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.

View all my reviews

Elena Ferrante #ReviewWomen2015

Discovering authors whose works I’ve either never heard of, or for some reason passed by, is one of reading’s great joys. Something—a friend’s recommendation, an author interview read or heard, a change of heart—compels me to read one of the unknown or forgotten, and I find myself in the lovely spot of suddenly having an author’s backlist to catch up on. Because the book, the writing, the everything is THAT GOOD. It’s like finding $50 in your pocket, just as the clouds clear on a dreary day and the sun beams through.

 

I’m already in for two new-to-me authors this year, and 2015 isn’t even three months old. The first was Lily King, whose Euphoria I waxed euphoric about last month; I read another of King’s right away, and was enthralled once again: Father of the Rain. The second is Italy’s enigmatic Elena Ferrante.

 

I don’t have time to determine why these writers’ previous works escaped my notice; I have too much reading to do.

The Days of AbandonmentThe Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.

 

And so begins Olga’s descent into the heart of her own darkness. The Days of Abandonment packs a wallop of tension and cringe-inducing desperation into 188 pages of elegantly-rendered narrative. This isn’t the story of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, this is THE nervous breakdown, in all its raw ugliness. We may tut-tut as we read Olga’s hair-raising mayhem, but really, isn’t this what we fear, in the wee hours, in our most vulnerable moments? As Shakespeare’s Polonius declares in Hamlet, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”

 

The method is familiar: husband leaves wife for younger woman (in this instance, the very young daughter of a former family friend). Wife, who hasn’t worked outside the home for many years, is left with the children, the house, the bills, and her own aging body. Disbelief, depression, anger, the divvying up of friends, the hope and fear of running into the ex and his paramour ensue. But Olga’s madness? There is nothing expected in the way Elena Ferrante portrays Olga’s domestic drama.

 

Olga’s recounting of her freefall is detached and unsentimental. She tells it some years distant, but I also wonder if there is not some translation styling at work here. Although Ann Goldstein has translated all Ferrante’s Europa Editions-published works, so I have to assume her tone is true to the author’s own.

 

Contrary to that sense of emotional detachment, The Days of Abandonment is an intensely physical story. Olga is both obsessed with and horrified by her body, which at thirty-eight is showing the inevitable signs of age. She ruminates frequently about sex, reducing it to a purely animal act, torturing herself with images of her husband Mario, and his young lover, and then seducing her neighbor in a pathetic cry to recapture her crushed sexual self. Ferrante uses pain-an errant piece of glass in pasta sauce that pierces the roof of Mario’s mouth; the threat of a mother to cut off her daughter’s hands with sewing shears; a child’s forehead smashing into the windshield to the sound of screeching car brakes–to frame Olga’s sanity. It’s almost as though pain is a stand-in for emotion: as long as Olga can envision pain and feel it, she’ll be alright. She had reinforced locks put in the front door and at her lowest point, she struggles to open the locks, finally resorting to using her teeth. At one point, Olga asks her daughter Ilaria to poke her with a paper cutter if her concentration wanders

 

I immediately pulled my mouth away from the key, it seemed to me that my face was hanging to one side like the coiled skin of an orange after the knife has begin to peel it. …For a while I let myself sink into desperation, which would mold me thoroughly, make me metal, door panel, mechanism, like an artist who works directly on his body. Then I noticed on my left thigh, above the knee, a painful gash. A cry escaped me, I realized Ilaria had left a deep wound.

 

Most disturbing is the toll Olga’s depression takes on her children and Otto, the family dog. The upsetting scenes of abuse and neglect may well kill any empathy you develop for Olga as an abandoned woman. But without them, Ferrante’s narrative would simply be a mildly prurient glimpse into the life of the newly forsaken.

 

Olga wrestles with her post-abandonment identity, and her struggle is an alarm bell the author sounds relentlessly as she mocks the absurd circumstance of marriage that calls upon women to set aside their professions and their physical freedom, to attend to home, family, husband.

 

I had carried in my womb his children; I had given him children. Even if I tried to tell myself that I had given him nothing, … Still I couldn’t avoid thinking what aspects of his nature inevitably lay hidden in them. Mario would explode suddenly from inside their bones, now, over the days, over the years, in ways that were more and more visible. How much of him would I be forced to love forever, without even realizing it, simply by virtue of the fact that I loved them? What a complex, foamy mixture a couple is. Even if the relationship shatters and ends, it continues to act in secret pathways, it doesn’t die, it doesn’t want to die.

 

What a complex, foamy mixture a couple is… Indeed. Foamy. An interesting choice of word. So sensual, evocative, invoking the fluids of sex, but also foaming at the mouth—a sign of madness, a rabidity of rage.

 

The Days of Abandonment is frank, gutting, oddly funny, and awfully sad. But it is not without hope, and throughout you are reminded that Olga survives her madness. Even swirling in its whirlpool, she has one hand above water, reaching, grasping.

 

Elena Ferrante’s brilliance is withholding her judgment of her characters. She writes their truth and allows readers to create their own morality. Her writing, though not warm, is full of heat. The carapace of narrative rage cracks to reveal tender new skin beneath.

View all my reviews

Euphoria by Lily King #ReviewWomen2015

Last year, writer Joanna Walsh began the #ReadWomen2014 campaign to shed light on the marginalization of women writers in the literary world (as quantitatively evidenced by VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts) and quite simply and joyfully, to bring more readers to books written by women.

 

The #ReadWomen2014 hashtag took off across social media. Debate and discussions regarding literature written by women, “women’s fiction,” the paucity of reviews in mainstream media, and representation of women in the literary arts continue to grow.

 

Journalist and author Hannah Beckerman proposed that 2015 be the year we focus attention on reviewing books written by women. She’s created both a hashtag and a Twitter account #ReviewWomen2015 @ReviewWomen2015  I’m delighted to contribute my words to this effort. I’ll be blogging reviews of books written by women writers this year; only women writers. My Goodreads reviews are posted here View my reviews, but what makes it to the blog are books that set my head and heart spinning, like this extraordinary novel from Lily King.

 

EuphoriaEuphoria by Lily King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picture Lily King in her office, surrounded by a library’s worth of research materials. Drafts of Euphoria are stacked in descending towers along one wall, each draft a stair-step lower. I picture a writer chipping away at her words, like a sculptor to marble, until the true work reveals itself; the words coming to life in the reader’s imagination the way hard, cold stone warms like flesh under the hand.

 

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.

 

A sense of menace pervades the narrative, beginning with the first paragraphs. It is the early 1930s, and American anthropologist Nell Stone and her Australian husband Fen are fleeing the aggressive Mumbanyo tribe in a canoe when something is tossed at them. It lands near the canoe’s stern but Nell can’t see what it is: Fen has broken her glasses. He remarks that it’s, “Another dead baby.” Nell can’t tell if he’s joking. When her infertility and miscarriages are later revealed, Fen’s caustic remark becomes unforgivably cruel.

 

Yes, their marriage is a hot mess. Both are gifted anthropologists, but it is Nell, the author of a best-selling, controversial ethnography, “The Children of Kirakira,” who garners acclaim and grant money. Fen can hardly be bothered to carry a notebook and pen. Their months with the Mumbanyo have nearly destroyed the couple physically and emotionally, and they are returning to Australia to regroup and then embark upon a study of the Aborigines.

 

Enter Andrew Bankson, an Englishman who has been in New Guinea for years, studying the Kiona tribe. Bankson, escaping the shadow of an overbearing mother and the ghosts of two dead brothers, is on the brink of suicide. He invites the Stones to return to New Guinea, but they are aware of the competitive nature of anthropologists and fear there’s no more room in the territory for them to set up camp. Bankson, loneliness seeping from his pores, introduces the Stones to the Tam tribe and the three become a triangle of intellect and intrigue.

 

The narrative is told in third person from Nell’s perspective, in first person from Bateson’s, and through Nell’s journal. The alternating voices, the shifts in time, and the retrospection serve to enhance the tension. Bankson leaves clues that something terrible has happened, but the author reveals only enough to compel the reader onto the next page, and the next. This is a novel that will make you late for work, or keep you reading far past your bedtime.

 

The anthropologists devise an ingenious grid to classify all of human culture (riffed from a classification theory that Margaret Mead herself devised), but they are utterly incapable of understanding their own hearts. Bankson falls hard for Nell the moment he sees her, and she is torn between her partnership with Fen, her ambition, and the shelter she finds in Bankson’s adoration. But there is nothing maudlin about their interactions; King maintains the sexual and emotional tension like a piano wire plucked and humming.

 

Vivid and extraordinary are the encounters between the Stones and Bankson and the tribes under their study: Tam and Kiona, respectively. These are the genius moments of Euphoria, as these three Westerners assume the role of cultural scientists with the arrogance born of ignorance. Theirs is a new science and they are eager to experience the euphoria of discovery and understanding. When a breakthrough is made, they feel they could “rip the stars from the sky and write the world anew.” Here, too, there is intrigue, as Nell is allowed deeper into the female-dominated society of the Tam while Fen—in all his petty jealousy and arrogance—secretly plots to obtain his own piece of fame.

 

Lily King had so much rich material to work with. She could have offered us a doorstop of a read, a cultural and emotional epic. Instead, she chiseled away until she reached the heart of darkness. Euphoria is all the more profound and moving for her restraint. An excellent novel.