“It gives me such a sense of peace to draw; more than prayer, walks, anything. I can close myself completely in the line, lose myself in it,” wrote 24-year-old Sylvia Plath in a letter to her mother. She describes coming upon a bull in a field (at least, she thought they were bulls for “they seemed to have no utters”) and sitting down on a river bank to draw those cows—”my first cows.” Her drawings aren’t perfect or particularly noteworthy. But Sylvia Plath is one of those writers who I admire reflexively. When I was younger, before I knew better, I admired her for her tragedy, for her sadness and her bitter bleak world. Now, I admire her language. She writes with the same sparsity with which she draws: simple, bold, present.
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
― Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
If you don’t have chills after reading that, go ahead and read the whole book. I’ll wait here. (Shirley Jackson is my all-time favorite author. I wrote my college thesis on her—and Poe and Toni Morrison. It was about ghosts in American literature… I was/am/will always be a nerd.)
2. British sculptor Kate MccGwire makes wonderfully nasty and strangely beautiful art installations out of feathers. They’re textural and rich and oh-so-creepy. Plus, they all have fantastically horrifying names, like Secrete (top), Siren (second image) and Slick (below). Some of her other installation names include Purge, Gyre, Corvid and Specter. I love how her pieces feel both organic and naturally occurring, and utterly uncanny in the most Freudian sense. They’re a double gut-punch of pretty and creepy. See more here. Happy Halloween!
“How many of you know what’s important?”
Up went all the hands.
“Very good,” said Stuart, cocking one leg across the other and shoving his hands in the pockets of his jacket. “Henry Rackmeyer, you tell us what is important.”
“A shaft of sunlight at the end of a dark afternoon, a note in music, and the way the back of a baby’s neck smells if its mother keeps it tidy,” answered Henry.
“Correct,” said Stuart. “Those are the important things. You forgot one thing, though. Mary Bendix, what did Henry Rackmeyer forget?”
“He forgot ice cream with chocolate sauce on it,” said Mary quickly.
“Exactly,” said Stuart. “Ice cream is important.”
— Stuart Little, E.B. White
Calling something a “kid’s book” or “children’s literature” should be the highest compliment. After all, I don’t know anything that taught me so much about bravery and kindness as spending time with Lewis Carroll and E.B. White and Tamora Pierce and J.K. Rowling and Roald Dahl. Kid’s books are brilliant. And sometimes, kids are brilliant, like little Mary and Henry, who answered Stuart’s question just right.
Plus, it’s worth nothing that E.B. White had an awesome sense of humor in his everyday interactions, too. Just look at how he turned down a rather impressive offer from an earlier POTUS: Continue reading
If you, like me, get the Sunday night blues, here’s something that might get you excited for the work week: inspiring photos of artists at work! Photographer Jake Green spent the past year documenting children’s illustrators in their studios and the results are intimate, sharp, and cool. The above picture is of Katja Spitzer, a Berlin-based artist, drawing one of her colorful creatures. (If you’ve got little ones, take note: her book Let’s Go Outside is so cheerful and bright, I bet kiddos would love it.) I always enjoy seeing how creative types work, and Green’s photographs make me feel like I’m peering through the window, spying on their process (but in a nice, admiring, non-creepy way… is that possible?) Take a closer look here.
I’ve never understood why people visit the graves of famous people. I’m a very morbid person, yet this never struck me as something I wanted to do. However, I’d like to see Willa Cather’s grave, for as I recently learned, it holds a rather incredible message about happiness, life, and death. The line—”that is happiness, to be dissolved into something complete and great”—comes from her novel My Antonia. Here’s the full passage (found via Brain Pickings):
The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.
Although I love the entire passage, I think my favorite part might just be: “Nothing happened.” I’m such a speedy person—impatient to my core. I frequently describe my motions in fiery terms. I burn through my work and blaze through books. I light up and burn out. I consume the world with big steps and fast motions. You know what doesn’t come naturally to me? Slowing down. Letting nothing happen. Being quiet and calm. Sleep.
I often wish I were different, that I could dissolve more easily into a moment. But perhaps that will come with time. If not, I’ll just try to keep Cather’s words in mind. At the very least, it’s a lovely way to think about death—a self disbanded, a body dispersed, a part of something entire.
Image by Georgia O’Keeffe, since the theme of the day is badass ladies of the American west, apparently.
It’s no secret that I’m really an anxiety-flavored bag of blood that walks around on two large feet. I can’t help it—worrying is in my nature. It’s something that informs every major life decision, but probably holds more sway over the small stuff. It’s why I own so much bedding (so I can stay in bed all day, of course, and never see people) and why I insisted on getting another dog, even though one is probably enough (no, it’s not—I need all the animal companions in my quilt-covered paradise).
But artist Gemma Correll gets it. She recently released a very funny book of comics called The Worrier’s Guide to Life and I’m totally smitten. She makes fun of student loans, Valentine’s Day, those freaking “Keep Calm” posters—ya know, the big stuff. It’s great. I love comics, though not the action hero kind. I prefer Kate Beaton’s brand of brilliance to Batman’s stumbling ineffectiveness.
When I was 12, I stole Mary Karr’s first memoir, The Liars’ Club from my dad’s office and read it all the way through in a day or two. I remember rushing through it, gobbling it up like Melville with his oranges, hungry for every detail, thrilled by every disaster. I read it under the covers late at night as my sister slept in our shared room, snoring her little-girl snores and muttering in her sleep. I hated that I was the older sister—kid sisters, it seemed to me, were always more fun. Karr certainly was. Younger sisters had someone to teach them how to be a girl, someone to emulate. I had only books and a nerdy older brother, who taught me how to make chain mail, but not how to apply eyeliner (hence my early forays into makeup were rather unfortunate).
Some might say I was too young to be reading Liars’ Club (like my dad, for instance) but I think I read it at exactly the right time. That book gave me permission to be a little bit bad. And her next memoir, Cherry, taught how to be a teenager, how to be a tough little beast who takes a beating and gets right back up.
You have constantly to question, Is this fair? No life is all bleak. Even in Primo Levi’s camp, there were small sources of hope: you got on the good work detail, or you got on the right soup line. That’s what’s so gorgeous about humanity. It doesn’t matter how bleak our daily lives are, we still fight for the light. I think that’s our divinity. We lean into love, even in the most hideous circumstances. We manage to hope.
But we remember the bleakness.
That’s mostly what we remember.
I’ve read this interview several times over, and each time, I learn something about being in the world and writing to it.
Anyway, if you haven’t read Liars’ Club or Cherry, they’re both wonderful books. Cherry is the story of her high school years. I read it when I was in high school myself and it was so refreshing and real. It felt like someone I knew was talking to me, telling me that it’s all going to be okay. I wish schools taught Cherry instead of Catcher in the Rye. Boys that age could use a little female perspective once in a while.
My work is incredibly important to me personally. It brings me joy and it brings me life and it brings me meaning. It doesn’t necessarily have to be important to the people who read it. It would be nice if it did bring them life and meaning, but it doesn’t have to. It’s not their fault that I wanted to be a writer. I just want to do it because I like doing it and it’s a pleasure. I always quote Tom Waits, because I had this amazing experience of getting to interview him and every single thing that he said was so Socratic—he’s just biblically wise about the arts—and he said something like, “You know, it’s not that important what I do. I’m just a guy that makes jewelry for the inside of people’s heads.”
OH GOD Elizabeth Gilbert nails it, all of it, in this very long, very wonderful interview with The Rumpus. Most people know her from Eat, Pray, Love and many “serious” writers and readers tend to dismiss her because of the chic lit nature of that particular book. But she’s so much more than that! She’s a wonderful nonfiction writer (The Last American Man is one of the most fascinating true stories I’ve ever read) a sharply funny fiction writer (Pilgrims, her short story collection, is also worth a read) and one of the best TED speakers ever (seriously, go watch this right now—it’s awesome).
I’ll stop fan-girling now and stick to the facts. Fact: Elizabeth Gilbert makes me feel better about getting rejected, because that’s just a fact of writerly life. Fact: Elizabeth Gilbert recognizes the value of hard work and fights against the whole idea of genius, a toxic concept that’s killed plenty of genuine creativity. Fact: Elizabeth Gilbert also recognizes that writing isn’t truly that important. It’s not! It’s a wonderful thing to read and a wonderful thing to write, but it’s not the be-all-end-all. It’s one way of addressing the existential despair and the turtles-all-the-way-down nature of the unknowable universe but it’s not life or death.
And, once you recognize that slightly uncomfortable fact about our work, there’s no excuse for not having some goddamn FUN with it.
Above image: sculpture by Ellen Jewett, a Canadian artist who creates fantastical and otherworldly animal pieces.
I’m binge eating disaster lately. I mean, in my reading habits (but probably elsewhere, too). The past three books I’ve read have been about the apocalypse and I enjoyed them all. But not all horrors are not created equal, so in order:
- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel // I cry frequently when reading. It’s kind of embarrassing. But I think a good book is one that makes me laugh, loud and rude. A good book is one that makes me choke a little on myself, happy to be so sad. Station Eleven did both. It’s the story of a traveling theater troupe performing Shakespeare for rustic villagers twentysome years after the world has ended from a nasty avian flu. This may be the nerdiest book I’ve ever read. The performers motto is from Star Trek: “Survival is insufficient” and the entire book traces mad circles around King Lear (my favorite) and falcons cannot hear the falconers and every other sentence contains a reference and somehow, it all works brilliantly.
- The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Cary // Sometimes, I have a hard time parsing how good or whatever a book is because I just read it too fast. That’s the case here. I read The Girl With All The Gifts today and I freaking loved every moment. Set in dystopian future England, it’s the story of a zombie girl genius who has no idea she’s a “hungry,” as they call it. The book’s title is a translation of the name Pandora and flesh-starved Melanie is the metaphoric gifted girl, whose real gift I can’t say because of spoiler alerts. I can’t decide if this should have been the first one on the list or if I’m still living in it a little, but damn, was it good.
- Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich // A recommendation from a friend brought me this strange book and once I started it, I couldn’t put it down. This should be the lynchpin in this list, the one that solidifies the trend: literary, obsessively referential, cynical and politically-affected post-apocalyptic tales published in the last year. Odds Against Tomorrow is about a finance jackass who’s a little less jackass-y than his coworkers but far more brilliant. He is also clearly suffering from very, very bad anxiety (which I suppose is supposed to be his tragic flaw?). But I ended up just really, really wanting him to get a therapist. Lame way to end a novel, but still.
What a lazy, biased series of quasi-reviews of really great books. Whatever, I’m not a critic. Five stars for all.
It’s difficult to get what you want. Even if we desire something, most of the time we don’t take the right steps to get it — that’s the problem with pleasure. We want to be happy, but we prefer pleasure. But pleasure and happiness are quite different. There is no happiness without pleasure, but if you want to be happy, in a deep way, you have to choose not to search for short pleasures, but to make the effort required for greater pleasure, which is where real happiness lies.
A good reminder that being happy is hard work, coming from the author of Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide. (The book is a bestseller in France but was only recently translated into English. Here it is on Amazon.)