The writer Leslie Jamison receives notes from strangers responding to her book, The Empathy Exams
‘ As I got more notes from strangers, I started to wonder what desires motivated them. What do readers want from the writers they read? What sorts of responses do they imagine? Sometimes a reader offers his own life; sometimes he only offers praise. Every offering suggests itself as a mixture of gift and request – a desire to show the author what her words have meant, and a desire to be seen: “Let me know I’m visible to you, as you’ve been visible to me.” ‘
Leslie Jamison:Confessional writing is not self-indulgent, The Guardian 5 July 2014
“What you must realize, what you must even come to praise, is the fact that there is no right way that is going to become apparent to you once and for all. The most blinding illumination that strikes and perhaps radically changes your life will be so attenuated and obscured by doubts and dailiness that you may one day come to suspect the truth of that moment at all. The calling that seemed so clear will be lost in echoes of questionings and indecision; the church that seemed to save you will fester with egos, complacencies, banalities; the deepest love of your life will work itself like a thorn in your heart until all you can think of is plucking it out. Wisdom is accepting the truth of this. Courage is persisting with life in spite of it. And faith is finding yourself, in the deepest part of your soul, in the very heart of who you are, moved to praise it.”
― Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer
One of the odd things about being a writer is that you never reach a point of certainty, a point of mastery where you can say, Right. Now I understand how this is done. That is why so many talented people stop writing. It’s hard to tolerate this not-knowing. It’s hard to tolerate feeling like an idiot or an imposter, and it gets harder as the years tick by.
But I would argue that this feeling of uncertainty is actually the best practice you could have for the other important things you will do in your life. No one ever masters falling in love or being a parent or losing someone close to him. And who would want to master such things, really? Wandering through the woods, looking for a sudden sunlit clearing, that’s the most interesting part of it.
Jenny Offill in interview with Matt Pieknik, March 31 2014 The Paris Review
I think voice is the music of the story’s intelligence, that the voice of a novel, the voice of a story, is not the speaking voice of Frank Bascombe but it is something a good bit more complex. It is how a novel sounds when it is doing its most important business on you, when it is, as novels do, as poems do. Novels lean on us. They are artifice. They are rhetorical. They are trying to affect us and change us. And that’s what I hear, what I understand, when I use the word “voice.” Richard Ford
Form in art is not a dead thing, not a stenciled outline to be colored in. Rather, form is a thought that has evolved over a long time, in a particular culture, about what works – in this case, what works as a satisfying shape of a piece of writing for readers in our culture.
A tremendous amount of thought, and thus indirectly of energy, is stored in the configuration, the pattern. The power of form, which appears in countless manifestations in the human world, is that it enables congruence, mind to mind. (Think of how ritual, a deliberate patterning of experience, causes the minds of the participants to become powerfully aligned toward a shared value or purpose.) In the context of writing, the minds that try to reach congruence are those of the writer and the reader. Once that congruence comes into being, it releases the stored energy in the pattern. It takes some investment of energy on the part of the reader to get to this point, but the potential latent in the pattern itself may be far greater than what the reader puts in. In a homely analogy, the work of flipping the light switch is nothing compared to the power of the electricity that therefore starts to flow. That is what’s going on with all the forms in which the human mind, over centuries, has stored its best thinking. It’s as true of the arts as it is true of science. The form of the novel, the form of the short story, the form of the lyric poem, the form of perspective that came into painting in the Renaissance, the form of a sonata or the classic American popular song, the form of the periodic table of elements or a differential equation – over time, all these forms and countless others store up more thought, more power of the human mind, than any one person ever could. They are gifts of power, waiting to be tapped by learning. Grasping the power of a form is one way of knowing how we know, and that in turn is how we bring forth ourselves.
Lowry Pei (from here)
Interview with Margaret Atwood
Ann Heilmann: In “Spotty-Handed Villainesses’ you suggest that the allure of villains resides in their capacity to possess forbidden rooms. Do you have forbidden rooms?
Margaret Atwood: Everyone has. They transgress, and their transgressions are hidden in those rooms, and we all have within ourselves a little child-transgressor, that child who once took the forbidden cookie and either did or didn’t get caught. But the innocents who enter such rooms are also transgressing.
New and Selected Conversations with Margaret Atwood ed Earl G. Ingersoll (2006)
Cover: Dayanita Singh, Untitled.
Sometimes the review of a novel is so beautifully written and observed it warrants several readings,
for what it says about the novel and for truths about the world.
Except from Leslie Jamison’s review of Lila by Marilynne Robinson/
“The novel opens in her [Lila’s] childhood, when she is rescued from neglect by a woman named Doll—a fierce savior and survivor and killer—who carries her away one stormy night: “Doll may have been the loneliest woman in the world, and she was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain.” Lila proceeds to break open the potential of this moment. How does one person’s loneliness intersect with another’s? What renewal can come from this convergence, and what are its limits? Sometimes one loneliness meeting another looks like prayer in the darkness. Sometimes it looks like a sandwich. Sometimes it gives rise to those more recognizable ways we collaborate on dissolving solitude: getting married, having a child.”
Leslie Jamison, The Power of Grace, The Atlantic October 2014
“Then a miracle occurred in the form of a plate of sandwiches.
Geryon took three and buried his mouth in a delicious block of white bread filled with tomatoes and butter and salt.
He thought about how delicious it was, how he liked slippery foods, how slipperiness can be of different kinds.
I am a philosopher of sandwiches, he decided. Things good on the inside.”
― Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red
In “Either/Or,” Kierkegaard talks about the idea that against God we are always in the wrong. He means that God’s love is always greater than anything we can offer Him, and this, combined with our sinfulness, means that we are always in error in relation to God. This is a good thing, Kierkegaard says—we should desire that edifying wrongness. Harrower’s female characters have something of this Protestant masochism. It isn’t quite that these women mistake abuse for devotion, though perhaps they do. It is that they mistake themselves for the people they live with. The pity they feel is really self-pity, and the suffering they feel “connected to” is really their own. It is not Felix who has been “hurt into this shape” but Laura who has been “hurt into this shape” by Felix. Laura is describing herself when she tries to describe Felix.
James Wood, Rediscovering Elizabeth Harrower, The New Yorker October 20th 2014