Category Archives: the unknown

The incentive for writing

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s assertion (Critic’s Take, April 30) that a writing workshop “can be a hostile place for women and people of color” no doubt has its degree of truth, but I want to say it can also be a place where the ideas of the very same people are treated with careful attention and respect.. . . women and minority writers, even in hostile cultures, have burdens similar to those the rest of us have: to discover what they didn’t know they knew, and to make something memorable out of whatever it is that’s important to them, whether it’s an act of revenge or a walk in the woods.

Stephen Dunn, May 12 2017 Letter to the Editor The New York Times from here

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A universal truth to be reckoned with

[There is] a truth that sits beneath the surface of the twin, universal facts of our beginnings and endings: the unequivocal triad of mother-father-self. Whether that triad is sturdy or broken, bonded by biology, affection or both, it’s one that most of us must reckon with, in some shifting fashion, all of our lives.

Cheryl Strayed on Richard Ford’s Masterly Memoir of His Parents May 1, 2017 The New York Times (from here) 

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The most difficult things to tell

The writer  pushes ‘the protagonist much farther than I thought I myself, writing, could bear.

Leda says:” The most difficult things to tell are those which we ourselves can’t understand.”

It’s the motto — can I call it that?— which is at the root of all my books.

Writing should always take the most difficult path. The narrating “I” in my stories is never a voice giving a monologue; she is writing — that is, struggling to organize in a text what she knows but doesn’t have clear in her mind.’

Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia: A  Writer’s Journey, p 257

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Giving up control

My general approach to writing fiction is that you try to have as few conceptual notions as possible and you just respond to the energy that the story is making rather than having a big over plan. I think if you have a big over plan, the danger is that you might just take your plan and then you bore everybody. I always joke that it’s like going on a date with index cards. You know, at 7:30 p.m. I should ask about her mother. You keep all the control to yourself but you are kind of insulting to the other person.

In this book, [Lincoln in the Bardo]  the only thing I knew at the beginning was that Lincoln had to come and hold Willie’s body and then he had to stop doing that. And that it had to happen in one night. Then the whole thing became more about orchestrating the motion through the graveyard, and the motion through the graveyard would tell me who could talk and who you encountered. Something like that. (from here)  George Saunders interviewed by Kate Harloe in The Rumpus Interview , Feb 20, 2017

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Doubt in literature

. . . all the most convincing works of literature must possess an element of doubt. That is the calling card with which they delicately persuade us to open our doors to them; it is the proof that they do not intend to deceive us. And if this is true at the beginning of a novel, a story or a poem, it is even more noticeably true  at the end. A question will always hover over the authoritative author’s conclusions, so that they are not merely conclusions, but also an opening out, a releasing of other possibilities.

Wendy Lesser, Why I Read, p 100

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The fertility of doubt

 . . . . she “trumpets doubt and ambiguity, not because we are incapable of knowing things,” but because “doubt is fertile.”

Vivien Gornick , reviews Siri Hustvedt’s, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women in The New York Times, December 16th 2016

(from here)

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The holder of secrets

[A hospice chaplain reflects]

There are so many secrets out there in the world. I carry around some of them, secrets that have  been entrusted to me by patients and family members. Most of them are personal secrets about the teller, secrets about things they did, things they thought or felt or wished, things they didn’t think they could ever tell. Things that happened to them, things done to them when they were small, or helpless, or desperate. Secrets about the self.

But some of the secrets I’ve been privy to were elaborate, family-held secrets. Secrets with multiple participants and levels of understanding. Secrets held across generations that demanded that children be complicit in their own shame. . . .

Because that’s what secrets are about — shame.  (p 37)

Kerry Egan,On Living , Penguin 2016

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‘On a Swiss holiday in 1937, Liz Jenson’s grandmother and nineteen-year-old uncle had a row. He stormed out and vanished. Four days later, she was found dead. Eighty years on, the family is still in the grip of the mystery.’ The Guardian 26 September 2016

‘In his book Into the Silent Land, the neurologist Paul Broks writes: “When we see the brain we realise that we are, on one level, no more than meat; and on the other, no more than fiction.”

More than ever, I feel the truth of that. Death is rarely the end of any story. The dead are silent – yet they speak to us. Stories are born of our attempts to answer the questions they provoke. Where there is a void, our brains rush in to create a truth. As if by doing so we can bring back the missing, resurrect the dead’

Liz Jenson, Death in The Alps: A Double Family Puzzle. (from here)

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The patient attacks the work she is doing with her psychoanalyst

[ Suddenly V seems to have had it with me.] Dreams! I have tried and tried to show you how this works, how the mind works. But you don’t want to learn anything; you just want to go on hating me, attacking our work here, attacking yourself. I don’t know what to do; I don’t know how to help you.

He draws breath and stops abruptly. I go cold.

I don’t remember the rest of the session. Afterwards I staggered to Pine Street and collapsed on to the old sofa. My heart was beating so fast that I felt dizzy. A fish tank stood on a stand next to the sofa. I lay for a long time watching the little fishes circling near the water surface. Slowly my heart beat steadied and I  felt myself sinking into reverie.

A sudden jolt. I sat up.

A movement, a shift . . .  My heart began to thud.

A Tension, a movement . . .  I felt myself go rigid, I stopped breathing, my heart was thundering.

A movement, a release . . .

My mind opened, and my neglected dream rushed in. A flood of memories, images, sounds: blue dress, sky-blue, the sky  outside V’s window, an open window, shouting below the window, a woman is shouting . . . On and on they came, wave after wave . . .

Excitement cascaded through me. My dream! The dream that I had lugged to V tight-wrapped like a Dead Sea scroll, for him to read the hieroglyphs, as I had brought all my dreams to him over the years . . . It was mine, my living creation! My mind was a flow, a mnemonic tide, awash with vitality. I throbbed all over with the thrill of it.

I jumped up and grabbed a piece of scrap paper from the table and wrote everything down. I was panting with emotion. WhenI finished I collapsed back on the sofa. Sensations were hurtling around inside me; I couldn’t stay still. I got up and moved over to a chair on the other side of the  fish tank. ‘You all right, Barbara?’ a voice said, but I couldn’t reply.

I sat and watched the fish. Slowly my mind quieted. A goldfish peered out at me.

Then an image took shape in front of me, so corny that it made me grin. My face, V’s face, separate but overlapping, floating above the fish tank like a Valentine hologram. There he was, there I was, there  we were – ‘working together’. Look at us!

Joy flooded me. I was so delighted, so happy, I had to share this with someone. I rushed over to Gladys and told her all about it. ‘Sounds nice,’ she said bemusedly.

Barbara Taylor, The Last Asylum : A Memoir of Madness in Our Times, Penguin Books 2014, pp. 218-220

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Holding together what is torn apart

‘I Have No Choice but to Keep Looking’

Five years after the tsunami that killed tens of thousands in Japan, a husband still searches the sea for his wife . .

“We often think of searching as a kind of movement, a forward motion through time, but maybe it can also be the opposite, a suspension of time and memory. Heidegger wrote of a metaphoric pain, calling it the “joining of the rift.” It’s this rift, he said, that holds together things that have been torn apart, to perhaps create a new space where joy and sadness can find communion. This is the space I believed Takamatsu found beneath the sea, where he could feel close to his to wife, in the rift between “missing” and “deceased.” ‘  (from here) BY JENNIFER PERCY AUG. 2, 2016, New York Times Magazine

 The sea is like memory. However lost or forgotten, everything in it exists forever…

The narrator of J.G. Ballardʼs story “Prisoner of the Coral Deep” (1964) 


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