Rebecca Solnit on Our Responsibility to Call Things By Their True Names

 

rebecca solnit #3

Language is a distinctly human ability; our language is made up of words— not growls and grunts.  But though our capacity to communicate is what separates us from beasts, we rarely stop to marvel.  We can write!  We can talk!  We utter hundreds, if not thousands, of words a day, most often to relay the humdrum information of the mundane: the frivolous pleasantries of superficial small talk, the obligatory “hello, how are you?” in the grocery store check out.  We’re careless with our words, only approximating— rather than exactly— expressing our thoughts.  We allow words to slip from our mouths, forgetting they have a current of implied meanings and historical connotations that surge beneath the surface of their definitions in Merriam Webster.  We use offensive, derogatory language to revolt against political correctness, thinking we’re provocative defenders of free speech when we’re really just insensitive morons. 

Throughout history, those in power have intentionally manipulated language to conceal, rather than reveal, truth.  The ruling class weaponizes words to pit the marginalized against each other.  Political parties mobilize hate speech to advance their agendas and dehumanize entire groups.  Tragically, in our 1984 dystopia of “alternative facts,” language continues to be abused.

Though we take words for granted, nothing is more powerful.  “I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word,” Emily Dickinson once wrote.  Indeed, the Bible attests, “In the beginning was the Word.”  Words catch the elusive and inexpressible.  When we take care to choose words that precisely convey our meaning, we can articulate what was once inarticulable.  Before anything can exist in the physical, material plane, it must first exist as an idea.  The theory of relativity, the notion of civil disobedience, the foundational democratic belief that “all men are created equal”: all began as ideas.  They only revolutionized our lives once they were expressed in words.  Language is the vehicle through which we can transport our innermost thoughts; it’s how we spread ideas.  Words launch movements and ignite revolutions, overthrow oppressive governments and spark meaningful discourse.  In other words, they remake the world.

Because we’ve been bestowed with the miraculous gift of language, we must be responsible with our words.  This pressing responsibility is what Rebecca Solnit explores in her paradigm-shifting essay collection Call Them By Their True Names.  A catalog of our era’s most urgent catastrophes and crises, Call Them By Their True Names is wide-ranging, covering topics as diverse as the impotence of anger, the remarkable ability of ordinary people to redirect the course of history, and the responsibility of journalists to challenge the status quo and rewrite the world’s broken stories.  As the title suggests, Ms. Solnit’s latest collection is a passionate plea to name things precisely.  Our ancestors knew there was tremendous power in naming things as they are.  As Solnit says, it’s only after we diagnose a disease that we can find a cure:

“One of the folktale archetypes, according to the Aarne-Thompson classification of these stories, tells of how ‘a mysterious or threatening helper is defeated when the hero or heroine discovers his name.’  In the deep past, people knew names had power.  Some still do.  Calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness.  It’s not all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step.

When the subject is grim, I think of the act of naming as diagnosis.  Though not all diagnosed diseases are curable, once you know what you’re facing, you’re far better equipped to know what you can do about it.  Research, support, and effective treatment, as well as possibly redefining the disease and what it means, can proceed from this first step.  Once you name a disorder, you may be able to connect to the community afflicted with it, or build one.  And sometimes what’s diagnosed can be cured.”

It’s crucial that we call things by their true names because language determines our reality.  When we say “a woman was raped” instead of “a man raped a woman,” the passive construction essentially erases him from the equation and absolves the perpetrator of responsibility.  The result?  Because passive voice transforms the grammatical object (the woman) into the subject, we begin to view rape as a “women’s issue.”  In our discussions of sexual assault, we focus on the victim (“She shouldn’t have drank so much…”/”She shouldn’t have been walking down a dark alleyway alone…”) instead of the perpetrator.  Rather than teach men to treat women with dignity and respect, we teach women it’s their responsibility to protect themselves against men’s violence.  Ultimately, how we discuss rape dictates how we understand it.  Or, as British philosopher Alain de Botton so astutely observed, “how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.” 

At the heart of Call Them By Their True Names is the assertion that words can either clarify or mystify, inform or mislead.  They can liberate or oppress, promote tolerance and understanding or spread hate.  In the end, we can only fix what we acknowledge is broken.  When we call things by their true names, we can see the world as it is— and begin to change.  

Rebecca Solnit on Hope, Hindsight & How Our Choices Can Redirect the Course of History

rebecca solnit #2What is hope?  In 1861, Emily Dickinson composed the most enduring definition: hope is the “thing with feathers that perches in the soul.”  Over a century and a half later, Anne Lamott wrote hope was the belief that even in the desert you could still find “life, wildflowers, fossils, sources of water.”  For poet of politics Rebecca Solnit, hope exists at the crossroads of “might” and “might not.”  We might repair our broken republic; we might eliminate small-mindedness and bigotry; we might recover our lost democratic ideals.  However, hope is pragmatic enough to know possibilities are not certainties.  Though we might break the oppressive silence surrounding sexual assault, though we might pass stricter gun control laws and finally put a stop to senseless mass shootings, we might not.  Whether or not we do depends on us. 

Our ability to redirect the course of history is what Solnit explores in her consciousness-raising 2018 essay collection Call Them By Their True Names.  A catalog of our era’s most urgent catastrophes and crises, Call Them By Their True Names is wide-ranging, covering topics as diverse as the impotence of anger, the importance of using language to preserve truth rather than disseminate fabrications and falsehoods, and the responsibility of journalists to challenge the status quo and rewrite the world’s broken stories.  Though today -isms threaten to topple our very democracy, Solnit never resigns to despair.  Despite Donald Trump and the alt right, despite fake news and distorted facts, despite melting ice caps and the impending threat of global warming, Solnit remains hopeful; indeed, hope is the bedrock of all her writing.

In one of the collection’s most beautifully buoyant essays, “In Praise of Indirect Consequences,” Solnit asserts hope implies responsibility.  Unlike optimism, which believes humanity will undoubtedly have a happy ending, or cynicism, which maintains we’re doomed, hope says the future will be determined by what we do (or don’t do):

“Optimism assumes that all will go well without our effort; pessimism assumes it’s all irredeemable; both let us stay home and do nothing.  Hope for me has meant a sense that the future is unpredictable, and that we don’t actually know what will happen, but know we may be able to write it ourselves.

Hope is a belief that what we do might matter, an understanding that the future is not yet written.  It’s an informed, astute open-mindedness about what can happen and what role we might play in it.  Hope looks forward but draws its energies from the past, from knowing histories, including our victories, and their complexities and imperfections.  It means not fetishizing the perfect that is the enemy of the good, not snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, not assuming you know what will happen when the future is unwritten, and part of what happens is up to us.”

In our near-sighted age, it’s difficult to magnify the telescope of our perspective and clearly see into the distance.  Big businesses pollute our skies and poison our oceans because they consider short-term profit rather than long-term environmental consequences.  Wall Street bankers exploit others to afford the excesses of a lavish lifestyle: extravagant parties, flashy Ferraris, luxurious multi-million dollar penthouses— they think nothing of how their reckless decisions will affect the economy down the road.  But our choices in the present— from the most significant to the smallest, most seemingly inconsequential— will be felt for years to come.  A flap of a butterfly’s wings can set off a tsunami halfway across the world. 

History belongs not just to monumental events and larger-than-life public personas but to commonplace moments and ordinary people.  As Leo Tolstoy once said, history is shaped by “an infinitely large number of infinitesimally small actions.”  The lyrical Ms. Solnit agrees: the little things we do today can reverberate for centuries.  Even when a political campaign or social movement appears to be a “failure” from the limited perspective of our particular moment in human history, it may be a triumph in the grander scheme of things.  For example, though British suffragettes didn’t win the right to vote until 1928, their early activism would go on to inspire Gandhi who, of course, would go on to inspire Martin Luther King.  His philosophy of non-violence would later influence activists in South Africa and protestors in the Arab Spring: 

 Ideas are contagious, emotions are contagious, hope is contagious, courage is contagious.  When we embody those qualities, or their opposites, we convey them to others.  That is to say, British suffragists, who won limited access to the vote for women in 1918 and full access in 1928, played a part in inspiring an Indian man who, twenty years later, led the liberation of the Asian subcontinent from British rule.  He, in turn, inspired a Black man in the American South to study his ideas and their application.  After a 1959 pilgrimage to India to meet with Gandhi’s heirs, Martin Luther King wrote, ‘While the Montgomery boycott was going on, India’s Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.  We spoke of him often.’  Those techniques, further developed by the civil rights movement, were taken up around the world, including in the struggle against apartheid, at one end of the African continent, and in the Arab Spring, at the other.”

Solnit concludes by citing great French philosopher and social theorist Michael Foucault: “People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does,” he wrote.  Using the lovely metaphor of a tree, Solnit suggests the seeds of our actions can take root and blossom in miraculous, unexpected ways:

“You do what you can.  What you’ve done may do more than you can imagine for generations to come.  You plant a seed and a tree grows from it; will there be fruit, shade, habitat for birds, more seeds, a forest, wood to build a cradle or a house?  You don’t know.  A tree can live much longer than you.  So will an idea, and sometimes the changes that result from accepting that new idea about what is true, or right, just might remake the world.  You do what you can do; you do your best; what what you do does is not up to you.”

How many of us have turned on the news and felt like we lived in a doomsday dystopia of racism and misogyny?  of discord and division?  of mistrust and acrimony?  We live in an age of white supremacy and anti-immigrant hysteria, police brutality and mass shootings.  Yet Solnit insists we can still shift the tides of history.  Call Them By Their True Names should be required reading for anyone concerned about the state of American democracy. 

Anne Lamott on How to Find a Wellspring of Hope in a Desperate Desert of Despair

anne lamott

Pain is an inescapable fact of life: for every moment of ecstasy, there is misery; for every intoxicating love, there is sobering heartbreak; for every pronouncement of undying devotion, there is betrayal.  Inevitably, to live is to die, to love is to lose.  The question isn’t if we’ll suffer, but rather when we will.

How do we bear this unavoidable truth of being alive?  How do we persist when our lover smashes our heart?  when we get a harrowing phone call from the hospital in the middle of the night?  when calamity and catastrophe split our lives into two distinct eras: “before” and “after”?  How do we find the resiliency of spirit to keep on keeping on?  How do we resist the temptation to simply throw our hands up in defeat and say “I give up”?

How we find a flickering light of hope amidst the impenetrable darkness of despair is what Anne Lamott ponders in Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace.  Much like Emily Dickinson, Lamott believes “hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.”  But she also knows there are times when tragedy unexpectedly wreaks havoc on our lives, when our delicate bird of hope— the skittish thing— escapes the security of its cage and flutters out the window.  At its heart, Small Victories suggests the only way to recover hope in times of overwhelming despair is by starting small: by taking life one day, one hour, at a time, by practicing compassion and forgiveness (especially toward ourselves), by doing something kind for someone else.

In “Ham from God,” Lamott writes in her trademark style of down-to-earth wit and wisdom hard-won.  The year is 2003: the paranoid Bush era of weapons of mass destruction and preemptive self-defense.  Lamott recalls that on her 49th birthday she decided things were hopeless.  Terrorists crashed into the Twin Towers, presidents invaded helpless foreign nations without just cause, teenagers graffitied swastikas on park benches and bathroom stalls.  “How are we going to get through this craziness?” she asks her priest friend Tom.  To which he replies:

“Left foot, right foot, left foot, breathe.”

 Since Biblical times, the wilderness, or desert, has evoked feelings of abandonment, desolation and despair.  As Sarah Ban Breathnach so gracefully notes, in the wilderness “you can wail and gnash your teeth all you want, but no one hears your heart tearing asunder except God, who presumably sent you there.”  Death, divorce: it is during these distressing times that we are broken to be made whole.  Like Moses, we have no choice but to endure— despite the scorching sun, despite the sands that seemingly stretch out forever, despite the lack of water.  With endearing humility and self-deprecating humor, Lamott confesses that— though Father Tom and some of her more “spiritual” friends have come to appreciate the tribulations of the desert— she’d rather learn life’s difficult lessons from the air-conditioned comfort of a car or luxury resort: 

“Father Tom loves the desert.  A number of my friends do.  They love the skies that pull you into infinity, like the ocean.  They love the silence, and how, if you listen long enough, the pulse of the desert, begins to sound like the noise your finger makes when you run it around the rim of a crystal glass.  They love the scary beauty— snakes, lizards, scorpions; kestrels and hawks.  They love the mosaics of water-washed pebbles on the desert floor, small rocks that cast huge shadows, a shoot of vegetation here, a wildflower there. 

I like the desert for short periods of time, from inside a car, with the windows rolled up and the doors locked.  I prefer beach resorts with room service.”

When God has seemed to forsake us in the desert, where do we even start?  For Lamott, the answer is small.  In much the same way we surmount writer’s block by breaking up daunting tasks into short assignments, we survive the wilderness by seeking shelter from the sweltering heat and searching for sources of water.  Or as her wise friend Tom reminds her:

“We start by being kind to ourselves.  We breathe, we eat…We take care of the suffering.”

After her conversation with Tom, Lamott prays for help.  When she goes to the grocery store shortly after, she’s surprised when she wins a free ham:

“I felt blindsided by the news.  I had asked for help, not a ham…I almost suggested that the checker award the ham to the next family that paid with food stamps.  But for some reason, I waited.  If God gave me a ham, I’d be crazy not to receive it.  Maybe it was the ham of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” 

As she lugs what she comes to think of as that “fucking ham” out the store, Lamott— in a moment of blissfully-timed serendipity— runs into an old friend who’s down on her luck and needs food.  “Do you and your kids like ham?” Lamott asks.  “We love it!” she replies.  As her friend drives away in tearful gratitude, her ham strapped into the passenger seat, Lamott realizes even in the driest desert rain eventually arrives: 

“Walking back to the car, I thought about the seasonal showers in the desert, how the potholes in the rocks fill up with rain.  When you look afterward, there are already frogs in the water and brine shrimp reproducing, like commas doing the macarena, and it seems, but only seems, that you went from parched to overflow in the blink of an eye.”

Like a reassuring conversation with a supportive, sympathetic friend, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace will cheer a discouraged heart and mend a dispirited soul.  For more from the eternally optimistic embracer of our human frailties Anne Lamott, read how friendship teaches us to be merciful and how to salvage your sanity in a nutty world

Maya Angelou’s Writing Routine & the Exquisite Torment of the Creative Life

maya angelou

All writers have their routines and rituals.  While working on what would be his first novel, Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller, for example, established a stringent daily schedule: in the mornings and afternoons, he’d write diligently; in the evenings—if tired— he’d make time for relaxation and visit friends, go to the cinema, or read a book in a cafe.  Graham Greene, like innumerable writers throughout literary history, required himself to write a certain number of words a day (his quota of five hundred words seems rather unambitious compared to Stephen King’s, who requires himself to write ten pages a day, even on holidays).  Haruki Murakami views physical exertion as an essential part of his creative process and rises at daybreak every morning so he can run before he sits at his desk for the day.  For him, the rhythmic, monotonous movement of putting one foot after another puts his rational conscious mind in a trance so his more powerful subconscious mind can synthesize ideas in new, exciting ways.

In her soulful Paris Review interview in Women Writers at Work, poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou reveals her personal routines.  Ms. Angelou comes from a long lineage of writers whose mundane daily routine takes on the consecrated status of ritual.  She regards a few things as absolutely essential: a bottle of sherry, from which she’ll perhaps sip in the morning and take a celebratory swig at night, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow writing pads, an ashtray, and a Bible.  When asked why she needed the Bible, she clarified:

“The language of all the interpretations, the translations, is musical, just wonderful, I read the Bible to myself; I’ll take any translation, any edition, and read it aloud, just to hear the language, hear the rhythm, and remind myself how beautiful English is.

[…]

I want to hear how English sounds; how Edna St. Vincent Millay heard English.  I want to hear it, so I read it aloud.  It is not so that I can imitate it.  It is to remind me what a glorious language it is.  Then I try to be particular, original.” 

“How do I become a better writer?” is the number one question of starry-eyed literary hopefuls.  No matter who you ask this perennial question— a novelist, an essayist, a poet, a playwright— the answer is the same: read.  “Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write,” Annie Proulx once said.  Colossus of modernism Virginia Woolf agreed: “Read a thousand books and your words will flow like a river.”  Stephen King put his tough love advice more bluntly: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.  Simple as that.”

Though we glorify writing as an inborn talent, writing is a skill, one that can be improved and refined.  How to construct compelling sentences with strong active verbs, how to spellbind our reader with the music of our language, how to convey our meaning through precise word choice: all can be learned through the devoted study of our favorite authors.  In much the same way Angelou learned to treasure the musical, poetic aspects of language by reading the Bible, we can learn how to play with words’ double meanings by reading Shakespeare or pace a story by reading a page-turning crime novel. 

I know that when I’m at my desk despairing that I have nothing to say, despising my every hideous sentence, my every careless turn-of-phrase, a good book can offer a powerful antidote.  If, the moment I feel uninspired, I feast on the sumptuous prose of Anais Nin or get intoxicated on the raw intensity of Sylvia Plath, I remember all the marvelous things language can do.  When I come across a perfect arrangement of words, a sentence where, as T.S. Eliot so elegantly said, every word has a “home,” I feel inspired to create striking sentences of my own.  Lesson?  Like Angelou, we should always keep a good book nearby to replenish and renew our soul.

Books inspire us not only to be better writers but better people.  When asked whether she read the Bible just to get inspired to write herself, Angelou added she read the holy scriptures:

“For content also.  I’m working at trying to be a Christian, and that’s serious business.  It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy: it’s serious business.  It’s not something where you think, Oh, I’ve got it done.  I did it all day, hot-diggety.  The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it, and then in the evening, if you’re honest and have a little courage, you look at yourself and say, Hmm.  I only blew it eighty-six times.  Not bad.  I’m trying to be a Christian, and the Bible helps me to remind myself what I’m about.” 

Other than her Bible and glass of sherry, Angelou required one thing: a room of her own.  Because creative work demands a sanctuary of silence and solitude, Ms. Angelou had an eccentric habit of renting a hotel room over the course of her decades-long career.  When asked how she began her writing day, she explained:

“I have kept a hotel room in every town I’ve ever lived in.  I rent a hotel room for a few months, leave my home at six, and try to be at work by six-thirty.  To write, I lie across the bed, so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses.  I never allow the hotel people to change the bed, because I never sleep there.  I stay until twelve-thirty or one-thirty in the afternoon, and then I go home and try to breathe; I look at the work around five; I have an orderly dinner—proper, quiet, lovely dinner; and then I go back to work the next morning.  Sometimes in hotels I’ll go into the room and there’ll be a note on the floor which says, Dear Miss Angelou, let us change the sheets.  We think they are moldy.  But I only allow them to come in and empty wastebaskets.  I insist that all things are taken off the walls.  I don’t want anything in there.  I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended.  Nothing holds me to anything.  No milkmaids, no flowers, nothing.  I just want to feel and then when I start to work I’ll remember.  I’ll read something, maybe the Psalms, maybe, again, something from Mr. Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson.  And I’ll remember how beautiful, how pliable the language is, how it will lend itself.  If you pull it, it says, OK.”  I remember that and I start to write.”

A firm believer that writing is work, Angelou described the long, arduous journey from an idea’s initial conception to its execution on the page:

“Nathaniel Hawthorne says, ‘Easy reading is damn hard writing.’  I try to pull the language in to such a sharpness that it jumps off the page.  It must look easy, but it takes me forever to get it to look so easy.  Of course, there are those critics—New York critics as a rule—who say, Well, Maya Angelou has a new book out and of course it’s good but then she’s a natural writer.  Those are the ones I want to grab by the throat and wrestle to the floor because it takes me forever to get it to sing.  I work at the language.  On an evening like this, looking out at the auditorium, if I had to write this evening from my point of view, I’d see the rust-red used worn velvet seats and the lightness where people’s backs have rubbed against the back of the seat so that it’s a light orange, then the beautiful colors of the people’s faces, the white, pink-white, beige-white, light beige and brown and tan—I would have to look at all that, at all those faces and the way they sit on top of their necks.  When I would end up writing after four hours or five hours in my room, it might sound like, It was a rat that sat on a mat.  That’s that.  Not a cat.  But I would continue to play with it and pull at it and say, I love you.  Come to me.  I love you.  It might take me two or three weeks just to describe what I’m seeing now.”

One of my favorite writers once said there’s a blissful obsessive-compulsive quality to creative work.  Those who endeavor to express themselves know this neurosis well.  “Should I rearrange this subordinate and independent clause?”  “Is this word too plain?  too conversational?    Should I opt for a more dignified word?”  To attempt to articulate ourselves is an exquisite form of torture.  In most things in life, it’s obvious when you’ve arrived at your goal: the mechanic knows his work is done once the engine ignites and the car propels itself forward; the carpenter, once the house can stand on its own.  But in writing, it’s hard to know.  Draft after draft, there always seems to be more we can do: an idea we can phrase more elegantly, a dull sentence we can polish further.  How do we know when the burnishing and beautifying, pruning and perfecting so essential to revision has crossed the line into helpless (not to mention unproductive) obsession?  How do we know when our work is ready to be released into the world?  To this enduring question Angelou replied:  

“I know when it’s the best I can do.  It may not be the best there is.  Another writer may do it much better.  But I know when it’s the best I can do.  I know that one of the great arts that the writer develops is the art of saying, “No. No, I’m finished. Bye.”  And leaving it alone.  I will not write it into the ground.  I will not write the life out of it.  I won’t do that.” 

For more brilliant conversations with our era’s finest writers, read Anne Sexton on how poetry helped her exorcise her demons and find a sense of purpose and Joyce Carol Oates on the myth of mood.

Anne Sexton’s Advice to Young Writers

anne sexton #2

“How can I become a writer?” renowned authors have been asked throughout the ages.  Ray Bradbury believed you had to be irrepressibly in love with your work, “If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling.  You must write every single day of your life.  You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next.  You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads.”  Henry Miller thought writing required strict schedules and single-minded commitment to your craft: “Write according to program and not according to mood!” he advised in his 11 commandments, a set of precepts meant to direct his conduct, If you can’t create, you can work.”  Henry James maintained a writer must be attentive and turn an unflinchingly eye to the world.  “Be someone on whom nothing is lost!”  he implored.

Anne Sexton added her own counsel to the storehouse of advice on the craft in her extraordinary Paris Review interview in Women Writers at Work, a compendium of conversations with leading literary lights as dazzling as Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou.  In response to the perennial question “What advice would you give to a young poet?”, Sexton offered the following beautifully-phrased guidelines:

1. be careful who your critics are

2.  be specific

3.  tell almost the whole story

4.  put your ear close down to your soul and listen hard

Writing as Salvation & Sustenance: Anne Sexton on How Poetry Helped Her Exorcise Her Demons & Gave Her A Sense of Purpose

anne-sexton-1.jpg

What causes suffering?  Gaston Bachelard believed the source of our first suffering “lies in the fact that we hesitate to speak…it is born in the moments when we accumulate silent things within us.”  Maya Angelou agreed.  “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story within you,” she once wrote.  To suppress the dark side of our psyches, to enshroud our childhood traumas in a thick cloud of denial, to hide from our heartbreaks and sorrows is to hinder our ability to heal.  Our stories, no matter how devastating or disturbing, demand to be told.  Unless they find a healthy outlet, a mode of expression such as art or painting or music, our demons will destroy us.

For Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton, poetry was a transformative way to process her trauma and transmute her pain into something useful.  In her altogether illuminating interview in The Paris Review Interviews: Women Writers at Work, she suggests writing can offer salvation to the seemingly irredeemable.  Creative expression, particularly writing, which requires we make sense of our experience and give voice to our innermost selves, is a release of pent-up emotions, what the ancient Greeks called “catharsis”— a psychological discharge through which we can achieve liberation from turmoil and a state of moral and spiritual renewal.  To Sexton, one of the founding poets of the confessional movement, the page was quite literally a confessional booth, a sacred place where she could speak the unspeakable: her near unendurable struggles with depression, her dysfunctional upbringing, her childhood abuse.

When asked why she didn’t begin writing until she was almost thirty, Sexton explained she wrote as a way to cope with her demons after she had a mental breakdown:

“Until I was twenty-eight I had a kind of buried self who didn’t know she could do anything but make white sauce and diaper babies.  I didn’t know I had any creative depths.  I was a victim of the American Dream, the bourgeois, middle-class dream.  All I wanted was a little piece of life, to be married, to have children.  I thought the nightmares, the visions, the demons would go away if there was enough love to put them down.  I was trying my damnedest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up, and it was what my husband wanted of me.  But one can’t build little white picket fences to keep nightmares out.  The surface cracked when I was about twenty-eight.  I had a psychotic break and tried to kill myself.”

Sexton suffered from what pioneering feminist Betty Friedan befittingly called the “problem that had no name”— a despairing but difficult-to-place existential angst that afflicted countless women in 1950s suburbia.  Stifled by her bland Wonder Bread existence as subservient, self-sacrificing housewife, Sexton became more and more unstable.  The tedious duties of domesticity— changing diapers, washing dishes, doing laundry— offered no solace to the troubled yet-to-be poet, who needed a goal to challenge her intellect and imbue her directionless life with a sense of purpose (As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, groundbreaking positive psychologist behind the theory of flow, once said, “Contrary to what we usually believe, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable…The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”)

After her harrowing descent into madness, Anne sought the advice of her psychiatrist, who recommended she find a “difficult, worthwhile activity” to occupy herself.  Her rich imagination and agile intellect, he believed, had no outlet in the home.  Writing soon became her salvation and sustenance, a reason to continue living despite her loathing of herself and the world:

“I said to my doctor at the beginning, ‘I’m no good; I can’t do anything; I’m dumb.’  He suggested I try educating myself by listening to Boston’s educational television station.  He said I had a perfectly good mind.  As a matter of fact, after he gave me a Rorschach test, he said I had creative talent that I wasn’t using.  I protested, but I followed his suggestion.  One night I saw A. Richards on educational television reading a sonnet and explaining its form.  I thought to myself, ‘I could do that, maybe; I could try.’  So I sat down and wrote a sonnet.  The next day I wrote another one, and so forth.  My doctor encouraged me to write more.  ‘Don’t kill yourself,’ he said.  ‘Your poems might mean something to someone else someday.’  That gave me a feeling of purpose, a little cause, something to do with my life, no matter how rotten I was.”

A treasure chest of compelling interviews from Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and Maya AngelouWomen Writers at Work supplies a rare behind-the-scenes look at the creative process of our era’s finest writers.  Whether you’re curious to learn how the most prolific writers seem to possess an inexhaustible spring of ideas or whether the most celebrated women of letters advocate keeping a journal, Women Writers at Work will inspire and engage you.

 

How to Make a Book a Friend, Not a Passing Guest

I’ve always been a reader.  My love affair with books began when my grandmother read to me from a tattered first edition of Aesop’s Fables.  Sunlight pouring through the windows of her high-ceilinged bedroom, fan turning lazily overhead, she read with the poised delivery of a professionally-trained actress, enunciating every syllable, her elocution, flawless.  She knew how to pause for effect, how to perform different character’s voices, a skill she had perfected over decades as a school teacher.  As her wrinkled hands delicately turned the soft pages, I leaned forward, desperate to find out what happened next.

My love for books continued into my later childhood years.  When I was ten, paradise was perusing the bookshelves of my local Borders.  “Go look around.  You can get whatever you want,” my dad said.  As he roamed the history section for books on World War II and Mt. Everest, the rich smell of roasted coffee beans drifting from Seattle’s Finest, I strolled through the chapter books: My Side of the Mountain, The Boxcar Children, The Babysitter’s Club.  By the time we made our way to the cash register, I had a stack of books as tall and precarious as the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Today I continue to devour books, fifty, sometimes one hundred a year.  But though I’m an avid reader, I sometimes worry I amass very little of what I read.  Yes, I have a voracious appetite for books; and yes, my conception of bliss is limitless hours in a library’s main stacks; and yes, I read widely but do I really absorb what I read?  Do the countless hours with a book and tea in hand actually enlarge my narrow mindmake me more empathetic?  Does reading enrich my life and mold me into a better person?  Or do I just consume books as mindlessly as others might gorge themselves on reality television?  Maybe, I shuddered, reading was simply an aimless way to pass the time, yet another form of superficial entertainment. 

How, I wondered, could I instill the act of reading with more significance?  how could I retain more of what I read? 

In her elegiac Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives, Jane Brox offers a solution, “divine reading”— a way of engaging with books borrowed from the monasteries of medieval times.  Rather than read passively without thinking or asking questions or read hurriedly for the sake of checking another book off their to-read list, monks were masters of divine reading, what Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren termed “critical reading” in their seminal How to Read a Book.  Like Adler and Doren, who believed what we get from books is directly proportional to the effort we put in, medieval monks asserted books had much to teach us if we were willing to actively engage with them.

According to Brox, at the beginning of Lent, monks who could read were assigned a single text to study throughout the year.  After studying their text, they’d reflect on what they read throughout the day: while plowing the fields, while peeling potatoes, while kneading bread.  Reading wasn’t merely the act of deciphering symbols as their eyes moved left to right across the page, limited to the few hours when they buried their heads between covers— it was pondering and puzzling, musing and mulling over what they read long afterwards.

Because he spent such vast quantities of time with so few books, the medieval monk’s relationship with what he read— to paraphrase William of St. Thierry— was an intimate bond between life-long friends instead of frivolous small-talk with a passing guest.  In medieval monasteries, a book was a cherished companion, someone you came to know well after passing many hours together.  Unlike an acquaintance who you only knew superficially (“So how are things?” you’d ask politely, never crossing the boundaries into true intimacy”), a book— like a close friend— was someone you felt comfortable asking the tough questions, the one person with whom you could drop all charade and pretense.

Though we usually imagine reading as a one-sided lecture in which the writer is speaker and the reader is listener (“Many people think that, as compared with writing and speaking, which are obviously active undertakings, reading and listening are entirely passive.  Reading and listening are thought of as receiving communication from someone who is actively engaged in giving or sending it,” Adler and Doren noted), reading is ideally a never-ending two-sided conversation.  Whether they challenge our long-held prejudices and preconceptions or inspire us to see a topic in a new way, books—as Franz Kafka once said— can be an axe for the frozen sea within.  But it is only when we read closely—deconstructing a text, analyzing a writer’s rhetorical, stylistic choices, reading between the lines, beneath what the text explicitly says to what it implies— that we can access the profound power of books to move us.  Otherwise, we’re just shifting our eyes left to right, ingesting information without digesting it, unquestioningly accepting an author’s ideas without formulating our own.  As Brox describes: 

“Several hours of each monastic day were given over to lectio divina— divine reading— but such reading wasn’t confined to the time spent bent to the pages.  It was expansive and ongoing, linked to all other activities of the monastery, to be contemplated while a monk or nun tended bees, hoed the garden…and then recalled again and again during the vast silence of the day.  Their reading worked its way into their prayers, their thoughts, their recollections.  ‘Some part of your daily reading should also each day be committed to memory,’ William of St. Thierry instructed the novices at Mont Dieu, ‘taken as it were into the stomach, to be more carefully digested and brought up again for frequent rumination.  He also counseled: ‘You will never enter into Paul’s meaning until by constant application you have imbibed his spirit.  You will never understand David until by experience you have made the very sentiments of the psalms your own.”

monastery

If we want to amass more of what we read, Brox asserts, we must remember reading is an active, not a passive, enterprise.  Just as students learn better when teachers relay information through different access points— a lecture, a visual, a Socratic seminar, a hands-on activity— readers retain more of what they read when reading involves other cognitive skills such as speaking and thinking:

And surely the slow pace of reading, as well as reading aloud, helped with memory, as did the continual engagement with only a few books.  But, most essentially for monastics, as Jean Leclercq explained, ‘to speak, to think, to remember are three necessary phases of the same activity.  To express what one is thinking and to repeat it enables one to imprint it on one’s mind…What results is a muscular memory of the words pronounced and an aural memory of the words heard…It is what inscribes, so to speak, the sacred text in the body and in the soul.'” 

Brox’s Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives makes an elegant case for the preservation of silence in a chatty world.  Not only are silence, stillness and solitude prerequisites to a contemplative life, they make it possible for books to become the marrow in our bones.  Only then can books transform us and how we view the world.