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
I ask about water.
Water in the West, water in the desert, water that saves and water that kills. Water on a tribal reservation: water for ranches, water for livestock, water hauled hundreds of miles by truck, water for uranium mining, water for ceremonies and legends, water for drinking. Water in the Animas River, flooded with arsenic, lead, and other toxic metals in August by EPA efforts to clean up the Gold King Mine to the north in Colorado.
“Water is life. It’s sacred, it’s powerful,“ Charlissa says. We’re in Tuba City, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation, in a writing classroom at Diné College, the oldest and largest tribally-controlled college in the country. I’m asking the students about the importance of water on the rez. Charlissa says she remembers when a corroded drum in town broke, filling the main street with water. A flood, for a moment, in the middle of the desert, a river on the asphalt.
Amber tells the story of her elderly family members who live along the Animas River and now have to drive two hours to buy water for themselves and their livestock. She wonders if they will be able to stay in their home. Rantrivia grew up on a ranch, and she talks about the difficulties of towing water—the cost of gas and car repair, the time away from work—for her family and their 360-gallon barrel. For some, it is a weekly decision to have water or a working car on a sprawling reservation larger than West Virginia.
“Other people take water for granted,” Candra says. “My senior year of high school, we got our water shut off…It was a struggle. They said there was something wrong with our filtration, so my brother was the one who had to dig out the whole thing and replace it.” When I ask her if the water was contaminated, she isn’t sure. There are many ways water can turn dangerous here. “But my brother was really cautious with it. He used gloves.”Continue Reading
When my mother, born in America to Israeli parents, first met my father in Tel Aviv, she said she knew he was right for her because he was an American living in Israel. As a young woman who grew up in transit—constantly being moved around between the two countries—she recognized in him a kindred spirit: someone who spoke, lived, and loved both ways.
They married and had me, and whether they’d planned it or not, I came to embody this combination of the two of them: an American-Israeli and an Israeli-American. I grew up in Israel, spoke a semi-intelligible mixture of both languages, read books in Hebrew and English, watched movies without subtitles, and sported a funny accent.
I also wrote from a young age. Darkly dramatic poetry in Hebrew as a child, then short stories in English as a young adult. But as I grew older, writing became harder to do. Anxiety and self-doubt took the place of simple pleasure, and I had to psyche myself into creating new things. I still read a lot and dreamed of a career as a writer, but some of the magic was missing. The reading was slow going, doing any kind of artistic work was a struggle, and I looked around for different paths.
Then, out of the blue, I found translation. I say “out of the blue” because even though the notion was always inside of me, a seed of meaning that formed and informed my life, it hadn’t occurred to me to make it my livelihood until a coincidental encounter landed me my first small gig. I then sought out part time work at a translation company while completing my bachelor’s degree in literature and art at Tel Aviv University, working from Hebrew into English and from English into Hebrew. When that company closed, it was simple and natural enough to keep going, self-employed. I translated legal and business materials for newspapers and companies, and experimented with translating short fiction for a workshop I participated in at the University of Haifa and just for kicks. The sensation of bringing a bit of beauty from one language to another was exhilarating: English into Hebrew was fun because it let me share writing I loved (such as short stories by J.D. Salinger and Jonathan Safran Foer) with my Hebrew-speaking friends. Hebrew into English was a new, more foreign world: I could deliver some of my favorite things about Israel outside of the country. One day, I decided, I wanted to translate an Israeli novel into English.Continue Reading
In an episode of HBO’s Girls titled “Free Snacks,” aspiring writer Hannah Horvath lands a job producing “advertorial” content at GQ. Characteristically sharp and observant, she immediately brainstorms circles around her coworkers; at this rate, they suggest, she could really make a name for herself. But Hannah isn’t interested.
Hannah: I’m not looking to take Janice’s job.
Karen: Why not?
Hannah: ‘Cause I’m a writer.
Joe: Yeah, we’re all writers.
Hannah: Yeah, but I’m like, no offense, just a writer writer. Not like a corporate advertising, working-for-the-man kind of writer.
Joe: Who is? Kevin over here won a Yale Series of Younger Poets award back in 2009.
Chewing the very Clif Bars and SunChips supplied by writing-for-the-man, Hannah’s coworkers reveal their italic-worthy credentials. Karen has placed writing with n+1, Joe wrote for The New Yorker not a year out of college. This moment of their unmasking and Hannah’s subsequent transparent alarm reveals some things: it clarifies Hannah’s myopic self-obsession, whereby she can’t imagine her coworkers sharing any part of her own fervent, and private, artistic vocation. More broadly, we get to see the widely prevalent coexistence of commercial labor and artistic aspiration, even if it’s represented only to be rejected.
The skill set nurtured by a writing-intensive education and practice lends itself to all kinds of writing-based projects paradoxically thought adjacent to “actual” writing, and such a paradox begs the question: What kinds of writing count? Which contribute to, or threaten, the ultimate project of Becoming (/Being) a Writer—and who, if anyone, is served by the mythology of such distinctions?
Some writing-labor can be neatly subsumed under related professionalization: composing syllabi for writing-intensive courses, or publishing book reviews. But it remains that much of writing-while-writing seems to lack the romance of day jobbing in an explicitly unrelated field (e.g. bartending; retail; animal husbandry). The ostensible dichotomy of manual labor versus artistic process is protected by assumptions that 1) each is insulated from the other, and 2) “mindless” work can buy one time to make art. Such a body/mind dualism gets significantly more complicated when one’s day job also, or primarily, consists of writing. If foaming milk is honest work, generating copy is practically cheating on your art.Continue Reading
Jeremy Tiang is a fiction writer, playwright, and translator from Singapore. His short story collection It Never Rains on National Day was published by Epigram Books in 2015, and is available at Epigram Books’ website. He lives in Brooklyn and was recently featured in the Singapore Writers Festival. We caught up in an email interview.
Xin Tian: What are some of your beliefs when it comes to craft?
Jeremy: I don’t have any beliefs, really. I’m tempted to just go “what even is craft lol”—or less flippantly, I think each story requires a set of tools to tell it, and you pick the tools out of a big bag that, sure, we could call “craft.” But I’m not going to be ideological about it.
X: What is your literal writing environment like, and do you have any working habits or rituals?
JT: I have a tiny room in my flat that is just mine—I think it was originally intended to be a walk-in closet, but I have filled it with white furniture and books. My desk faces the window. I go in there every morning and stay there till evening, apart from toilet breaks and forays for food. What I work on depends on what’s occupying my mind most at the moment and/or deadlines. I generally have several things on the go at once, and when I get stuck on something I move on to something else.Continue Reading
The Oxford India Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing
Ravikumar and R. Azhagarasan
Oxford University Press, 2012
480 pp, $39.95
Of the social, political, and economic issues facing India since independence in 1947, the situation of Dalits has been one of the most pressing. Dalits face discrimination and oppression in nearly every part of Indian society, and often are portrayed as a voiceless and victimized minority group. Although Dalits make up almost 16-17% of the population, widely available creative expressions from individuals identifying as members of this group are few and far between, especially outside of India. However, these creative expressions do exist: so far, it’s simply been a matter of availability and translation.
The Oxford India Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing, edited by Ravikumar and R. Azhagarasan, is one of several volumes pushing for a reorientation of Dalit representation. By presenting more than one hundred years of work, ranging from poetry to speeches, novel excerpts to autobiography, the anthology underscores that the outpouring of work from Tamil Dalits has never been fixed to a single genre, mode, or emotional current. The editors further emphasize difference by focusing on the state of Tamil Nadu, one of the most populous areas in India, located on its southern tip. Therefore, the book doesn’t present an overwhelming and impossible attempt to represent all Dalit writing throughout the subcontinent; but, instead, the volume makes a worthwhile and focused gathering of work.
The age of media and internet is one of fractal, ephemeral bodies—well-curated images of the self from certain angles and frozen in time, dust-coated corpses at the aftermath of a quake that provide little context, statistics and numbers that break down how many and what ages and when, yet provide little to no feeling. The body in writing is a vessel to feeling—to empathy. Reading Lidia Yuknavitch, Maggie Nelson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, among others, is to feel.
At a recent lecture, Maggie Nelson said that a “ringing sense of mortality […] underscores everything we write.” The body, unlike the internet, is finite. It is deeply personal and universal—we all have one, but we only ever experience our own. Lidia Yuknavitch says, “we live by and through the body, and the body, is a walking contradiction.” Meaning, a body can be both beautiful and violent, and often fosters both simultaneously—new life and eventual death. Lidia Yuknavitch’s anti-memoir The Chronology of Water opens with a stillborn, rooting the reader in the author’s body at a certain place in time.Continue Reading
Used poorly, second-person reads like a trope; used well, second-person as a narrative device adds inclusivity to literature, raises questions of authorship, and helps an author communicate politically-charged topics like globalization, race, and gender.
Mohsin Hamid utilizes second-person in his novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, a tongue-in-cheek how-to for globalization. The unnamed narrator is born in an unnamed country and moves to an unnamed city for social mobility. “You” transcends preconceived notions of identity, and allows the reader to superimpose their own onto the narrator, which brings up questions of authorship—the writer has written the story, but the reader makes it their own. Hamid’s novel describes enough for the reader to remain grounded, but still vague enough, such as this description of the narrator’s move from the country to the city:
Dirt streets give way to paved ones, potholes grow less frequent and soon all but disappear, and the kamikaze rush of oncoming traffic vanishes, to be replaced by the enforced peace of the dual carriageway. Electricity makes its appearance, first in passing as you slip below a steel parade of high-voltage giants, then later in the form of wires running at bus-top eye level on either side of the road, and finally in streetlights and shop signs and glorious, magnificent billboards. Buildings go from mud to brick to concrete, then shoot up to an unimaginable four stories, even five.
Remember this series of graphs from last month that depressed the hell out of everyone? The one that reminded us that no book from a woman’s point of view has won the Pulitzer in the last 16 years?
We could cry about it, or we could look at some more depressing statistics and then cry about those. Let’s!
I’ve been aware of Allan Gurganus since I was a few years old; we hail from the same small town, Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and his books lined the shelves of homes I visited, and the local library. Turns out his name was also in the New Yorker, and when I was nine, his book The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All spent eight months on the New York Times Bestseller List. I’ve always admired Allan’s willingness and ability to dig in to the mess of life, rarely saying what “ought” to be said, but what is genuinely felt, and plumbing uncomfortable subjects like race and sexuality before doing so was common, especially in the south. His first New Yorker story “Minor Heroism,” published in 1974, was the magazine’s first story to feature a gay character, and his work has continued to be elegantly radical, erotic, and full of eerily good sentences. Moreover, I continually find bewilderingly great and generous advice in Allan’s interviews, and knew I must ask my own questions.
Megan Mayhew Bergman: When you look back on your career as a writer, are you able to see a single moment where the clouds parted, momentum changed, and your career began? (Perhaps with the publication of your first New Yorker story, “Minor Heroism”?) Do these moments happen or are they made? What do you make out of the alchemy of talent, luck, and hard work when it comes to a writer forging a long-term career?
Allan Gurganus: Readers sometimes praise a writer’s self-discipline. They say, “I know I couldn’t wake up at six and make myself type about the same characters all day.”
A writer’s discipline should simply be called “obsession”. That word literally means “To sit before.” The way some pilgrim must bow daily to Mecca. Maybe our obsessions choose us. Obsessives tend to think that anyway! And writing is surely a better addiction than most.