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

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.

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?

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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. 

 

 

Treed

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A poem in progress

TREED

Suspended in your limbs the
sky shatters to dancing fractals.
Height makes me dizzy.
Pressed by gravity to your
contours
corpuscles shriek.
My heart screeches
out of control.
Refusing to
fall
I
will
climb
(down).

Wood against flesh.
Taut, anxious;
mute and clumsy; bones
rattle against every
branch on the way. Till I

f
a
l
l

and tangle in your roots.

Bruises rise like
sap. Sunshine
sears the skin your fingers warmed.
Wind dips to kindly whisper:
Let go.

Running, Writing and Creativity

An excerpt from an essay I wrote on my relationship with running, writing, and creativity.

Read the full piece at The Nervous Breakdown

Run time

Run time

I now recognise the two things my soul needs: running and writing. Running, first, because it is obvious, though the less important of the two. Like good grammar, it is essential to my sense of order and well-being, but I only make a fuss in its absence. A nagging pain in my foot warns me to leave my trainers under the bed, unlaced. My brain knows better than to aggravate an injury but the rest of my body is twitchily uninformed. There is nothing wrong with me apart from a sense of abstraction and discontent. Without the discipline of running and long breaths of cold, cleansing air I am inefficient, fretful, soft in a bruised-fruit kind of way.

Without creative activity my brain fidgets and stews. As with running, the longer I go not writing the more I yearn to and, paradoxically, the more difficult it becomes. After a few days off I feel both dread and pleasure at the prospect of a run. Similarly, when I don’t write the idea of writing fills my head, swells to such vast importance that the process grows alien and terrifying. My fractious mind elides twenty-odd years of devotion and discipline and whispers “you can’t,” or “you can, but it won’t be any good.” Absence opens the door and Doubt saunters in carrying a funhouse mirror where past and future crush unbearably against the present. Anxiety ripples through me like a tiny earthquake, shimmying books off shelves and setting my internal crockery a-rattle. The Fear descends: my book will remain unwritten; questions scribbled in notebook margins will remain unexplored; I will tell no stories; never again will I craft a beautiful essay or forget time as I play a private game with my twenty-six favourite toys.


What co-creative activity gets your writing flowing? Share in the comments.