethem: “If, as in the Isaiah Berlin formulation, ‘the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,’ then Mailer’s gift and curse was to have been a hedgehog trapped inside an exploding fox.”
Other, more recent titles I should mention: Ben Blum’s Ranger Games, a gripping and thoughtful blend of memoir and true-crime. George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which I can’t make up my mind about—usually a good sign. And Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “My President Was Black,” with its arresting final cadences. I had read, and felt conflicted about, the epilogue to Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power when it appeared as a stand-alone in The Atlantic. (This is how I read now: epilogue first). If the evidence was hard to reproach, the rhetoric seemed to me flawed. But the book as a whole makes the argument far more persuasively, and—I know this is a little contrarian—I think it’s a more fully realized piece of analysis than Between the World and Me. Coates is that rare thing in our public life: a writer willing to let us see him becoming. We’ll need more of that in the year to come.
And finally, while on the subject of public life and presidents and the winter that is now upon us, I suppose it’s time—with apologies to any of his supporters left reading The Millions—to invoke He Who Must Not Be Named. For, as much as I’ve been pinning my distractibility on baby N (which would suggest I only have to persevere till she sleeps through the night), a novelist friend of mine recently proposed a counter-explanation. “Oh, yeah, man, that’s not you, it’s everyone,” he said. “All of our colleagues, everyone I talk to, my mom and stepdad, their neighbors…It’s been everyone’s worst year in reading.” His argument was that we’re so inundated just at present with narrative and fantasy—with one particular person’s narrative and fantasy—that the last thing we want in our reading lives is more imagination. If democracy dies in darkness, then dispense with the dreaming. Just give me the facts.
Now, if I were a Trumpist, I’d probably say “just give me a break.” There goes the liberal culture industry again, blaming him for their own failings, for every last thing they don’t like. To which I simply ask: aren’t you, too, tired of it? The insults, the feuds, the hysterical touchiness, the drag masculinity, the swamping of the drain, the bull in the nuclear china shop? Not to mention the buck stopping perpetually elsewhere. If politics has become a reality show, we’ve progressed in the last 18 months from the guilty pleasure of The Apprentice to the absurdity of The Celebrity Apprentice to, like, Season 7 of Real Housewives…and did anyone not stuck on an airplane even watch Season 7 of Real Housewives? Haven’t you, too, found far more of your brain given over to Donald Trump than you should have give over to even a good president? Or to put it another way: isn’t one definition of “a good president” “one you don’t have to constantly keep your eye on?” Speaking personally, I’m realizing that I read just as much this year as any year…it’s just that hundreds of my hours were given over to news, lest I fail to be aware of some developing crisis. And in the station wagon of representative government, the driver’s not supposed to be hunched over his twitter feed, leaving everyone else to watch out for hazards. We – I mean to include Trump voters here, too – deserve better. We deserve, at a minimum, adult hands on the wheel.
As to what duties an informed citizenry does have, in this or any other time, it’s worth asking: is newspaper prose plus a handful of cultural swatches anyone’s definition of an inner life? Will even the richest fragments be enough to shield us from ruin? Somehow, I don’t think so. In the short run, the con man who now has the car keys may have exposed our gullibility, sending all of us scrambling to find out things we never had to know before. But the long-term damage may be to a quantity so abused as to have fallen into shame and disrepute: the capacity for belief. We will need, if we are to stitch ourselves together again, to find stories that bridge the unbridgeable, stories that make sense of the senseless, or simply present it in all its mystery, stories that respect the difference between facts and truth – stories worth believing in. In some small way, then, seeing a novel or a poem or a work of imaginative nonfiction through to completion may turn out to be not an irrelevance but an act of subversion. Or better yet: preparation.
Here’s to being a better finisher in 2018.
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I am a jealous person — jealous of the vacations I see on Instagram, of my sister’s perfect hair, of the latte the man next to me just ordered — but it took me a long time to realize I was a jealous reader and writer. In fact, I didn’t know that literature was something I could be envious of until I read Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness. There, in the last essay of the collection, a piece titled “Song for the Special,” Keegan addresses her “unthinkable jealousies.” “Why didn’t I think to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway? I should have thought to chronicle a schizophrenic ballerina,” she writes. “It’s inexcusable.”
Like Keegan, I was angry that Michael Cunningham thought to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway first — The Hours should have been mine! Come to think of it, “Song for the Special” should have been mine! And it spread from there.
I’m jealous of ridiculous things: of Little Women, and of the original Mrs. Dalloway, if it comes down to it, and of Alice in Wonderland and of Walden. I’m jealous of Atonement and of Housekeeping. I’m jealous of every writer who’s written a feature for The Atlantic and of every Paris memoir that’s ever been published, especially the ones that involve a lot of food. I am full of unthinkable jealousies.
When I described this to a friend he corrected me. “You’re not jealous,” he said. “You’re envious. You want to have written these books, sure, but it’s not like you feel you rightfully should have.”
He’s wrong, though. I do.
My strongest jealousies have a certain logic to them. The books I’m most jealous of aren’t necessarily the ones I most admire. I love The Brothers Karamazov and I love the Oresteia, but I can’t say either inspires jealousy or envy or anything else, really, aside from a kind of awe. They exist outside me, and I can’t conceive of any alternate reality in which I might have written them. But Meghan Daum’s Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House? I’m jealous of that, just as I’m jealous of her first collection, My Misspent Youth. Truthfully, I’m jealous of most literary essayists, especially those who write about their homes or homely yearnings. Why? The through line is just me, that I want to have written their work. And sometimes, late at night, I allow myself to think that maybe I could have, if only they hadn’t gotten there first.
As an earnest undergraduate, I used to write obsessively about houses and their connection to identity; my scraped-together thesis covered A Room of One’s Own and Fun Home, two more books I envy. Life Would Be Perfect tackles the same questions I struggled to answer with more grace, insight, and humor then I could have ever hoped to muster at 22, if ever. When I found Daum’s memoir, too late to use it for my paper, I was unimaginably jealous. I could have written that book, or at least one very like it! All I needed was more time (and maybe an MFA)! But Daum had beaten me to it, and my handful of essays looked punier than ever. The problem wasn’t really that someone had written about refinished floors with the same zeal I felt, of course. My jealousy was largely just a cover for my terror. How could I ever write something original when someone had already explored, written, and published all of my ideas and interests?
The grand irony is that Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House is very much a book about envy. It’s a memoir about obsession, insecurity, and identity creation, but the source of all this trouble is “a shabby yet elegant prewar apartment in Manhattan,” not a memoir published by a talented stranger. Daum’s admission that she “sometimes found it difficult to read the Sunday paper without writhing in envy” at the luxury real estate listings and that simply “walking by certain edifices…without feeling the ache of rejection” became impossible works pretty well as a description of literary jealousy. Just replace “luxury real estate listings” with “bestseller list” and “edifices” with “the shelves of the local Barnes & Noble.”
Life Would Be Perfect charts a struggle with identity and jealousy, but here the relationship between the two isn’t necessarily destructive. Daum’s real estate envy drives her to move from Manhattan to Nebraska to L.A., creating a livable and even enjoyable life as she goes. Her jealousy ultimately incites action, not paralysis. She is not erased. The envied apartment and life are still attainable, and Daum goes after them. This time there’s a way out of the seemingly infinite jealousy loop, and she takes it.
Not all jealousy is so easily converted into action, however. Like any explosive material, it has its dangers as well as its uses, as art and history tell us again and again. Why did Cain kill Abel? Why did Medea murder not only Jason’s new bride but her own children? And why does Antonino Salieri, a passionate but mediocre Austrian court composer and the focus of Miloš Forman’s stylish film Amadeus, break down once he recognizes the overwhelming talent of a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?
“From now on we are enemies, You and I,” Salieri spits, not at Mozart but at a crucifix, in a scene at the heart of the film. He isn’t angry at the prodigy; here it’s God who’s the enemy. “You chose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy, and gave me for award only the ability to recognize the incarnation,” Salieri complains. “Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it.” And he does, eventually killing Mozart with sheer overwork and nervous exhaustion. God gave Salieri “only the ability to recognize the incarnation” of ability, the desire for brilliance but none of the brilliance itself. What could be worse? What could be more relatable for a reader and aspiring writer?
In “An Ode to Envy,” a TED Talk, senior editor at the New York Review of Books and remarkable essayist Parul Sehgal points out that without jealousy there wouldn’t be much literature to speak of. No William Shakespeare, no Anna Karenina, no Brothers Karamazov, no Madame Bovary, no Marcel Proust. One of the wonders of fiction, she argues, is its ability to accurately capture and reflect our jealousy. The power and dark appeal of envy, so often blurred in real life, are fully revealed in our greatest novels. Sehgal adds that jealousy itself is creative work. “When we feel jealous we tell ourselves a story,” she explains. “We tell ourselves a story about other people’s lives, and these stories make us feel terrible because they’re designed to make us feel terrible. As the teller of the tale and the audience we know just what details to include…Jealousy makes us all amateur novelists.”
But what about those of us who deal in nonfiction? What does essayistic jealousy look like? Is it possible that our jealousy is simultaneously less creative and more painful then its fictional counterpart? Is it possible that it’s less jealousy and more insecurity? Less Sehgal and more Salieri?
When we say, “all of my ideas have already been had,” what we’re expressing isn’t jealousy, it’s doubt in our own creativity, in our worthiness to write about anything at all. Never mind that originality in the broadest sense is hardly possible, and never mind that the beauty of most good essayistic writing lies in the writer’s ability to both make the specific feel universal and, paradoxically, turn the commonplace into something momentarily extraordinary. When we say “I should have written that,” what we mean is “How unjust, unfair, unkind that you were faster, smarter, and more fortunate than I. How terrible that I have nothing more to offer.” We’re not amateur novelists at all, just whiners.
Sehgal has a suggestion, drawn from “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” a Sherlock Holmes story in which the bumbling detective Lestrade finally allows himself to admire Holmes’s incredible abilities rather than resenting his genius. “What if jealousy really is just a matter of geometry, just a matter of where we allow ourselves to stand?” Sehgal wonders. “What if we don’t have to resent somebody’s excellence, [but instead] we can align ourselves with it?”
Easier said then done, sure, but as an idealistic goal it’s better than nothing, and certainly far better than Salieri’s murderous vision. It works particularly well when one is wrestling with awe in the face of true talent and real brilliance. It works considerably less well if one is frustrated by more possible comparisons, by mere issues of timing and semi-plausible “if onlys.”
For this second, more practical problem of jealousy, Meghan Daum again offers a solution. In the foreword to the 2015 edition of My Misspent Youth, the essay collection that made her career, Daum tells a story about the title essay. Immediately after finishing a first draft “in a two-week fury,” Daum came across a strikingly similar essay by Vince Passaro in Harper’s. “Reading his story,” she writes, “I felt even more certain I was on to something…I was also certain that no one would ever publish my essay now because it had effectively already been published.”
It is at this point that many writers’ basest instincts would kick in, but Daum gets to work. There’s no sense of frustration or injustice, no hint of insecurity. She isn’t jealous; she is a writer. So, she “rewrote [the essay] several times,” changing the focus to something more unique to her experience, separating it from the more general essay that preceded it. An easy solution? No, but a simple one.
Daum’s approach is infinitely more practical than my own patented sulking, but I don’t think it will ever totally replace it. Four million Google results on writerly jealousy say this is a plague without cure, though it does have the benefit of giving us all something to commiserate about. So long as we’re human and flawed, we’ll be jealous. So long as there are writers in every coffee shop and on the staff of every magazine and behind the cover of every one of the thousands of fresh books printed each year, there will be people for us to envy. Just, please, nobody else write about their homes for a while, okay? I think it’s my turn.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
Lydia Davis’s story “Marie Curie, So Honorable Woman” gives a condensed history of the esteemed scientist’s life. I’ve read it so many times that in my mind Davis’s Marie Curie has replaced the historical Marie who lived and developed theories of radioactivity. Historical Marie is a series of accomplishments listed in a Wikipedia entry, with a brief interlude about her personal life. Davis’s Marie is strong-willed and stubborn, a brilliant woman who lost her partner in work and life early and unexpectedly. She also won the Nobel Prize, twice.
Davis translated a biography of Marie Curie from French, Marie Curie: A Life by Françoise Giroud, published in 1986. Her story is an extraction from this, quite literally a winnowing of the biography. The story was first published in McSweeney’s and was accompanied by an exchange between editors and author, where the author acknowledged this. The text, factual as it may be, when compressed becomes a story.
It’s an erasure story: the elisions far outweigh the text that remains. What other stories could have been made?
What does it mean to write a story with a historic writer, artist, figure at its center? There must be an attraction, some kind of affinity, recognition; something within their words, their work, their life, must beckon. I also think it must be a bit like acting: with the character and arc already determined, the author must find a way to inhabit the role.
Sean Penn transformed into Harvey Milk in the biopic; his gestures became Milk’s gestures, his gruffness replaced by Milk’s sensitive, effeminate, conscientious presence. When I think of Milk now, I think of Penn’s body, its contours, flowers around his neck, arm in the air. Milk’s identity is suspended between the historical figure and the image that moved across the screen.
Director Frances Bodomo’s film Afronauts presents a vivid reimagining of the failed Zambian space program. Bodomo spoke after a recent screening at the Graham Foundation about how images from archival footage must exist for these moments to live on in cultural memory. Like with Apollo 16 — man on the moon, space suit, barren landscape, American flag implanted — we’ve all seen it.
Imagination must be fed, or perhaps when it’s fed it perpetuates a fantasy that becomes conflated with history.
When memories are retrieved, they’re brought into the present as if they’re happening again. In these moments, memory can shift before it’s archived. This new information embeds and co-opts memories over time.
In fiction, words are like gesture, observations are filtered through a singular perspective, a character’s inner life accompanies action, so that the reader observes through another’s consciousness. To write a character fully, to inhabit it, the writer must insert herself.
Carole Maso writes in her author’s note to Beauty is Convulsive, her prose poem devotional to Frida Kahlo, that “As my own words and concerns intertwined with hers, the book also became a deeply personal meditation: an attempt to be in some kind of dialog with her across time and space — and with myself. The desire was for distance and earth to diminish between us.” Danielle Dutton says of her experience writing Margaret the First, a novel about 17th-century authoress Margaret Cavendish: “I had to let myself into Margaret, and Margaret into me.”
Kahlo’s star still shines in cultural memory, evinced by Julie Taymor’s recent biopic Frida, and the ubiquity of Kahlo’s self-portraits, making her determined brows, her emboldened beauty iconic. Kahlo is remembered as a central figure of 20th-century art — yes, because of her (ex-)husband Diego Rivera, but also and mostly because of her energy, her intensity, her paintings. She is female artist hero. She has entered the realm of myth.
To say Cavendish has receded from cultural memory assumes she had a foothold to begin with. We don’t read many 17th-century writers these days, and among them there were pitiably few women. Virginia Woolf brought Cavendish into the 20th-century imagination in A Room of One’s Own, (however disparagingly) and also in her essay, “The Duchess of Newcastle.” It seems the only other place one is likely to encounter Cavendish is the university, and perhaps not even there.
Margaret Cavendish was a 17th-century authoress, the Duchess of Newcastle, wife of William, who kept company with the likes of René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes. She was a fiction writer, philosophizer, with a vast imagination and no formal education beyond what she gleaned from her brother’s tutors.
Cavendish is also the subject of Danielle Dutton’s second novel, her third book, Margaret the First.
Margaret the First reads like an attentive diary, giving glimpses into Margaret’s imaginative mind, though in the last third of the book the perspective switches to third person. This is also the period where she returns to England after a long exile, when she reaches maturity as a writer, and later descends into madness — maybe. The shift allows for more ambiguity and distance.
Each sentence in Margaret the First is like a piece of sea glass, exquisite and unyielding. The sentences stand out for their crafting, not overly ornate or precious, but determined, assured. The language conjures Gary Lutz’s lecture “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place” — it occurs to me that these are the kind of sentences he speaks of, each sentence a feat, “a complete, portable solitude, a minute immediacy of consummate language — the sort of sentence that, even when liberated from its receiving context, impresses itself upon the eye and ear as a totality, an omnitude, unto itself.”
The novel shows a restraint and confidence that perhaps Cavendish’s writing lacks. Virginia Woolf criticized Cavendish for her childish mind, “The impetuosity of her thought always outdid the pace of her fingers,” and “the wildest fancies come to her and she canters away on their backs.” Woolf accused Cavendish of lacking logic, of consorting with fairies. These deficiencies can be construed as qualities of imagination in Margaret the First, where a young Margaret watches lightning from a window as “a ghostly army of silhouetted trees fought against the sky.” Or when she observes her own states of mind: “There were little green-patterned moths dashing around the attic, bumping at the glass. I thought I felt like that. I dreamed the moths crept up inside the surface of my mind.”
While reading Margaret the First, I get the sense of looking at paintings, of stillness animated while turning pages. The immersion becomes almost meditative, like sitting before a Mark Rothko painting and melting into its colors.
In an interview, Dutton speaks of the kind of writer she has become — once fast, now slow, interested in “attention as a radical act.”
Maso writes of devotion in her author’s note to Beauty Is Convulsive: “I see Beauty as a book of devotions. At its heart is Frida’s devotion to the image, to the vision, to the broken self, and to dream despite everything to be free.” Kahlo’s guiding theme in her work was to extract and depict “my sensations, my states of mind, and the deep reactions life has been causing inside me.” For Kahlo, painting is a lyrical distillation, to live is to experience deeply.
In Margaret the First, in Beauty is Convulsive, Dutton and Maso write the lives of Margaret and Frida, and in doing so wrestle with what it meant to be a female artist, how Cavendish and Kahlo grew into their writing and art, and nurtured their imagination despite the cultural forces opposing this, despite (and because of) their extraordinary circumstances, despite the expectation of producing children rather than manuscripts or paintings.
Fertility treatments didn’t work for Margaret, perhaps with relief. Later in life she “fears instead bareness of the mind.” Despite wanting children, Kahlo’s accident, her fractured hip and spine made her unable to carry a child to term.
And yet with the accident she began painting.
I write as if it were a triumph for her, a consolation. It was also a deep sorrow.
It’s an erasure story: the elisions that overshadow the text. What other stories could have been made?
I wonder about the child (missing from the) equation, how children would have influenced, inhibited, supplanted Kahlo’s and Cavendish’s creative work. I often wonder about children and women artists in general, how with a child the balance shifts, but in which direction? the way children heighten a sense of wonder and freshness and meaning, the way children drain resources and time. I wonder about this equation in my own life.
It’s not an either/or equation, I realize. And we are living in different times.
Cavendish’s books were received warmly, though with more criticism than warmth. She measures herself against men, the illustrious thinkers who would visit her husband, the ones whose names 400 years later still pepper our intellectual conversation — Hobbes, Descartes, Robert Boyle. Margaret is aware of the strikes against her, her sex, her lack of formal education, the way she must thrust herself, by writing, into the conversation.
Perhaps she did not realize the ways she benefited from proximity, from wealth and class, the ways she acquired a great deal of knowledge from intuition and access to her brother’s tutors, from listening in on discussions between brilliant minds, from reading pamphlets, from her active mind. This was so much. But it wasn’t enough. What was a woman to do with ambition? Bury it, it seems; she wouldn’t. Among men she was aware of her unequal footing. This, it seems, must be one reason why writing was so freeing.
In a world inhospitable to a woman’s imagination, Cavendish, in a sense, births herself.
She writes books, of course, they become an archipelago for her mind. She quite literally devises a world of her own in The Blazing World, a fantastical philosophical novel, a science fiction adventure in the discoverer mode. The book begins with a lady captured by a merchant and stolen away by boat, but along their journey the merchant and crew freeze and die. The lady is only one left to encounter this new world, peopled with bear-men and bird-men and worm-men, among other strange beasts.
In her introduction to The Blazing World, Cavendish anoints herself “Margaret the First,” the phrase taken as the title for Dutton’s book. In her imagined world, woman reigns. Perhaps the then not-so-distant Elizabethan era had helped Cavendish envision this:
That though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second; yet I will endeavor to be Margaret the First: and, though I have neither Power, Time nor Occasion, to be a great Conqueror, like Alexander, or Cesar; yet rather than be mistress of the world, since Fame and Fates would give me none, I have made One of my own.
Dutton’s depiction of Cavendish gives her life, so much so that I find myself considering scenes from Margaret the First as if it were a primary source. This is testament to Dutton’s description, the generosity of spirit invested in Margaret. Dutton’s account weaves the tendrils of history with her own vivid imaginings.
For example: when Margaret sheds her first menstrual blood, she is expected to act the role of a woman, which means she must do some dreadful things like wear chicken-skin gloves at night and “not spend [her] time writing little books.” The same day Margaret’s brother arrives home with a hawk, and she feels at a loss for her sex:” It is nobler to be a boy, I thought — and looked back with nostalgia, as if I had just been.”
Does it matter how this scene unfolded? The detail is fictive, partially, perhaps entirely, but now supplants historical memory — or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it appends or even amends the narrative.
And yet, what strikes me in this scene is that Margaret had to write her own escape, she had to give birth to an imaginative place where she could be free to think. In the novel, Margaret wishes she could extend her singular existence beyond corporeal limitations: “She wanted to be thirty people…To live as nature does in many ages, in many brains.”
Is it ironic or is it consoling that through Dutton’s depiction, Cavendish achieves this again?
This also Dutton’s feat — these images, these imaginings and observations within Cavendish’s mind sprung from hers. I envision their worlds existing as a series of concentric circles, with Dutton’s Margaret the First the outer circle, Margaret Cavendish existing within, and Cavendish’s The Blazing World falling within the two. And yet, that’s a fiction too. Margaret Cavendish lives on through her own words, the text of The Blazing World is widely available online, easy to find and read, and Dutton’s Margaret the First may send curious readers back to the source. Perhaps it’s more accurate to envision Cavendish’s and Dutton’s writing existing within their own circles, corresponding as in a Venn diagram: their boundaries overlap and therein lies Margaret the First.
Then again, this may have nothing at all to do with drawing circles.
Words intermingle, conversations merge, the authorial voice gives life to characters in the reader’s imagination. “I had rather be a meteor, singly, alone,” Cavendish/Dutton writes. Frida/Maso’s ecstatic cadences now belong to both, “ I have a cat’s luck since I do not die so easily, and that’s always something.” Fiction becomes artifact, author and subject merge.
With Davis’s Curie, it’s curious to observe how her style deviates so dramatically from the lushly imagined Cavendish or the impassioned urgency of Kahlo. Curie, too, is terribly ambitious, but she’s steadfast and stubborn, a minimalist. A scientist. And suitably, her demeanor, like the linguistic play in Davis’s stories is cerebral if somewhat removed.
To inspire means literally “to breathe in or into.” The subject must take hold of the author, quite literally breathe life into in order to run away with, to merge; the essence must embed. To breathe in and to breathe out, to inspire through writing and then to be rewritten, is one way to live as Cavendish wished, “as nature does in many ages, in many brains.”
An author must continue to be read, and if not read, then considered in order to stay alive; if her work lies dormant, there’s the possibility of being rediscovered and, through this, revived. It’s a reciprocal relationship, not so different from Isaac Newton’s Third Law: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Margaret and Frida, through their thoughts and words in Margaret the First and Beauty Is Convulsive become real (again) through this intimacy with their reimagined lives. And yet the thoughts and words contained within these books belong as much to Dutton and Maso as they do to Cavendish and Kahlo. Who births whom, who inspires, who through inspiration breathes life? What does it mean to be a female artist, or really an artist of any kind? Like Athena emerging from Zeus’s head fully formed, Cavendish and Kahlo emerge from these books as mentor-mothers, born again in imagination and time.
Image Credit: LPW.
The complicated upstairs-downstairs dynamic on PBS’s Downton Abbey is arguably the reason viewers keep coming back for more — even after the Grantham-Crawley melodrama has become almost too much to bear. They long for that moment of recognition to arrive, when the unobtrusive servant, usually so well-hidden in the basement or attic, is caught in the act of, well, service. They are hurriedly straightening up the library while the family takes luncheon elsewhere, but plans have changed and now the silent majority, the laboring poor trained in the art of self-effacement, must engage in a highly charged, awkward, and reverent dance called “conversation with your master.”
If Downton is to be taken at its word, this is not a purely financial arrangement. British servants regard their masters as major celebrities; a few garner mockery and disdain, but they are unlikely to ever learn of this reputation. Most are held in great esteem, their smallest gesture of kindness dissected and debated for weeks on end. Despite the occasional seemingly altruistic gesture — access to a marriage-bed for the night or use of a fashionable lawyer for a wrongly accused murderer — the Granthams and Crawleys, however desperate to cast their gaze on anything out of the ordinary, do not seem to fret about their help in the same way. In the end, any violation of social distance proves to be a minor annoyance forgotten as soon as the erring servant’s back rights the situation, either up against the wall or seen from the back, scurrying down the hall.
At least, that is the case for the inhabitants of Downton, a grand house that is within itself a dying breed, but the 18 years Nellie Boxall served as cook to Virginia Woolf, however, were a far more fraught affair than the coupling of Lady Mary Grantham and Matthew Crawley ever was, full of emotional blackmail and power struggles. Boxall and Woolf had staged battle royals that left both parties smarting.
The Grantham ladies live under the same roof as a cast of female relations, including mother and sisters and nearby Grandmama, who is either present, on her way, or just leaving, but Woolf was motherless by age 13. Her sister was off living her own life elsewhere, and while they corresponded and visited, Boxall was the closest person she had to a female family member to take care of her. Woolf is perhaps as well-known for her contributions to the literary canon as her proclivity towards mental instability, all of which made the delicate circumstances a writer requires all the more difficult to obtain. As she famously wrote in A Room of One’s Own, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Leonard slept in his own room, and Boxall was paid to ensure Woolf’s was in fine form.
In other words, Woolf’s needs were great, and though her comparatively smaller flats could have been neatly tucked away in a forgotten wing of Downton, most middle-class British households had one or more servants. Boxall was hired as the Woolf’s live-in servant at 52 Tavistock Square, where the writer would draft Mrs Dalloway. All the while, Nellie was hard at work in the background, pumping the water, lighting the lamps, making the beds, and emptying the chamber pots — more than her title of “cook” suggests, though she did that as well, serving multiple courses three times a day.
Few scholars have parsed Woolf’s diaries without commenting on her frequent, detailed, and often vitriolic accounts of Boxall. Their brand of melee was firmly mired in a cycle, each arguing her points with the tools available to them. Boxall howled and cried, and then threatened to leave, which she would not, but the threat greatly destabilized and embarrassed Woolf. For her part, Woolf recognized, if not predicted, the attraction, writing, “If I were reading this diary…I should seize with greed upon the portrait of Nelly & make a story — perhaps make the whole story revolve around that.” No character on Downton would ever suggest such a thing, for to know that much about a servant or to speak intimately with strangers about one’s master would be, respectively, terribly boring and treasonous.
Much like the relationship between master and servant, Woolf was in charge of everything that went into those diaries, which were then posthumously dissected over and over again on the pages of countless biographies — including the misspelling of Boxall’s name. As Alison Light wrote in her exceptional book, Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, “Woolf and her subsequent biographers and critics refer to ‘Nelly’ Boxall, but, as I discovered, she is ‘Nellie’ on her birth and death certificates, she always signed herself as ‘Nellie’, and that is how her relatives spelt her name.”
Light figured out a bit more about Boxall than just the proper spelling of her name. The majority of Woolf scholars have too easily forgiven the master-servant dynamic in her household, too distracted by the significance of her artistic contributions and unquestioning of her sometimes contradictory political ideals. Herbert Marder is such a case, having focused on the works of Woolf since his dissertation at Columbia in the 1960s. In The Measure of Life, he wrote “Nellie was a natural manipulator who knew how to disarm her mistress, first getting under her skin and then exploiting her guilt.”
Woolf would certainly approve of such an assessment, but Marder does not appear particularly concerned with the absent, competing narrative, which could temper some of the seemingly harsh observations. Boxall was orphaned by the age of 12 and working by 14, so perhaps “manipulation” was mistaken for “will to survive.” After Boxall did something nice, like pick seven pounds of blackberries for Woolf’s favorite jam, bike for miles in order to procure cream for a favorite dish, or care for a woman who was at once fiercely independent and greatly in need of serious attention, Woolf noted that these gestures were borne out of genuine affection, and maybe, just maybe, the giver deserved compassion: “after all she has no other. And one tends to forget it.”
If Boxall was anything, it was dependent. Woolf boasted, “nothing I can do will prevent their loving me!” to the composer Ethel Smyth, and surely such a long, passionate relationship involved some grade of love, but Boxall had readily apparent, pragmatic motivations as well. She lived with the Woolfs, and had no family home waiting for her. In this way, she is much like Downton’s Daisy, the young kitchenmaid who, when offered an extraordinary opportunity to inherent her late husband’s family farm, admits she has never even contemplated a life outside of service. But this vestige of Victorianism had been on the decline since the 1890s, and women had options outside the home — their own or someone else’s. They could work in shops or factories, or apply some of those ‘domestic’ skills and become florists or beauticians. Those jobs would at least allow them a modicum of free time, with nights and weekends off, used for socializing or pursing other interests. As Light explained, “the regular callers, the hawkers and peddlers, who had been so much a part of the Victorian street, began to diminish,” and with them, the excitement of meeting someone new and the back door. It is also worth noting that the Woolfs’ fortunes greatly improved during the 18 years Boxall worked for them, but they paid her about six pounds less than the national average. Meanwhile, they readily updated the house with new domestic technology that made Boxall’s life easier, but also diminished her importance in the home.
Boxall certainly facilitated optimal writing conditions at times, and greatly hindered them at others. Her complaints were not unfathomable, given her substantial work load. Swollen ankles and a bad back might have been tolerated in relative silence if, she seemed to tell Woolf, her efforts were appreciated. “Nellie Boxall was one of the majority throughout history who had made their presence felt through surliness or tears, downright disobedience, petty acts of revenge (like spitting up on soup) or vicious talk,” wrote Light. Nellie communicated her grievances through dramatic scenes, which Woolf found distracting and “degrading,” but nonetheless chose to obsess over them for nearly two decades.
Woolf recounted and appraised “the famous scene” at Tavistock Square in London over and over again in her diary. After a particularly bad argument, Boxall ordered Woolf out of her room, one she inhabited but technically belonged to her masters. “In her closest relationships — with Vanessa, Leonard, Nellie, Vita, and Ethel — Virginia knew she wanted mothering and protection but she also distrusted ‘the maternal passion,’” explained Light. This was not a weak moment for Woolf, and she did not need to be reminded of instances in which Boxall had played the stern but kind parental figure. She could not decide if Boxall, by ordering her out of the room, had treated her like a child or a servant; in the end, it did not matter, for Woolf was resolute. This time, Boxall would go. She spent the following weeks rapt with expectation, engrossed in preparation for any possible scenario. She copied out and practiced reading aloud various replies to what she expected Boxall to say. “I am sick of the timid spiteful servant mind,” wrote Woolf, the very same woman who had railed against men’s use of ‘the female mind.’
To be fair, a world free of Boxall was just part of this fantasy. Woolf had grown up in large family cared for by a staff of seven, but she was a progressive woman of independent means. Her needs were different than her parents’, and most certainly her father’s, who she felt, like Boxall, was a fervid extortionist who dealt in histrionics. She would never again tolerate any outsider in her home, nor would she allow employees or friends to establish such intimacies. “I shall make no attachments ever again,” she wrote to Smyth in a celebration of her triumph, a scenario she no doubt presented as a thinly veiled warning. Her village cook, the young mother Annie Thompsett, was gone by 3:00 in the afternoon, and the Woolfs quickly adapted to, if not relished in, having an empty house to themselves for the first time in their marriage.
“After eighteen years I at last got rid of an affectionate domestic tyrant,” Woolf wrote to her sister in July of 1934, still reliving the dissolution in her correspondence. The termination had predictably devolved into quite a scene, with Boxall refusing to take a severance and Woolf upset she made off with the cookery books and a chair cover. Readers know Woolf’s eventual fate, but Boxall’s life took a favorable turn. She was soon hired by the famous British couple of the stage and screen, Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, and quickly adjusted to her glamorous new life in a well-staffed, lavish but bohemian household, where her cooking was appreciated by the likes of Marlene Dietrich. Boxall enjoyed her own brush with fame, featured in an ad for a gas cooker. The tagline read, “Mr. & Mrs. Charles Laughton’s cook tells you how to roast beef to perfection.”
In the immediate aftermath of their breakup, Woolf got her peace, and Boxall her recognition, but they could not avoid each other forever. Bloomsbury society was small, and sure enough, the Woolfs showed up for dinner cooked by Boxall. Happy Powley, Elsa Lanchester’s maid, took note of the relationship between the famous author and her now friend and coworker in her diary, which stands in stark contrast to Woolf’s entries on the subject. It was Boxall who “had to leave because she was a bit high strung…of course you know Virginia Woolf was.”
If Boxall had residual anger towards her late employer, she did not seize an appearance on the national stage to vent her grievances. By the time Boxall appeared on the BBC radio in 1956, Woolf had drowned herself 15 years earlier. In what Light describes as a “quiet, meditative voice with a slight country burr,” Boxall spoke about her late ex-employer lovingly, emphasizing mutual acts of kindness, not recrimination, towards each other. She was not well when I met her, Boxall explained before launching into a lengthy description of all the special dishes she made to tempt Woolf into wellness. She even praised her former employer, calling upon a questionable event years earlier. When Boxall was sick in the hospital, Woolf financed her recovery in order to interview replacements, informing her she was not needed upon return, a threat she perhaps meant to execute, but eventually relented. Instead, Boxall remembered that “She came to see me in the ward carrying a huge pineapple and came straight up to the bed and cuddled me up.”
Whether it is the highly sanitized, anachronistic Downton or the long and tumultuous saga of the incompatible Boxall and Woolf, one thing is abundantly clear: The bond of servant and master is peculiar and problematic, then and now, as any relationship based on gross inequality is bound to be. What on earth do we make of all of this? Go ahead and count down the days until Julian Fellowes bestows another season of Downton on us, because it offers what fiction does: good fun at a benign distance.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
On Wednesday, the Aloud Series at the Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles hosted writers Antonya Nelson and Marisa Silver in conversation with Bernadette Murphy. The topic was “The Domestic Drama: Novel Form or Formula?” and, after short readings by Nelson and Silver, the conversation began. Why are we, as American writers, so preoccupied with familial dysfunction?Antonya Nelson called our fascination with stories about family a quintessentially American preoccupation. Family, she said, “is where a lot of our personal battles are lodged,” but that those battles, no matter how small and personal, are also political. Marisa Silver agreed. Silver also argued that stories about family provide a “dramatic rubric”; that is, narratives of family are imbued with desire, conflict, and even, say, an enemy. Later on in the talk, Bernadette Murphy mentioned a lecture at Antioch University given by Dorothy Allison, where Allison argued that all good literature has home at its center. Nelson agreed, saying that family is our most powerful institution, and that the home is the most powerful setting for it. She discussed her most recent novel, Living to Tell, in which her main character, after paying his dues to society (in prison), must return to his family to pay an entirely different penance – and perhaps a more meaningful one. (This discussion of home reminded me of Alice Munro, who has described her short fiction – and I’m paraphrasing my former teacher and friend Dan Chaon – as a house with many rooms one can wander in and out of, and not in any particular order. I’ve always loved that.)Although the conversation was enjoyable, the three writers also bandied about the usual platitudes about how reading allows us to see the world better, that it expands our capacity for empathy, and helps us to understand our own lives. I agree, but we’ve heard such slogans before. Instead, since all three guests were women, I hoped they might discuss the role of the female writer in depicting the home and family. Not that male writers haven’t taken up these topics – they certainly have – but, I wondered, are our perspectives on “the domestic” gendered ones? I’m reminded of a Virginia Woolf quote from A Room of One’s Own, wherein she says, “…the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so.” (Really, Virginia, naturally?) Traditionally, women writers have gone indoors, so to speak, to tell their stories, and to explore what matters to them. What about now? How are women writers redefining (or maintaining) notions of family, home, motherhood, and so on? (I know, I know: I should have raised my hand during the q&a.)Other highlights of the night included Silver’s discussion of the mythologies our families create for us, those roles we are given to play and/or reject. I also liked her description of writing as a “limbo between waking and dreaming.” Antonya Nelson’s reading impressed me deeply; I love her work. She read from the first pages of “Nothing Right,” the title story in her new collection. Check out this passage:He was her second son, and he’d never been the one she understood best. Recently, she’d found herself disgusted by him: She didn’t want to share a bathroom or kitchen, bar soap or utensils with her own boy. His brother, who’d passed through adolescence sobbing instead of shouting, had not prepared her for Leo. The pure ugliness of a more traditonal male’s tranformation to manhood – the inflamed skin and foul odor, the black scowl, the malice in every move – might eventually convince a parent to dispair, to say to that child, “You are dead to me.” Because it would be easier–more decorous, acceptable – to mourn the loss than to keep waging a hopeless battle.Nelson also told an amazing story about a baby-thieving nurse, and described her impulse to write as the desire to “investigate a situation,” and to get at “what the police blotter can only allude to.” She said, near the end of the talk, that, for her, writing is “a way of getting to the bottom of mystery.”The discussion meandered naturally, from references to Marilynne Robinson to Peter Taylor to the world famous Octomom. It wasn’t a bad way to spend a Wednesday evening…
A recent post at Pinky’s Paperhaus entitled “The backwards academic,” muses critically on the backward-looking focus of the GRE subject exam in English literature, required for applicants to English department Ph.D. programs, and, in Pinky’s case, Ph.D. programs in Creative Writing.Having cited the breakdown of the GRE subject exam in English Literature (pasted in below from the post):- Continental, Classical, and Comparative Literature through 1925 – 5-10%- British Literature to 1660 (including Milton) – 25-30%- British Literature 1660-1925 – 25-35%- American Literature through 1925 – 15-25%- American, British, and World Literatures after 1925 – 20-30%Pinky expresses some concerns – both personal and philosophical:To sum this up, 70-80% of the exam focuses on work before 1925. 25-30% of the entire exam will be on BRITISH LIT BEFORE 1600. What concerns me isn’t that I can’t possibly do well on the test (I can’t. I was terrible at recognizing poets from excerpts when I learned them more than a decade ago, and I don’t know a caesura from a sestina) but what this focus indicates. The discipline, as it appears through the lens of this exam, is inherently colonial, still trying to prove to big bad monarch daddy that we deserve his love, we do, we really really do, because we can appreciate him and study his dirty bards and his pious poets and his sarcastic essayists and his metaphysical poets and his beowulf, thank you very much, and since we’ve been so good, may we please have some more moors, please?The essence of Pinky’s concern, is the exam’s historical focus – What about, she wonders, contemporary fiction, blogs, the effect of the internet on reading? All of these, she suggests, seem the relevant questions – not Milton, sestinas, and Beowulf.I have a few thoughts on these questions, both practically and philosophically speaking, as someone whose taken this exam, and is now entrenched in the academy. Practically speaking, the only way to do well is to spend a few months studying Norton anthologies: No one, even with a freshly minted B.A. in English, is ready for this exam without putting in some time. Also, it’s a multiple choice exam: How, realistically, could they ask questions about the amorphous world of the blogosphere (Name the contributors of certain blogs? Pick traits of a blog essay?) or the yet to be determined effects of things like Google Books and Project Gutenberg on reading practices? Exams have genres too and multiple choice exams cannot help us explore abstract and emergent fields.Philosophically speaking, it seems to me that the desire to get a Ph.D. implies a desire for a deep understanding of a field, and a deep understanding means history. If you just want to contemplate the effects of the internet on literature and read contemporary novels, blogging and book-reviewing will certainly suit you. The doctorate in literature (and, I presume, Creative Writing, since faculty in CW do end up teaching literature quite often), for better or for worse, means theory, the history of forms, the evolution of genres, methodical consideration of allusion and borrowing.Someone with an interest in the internet’s effects on literature and the rise of the blogosphere might naturally appreciate the 18th century English pioneers of the newspaper and essay (Addison and Steel’s The Spectator, for one) and maybe read a little bit of Jurgen Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which resemble nothing so much as the ultimate fulfillment of quintessentially 18th century ideas about the periodical press as a virtual space for rational debate on subjects of public interest, a space in which all who desired to participate, regardless of class, were allowed. The rise of the periodical press and its role in facilitating writing as a profession for middle-class people was revolutionary – and we’re still enjoying it today as we write our blog posts. Again, to read examples of the early “essai” as practiced by Montaigne – coiner of the genre’s name – (or by Sir Thomas Browne or Francis Bacon) is to be delighted to discover that the rambling, loose essay format that blogging allows and sometimes seems to encourage is nothing so much as a return to the essay’s generic origins. In sum, feelings about how a new technology impacts literature are only broadened by knowledge of literature’s history.And a final philosophical point: The best modern and contemporary writers draw from the literature of the past. Joyce and Pound’s titanic knowledge of the history of forms, T.S. Eliot’s profound reliance on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Antony and Cleopatra and Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy in The Waste Land, Virginia Woolf’s delightful literary critical essays, and her respectful appreciation of Aphra Behn and Jane Austen in A Room of One’s Own for the help they’d inevitably given her as a woman writer. More recently, I offer J.M. Coetzee’s Foe as a re-reading of Robinson Crusoe, his Disgrace as a reading of Clarissa (this reading is Blakey Vermeule’s), Zadie Smith’s On Beauty as a reading of Howard’s End. Frank Miller’s 300 as a rereading of Herodotus.I am also generally horrified by how little I know, how little my peers know, how little my students know or care about history. And I find myself thinking about the affable but fraudulent academic hero of Don Delillo’s White Noise, a professor of Hitler studies who doesn’t know German. Shortchanging history when studying literature inevitably leaves a similarly gaping hole.