From writing

Novels and Children

When I was in college, one of the first books of “theory” I read was Roland Barthes Mythologies. It’s a lovely book that I hope people still read, even though many of its reference points were already pretty obscure twenty years ago. It’s one of those books that was called “theory” because they didn’t know what else to call it, although just plain criticism, or better yet, essays, would have done.

One of the little essays is called “Novels and Children.” It starts like this:

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Two Virginia Woolf Passages in Search of an Essay

In two weeks I’m heading up to the “happy valley” in Western Massachusetts for my 20th college reunion at Smith College. I’m working on an essay about this – not about me or being forty-one or about the turning of the generations, but about the place, its history and what, if anything, it still means to spend time in a place dedicated to women’s education, history, experiences.

When I’ve visited recently, especially when there are no students there, I keep thinking about its beauty – it’s such an obvious thing, the beauty of the place, but you forget it, and it has to mean something. And the quietness when the students are not there, but that everything is waiting for them, the care that is given to help us believe we are cared for:

“A. Williams – one may read it in the moonlight; and next to it some Mary or Eleanor, Mildred, Sarah, Phoebe upon square cards on their doors. All names, nothing but names. The cool white light withered them and starched them until it seemed as if the only purpose of all those names was to rise martially in order should there be a call on them to extinguish a fire, suppress an insurrection, or pass an examination. Such is the power of names written upon cards pinned on doors. Such too the resemblance, what with tiles, corridors, and bedroom doors, to dairy or nunnery, a place of seclusion or discipline, where the bowl of milk stands cool and pure and there’s a great washing of linen.”

Virginia Woolf, “A Woman’s College from Outside,” 1928

In Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood, Mary McCarthy writes she was grateful for her Catholic education, in spite of everything because it was a history, a narrative, that she could reject and modify but it got her into the story. Looking at the world Smith gave me, I think something like that – it was not perfect in all sots of ways I want to give proper attention and space to – but it was a history. For many of us, you could be ambivalent or reject assets of the history, the traditions, but few were apathetic to it. It didn’t make a utopia, it may or may not have made a counterculture, but it was an experience, it was something, it wasn’t a place you went to pass the time. And so I go back to Woolf:

she lay in this good world, this new world, the world at the end of the tunnel, until a desire to see it or forestall it drove her, tossing her blankets, to guide herself to the window, ad there, looking out upon the garden, where the mist lay, all the windows open, one fiery-bluish, something murmuring in the distance, the world of course, and the morning coming. “Oh,” she cried, as if in pain.

Absent Fathers and Present Mothers: Reading Mary Gordon and Alison Bechdel

In Are You My Mother?, Alison Bechtel quotes from Virginia Woolf’s diaries in which she reports that her great novels about her parents, Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse could not have been written while her parents were still alive.

That Woolf reports this as a matter of simple, unsentimental fact seems another thing that depends upon the absence of her parents. For Bechtel, the irony is clear: that her mother is still alive is what makes Are You My Mother? a looser and messier book than Fun Home, her elegy to her absent father and investigation into his absence. Her mother keeps popping up, challenging the story, shifting out of place.  

Woolf lost her mother at 13, an event which underscores the longing romanticism with which she paints the mothers in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.  To my mind, there’s still no more devastating passage of loss than the parenthetical by which we learn of Mrs. Ramsey’s death: “(Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.)”

More often, however, it is the case that women marry older men and outlive them, that fathers leave and mothers stay, and that fathers’ inner lives are a bewilderment to their children, and that writers write books about absent fathers and present mothers. Another contemporary writer, the criminally under-read Mary Gordon, has produced in The Shadow Man and Circling My Mother a pair of memoirs that explore the legacies of an absent father and a present mother. Like Bechtel’s father, Gordon’s used intellectual pretension and artistic ambition to crush the residue of their secrets: in the case of Bechtel’s father, his attraction to men; in Gordon’s, his Jewishness.

Bechtel and Gordon wonder what it might mean to use words differently than their fathers who used them to dissemble and conceal, and both struggle with mothers who might prove to have a more unshakable relationship to language and belief than their daughters. When Gordon helps her mother, a devout Catholic, endure the terror of undergoing invasive tests while suffering from dementia by reciting the rosary she wonders how it is that there are no words in which she might find similar comfort, despite her whole sense of self being that of a writer and reader.

Part of the poignance of Gordon’s books is that her mother’s dementia places her in a limbo where self-disclosure is neither forbidden nor permitted. At one point, she decides not to escort her mother on an excursion – in part because she’s not sure if she will enjoy it but in part because she is working on her book and would rather write about her mother than spend time with her.  Sometimes I wonder if those with abusive or absent parents become writers or artists not because there is more material there, but because they are “liberated” sooner from the desire to please, placate, from the requirements of decorum. In a piece I wrote a while ago on Alison Bechtel, I talked about the ways therapy promises to essentially, kill off our parents without killing them: to kill Woolf’s angel of the house, to kill the need to please, and allow for truth. And yet, it seems to me, this is often cold comfort indeed, not only for those who mourn but for all of those, who, like Gordon and Bechtel’s absent fathers and present mothers still seek the comforts beyond truth of art or faith or beauty: that is, for all of us.

 

Today in Feminist History: Carolyn Heilbrun, 1926-2003, and Amanda Cross

Carolyn Heilbrun, author of many books including the classic Writing a Woman’s Life, and the first woman to get tenure in Columbia’s influential English department, was born ninety years ago this week.

Taking as its starting point Virginia Woolf’s remark that “very few women have yet written truthful autobiographies,” Heilbrun moves through the work of writers like Woolf, Dorothy Sayers, Eudora Welty, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde and others to explore how self-perception, nostalgia and romanticization shape the stories women writers tell in different forms: “she may tell it in what she chooses to call autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman’s life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or naming the process.”  Read more

Best of 2015: Ten Essays and Articles from Ten Magazines

Here are ten remarkable essays or articles I read in 2015: not the best but ten that have stayed with me. My only rule was that I picked ten from ten different publications to spread the love around. A few of these were published before 2015, but I read them all this year, and none of them are too tied to any news cycle, so in my humble option they are all worth taking a look at.

The profiles: 

  1. “Voice and Hammer: Harry Bellafonte’s Unfinished Fight” by Jeff Sharlet in Virginia Quarterly Review.  A few days ago it was Frank Sinatra’s birthday and I saw a few people send around Gay Talese’s classic “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” the original “write-around” that solves the how to write about the very written about problem. Sharlet’s essay reads like that, if Sinatra had been a lifelong tireless radical and truly important political figure. It brilliantly does the thing some of my favorite profiles do: make you realize how little you knew about an iconic figure.

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8 Approaches to the Papers/Grading Dillemma

If you’re any kind of an academic, or spend anytime with anyone who is, the end of a semester comes with the neurotic repetition of an essential truth: we hate grading papers. But the time to think about what to about that comes at the planning stage, so I thought I’d do a January post about this eternal question.

A while back, Rebecca Shuman had a piece on Slate that proposed a simple solution: stop doing it. Stop giving papers, stop grading them. Like a lot of her pieces, it was a combination of a solid insight with broad generalization and pure-Slate contrarian click-bait. I like the impulse at the core of it: if something isn’t working, maybe we should not do it any more. But there’s also the very-Slate like impulse that everyone out there is doing one conventional thing mindlessly, and only you are brave enough to call them out. The truth is, there a lots of professors out there with creative approaches to teaching writing and to using writing in a range of classes, and there’s also a very interesting literature out there on it. Partly to clarify my own thinking, and partly because I think this might be useful to other folks, I put together a list of some of what I think I’ve figured out after teaching composition, creative writing and literature for fifteen years. Some might apply more to folks teaching in one discipline more than others, and it’s probably impossible to do all these things in every class, but it’s probably possible to use some of them in any class.
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Quick Hit: Baldwin and the Magazines

In a 1984 interview,  Julius Lester asked Baldwin about his early days after the war as a writer publishing reviews and essays “for publications like The New Leader, The Nation, Commentary and Partisan Review” Baldwin described the people he met through these publications as a kind of “Olympus”:  “Dwight MacDonald told me that I was “terribly smart.” I certainly learned a lot from them, though I could not tell you exactly what I learned. A certain confidence in myself, perhaps.” 

Out of curiosity, I looked up all the bylines where Baldwin originally published the essays in his now classic first two collections, Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows my Name. Here they are: Commentary, Harper’s, New Leader, Partisan Review, The Reporter, The New York Times Book Review, Encounter, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Le Preuve.  The Fire Next Time was published in its entirety in the New Yorker, Baldwin’s first published essay in a national magazine was for The Nation, where his later work frequently appeared, and he was on their board during the last years of his life.

Of course no recent particular event and no particular magazine of note that maybe would have been predisposed to miss the work of an African-American who is probably the greatest essayist in American history and any prominent “serious” publications missing from the list  are just a coincidence. 

The Dancer and the Dance

This summer I published a poem about Lee Miller in Narrative.  Miller isn’t exactly obscure – people interesting in photography, war journalism, or surrealism are probably at least somewhat familiar with her life and work. But she isn’t a household name either – I didn’t know anything about her until I read Francine Prose’s collection of biographic essays about women – many artists in their own right – who have served as “muses.” I’ve been working on a group of poems, short fiction and short essays on other artists I’m interested in for a variety of reasons – people like Jay DeFeo and Isa Genzken and Maria Lassnig and Paula Modersohn-Becker. Again, none of these people are unknown, but they all have fascinating, not-common knowledge stories that having fascinating things to say about obsession, passion, bodies, sex, death, and all the other good stuff. I’ve worried, though, about how to talk about wanting to do this – it sounds a little old-fashioned: ah, those second wavers with their projects of “rediscovery”! Haven’t we found them all by now? Not by a longshot, as it turns out.  

This was on my mind recently when I read this great piece by my friend Joanna Scutts about the usually disappointning results and diminishing returns of the seemingly inexhastable genre of novels about writer’s wives, and how they tend to smooth over the uncomfortable details literary biographers deal with. Being in love with a difficult man – who can’t relate, these books seem to tell us. In wanting to bring women’s stories “from the shadows,” are we most interested if the shadow takes the form of a great man? Are we more comfortable with stores of talent squelched and repressed than those who worked through these paradoxes?

“That city which the people from heaven had made their home”: Thoughts on Baldwin’s “Another Country”

When I was volunteering at Housing Works Bookstore, one of the musicians who came to perform was a woman named Tift Merritt. I knew of her a little from my ex-boyfriend, and listened to a bunch of her music right around the time she played the show at Housing Works. Her most recent album at the time was “Another Country” and for a few weeks I kept listening to its title song, with its simple, sweet plaintive refrain:

I thought these things would come to me
Love is another country, and I want to go –

I want to go too. I want to go with you.I want to go too. I want to go with you.

 
 
She was incredibly gracious with the volunteers, and asked one of us if we had a copy of Baldwin’s novel hand. (But only if it wouldn’t be too much trouble). As I remember it, we managed to find one and she put it on her stand during her performance.

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On Reading Lydia Davis, “Can’t and Won’t”

A woman is reading a book by an author she admires. It is inadequate, in fact, to say she admires this write, as the author is one of the few whose work prompts the often uncomfortable and shattering yet delectable experience which readers refer to as “identification.” This particular woman rarely feels this for the usual reasons– because one has a similar biography, a common experience, or even a similar temperament to the author. It comes instead when a writer displays their habits of mind in a particular way such that the woman feels her very brain is being invaded. This woman has experienced this before with this author, but never to the extent as with this book. The first delight came when she noticed that a number of these stories are labeled dreams at the bottom. This delighted her because the old saw about being bored by the dreams of others has never seemed correct to her. Go knock on her door, ready tell her a dream, and she is sure to let you in. Imagine then her delight to see excerpts from the correspondence of another author she admires, one this author had translated. Just the week before she had thought, one should read nothing but the letters and diaries of dead authors – on quiet shelves and in boxes these letters and diaries sit the way the prospectors thought California would be: all that the gold, just lying there for the taking. And imagine how that delight turns uncanny when she discovers the author has dedicated a story to her method of working through back issues of a certain glossy review, when just that morning the woman had been joking about her own organized stack, and even more so when the author included an imagined  letter to the head of a foundation, when just the week before this woman had written exactly such a letter. At this point the woman is working hard to keep herself in check, not to shout at the author on a crowded train to get out of her head, and worries about the fact that anything she writes in the next few weeks will be inevitably an imitation of that author. This seems a problem because 1) She is too old to be imitating other writers, or so she imagines, and 2) Such an imitation might be seen as parodic, as is often the case when writers have a style as specific as this author. Nevertheless it seemed the only fitting tribute to this author to see this necessary imitation through to the end before setting the author’s book back on the shelf with the neurotic precision she sees in a new light knowing she shares it with this particular writer she admires.

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Edited to Add: God knows I slack on the Times book review a lot, but after writing this I looked at some reviews and this one by Peter Orner is very good and describes a lot of what I was trying to. “To read Davis is to become a co-­conspirator in her way of existing in the world, perplexity combined with vivid observation.” Precisely.