I am in love with words and books and stories. One of the greatest frustrations is a bad book, or a book I cannot connect with, that steals not only time but the hope of experience, gives me only disappointment, lets me down.*
I learn so much from books. I have an idea floating around for a book loosely based on life-coaching from some of my favourite authors, such as Marion Milner, Franz Kafka, Henry Miller, and it’s a craving for a book I want to read that is not satisfied by the disappointing The Novel Cure, which tackles 751 different life problems, but does so as wry compendium and lacks emotion and narrative, within individual entries and the book overall. As Shakespeare and the Greeks well knew, you cannot captivate a heart without narrative. It is how Sinon fools the Trojans; how Othello convinces the Senate. Why did the authors of The Novel Cure, who obviously love literature, not spot the weakness in their structure?
It is, however, an impressive guide to writer-guides. The list of writers who I turn to, who have given me so much, is written in a similar way to Alice Walker’s list at the end of her essay ‘Saving the life that is your own’. She notes and gives thanks to Zora Hurston, Jean Toomer, Colette, Anaïs Nin, Tillie Olson, Virginia Woolf, for providing her with the models for how to write, and how to live. The end of her list reads like this:
Tillie Olson—a writer of such generosity and honesty, she literally saves lives;
Virginia Woolf—who has saved so many of us.
It is, in the end, the saving of lives that we writers are about. Whether we are “minority” writers or “majority”. It is simply in our power to do this. We do it because we care […] We care because we know this: the life we save is our own.
It has taken some time and some re-reading to understand what Walker is saying. Because the saving of lives is not in the physical sense.
But it is in the psychological and political sense: books do save, change lives. The psychologist (or rather un-psychologist) Steve Thorp calls Alice Walker ‘an “integral” practitioner: an activist, a novelist, a poet, essayist – her work combines psychological and political understanding with a poetic and ecological sensibility.’ The saving of a life can be the saving of this thing you are living, rather than the body you’re living it with. To save one from sleepwalking, from attachments to ways of living that are bad for you (e.g. fantasies of ‘the good life’, ‘the American dream’). As Lauren Berlant puts it, the route to the ‘good life’ sold to us is often a rut, but between the routinized rut and the cracks that drop into nowhere, you stay in your rut. The saving of a life that Walker talks about is the life of the imagination. It is about taking us out of the rut, and imagining better worlds (for ourselves, others).
How do we do this if not with imagination? If not with art?
It is why, in her essay, when asked the question what is the difference between white and black writers, she sees black writers always aiming towards a larger freedom. It is a political and psychological freedom that white writers, says Walker, having never been enslaved or oppressed, need not chase. Or as the African-American writer Terry McMillan puts it: ‘This writing stuff saved me. Writing is my shelter.’
Writing books to be read. What got Jonathan Franzen ‘back on track as a writer’ after struggling with the realisation that his books had failed to ‘culturally engage’ an audience and that, he was coming to see, the novel no longer played an important role in the cultural life of Americans, was reading. Or, to be precise, readers, of which he was also one.
Franzen quotes the work of Shirley Brice Heath,whose work is now very out of date as she researched enforced transit zones, such as airports, where people had no access to popular culture such as TV or much music, which is a time forever gone to us now, with the smart phone; she also got it wrong that ‘the computer will never replace a book’ now we have the I-Pad and Kindle, which gives to the computer the ‘substance’ that book readers crave.
For Heath, there are two kinds of readers, those who modelled themselves on at least one parent, and those who are ‘social isolates’ who become, in fact, hypersocial (hyper sensitive to sociality, rather than antisocial) and who find in books the people, characters, and world with which they can communicate. Reading, then, is an act of imaginary communication. And these types are much more likely to become writers. As Heath said to Franzen: “you are a socially isolated individual who desperately wants to communicate with a substantive imaginary world.”
For Franzen this is no stinging criticism. It is exhilarating. “Simply to be recognised for what I was, simply not to be misunderstood: these had revealed themselves, suddenly, as reasons to write.”
I want to take Walker’s words from her essay and look for how they could work as a model for my own writing, and life. Walker explores the works of black women, and from these writers (not only these, also men, also white women) begins to create a body of work that helps her understand her role as a writer, and as an integral practitioner of what it means to be human. She writes about the experiences of black women because these are her experiences. But she also writes about universal human experiences, and nonhuman relations.
I am trying to work out that model for being someone who is being pressed to write, or think about, or work in the field of animal / nonhuman suffering and oppression. But I am not a cow, or a pig, or a chicken, or a dolphin or orca taken from the wild and held captive. I cannot write ‘as’ one of them. So how can I write? Two things to think about:
- What or who can I write ‘as’ – what is my personal story that, as Jonathan Franzen urges us to do, connects to the collective and social?
- Who are the models I can draw upon who write about and for animals, either as novelists, poets, anthropologists, ethologists, essayists…
In the margins of my Alice Walker book I’ve written down a couple of things, scratched out of letters in the urgency of wanting to say something. I’ve written ‘Earthlings’ – it’s the 2005 film narrated by Joaquin Phoenix. It is also the collective for what we all are—animals, living beings, connected by this one planet. So this is one thing I can write ‘as’. Another is as a person who feels empathy for those nonhuman animals who suffer through living hells for our taste preferences, our meat and dairy addictions. Does it matter if I write in forms other than fiction to tell these stories? Can I also tell them through fiction and literature (which might include poetry, plays, essays)?
There’s a third question to add to that list. As Jonathan Franzen puts its in his essay collection How to Be Alone, ‘Why Bother?’ with writing? Why write at all, if it changes nothing? If it does not culturally engage in a time of rapid gratification and shallow narrative? (And if you just want to see a really powerful ripping up and annotation of a book, visit this Vice article.)
Alice Walker answers that question—or rather, puts forward Toni Morrison’s answer—in her essay. Write to bring into the world the books you want to read. Or, as Walker takes it a little further, she writes the books that ‘I should have been able to read.’ She is talking about the books of black women, of black history, of black anthropology. As she was striking out to write a story (inspired by her mother) on black women’s experience and voodoo, the only books she could find on this rich experience of religion and the mystical in black women’s lives were written by white men. Until she found Zora Hurston, that is. And when she found Zora, she found that other critically important thing for a writer (for anyone): a model.
And if there aren’t that many models out there? Be as Toni Morrison—as Walker says of her, “She must do the work of two. She must be her own model as well as the artist attending, creating, learning from, realizing the model, which is to say, herself.”
As Walker explains, finding a model is how you learn ‘to be alone’ (‘be a writer’); by realising that, when you write well, you’re not alone at all: “I had that wonderful feeling writers get sometimes, not very often, of being with a great many people, ancient spirits, all very happy to see me consulting and acknowledging them, and eager to let me know, through the joy of their presence, that, indeed, I am not alone.”
And so what was achieved in my week for the 40×40 utopia of writer’s habits? A whole day yesterday feeling overwhelmed and excited with the success of being awarded a Winston Churchill Travel Scholarship. But I still this week found time to meet someone new (Bev, a poet, from the PhD), listen to Hammock’s Departure Songs, watch two short films, The Heat and The Poodle Trainer, I also made two table arrangements for my friend A’s wedding, saw the great poet Douglas Dunn perform at NCLA, sent two valentine’s cards, bought a present (a DVD writer) for my friend K, and committed two hours practice to my newfound love for Pilates.
Already, for a writer, I am feeling the benefits of this ‘practice of doing things’, developing this utopia of ordinary habit, as Ann Cvetkovich calls it. Especially in two areas where I’ve always avoided giving my time—in listening to music and watching film. I’ve always seen both as a waste of my time before, or at least something I don’t find much pleasure in. But it’s not true—and it’s only ‘true’ because of early patterns as a kid of not wanting to be like my sister, who spent all her time watching films and listening to music. I wanted to be different, and so ruled out so many pleasurable acts and moments to find my own path.
Isn’t it funny, as the Jungian analyst James Hollis puts it, that the preferences we are so convinced are ours are often not ours at all? And then what do we do? As Steve Thorp put it just this weekend in his new five-minute read:
The aim must be for each of us to develop into elegant, radiant selves, and join to build communities of love, mutuality and connection. The way we can do this is to wake up, to remove the reductionist shackles of our culture’s psychology, to set out on our own path – however mad and wild we might seem to others – and trust that the journey will, in time, be one we can all share.
*As a note, these ‘disappointing books’ are often award-winning or shortlisted, such as Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies. I really don’t care about the characters in that book at all, and yet it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, possibly for its faux Woolf style. And Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, a very well written book, but short of depth, for all its plotting and emphasis on the astrological archetypes, which barely play a role in the novel at all. What begins as a wonderfully told story peters out into nothing but plot. By the end, we’re left with a hundred pages where we already know everything that’s happened, a clichéd resolution—the fallen woman saved by love (h/t to the writer Viccy Adams for pointing that out. Maybe the disappointment with these books has something to do with raised expectations due to the award/shortlisting? Perhaps.
Image of old Penguins (cc) Beat Ink