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Marginalia: On Loneliness.

Hello lovely people,

Happy March. This one is coming a little later than planned, but, at least, it arrives! In true keeping with the dilemma I was whining about in the last Marginalia — how difficult it is to take your time to consume things in a deeper way  — I’ve read, watched and listened to much less this month, and instead spent loads of time writing notes and thinking about the ideas that I’ve recently come across. Some of these ideas – the good ones, at least – are below.

I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. And, as always, please hit me back with your own recommendations.

With much love,

Kyra


1. I broke my seemingly unbreakable non-fiction streak of 2019 with a few very good novels. I must start with a gorgeous, understated and very wise book that has – and quite rightly — been taking the book world by storm: “The Friend” by Sigrid Nunez. The narrator, an unnamed novelist of great acerbic wit, poignancy and emotional insight has just lost a friend – a fellow writer – to suicide. What follows is a darkly comic, unflinching and poignant exploration of the status-obsessed literary world (“If reading really does increase empathy, as we are constantly being told that it does, it appears that writing also takes some away.”), love (“Once again I come upon his famous definition of love: two solitudes that protect and border and greet each other.”)
friendship, loss (“What we miss – what we lose and what we mourn – isn’t it this that makes us who, deep down, we truly are. To say nothing of what we wanted in life but never got to have.”), art and literature.

2. I continued with a book I’ve been desperate to read for a while after having seen it – and not recognised the author – as a 2018 Pulitzer Prize finalist: “Into The Distance” by Hernan Diaz. The only way I can describe this book – and I didn’t make this description up – is as a Western version of Melville’s “Moby Dick.” Håkan, the book’s central character, is a boy from Sweden who takes off for New York with his older brother, Linus. Almost immediately, he loses Linus in Portsmouth, England, and boards the wrong ship, ending up on the opposite side of the country: San Francisco. Broken, and resolved to find his brother, he begins a journey Eastward across the continent. The language is vigorously beautiful; as Håkan travels from enclave to enclave, Hernan Diaz turns you into the dislocated immigrant, with a loneliness and emptiness so evocative, so visceral that you cannot help but look into the same voids that Håkan faces himself.

3. I was so taken by Hernan Diaz’s evocation of loneliness that I moved Olivia Laing’s “The Lonely City” to the top of my pile. I read it in two feverish sittings at the reading room of the State Library of New South Wales, surrounded by books and other bookworms longing, perhaps, for a bit of shared loneliness. This gorgeous book, which merges memoir, philosophy and biography, lifts the lid on the universal struggle of being lonely in cities teeming with people. Laing, who arrives in New York in a deep state of loneliness, explores how several artists – most movingly Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol and David Wojnarowicz – can help her out of her own despair, while also embracing the possibility that loneliness could take her into “an otherwise unreachable experience of reality.” I thought this was quite a moving and enlightening book; Laing, through her own internal investigation, exposes the pain, but also the value, of loneliness:

“Loneliness is personal, and it is also political. Loneliness is collective; it is a city. As to how to inhabit it, there are no rules and nor is there any need to feel shame, only to remember that the pursuit of individual happiness does not trump or excuse our obligations to each another. We are in this together, this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell. What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.” 

4. I went down the Olivia Laing rabbit hole, of course (I still have her most recent novel, “Crudo,” on my shelf, waiting eagerly to be read). I loved her in this interview, where she speaks very eloquently – echoing “The Lonely City” —  about what our duties, as citizens, are in a time of crisis, and the role that art can play in leading us out of dark times.

5. I picked up a book at my local library that I’ve been wanting to read for some time: “How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. Here, two Harvard political scientists describe what leads to the scorched earth politics taking place in many democracies today. Their proposition is that the erosion of unwritten norms is the greatest threat to contemporary democracy, even in countries with strong constitutions (like the US, or the UK, where, even if unwritten, has still held power over the country’s politicians). The two norms Levitsky and Ziblatt believe are important, and are now under increased threat, are: mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. The first, mutual toleration, is the idea that, while the opposing party holds opinions you don’t like, they don’t represent an existential threat to your beliefs and ideals. It only takes a cursory glance at the American political and media landscape to see how little the two dominant political parties tolerate the other. The second norm, institutional forbearance, is using your discretion; not using your institutional prerogative whenever you get the chance, even if it’s legal to do so. To illustrate this, and to demarcate when American politicians abandoned their discretion, they recall the time Obama, when in his final year in office, nominated Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Republicans refused to even grant Garland a hearing, a move that, while legal, hadn’t been made in 150 years. In a democracy, then, there are ways  to stay within the letter of the law but still severely undermine it. This whole book was interesting and relevant, though what I was most struck by is the authors’ assertion that the mutual toleration that reigned in the United States after Reconstruction was based on the disenfranchisement of African Americans in the South. Republicans, in order to gain support from a wider range of the electorate, abandoned their commitment to equal rights, thus calming the Democrats and paving the way for a less polarised political landscape. So mutual toleration, but at what cost? Now, I wonder whether the Democrats – and other left-leaning parties all over the world —  will relinquish their commitments to the protection of immigrants in order to return towards a less vitriolic political environment. This is, obviously, a scary thought. The book ends with a question I’ve been thinking about quite a bit since 2016: is it possible to build a truly diverse anddemocratic society? I guess this is the great experiment.

6. I moved from democracy to capitalism with Yanis Varoufakis’s short primer on the basics of economics: “Talking to My Daughter About the Economy.” This short book – he wrote it in nine days! – is a very entertaining and accessible history of the birth of capitalism. Varoufakis starts with a question directed at his young daughter: why does inequality exist? He then goes on to provide her — and the reader — with the tools to be able to answer this question. Stripped down to its essence, though, this book holds one strong assertion: for democracy to thrive, every citizen needs to be able to speak in an authoritative manner about the economy. Everyone needs, in some way, to be an economist.

7. Enough of books now. I was mesmerised by — and am further in love with — Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  I adored RBG, the excellent documentary about her life and meteoric rise. What a legend. I’m thinking an RBG tattoo is in my future.

8. In severe anticipation of Season 2, I am re-watching Season 1 of Fleabag. What an extraordinary, funny, tragic and powerful show about our complete inability to truly see each other. I cannot wait to see how it continues.

9. My eldest son, like me, has taken to marking on the margins of his books. The five year old version of Marginalia. It might be my proudest moment as a parent:

10. And here, as always, a random quote from my Commonplace Book. This is from the magnificent Lorrie Moore:

“A beginning, an end: there seems to be neither.”

Marginalia: On Choice.

Hi all,

I hope you’re faring well. Surely you are all already very well into your year of reading (and watching, and listening, and observing…). I sort of am, though not without its bumps. Recently, I have been obsessing over this deep issue of contemporary life: the paradox of choice. What to read? What to watch? What to listen to? In an effort to simplify, I began the year by Marie-Kondoing (is that a term?) my digital life: I unsubscribed from newsletters I never open; podcasts I stopped listening to; and passed on books I will never read. Although it brought some temporary relief, the process of choosing something to read, watch or listen to still made me tremendously anxious. It feels to me, sometimes, like post-industrial capitalism has turned everything into a commodity: we consume to serve a final purpose other than the joy or pleasure of the activity itself; as in, we have an end in mind. Whether it is to become smarter, or more efficient, or kinder, or more cultured, it is there, and its presence, I think, can sometimes overwhelm the pure pleasure of partaking in cultural pursuits. This affects me not only with what to choose, but also how quickly I consume what I choose when I finally – and agonisingly – make the choice. I am a slow reader and a slow thinker, and I love spending a considerable amount of time writing about what I have just experienced. When I am simply reading and moving on to the next thing, I find myself worrying about not having taken in the true meaning of something, and, most importantly, not being unable to unearth it for a later time. I find, too, that quick consumption jumbles all the information in my mind. Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher, expressed the downfall of constant consumption without reflection best:

Just as a spring, through the continual pressure of a foreign body, at last loses its elasticity, so does the mind if it has another person’s thoughts continually forced upon it. And just as one spoils the stomach by overfeeding and thereby impairs the whole body, so can one overload and choke the mind by giving it too much nourishment. For the more one reads the fewer are the traces left of what one has read; the mind is like a tablet that has been written over and over. Hence it is impossible to reflect; and it is only by reflection that one can assimilate what one has read if one reads straight ahead without pondering over it later, what has been read does not take root, but is for the most part lost.

While I am intellectually aware of this, and still practice slow reading and reflection, I do often find myself succumbing to the pressure of reading for quantity rather than quality of understanding. If I observe my behaviour, I notice that it comes as a result of the comparison game that social media makes so easy to play. Photos of long stacks of books with a declaration of how many were read (“I read 80 books this year!”) pushes me to read faster. I usually catch myself, but still I fall into throes of the pathological impatience that plagues our time. To get out, I usually choose a long ass book to read; a history book or a classic. This is a good way to just stick to something and resist the urge to read for the purposes of just ticking another book off the list. It seems a radical act, these days, to take on a slow pursuit.

Anyway, I’ll stop ranting. Below is what I’ve managed to finally choose to take and enjoy.

As always, please hit me back with your own recommendations!

Still indecisively yours,

Kyra


1. I must start this newsletter with a book that is very much in keeping with this dilemma of choice: The Tyranny of Choice by Renata Salecl. Here, sociologist and philosopher Renata Salecl exposes how the capitalist idea of limitless choice is making us anxious, miserable and, most crucially, highly individualistic. I’ve always been skeptical about this dominant idea that we — and only we – get to be the authors of our own lives. This message is everywhere, but rarely does it feel true. How much choice, really, do we have over the way our lives unfold? Sure, I can see that it is empowering to believe that we get to choose, in some ways, the direction our lives take. The other side of the coin, though, is less pretty: when that choice doesn’t pan out the way we thought it would, we blame ourselves and only ourselves; life going in some way wrong is always our own fault. I also believe that this line of thinking — that it is all down to us — demonises poverty, addiction and mental health, as if suffering were a choice we make, ignoring the almost inescapable constraints many people are held down by. If you really think about it, this idea that we get to choose it all shapes almost every aspect of our society. Think, for example, of the way some cultures see the role of the state in people’s lives; some nation states understand that failure is not entirely your fault, and are there to support you when you fail. Other, more intensely neoliberal and capitalist societies, run on the idea that  if you make it, then good for you. You owe no one anything. But if you fail, well, that’s down to you, too, and good luck with that. I think the health of a society depends largely on where it stands on this question of choice and the extent to which we wield control over it. What do you think?

2. Now for a book I was surprised to have chosen to read: Small Fry, by Steve Jobs’s first born, Lisa Brennan-Jobs. I was actually quite reluctant to pick this one up. Cynically, I thought it would be easy for the daughter of a celebrity to write a terrible book about how difficult it is to have a famous father. But then I heard it reviewed on the New York Times Book Review podcast and moved it to the very tippity-top of my reading pile. How wrong I was in my initial, cynical judgement. Lisa Brennan-Jobs is a writer with a capital W and this book, her first, is no small literary feat; it is a gorgeous, precise, restrained and artfully sculpted coming-of-age story about what it is like to love and be loved by complex, imperfect people. Coming-of-age memoirs, I feel, often struggle with the unsentimental portrayal of that central yearning that runs through all life stories: the longing to be wanted, to have a place. Even though this book is extraordinary in every way, it is here, in the description of our desperation to belong, that it most movingly excels.

3. RIP Mary Oliver. I love her words in this conversation with On Being’s Krista Tippett. And I fell in love with this poem, The Journey, many years ago while travelling around Ireland:

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

4. So much of this piece on millennial burn out rang true. And the book she mentions, “Kids These Days” by Malcom Harris, looks like an excellent read.

5. My efforts to minimise my digital life and spend less time in front of my smartphone are a result of coming across Cal Newport’s compelling arguments for taking yourself off social media. I have, without much trauma, closed my Facebook account, removed all news apps from my phone, and installed a content blocker that dumbs down your phone for up to twenty-four hours at a time. Newport first made his argument in this controversial op-ed in The New York Times (Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend On It.) and his book, “Deep Work,” is an irresistible, highly informative and convincing argument to go without social media: your attention should be directed only towards things that are rare and valuable. The information and propaganda you get from Instagram or Facebook is low-value, and constantly engaging with it leaves you on the shallow end of an issue, keeping you from doing the “deep work” that our capitalist economy considers valuable. In his new book, Digital Minimalism, Newport takes his argument further and asks the reader to pare back on all things digital, and then slowly re-introduce only the digital pursuits that help you live in in line with your values. Newport’s two interviews with the wonderful Ezra Klein are both excellent and very clearly explain his outlook (click here for the one on “Deep Work,” and here for the one on “Digital Minimalism.”) Oh, and, his recent piece on why Steve Jobs would disapprove of the way we use our iPhones is pretty good.

6. Because we are on the topic of choice and attention, I thought this piece on how to pay better attention was wonderful. I might spot all things the colour red on my next walk to work.

7. February is the month when we all give up our new year’s resolutions, right? I certainly have. Apparently, that’s fine: acceptance of your own mediocrity is the way forward. Personally, I love Freud’s approach: our goal in self-development should not be happiness, but rather the replacement of hysterical misery with “ordinary unhappiness.” All I want is ordinary unhappiness from now on.

8. In the spring of 1986, a disastrous fire ravaged the Los Angeles Public Library; the flames reached 2,000 degrees, burned for over seven hours, and devoured four hundred thousand books (damaging seven hundred thousand more). In “The Library Book,” New Yorker writer and novelist Susan Orlean chronicles the fire and its aftermath to prove the essential role that libraries play in society; how they provide much more than books, and, in some ways, are barometers for the civic health of a society. I was taken with this book from beginning to end, less for its true crime element and more for its grace in its descriptions of how a good library can live and give life:

“In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived.”

9. Derry Girls, on Netflix, is bloody fantastic. And, I dare say, an excellent companion for anyone in the midst of reading the extraordinary but exhausting 2018 Man Booker Prize Winner, Milkman.

10. To finish (I might make this a thing), a quote I randomly picked out of my “commonplace book”:

Someone has given my daughter a doctor’s kit. Carefully, she takes her own temperature, places the pressure cuff around her arm. Then she takes the cuff off and examines it. ‘Would you like to be a doctor when you grow up?’ I ask her. She looks at me oddly. ‘I’m already a doctor.'”

– from the extraordinary novel “Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

The Book of Emma Reyes by Emma Reyes

“A child of 5 who leads a normal life wouldn’t be able to recount his childhood with this level of accuracy. But we, Helena and I, remember it as if it were today, and I can’t explain why.”

Emma Reyes was abandoned by her mother; left, as a six or seven year old, in the Colombian countryside. She grew up in a Bogota convent, where she worked long, arduous days under the cruel oversight of Catholic nuns. After her escape from the convent in her late teens, Emma made her way to Argentina. From there, she travelled to Paraguay, Uruguay, the United States, Mexico, Italy, and Israel. She won a scholarship to study painting in Paris; she paid her way to the French capital by offering to paint the ship as it sailed. In Paris, she became part of the cultural elite, befriending Frida Kahlo, Diego Riviera, Jean-Paul Sartre, and many others. When a friend, the critic and historian Germán Arciniegas, suggested to her that she write her remarkable life story, she refused; instead, she wrote him letters. He was so impressed with them, the story goes, that he shared them with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who called Emma, encouraging her to keep writing. This breach of confidence infuriated Emma, who didn’t write him another letter for more than two decades. This book is a collection of Emma’s letters – 23 of them – in which she describes her childhood (a childhood that would have broken most) with a childlike and poetically dispassionate tone that is simply astonishing. It’s the unlikelihood of this book that truly moves me; without any formal education – Emma only learned how to read and write in her late teens – she managed to give us a stunning work of art. If only she had written more.

Reading ourselves awake

Image via Unsplash/Karim Ghantous

 

When I was 15 years old, my family moved from Venezuela to the United States, where I was immediately thrown into the American school system. I started my sophomore year in high school with passable English, spent a few months as an ESOL student, and struggled through the Harry Potter series. In the middle of the 10th grade, my English teacher assigned the most important task of the course: an analytical paper on a classic novel of our choice. Not knowing what constituted a “classic,” I Googled it. The first result was Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I had all my winter break to read it.

Armed with an English-to-Spanish dictionary, I started reading. The endeavour lasted two months, but I fell deeply, irrevocably in love with Jane. And while my rather limited command of the English language slowed my progress, and surely left much meaning in the novel uncovered, I could deeply relate to the novel’s namesake: her childhood, her love for Edward Rochester, and above all her struggle to develop both her moral and spiritual sensibilities. I found the inconsistency in Jane’s ideas and observations—her constant back and forth—strangely comforting. I was insecure, perennially unsure what to make of the world and my place within it. Suddenly, I was understood.

It was through this imposed reading of Jane Eyre that I began to see how literature can both live and give life. Books were not a form of escape, but rather a way through which I could plunge deeper into a human experience I was struggling to participate in and understand. I needed reading to do something of consequence to my soul.

Franz Kafka expressed a similar sentiment in a moving letter to a childhood friend:

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? …A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.”

It’s in this way—books as axes that pick at our unconscious ways of being—that I think reading can be most powerful. Stepping into worlds of make-believe can awaken us from the deadening effects of habit. Reading can help us notice aspects of our internal and external experiences that the humdrum routine of life has silenced or numbed, like melancholy, frustration or disappointment in love. When we see these dimensions in somebody else, we awaken to them within ourselves.

Marcel Proust, known to have been a gluttonous reader, wrote:

“Reading is at the threshold of our inner life; it can lead us into that life but cannot constitute it. What is needed, therefore, is an intervention that occurs deep within ourselves while coming from someone else, the impulse of another mind that we receive in the bosom of solitude.”

My own hope is that through reading we can enkindle both curiosity and compassion for the inner workings of our being, as Proust suggests. As humans, we are wired to feel utterly alone in our experiences of inner turmoil. I suppose it is because of this loneliness that we often attempt to elude inner pain and discomfort. A book though, acting as a mirror to our inner workings, can foil our caper. I often find myself bewildered when another mind stirs me into awareness, sharpening into focus what I am thinking and feeling with such accuracy that it shrinks my common experience of loneliness and freakishness. Writers simultaneously connect us with our own uniqueness and help us feel like normal human beings trying, and often floundering, to capture meaning when it is most elusive.

A few years ago, I began to keep a “commonplace book,” a vault of the observations and ideas that you collect throughout your life of reading, thinking and listening. Michel de Montaigne, Marcus Aurelius, Lewis Carroll, HL Mencken and many others kept one. There are several versions of this practice today—mine is notecard based. Soon after I finish a book, I copy, on a notecard, whichever bits I want to revisit in the future. I then file the notecard thematically (love, loss, grief, friendship etc.) in a massive box.

The point of the exercise is to retrieve the notecards at appropriate times later in life, like when you lose someone you love, split up, lose your job or any of the other countless human travails we experience. It’s an emotional toolbox that serves as a lifeline for the times that test us, and as a never-ending, unbreakable connection to the wondrous and immortal life of books.

When I became a mother, I began to obsess about sudden personal catastrophe. The frighteningly labile, fragile nature of life. As soon as my son was born, I nursed the painful idea of losing him. And I felt the loss as if it was real: during my first few months as a mother, I was blown apart. This imagined loss arrived imbued with an unendurable story: that if anything was to ever happen to my child, it would be personal. That it would happen to him because he was mine. Because it was me. Somewhere along the way, I’d held onto the story that tragedy is individualised, not random, and that it is dictated by an intangible force over which I wielded no control. This story altered the nature of the imagined experience, transforming it from an uncomfortable ‘could be’ to an overpowering tale that left me frozen on my own planet of imagined grief while the universe continued in ceaseless motion.

I turned to my commonplace book. While leafing through the notecards, I found a phrase I had read, re-written and filed:

“No eye was on the sparrow. No eye was watching me.”

I came across this phrase within the pages of The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s memoir recounting the year following the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. In the bit of the book where this quotation comes from, Didion rejects the famous hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” which extolls that a higher being is closely observing each and every living thing on the planet, even a bird as tiny as a sparrow.

Her form of belief is geological, not religious: human beings, she proposes, are as vulnerable to tragedy as the blue orb we live on. “I found earthquakes, even when I was in them, deeply satisfying,” she writes, “abruptly revealed evidence of the scheme in action.” Natural disasters attest to the randomness of tragedy. Misfortune is not about you, it is not preordained because you felt yourself not good enough. It is indiscriminate in the way a devastating earthquake is. The pain is therefore transformed, if not in degree then in kind: the terrifying possibility of losing your child would not be your fault. This story, I feel, is one I can better live with.

We can connect with books on a spiritual, scholarly, moral and emotional level. Some books never become irrelevant because they change as we change. They have this magical ability to metamorphose into what we need at just about every stage of our lives. In some way or another, they are always us and we are always them.


I originally wrote this piece for Dumbo Feather Magazine

My Desert Island Library

Illustration by Jane Mount, from Ideal Bookshelf https://www.idealbookshelf.com/

 

Cast ashore on the proverbial desert island, I’d for sure need a bookshelf. These are the books I can read and re-read over and over again (in no particular order):

Stoner by John Williams

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

M Train by Patti Smith

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh by Vincent Van Gogh

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

The Walk by Robert Walser

The Complete Stories of Vladimir Nabokov by Vladimir Nabokov

The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor by Flannery O’Connor

Dubliners by James Joyce

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Speedboat by Renata Adler

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Complete Stories by Franz Kafka

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

(Subject to change, always).

 

Zadie Smith on the distinction between pleasure and joy

zadieportrait
Credit: Esra Roise, http://www.esraroise.com/news/2013/4/29/vinduet-zadie-smith/

 

I adore this essay. Here, Zadie Smith sublimely – and funnily – describes the subtle difference between pleasure and joy. Pleasure, she writes, is relatively easy to find, instant, and replicable. For Smith, a pleasurable experience is embodied in a pineapple popsicle from a stand on Washington Square, or the ecstasy she experiences people watching on the streets of New York City. Joy, on the other hand, is a more tangled experience in which, Smith says, one can find no pleasure at all, but still need in order to live. To make the point, she writes of her experience in having a child:

“Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognise as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily.”

Joy is something you can lose and never regain (consider, as Smith does at the end of the essay, the loss of a partner or a child). It is painful, vulnerable and more often than not completely lacking in pleasure.

My Shakespeare by Kate Tempest

A stunning (as always) poem by Kate Tempest. Words below:

He’s in every lover who ever stood alone beneath a window,

In every jealous whispered word,
in every ghost that will not rest.
He’s in every father with a favourite,
Every eye that stops to linger
On what someone else has got, and feels the tightening in their chest.

He’s in every young man growing boastful,
Every worn out elder, drunk all day;
muttering false prophecies and squandering their lot.
He’s there – in every mix-up that spirals far out of control – and never seems to end, even when its beginnings are forgot.

He’s in every girl who ever used her wits. Who ever did her best.
In every vain admirer,
Every passionate, ambitious social climber,
And in every misheard word that ever led to tempers fraying,
Every pawn that moves exactly as the player wants it to,
And still remains convinced that it’s not playing.

He’s in every star crossed lover, in every thought that ever set your teeth on edge, in every breathless hero, stepping closer to the ledge, his is the method in our madness, as pure as the driven snow – his is the hair standing on end, he saw that all that glittered was not gold. He knew we hadn’t slept a wink, and that our hearts were upon our sleeves, and that the beast with two backs had us all upon our knees as we fought fire with fire, he knew that too much of a good thing, can leave you up in arms, the pen is mightier than the sword, still his words seem to sing our names as they strike, and his is the milk of human kindness, warm enough to break the ice – his, the green eyed monster, in a pickle, still, discretion is the better part of valour, his letters with their arms around each others sholuders, swagger towards the ends of their sentences, pleased with what they’ve done, his words are the setting for our stories – he has become a poet who poetics have embedded themselves deep within the fabric of our language, he’s in our mouths, his words have tangled round our own and given rise to expressions so effective in expressing how we feel, we cant imagine how we’d feel without them.

See – he’s less the tights and garters – more the sons demanding answers from the absence of their fathers.
The hot darkness of your last embrace.
He’s in the laughter of the night before, the tightened jaw of the morning after,
He’s in us. Part and parcel of our Royals and our rascals.
He’s more than something taught in classrooms, in language that’s hard to understand,
he’s more than a feeling of inadequacy when we sit for our exams,
He’s in every wise woman, every pitiful villain,
Every great king, every sore loser, every fake tear,
His legacy exists in the life that lives in everything he’s written,
And me, I see him everywhere, he’s my Shakespeare.

Zadie Smith’s golden rules for writers.

1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.

2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.

3. Don’t romanticise your “vocation.” You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no “writer’s lifestyle.”All that matters is what you leave on the page.

4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.

5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.

6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.

7. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.

8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.

9. Don’t confuse honours with achievement.

10. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

From The Guardian’s Zadie Smith’s rules for writers. I also love the stunning, unforgettable talk she gave on the first story she ever told.

David Foster Wallace’s creative nonfiction syllabus

David Foster Wallace world copyright Giovanni Giovannetti/effigie

 

Just because I’m on a David Foster Wallace trip (the best kind), here’s the syllabus he gave out to his creative nonfiction students at Pomona College in Spring 2008. Found in the beautiful treasure trove that is The David Foster Wallace Reader.

Love this bit in particular:

“This creative goal, broadly stated, may be to interest readers, or to instruct them, or to entertain them, to move or persuade, to edify, to redeem, to amuse, to get readers to look more closely at or think more deeply about something that’s worth their attention. . . or some combination(s) of these. Creative also suggests that this kind of nonfiction tends to bear traces of its own artificing; the essay’s author usually wants us to see and understand her as the text’s maker. This does not, however, mean that an essayist’s main goal is simply to “share” or “express herself” or whatever feel-good term you might have got taught in high school. In the grown-up world, creative nonfiction is not expressive writing but rather communicative writing.”

Pomona College
English 183D Spring, 2008

Logistics

Wednesdays, 7:00–10:00, Crookshank 207
Inst: David Wallace
Inst. Office, Phone, and Email: Crookshank 101, 607-8357, ocapmycap@ca.rr.com
Inst. Office Hours: Wed., 6:00–7:00, Th., 3:00–4:00, and by appointment.

Description of Class

English 183D is a workshop course in creative nonfiction, which term denotes a broad category of prose works such as personal essays and memoirs, profiles, nature and travel writing, narrative essays, observational or descriptive essays, general-interest technical writing, argumentative or idea-based essays, general-interest criticism, literary journalism, and so on. The term’s constituent words suggest a conceptual axis on which these sorts of prose works lie. As nonfiction, the works are connected to actual states of affairs in the world, are “true” to some reliable extent. If, for example, a certain event is alleged to have occurred, it must really have occurred; if a proposition is asserted, the reader expects some proof of (or argument for) its accuracy. At the same time, the adjective creative signifies that some goal(s) other than sheer truthfulness motivates the writer and informs her work. This creative goal, broadly stated, may be to interest readers, or to instruct them, or to entertain them, to move or persuade, to edify, to redeem, to amuse, to get readers to look more closely at or think more deeply about something that’s worth their attention. . . or some combination(s) of these. Creative also suggests that this kind of nonfiction tends to bear traces of its own artificing; the essay’s author usually wants us to see and understand her as the text’s maker. This does not, however, mean that an essayist’s main goal is simply to “share” or “express herself” or whatever feel-good term you might have got taught in high school. In the grown-up world, creative nonfiction is not expressive writing but rather communicative writing. And an axiom of communicative writing is that the reader does not automatically care about you (the writer), nor does she find you fascinating as a person, nor does she feel a deep natural interest in the same things that interest you. The reader, in fact, will feel about you, your subject, and your essay only what your written words themselves induce her to feel. An advantage of the workshop format is that it will allow you to hear what twelve reasonably intelligent adults have been induced to think and feel about each essay you write for the course.

Expenses

There are no required textbooks 1 and I will provide free Xeroxes of all outside readings. You will, however, be responsible for making [12] high-quality, single-sided copies of each essay you distribute for workshop discussion. I may also ask some students to produce [12] copies of some other document or exercise.

Total Writing Workload for Class

(1) Let’s say 24-39 pages of finished, high-quality nonfiction.

(2) A one-to-three-page letter of response to each one of your colleagues’ essays — figure 30-35 letters total.

(3) A couple letters of response, for practice, on selected published essays.

(4) Additional individual exercises, rewrites, or other work assigned at your instructor’s discretion.

Class Rules & Procedures

(1) For obvious reasons, you’re required to attend every class. An absence will be excused only under extraordinary circumstances. Having more than one excused absence, and any unexcused ones at all, will result in a lowered final grade. After the first two weeks, chronic or flagrant tardiness will count as an unexcused absence.

(2) All assigned work needs to be totally completed by the time class starts.

(3) All the essays that you turn in must be written specifically for this course. You may not submit any work that was substantively begun before 15 January 2008.

(4) You need to have a special pocket-folder that’s just for English 183D. This folder will function as your class portfolio, which must contain copies of all assigned work for the course (see (9) and (10) below). Please bring your portfolio to each class; and please put your name, the date, and some kind of rudimentary header on each piece of work therein.

(5) English 183D is to be a safe and serious critical venue. You should treat each peer’s essay-drafts as confidential documents. No one outside this class gets to read them or know anything about them — not roommates, not mutual friends, not distant email buddies. If you discuss peers’ essays with each other outside class, you must do so in a maximally private and respectful way.

(6) With a cap of twelve enrolled students, there is room in our workshop schedule for everyone to have three separate slots, and for each class meeting to comprise discussions of three different essays. This is a good number. Occasionally, though, a student will want to submit more than three pieces, or maybe two longer essays rather than three medium ones, etc. This is not impossible, but it makes for tricky scheduling — you need to confer with me individually (and soon) if you wish to submit something other than the normal three pieces.

(7) Once you sign up for a certain slot in the workshop rotation, that slot is yours. You can change or trade only with the whole class’s permission. So please choose with care. We will fill out the first portion of the workshop schedule tonight and the remainder on 2 February.

(8) All workshop essays are to be distributed the week before the class in which they’re to be discussed. There are two options here. Let’s say you sign up to have an essay workshopped on Wed., 12 March. Either you can bring [12] copies to class for distribution on Wed., 5 March, or you can place the copies in the special E183D box outside my office door by 4:00 p.m. on Thurs., 6 March. But 4:00 p.m. on the Thursday before your assigned slot is the deadline. Don’t be late. There are no “extensions” in workshop-type classes; your deadlines are obligations to [12] other adults. Finish editing and revising far enough ahead of time that you can accommodate computer or printer snafus.

(9) This class operates on the belief that you’ll improve as a writer not just by writing a lot and receiving detailed criticism but also by becoming a more sophisticated and articulate critic of other writers’ work. You are thus required to read each of your colleagues’ essays at least twice, making helpful and specific comments on the manuscript copy wherever appropriate. 2 You will then compose a one-to-three-page letter to the essay’s author, communicating your sense of the draft’s strengths and weaknesses and making clear, specific suggestions for revision. At the top of each letter, please put your name, the author’s name, the essay’s title, and the date. Make a hard copy of each and every letter of response you write. Staple the original letter to your marked-up copy of the essay, so that at discussion’s end they can all be returned to the author for private perusal. Place the copy of your letter in your class portfolio.

“All the writing blocks one goes through—the dizzy fits, the nauseas, and so on and so forth, which almost every writer has recorded—are a standard pattern for all kinds of creative things. They are simply forms of egotism.”

Lawrence Durrel

via Paris Review