The Required Pain and Suffering: Writing and Love

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What, if anything, does writing foreclose in life or between people?

Despite probably a million compelling counter examples, famous and anecdotal, to the Plath/Hughes model of artistic-romantic implosion, a master narrative about the impossibility of loving writers and loving while a writer simply…persists. It buttresses the imagined partition between needless fun and necessary sacrifice, as if what we do with our bodies is at once separate from and a threat to what we cultivate in our minds. Take, from my archive, three examples.

From its opening dissuasion—first, try to be something, anything, else—Lorrie Moore’s short story “How to Become a Writer” is a cheeky cautionary tale, a portrait of the aspiring artist as terminally antisocial. Though the story is episodic and elliptical, leaping months and years over the course of its “instructions,” it’s also structured by resurfacing motifs: repetitive similes for blankness, a fondness for explosions, and threaded among these, a quieter concern with the pained relation between writing and love.

We read that early failure is important “so that at fifteen you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire.” Later, the hypothetical writer steals her funny boyfriend’s jokes and uses her stories to malign his ex. Then an indeterminate era is condensed into the lines, “You now go out with men who, instead of whispering ‘I love you,’ shout: ‘Do it to me, baby.’ This is good for your writing.” To become a writer is to recuperate the letdown. Like earlier rejections at home and in school, questionable choices supply “the required pain and suffering.”Continue Reading

What’s Self-Love Got to Do with It?

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Two years ago a generous woman handed me a spare key to the private office where she conducts her psychotherapy practice. I’ve since spent most weekends and some Jewish holy days, hours both glorious and mundane, in this Greenwich Village brownstone where I read and write and fret and nap on a red couch. I don’t receive therapy from Dr. X, but her gift of a creative private space—an ongoing residency of sorts—is its own therapy, free of charge.

Even if the shelf above her desk didn’t hold the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud bound in blue cloth (along with every secondary source on the man you can imagine), the paraphernalia honoring the father of psychosis scattered around the room clears up any doubt to the school of thought Dr. X follows: a plastic Freud action figure with hinged arms and the infamous cigar cinched between two tiny fingers; a Freudian Sips mug; a paper doll Freud with a hand cupped invitingly behind his ear; a framed poster of The New Yorker cover of Siggie driving a yellow cab while advising a patient reclined in the backseat; and a notepad of Freudian Slips.

When restless I read magazines in the waiting room or study the contents of the mini refrigerator in the adjacent kitchenette. I long ago developed the interloper’s eye, the art of looking and moving in places that don’t belong to me. I remember the objects I inspected in my early days of roaming when my mother took me with her on housekeeping jobs, objects I could not resist: a trophy with a small bronze eagle at its base, an old china doll with sharply-drawn eyebrows, a blue-flowered Japanese urn that lurched from my small hands, its extravagance deducted from my mother’s paycheck the following week.

I often imagine the people who come here during office hours, the stories they might tell Dr. X, all their vulnerabilities, traumas and despair, hubris, epiphanies, self-criticism or forgiveness. So many things released and reached within these walls. Hard questions that gnaw at their guts, questions realized and lived through again and again in the process of therapy. In form and in content, for me, it is the very stuff of art: the complexities and contradictions of human nature, a repeated return to obsessions, methods and processes of making the internal external, the need to locate and tell something that feels absolutely necessary—or even to invent that something—and have it be received.

And so, in this very specific space where people strive to understand themselves, I read and write. These days in the office I’m contemplating love—I wonder, do you have to love yourself to make art? Is art making, like choosing therapy, an act of self-preservation? At the very least, isn’t the desire to create something a gesture of self-affirmation, even if it leads to self-destruction?Continue Reading

The Work of Fiction and the Fiction of Work

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A life is divided into three parts: the time before you’re able to work, the time after you’re able to work, and the monstrous bulk of time between. After obedience to the law and some basic moral code, work is one of the great demands placed upon the able. It’s inherently traumatic, a sacrifice of one’s own desires to a larger set of aggregate social desires. Fiction gives us a way to cope with this arrangement, or at the very least a way to understand it.

In Sloane Crosley’s debut novel, The Clasp, three formerly close friends in their late twenties try to negotiate their first disillusionment with the world of work. Their jobs in tech, fashion, and television are a representative holy trinity of cool jobs. But even in these dream jobs young people deal with the same nonsense as anywhere else: long hours, pointless meetings, aggravating coworkers, and bosses with more money than sense. Most work is not fulfilling, and by the time we finally realize it all the friends we’d like to turn to for support have been scattered across the globe in pursuit of fulfilling work. This is something we can only discover after college when we’re saddled with enough debt to last us a decade or two. Crosley sends her main characters on a vacation together to give them a little perspective on their dwindling friendship and their respective vocational ruts. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether they make any significant progress on either front, but the question lingers even after the novel ends: once lost, is there any amount of perspective that can restore our love for work?Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Fatherhood” by David Rutschman

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How many words does it take to encapsulate a feeling? An experience? A story we looked at two weeks ago, “Love” by Clarice Lispector, spends just under 3,500 words exploring its title, where Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom takes well over 500 pages plumbing its own. While “Fatherhood” by David Rutschman (Waxwing) is a mere 174 words, the world of experience it evokes regarding its title feels far larger than its word count.

As you might expect, the story starts quickly, in the first two sentences providing context, rules, and the inciting incident.

I was teaching my son to throw stones into the water when he became a stone and I threw him in the water.

“My boy, my darling boy,” I called and I hurled myself after him and I became a stone and we tumbled down to the silent muddy bottom.

Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Love” by Clarice Lispector

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There have been many craft essays written over the last few decades arguing the merits of the classic Joyce-ian epiphany. In “Love,” (The Offing), Clarice Lispector (translated by Katrina Dodson) explores the nature of epiphanies, and perhaps more importantly, what we do with them once they happen.

We meet the protagonist Ana as she’s returning from the grocer. We find she is well settled into domestic life, where her familial responsibilities have insulated her from the broader world. Notice how Lispector illustrates this through Ana’s inability to conceive of her former self, before being a homemaker.

“What had happened to Ana before she had a home was forever out of reach: a restless exaltation so often mistaken for unbearable happiness. In exchange she had created something at last comprehensible, an adult life. That was what she had wanted and chosen.”

Ana wants a comprehensible life; she doesn’t want mystery, she wants understanding. She doesn’t want surprises, she wants control. Or at least a part of her does. Lispector reveals that at moments during each day, that domestic tranquility is threatened.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Why “Do What You Love” Is Bad Advice

find a job you loveIn 2005, Steve Jobs gave a now-famous graduation speech at Stanford University. “You’ve got to find what you love,” he said.

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

“Yes! This is the Truth about careering!” Said everyone, ever.

Or okay, most of us. Who read or heard it.
And who also are privileged enough to have lives in which such an admonition has any chance of being follow-able.

Oh darn.Continue Reading

The Power of Suggestion: My First Time with D.H.Lawrence

Having grown up within various loops of the Bible belt, sex was not often a topic of conversation during my childhood—unless it was in the state-mandated sex ed class in fifth-grade (traumatic!), or the late-night whispers of slumber parties (distraction while someone’s bra was getting frozen). Had the idea of sensuality ever been mentioned, it probably would have been even more taboo.

College, however, turned things upside down, bringing in new ideas and people. Among them was a boy who sent me a Galway Kinnell poem and asked if I thought sensuality was impossible.

I never had an answer for him.

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Roundup: All You Need is Love (and a Good Story)

As we launch a new blog format for the new year, we’re also looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. Our roundups explore the archives and gather past posts around a certain theme to help you jump-start your week. This week we have posts on love.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Well, on the fourteenth, but it’s never too early to start spreading the love, and great literature about love, for that matter. Everyone likes a good love story.

  • In her article, “Fleas Are for Lovers,” Ms. Lowe tells that “once upon a time the flea was also a popular emblem of erotic love.” Who knew?

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