“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.
“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
This series of cards by Emily McDowell are just brilliant. Since Garrett got sick (CliffNotes version: my boyfriend has lymphoma and was diagnosed just a month or so ago) I’ve been hearing a lot of strange, infuriating things from well-meaning family and friends. Like “everything happens for a reason.” Or “you’ll come through this journey so much more grounded.” Or “it could be worse.”
Garrett’s currently going through chemo and it sucks. Really bad. The whole thing is just so awful I don’t really want to write about it. I’ve been spending so much time in hospitals that I’ve gotten used to the smell and the strange pastel colors and the forced cheeriness. It’s awful.
Anyway, the point is this: These cards are freaking awesome. McDowell is a cancer survivor and she knows how ridiculously hard it all is. You can buy her cards here and you can read her touching and honest story here.
Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life. – Rainer Maria Rilke
I caught a fish with my hands once. It was swimming upstream to spawn in the thaw of spring, which in Maine means mid-May (we don’t have a pretty, dappled ascent into summer, just a mess of thawing ice and a long, painful mud-season that only plays at warmth). Every now and then, a trout would fly out of the river as it tried to make its way up the waterfall, a little flash of black and silver in the air, improbable as a proverb.
I was with a park ranger, and he told me to try and catch one. I waded out into the water across slippery stones. It was so, so cold against my bare feet and ankles. It took a few tries to catch a fish. I would see it coming, watch downstream as it approached, and plunge my hands into the water, groping blindly in the bubbles and blackness. I felt so many fish swim deftly between, around, over my hands. In the end, I crouched down with my numb hands motionless in the water, ready for the trout to come to me. Eventually, one did.
I held it over my head and my friend on the riverbank took a picture. I remember feeling so powerful, as though I had accomplished something far bigger than grabbing a dumb creature out of a river. Then I set the fish back into the water and let it continue its upstream swim, struggling against the current, driven by instinct and desire, rushing toward its chance to mate.
I’m writing this because I can’t write anything else right now. I am smothered by winter and anxiety. And when I read that Rilke quote, all I could think of was that fish. Experience is as slippery and elusive as a fish, evading all attempts to pin it down with language, though that is the job of the writer, isn’t it? To catch the fish. To say something real with the clumsy, numb tools we have.
Spring’s thaw can’t come soon enough.
Above quote by Rilke, image by Barcelona-based artist Elisa Ancori.
In honor of International Women’s Day, here’s a badass illustration of Leslie Knope of Parks and Recreation (quite possibly my favorite TV show of all time) by California artist Emma Munger. This is my new goal: To be the hardest working, most dependable, best writer I can possibly be. To fail sometimes, but to keep at it. To succeed in the end through kindness and sheer determination (and smarts, too. Leslie is whip-smart despite her many malapropisms and general fuck-ups).
Emma Munger is also responsible for a very cool illustration tracking the wanderings of Wolf OR-7—the first wolf seen in California since 1924! Like Leslie Knope, wolves are badass and awesome. And probably feminists. I bet they are.
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? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.
An axe for the frozen sea inside us! Good Lord. What a fantastic way to put it. It’s fitting that this rather dark (yet ultimately hopeful) reading of reading comes from the same mind that turned a salesman into a bug and skewered the inhumanity of the penal system. I imagine Kafka’s frozen sea is perhaps more choppy and violent than most (but also more beautiful, gleaming with ice crystals and the cold blue of glaciers). Oh and that picture? It’s by Russian-born (and now New Haven-based) illustrator Yelena Bryksenkova. She has some great prints for sale on Etsy, and counts “dashing historical men, good grammar, fancy urns, books, elephants” and folklore among her interests. Basically, she’s an artist after my own heart. Check out her website here.
Previously: Why I read, why I write.
Edward Gorey once illustrated classic fairytales from The Brothers Grimm, retold in sparse but humorous language by author James Donnelly. How did I not know this?!? What a perfect combination. If I had a kid, I would buy this for them straightaway. In case you couldn’t tell, the top picture shows Little Red Riding Hood meeting that big, bad wolf in the forest before it runs off to do some mild cross-dressing. The second picture is Rumpelstiltskin, that little gnome-y scoundrel, dancing in the forest and celebrating the victory that will never be his.