The Light-Craving Stories of George Saunders


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800px-Near-Death-Experience_Illustration public domainWhat is it that I love about the wildly weird, dark and dorky stories of George Saunders?

Ever since reading his collection “The Tenth of December,” I’ve been trying to figure this out.

His stories are not easy reading. People are tortured, puppies drowned, nefarious things are happening behind a guise of bureaucratic goodness. Often the stories start in confusing, abrupt ways, and are written so lean it’s hard to see what’s holding them together.

His characters are usually bizarre or just plain sad: pathetic morons, smug hypocrites, nerdy adolescents, clueless housewives, loser dads, lame do-gooders.

At first you think Saunders is making fun of them, judging them, exposing their hypocrisy, their meanness, their arrogance, their stupidity. You think: this satire. It’s ironic. It’s absurdist.

Much of what he writes has a hard comic edge. Some of it is laugh-out-loud hilarious.

But then you realize he’s not laughing at these characters. He’s not laughing with them either. Most are too naïve, too serious, too un-self-aware to have the capacity to laugh at themselves. They have no idea how comical they are, although they may be painfully aware of how they are made the butt of others’ jokes.

The stories aren’t about the characters at all. They are about us—the readers. How he moves us from A to Z.

“I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters,” Saunders wrote in an essay on Vonnegut (and quoted in a NY Times interview).

“He enters in one state of mind and exits in another. The writer gets no points just because what’s inside the box bears some linear resemblance to ‘real life’ — he can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit. . . . The black box is meant to change us. If the change will be greater via the use of invented, absurd material, so be it.”

Saunders is taking us on a hilarious, diabolical, fun-house tour, and at the end, we realize how all these crazy, ridiculous, pathetic losers we meet along the way are us in disguise. Me, in a different life—my son, my daughter, my mother, my poor dear deranged grandpa. Beneath the pathetic veneer is someone we love, or someone worth loving.

In the same interview, Saunders talks about how his family has influenced his writing:

“My life with them has been everything to me. And loving them the way I do—I think that was a very major development in my artistic life. Suddenly everything mattered. What helped them was good, what hurt them was bad. And then that feeling got writ large. I became aware . . . of the fact that cruelty or even just mere thoughtlessness had an object: someone was getting bruised. And someone must have (or should have) loved that bruised party as much as I love my family. So the world became morally charged. . . . People were precious and not just my people.”

But these kinds of revelations in his stories do not come easily, without struggle. Or without a cost. They come like The Misfit in Flannery O’Conner’s short story. He stands over the silly and self-absorbed Grandmother with a gun held to her head. And then, just before he kills her, he holds up her heart, the heart she never knew she had until that very moment.

They come with regret, with a deep, gut-wrenching sadness. And sometimes, at the very end, with a heart-searing and heart-soaring softness.

The first story in Saunders collection, “Victory Lap”, opens with a young teenage girl floating down a marble staircase imaging all her secret admirers below. It’s written in a 3rd person stream-of-consciousness point of view, in the vernacular of the blissfully naïve and hopelessly romantic. She gushes about how lovely everyone is, all the girls at school, all the boys:

“Actually, she loved her whole town. That adorable grocer, spraying his lettuce! Pastor Carol with her large comfortable butt! The chubby postman, gesticulating with his padded envelope! It had once been a mill town. Wasn’t that crazy? What does that even mean?

There is so much she doesn’t know. Like how to change the oil. Or even check the oil. How to open the hood. How to bake brownies. That was embarrassing, actually, being a girl and all. And what about a mortgage? Did it come with the house? When you breast-feed, did you have to like push the milk out?”

When she’s happy like this, she tells us, as she pirouettes around the house practicing ballet, she imagines a conversation with a baby deer trembling in the woods. She admonishes the hunter who slays the deer’s mother.

“Her guts were completely splayed. Jeez, that was nice! Don’t you have anything better to do, dank hunter, than kill this baby’s mom? You seem like a nice enough guy.”

She believes in niceness. “In a straw poll at school, she had voted for people being good and life being fun.”

While she’s practicing ballet, alone in the house, a meter-man who’s not a meter-man knocks at her back door. “Something told her to step back in, slam the door. But that seemed rude.” So she smiled and asked, “How may I help you?”

Next we meet Allison’s nerdy teenage neighbor, Kyle, who she calls a “poor goof.”

He’s just come home from school to see a note his father leaves him about placing their new expensive geode out on the back deck.

“Gar, Dad, do you honestly feel it fair that I should have to slave in the yard until dark after a rigorous cross-country practice . . . ?

Shoes off, mister.

Yoinks, too late. He was already at the TV. And had left an incriminating trail of microclods. Way verboten. Could the microclods be hand-plucked? Although: problem. If he went back to hand-pluck the microclods, he’d leave an incriminating new trail of microclods”

He has imaginary conversations with his Dad, who calls him Scout, and his mother who calls him Beloved Only. He imagines them watching his every move with disapproval, and him explaining away his failures at meeting their strict standards, even though they both send “weekly braggy emails to both sets of grandparents” about him.

While he’s out on the back deck ready to set the geode he sees Allison with the meter-man who is dragging her toward his van. When she resists, he punches her in the stomach. The man sees Kyle and warns him to stay away: “Move a muscle and I’ll knife her in the heart. Swear to God. Got it?”

“Kyle’s mouth was so spotless all he could do was make his mouth do the shape it normally did when saying Yes.

He was just a kid. There was nothing he could do.”

He imagines going inside, pretending he never saw anything. Imagines how he’ll look and what he’ll say when eventually he learns that Allison was raped and murdered while he was innocently sitting inside playing with his railroad cars. He imagines how pleased his parents will be that he hadn’t put himself in harm’s way. “Super job, Scout.” “We are well please, Beloved Only.”

Then he was running.

“Oh God! What was he doing, what was he doing? Jesus, shit, the directives he was violating! Running in the yard (bad for the sod); transporting a geode without its protective wrapping: hopping the fence, which stressed the fence, which had cost a pretty penny; leaving the yard; leaving the yard barefoot.”

He throws the geode at the head of the man who falls, his head a bloody mess. Allison crab-crawls into the house and calls 911.

The story could have ended here. It would have been a good story. But Saunders takes it further. He pushes the narrative into something beyond a would-be rape gone bad, a skinny scared kid saving the beautiful princess next door. He pushes the story past mere good into sublime. He takes the reader to that state of grace, where we feel that heart-searing, heart-soaring softness.

Allison watches from the window while Kyle does a wild, crazy “Who’s the man!” dance on the hood of the car.

“You still moving, freak? Got a plan, stroke-dick? Want a skull gash on top of your existing skull gash, big man? You think I won’t?”

He lifts the geode again. Ready to bring it down on the injured man’s head once more.

“Kyle, don’t,” she whispers.

She has nightmares about that day, about Kyle murdering the man. About his bloody head dissolving. And Kyle looking at her with that look: My life is ruined. I’m a murderer. Until her parents remind her, over and over again. It didn’t happen like that. You stopped him. You saved Kyle.

“You did so good, Mom said.

Did beautiful, Dad said.”

The final story in the collection does the same thing. Pushes the story to a satisfying conclusion, and then takes it further, into the sublime.

In Saunders’ title story, “The Tenth of December,”(which you can read online) a boy with “unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerism” walks with his pellet gun out into the snowy woods. Here he will confront the wily “Netherworlders” who live under rocks, and today seem intent on capturing the new girl from Montreal in his homeroom class.

“He just loved the way she talked. So apparently did the Nethers, who planned to use her to repopulate their depleted numbers and bake various things they did not know how to bake.”

In the middle of this fantasy, he sees a coat left lying on the snow, and off in the distance a half-naked man leaning against a tree.

“What kind of person leaves his coat behind on a day like this? The mental kind, that was who. This guy looked sort of mental. Like an Auschwitz dude or sad confused grandpa.”

Despite fears and misgivings, he sets racing off across the frozen duck pond with the coat to rescue the old man, for “had not Jesus said, Blessed are those who help those who cannot help themselves but are too mental, doddering, or have a disability?”

The old man, who is dying, and who wants to spare himself and his family the indignity of a slow, painful, humiliating death, has come out here to end his life. He has just sat down to wait peacefully for what he hopes will be a quick and relatively painless death, when:

“Oh, for shitsake.

On for crying out loud.

Some kid was on the pond.

Chubby kid in white. With a gun. Carrying Eber’s coat.

You little fart, put that coat down, get your ass home, mind your own—

Damn. Damn it.”

The boy falls through the ice and the dying man must try to gather enough strength to get up, get down the hill and save him. Painstakingly, cursing the whole way, he does. He manages to pull him out, get him dried off the best he can, and then forces the boy to get up and moving, so he can run home before he freezes to death. Then Eber sits back to finish what he had started.

The story could have finished here, but it doesn’t. He sits there, thinking about what he’s doing. Two weeks before Christmas. Before Molly’s favorite holiday. He’s “offing” himself. Too late, he has second thoughts.

“He tried to send some last thoughts to Molly. Sweetie, forgive me. Biggest fuckup ever. Forget this part. Forget I ended thisly. You know me. You know I didn’t mean this.”

I won’t tell you how the story ends—you really need to read this. My little summary here doesn’t do it justice. But I will share what Eber comes to realize, which is at the heart of nearly every Saunders story I’ve read so far. That moment of grace.

“He saw it now, was starting to see it—if some guy at the end, fell apart, and said or did bad things, or had to be helped, helped to quite a considerable extent? So what? What of it? Why should he not do or say weird things or look strange or disgusting? Why should the shit not run down his legs? Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them? He’d been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping, and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, he now saw that there could still be many—many drops of goodness, is how it came to him—many drops of happy—of good fellowship—ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not—-had never been—-his to withheld. Withhold”

This last shows his dying brain misfiring.

At the end of another story called “ComCom,” not found in this collection, the narrator and a man called Giff are murdered. Afterward, they rise together above the world:

“Snow passes through us, gulls pass through us. Tens of towns, hundreds of towns stream by below and we hear their prayer, grievances, their million signals of loss . . . . All this time we grow in size, in love, the distinction between Giff and me diminishing, and my last thought before we join something I can only describe as Nothing-Is-Excluded is, Giff, Giff, please explain, what made you come back for me?”

He learns:

“This is why I came back. I was wrong in life, limited, shrank everything down to my size, and yet, in the end, there was something light-craving within me, which sent me back, and saved me.”

That’s what I love about his stories. He shows us that in the end, when all the superficialities and fears and meanness are flayed from us, beneath that, we are light-craving creatures: people who are starving for the want of goodness, the want of grace in our lives. And like Eber, we realize those “drops of goodness” that we experience at each other’s hands, though few and far between, are worth all the other absurd humilities and indignities that life may heap upon us.

One drop of grace is all it takes to save us from each other and ourselves.

“The Mountain of My Love” – Poem by Hayden Carruth


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Lovers William_Powell_Frith_The_lovers

The Lovers by William Powell Frith, Public Domain

In the graduation speech that went viral last year, George Saunders wrote:

“Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was ‘mostly Love, now.’”

For a long time I could not find the poem he mentioned. But a reader who heard about my search found the poem and kindly shared it with me. Now I share it with you, a deeply moving testament to love and marriage, as our lives wind down.


by Hayden Carruth

So often it has been displayed to us, the hourglass
with its grains of sand drifting down,
not as an object in our world
but as a sign, a symbol, our lives
drifting down grain by grain,
sifting away — I’m sure everyone must
see this emblem somewhere in the mind.
Yet not only our lives drift down. The stuff
of ego with which we began, the mass
in the upper chamber, filters away
as love accumulates below. Now
I am almost entirely love. I have been
to the banker, the broker, those strange
people, to talk about unit trusts,
annuities, CDs, IRAs, trying
to leave you whatever I can after
I die. I’ve made my will, written
you a long letter of instructions.
I think about this continually.
What will you do? How
will you live? You can’t go back
to cocktail waitressing in the casino.
And your poetry? It will bring you
at best a pittance in our civilization,
a widow’s mite, as mine has
for forty-five years. Which is why
I leave you so little. Brokers?
Unit trusts? I’m no financier doing
the world’s great business. And the sands
in the upper glass grow few. Can I leave
you the vale of ten thousand trilliums
where we buried our good cat Pokey
across the lane to the quarry?
Maybe the tulips I planted under
the lilac tree? Or our red-bellied
woodpeckers who have given us so
much pleasure, and the rabbits
and the deer? And kisses? And
love-makings? All our embracings?
I know millions of these will be still
unspent when the last grain of sand
falls with its whisper, its inconsequence,
on the mountain of my love below.


Growing Up in a Haunted House


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photalia moonLast October I posted a series of true life tales about the hauntings, ghosts, and demons I experienced growing up, and later when I had children of my own. The first is printed below with links to the others.  Happy Halloween!

While ”intellectually” I don’t believe in ghosts, demons, and the like, I have experienced such. And I cannot deny that the phenomena which I and others–indeed, all known cultures and societies–have laid claim to, are “real.” The reality they seem to have is unexplained, often unverifiable, and usually fleeting and ephemeral. And yet they persist in haunting humanity.

Throughout history, people whom we usually credit with intelligence and integrity have reported ghostly experiences, among them the psychologist Carl Jung, President Theodore Roosevelt, and Sir Winston Churchill, as well as a host of current well-known celebrities, such as Matthew McConaughey, Kate Hudson, and Halle Berry.

I can neither explain, verify, nor dismiss the reality of the experiences that I relate here. I can only state that these things occurred as I remember them, or as others I trust related them to me. And most were witnessed by more than one person.

Our House on a Haunted Hill

House on Haunted Hill largeWhen I was a kid “House on Haunted Hill” was my favorite spooky movie. I first saw it a few years after my own family had escaped, just barely, from a haunted house experience. While living there I was not aware of all the horrors that house contained, and only learned the full account when my mother felt I was old enough to learn the truth.

I was eight years old when my parents rented a home set on a hillside in an older, respectable neighborhood in Omaha, Nebraska. The attic had been converted into two rooms, a tiny room overlooking the back yard and garage; and a huge room overlooking the front yard. This larger room had been recently renovated and then abruptly abandoned, it appeared. The high pitched ceiling and walls were covered in a richly varnished, knotty pine paneling. Finely crafted drawers and book cases had been built beneath the eaves. But the floor, made of rough, unvarnished planks of wood, had been left unfinished. And a large reddish-brown stain that looked like a puddle of blood had soaked into the wood.

Nancy_Drew_-_Ghost_of_Thornton_Hall_Cover_ArtThis was my bedroom and I loved it. Being an avid fan of Nancy Drew mysteries, the giant blood stain only added to the allure of the room–that and the trap door on the floor of the walk-in closet. While the door had been nailed shut, I could still probe the cracks with a ruler, detecting steps that led downward—to where, no one knew. My discovery sent chills of delight down my back.

In fact, I was thrilled to have the whole second story all to myself. Even though the second smaller room could have easily accommodated my little brother, my mother made him sleep down below in the tiny room at the bottom of the stairs. She claimed the small room upstairs was “too cold” and used it as a storage room instead. She filled it with unpacked boxes and unused furniture, forbidding me to play there—which, of course, made the room seem even more desirable.

I remember entering the room often to play by myself and looking out the dusty window toward the mysterious barn-like structure that faced the alley. The structure, which could easily have accommodated several cars, sat empty nearly the whole time we lived there, and my brother and I were forbidden to play here as well. It too was considered “too cold” for human habitation. The one time I did enter, my eyes were drawn upward to the high rafters where, through the rotting roof, splinters of light filled with ghostly dust motes fell to the floor. I did not enter again. When some teenage boys wanted to use the garage to rebuild a car, they moved out after a couple of nights, never to return—even though they had paid rent for a full month.

I thought it strange when my mother kept wanting to move me out of my lovely upstairs “apartment” to a room below and I refused to be moved. She kept asking if I was afraid up there all by myself, and I insisted I wasn’t . This was true. I knew what needed to be done to stay safe, although I never shared this with my mother. It was a ritual that I religiously followed. Every night after my mother heard my prayers and tucked me into bed, I would pull the covers tight over my head and stay there until I fell asleep. I knew somehow that no harm would come to me if I followed this ritual. And no harm ever did come to me.

I might well have been very afraid if I had heard what my parents heard at night as they slept in the room below mine.

Athenodorus_-_The_Greek_Stoic_Philosopher_Athenodorus_Rents_a_Haunted_HouseOften my mother was woken by the sound of heavy, dragging footsteps lumbering across room over her bed, and she would wake my father and make him go upstairs to investigate. At first he did so wearily, thinking she was imagining it. But once he woke early enough to hear it himself and went dashing up the stairs—but nothing was there and I was sound asleep in my bed.

We moved shortly thereafter. That’s when the neighbors told us about the horrible tragedy that had taken place in the house before we moved in. They hadn’t wanted to tell us earlier and scare us away. Apparently the previous owner of the house had murdered his wife in my bedroom and then hung himself afterwards from the rafters in the garage.

If some other tragic event took place in the small room next to mine upstairs—the coldest room in the house–we never learned. Whatever haunted that room did more than drag its feet across the floor or blow cold air down our spines. During our final days in that home, my mother, to her terror, found this out–with no one but my three-year-old brother at home to save her.

More about this in my next post.

You can read the full series of ghost stories at the links below.


Downward into Darkness on Extended Wings


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Birds flying by Angelo DeSantis Nine_birds_flying_over_the_waves_(7681834848)_(2)

Wallace Stevens’ poem “Sunday Morning” ends with these lines:

We live in an old chaos of the sun,

Or old dependency of day and night,

Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,

Of that wide water, inescapable.

Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail

Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;

Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;

And, in the isolation of the sky,

At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make

Ambiguous undulations as they sink,

Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

I love the final image—that graceful downward swoop into darkness, held aloft by the lightness of wings fully extended. That final juxtaposition of dark and light, I find deeply moving.

Steven’s poetry has been a huge influence on me. I see traces of it everywhere in my writing.

The final lines of this poem introduce a short story I wrote, Tamara in Her Garden, where a woman who has been deeply traumatized by life finds healing in her garden–not just in the beauty she find there, but in the natural decay and death that comes with it. She tells us:

Sometimes when I kneel in the grass at the edge of my flowerbed, leaning out over the border of sweet alyssum that is heaped like snow, leaning so close that my face feathers the fragrant petals, and then breathe–breathe deeply, I sense that with each breath I am gathering up a huge lungful of myriad, microscopic creatures that course through my nose and mouth and throat in a rhythmic pattern of respiration perhaps eons longer than the life-spans of such tiny beings. And I feel lightheaded, what with the deep breathing, the heady fragrance, the thought that so much life and so much death passes with such pleasure through me. I sway when I rise. My bare knees and tops of feet bear a moist imprint–a fine cross-hatching of grasses.

While some think she’s hiding more than healing in her garden, she sees it differently—and here’s where Steven’s influence is clearly seen:

I see my garden as highly invigorating and precarious, teeming with raw necessity, a microcosm of all the life and beauty, decay and death, that ever was. Sometimes I stand in my round garden as if standing upon the edge of a precipice, poised for flight. Not to fly away as I once had supposed, but to delve ever more deeply.

That “delving ever more deeply” is what interests me, the fact that we have to explore the dark places in life in order to grow, for that’s the only way to bring in the light. We’re not sustained by beauty and lightness alone, but by seeing the beauty and lightness in the dark places, in the brokenness that lies all around us, seeing it in the very places where it doesn’t seem to exist. And seeing how the beauty and lightness is nurtured in the dark places of our own lives.

These are old ideas, of course–how the transience of beauty intensifies its pleasure. How the brighter the light, the deeper the shadows, how both together help us to see the object and its roundness more clearly. It’s a theme that is played over and over in poetry and literature and art. We never tire of it because it’s so rich in associations and, at the same time, still so veiled and mysterious. We sense the deepness there, some truth not fully plumbed. We walk around it and around it, but never fully grasp it. Perhaps that’s why we return to it so often in our art, not to touch it, but to be touched by it.

Sometimes that touch is healing, as in the garden I wrote about. Sometimes it is transforming. It tears us to pieces in order to create us anew.

I wrote about this in my poem “Walking Among Flowers.” Here’s an excerpt from a blog post that tells how this came about:

Walking through the village on Nuka Hiva down narrow, winding roads, past pastel-colored houses surrounded by gardens overflowing with flowers and dense tropical foliage, melting in the heat and humidity and the perfumed air . . . . . I felt physically and mentally assaulted, overcome by the intensity of the colors and the abundance of the beauty that surrounded me.

Colors exploding all around me, shattering the senses—sight, smell, and sound washing together. Undulating waves of color, wrapping around me, streaming through me, carrying me away.

Sometimes it was a soft, sensual immersion. Sometimes a harsh, brutal slaying. It knocked me off my feet and broke me open. I swallowed it whole.

In the poem I tried to capture how the brutal beauty of the experience tore me apart, leaving me bloody and trampled. Yet out of this seeming “death” rose something new, ethereal, like light, and powerful. Here’s where we see Steven’s influence, in the final downward swoop:

 I lay like a light on the garden wall

then swooping, swallow, flowers and all.

The same “beauty and brutality” that tore me apart, transforms me, and allows me to partake of its wholeness, to become one with the wholeness, and holiness, of life.

It’s odd though. I don’t think of the beauty and brutality in equal terms. In this life, as we normally experience it, the brutality, the darkness, is the shadow side of something that is “real” in a way that the shadow itself is not. We still experience it, it still gives depth to the wholeness of our experience. It still shapes us, even as it torments us or tears us apart. It’s very “real” in those harsh, experiential ways. It’s perhaps part of the birthing process, but it’s not the birth itself, or the thing we’re giving birth to.

But what it is, is not something we can easily put our finger on.  So we write poetry about it instead. And we feel it, as we too swoop “downward into darkness on extended wings.”

Making Space


Wise and lovely words to lean into: “My friend now calls herself Grandmother. She is learning to wear the robes of a big archetype. She is learning to walk gracefully into a different season of her life, walking in a different body. One with a slower pace and a wider lap, more spacious, deeply rooted in her own story”

Originally posted on Writings from Wild Soul:

NASA photo

NASA photo

My writing group started up again this week. A lovely circle of women who have been writing together for years now allowing me to guide them. A friend had shared with me that in the moon of October we are under an auspicious time for manifesting what we most desire. So I asked the group to ponder this question: what do you most desire now? The responses were rich and varied. One woman wrote a lovely poem about The Sudden Rose, that experience of something sweet and surprising arriving unbidden, how she wants more of those. Ah, yes, indeed.

This month my husband had surgery for one of those things that beset men in their elder years. All is well. In the process we talked about aging and ways we can embrace the lessening of capacity when that comes, how to live into this new phase of our lives…

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Getting Serious about Our Life’s Work


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Hero Carlo_Crivelli_-_Saint_George_Slaying_the_Dragon,_1470I read Steven Pressfield’s book “The War of Art” not long ago and followed up with its sequel “Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work.”

Both are motivational books that help artists of all stripes get serious about their work. It helps them turn the corner from being mere dabblers, dilettantes, or “amateurs” as he calls them, to becoming true “professionals,” devoted entirely to their craft.

I think I’ve been turning that corner for a while now, but the “fire in the belly” comes and goes, and I realize I’m not as seriously devoted to writing as I could be, or want to be

One of the interesting things he does in “Turning Pro” is compare the artist and the addict. The mindless and mind-numbing pleasurable distractions, along with the self-doubts and fears and life-long bad habits, are what he calls “addictions.” This could include what we normally think of as addictions–to drugs, sex,  gambling, money, fame. But they also include web-surfing, working out, house-cleaning, pleasing others, a leisurely life-style, etc.

It’s all the same.They are all ways we resist devoting ourselves to the work we know we were meant to do.

Let me quote a few things he says about these addictions:

“Addictions” are not bad. They are simply the shadow forms of a more noble and exalted calling.

Addiction becomes a surrogate for our calling. We enact addiction instead of embracing the calling.

All addictions share, among other things, two prime qualities: (1) They embody repetition without progress; (2) They produce incapacity as a pay-off.

Both addicts and artists are dealing with the same material, which is the pain of being human and the struggle against self-sabotage.

Both artist and addict wrestle with the experience of exile. They share an acute, even excruciating sensitivity to the state of separation and isolation, and both actively seek a way to overcome it, to transcend it, or at least to make the pain go away.

The addict seeks to escape the pain of being human in one of two ways–by transcending it or by anesethetizing it. Borne aloft by powerful enough chemicals, we can almost, if we are lucky, glimpse the face of the Infinite. If that doesn’t work, we can always pass out. Both ways work. The pain goes away.

The artist takes a different tack. She tries to reach the upper realm not by chemicals but by labor and love.

The book is calling all the “amateurs” of the world–-those of us stuck in our distracting, mind-numbing “addictions”–-to turn “pro.” Turning pro is a mind-set. It’s embracing our higher-calling, the work we feel defines us.

 It’s not an ego thing. It’s devotional. And it’s humbling. He writes:

“When [the poet William] Blake said Eternity is in love with the creations of time, he was referring to those planes of pure potential, which are timeless, placeless, spaceless, but which long to bring their visions into being here, in this time-bound, space-defined world.

The artist is the servant of that intention, those angels, that Muse. The enemy of the artist is the small-time Ego, which begets Resistance, which is the dragon that guards the gold. That’s why an artist must be a warrior and, like all warriors, artists over time acquire modesty and humility . . . . They know they are not the source of the creations they bring into being. They only facilitate. They carry. They are the willing and skilled instruments of the gods and goddesses they serve.”

I feel I’m getting there. I feel I’m turning that corner. But I’m not quite there yet. I’m holding something back. That’s sense of urgency perhaps. That devotional state of mind. That single-purposedness.

I dreamed not long ago about a ferocious bear descending upon me, coming to grab me away from my ordinary life. I felt like I was being “chosen” for something, being taken on a journey to a higher realm. I was terrified—until I noticed the hand grabbing me was “soft,” not hard.

Am I being “softly” led away to my calling?

Or am I once again choosing the soft, easy path? S-l-o-w-l-y turning the corner, rather than plunging directly into the heat of that creative fire?

Annie Dillard, whom I wrote about recently, also spoke of the artist in terms of the devotee and the warrior:

Writing a first draft requires for the writer a peculiar internal state which ordinary life does not induce. If you were a Zulu warrior banging on your shield with your spear for a couple of hours . . . you might be able to prepare yourself to write. If you were an Aztec maiden who knew months in advance . . . the priests were going to throw you into a hot volcano, and if you spent those months undergoing a series of purification rituals . . . you might be ready to write. By how, if you are neither Zulu warrior nor Aztec maiden, do you prepare yourself, all alone, to enter an extraordinary state on an ordinary morning?

How set yourself spinning? Where is an edge—a dangerous edge—and where is the trail to the edge and the strength to climb it?

While she was referring to the state of mind needed for writing a first draft, could that not also apply to our lives as artists, activists, entrepreneurs, whatever we feel in our bones we were called to do?

Mary Oliver asks at the end of one of her marvelous poems:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Indeed, what?

And, most urgently, when?

Books I’ve Abandoned


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Books Jan_van_Eyck_059 wikicommonsSad to say, but I abandon more books than I finish nowadays.

I simply lose interest in them. I read a few chapters, lay them aside for a few days, and realize: I really don’t care how this end. There’s nothing drawing me to return to the page. Often the book is well-written, has received rave reviews, the characters are strong, and the plot adequate. But it’s not compelling. I’m not sucked into the story. Something is missing, and I’m disappointed. Because I want to be swept away, I want to be dazzled, I want to be moved. But I’m not.

A few of these abandoned books I’ve kept, hoping the timing just wasn’t right. I wasn’t in the mood for this particular book. This has happened before. I’ve abandoned books and returned to them later and loved them. Or I’ve persisted with a book I wanted to abandon but couldn’t because I had an outside inducement to continue (a class I was taking, a book club choice, a friend had recommended, etc.), and then, about half-way through, something is triggered, and I find myself eagerly finishing the book–a book I would have abandoned otherwise.

Here’s a few books I abandoned within the past year but have kept on my shelf, hoping the timing was just off:

  • Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kinglover
  • Bel Canto, Ann Patchett
  • Arcadia, Lauren Groff
  • The Tiger’s Wife, Tea Obreht
  • Wild, Cheryl Strayed

Recent reads I loved and eagerly finished:

  • The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey
  • Mudbound, Hillary Jordan
  • The Round House, Louise Erdrich
  • The Shadow Catcher, Marianne Wiggons
  • Games of Thrones (first three books in the series), George R. R. Martin
  • The Hunger Games (all three in series), Suzanne Collins
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (all three in series), Stieg Larsson

A few I finished with coercion and am glad I did:

  • The Light Between Oceans, M. L. Stedman
  • Claire of the Sea Light, Edwidge Danticat
  • Tinkers, Paul Harding
  • Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson

Books I’m currently reading and on the verge of abandoning:

  • Object Lessons, Anna Quindlen
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz

Books I’m currently reading and am eager to finish:

  • Peace Like a River, Leif Enger
  • Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

Books on my shelf, or in my Kindle, that I’m looking forward to reading:

  • Tenth of December, George Saunders
  • We the Animals, Justin Torres
  • Americana, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich

I don’t know if I’m unusual in doing this, if I’m particularly picky, or if this is fairly common. Do you abandon books? Or do you force yourself to finish them?

Have you read any of these books? What’s been your experience with them?


20 Favorite and Most Influential Books


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Books Lectura_para_unas_vidas_(7075327405)What follows are the 20 favorite books that helped shape the way I think and write. It was hard to limit the list to twenty, and the only way I could do so was by including only one book per author, and by excluding works of poetry, and two foundational (religious) books, all of which I may write about in future posts.

But the twenty remaining are significant. I’ve listed them–more or less–by when they first appeared in my life, starting with fiction and moving to non-fiction: memoir, science, and philosophy.

  1. Fairy Tales, by Charles Peuralt and the Grimms Brothers – I grew up on fairy tales and came to love these stories, which speak in deeply moving ways of what it means to be human. Not surprisingly these stories seemed to rise in slightly different forms all over the world. They illustrate the archtypes that Carl Jung writes about and point toward a collective human consciousness. A few of my favorites were Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, and The Snow Queen. As an adult, my love of fairy tales is satisfied by such books as The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (a darkly sensual retelling of the old fairy tales) and more recently The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (a retelling of that classic fairy tale, as experienced by homesteaders in 1920 Alaska.)
  2. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madelien L’Engle – As a child, this classic was my all-time favorite. It introduced me to the genres of science fiction and fantasy, and inspired me with the subtle elements of spirituality woven throughout. It also spurred my interest in physics and astronomy, and how all these things can be drawn together and brought to life with lively characters and a riveting plot.
  3. Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien – This trilogy by a master story-telling creates a fantastical world that has the gravitas of myth and lore. Humble, flawed, impulsive, and heroic characters are set upon a rousing adventure full of pitfalls and setbacks, in their quest to overcome evil and save the world. It both delighted me as a reader and instructed me as a writer. I haven’t read anything quite like it until recently, reading the Game of Thrones series by George R. R. Martin. This series doesn’t measure up to the Lord of the Rings as literary fiction, but it does surpass it in terms of gritty reality, sexual exploitations, and characters with fatal flaws–literally.
  4. The Bear, by William Faulkner – This is one of several linked stories in Faulkner’s book Go Down, Moses. It’s one of his most spiritual stories and the one most anthologized, about a boy coming of age in the wilderness and his hunt for the legendary and mythical Bear. I found how Faulkner depicts nature as a powerful, mystical force mesmerizing, as I did the structure of his sentences. I love how his long, sensuous, prose that wraps around itself, and takes you, phrase by phrase, to a deeper and more profound meaning. Reading Faulkner trained my ear for other seductive writing styles and stories, such as those by Toni Morrison and Gabriel Marquez.
  5. The Beast in the Jungle, by William James – This is another short story, a novella actually, that deeply impacted my taste in literature, for writing that is dense and complex. I found the way he deeply probes the human consciousness and shifting perceptions using an unreliable narrator fascinating. His writing was a major influence in the works of the next writer on this list, Virgina Woolf.
  6. To a Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf – I love her lyrical prose, the way she uses stream of consciousness to move the narrative, and the fact that so much can be revealed so quietly and subtly when writing about an ordinary day, ordinary lives. I agree with Eudora Welty when she wrote how this book is “beyond being about the very nature of reality, it is itself a vision of reality.”
  7. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison – I was blown away by this novel, the beauty and lyricism of the prose, the intensely passionate and quirky charactors, and the magical realism that is woven throughout. I also loved her novels Beloved and Tar Baby. More than any other writer, I think the depth and beauty of her prose is what I aspire to. Reading her books led me to the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, his short works as well as One Hundred Years of Solitude, which easily could have been included as one of my top 20′s.
  8. Bellefleur, by Joyce Carol Oates – I had read many of Oates’ dark, often violent short stories with a strong psychological bent. And I know these influenced me – some of my short stories are dark and deeply psychological. But I found Bellefleur, which is written in a completely different style, spellbinding. Here she marries gothic romance with magical realism, and it’s so over the top, and written with such rich and luscious prose, such depth and sensuality, that it is a delight to read.
  9. Passion and Other Stories, by Isaac Bashevis Singer – I fell in love with these stories set in Eastern Europe about Yiddish-speaking Jews. While rooted in realism, these stories of unique characters and situations have subtle elements of magical realism and an undertone of spirituality. While not well-known today, Singer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978.
  10. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy – For all of its length and complexity, this novel is easy reading because it sweeps you away with the mastery of great story-telling. Reading Tolstoy, I feel I am sitting at the knees of a master writer and drinking up all I can learn.
  11. Notes From Underground, by Fyodor Dostoevsky – Another book I was blown away by, but in an entirely different way than the others. I’d never met a character or heard a voice like the narrator of his tale, who displays a kind manic, depraved perversity and woundedness. Doestoevsky intimately and devastatingly dissects the inner life of a man on the verge of madness. He reveals that kind of humiliation and masochistic tendency that haunts our worst nightmares.
  12. Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller – This fascinating novel is based on Miller’s own experiences living in Paris in the late 20’s. It’s about an artist seeking to live a rich and authentic life under dire conditions. This narrator, like Doestoevshy’s, writes about the humiliations he suffers and his own woundedness, but unlike the other character, he rises above it—he yearns for transcendence. This novel reads in part like a memoir with sketches of important writers and artists living in Paris at that time, and also contains long sections of stream-of-consciousness with poignant, luminous passages. When it was published in 1934 it was banned in the US for its erotica. When finally published here in the 1961, it sparked a controversy that ended in a Supreme Court ruling that extended free speech to include literature.
  13. At Play in the Field of the Lord, and The Snow Leopard, both by Peter Mathiessen – I couldn’t decide which book to include, both were so influential. I read At Play first, a novel set in South America about two degenerate pilots, two missionary families, and a tribe of natives on the verge of extinction. The second is a memoir about Mathiessen climbing the Himalayas in search of the elusive snow leopard. It’s also a meditation on the death of his late wife, and about his pracice of Zen Buddhism. Both books are great adventure stories that look deeply into the meaning of life, the natural world, and the human heart.
  14. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig – This was an immensely popular “culture-bearing” classic from the seventies. It had been rejected 122 times before finally finding its way into print, and immediately became a best seller. And for good reason. Like “The Snow Leopard,” it is part memoir –a father-son road trip, part meditation on the meaning of life (the author calls it “an inquirey into values”), and part instruction manual on how to practice Zen through the art of motocycle maintenance. A heavy and heady road-trip indeed.
  15. Cosmos, By Carl Sagan – Another heady and heavy road-trip—through the Cosmos this time. His series inspired a keen interest in astronomy and cosmology, and enabled me to see how science, too, can help us explore the big questions about what it means to be human.
  16. The Lives of a Cell, by Lewis Thomas – Where Sagan was exploring the outer universe, Thomas explores the universe of earth, which he compares in all its complexity to the beauty of a single cell. Writing as a biologist, his essays ramble from field to field, with meditations on such diverse topics as music, death, language, medicine, insects, and computers. Each essay always brings into juxtaposition seemingly dissimilar items, revealing surprising relationships and shedding light on the human condition and the nature of reality.
  17. The Tao of Physics, by Fritjof Capra – The book copy describes this as “a pioneering book” that “reconciles eastern philosophy and western science in a brilliant humanistic vision of the universe.” An apt description. This book took me on another adventurous road-trip, this time into the tiniest realms of the universe. It awakened in me a keen interest in quantum physics and the latest discoveries of science, which I’ve been exploring (as a layman) ever since. James Gleick’s Chaos: Making of a new Science, M. Mitchell’s Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, and Leonard Shains’s more cross-disciplinary Art & Science: Parallel vison in Space, Time & Light are a few examples of influential books that followed.
  18. The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran – I read this as a teen, and it began a life-long interest in philosophy, eastern spiritual practices, and the possibility of creating an artful life. It was written by a Lebanese artist and philosopher as 26 prose poems, each a meditation on such topics as joy and sorrow, good and evil, beauty, pleasure, marriage, children, and so much more.
  19. An Introduction to Zen Buddhism by D. T. Suzuki, Forward by Carl Jung – This book introduced me to two great thinkers, Suzuki and Jung, and a new way of thinking. It was hugely influential. Suzuki was born in Japan and trained as a Buddhist disciple at a Zen Monestary. He wrote extensively on Zen and was credited with bringing Zen to the West. I went on to eagerly read (and study) several more of his works, including his Essays in Zen Buddhism. I’ve never read another book on Zen that comes close to his works in depth and clarity. Another favorite, however, is Alan Watt’s The Spirit of Zen. The foreword to Suzuki’s book also led me to read Jung’s The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, and Bill Moyers’ interviews with Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth. Both hugely influential.
  20. Creativity and Tao: A Study of Chinese Philosophy, Art, and Poetry, by Chang Chung-yuan – I ran across this in a used book store when I was a young woman. I read it to tatters along with several other copies I bought to replace it—that’s how much I love this book, and how often I study and meditate upon it. It’s the kind of book you can read over and over and gain new inspiration and understanding with each reading. It sparked a keen and enduring love of art, and threw new light on the creative process–where it comes from and how it is manifested in art and the written word. It deftly weaves together and brings to a profound point some of the great loves of my life: Poetry, Art, Philosophy, and Spirituality.

Have you read any of these books?  I’d be really interested in hearing your comments on them. I’d also love to hear what books influenced you the most.

More on “The Writing Life” with Annie Dillard


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writer hc-annie-dillard-born-april-30-1945-20130225 Getty Images July 1987

Annie Dillard, July 1987, Getty Images

One of the things I love about Annie Dillard’s book “The Writing Life” is how it addresses both the drudgery and the ecstasy of writing, the torment and bliss, the good days and the bad.

It is both a comfort and an encouragement that other writers–esteemed writers, prolific writers–have felt at one time or another all the highs and lows of my own experience in pursuing the writer’s life.

Preparing to Write

Writing is both craft and art, but to move it from craft to art requires a certain kind of mental preparation that many writers refer to, sometimes as ritual, sometimes as muse. For Dillard, that preparation is particularly intense:

Writing a first draft requires for the writer a peculiar internal state which ordinary life does not induce. If you were a Zulu warrior banging on your shield with your spear for a couple of hours . . . you might be able to prepare yourself to write. If you were an Aztec maiden who knew months in advance . . . the priests were going to throw you into a hot volcano, and if you spent those months undergoing a series of purification rituals . . . you might be ready to write. By how, if you are neither Zulu warrior nor Aztec maiden, do you prepare yourself, all alone, to enter an extraordinary state on an ordinary morning?

How set yourself spinning? Where is an edge—a dangerous edge—and where is the trail to the edge and the strength to climb it?

How to set yourself spinning? That’s the question, isn’t it? What lights the spark within that catches fire and sends us breathless to the page to capture that flame before it dies. What brings us back there, again and again, each day, to complete the work? How to ignite it again? Sometimes it does seem that we have to enter that extraordinary state of mind that the Zulu warrior or Aztec maiden prepares for with such zeal and passion.

For me it often comes when reading poetry, or philosophy, or other writers I admire, and something catches–a phrase, a thought, an image, a rhythm in the way the words flow. I’m snagged, and I feel I am being carried to a new place, and I see things in a new light. This new seeing, this discovery, is so exciting, it looses something in me and I run to grab a pen so I can capture it before it disappears.

It’s returning to that, that “felt sense” of things, that spark of discovery, that brings me back into the state of mind where I can re-enter the work, and keep writing, keep unspooling what’s there, discovering as I go where I’m going.

“A dangerous edge” – yes. It is an edge, a precipice, beyond which “not-knowing” lies. We have to be willing to throw ourselves over that edge, enter the “not-knowing,” submit to it, let it take us where it will, and trusting it will take us where we need to go.

E. L. Doctorow once famously said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Writing Through the Flow

In that almost hypnotic, expectant, trustful state of mind, the writing is joyous, thrilling. We’re “in the zone.” As Dillard writes:

The line of words is heading out past Jupiter this morning . . . The line of words speeds past Jupiter and its cumbrous, dizzying orbit; it looks neither to the right nor to the left. It will be leaving the solar system soon, single –minded, rapt, rushing heaven like a soul . . . . Right now, you are flying. Right now, your job is to hold your breath.

Elsewhere she elaborates:

The sensations of writing a book are the sensation of spinning, blinded by love and daring.

The sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then—and only then—it is handed to you.

Writing Through the Resistance

But sometimes it’s not handed to us. Sometimes we search and break our heart and break our back only to find—nothing. Sometimes the work does not speak to us.

Sometimes the “not knowing” feels like a brick wall, huge, monstrous, holding us back, walling us out, keeping us stumped. We feel dumb, tongue-tied, speechless, like a brute trying to talk. We choke on our own words, the words that will not come, the words that weigh us down, the words that feel dry and brittle and useless in our mouths.

We’re stuck. Blocked. We hit that wall and would rather do anything but write.

At one point in her book, frustrated by her writing, Dillard exclaims: “I hate to write. I would rather do anything else.” She tells us:

I avoided writing, and mostly what I did by way of work was fool around.

One day, full of such thoughts, I tried to work and failed. After eight hours of watching helplessly while my own inane, manneristic doodles over stepped their margins and covered the pages I was supposed to be writing, I gave up. I decided to hate myself, to make popcorn and read.

Pacing the Writing

So how do we negotiate that space that lies between inspiration and resistance, between “not-knowing” as a precipice from which we gladly leap, flying, and “not-knowing” as a wall around which we cannot reach?

Pacing. Pacing is the answer. Slow and methodical, or brisk and determined, or steady and sure. Whatever. Just keep one foot moving forward at all times.

On plenty of days the writer can write three or four pages, and on plenty of other days he concludes he must throw them away. These truths comfort the anguished. They do not mean, by any means, that faster-written books are worse books. They just mean that most writers might well stop berating themselves for writing at a normal, slow pace.

I was working hard, although of course it did not seem hard enough at the time—a finished chapter every few weeks. I castigated myself daily for writing too slowly. Even when passages seemed to come easily, as though I were copying from a folio held open by smiling angels, the manuscript revealed the usual signs of struggle—bloodstains, teethmarks, gashes, and burns.

This revelation was particularly encouraging to me—how slow Annie writes. Doing so can be discouraging, but doing so still gets the work done.

You are writing a book. . . . you do not hurry and do not rest. You climb steadily, doing your job in the dark. When you reach the end, there is nothing more to climb. The sun hits you; the bright wideness surprises you; you had forgotten there was an end.

You do not hurry, you do not rest. My mantra now.

Pacing is key: Fast, slow, in-between. Doesn’t matter. Moving forward, steadily, one word after another, is all that does matter.

Pacing – II, Tending and Taming

Sometimes another kind of pacing is needed, knowing when to patiently nurse the writing, and knowing when to beat it into submission. Both are sometimes required, as Dillard will tell you.

I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.

This tender relationship can change in a twinkling. If you skip a visit or two, a work in progress will turn on you.

A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight . . . . As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room.

Pacing – III, Emotional Distance

A third kind of pacing, or maybe “spacing,” emotional distance, is also needed: The ability to regard our work from a “Goldilocks” zone: Not too close, not too distant.

[A writer] must be sufficiently excited to rouse himself to the task at hand, and not so excited he cannot sit down to it. He must have faith sufficient to impel and renew the work, yet not so much faith he fancies he is writing well when he is not.

Finding the right balance in our relationship to the writing is important when it comes to evaluating and revising our work. The failure to do so can either distort or block the writing. Another hindrance, another kind of wall that can block the writing, or distort it, is our own evaluation of the work.

There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its action quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.

I’ve been snagged by this before, so much so that I could write a whole blog post about this, and probably will. So I’ll reserve that for later. The thing is, when we get too close to the writing, when it thrills us, we may think it’s magnificent, and forget, as Dillard writes below, that the reader, who is not sitting at the top of that roller coaster ride with you, may find our writing not quite so thrilling as we do. Dillard warns:

The writing that you do, that so thrills you, that rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else. The reader’s ear must adjust down from loud life to the subtle, imaginary sounds of the written word. An ordinary reader picking up a book can’t yet hear a thing: it will take half an hour to pick up the writing’s modulations, its ups and downs and sounds and softs.

On the other hand, in trying to distance ourselves from our own words so we can read them “objectively,” sometimes moves us so far away from our writing that we view it not as a living thing with breath and a beating heart, but as a cold-blooded stalker bent on murder might: as a thing, an object: cold and dead. Do not trust these kinds of reading, neither the cold-blooded kind, nor the thrilling roller-coaster kind. Step back, but not too far. Regard your writing kindly, and kindly look for ways to improve it, not destroy or abandon it.

Too many of us thin-skinned writers, I believe, are too eager to either kiss our darlings passionately to death, or to dispassionately murder them instead. I’ve never bought into the “murder your darlings” advice. Regard them kindly, wisely. Cut the fat, trim the ribbons, make sure she’s buttoned up nicely, and let her work her magic, if she can, upon the readers who, like me, eagerly look for and highlight “the darlings” we encounter.

Whatever you do, for the reader’s sake, don’t cut the heart out of your writing:

Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?

Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer . . . will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power? What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking.

The Heart of Writing

For many of us, writers as well as readers, what we’re searching for when we write, when we read, is the heart of the beast—that bloody, bleeding, throbbing heart. The place where you know you are holding something live and tender and immensely precious is in your hands and you hold it with reverence. Because you recognize it. It’s your heart. Yours. You are holding it in your hands. You are seeing it for the first time. And it’s beautiful.

Finding it, cutting it out, laying it on paper, as the writer does, is not easy. As Dillard knows.

The line of words fingers your own heart. It invades arteries, and enters the heart on a flood of breath; it presses the moving rims of thick valves; it palpates the dark muscle strong as horses, feeling for something, it knows not what . . . . [S]ome film of feeling, some song forgotten.

[T]hese fragments are heavy with meaning. The line of words peels them back, dissects them out. Will the bared tissue burn? Do you want to expose these scenes to the light? You may locate them and leave them, or poke the spot hard till the sore bleeds on your finger, and write with that blood. If the sore spot is not fatal . . . you can use its power for many years, until the heart resorbs it.

Writing as Dying

It is not easy, digging into the heart of things. But it’s what we live for, many of us, to reach the beating heart of existence. To hold it in our hands.

Perhaps this is why Dillard urges us to:

Write as if you were dying . . . write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. What would you begin writing if you knew you should die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?

Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search each object in a piece of art. Do not leave it, do not course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength.

Who but an artist fierce to know—not fierce to seem to know—would suppose that a live image possessed a secret? The artist is willing to give all his or her strength and life to probing with blunt instruments those same secrets no one can describe in any way but with those instruments’ faint tracks.

One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.

Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.

The Aim of Writing

There’s another succinct piece of writing advice that Dillard gives, that if she said nothing else about the art of writing would suffice. She compares writing with chopping wood and tells us:

Aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood, aim for the chopping block.

So what is the chopping block in this metaphor?

Call it the heart of the matter. Call it the “deepest mystery,” as Dillard does, that which lies beneath all things and upon which all things lay. But whatever we call it, when we write, we must aim past the words, past the writing itself, toward that “deeper penetration into the universe.”

What Are We Here For?

Toward the end of her book, Annie asks: “What are we here for?” I’m not sure if she is asking us that as writers, or as human beings. But her answer could be applied to either.

She replies: “Propter chorum, the monks say: for the sake of the choir.”

Our one small voice is essential to the whole.

“The Writing Life” ends with the following quote, and so too shall I end on this high, clear note:

“Purity does not lie in separation from but in deeper penetration into the universe,” Teilhard de Chardin wrote. “The world is filled, and filled with the Absolute. To see this is to be made free.”

* * *

If you missed part one of my dialogue with Dillard, you can read it HERE.

More on Dillard’s book can be found at Brain Pickings, which includes a link to a free public library e-book.

Dialogue with Annie Dillard on “The Writing Life”


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Writing Albert_Anker_(1831-1910),_Schreibunterricht,_1865__Oil_on_canvasI read Annie Dillard’s book “The Writing Life” years ago and reread it recently.

It was a huge inspiration to me then as now, full of practical advice about the craft of writing—its how and why and what–as well the thrill of writing, and the mystery that lies at its heart.

Below, you will find a “dialogue,” if you will, between Dillard and me on the practice and art of writing. Mind you, it will be a dialogue between master and novice. While I’ve been writing all my life, I haven’t done much with it, until recently. For all my years, and all my years writing, I’m still what you might call an “emerging” writer.

Still, from a very early age, I’ve always thought of myself as a writer. It’s what I am. Nothing else I could say about myself rings as true. How else could I identify myself?

As teacher, activist, community leader? I was all that, once upon a time. But it was what I did, not what I was. And besides, even then, even in those roles, writing was the way I made my biggest contribution to those fields. I taught writing, I wrote as an activist, I let my words and the passion of those words drive the work.

As a mother? Maybe. Although my children are grown and no longer need mothering, or at least need less of it than I have to give. I mother my writing now.

As wife? Perhaps. Although my husband and I grow more apart the older we grow. We still connect, but sparsely. Our marriage is mostly skeletal now: bone, little flesh. But it still provides a kind of structure for our lives, shapes our days, a spare drawing: a few lines, lots of white space. The space that holds my writing, or waits for it.

As lover? Oh yes. I am that. My life is shot through with love. I cannot lift my head without finding something to love. I could sit still and do nothing all day but love. I dither away my days loving sky and oak and bird and bee. Loving rock and rose and river. But the writing is all wrapped up in that. The loving and the writing are so closely intertwined, it’s hard to tell them apart sometimes.

Truth-Seeker? Without a doubt. My reading is endless, and the thing I am looking for in my reading is that nugget of truth, the thing that pierces me with its truth, that hits me full in the face, that I taste and say, yes, salt. That I taste and say, yes, bitter. That I taste and say, yes, sweet, and I feel that sweetness spreading through me. And I know then, this is true.

But the truth-seeking is all wrapped up in writing, the reading and the writing wrapped together, and all of it is tied up in love. A big, bright bow of love.

I seek the truth of the things I love, and writing is the instrument I use to do that.

So how does one write? How and when and what?

Let’s see what one master has to say on the subject. Below are a few nuggets of wisdom drawn from Dillard’s book, and my responses to them.

Learning to Write

At one point, a student asks Dillard: “Who will teach me to write?” She answers:

The page, the page, that eternal blankness . . . ; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act . . . ; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against with you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page will teach you to write.

Practice and persistence are her answers. And perhaps, too, simply having the will to write, and the courage to face a blank page, to “ruin it,” knowing that so much you write will be thrown away.

It’s sitting down, again and again and again, and simply doing the work. We learn from that. Like practicing scales on a piano, over and over again—monotonous but necessary. Doing so, we learn something about the simple mechanics of writing as well as its rhythms, its flow, its necessity. And if we are lucky, the very act will carry us into the flow. We will no longer be practicing. We will no longer be playing those notes. We will become the music, and feel it pouring effortlessly through us, as us.

This more than anything may be how we learn to write: When we learn to love it, love being the writing, love letting it flow from us. This is what brings us back to that blank page, again and again. The chance to experience that, to let the writing flow through us as mere instruments of the muse.

It doesn’t happen often. It’s not what gets the work done, the novel written. But, for many of us, for me at least, it’s what fuels the desire to write, what makes me think I am a writer, that mind-soul-meld. When I’m there, in that, I’m home, in a way I rarely experience outside that, except, sometimes, in meditation, in mindful contemplation, in deep moments of love, when I’m all love, when there’s only love. That’s why I write. To be that. To be me.

What to Write

The passage below is probably my favorite in her whole book, because she’s saying something I had not heard another writer say in quite the same way. And it strikes me as “true.” It gives me license to pursue some of my own quirky interests.

A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all. Strange seizures beset us. Frank Conroy loves his yo-yo tricks, Emily Dickenson her slant of light; Faulkner the muddy bottom of a little girl’s drawers visible when she’s up a pear tree.

Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Because it is up to you.

You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.

My own astonishment, yes. To give voice to the things that seize me, that take me by the throat and shake me. Or is it me taking the thing by the throat and shaking it? Trying to shake loose its truth, the thing I want to know, the thing I know is there, but haven’t quite gotten it yet. The thing that must be seen, must be spoken. The thing I need to say.

When I look at the things I write about, that I’m drawn to write about, that seize me, here’s what I see, what I’m drawn to explore:

The gap between appearance and reality; between what’s real and what’s not, and how we can ever truly know for sure. If it’s possible at all.

The dark and the light, good and evil, beauty and brutality, the foolish and profound: how they play together, how they are all wound up in each other, how it’s almost impossible to tear them apart, as least in our ordinary, daily experiences. They lay side by side, or one on top of the other; they copulate over and over, and we, this life itself, is what they give birth to.

Mind and matter, nature and art, science and spirituality: They too seem rolled into one. It’s hard to separate the one from the other. They are shot through with each other. What fascinates me is how certain patterns emerge over and over. How they seem to tell us something about Life, about ourselves, about what this whole world stretching out beyond the cosmos is all about. If you pay attention to the patterns, to the fractal self-similarities, you taste something that smacks of truth. Of what we were created to discover.

When to Write

This is my great failing, my falling, my torment.

One day when I was a young mother, I decided that I would put off my writing. I would wait until my children were grown. I found when I wrote I worked myself into such a torment, into such a heated frenzy, that when my children came home from school or needed something when I was writing, I could not tear myself away. Or if I did, I was in a rage, and I resented them. I did not want to spend time with them. I wanted to write. That’s all I wanted.

And I hated that. Hated being that way, feeling that way, toward them. I thought: they are little only a little while. I want to enjoy them, every minute I can of their young lives. I want to be here now, with them. So I put my writing away, taking it out only when I knew for certain I had the time to devote undisturbed, with the understanding that my children came first. My writing was hidden away in a drawer like a caged beast. It growled at me. It said: I will make you pay for this.

So I wrote less and less. And the years went by, and the children grew up. But there was always something more important than writing to devote myself to: teaching, social justice, community work, politics; saving the world, preserving the environment, protesting for peace, for a living wage; helping the poor, the homeless, the disenfranchised.

And the years went by and all the writing I had done was work related: political, social, economic.

Then I retired to write full-time. And here I am. But do I write full-time? No. There’s beds to make, and floors to shine, and gardens to weed, and windows to wash. There’s non-stop news on cable aabout wars and scandals and school shootings and missing planes and police brutality and social unrest. The whole world, it appears, spinning out of control, and I must witness its unraveling.

There’s the internet too, Facebook and Twitter and Google and a thousand interesting stories, important stories, must-read stories, calling me like Odysseus’ sirens, driving my boat onto those rocky shores, turning me into a grunting boar, rooting for the latest news; or turning me into a statue of myself, frozen, unable to move.

I let my fierce beast out of its drawer at long last, and it curled up like a kitten and went to sleep.

So now I must wake it, shake it, make it roar again. And then I must tame it. But how, how?

I read what Dillard says about taming the beast. And I cling to it like a life boat.

What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being: it is a life boat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.

So I create my schedule. I cling to it like a life boat. And someday, someday soon, I hope to climb all the way inside. I hope to inhabit my life boat. To live there. Waiting for the writing to emerge as a “blurred and powerful pattern” stitching my days together.

There’s more. So much more from Dillard’s book I want to share with you. Next time.

But today, today I must shake out my schedule. I must return to my novel. I must resist the news and internet and beds and gardens. I must be a shut-in. I must shut myself into my novel. I must do the work of writing.


More on Writing with Annie Dillard


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Writing on Writing

A Writing Milestone


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