Whiplash: The Power of Story

Sunday afternoon, in the warm, dark cocoon of a movie theatre—my husband working, the rest of the immediate universe watching the Superbowl—I saw a powerful, brilliant film. One of the best I’ve seen.

 

Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle, is a small-budget marvel that brings home the power of story, reminding us how few bells and whistles are needed to rivet an audience. A simple plot, a clear theme, a setting that inhabits the characters, but doesn’t draw attention away from them. A story driven by the will and force of its characters. Characters you cannot turn your mind away from.

 

Andrew (Miles Teller), a freshman at a fictionalized New York music conservatory, is a gifted, introverted jazz drummer who goes to movies with his dad (Paul Reiser) and stares longingly at the pretty girl who serves him up a bucket of popcorn (Melissa Benoist). Andrew’s talent catches the ear of the school’s reining jazz God, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), and he’s invited to join Fletcher’s studio band. Studio band is the school’s most prestigious—the one that wins competitions and makes or breaks careers. What follows is an emotional thriller that is as taut as the skin stretched over a drum.

 

It’s been twenty years since I’ve reacted so viscerally to a movie (The English Patient. It still destroys me. Oh, that movie.) At one point, I felt a hot, woozy wave wash over me and I feared I’d either faint or vomit. I dropped my feet from the seat—I’d been curled in a tight ball of tension—and slid them back into my tennis shoes, preparing to flee if need be. That’s how wrenched and gutted and caught up in this story I’d become.

 

It’s facile fun to get lost in a fast-paced nail-biter, to fall over the edge into a cliffhanger, yet I don’t read many thrillers. But that’s not what I’m talking about here—the power of Whiplash isn’t in hitting the conventional story arcs at the right times; it’s in the profound dynamic between Andrew and Fletcher, a story that shoves aside all unnecessary filler and fluff to drive right at the heart with searing emotion and at the intellect with questions of ethics and the cult of personality.

 

One theme: power. Arguably, how hard one is willing to work for a dream could be another, but I find that trite. This movie is about power. Two characters. A limited range of settings used to stunning effect. A tightly-plotted script. Realistic, unaffected, loose dialogue from one character; a calculated cascade of abuse or soothing manipulation from another. A story that is largely autobiographical, from a director and screenwriter working out his own rage and hurt. He isn’t showing us what he knows, Chazelle is showing us what he feels. He lets the characters work out what they know, or what they convince themselves of. A denouement that releases you into a false sense of relief, before electrifying you with an ending that offers both redemption and ambiguity. It is storytelling perfection.

 

As a viewer, I was captivated. Twisted into knots. Gutted. Exhausted. As a writer, I was all, THIS. THIS is how it’s done.

Grit. © Julie Christine Johnson 2015

 

 

My Reading Year: Best of 2014

I wondered as the year began—my first as a full-time writer—if I would have much time to read, if I could afford the time away from writing. One hundred and thirteen books later, I no longer wonder. The more I write, the more reading has become essential to my writing, as I chronicled earlier this year: If You Don’t Have Time to Read.

 

This has been the most astonishing and revelatory year of reading for this writer, ever. A year which saw me read my first Virginia Woolf and Sherman Alexie and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; discover Francesca Marciano, Rene Denfeld, and Leanne O’Sullivan; and be rewarded again by Tim Winton, Colm Tóibín, Niall Williams, and Margaret Atwood. So many books touched me, tore me open, provided delight, and a very few that just didn’t connect. It happens.

 

Some stats: Female/Male Authors: 57/56; Memoir: 11; Poetry: 4 (oh, my reading goal for 2015 is to triple this!); Writing Craft: 6; Religion/Philosophy: 7; Young Adult: 5; Food/Wine: 1; Mystery/Suspense: 7; History/Reference: 6; Essays: 3. The rest, sixty-three if I did my math correctly, would be literary fiction, including seven short story collections.

 

I’ve pasted excerpts from my Goodreads reviews in the list below.10885357_10203486144010376_5329045514422083153_n

 

NON-FICTION

This was the Year of the Memoir for me and three very different memoirs stand out:

 

Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr (2013)

Food is one of the most vibrant reflections of culture, and when cultural trends shift, shed and shake, those who influence our taste buds must shift with it, or be pushed back to the dark corners of the kitchen cabinets with the jello molds and fondue pots. Provence, 1970 shows how some of our greatest food icons reconciled their beliefs in the superiority of all things French with the inevitable change in American tastes.

 

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff (2014)

At its tender heart, My Salinger Year is a coming of age tale of a writer and an ode to being young and sort-of single in New York, living in an unheated apartment in Williamsburg and taking the subway to Madison Avenue to speak in plummy, tweedy tones with other underpaid literati. It is a gloriously, unabashedly nostalgic memoir and utterly charming.

 

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch (2011)

This isn’t for everyone. Some will read and be exasperated or disgusted or disbelieving. I get that. I get that chaos and promiscuity and addiction are ugly and life is too short to waste reading about someone else’s tragedy and self-destructive behavior. But something about this story—the goddamn gorgeous language, the raw power of its brutality—gave me so much comfort and solace. In Yuknavitch’s word embrace, I felt the magic of self-acceptance and self-love, and the crazy-wonderful beauty of life.

 

FICTION

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

Race in America is an uncomfortable subject, mostly for white Americans. We still don’t know where to look or what to do with our hands. We fidget and prevaricate. We, like blond-haired, blue-eyed, wealthy, liberal Kimberley in Americanah, use euphemisms like “beautiful” when we refer to black women so that everyone will know that not only are we not racist, but we think blacks are particularly worthy of our praise. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reflects our beliefs and behaviors back on us, illuminating our silliness and our masquerades, our ignorance and our misguided, but earnest attempts to understand the impossible: what it’s like to be something other than white in this race-anxious society.

 

Life Drawing by Robin Black (2014)

Perfidy in marriage is a tried and true theme. Perhaps even time-worn. Oh, but not in Robin Black’s hands. Her craft is brilliant. In a year when I have read some massive tomes (e.g. The Luminaries, Goldfinch, Americanah), Black’s sheer economy of word and image is powerful and refreshing. Yet there is nothing spare in her syntax. Her sentences are gorgeous:

The day is thinning into darkness, the light evaporating, so the fat, green midsummer trees not fifty feet away seem to be receding, excusing themselves from the scene.

and

Bill and I had been tender with each other in the way only lovers with stolen time can sustain. Even in parting, gentle, gentle, gentle, like the tedious people who must unwrap every present slowly, leaving the paper entirely intact.

 

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld (2014)

There are few writers who can wrest hope from the pit of horror with such eloquence. I think of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, who chronicled their Holocaust experiences, or Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison showing us the wretchedness of slavery and Jim Crow. These writers compel us to bear witness to humanity’s darkest hours with beautiful language. With the same poignant but unsentimental style, Rene Denfeld applies a tender, humane voice to the hopelessness of prison and death row. She pries open our nightmares, releasing mystical creatures as symbols that help us understand our complex, real fears.

 

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014)

Anthony Doerr’s prose is lovely. It pirouettes with grace on the fine line between lush and lyrical, flirting with magical realism, but never leaving solid ground. The imagination it takes to bring a reader into the head of a blind child learning to navigate her world so that we see, feel, smell, and hear as she does is breathtaking. The ability to evoke empathy without tumbling into sentimentality is admirable. The weaving together of so many scientific and historical details so that the reader is spellbound instead of belabored is nothing short of brilliant.

 

Redeployment by Phil Klay (2014)

These are masterfully crafted stories of war. Phil Klay walks in the footsteps of Tim O’Brien, Ernest Hemingway, and Wilfred Owen before him, but with a vision all his own. What elevates these stories above voyeurism and shock value is his pitch perfect writing. Klay’s ear for dialogue, his eye for detail—offering just enough poetry in his prose to seduce, but not to saturate—and the immediacy and emotion of his characters’ voices reveal the power this young writer wields with his pen.

 

The Other Language by Francesca Marciano (2014)

As a reader and writer for whom place is nearly as important as character, I was delighted to find that Marciano speaks my language. From her native Rome to a haute couture boutique in Venice, from an old bakery turned House Beautiful in Puglia, to post-colonial Kenya, a remote village in Greece, central India, or to New York City, Marciano shows us how place defines character, and how travel strips us of our inhibitions and sometimes, our conscience.

 

Cailleach: The Hag of Beara by Leanne O’Sullivan (2009)

This slim volume of sensuous poetry takes the supernatural myths behind the Hag’s many lives and distills them to human form, presenting a woman in love, not with gods from the sea, but with a humble fisherman. O’Sullivan’s images are full of longing of the body and mind, emotional resonance woven with sensual pleasures.

 

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín (2014)

As readers, we often gravitate toward lives played out on a grander scale—adventures, dalliances, crimes, and misdemeanors far more colorful than our own. But reader, if you haven’t experienced the transcendent storytelling of Ireland’s Colm Tóibín, you may not know what it’s like to feel the earth tilt with the most subtle of emotional tremors.

 

History of the Rain by Niall Williams (2014)

This is a book to savor, slowly and delicately. It pokes gentle, meta, self-mocking fun at the conventions of novel structure. If you are a reader who expects tidy packages of chronological storytelling, plot points, and story arcs, give this a try. You might be surprised what beauty can be woven outside the confines of the Fiction 101 blogosphere. And read with a notebook by your side, because you’ll want to make note of each volume Ruth references in her vast library—it’s a primer on Western literature’s greatest works of poetry and prose. Tissues would be good, too. I reckon you won’t make it through this with dry eyes.

 

Eyrie by Tim Winton (2014)

Eyrie is a vertiginous wobble through lives disintegrated by the slow acid drip of despair and addiction, held together by the thinnest strands of determination, survival, and devotion. Winton, like Cormac McCarthy, Louise Erdrich, Colm Toibin, Edna O’Brien, is a writer-poet. His prose has such density and texture; it is sensual and viscous. Australian vernacular is particularly rich, to the point of cloying, and Winton uses it to demonstrate the sharp class divides in this country that we think of as a model of social egalitarianism.

 

My last full read of the year was  Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I’m still haven’t found the words to describe it, either as a book or as a reading experience, so I won’t even try. I’ll just keep reading.

 

Happy New Year to All!

 

 

Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay

Bad Feminist: EssaysBad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

I became aware of the “I don’t need feminism because . . .” meme several months ago. You know—that Tumblr photo collection of young women holding up signs that read things like, “I don’t need feminism because I am capable of critical thinking,” or “I don’t need feminism because I am not a delusional, disgusting, hypocritical man-hater.” I shook my head, rolled my eyes, but still, these weird declarations chilled me. How did a sociopolitical movement founded on the principles of empowerment and equal rights become reduced to “disgusting man-haters”? Who are these ignorant young women who believe that feminism is a dirty word, something to be ashamed of, and how do they not understand what they owe to the generations before them and how much work there is yet to do?

 

For the purpose of this review, these questions are purely rhetorical. The answers are there, they are complex, and the subject of many a dissertation, I am certain. Which is probably why Tumblrs of anti-feminist rants exist—we stopped talking about what feminism means on an everyday cultural level. Feminism removed itself to the alabaster towers of academe, where concepts such as intersectionality, essentialism, Third Wave feminism, and patriarchal bargaining are no match for the mainstream, which is still shuddering over 80s shoulder pads as wide as an airplane hangar.

 

Well, thank God for Roxane Gay and her collection of intimate, generous, witty, and wholly accessible essays, Bad Feminist. Her voice is the first I’ve heard say, “It’s okay to be messy, to hold conflicting opinions, to do things that don’t follow the party line, to question and be confused, and STILL be a feminist.”

 

As she says in the collection’s closing line, “I’d rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”

 

First, a few things you should know about Roxane Gay: she’s a writer of novels, short stories, essays; a professor of English; a literary and cultural critic; a native of Nebraska, the daughter of Haitian immigrants. You will learn much more about Roxane by reading her essays. Some of what she shares will make you laugh. Some of it will break your heart. At some point, she will hit a nerve and piss you off (though not when she writes about participating in Scrabble competitions-she’s adorable and so, so funny here). She ruminates, chats, gossips, but rarely does Gay conclude. Her essays hinge on the ellipses of what makes us human: our vulnerabilities, our inconsistencies, our flaws. Like each of us, she is “a mess of contradictions;” hence, her admission, her claim, to being a “bad feminist.”

 

Don’t look here for a historical treatise or a modern exposition of feminism. This is not a textbook. It is not a quick and dirty “Feminism for Dummies.” It is one woman’s thoughts (many of these essays have been published previously, giving to a loose and rangy feeling to this collection) on a wide range of contemporary American issues, political and cultural, with the basic theme of how feminism can confound and inspire.

 

A pop culture enthusiast, Gay examines contemporary race and gender relations through the filter of current cultural touchstones. She is an unabashed consumer of what are pointlessly referred to as ‘guilty pleasures.’ I floundered at times, feeling like I was smushed into a corner booth with a bunch of girlfriends at brunch, squirming and looking around the diner, unable to contribute to the conversation. I haven’t had television since 1993 and I don’t read fan-fic.

 

Still, I soaked up what Gay had to say about the pop culture phenoms, even if I couldn’t relate to the details. She has this raw way of setting forth her opinion, often pointed, contrary, angry, or biting, but without a hint of snobbery. You get that she gets this is opinion, not gospel.

 

She makes many points that resonated deeply with this reader. In the essay Beyond the Measure of Men, Gay writes:

The label “women’s fiction” is often used with such disdain. I hate how “women” has become a slur. I hate how some women writers twist themselves into knots to distance themselves from “women’s fiction,” as if we have anything to be ashamed of as women who write what we want to write. I don’t care of my fiction is labeled as women’s fiction. I know what my writing is and what it isn’t. Someone else’s arbitrary designation can’t change that. If readers discount certain topics as unworthy of their attention, then the failure is with the reader, not the writer. To read narrowly and shallowly is to read from a place of ignorance, and women writers can’t fix that ignorance, no matter what kind of books we write or how those books are marketed.” 

But in a later essays, The Trouble with Prince Charming, The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help, she takes to task both the writers and readers of Fifty Shades of Gray, Twilight, and The Help. Gay draws the inclusive reading line at irresponsible writing of poor quality that celebrates the subjugation and abuse of women and at writing that craps all over the black American experience.

 

Gay also, naturally, discusses feminism from the perspective of a woman of color. This opens worlds of opinion and perspective that this reader craves. In light of this summer’s controversy over domestic abuse, the NFL, and the punishment Janay Rice suffered at the hands of her husband and the media, as well as the killing of Michael Brown and the unrest in Ferguson, MO, I want to ask those young women of Tumblr, “How’s that ‘I don’t need feminism’ working out for you?” For I do not believe that feminism is the purview of women. It belongs to all who advocate for social justice and human rights.

 

In so many clever and self-effacing ways, Gay show us how we have isolated ourselves in our narrow categories. Feminism is not spared her scorn: it has largely excluded women of color, queer women, transgendered women, it hasn’t dealt adequately with fat-shaming, it doesn’t recognize privilege, it offers up highly educated, wealthy, successful white women (Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandburg) as proof that things have changed. But what is most striking about Bad Feminist is to hear a strong, wise, accomplished, vocal woman say, “I’m still trying to figure out what feminism means to me.”

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The Ray Rice Effect

I’d planned to tell you about the writerly “Eureka” moments I’ve experienced these past two weeks as I work through the professional edits of Refuge of Doves. But I can’t. Not this week. This week, I’ve had different sorts of moments. If I don’t speak out, I will begin to question my value as a writer, as much as my experiences have caused me to doubt my value as a woman.

 

Unless you live outside the United States or under a news-free rock, you are aware of the public firestorm caused by the NFL’s recent two-game suspension and fine of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for beating his fiancée, now wife, unconscious in February. Her name is Janay Palmer.

 

My knee-jerk reaction to this travesty was to bemoan the violent nature of football, and the gladiator-worship that has far more to do with money and celebrity than a celebration of athleticism. I’ll own that I despise professional football. But my view of football isn’t the issue here. In fact, during the river of adoration that gushed through Washington state in the run-up to the Seahawks’ Superbowl win this year, I set out to recalibrate my prejudice against the sport by learning what football can be. I acknowledge that the sport can be played with dignity, that strategy can trump brute force, and that professional athletics can be used as a force of positive cultural change. I hold out hope that these become the norms, instead of the exceptions.

 

Ray Rice’s behavior should be an opportunity for the NFL to send an unequivocal message to fans that abuse is alwaysalwaysalways wrong, that consequences matter, and the victim should never, ever be blamed or held accountable.

 

I’m not an activist writer. I shy away from confrontation. I will be the loser of any face-to-face debate because I suck at verbal articulation. I don’t think fast. I speak softly. I get easily overwhelmed by emotion and I have a very thin skin. I feel deeply, passionately, recklessly, and possess solid convictions, but I do most of my speechifying to my husband, with whom I am of a mind in all matters moral and political. Our discussions are really harmonious duets. After the Newtown massacre in December 2012, I vowed to cease posting anything political to my Facebook page, because the personal cost of responding to anti-gun control advocates was too high.

 

I broke that vow this week, when I posted Keith Olbermann’s impassioned televised op-ed regarding the Ray Rice controversy. I picked up the video via a Facebook friend and shared it on my page. The segment includes devastating footage of Ray Rice pulling Janay Palmer, unconscious, out of an elevator.

 

I don’t have television and I don’t watch the news online. I wouldn’t have been able to pick Keith Olbermann out of a lineup. I don’t care what his politics are, which network signs his paycheck, or if he eats his vegetables. He did what the NFL did not do. He spoke up for women. He spoke out against sexism, misogyny, and the most horrible manifestation of a male-dominated society: violence against women.

 

It took all my courage to share Olbermann’s video on my feed, because of the deafening silence that I knew would follow. Because professional sports and celebrity are such sacred cows in our culture, and violence against women is still acceptable behavior. Because interest in Ray Rice and Janay Palmer is prurient and short-lived. Because of the roll-of-eyes attitude of those who see this as a “whatever” matter between a man and the woman who defended him after he beat her senseless.

 

My writing is infused with my experiences, observations, beliefs, passions, fears, and questions; what my characters experience and how they react come from all the tiny threads that, woven together, form this writer. But I’m a storyteller. I surround myself with the imaginary and never write with the intention of using my fiction as a political platform.

 

I wrestle with how raw I will allow myself to become and how opening up on the page will affect my ability to tell a story. I’ve realized in recent months, after reading the beautiful and brave prose of Lidia Yuknavitch and Cheryl Strayed, how much I hold back for fear of being judged. I have certainly bled on the page writing stories about women who’ve experienced miscarriage, and publishing an essay about my experiences with child loss–an essay I’ve read aloud to rooms of strangers. It doesn’t get much rawer than describing what it’s like to eliminate your baby’s fetus into a toilet.

 

I shared, and will continue to share, those experiences because I believe in shattering the silence and shame of infertility and miscarriage. I will continue to write through frame of these experiences because I believe my words can speak for those who cannot, for those who are desperate for the embrace of someone who says, I understand. It’s not your fault. We write and we read for many reasons, not the least of which is the catharsis of shared human experience.

 

The Ray Rice/NFL debacle this week filled me with shame and fear. Fear that if I speak my heart, my truth, I will pay the price. No one has ever punched me or dragged me from an elevator. I have never been hurt by a boyfriend. I am married to a man of tremendous integrity and compassion. I am smart. I am strong, physically and emotionally. I am privileged to have been born white, in an established democracy, to a family that valued education. Yet, I am ashamed of my own vulnerability. I am ashamed that fear has prevented me from speaking up and fighting back. I am ashamed of the times I was not strong enough to protect myself.

 

Has a man ever used his superior professional position or greater physical strength to intimidate or manipulate me? Yes. 

Have I refrained from reporting abuse because I feared the consequences for me would be worse? Yes. 

Has a man ever made me fear for my physical safety? Yes. 

 

I am not a victim. I am a woman. I am a voice. And I haven’t finished speaking. In fact, I’ve hardly begun.

 

 

History of the Rain by Niall Williams

History of the Rain: A NovelHistory of the Rain: A Novel by Niall Williams

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A novel of beauty and grace, showing again that Niall Williams is more than a writer, he is a composer who elicits music from the magical combination of letters we know as words.

Young Ruth Swain has returned home from university to convalesce in her attic bedroom, where the rain of Co. Clare pours ceaselessly on the two windows above her head, and three thousand, nine hundred and fifty-eight volumes of classic prose and poetry surround her in teetering stacks. Her father is gone and Ruth seeks him, his history, and his truth, in the vast library he left behind. Her clear, funny, and poignant voice guides us through misty decades of Swain and MacCarroll family lore to illuminate how her father, Virgil, and her mother, Mary, came to farm the worst fourteen acres of land in Ireland.

The reminders of present-day Ireland—references to the Crash, the internet, Marty in the Morning on RTE’s Lyric FM—jolted me out of the dreamlike meanderings in a timeless world, casting a surreal glow over this rain-sodden ode to Ireland, literature, and love. But the anachronisms make the story more bewitching; Williams shows us that even in this hyper-connected world, it is possible to escape. And the greatest escape is found in the pages of a book.

This is a book to savor, slowly and delicately. It pokes gentle, meta, self-mocking fun at the conventions of novel structure. If you are a reader who expects tidy packages of chronological storytelling, plot points, and story arcs, give this a try. You might be surprised what beauty can be woven outside the confines of the Fiction 101 blogosphere. And read with a notebook by your side, because you’ll want to make note of each volume Ruth references in her vast library—it’s a primer on Western literature’s greatest works of poetry and prose. Tissues would be good, too. I reckon you won’t make it through this with dry eyes.

Tied up in my delight with History of the Rain is my love for Ireland, particularly the west. Williams, as he always does, captures this incomparable spirit, the particular state of longing that I feel when I am in Ireland, or just thinking about being there:

We’re a race of elsewhere people. That’s what makes us the best saints and the best poets and the best musicians and the world’s worst bankers. …It’s in the eyes. The idea of a better home. Some of us have it worse than others. My father had it running in the rivers of him.

Let this river of words take you away. But be forewarned: you won’t want to return.

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The Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch

The Chronology of WaterThe Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

 

It is so fitting that the original cover of this book, which you see depicted here, arrives from the library marred by a plain, gray wrapper around the offensive bit—you know, a woman’s bare breast. It is metaphor come to life for Lidia Yuknavitch’s searing anti-memoir, The Chronology of Water: hide and deny what is most natural, until it becomes a thing of shame.

 

Yet it would seem that Lidia Yuknavitch hides nothing. The Chronology of Water is ripe with shock-jock language and imagery. It is angry and lurid and reeks of booze and sex and blood. It’s one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. The day I finished the book, I went and bought a copy of my own–no wrapper around the front cover, just a woman’s beautiful body disappearing in a shimmer of torso, cut in half by the air above and the water below.

 

Water is the thematic structure around which this narrative is built—fluid from the body that spills in birth, in sex, in menstruation, in vomit and bile; water that offers healing and and generates power as a strong body sluices waves to win swim meets or meets an object of one’s desire in a hotel swimming pool; water that can take life in a vulnerable moment as one’s father collapses in the ocean.

 

But it’s her body that Yuknavitch offers up for examination: a body that in the opening chapter is ruptured by birth. That experience is bookended by years of incest on one side and self-flagellation on the other, until the author meets herself full circle as a wife, a mother, a writer, a woman.

 

She conceals much in her narrative of abuse, but we are allowed a glimpse behind the wrapper of her shame and sorrow and witness a woman’s soul torn in two by violence and fear.

In my house the sound of leather on the skin of my sister’s bare bottom stole my very voice out of my throat for years. The great thwack of the sister who goes before you. Taking everything before you are born. The sound of the belt on the skin of her made me bite my own lip. I’d close my eyes and grip my knees and rock in the corner of my room. Sometimes I’d bang my head rhythmically against the wall.

I still cannot bear her silence while being whipped. She must have been eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Before it stopped.

Her father physically and sexually abused Yuknavitch and her sister; their alcoholic mother existed in a fog of denial. Yuknavitch became a woman full of rage. She turned on herself, turned against her body, which had been made beautiful and powerful by water. She squandered a college swimming scholarship through drugs, alcohol, and sex with anything that moved. She punished herself over and over, for years, trying to root out the evil that abuse had buried in her.

 

Writing became her salvation. Time and again, as she lurches from mistake to affair, from addiction and obsession, it is writing that buoys her above the waves of her own destructive seas.

 

Caution must be taken not to romanticize Yuknavitch’s scary history. The author as addict, the notion that one must suffer to create great art, is a cliché that works because it is true time and again. But separate yourself from the literal and sink into the sheer beauty of her language, the way she wraps her arms around you and won’t let you go, you will be rewarded with tears and laughter, with frustration and rage. You will feel. And isn’t that why we read? To feel, deeply, achingly, painfully, blissfully.

 

The nature of memoir, as distinct from autobiography, is like looking down at your body in a pool of water: shapes are distorted, disjointed, appearing larger or smaller or not at all. Memoir is not a chronological connection of facts. Memoir is a work of prose, an interpretation of one’s life just as a painting is an interpretation of a scene or a theme. Whether or not every event described by Yuknavitch, or any other memoirist, really happened is not the point of memoir; the point is to offer the reader a powerful piece of writing with experiences that elevate the personal to the universal. Yuknavitch says it best:

All the events in my life swim in and out between each other. Without chronology. Like in dreams. So if I am thinking of a memory…there is no linear sense. Language is a metaphor for experience. It’s as arbitrary as the mass of chaotic images we call memory-but we can put it into lines to narrativize over fear.

This isn’t for everyone. Some will read and be exasperated or disgusted or disbelieving. I get that. I get that chaos and promiscuity and addiction are ugly, messy, and life is too short to waste reading about someone else’s tragedy and self-destructive behavior. That’s pretty much me, really. But something about this story–the goddamn gorgeous language, the raw power of its brutality–gave me so much comfort and solace. In Yuknavitch’s word embrace, I felt the magic of self-acceptance and self-love, and the crazy-wonderful beauty of life.

 

“Listen, I can see you. If you are like me. You do not deserve most of what has happened or will. But there is something I can offer you. Whoever you are. Out there. As lonely as it gets, you are not alone. There is another kind of love.

It’s the love of art. Because I believe in art the way other people believe in god.

In art I’ve met an army of people – a tribe that gives good company and courage and hope. In books and painting and music and film. This book? It’s for you. It’s water I made a path through…Come in. The water will hold you.”

N.B. Lidia is a Northwest writer, one of our regional treasures. I had never read her writing until this memoir and I fell hard, fast. And was gutted to learn I had missed her 2-day writing workshop here, in my little village, by two weeks. Alas, she’s hosting a repeat in October. When I shall be out of the country. Le sigh. Come back, Lidia. Come back when I am here. I’m ready for a swimming lesson.

 

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Shattering the Silence: Three Minus One

18669335Three Minus One: Stories of Parents’ Love and Loss by Sean Hanish

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclosure note: I am one of the contributors to this anthology.

In July 2009, my first pregnancy ended. In July 2012, my second pregnancy ended. There will be no others. Those experiencesas well as the years of baffling infertility that preceded the losses, the attempts at adoption, the anger and hope, resolution and relief, the sense of a life unfinished and unfulfilledhave shaped me as an adult. They have affected me as a woman, a writer, as the mother I will always believe I was meant to be, as a wife who shares forever-grief with her husband.

In 2005, the wife of writer-director-producer Sean Hanish gave birth to a stillborn son. In their journey through sorrow and healing, Sean wrote the screenplay for a film. That film, Return to Zero, starring Minnie Driver and Paul Adelstein, premieres worldwide on Lifetime Network, Saturday May 17, 2014, 8:00 p.m. EDT. Return to Zero. Sean’s original intention was to see this film distributed on the big screen. But realizing he would reach a vastly greater audience on a solid television network, he signed on with Lifetime at the Rome Independent Film Festival in Italy earlier this year. Bravo, Sean. Congratulations for your brave and beautiful work.

In tandem with the release of the movie and in the spirit of shattering the silence surrounding neonatal death, stillbirth, and miscarriage, Sean and Brook Warner, editor of She Writes Press, conceived an anthology of prose and poetry written by women and men affected by child death. Three Minus One: Stories of Parents’ Love & Loss is the result of their collaboration and ourthe contributors’journeys.

This collection of essays and poems speaks of pain and loss so profound, you are left breathless. Yet there is also incredible beauty, joy, and redemption. The writing is extraordinary, each voice unique in its expression of universal themes, experiences, and emotions. The relief to know one is not alone is profound.

In just a few lines Heather Bell’s poem, Executioner, captures the absurdity of grief–the acknowledgement that life goes on, even as yours is falling apart, and the strange, sad ways people reacttrying so hard to empathize, to understand—yet botching it all, bless their hearts:

And the baby is dead but
we need lettuce in the house, maybe some bread
for morning toast so

I am at the store touching the potatoes at the spin,
the slim wrists of carrot. And the baby is dead so

this entitles humans to talk about their dog’s death,
or gerbil’s. This means I am expected to sympathize at

their loss. Because all death becomes, somehow, equal

Gabriela Ibarra Kotara reveals the Masters of Disguise that grieving parents become after the loss of a child: “I am that cautionary tale. No one wants what happened to us to happen to them.” In Address Book, Meagan Golec reflects on how her friendships have changed since her child was born dead at 38.5 weeks. Elizabeth Heineman’s What to Do When They Bring You Your Dead Baby in the Hospital is a tender, beautiful, elegiac prose-poem that I read over and over, wanting to sink inside her words. Marina del Vecchio, Silent Miscarriage, Shoshanna Kirk, To Balance Bitter, Add Sweet, and Susan Rukeyser, Our Bloody Secret, made me realize for the first time that I was not crazy for wanting to miscarry in my body’s own time, even though it took weeksthe first timeor left me writhing on the floor for hours, hyperventilating in painthe second timeand that searching in the mass of blood and tissue for signs of your child’s body is horribly, gruesomely, okay.

All this death and loss is not a thing you talk aboutnot in polite company. Not with strangers and rarely even with friends. But death brought me to life, as it were. The deaths of my children brought me at last to the page, to be the other thing I’ve always known I was meant to be: a writer. Isn’t that strange and awful and wonderful? I can’t fulfill one destiny, but in its denial, I am walking the road of another. My essay Their Names touches on the discovery of another way to create life.

Miscarriage affects an astonishing number of would-be parents: an estimated 30% of pregnancies ends in loss. Mercifully, many of these occur so early that the mother doesn’t know she was pregnant. But many of us spend weeks and months planning for and anticipating life.

Stillbirth occurs in 1 of every 160 births in the US and neonatal deathdeath within the first 28 days of life1 in every 85 births. Shocking, isn’t it? It’s probably happened to someone you know. If and when it does, a simple “I’m so sorry for your loss” and a hug would be a beautiful gift. Offering Three Minus One would be a precious gift, as well. Parents in mourning need to know they are not alone. This book offers all the right things to say and do and feel and not feel. It is an embrace of compassion and empathy.

N.B.: The following readings by contributors from Three Minus One are scheduled in the Seattle Area (* I will be reading):

May 9, 1:00 p.m. Pacific Northwest Writers Association Cottage, Gilman Village, Issaquah

*May 22, 7:00 p.m., Third Place Books, Roosevelt, Seattle

*June 15, 3:00 p.m. Elliott Bay Books, Capitol Hill, Seattle

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