Monthly Archives: January 2016

The writer’s voice

. . . the essential nature of your voice never changes. It’s as organically a part of you as your fingerprints or the character of your reflexes. I believe that you’re born with your voice. If you’re young and/or inexperienced it may become distorted for a time as you try to imitate some established writer or conform to fashion (I went through a phase in early adolescence, for example, of imitating Dickens) but even then your own distinctive ‘take’ on the mode will emerge. Last year while cleaning out the attic I found some stuff I’d written when I was fifteen and essentially I have the same writing style now as I had then. Astonishing isn’t it? You can refine your technique, change your subject matter, disguise your own voice with pastiche or parody, but that’s about it. Writing schools teach you to recognise your natural strengths and weaknesses – what you can and can’t do with that voice – and then you go on to learn how to minimise the weaknesses and make the most of the strengths.

Interview Amanda Lohrey (Interview appeared in Famous Reporter 10, November 1994).(from here) 


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Inventing The Enemy

Some years ago in New York I found myself in conversation with a taxi driver whose name I had difficulty in placing. He was, he explained Pakistani and asked where I came from. Italy, I replied. He asked how many of us there were and was surprised we were so few and that our language wasn’t English.

Then he asked me who our enemies were. In response to my ‘Sorry?’ he explained patiently that he wanted to know who were the people against whom we have fought through the centuries over land claims, ethnic rivalry, border incursions, and so forth. I told him we are not at war with anyone. He explained that he wanted to know who were our historical enemies, those who kill us and whom we kill. I repeated that we don’t have any, that we fought our last war more than half a century ago – starting, moreover, with one enemy and ending with another.

Having an enemy is important not only to define our identity but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our system of values, and in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth. So when there is no enemy, we have to invent one.

Umberto Eco: Inventing The Enemy and Other Occasional Writings.

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Wonderful similes

‘Among the specimens of tastelessness lodged in the book like the threepenny coins in a Christmas pudding, none may surpass . . . .’

Janet Malcolm, ‘A Very Sadistic Man’, review of Ted Hughes:The Unauthorised Life by Jonathon Bate, 11/2/2016 The NY Review of Books (from here) 

‘Similes dangle like baubles from me.’

William Gass, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country

“We were not afraid of outside though this was the time of year when snowdrifts curled around our house like sleeping whales and the wind harassed us all night… We were afraid of inside, the room where we slept.”

Alice Munro, Boys and Girls 

‘The lane looks empty of all life like a road in a painting of a dream.’

William Gass, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country

People often ask me when I came out, generalizing from the experience of many young people who announce themselves to the world on a particular afternoon. But I did not divorce my reticence in a single sharp break. Rather, I seeped out like a spreading wine stain.

People still ask my husband and me which of us is the mom—which, as one lesbian friend pointed out to me, is like asking which chopstick is the fork.

Andrew Solomon On Gay Parenting , The Threepenny Review (from here) 

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wallet purse


Antique rare textile quilt 1700’s 18th century patchwork stitched wallet purse (from here) 

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The atmosphere at home growing up


Interviewer: You seem to be someone who really follows your curiosity. Who gave you permission to do that?

Maira Kalman: I went to the Office of Curiosity and I got permission to do whatever I want. You know, I think that probably the atmosphere at home when I was growing up was that nobody stopped you from thinking about what you wanted to do. And then clearly my relationship with [husband/creative partner] Tibor—we both encouraged each other to do what we said we wanted, because what’s the point of not trying? What’s the point of not pursuing something? The worst that could happen would be that it won’t work out. But it would be madness not to try. I really don’t like to be bored. So if I have an idea that amuses me or interests me, I can’t imagine not trying.

That’s such a gift, though. I don’t think a lot of people feel that way. I think people feel inhibited.
I’m also not trying to be a brain surgeon. I’m keeping myself within the range of possibility.

Vogue, Oct 30/2015  Julia Felsenthal interviews Maira Kalman (from here)

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The mother’s comment

Once they [she and a man called Chandler] had a conversation, extending over many months, in broken bits, about mushrooms. He’d said the thing he hated about being in prison was the mushrooms. For several days, she wondered if he meant the food, but it didn’t make sense they served mushrooms in prison often enough to be a problem, or if he had a damp cell with fungus sprouting in the corners, but this, too, seemed extreme, and gradually she understood him to mean he had been able to see a patch of mushrooms, boletus, from his window and he used to go hunting for those in the woods with his mother when he was a kid and it made him sad. Not a mushroom fancier herself, she didn’t have anything subjective to say at the time, so she told him John Cage was a mushroom hunter, too, and wrote a book about it, a sort of mushroom guide, that she could lend him. Chandler didn’t answer. She wasn’t sure he read books or knew who John Cage was. Conversation is precarious. Now, as she looks at the very round, chalky pale pears, mushrooms come to mind again, and she says, One day, as I remember it, John Cage was out mushrooming with his mother, after an hour or so she turns to him and says, We can always go to the store and buy some real ones.

Anne Carson, 1 = 1, The New Yorker, 11/1/2016 (from here)

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Finding beauty

People think swimming is carefree and effortless. A bath! In fact, it is full of anxieties. Every water has its own rules and offering. Misuse is hard to explain. Perhaps involved is that commonplace struggle to know beauty, to know beauty exactly, to put oneself right in its path, to be in the perfect place to hear the nightingale sing, see the groom kiss the bride, clock the comet. Every water has a right place to be, but that place is in motion. You have to keep finding it, keep having it find you. Your movement sinks into and out of it with each stroke. You can fail it with each stroke. What does that mean, fail it.

. . . . . Some questions don’t warrant a question mark.

Anne Carson, 1 = 1, The New Yorker, 11 Jan 2016 (from here)

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‘A landscape opened up . . . ‘

A writer observes brain surgery

‘Next to us was a monitor showing an enlarged image of the brain. In the middle, a pit had been scooped out. In the center of the pit was a white substance, shaped like a cube. The white cube, which appeared to be made of firmer stuff, was rubbery and looked like octopus flesh. I realized that it must be the tumor.

One doctor looked up from a microscope that was suspended over the brain and turned to me. Only his eyes were visible above the mask. They were narrow and foxlike.

“Do you want to have a look?” he asked.

I nodded.

The doctor stepped aside, and I bent down over the microscope.

Oh, God.

A landscape opened up before me. I felt as if I were standing on the top of a mountain, gazing out over a plain, covered by long, meandering rivers. On the horizon, more mountains rose up, between them there were valleys and one of the valleys was covered by an enormous white glacier. Everything gleamed and glittered. It was as if I had been transported to another world, another part of the universe. One river was purple, the others were dark red, and the landscape they coursed through was full of strange, unfamiliar colors. But it was the glacier that held my gaze the longest. It lay like a plateau above the valley, sharply white, like mountain snow on a sunny day. Suddenly a wave of red rose up and washed across the white surface. I had never seen anything quite as beautiful, and when I straightened up and moved aside to make room for the doctor, for a moment my eyes were glazed with tears.’

Karl Ove Knausgaard The Terrible Beauty of Brain Surgery , The New York Times, Dec 30/2015 (from here) 


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Worry about one’s children

A writer wakes alone in his hotel room, having left his wife and children at home.

‘When the alarm on my cellphone woke me the next morning, I had a faint memory of having panicked during the night, that I had gotten up abruptly from the bed, unable to remember where the children were. Where are the children, where are the children, I had thought, looking for them in the bathroom, out on the balcony, down on the floor by the bed. But no children. Where were the children? I finally realized that I had been walking in my sleep, but I still couldn’t understand where I was or where the children were. Had I lost them? Then I remembered everything, and it was as if I had suddenly become one with myself and with the room I was in. Everything made sense and, relieved, I had lain down to sleep again.’

Karl Ove Knausgaard The Terrible Beauty of Brain Surgery , The New York Times, Dec 30/2015 (from here) 


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The relationship between love and fear

“I have never been one of those people—I know you aren’t, either—who feels that the love one has for a child is somehow a superior love, one more meaningful, more significant, and grander than any other. I didn’t feel that before Jacob, and I didn’t feel that after. But it is a singular love, because it is a love whose foundation is not physical attraction, or pleasure, or intellect, but fear. You have never known fear until you have a child, and maybe that is what tricks us into thinking that it is more magnificent, because the fear itself is more magnificent. Every day, your first thought is not “I love him” but “How is he?” The world, overnight, rearranges itself into an obstacle course of terrors. I would hold him in my arms and wait to cross the street and would think how absurd it was that my child, that any child, could expect to survive this life. It seemed as improbable as the survival of one of those late-spring butterflies—you know, those little white ones—I sometimes saw wobbling through the air, always just millimeters away from smacking itself against a windshield.”  Hanya Yanagihara,  A Little Life 


and then this on the death of a child..


“…when your child dies, you feel everything you’d expect to feel, feelings so well-documented by so many others that I won’t even bother to list them here, except to say that everything that’s written about mourning is all the same, and it’s all the same for a reason – because there is no read deviation from the text. Sometimes you feel more of one thing and less of another, and sometimes you feel them out of order, and sometimes you feel them for a longer time or a shorter time. But the sensations are always the same.

But here’s what no one says – when it’s your child, a part of you, a very tiny but nonetheless unignorable part of you, also feels relief. Because finally, the moment you have been expecting, been dreading, been preparing yourself for since the day you became a parent, has come.

Ah, you tell yourself, it’s arrived. Here it is.

And after that, you have nothing to fear again.”

Hanya Yanagihara,  A Little Life 


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