Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections

Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to BelongEternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong by John O’Donohue
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

Some books simply find you. They enter your life at the right time, when you are most in need of and receptive to hearing their message. This book. My soul. The Universe recognized what I needed and offered up these words in response.

 

I’ve been aware of John O’Donohue’s work for some time: I have a collection of his poetry, gifted by a dear friend, that I dip into and feel embraced by; I’ve been to a writing residency at Anam Cara in southwest Ireland, named for one of his works of essays and reflections. But it wasn’t until I read a quote in the amazing weekly newsletter of curated wisdom, Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings (you must subscribe, you simply must) that I learned of Eternal Echoes and knew it was the book for me, at this time, in this place.

 

There is a divine restlessness in the human heart. Though our bodies maintain an outer stability and consistency, the heart is an eternal nomad. No circle of belonging can ever contain all the longings of the human heart. As Shakespeare said, we have “immortal longings.” All human creativity issues from the urgency of longing.

That quote has become the centerpiece of the talk I give at author readings, for it speaks not only to the central themes of my novel, but to the themes playing out in my life.

 

Eternal Echoes is about coming to terms with the emptiness inherent to one’s soul, an emptiness we seek to fill with religion or drugs, love or work, instead of accepting that it is the very space inside we need, in order to grow into our compassion, our true selves.

 

There is something within you that no one or nothing else in the world is able to meet or satisfy. When you recognize that such unease is natural, it will free you from getting on the treadmill of chasing ever more temporary and partial satisfactions. This eternal longing will always insist on some door remaining open somewhere in all the shelters where you belong. When you befriend this longing, it will keep you awake and alert to why you are here on earth.

 

For this reader, acknowledging and living with this longing has been a particularly painful and recent exploration. I am a problem-solver by nature and when something is off, when my soul is akilter, my instinct is to root out the source of the maladjustment and fix it. It’s hard to accept that I need to sit with my discomfort and listen to what it is trying tell me.

 

Most of the activity in society is subconsciously designed to quell the voice crying in the wilderness within you. The mystic Thomas à Kempis said that when you go out into the world, you return having lost some of yourself. Until you learn to inhabit your aloneness, the lonely distraction and noise of society will seduce you into false belonging, with which you will only become empty and weary.

 

By necessity, I have been spending a lot of time “in society” lately, losing bits of myself along the way. And the more time I spend engaged in society, the more Fernando Pessoa’s lament from The Book of Disquiet (yet another collection of wisdoms that has found its way to me at the right time): my “passions and emotions (are) lost among more visible kinds of achievement.”

 

Eternal Echoes is informed by Celtic mysticism and a fluid Christian theology. Although I am not a Christian and actively avoid anything that smacks of faith-based advice, O’Donohue’s approach is philosophical rather than theological. It is something akin to gnosticism, that compels the individual to be an active participant in her own journey to wholeness, not a blind believer in an all-powerful god. He writes of allowing in vulnerability, for vulnerability leads to wonder, and wonder leads to seeking, and seeking leads to growth, and growth makes room for everyone else.

 

Dog-eared and underlined and highlighted and journaled, Eternal Echoes enters my library of go-to soulcatchers, along with the writings of Richard Hugo, Rilke and Pessoa, Woolf, Didion and Solnit: writers who understand what it means to allow in the darkness and sit tight while it slowly becomes light.

 

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Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic”

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond FearBig Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There could not have been a better time to read Big Magic than in the fraught and anxious, giddy and surreal days before launching my first novel. Gilbert’s words soothed and grounded me, took me out of the uncomfortable, jangly headspace of self-promotion and back into the embrace of what it means to be a creative person, why I set forth on this path in the first place.

 

Fear is boring.

Yes. This. I spent forty-one years (okay, maybe thirty-five; for the first six I was blissfully unaware that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up) being afraid to pursue my dream of writing. What if I sucked? Then what dreams would be left to me? Finally, it was the fear of seeing my chances to live authentically running out that propelled me to try. Fear that I suck is still a demon on my shoulder, but I’ve learned to acknowledge that demon and move on, despite its claws digging in painfully. I could spend my time paralyzed by fear, or I could spend my time writing. My choice.

 

The notion that creativity is a magical, enchanting process may seem too woo hoo for some readers, perhaps many writers, but it resonated with this one. Yes, it is true. There is little that is magical about putting your butt in the chair, day after day, most particularly those days when you least want to write, and simply getting on with it. It is the only way to be productive, to finish what you have started: there is no glitter and spark to dogged determination.

 

And yet. The magic has twirled and sparkled in my own creative process. It doesn’t stay long, or it comes and goes, but when it flashes, I’m aware. The rest is on me, to do the hard work of turning inspiration into art, and then to find my audience. I don’t wait for the muse to guide me or put off writing until I feel inspired. But I work to be more open to and aware of the Divine Sparks, so when they occur, I can capture and hold them long enough to let them burn into my mind’s eye, etched until I have time and energy to return to their outlines.

 

I adored the anecdote about Gilbert and Ann Patchett exchanging ideas in the ether—it released me from the angst of recognizing my ideas in others’ work, of realizing that each idea has its time and will find its right and true voice.

 

You are not required to save the world with your creativity.

 

I will admit to feeling a certain . . . pressure, expectation, as a woman, as a woman over forty, to write Big Important Things. And I have done, in short stories, in essays; even in novels that appear commercial on the surface, the themes of grief, redemption, addiction, faith ground the narrative in larger, more universal contexts. But I resist writing to an agenda, I resist the notion that I must write to educate. There are times, yes, when I feel compelled to share lessons I’ve learned that may be of use to others. But I am a storyteller at heart. Really, what I want to achieve as a writer is pleasure. Enjoyment. Fulfillment. Mostly mine, if I’m honest.

 

About pursuing an advanced degree (i.e. The MFA). I get this question on occasion and now have an abridged answer that I can credit to Elizabeth Gilbert: Writers have it easy. The only education we need awaits us for free in a library or at moderate cost in a bookstore. Connections, networking, community, feedback, support—all can be obtained for free if a writer reaches out, both for support and to lift up others. MFAs can be lovely and advantageous, but *need* is not a reason to pursue one.

 

I’ve read a few reviews that scoff at Gilbert’s breathless enthusiasm, she who now perches comfortably on the pinnacle of artistic and financial freedom afforded her by the smash hit Eat, Pray, Love. As if commercial success somehow taints or diminishes or renders meaningless all the years of hard work she put in and rejection received before the runaway success of EPL. Whatever. Move along. We all enter this with our own advantages, disadvantages, lucky breaks and unfair blows. Acknowledge yours, celebrate, embrace or forgive them and stop wasting energy belittling or dismissing others who have achieved what you would like. Write.

 

There’s so much more. I need to reread Big Magic again in bits and pieces and perhaps return to this review and amend, change, modify, as I grow as a writer and my books grow up and away from me. For now, though, it is enough to have simply been allowed to return to what is important: that I write because I and the Universe have chosen it to be so. That’s enough.

 

Create whatever you want to create—and let it be stupendously imperfect, because it’s exceedingly likely that nobody will even notice.

And that’s awesome.
 

Yes. Yes it is.

 

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My Reading Year: Best of 2015

 

This was the year of the woman writer for me. From a mound of apricots rotting on Rebecca Solnit’s floor, to the ebb and flow of Virginia Woolf’s melancholic The Waves; from Joan Didion’s 1960s Los Angeles to Kate Atkinson‘s WWII England, from Lidia Yuknavitchs ravaged bodies to Jill Alexander Essbaum‘s ravishing trysts, women took me to war zones, both personal and geographical. They wrote poetry that brought me to tears and political histories that roused me to action.

 

It was an exceptional reading year.

 

The Breakdown: 135 read

Novels: 76

Poetry Collections: 18

Essay Collections: 10

Memoir: 9

Short Story Collections: 8

Writing Craft: 8

Creative Nonfiction: (social, political, historical): 5

Biography: 1

Authors:  94 women; 37 men; 4 multiple authors

 

I made so many literary discoveries, starting with Italian writer Elena Ferrante and her Neapolitan Novels (My Brilliant Friend; The Story of a New Name; Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay; The Story of the Lost Childthat have taken the English-language world by storm. The slow burn that began a few years ago, when Europa Editions published the first of Ann Goldstein’s translations, became a bonfire of enthusiasm in 2015. And I happily joined in. I read all four of the Neapolitan Novels this year—the fourth and final of which was published this past September—as well as the incendiary The Days of Abandonment.

 

Irish novelist Anne Enright was another. Just as she was named the inaugural Laureate of Irish Fiction in 2015, I was finally taking notice! Man Booker winner and chronicler of modern Ireland, she writes some of the most searing, en pointe prose I’ve read . . . ever. As I noted in my review of The Forgotten Waltz, “this is not the cozy Ireland of peat fires and Catholic guilt and rain on rose petals.This is boom-time Ireland, with all its flash and well-cut suits and Chardonnay and vacation homes and holidays in Spain. This is Ireland built by IT and pharmaceuticals and foreign investment. This is Ireland rising. This is Ireland falling.” This year I read The Gathering (2007); The Forgotten Waltz (2011); and 2015’s The Green Road.

 

As a writer, it should go without saying that words matter to me, that they become my way in to understanding the world. 2015 was the year that I confronted my assumptions and ignorance about systemic racism in the United States, when I sat with my discomfort, my white privilege, and went still, listening to others’ stories. My education began with Michelle Alexander’s staggering The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness, continued with the memoirs and social histories by MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipients Bryan Stevenson—Just Mercyand writer/journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates—Between the World and Me. Stevenson is the director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which is doing extraordinary work to reform sentencing laws, end the death penalty, free the wrongly-imprisoned, and fight against the mass incarceration of America’s black men. I listened to the voices of black women breaking through pop culture tropes in Tamara Winfrey Harris’ The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America and suspended my disbelief to absorb white journalist John Howard Griffin’s 1959 social experiment, Black Like Me.

 

I heard black voices sing with profound resonance and piercing clarity in the poetry of Jacqueline Woodson—Brown Girl Dreaming, Yusef Komunyakaa—Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, Kira Lynne Allen—Write This Second, Patricia Spears Jones—A Lucent Fire, and two poets with the same last name who are related only by their extraordinary literary gifts: Camille Rankine—Incorrect Merciful Impulses and Claudia Rankine’s multiple-award winning prose/poetry/essay/graphic work of art and power, Citizen: An American Lyric.

 

Speaking of Poetry. Oh. Let us speak of Poetry. Even before I knew I’d be attending my first poetry workshop, writing my first poems, I resolved to be more deliberate in reading poetry. To read more. To read widely. And I made the most beautiful discoveries. In addition to those listed above, works by Ellen Bass—The Human Line, Jack Gilbert—Collected Poems, Galway Kinnell—A New Selected Poems, Hélène Cardona—Dreaming My Animal Selves, and Charles Wright—Caribou made a particular tilt/shift to my world.

 

And here are a few books that took my breath away, books I wanted to press into everyone’s hands, saying, “Read this. You must.” Excerpted comments are from my Goodreads reviews, books presented in no particular order.

 

Euphoria, Lily King (Fiction: 2014)

Euphoria was inspired by anthropologist Margaret Mead and her experiences along the Sepik River with her husband Reo Fortune and the British anthropologist who would become her second husband, Gregory Bateson. But the story is entirely of King’s invention, including the tribes and their cultures. The novel is a feat of research, imagination, passion, and restraint.

 

Something Rich and Strange, Ron Rash (Short stories: 2014)

Rash’s writing is marvelous and his mastery of the short story breathtaking. He wrings full stories with astonishing economy of plot—many are mere pages long—yet each is rendered in vivid detail. You have the sense that you are eavesdropping into these lives, seeing, hearing, smelling Rash’s world before the characters walk away, leaving you wondering what might become of their Shakespearean-tragic lives.

 

The Waves, Virginia Woolf (Fiction: 1931)

The Waves made me quiver. It made my heart jump under my frock like the leaves. I don’t know when I have read such a thing of beauty, a work that soars in joy and plummets elegiacally, rising and falling, ever in motion, and yet caught in stillness. A listening.

 

H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald (Memoir: 2014)

H is for Hawk stole me, holding me captive with its madness and love. Part claustrophobic memoir of grief, part luminous tribute to the sport of falconry, Helen Macdonald’s book is brilliant and tense. It is a story of fury and grace, recounted in pulsing, poetic language.

 

Still Writing, Dani Shapiro (Memoir, Writing Craft Inspiration: 2013)

Dani Shapiro, in this compact, eloquent, lovely book touches every aspect of a writer’s life: the distractions, the blocks, the longings, envies, vulnerabilities, processes and rhythms, cold realities, and the sustaining joys. It is less advice and prescription than empathy born of experience, a sincere hug but then a leaning back with hands clasped on your shoulders, turning you around and pushing you out the door. “Courage,” she writes, “is all about feeling the fear and doing it anyway.”

 

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, Jonathan Evison (Fiction, 2012)

Avoiding the literary cleverness and Big Ideas that are fashionable in postmodern American novels, Jonathan Evison delivers a clear-eyed but hopeful story of loss and love, parenting, and friendship. Read, and be redeemed.

 

Landfalls, Naomi Williams (Fiction: 2015)

This is simply the best of what historical fiction can be: a voyage of discovery that speaks to the imagination and the heart, swallowing the reader whole like a literary whale.

 

The Tsar of Love and Techno, Anthony Marra (Short stories: 2015)

Marra returns us to the claustrophobic terror of Soviet Russia and Stalin’s purges, where a child’s careless words can send a mother to prison, an uncle to his death, where an art restorer must eliminate evidence of subversion from paintings yet manages to score some subversion of his own. We meet the children and grandchildren of those who survived (or not) Siberia’s labor camps and prisons, young people born into glasnost and a Russia where the rich measure their wealth in billions, fueled by corruption, drugs and guns.

 

Her Own Vietnam, Lynn Kanter (Fiction: 2014)

Kanter show the bonds between women that are both complex and deeply satisfying, whether those woman are partners, sisters, mothers/daughters, friends or fellow soldiers. Men are present everywhere, of course–this is a novel about war, after all–but their behavior, vulnerabilities and strengths are filtered through the perspective of women who are not dependent upon them for an identity.

 

Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf (Fiction: 2015)

My heart is so full of admiration and affection for Kent Haruf, his stories, his characters, his dry, dusty, flat eastern Colorado. I ache for what was, what will never be again. I am thankful for this final, perfect book—written for his wife and true love, Cathy—and her generosity in sharing it with her husband’s readers. Kent, you are so missed. Thank you.

 

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Reading Future, Reading Past = Present Sanity

I see what’s happening here. Life leaving me breathless these days. Brain pummeled by to-do lists, expectations, worries, excitements, anticipations. Book Launch approaches. I can think only in short bursts. My writing languishes, suffers, as creative energy is siphoned off for other uses.

 

My body doesn’t know good stress from bad, it just knows this heightened state of awareness, the light switch on, constantly, like some sort of prison torture.

 

I can take only so much “on” before I need silence, solitude, dusk to replenish and restore. These short days and long nights are a balm to my psyche. The darkness gives me a place to hide. And solace is found in books. I tear through the pages; my level of stress measured in the number of “The Ends” I reach each month.

 

Two distinctly different reads from my current word binge stand out, books I must share with you. Debut novelists, each, (though Claire Vaye Watkins’s short story collection Battleborn met with great acclaim upon publication in 2012). One writes of near-future southern California, the other of an ill-fated 18th century sea voyage, both astonishing for their imagination and fearlessness, the strength and brilliance of their prose.

 

I’ve got to get back to my to-do list, but know that each velvety-black evening, each silent, wet dawn, I am readingreadingreading, refueling my heart and mind with words, as my own build, readying themselves to be written.

 

Gold Fame CitrusGold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

I fear the vast dimensions of eternity. Ciaran Carson, “Fear” 1948

 

In Claire Vaye Watkins’s searing debut novel, Gold Fame Citrus, fear is vast. It is blistering hot, white, shifting, a thing massive and predatory, greedy and indiscriminate. It is the desert, created by draining the West of its water, by wringing the climate dry. Fear has a name. It is the Amargosa Dune Sea.

 

Set in a future close enough to see if we shade our eyes and squint, Gold Fame Citrus presents a California annihilated by drought. A massive, moving sand dune is eating up mountain ranges, obliterating cities, and creating refugees known as Mojavs, a dystopian society that recalls the Okies of the Depression-era Dust Bowl. Watkins lists Tim Egan’s phenomenal The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl in her acknowledgments and parallels the desperation and isolation of that time with one of her own keen and savage imagination.

 

Luz was a child star, born into drought just as science began to give up on cure or prevention, and a desiccated society turned toward the mystic and the weird. Luz was to be the hope disaster couldn’t defeat. The government made her a poster child for the new future, until the posters faded and shriveled in the relentless sun. Now Luz squats in the abandoned home of a movie star in a “laurelless” canyon, drinking ration cola while her boyfriend Ray writes lists in his diary that read like poetry and tries to keep them alive. Luz and Ray can’t seem to muster the energy to flee to the cool, green, moist Pacific Northwest, or join the multitudes heading over the Dune, toward cities in the East. It’s not that easy: even if you survive the desert crossing, Mojavs aren’t welcome anywhere, states are building barriers to wall themselves in. And then there is Ray’s past—a barbed-wire fence too tall and entangled to surmount.

 

They aren’t alone in the desert: there are others, outcasts who’ve come together in survivalist colonies, living blackmarket lives. Luz and Ray rescue a little girl, a “strange, coin-eyed, translucent-skinned child”, from one such group, in a scene of an overnight rave party that is grotesque and haunting, like a Cormac McCarthy nightmare of the Old West.

 

The theft of this child, Ig, and fear that they will be pursued, propels Luz and Ray out of their sun-scorched inertia and sets them on the road, seeking a way out of the desert. But of course, the Desert will not let them go that easily. Luz and Ig end up alone, dying of thirst and heatstroke. Watkins’s vision of mercy is also a prison, with convicted survivors sharpening blades of power on a whetstones of control.

 

This is a novel of passion and fierce love; it is cruel and brilliant, shocking and tender, created with an imagination as boundless as the desert. In contrast to the parched environment, Watkins’s prose is lush and vivid, leading you, bewitched, through a shimmering mirage of hope.

 

~~~

 

LandfallsLandfalls by Naomi J. Williams

 

So recently set adrift by two novels with multiple points-of-view, each chapter taking me through my paces with a new voice, each novel leaving me parched for emotional resonance as though I were desperate sailor drinking sea water, I thought, ‘No, not again,” when I embarked upon this voyage with Naomi J. Williams and her debut Landfalls.

 

Okay, I’ll stop with the silly seafaring metaphors.

 

But I won’t stop raving about this unputdownable tour de force, crashingly good, tsunami of a novel.

 

Williams offers a kaleidoscopic view of the ill-fated Lapérouse expedition of 1785-89, which saw two frigates filled with over two hundred men attempt a circumnavigation of the globe for the glory of science, human endurance, and the maritime prowess of France. With each chapter the kaleidoscope shifts, offering a different perspective—from seaman to scientist, Tlingit child to French castaway.

 

Several of the chapters were published as short stories and in many ways this novel is a collection of individual works, as Williams leaps nimbly from voice, perspective, and style. Yet with each landfall, the threads of characters’ lives are woven through the narrative, connecting each part to all those which precede it, and the underlying tension of a well-paced thriller holds you fast. The author frames a daring, complicated structure and shores it up, page after page, with a gripping, marvelously inventive, and historically solid story.

 

The scope of Williams’s research is breathtaking yet, like modern masters of the form Mary Doria Russell, Hilary Mantel, David Mitchell, you are drawn naturally, unresistingly into a distant era by flesh-and-blood characters. Heartstrings are pulled in the opening pages and are never released, until the gasping end. There is humor and irony, violence and tragedy, longing and despair. I greedily devoured the pages of a dreamlike obsession with a child bride at a Chilean outpost, gasped at the crystalline and savage beauty of Alaska, burned with anger over sadistic priests on the California coast, mourned love found and lost during the heartbreaking Siberian journey of a translator and his devoted bodyguard. The scope of history and setting, of character and voice and emotion, is nothing short of astonishing.

 

This is simply the best of what historical fiction can be: a voyage of discovery that speaks to the imagination and the heart, swallowing the reader whole like a literary whale.

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Reading Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Writer’s Diary’

A Writer's DiaryA Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My copy of A Writer’s Diary and its forest of little tags poking out from the side. All the passages I’ve marked. Some of those passages I share with you below, in bold as I try to sort out the meaning, comfort, madness and beauty of Virginia Woolf’s writing life. 2015-10-06 05.40.36

As a writer, I move daily between despair and joy. A good day of writing leaves me scoured clean and refilled with peace;
There is some ebb and flow of the tide of life which accounts for it; though what produces either ebb or flow I’m not sure.

 

but the stress of rejection and of praise is an invasion of the external world into my emotional and intellectual equilibrium.
…the worst of writing is that one depends so much upon praise. One should aim, seriously, as disregarding ups and downs; a compliment here, silence there.

 

The only way to right the imbalance is to shut out the world and offer myself up to the page. To sit and write until my limbs are stiff, my eyes ache, my brain empties out.
The truth is that writing is the profound pleasure and being read the superficial.

 

Then, to take a walk, letting the words sift from my head down to my toes. When I return home, I have room for the words of others.
The way to rock oneself back into writing is this. First gentle exercise in the air. Second the reading of good literature.

 

A Writer’s Diary show the decades of a writer’s life unfolding in real time: the highs and near-shame of success; the deep, quiet pleasures of the life of the mind; the fear and resignation of failure, which is usually far more a product of the writer’s imagination than of the external world.
Arrange whatever pieces come your way. Never be unseated by the shying of that undependable brute, life, hag-ridden as she is by my own queer, difficult, nervous system.

 

It is a gift to be embraced and supported by communities of writers, to learn, to mentor and be mentored, to share and commiserate. Yet there are moments that stun and wither me: writers who may have achievements of publication or prestigious degrees, mocking those who are struggling to learn their craft; writers sizing each other up, sniffing at genre or publisher, determining another’s literary merit relative to one’s own with that barely-concealed sneer of competitive literary criticism.
I am, fundamentally, I think, an outsider. I do my best work and feel most braced with my back to the wall. It’s an odd feeling though, writing against the current: difficult entirely to disregard the current. Yet of course I shall.

 

What would Woolf make of the cult of personality she has become?
Now I suppose I might become one of the interesting–I will not say great–but interesting novelists?

 

What would we have made of her work, what more could she have offered us, if mental illness had not had the last word, if she could have found her way to a different final chapter?
A thousand things to be written had I time; had I power. A very little writing uses up my capacity for writing.

 

I remarked to another writer what an inspiration this book is to me, what comfort I have found in Woolf’s own struggles and doubts. She reminded me how things ended for Woolf. That she took her own life. How strange a response. She missed the point entirely.

 

Instead of being haunted by Woolf’s end, I think of Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day”: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Oliver asks.

 

Perhaps this is how Woolf would have answered:
Now is life very solid or very shifting? I am haunted by the two contradictions. This has gone on for ever; will last for ever; goes down to the bottom of the world—the moment I stand on. Also it is transitory, flying, diaphanous. I shall pass like a cloud on the waves.

 

Virginia Woolf passed like a cloud on the waves. But her words have become moments upon which we all stand, strengthened, made taller by the foundation of her genius. And we look up at those clouds, mouthing, Thank you.

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A Weekend with Lidia

Last year I wrote about The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknatvitch, a book that changed the way I thought about truth, about telling my truths as a writer, as a woman. As my friend Debbie says, “I would follow Lidia Yuknavitch anywhere.” This is not a frivolous statement, for if you have read her writing, you know following Lidia means walking naked into the fire. It also means, as I learned this weekend in a two-day workshop with eleven other raw and beautiful souls, walking into an immense, fierce, loving heart.

 

I’m nowhere near ready to write about this weekend’s workshop. What it revealed to me, where it will take me in my own writing—closer and closer to the truth, which is a very scary, necessary place to be—is too fragile. But I can say Lidia led me right back to the slipstream of desires and fears that I dove into earlier this summer in Ireland—a place of deep listening and turbulent silence.

 

I read Lidia’s most recent novel, The Small Backs of Children, several weeks ago and posted this reader response in Goodreads. I recreate it here to encourage you to explore Lidia’s writing, to hear her voice, to follow her anywhere. Prepare to be changed.

 

The Small Backs of ChildrenThe Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch

It is the little girl from Trang Bang, a village north of Saigon, running naked and screaming from pain and bombs and napalm. Her name is Kim Phuc.

 

It is the electrifying stare of an Afghan teen, her head wrapped in a blood-red scarf, her green eyes pulsing with anger and fear at the Soviet invasion that has decimated her home. Her name is Sharbat Gula.

 

It is the Sudanese child dying of starvation, stalked by a vulture. We don’t know the child’s name or what became of her. The photojournalist took his own life two months later.

 

These captured moments are real; they stand as records of war and poverty and our lack of humanity. They are images bound to the politics that created them. Do we call them art? These are girls whose bodies were used as canvases of emotion. Looking at them from our safe remove, we shake our heads and tut-tut. “So sad,” we say. “Someone should do something.” And then we turn away.

 

From these stories of children caught in the world of men, Lidia Yuknavitch adds an imaginary other: a girl airborne like an angel as her home and family are atomized behind her, in a village on the edge of a Lithuanian forest. Like the iconic images above, this photo travels around the world, garnering gasps and accolades. A copy of it hangs on the wall of a writer’s home—she is the photographer’s former lover—haunting the writer as she moves from one marriage to another, birthing a son, becoming pregnant with a daughter. The photographer wins a Pulitzer and moves on, to other conflicts, other subjects, other lovers. We learn, much later, that the girl’s name is Menas.

 

On the surface, the premise of The Small Backs of Children seems simple, the plot a means to distinguish this work as a novel rather than a prose-poem. The writer lay dying of grief in a hospital in Portland. She cannot climb out of the hole created by the birthdeath of her stillborn daughter. In an effort to save her soul, her friends determine the girl in the photograph—now a young woman, if she is still alive—must be found and brought to the States. Two lives saved. But this daughterless mother and motherless daughter do not meet until near the end. And the end could be one of many that Yuknavitch offers up, as if to say, “Does it matter? There is no end. Not even in death is there an end.”

 

What happens in between is a howl. A series of howls, ripped from the body in ecstasy and terror. The Small Backs of Children is an exploration of the body, the body as art, the body as politic, all the ways we use and lose control of our bodies, or have them used against us. Yuknavitch shocks again and again, until it seems these characters are holes into and out of which pour the fluids of sex and addiction, art and death. Nearly all but the writer, her filmmaker husband, and the girl (mirror-selves of the author, her husband and their ghost-daughter) seem driven by their basest desires, or become victims of their own obsessions. And although there is only one Performance Artist, they all seem to be playing at their artistic selves, conflating art and life.

 

The premise may be transparent, but the execution of the plot—the shifting of the narrative between voices, countries, and eras—becomes something political and murky, a metafiction loop of invented words, fragile sound bites, and acts of literary revolution.

 

Virginia Woolf is a palimpsest beneath the narrative. As in The Waves, The Small Backs of Children is told through several voices that loop and leap in quicksilver language. Yet unlike Woolf’s Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny, and Louis, we know Yuknavitch’s characters only by their artistic occupations: The Writer, The Filmmaker, The Poet, The Playwright, The Performance Artist, The Photographer, and, perhaps standing in for Percival, The Girl. This unnaming keeps us at a distance. But to read Yuknavitch is to know she honors experimental forms and shoves away convention.

 

Gustave Flaubert, arguably the creator of the modern novel, stated, “An author in his work must be like God in the universe: present everywhere and visible nowhere.” What would Flaubert make of Lidia Yuknavitch? For in The Small Backs of Children, the author is visible everywhere. In each word and image and scene, we inhabit her visceral presence. If you scooped up and ate her body-memoir The Chronology of Water, you will recognize not only the themes of child loss, savage sexuality, rape, addiction, the vulnerability of girls, the release and capture of water, you will recognize scenes and words and images. It is as if we are in a continuation of Yuknavitich’s story, swimming in her stream of consciousness.

 

She transcends the notion of the novel and enters something larger: the intersection of prose and poetry and memoir and reportage. And the reader spins around this crossroads, trying to make sense of it all. The language propelled me forward, even as I felt the story spinning me away. Like a work of visual art that is meant to provoke, that is devoid of answers, redemption, resolution—the photograph of a young girl in a moment of terror or loss say—The Small Backs of Children drained me until I was a shell without reason, reduced to a body quivering with animal emotion.

 

Still Writing by Dani Shapiro

Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative LifeStill Writing, by Dani Shapiro

 

A few weeks ago someone dear to me asked, “Are you still writing? I wondered if you’d decided to get a part-time job.” I’ll admit right now, right here, this crushed me. My first novel is still months away from launch and my second novel is out on submission. I recently finished the first draft of a third, and I’ve just returned from a life-altering residency and poetry workshop. Yet in the space of fourteen small words, I felt my entire raison d’etre smashed to smithereens. This didn’t come from an acquaintance or a well-meaning but clueless friend, this came from someone I hope would be a champion for my work. My job. Which is writing.

 

It wasn’t until I read the final pages of Dani Shapiro’s sublime meditation on the writing life that I realized the universality of my hurt and exasperation. I had to laugh. I’ve been dipping in and out of this book for two months and the title only just dawned on me as I closed the back cover. Still Writing. Jesus.

 

Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of Creative Life is part memoir, part collection of meditations on what it means to be a writer. I think we writers gravitate to these books on process and creative endeavor in hopes of finding a few answers, and perhaps a mentor. I found both. I nodded in breathless agreement at each entry, exclaiming, “Yes! This!” I reread passages, underlining sentences and paragraphs, dog-earing the pages to remember later until I realized that I would be marring every page with pen or corner fold, and that it would be possible to return, open any page, and find comfort within.

 

I don’t know about you, but there are times when I need permission to accept I’ve chosen a life inherently insecure and dependent upon the moods, whims, and tastes of others. The notion of the artist scribbling away in blissful solitude in her light-filled atelier or in the warm bustle of a café, pouring her soul onto the page, is lovely and romantic, but in reality—if one hopes to make a living writing—the risk and vulnerability are breathtaking and sometimes stupefying. You are dependent upon forces beyond your control: the gatekeepers of the publishing world. You refine and hone your craft in the small and lonely hours, hoping each day of writing will make you that nebulous better writer. It is so refreshing, therefore, to read someone who has found success (i.e. readers), call it like it is:

“When writers who are just starting out ask me when it gets easier, my answer is never. It never gets easier. I don’t want to scare them, so I rarely say more than that, but the truth is that, if anything, it gets harder. The writing life isn’t just filled with predictable uncertainties but with the awareness that we are always starting over again. That everything we ever write will be flawed. We may have written one book, or many, but all we know — if we know anything at all — is how to write the book we’re writing. All novels are failures. Perfection itself would be a failure. All we can hope is that we will fail better. That we won’t succumb to fear of the unknown. That we will not fall prey to the easy enchantments of repeating what may have worked in the past. I try to remember that the job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it. To be birthed by it. Each time we come to the end of a piece of work, we have failed as we have leapt—spectacularly, brazenly — into the unknown.”

And yet those lonely hours in that atelier (or, more accurately, in the dining room, on the living room sofa, tucked in a messy corner of a shared home office, and yes, in that bustling café) pulse and burst with all the lives that have written before us, the books we have read, authors we have studied, mentors who guide us, the few encouraging comments we cling to like life rafts to avoid the whirlpool of rejection and doubt.

“Though we are alone in our rooms, alone with our demons, our inner censors, our teachers remind us that we’re not alone in the endeavor. We are part of a great tapestry of those who have preceded us. And so we must ask ourselves: Are we feeling with our minds? Thinking with our hearts? Making every empathic leap we can? Are we witnesses to the world around us?”

For we have the calling, the responsibility even, to push past the doubt and keep writing. I struggle with this every.single.day. Ironically, the only thing that quiets the demons of doubt is the work.

“Donald Hall writes, ‘If work is no antidote to death, not a denial of it, death is a powerful stimulus to work. Get done what you can.” There is this—only this. It would be good keep these words in mind when we wake up each morning. Get done what you can. And then, the rest is gravy.”

At this stage of being in my mid-late forties and only just getting started as a writer, it’s hard to see the gravy from the smorgasbord crowding my plate. I don’t have the luxury and seeming-invincibility of youth to build a career. I write with a sense of urgency. It took me until the age of forty-one to find my voice and five years later those pent-up words continue pouring out, but I’m still this raw and unformed writer who has years of fundamental learning ahead of her. Who knows that fiction writing alone will not sustain her financially. Yet the world of freelance writing, of speaking engagements, of being asked is a foreign land to which I haven’t yet been approved for residency. But I’ve been granted a visitor’s visa and hopefully, I’ll be able to stay. I taught my first writing workshop this weekend and there are more to come in the fall. Yesterday, I started the class by reading from Still Writing, specifically the lovely section entitled Shimmer. Here’s part of it:

“That knowledge, that ping, that hair on our arms standing up, that sudden, electric sense of knowing. We must learn to watch for these moments. To not discount them. To take note. I’ll have to write about this. It happens when our histories collide with the present. It comes with the certainty of its own rightness.”

I have returned to Shimmer several times since my initial reading, knowing this is, in part, why I write. It is the inevitability of the calling. The endorphin rush of the words, a craving of the soul that must be redeemed on the page. These moments of shimmer that, when I recognize and respond to them, reward me with a sense of wellbeing. Not money, recognition, external approval, guidance or proof of my skill. But a simple, complete peace of heart and mind. It is a privilege to feel this way and I recognize what a privilege it is to call myself a writer.

“Unlike other artists—dancers, sculptors, or cellists, say—as long as we hold onto our faculties, writers can continue to grow creatively until we die. The middle of a writing life is much like being in the midst of a book itself. Here we often discover our weaknesses and strengths.”

Dani Shapiro, in this compact, eloquent, lovely book, touches every aspect of a writer’s life: the distractions, the blocks, the longings, envies, vulnerabilities, processes and rhythms, cold realities, and the sustaining joys. It is less advice and prescription than empathy born of experience, a sincere hug but then a leaning back with hands clasped on your shoulders, to turn you around and push you out the door. “Courage,” she writes, “is all about feeling the fear and doing it anyway.”

 

Yes. Yes. I am Still Writing. In hope. In terror. Sometimes with one eye on that dwindling savings account. Because I can read Rilke’s question: “Go inside yourself. Discover the motive that bids you write; examine whether it sends its roots down to the deepest places of your heart, confess to yourself whether you would have to die if writing were denied you. This before all ask yourself in the quietest hour of your night: must I write?” and respond: Yes. Yes, I must.

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