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 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.
When you read a really, really great book, it changes how you perceive the world. I was talking to a fellow writer friend about this a few nights ago. We couldn’t quite pin down what we thought about this—it’s at once freeing and scary, intimate and distancing. It feels as though you’ve invited another writer to come live in your head—or crawled inside theirs.
I tried to think about the last book that made me feel drunk on words, and I have trouble bringing one to mind. I think it must be The Empathy Exams, a series of essays by Leslie Jamison about pain, the body, compassion, femininity, and other slippery subjects. On the other, fictitious hand, One Hundred Years of Solitude still makes me feel strange and a little dizzy every time I read it. The Unbearable Lightness of Being turns me into a overly touchy yet emotionally reticent partner. Margaret Atwood makes me bubble and fizz with nebulous anger and self-righteousness and Toni Morrison makes my heart hurt in a way that is sweet and uneasy. I just hope that I don’t lose each of these tiny personalities that forms inside my skull. I like to think they snarl together (like a mental rat-king of great authors and ideas) and wait for when I’m ready to use them. Maybe they do.
It’s my goal in life to write one thing, one book, that changes the way just a few people look at things. I want my writing to ask people to really, truly look at each other. To see them in a new, hopefully more forgiving, light.
Image by Pablo Gallo