I haven’t been inspired to write much this week. We are on March break in Canada, which means the kids have the week off school. Yesterday, I basically drove back and forth between our house and indoor sports fields: twice to basketball camp, once to a soccer game, and once more to take a child to a referee clinic and then pick her up. I considered, briefly, going to one more indoor field to watch one more soccer game, but couldn’t muster the strength. Instead, if memory serves, I sat in my office in my coat and looked at videos on FB. People post a lot of videos there, now. I reposted one, which shows the faces of every woman who has won a Nobel prize. So I’m part of the problem, not the solution.
The solution, I find, is not to go onto FB. In fact, when I’m writing well, I’m not tempted and check it rarely. I go there to be entertained, and I’m aware of that.
On the weekend, I read Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, which I couldn’t put down, plus it was scaring me, so I had to read it during daylight hours, not before bed. I rarely read books during the day, almost only before bed. This seems ridiculous given that every day I read magazines (including The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Macleans) and the daily newspaper (The Globe and Mail). I’m reading all day long! So why not books? Why reserve book-reading for just-before-sleep? I wonder if it’s because books are so consuming? I need to fall asleep in order to stop reading them. If I were to pick up a book during the day, I wouldn’t want to put it down. Newspapers, magazines, these are meant to be digested in short spurts, glanced at; but a book is immersive.
Maybe people join book clubs to give themselves permission to sit and read a book, especially fiction. There’s almost something illicit about the attention a book demands. You’re going to another world, you’re time-travelling, you’re living inside someone else, seeing through another’s eyes, you’re lost to the present moment. I have found books to be healing, necessary, important. But despite this, my mind categorizes books as indulgences, sweet treats, guilty pleasures. I have to let myself go in order to enjoy them. Maybe I should do that more often … especially during a week when I haven’t felt much like writing.
There are times when the world is too much with us, and a gut response is not sufficient, what’s needed is time and reflection and perspective. I’m not ignoring what’s happening in the larger world. I’m interested, I’m engaged, I’m paying attention, but I don’t have anything useful to say about it, here.
As of today, I’ve got two teenagers under this roof, and I think their growing independence and autonomy is stoking my growing impulse to step back into the shade of obscurity. I don’t know what the purpose of this blog is anymore, which is why I post here more and more rarely.
I still want to keep this space open, for when I do have something to say. But I don’t want to say something just because this space exists.
Today, I want to tell you about the wonderful books I’ve been reading.
I finished My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante, and immediately dove into the second book in the four-book series, translated from the Italian. I’ve heard this series compared to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, but to my mind, they are unrelated. Ferrante has a wider world view than Knausgaard, even if she is examining in detail a very particular time and place: she is depicting the assertion of power itself through the generations. It is the story of a friendship, and of two girls (now young women, in the second book), and it is told from the perspective of one of the women, but it is not about the rigidity of an individual point of view (which Knausgaard’s series seems to be explore), but about the flow of power and knowledge and ritual that shape an individual in ways that are beyond her control, even if she is aware of them. Ferrante observes patterns, large and small. The patterns of place. The patterns of family, of neighbourhood, of wealth and poverty, of knowledge, of culture. This is extremely rich and immersive writing, but it is also propulsive in its pacing. I won’t be reading another book until I’m finished the whole series, but at the same time, I don’t want it to end. It will be like saying goodbye to a friend.
I am thinking of My Struggle in relation to this book because I recently finished reading the third book in that series, Boyhood Island. I can’t read this series quickly. It’s like being trapped inside someone’s mind, someone who has a limited understanding of how he is being received in the world around him, and the effect is claustrophobic, and sometimes even alarming. But I remain interested. I will continue reading through this series, but at a much slower pace. I have no sense of urgency in my quest. It’s more of a commitment to see a thing through.
Another recommendation: Outline by Rachel Cusk. She is the British writer who was born in Canada and whose book was a finalist for two major Canadian prizes this season; there were complaints about how Cusk scarcely qualifies as a Canadian, and that may be true, but I’m glad she made the lists or I wouldn’t have discovered her. I devoured this book. I loved it unreservedly. It is highly stylized, enormously intelligent, and although told in the first person almost erases that person entirely, so that everyone around her leaps into the world fully fleshed, but she never becomes more than an outline on the page. It is the strangest feat, an accomplishment of great discipline. It made me question the purpose of the first person narrator, and the purpose of the writer, too.
Meanwhile, I’ve been reading out loud to the kids in the evenings: especially the two youngest (ages 7 and 10). So far we’ve read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume, and we’re nearly through From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg, both set in New York City, both stories about siblings.
All for now.
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.)
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