Well, this wasn’t what I meant to do this morning, while suffering from a sudden and nasty cold, and lying around the house in yoga pants feeling pitiful. But hey, in my pitiful yoga-panted state, I clicked myself over to Facebook to do one tiny thing — instantly forgetting what that was; still can’t remember! — and saw that a friend had posted the link to Part 2 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Saga,” which would perhaps be better titled “Travels Through America,” freshly published in the New York Times magazine (I read Part 1 two weeks ago).
Here are two passages that jumped out at me, fitting, as they do, into my land and stories theory about power, conflict, and human connection.
“If there is something to be gained, if it is gainable, no power on earth can restrain the forces that seek to gain it. To leave a profit or a territory or any kind of resource, even a scientific discovery, unexploited is deeply alien to human nature. …
Not only is it alien to human nature to leave a profit unexploited, but discovering, inventing or knowing something without passing that knowledge on is alien to us, too.”
– Karl Ove Knausgaard
Read both parts of “My Saga,” if you like Knausgaard’s work. If you don’t, well, don’t bother; Knausgaard is Knausgaard. Either way, you might be forgiven for reading “My Saga” as close to self-satirizing. I found it at times hilarious, occasionally grotesque, Knausgaard willing to set himself up as a curiosity, as the inscrutable Other passing through an awfully familiar (to me) landscape, which he can’t or won’t even attempt to understand. Except he makes some interesting philosophical and cultural observations, and is himself a fascinating study in contradictions, having constructed his persona on the unlikely combination of personal reticence and abject confession.
Yes, I’m a fan.
I happened to be at the Vancouver Writers’ Festival last fall at the same time as Knausgaard, and he was one of the first people I saw when I arrived at the hotel where all of the visiting writers stay. We stood side by side at the front desk, he with one of his daughters, me with my tiny carry-on bag behind me like a favourite pet, on the very day that a lone gunman attacked Parliament Hill. I didn’t say a word to him. He seemed like a private person who wanted to go on a touristy excursion with his daughter, not someone who wished to acknowledge that the person standing next to him at the front desk of a hotel might have read his own hyper-detailed account of his life (I’d recently read the first and second books in My Struggle). Strange, wouldn’t it be? Or am I doing something similar here — on a much, much smaller scale — writing about my life and offering it up to anyone who happens along, yet also certain that I’m essentially a private person, deserving of privacy.
Anyway. I didn’t disturb him. Later, we took an elevator together. In silence.
I’m convinced “My Saga” is a classic piece of travel writing, even if it doesn’t tell a great deal about the land being travelled through; really, it’s about the human condition. How we’re shaped by where we’re born, and by what were willing to do, but also by what we can’t see or recognize, even within ourselves. Maybe most especially there. Writing is an effort to translate emotion and sensation and experience into shared language. This happens, when it happens best, not by explaining what we want to say, but by inhabiting it. So, in writing, a seeker may have more meaning to offer than a finder. A seeker, who doesn’t know what she’s looking at, exactly, might reveal more than she who is quite certain of what she’s found.
Here are links to Part One and Part Two of Knausgaard’s “My Saga.”
Back to my cold-fighting garlic-ginger tea.
〉 A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry, by Mary Oliver
bought on impulse from Amazon when shopping for photo albums for Christmas gifts
* Mostly, I just want to give you quotes from this book, which is wonderful. It’s slim, precise, measured, and deeply practical: a book about the poetic craft, with useful examples to illustrate the vocabulary necessary to discuss a poem. If I teach again, I will have my students buy and read this book. I am only sorry I’m so late in finding it. Here is a taste.
I was drawn to this section because she speaks of meditation. It is a different way of looking at the practice:
“We experience the physical world around us through our five senses. Through our imagination and our intelligence, we recall, organize, conceptualize, and meditate. What we meditate upon is never shapeless or filled with alien emotion—it is filled with all the precise earthly things we have ever encountered and all of our responses to them. The task of meditation is to put disorder into order.”
Oliver is a believer in patience and will, time spent in honest labour. She quotes Flaubert: “Talent is a long patience, and originality an effort of will and of intense observation.” She says:
“What a hopeful statement! For who needs to be shy of any of these? No one! How patient are you, and what is the steel of your will, and how well do you look and see the things of this world? If your honest answers are shabby, you can change them. … You can attend to them, you can do better … When people ask me if I do not take pleasure in the poems I have written, I am astonished. What I think of all the time is how to have more patience, and a wilder will—how to see better, and write better.”
How to have more patience, and a wilder will….
I’ve spent the afternoon by the fire reading Meet the Austins, by Madeleine L’Engle, likely for the tenth-or-so time. I hadn’t meant to spend the afternoon reading, but my nine-year-old asked for a book recommendation, and I came back to her with this one and Harriet the Spy, and she chose Harriet the Spy, so I picked up Meet the Austins. I knew I wouldn’t be able to read just a page or two. Sometimes it’s hard to pick up a book because I know how consuming it will be.
But there is nothing to do today, on January 1st. It is one of the quietest days in our whole year. We had a fun celebration last night, a houseful of friends and their kids, music-playing and games and good food and drink, up past the midnight hour, and today is for doing absolutely nothing other than what we want to do.
For me, that’s been lying in pyjamas reading a book and sipping cups of tea.
What I love about reading, and what is so unique about the experience, is that it opens the mind in a particularly vivid way. It elevates my thinking, even while I’m doing it. I can feel my mind opening on a number of different levels as I read a story. I’m empathizing with characters, experiencing an emotional response to their situations, I’m analyzing the structure and style of the text itself, I’m aware of what’s going on around me in the real world, and I’m thinking bigger braver thoughts about my own life and intentions and work. I’m considering why I write, and what I want to write, and why I tell stories, and what stories I want to tell. I’m thinking about the writer herself, Madeleine L’Engle, whose stories I’ve been reading for probably thirty years, and about what I know of her life and career. I’m doing this almost all at once, it seems. And all of this activity enlivens me, even while I’m lying in pyjamas by the fire, at ease, comfortable, relaxed.
And then I come here to this screen, and I write about it. What a fortunate life this is.
Madeleine L’Engle wrote mainly for children and young adults. Her books are full of philosophical questions, moral conundrums, acts of anger, compassion, and forgiveness, quotations from other work (Einstein and Thomas Browne, in this book), engagement with other forms of art. They feel to me like spiritual works. Oh, to write like Madeleine L’Engle. And maybe to live like her — or like her characters, in their rambling houses full of purpose and energy and music and good food and friendship and chores and order amidst the noisy chaos. (Maybe this is what I’ve based my ideal family on, all these years, without even realizing it…)
Eleanor Catton, the 28-year-old writer who won the Booker last fall for her novel The Luminaries, continues to win further prizes too, and recently declared her intent to set up a grant with her earnings that would give writers time to read. Yes, you read that right. Time to read. Click here to read the entire article in The Guardian.
“My idea is that if a writer is awarded a grant, they will be given the money with no strings attached except that after three months they will be expected to write a short piece of non-fiction about their reading …
“We’re very lucky in New Zealand to have a lot of public funding available for writers, but they generally require the writer to have a good idea about what they want to write, and how, before they apply. I think that this often doesn’t understand or serve the creative process, which is organic and dialectic; I also think it tends to reward people who are good at writing applications rather than, necessarily, people who are curious about and ambitious for the form in which they are writing. I’m also uncomfortable with the focus that it places on writing as production, with publication as the end goal, rather than on writing as enlightenment, with the reading as the first step.”
I’m making several connections as I read this.
I’m thinking about generosity, creativity, and the many reasons a person may feel compelled both to read and to write. I’m thinking about teaching creative writing again this fall, and agonizing over how best to encourage in my students a love of reading and words and ideas and stylistic play and leaps of connection and openness and generosity, yes, creativity, yes. It’s the necessity of marking that troubles me, not because it takes time and effort, but because aiming for a particular grade is not necessarily conducive to developing a love of writing and reading.
Which leads me back to Eleanor Catton’s idea for a grant that does not require of the writer a full-fledged project at the end or the beginning, but rather openness, curiosity, patience.
(And she’s coming to the Eden Mills Writers Festival on Sunday, Sept. 14, where I do hope we’ll get the chance to meet.)
I’m waiting on my new web site to be completed before posting photos from my sister’s wedding this past weekend. I hope that won’t be too long; as with any renovation project, it all comes down to those last technical, finicky details. The new blog is going to look so much prettier than this one that I can’t bring myself to post those gorgeous wedding pics here. Meanwhile, above, here’s what I’ve been reading this summer. Yep, that’s Girl Runner in the pile. With the fall booking up quickly, and the launch party set for Sept. 6th, I need to start selecting and rehearsing scenes for readings. (I did theatre; I’m a big believer in rehearsal before performance, and that’s exactly what a reading is.)
Oh, and about that launch party: invites are on their way, but meantime, consider yourself invited! It’s free, we’ll have food, books, entertainment, maybe even karaoke. I hashed up the Facebook invitation, by confusingly creating TWO pages for the same damn event, which is the sort of problem that comes from being a non-procrastinator born before the existence of the internet. I’ll send you to the event listed on my author page (click here), because it has far fewer confirmed guests, which doesn’t look good, somehow. Is it all about the optics? It’s social media. Of course it is.
I’m in a rambling mood, a confessional end-of-week mood. It’s been a week of big emotions and travel and hard work and waiting and celebrating and a lot of running, literally, including a personal best 10 kilometres this morning, which is nowhere near the personal bests of the best, but nevertheless had me shouting “Yes!” as I crossed my imaginary finish line. Such is the pleasure of achievement for its own sake. I even cleaned half of the house yesterday evening. A whole half of the house! And I played the piano and sang hymns. To sum up: that’s the kind of week it’s been.
I keep a record of the books I’m reading here (which is to say, there), but occasionally I feel the urge to write about a book I’ve read here (which is to say, here).
Last night, up far too late, I finished Miriam Toews’ ALL MY PUNY SORROWS. This is the kind of book for which book clubs were invented — a lot of book clubs are about friends getting together and drinking wine and the book is the excuse, I get that, but nevertheless there’s a genuine need underlying the concept of the book club. After finishing a heartbreaking resonant emotionally complex narrative don’t you just want to gather some friends immediately and talk about it?
ALL MY PUNY SORROWS is a semi-autobiographical novel about the relationship between sisters, one exquisitely talented and suicidal, and the other a bit of a mess and desperate to save her sister’s life. As in all of Miriam Toews’ novels, the bit characters are as vividly drawn and unique as everyone else, and humour hums silvery through the anguish and grief. But this novel feels different to me, too. It is more raw and immediate, less polished, a straight throughway from beginning to end of almost (seemingly) unmediated experience. People don’t behave like you want them to. They behave like people.
The mother of these two sisters, who has also lost her husband to suicide, is the most brilliantly drawn loved and loving independent fearless woman I can remember reading in a book, ever. Her depth of soul and lightness of spirit anchors the narrative. But even her love cannot anchor her daughters. And that seems to be part of the book’s message (though it’s not a “message” book): that we are responsible for our own lives, that we can only carry the weight of responsibility for the things that are ours to change. And the lives of others do not belong to us, even when we’re mothers. We raise our kids up with love and care, and we offer love and care pretty much forever, as long as we’re living, but that’s all we can do. The mother tells her daughter near the end of the book that letting go of a grief is more painful than holding onto it, but it’s what she hopes her daughter will be able to do.
Maybe if you’ve lost a husband and a daughter to suicide, you understand profoundly how little your love can cure or save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. That doesn’t mean you don’t try to save someone. That means that life is not about problem-solving, even though we may wish it to be so. We may wish to pour our minds into solutions and fix what’s broken, especially on a personal level, especially in families, and that’s a good impulse, I’m not saying it’s not. But to survive trauma and grief without becoming bitter, we have to recognize that we’re not that important. We’re not in charge of other people’s choices. We’re in charge of our own puny sorrows.
What we can offer are small, ordinary gifts. But a gift is a gift, isn’t it. It doesn’t ask for anything in return.
There’s some strangeness to reading this book, knowing Miriam Toews’ personal history, which cleaves closely to the book’s story. It’s difficult to read it as fiction, I guess.
One final observation: it’s been awhile since I’ve read a book that references so many other books. Entire poems are recited by characters, for example. I loved that. Reading as comfort and connection, as a way to speak the unspeakable. Words might not save us, but they may just console us. We read and we are less alone.
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