36 – Audre Lorde

This brief tribute to poet and activist Audre Lord was originally published on Medium.

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Lorde’s essays and non-fiction

Bio:

Audre Lorde blazed into my consciousness, a star whose light reached my world after she was dead. Only, she’s not dead. Lorde lives in her resounding words; lives in her multiple consciousnesses as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”; lives as an embodiment of unflinching personal and political courage.

My first approach to her was slant — the final line Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Acting French” in which he declared “Sometimes you do need the master’s tools to dismantle his house.” I scribbled it down, the pearl amidst the sludge of half-developed ideas.

Months later, when I realise he’d cribbed Lorde’s “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” I was ashamed of my ignorance, ashamed I had accidentally attributed to a man the words of a wiser and more powerful woman. I was angry, too. He should have acknowledged her, not assumed (or pretended to assume) that a white audience would recognise the words of a black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.

It’s the kind of slight (mine, his) that Lorde knew all too well. The kind of diminishing by accident or design that she wrote about with immaculate precision and righteous anger.

Lorde knew all about injustice but never let herself accept or become accustomed to it. This shines in her writing and the boldness of her life. She refused categories, as an artist or a human being. She married a (white) man, had two children, left her marriage and had a long-term partnership with a (white) woman. Her poetry can be excoriating, her prose comforting, her voice demanding.

What remains, along with her words, is the sense that she was a whole woman — undivided from herself, despite the complexities that other, less aware (less courageous?) people compartmentalize. Humming like a live wire through her work is this message: live your life, as yourself.

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Lorde’s poems

In her own words:

“Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.” — “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”

“A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove it. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn’t notice the size nor nothing else
only the color”. And
there are tapes to prove that, too.

Today that 37 year old white man
with 13 years of police forcing
was set free
by eleven white men who said they were satisfied
justice had been done”
– from “Power

“The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes we hope to bring about in those lives… As we learn to bear the intimacy of scrutiny and to flourish within it, as we learn to use the products of that scrutiny for power within our living, those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us.” — from Sister Outsider

“I have been woman
for a long time
beware my smile
I am treacherous with old magic
and the noon’s new fury
with all your wide futures
promised
I am
woman
and not white.
– from “A Woman Speaks”

Further reading:

The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches
The Cancer Journals

26- Portland Women Writers

This was a piece for Frugal Portland.

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

In an era where you can read yourself blind online without spending a penny, buying books is an act of enlightened frugality. Magazines and newspapers get tossed; websites morph. Books stick around. What’s more, books slow us down. There are no hyperlinks or banner ads, nothing to whisk our mind into the ugly spin cycle of the so-called “post-truth” world.

Truth exists as it ever has but powerful interests want to drown it. Books are an antidote to the noise. Portland is fortunate to have a thriving community of writers whose clear voices remind us of life’s possibilities and responsibilities. These five women share a powerful sense of purpose, justice, and urgency. Their books will open your mind and break your heart.

Lidia Yuknavitch

Yuknavitch writes like we’re all together in a car stalled on the track as the train bears down. Her fearlessness shines in her bold novels like The Small Backs of Children and Dora: A Headcase, as much as in her searing memoir The Chronology of Water. A former competitive swimmer, Yuknavitch always returns to water, preferring to write “anywhere you can see the river.” She’s busy penning a new work of “short fictions” called This is Not a Flag and a novel, Thrust, but found time to share this advice: “If you have money you can move it toward change. if you don’t have money you can use your voice and body.” Or, of course, your pen.

  • Read: The Chronology of Water (Hawthorne Books, 2011)
  • Recommended: The Child Finder, Rene Denfeld (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Sept. 5, 2017)
  • Website: https://lidiayuknavitch.net Twitter: @LidiaYuknavitch

Karen Karbo

Karbo waltzes between styles and genres, investing them all with wit and the wisdom of experience. Her work includes the superbly titled Kick-Ass Women series featuring Coco Chanel, Katherine Hepburn, Julia Child and Georgia O’Keeffe; fiction like The Diamond Lane and Motherhood Made a Man out of Me, and her memoir The Stuff of Life.

The secret to keeping the words flowing? Write in hospital lobbies. “There are no distractions,” she says. “No roar of the coffee bean grinder, or whoosh of the milk foamer. No other writers tapping out their award-winning novels. People come and go, and they pay no attention to you, because they’re there for more important reasons. There’s nothing to do but write.”

  • Read: In Praise of Difficult Women (National Geographic, Feb 27, 2018)
  • Recommends: The Book of Joan, Lidia Yuknavitch (Canongate, Jan 18, 2018)
  • Website: http://www.karenkarbo.com Twitter: @Karbohemia

Cheryl Strayed

Strayed’s beloved-by-Oprah breakthrough, Wild, her account of solo hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is an archetypal hero’s journey with a twist: the hero is a woman. Reading Wild, I realized how unfamiliar and thrilling it is to read a story of struggle and self discovery by and about a woman. Tiny, Beautiful Things was equally expectation-shattering in a different way. A compilation of advice columns she wrote for The Rumpus, it blends Strayed’s fearless, first-person stories with Stoic wisdom. It’s twin themes are courage + effort. “It didn’t just get better for them,” she writes. “They made it better.”

Here’s hoping a future generation can look back on these years and say the same of us.

  • Read: Tiny, Beautiful Things (Vintage, 2012)
  • Recommends: The Dream of a Common Language, Adrienne Rich (W. W. Norton & Co., 2013)
  • Website: http://www.cherylstrayed.com Twitter: @CherylStrayed

Rene Denfeld

It’s axiomatic that not all writers make a living from writing. Some perform feats of double alchemy that give lustre to both their writing and their profession. Denfeld, a licensed investigator, is one of these alchemists (poet/doctor William Carlos Williams was another). “It’s exciting, fulfilling work,” she says of investigation. “I get to exonerate innocents and help victims of sex trafficking.”

When she’s not working, or “loving on my fantastic kids,” she slips away to Cathedral Park with her laptop to pour her hard-earned understanding of humanity into books like the multi-award-winning novel The Enchanted.

  • Read: The Enchanted (Harper, 2014)
  • Recommends: The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison (Greywolf Press, 2014)
  • Website: http://renedenfeld.com Twitter: @ReneDenfeld

Ursula K LeGuin

To call LeGuin, doyenne of the Portland literary scene, a sci-fi writer is reductive. She is an imaginative writer of dazzling talent who conjures new worlds and infuses familiar scenes with fresh possibilities. “In America the imagination is generally looked on as something that might be useful when the TV is out of order,” she writes. “Poetry and plays have no relation to practical politics. Novels are for students, housewives, and other people who don’t work. Fantasy is for children and primitive peoples.” LeGuin has been cheerfully subverting this belief for her entire career –and shows no signs of stopping.

  • Read: Words Are My Matter (Small Beer Press, 2016)
  • Recommends: Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu trans. Ursula K. LeGuin (Shambhala, 1998)
  • Website: http://www.ursulakleguin.com

18 – Reading Like a Writer

This was another Ideas Tap feature that was mostly an excuse to interview a handful of my favorite people — dear friend and mentor Paul Hendrickson, another beloved writing friend Nick Lezard, and the man who saved my life during my writing Master’s, course director and prolific author Michael Schmidt.

Photo by Eliott Reyna on Unsplash

Want to be a writer? The best way to start is by reading. But how can you make sure you reap the benefits in your own work? Cila Warncke asks writers Paul Hendrickson, Nick Lezard and Michael Schmidt for tips…

“It is impossible to become a writer without reading,” says Paul Hendrickson, writing professor at the University of Pennsylvania and award-winning author of numerous books including, most recently, Hemingway’s Boat.

There is a relationship between quality of reading and quality of writing. And a distinction between reading for pleasure and reading like a writer. The difference involves attitude, approach and appreciation. Michael Schmidt, poet, professor and author of the forthcoming The Novel: A Biography recommends reading, “with eyes wide open, full of anticipation.”

With this in mind, here are seven ways to read like a writer:

1. Compulsively

“You can’t be a writer unless you have a hunger for print,” says Nick Lezard, Guardian literary critic and author of Bitter Experience Has Taught Me. “I was the kid who sat at the table and read the side of the cereal packet.” In Nick’s case, the lust for literature paved the way for a career as a book reviewer. But regardless of the genre or field to which you aspire, all writers are readers first.  And “it doesn’t matter whether the medium is the side of the cereal packet or a screen,” Nick says.

2. Slowly

Cereal-packet readers tend to wolf words like they do breakfast. This is a trait writers should train themselves out of – at least sometimes. Paul defines reading like a writer as slowreading: dawdling on the page, delving, soaking in the style and rhythm. Don’t read everything this way, though. “I don’t read the newspaper ‘like a writer’,” he notes. “I don’t have time. Nobody does.”

3. Broadly

Time is of the essence for the reading writer, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore everything apart from the classics. There are, to borrow Orwell’s term, good bad books. Nick mentions Ian Fleming as an example of compelling though less-than-literary fiction. Paul gives a nod to Raymond Chandler, saying writers can learn from his “hardboiled, imagistic lines.”

4. Selectively

That said, don’t make the mistake of reading widely but not too well. “Reading crap is no good for the eye or ear,” says Michael. “Read only the best, and read it attentively. See how it relates to the world it depicts, or grows out of.”

Nick, who has read his share of bad books as a reviewer, concurs: “If you just read books like 50 Shades of Grey, or Dan Brown, you’re going to wind up spewing out a string of miserable clichés.”

5. Attentively

You get the most out of good writing by reading it with real attention. Michael advises writers to pay heed to metaphor, characters’ voices, how the author develops those voices and how they change. He recommends Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children,” as a rewarding subject of attentive reading: “There is a strong sense of development, nothing static there. I can think of no better pattern book for a would-be writer.”    

6. Fearlessly

Reading like a writer means going out of your comfort zone. When Nick was in his teens he tackled James Joyce’s Ulysses. “It was a struggle,” he recalls. “It took me a year or two. But that’s how you [learn] – you find stuff that’s above your level.”

7. Imaginatively

Reading above your level is valuable, in part, because it challenges your imagination. Paul talks about savouring the terse beauty of poetry and imagining “everything that’s between the spaces of the words, the spaces of the lines.” By observing the work of your own imagination you gain insight into how writers evoke images and emotions.

You don’t have to read every book (or cereal box) like a writer. But the more you immerse yourself in words and cultivate these seven skills, the better your writing will be. “If you are writing a potboiler, imagine how wonderful it will be if the work you produce is actually a proper novel,” says Michael. “Read the best, and read the best in your elected genre.”

In Focus: Writers’ Recommended Reading:

  • UlyssesJames Joyce
  • To The LighthouseVirginia Woolf
  • A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway 
  • Three Lives – Gertrude Stein
  • New York Review of Books

17 – Cheryl Strayed on Memoir

This was written for Ideas Tap, an organization (sadly now defunct) that supported young people pursuing the creative arts. Cheryl Strayed, whose Tiny Beautiful Things was my bible for several months, was as generous and gracious by phone as she is on the page. A case of meeting one’s heroes not going wrong.

Photo by Holly Mandarich on Unsplash

After writing her first novel, Cheryl Strayed turned to memoir and wrote her New York Times bestselling book Wild, about her 1,100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail in the wake of her mother’s death. Here, Cheryl tells Cila Warncke about mining memory and sets us to work with a writing exercise…

How does the emotional experience differ between writing fiction and memoir?

It doesn’t. To write fiction well you have to inhabit the consciousness of the characters you’ve created. With non-fiction there’s an extra layer of intensity because the character you’re building is yourself.

When writing memoir, how do you build yourself as a character?

The only way you can build yourself is to dismantle yourself. To take apart who you are, what your assumptions have been, what you hope people think of you. You can’t write: “I’m pretty and cool and awesome and interesting” because everyone would hate you. You have to say: “I’m human. Here are positive things about me. Here are negative things about me. And here are things that don’t make sense, don’t add up, and I’m going to present them to you”. Writing is like the deep work you do in the course of therapy where you take yourself apart.

What memory aids do you use?

I naturally have a very good memory – I think a lot of writers do. I kept a journal through my 20s and 30s. That helped me a lot in writing Wild. I do research where I can, going back and looking at pictures for example. When most people imagine what a memoirist does they think: “I don’t remember anything from high school, from 20 years ago”. But they do remember – they just think they don’t.

How can writers elicit those memories?

The process of writing is re-conjuring memories. It’s doing things so more memories come to you. Even looking at a photo can allow you to remember something accurately. The process is like running into an old friend from back in the day, somebody you knew 20 years ago. When you first start talking you only know a few things about each other. But as you talk and go deeper into your lives you remember things you thought you had forgotten. Just because you haven’t thought of something for years doesn’t mean you don’t remember it, it just means it takes a little work to access it. When I was writing Wild I’d think, “I don’t remember, I just walked” but once I started writing my mind would open up to specific memories.

Do you draw heavily on your own life for your fiction?

You’ll see a lot of details from my life. My next novel is set in Portland [where I live]. None of the characters in the book are me but there are all these little tendrils of the story that you can trace back to me.

How do you deal with writer’s block?

I never call it “writer’s block” but I always have trouble beginning. Writing is hard. I resist writing. I run from it. If I am left alone with a laptop I flounder for an hour or two, then I sink in and I’m in the zone. When I get stuck I go for a walk, come back and try again. I don’t force it. If something isn’t coming, I move on; that’s a good strategy for me.

How long did it take to write your first book, Torch?

Your first book is so hard because you don’t know how to write a book and there is no way for anyone to tell you. It turns out the only way to learn how to write a book is to write a book. I avoided finishing [Torch] for fear of failure, until the point where the fear of failing to finish was bigger than the fear of finishing a book that was terrible. I worked on it for about ten years in total, three years really diligently.

How did you overcome that fear of failure?

Once I let go of the idea that I was going to write a great book, I was able to write a book. I let go of any ego or fear or shame. That was an important moment in my writing life. None of us really knows what kind of book we’re writing. A lot of people think they’re writing brilliant books and they’re terrible. And the reverse is true too. It isn’t up to us to judge our books; it’s up to the people who read them.

In Focus: Writing exercise using objects

I take random objects out of my handbag like lipstick, a ten-euro note, and a pair of sunglasses, and tell my students to pick one and write a story about it.

To begin writing you begin with an image. You begin with a feeling. I encourage people to start writing and not think about it too much. Even if you have a good idea, usually once you start writing it will become something else.

I could do that same exercise with the world’s Nobel Literature Prize winners and something would come of it. Perhaps what came of it would be better than what comes to my students, but that’s how the [Nobel Prize winners] do it too – they begin with something then they make something else.

James Baldwin +Black Lives Matter

#BlackLivesMatter
Donate to Black Lives Matter

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Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

 

The late literary genius and humanist nonpareil James Baldwin spoke for Black Lives Matter decades before the movement gained a name. And as a gay black man, born poor, he understood intersectionality in a profound sense.

Baldwin’s gifts included the ability to study himself and report, however painful or unflattering the truths that emerged. This spawned an empathy as rare as wise. He didn’t excuse cruelty but he acknowledged and, as a writer, rendered in meticulous detail the pain that (often) underlies it.

The following quotes, from interviews and from his fiction, articulate truths that are as urgent and relevant today as when he uttered them.

 

“Look, we live in Harlem, let’s say, or we live in Watts. The mother who comes down there with his cap and his own gun in his holster, he doesn’t know what my day is like. He doesn’t know why I get drunk when I do. He doesn’t know anything about me at all. He’s scared shitless of me. Now, what the fuck is he doing there? All he can do is shoot me. He’s a hired concentration-camp keeper…. All you can do is bring in tanks and tear gas—and call the National Guard when it gets too tight. And think you can fight a civil war and a global war at the same time.”

Baldwin speaking to Esquire in 1968

“The black cat in the streets wants to protect his house, his wife and children. And if he is going to be able to do this he has to be given his autonomy, his own schools, a revision of the police force in a very radical way. It means, in short, that if the American Negro, the American black man, is going to become a free person in this country, the people of this country have to give up something. If they don’t give it up, it will be taken from them.”

Baldwin speaking to Esquire in 1968

“The country has got the police force it deserves, and of course if a policeman sees a black cat in what he considers a strange place he’s going to stop him—and you know of course the black cat is going to get angry. And then somebody may die. But it’s one of the results of the cultivation in this country of ignorance. Those cats in the Harlem street, those white cops; they are scared to death and they should be scared to death. But that’s how black boys die, because the police are scared.”

Baldwin speaking to Esquire in 1968

 

“I’d learned how to get by. I’d learned never to be belligerent with policemen, for instance. No matter who was right, I was certain to be wrong…. I only had one head and it was too easy to get it broken… I figured out what answers he wanted and I gave them to him. I never let him him think he wasn’t king.”

‘Previous Condition’ in Going to Meet the Man

“Those boys, now, were living as we’d been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities. They were filled with rage.”

‘Sonny’s Blues’ in Going to Meet the Man

“For everyone’s life begins on a level where races, armies, and churches stop. And yet everyone’s life is always shaped by races, churches, and armies; races, churches, armies menace, and have taken, many lives.”

‘This Morning, This Evening, So Soon’ in Going to Meet the Man

“To be forced to excavate a history is, also, to repudiate the concept of history, and the vocabulary in which history is written; for the written history is, and must be, merely the vocabulary of power, and power is history’s most seductively attired false witness…. One thing is absolutely certain: one can repudiate, or despise, no one’s history without repudiating or despising one’s own. Perhaps that is what the gospel singer is singing.”

Just Above My Head

“All the years that we spent in and out of the South, I always wanted to say to those poor white people, so busy turning themselves and their children into monsters: Look. It’s not we who can’t forget. You can’t forget. We don’t spend all our waking and sleeping hours tormented by your presence. We have other things to do: don’t you have anything else to do? Maybe you really don’t? Maybe the difference between us is that I never raped your mother, or your sister, or if and when I did, it was out of rage, it was not my way of life… Maybe the difference between us is that I’ve never been afraid of the prick you, like all men, carry between their legs and I never arranged picnics so that I could cut it off of you before large, cheering crowds.”

Just Above My Head

 

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Childless for Sleep’s Sake

There is a scene in J. D. Salinger’s Franny & Zooey where Zooey tells his mother that he doesn’t want to get married because he likes to sit by the window on the train, and once you’re married, you never get to sit by the window.

It expresses, rather beautifully, how my thoughts on children. To paraphrase, I don’t want to have a baby because I like to sleep, and once you have a baby you don’t sleep.

baby1

Photo by Michal Bar Haim on Unsplash

To have or not to have: the baby question

Throughout my adult life I vacillated between wanting and not wanting children. Aged 18 I started a list of baby names. In my early 20s, immersed in London’s club scene, I barely had time to sleep, much less think about kids. Then it kicked through my senses like a police battering-ram. One of our friends fell pregnant and a crazed, logic-free longing rushed through me: I want a baby.

The only problem was, as I said to my then boyfriend in so many words, was I didn’t want his baby. In my defense, I was skunk drunk; which is no defense at all. It was a terrible thing to say and he should have dumped me on the spot.

Whether to it’s his credit, he didn’t, and our relationship stumbled along for a few months. Then I gathered my courage, said what had to be said, and moved to out of the country. At the time, it seemed necessary; now, it suggests a penchant for self-dramatization that does me no credit.

Absorbed in a new life in Ibiza, I didn’t think much about getting into another relationship. The undertone hum of wanting a baby remained, though, reinforced by the Noughties cult of the yummy mummy, epitomized by Kate Moss. Ibiza’s beaches were dotted with plenty of stunning taut, topless mamas romping with catalog-cute toddlers. Even if I hadn’t wanted kids sheer lifestyle envy would have gotten me.

Still, with no potential baby daddy, and a freelance journalist’s intermittent wage, having a child remained an abstraction.

At 32, in a relationship, the baby name list I had been cultivating for over a decade took on new significance. I tried names out with my partner’s surname, and mine, and double-barreled. The only grain of sand in this oyster was my boyfriend’s horror of procreation. As a 30-year-old who lived on Fanta and pizza, and spent hours at a time playing Mario Kart, he felt their was enough youthful energy in the house.

Once again, a case of not your baby.

baby2

Photo by Ana Tablas on Unsplash

The allure of old wounds

For the next couple of years friends and I discussed, semi-seriously, having children as lone parents. One dear friend said she’d nearby and help out (unlike most of these offers, I think she meant it). Another, already a mother, promised me it would be worth it. My ever-supportive sister said she thought I’d be a good mother.

It was this idea, perhaps, more than anything, that kept me hooked – the chance to be a good mother. My sister and I were not blessed with good parents. We, and our brothers, had to find our way through a fog of repression and emotional abuse. In a practical sense, we were on our own from adolescence, working minimum wage jobs while going to school, trying to secure our escape.

Time, distance and my father’s death had helped me be a bit philosophical. Finally, I could see my parents as wounded souls whose sins of omission and commission were grounded in unhealed traumas. Part of wanting to have a baby was wanting to prove it is possible to overcome a crappy childhood. Being a good mother would give me license to keep a little of the familiar old anger.

Axiomatically, this is a poor motive, but no worse than any other reason to have a child.

The right man

When I met my now-husband, one of the first things he told me was he never wanted to have kids. This conversation unsettled me but I figured he would be persuadable.

As our relationship developed, it was me who was persuaded.

Strands wove together, revealing a pattern unseen in earlier years.

Having a child is marketed (particularly to women) as a shortcut to fulfillment, an elevator ride to realms of higher purpose. Having a child is a route to social approbation, as long as you’re a well-educated, middle-class (passing) white cis-woman, as I am. Having a child is supposed to buy entry to some Rockwellian fantasy of family harmony.

couple

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Why sleep matters

What I found in the affection, intimacy and adventure of our partnership is that these things thrive in the presence of freedom, resources and – above all – sleep.

The toughest moments of our relationship have been when work and travel schedules left us bone-tired. I learned the hard way that it is obscenely difficult to be a nice person when you’re exhausted. And when you can’t be nice to your partner, things get rough.

Going through relatively mild sleep disruption warned me, vividly, that I’m not built for protracted sleep deprivation. More than a night or two of curtailed sleep is a kick in the face of my mental health in the face. My moods start swinging like a clobbered piñata, my sense of humor vanishes, and my self-control withers – freeing the snider, sadder parts of my personality to wreck havoc. This is consistent with studies that show insomnia is a causal factor in mental health problems.

The idea of chronic sleep deprivation – recent research published in the journal Sleep shows that women’s quality and quantity of sleep suffer for six years after having their first child – is terrifying.

Perhaps choosing to not have children because I like to sleep sounds as petty as not marrying for the sake of sitting by the window. If so, I’m okay with that.

To be a good parent, you have to know yourself – and that includes knowing your limits and being realistic about your resources. It would be a disfavor to a hypothetical child, and to my real and cherished marriage, to do something that would irrevocably change the basis on which it operates.

***

Holiday Reading 2017

Having been bludgeoned with Christianity from infancy, I’m over the away-in-a-manger stuff. Books, though, are one aspect of childhood Christmas I revisit with joy.

Christmas was prime new book time. The rest of the year my siblings and I got what books our parents could afford, which is to say, we went to the library. December 25th was one of the rare occasions we could count on one or two new volumes for our personal collection.

This year, my holiday reading echoes the old pattern. One library book (digital now), one Kindle purchase, and one old-fashioned paperback from a charity shop in Crouch End.

handmaids taleThe Handmaid’s Tale came courtesy of the library. I don’t get Atwood aesthetically in the same way I don’t get, say, Thomas Wolfe or D.H. Lawrence. Her politics are admirable though. Astute women are writing and talking about The Handmaid’s Tale so it seemed like something I should have a first-hand opinion on.

Which (not that you asked) is that the novel puts Atwood perilously close to being the Ayn Rand of the left. Admirable politics, yes. But cardboard characters prodded around a stage so ripe with Symbolism that I wanted the whole damn wooden set-up to burn. I see now why it is being hailed as visionary: it’s dumb enough that even people who didn’t see Trump coming can grasp the Badness of the Bad Things that happen in it.

What’s disappointing is that Atwood can be a fine writer. (I realise, writing these words, that all hell would break loose if anyone read this blog. She has won a thousand awards and sold a million novels. Who the hell am I to criticise? Just a reader.) Her novel Cat’s Eye is rich and absorbing. The Handmaid’s Tale is pure bully pulpit blather, though. She (a woman of intelligence) didn’t trust her readers with anything subtler than a sermon.

dark is risingTo my delight, Susan Cooper didn’t make the same mistake in The Dark is Rising. Full confession, I’d never heard of it till reading a Guardian column that sang its praise. Normally, I avoid fantasy and children’s books in equal measure, but sometimes it’s good to bend the rules. The Dark is Rising reminds me of many of the books I loved as a kid: The Lord of the Rings, The Hounds of the Morrigan, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and The Chronicles of Narnia. It is pastoral, charming, and very very English. I blazed through it.

That treat consumed, I picked up Breakfast At Tiffany’s. This is maybe the third copy I’ve owned. It is one of those books I buy, give away, then buy again. I started with the final story in the slim Penguin Modern Classics paperback, “A Christmas Memory”. Capote’s evocative account of his boyhood Christmas made me weep, even though I know the ending. IMG_20171226_182805

Then I flipped back to the beginning and reread Breakfast at Tiffany’s, marveling at his use of language, description, and the curious fact that leggy, stuttering Mag Wildwood is given the full name Margaret Thatcher Fitzhue Wildwood. In 1958, when the book was published, Thatcher was an up-and-coming Tory politician. A Capote in-joke?

IMG_20171226_182814

Breakfast at Tiffany’s was the perfect starter for a Flannery O’Connor short story collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find. The eponymous opening story is deliciously agonising. O’Connor’s genius is that she doesn’t tell you anything. She just lines words up on the page and you hurry along, captivated by their perfect inscrutable order, until you crash face first into the gruesome conclusion.

O’Connor is the anti-Atwood. Nothing in her writing suggests she cared if her readers got it. She wrote. I know which I prefer.

What did you read over the holidays? Share in the comments. 

 

 

Elements: Attention

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 15: Attention

Great stories come from creators who are passionately attentive to everything.

Case study: Jack Gilbert jack-gilbert

What it is:

Jack Gilbert was an American poet who turned life’s most banal, excruciating moments into heart-shattering art.

After twenty hours in bed with no food, I decided
I should have at least tea. Got up to light the lamp,
but the sweating and shivering started again
and I staggered backwards across the room. Slammed
against the stone wall. Came to with blood on my head
and couldn’t figure out which way the bed was.

from ‘What I’ve Got’

Why it matters:

Storytellers often aim too high. They want to convey love, terror, excitement, or despair. So they write about love, terror, etc. The thing is, when you write about love, you get a Hallmark card. The bigger the theme, the harder it is to write straight; it’s like looking at the sun.

That’s where attention comes in. Great storytellers know the little stuff reveals the big. In the excerpt above, Gilbert doesn’t tell the reader that it is scary to be sick and alone. He pays attention. In the throes of it, he is alert to every small, true detail: the slow passage of time, the dark room, the fever (only he uses clearer, closer words: sweating, shivering), the disorientation, the abject sense of failure as the body falls.

If you want magic, prop your eyelids open with toothpicks. Pay attention. Especially to boring, mundane, every day things.

In his own words:

“He explained that somebody wanted to give me the Yale prize. I didn’t know what to do, how to express it. I took him out with my two friends and we had milkshakes.

The next day I roamed about trying to find a way to feel about what had happened. I finally lay down under the Brooklyn Bridge to try to feel something. I lay there all afternoon, and then I called the people at Yale.” Read more

Practice: “Be awake to the details around you, but don’t be self-conscious. ‘Okay. I’m at a wedding. The bride has on blue. The groom is wearing a red carnation. They are serving chopped liver on doilies.’ Relax, enjoy the wedding, be present with an open heart. You will naturally take in your environment, and later, sitting at your desk, you will be able to recall just how it was dancing with the bride’s redheaded mother, seeing the bit of red lipstick smeared on her front tooth when she smiled.” Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones

Remember: “As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly and unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost.” ~E. B. White

Elements of Storytelling 12: Ethics

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 12: Ethics

Great storytellers hook their audience with a clear ethos, worldview, or proposition.

Case study: Kat Lister

kat-lister

What it is:

Freelance journalist Kat Lister has carved a successful career writing for publications including Marie Clare, The Telegraph, Huff Post, InStyle, Vice, and Broadly by championing the ever-contentious cause of women’s equality.

Why it matters:

Journalists have flirted with starvation since at least 1891 (the year George Gissing published New Grub Street*). Modern multimedia journalism is unapologetically fuelled by celebrity and sensation. To survive journalists must be inimitable. Lister nails it. Everything she writes, from investigative pieces on Syria, to reportage on young Muslims, to think pieces on Brexit, “glass cliffs” and IVF is examined through lens of her feminism. Lister’s cohesive, provocative ethical stance, plus ferociously good writing, whets editors’ appetites, and has prompted 40K shares and 140K Facebook Likes (and counting).

In her own words:

I write about women and culture

Read more / Follow @Madame_George on Twitter

Practice: “Put yourself at the center [of your stories], you and what you believe to be true or right. The core, ethical concepts in which you most passionately believe are the language in which you are writing.” ~ Anne Lamott

Remember: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” ― Elie Wiesel

*Free on Kindle: Amazon.com  and Amazon.co.uk

Elements of Storytelling 11: Imagery

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 11: Imagery

Deft use of imagery creates indelible images and provokes powerful emotions.

Case study: Maggie Smith Poet

What it is:

Maggie Smith’s poem ‘Let’s Not Begin’ is a meditation on life, death and courage. These are dangerous topics (Rilke, no less, advised against such broad themes) but Ms Smith nails it with an unforgettable simile: “My heart’s galloping hell / and gone from the paddock…. But let’s not end / with the heart as horse, / fear-lathered, spooked deaf.” The use of a figurative phrase transforms the cliche of a racing heart into a concrete image so vivid I can see the horse’s flared nostrils and flying sweat.

Why it matters:

For millennia poetry was entertainment, education and historical record. Spoken or sung, it had to make an instant, lasting impression on its audience. So poets got very good at painting word pictures. They learned to compare unlike things in a way that seized people’s imaginations and seared images into their brains. Now, we’re drowning in a sea of information. Metaphors are life-rings; similes shine like beacons. From poetry to advertising, the most imaginative, compelling, memorable use of imagery always win.

In her own words:well

Maggie Smith is the author of three books of poetry: Weep Up (Tupelo Press, forthcoming 2018); The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (Tupelo Press, 2015), winner of the 2012 Dorset Prize and the 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards Gold Medal in Poetry; and Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press, 2005), winner of the 2003 Benjamin Saltman Award.

A 2011 recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Smith has also received fellowships from the Ohio Arts Council, the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and elsewhere. She works as a freelance writer and editor, and is a Consulting Editor to the Kenyon Review. Read more

Practice: Complete these sentences with vivid images. To really get the most of the exercise, don’t worry about coming up with something good, just write. The whole idea is to get your subconscious to make connections in a new, more creative way.

  1. Blue paint spilled on the road like___________________________.
  2. Canceled checks in the abandoned subway car

    seemed___________________________.

  3. A spider under the rug is like___________________________.
  4. Graffiti on the abandoned building like___________________________.”

via The Balance

Remember: “A metaphor is a kind o’ lie to help people understand what’s true.”
~Terry Pratchett