Five Recent Reads

At the moment, I’m trying to start writing ~for real~ which means working on longer pieces and submitting them to publications. Thom and I have decided to stay in Indianapolis long term, which means I have the environmental stability to really test my writing (i.e. rejection) stamina. It’s daunting, but I’m psyched. (See Thom’s blog for more details.)

I have already sabotaged my writing hours by adopting up a kitten from the Indianapolis Humane Society. I did this approximately one day after I committed to a new, more focused writing plan. Chickpea is a needly little thing, with major keyboard-envy. But she’s also cute and cuddly and livens up our home-office with her kitten antics.

Meet Chickpea, my saboteur.

So as I lift Chickpea off my desk for the 20th time this hour and return her to the floor, I thought I’d keep this writing exercise short and sweet. Below are five books I’ve read and enjoyed in the last few months. What’s more, these are all written by women or people of color:

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other is a great, lengthy, relational novel. Evaristo brings together every kind of non-straight-white-male character imaginable. The book is set in the UK, which I found very fun. The London setting centers on the National Theater on the South Bank of the Thames, which allowed me to reminisce about studying abroad in that very spot five years ago as a junior in college. It’s also interesting to read about the history of the Black community in the UK, insofar as it is similar to and different from the experience of Black citizens of the United States. Particularly after the recent police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, this novel offered me a way to contemplate race that was new and slightly removed from the current content of Twitter/Instagram/Facebook/etc.

My only criticism of Evaristo’s novel is that I found the flow a bit choppy. My reading was slowed, especially in the first half, by the continual introduction of new characters and new perspectives, and the complete dropping of the previous characters. (Until in the end, that is, when all of the times, places, and people prove to be intertwined, as in one of those ensemble rom-coms from the 2000s.) One might compare the reading experience to driving down a residential road with a stop sign every-other block. Come to a full stop, then rev the engine to get going again. But ultimately, Girl, Woman, Other was worth the reengagement effort. The characters and relationships Evaristo packs into this 400+ pager, with their widely variable racial, socioeconomic, gender, and sexual dynamics are a fascinating study in humanity’s complexity and the spectrums of identity. And frankly, these are the kinds of stories I have not read anywhere else.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half is a recent release — one I had been anticipating ever since I finished Bennett’s debut novel, The Mothers. The novel has a fascinating premise: it’s the 1960s in a fictional light-skinned Black town called Mallard in Louisiana, and a pair of twin girls comes of age. Progressive skin-lightening was a goal of the town’s founders, who established Mallard after they were freed post-Civil War. One twin grows up to live as a Black person, the other leaves her family behind to start a new life passing as white. This creates a rift between the sisters and their offspring, and shows how the ideal of whiteness permeates and causes destruction in all American communities — whether Black, white, or mixed-race. Bennett reveals race for what it is: America’s foundational caste system, and she exposes the system’s relational consequences across decades, cities, and within families.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime is falls into the same category as Girl, Woman, Other insofar as it provides a slightly removed context in which to understand and examine racism. I’ve found that sometimes its easier for me to see evil clear-eyed when the U.S. is not directly involved. But unlike Evaristo’s novel, Born A Crime is a nonfiction story — Noah’s own. Noah is brilliant, funny, and informative as a narrator of his life and the history of apartheid in South Africa. As a “mixed” person (Black mother, white father) whose existence was technically illegal, Noah did not fit into any of the racial categories where he lived. Consequently, he has a fascinating perspective on how race, culture, and language function to either divide us or to bring us together.

I listened to Born A Crime on audiobook, which turned out to be a great choice. Noah is a wonderful narrator, and the voices he does for his family members, his younger self, and others make the book come to life. He’s both earnest and hilarious. It’s also helpful to hear him read aloud the many South African language phrases that appear throughout his story. (By the way, this is one of those annoying “Audible exclusives” — so you can’t get it from the library on Libby. Annoying, but worth it.)

Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid

I picked up Such A Fun Age shortly after the Black Lives Matter movement resurged with new vigor, making a promise to myself to read more books by BIPOC (a new acronym for me: Black and Indigenous People of Color).

My favorite thing about Reid’s novel was the main character Emira. She’s about my age, in her mid-20s, and in a similar state of confusion regarding her career, her future, and her ambivalence about seeking the kind of worldly achievement everyone is supposed to want (and everyone else wants for her).

I felt affirmed by her suspicious, measured view of American values, and the genuine fulfillment she finds spending her days babysitting. I also enjoyed Reid’s engagement with the idea of boundaries: between employer and employee, between white woman and Black woman. Alix (the mom, white woman, employer) thinks of Emira as hers; she transgresses boundaries, assumes ownership over Emira’s time, personal life, and decisions, and tries to establish a friendship where there is a pervasive, obvious power imbalance. As someone who has held several assistant jobs in my life, I found Reid’s portrayal of the boss-employee dynamic to ring true, and I was glad to engage with the additional layer a racial power imbalance. Overall, Such A Fun Age is a great read. It’s not as heavy as The Vanishing Half, (the characters seem happier), but it’s just as powerful.

I was able to get Such A Fun Age from the library (I use the Libby app) and read it on my kindle. Often, with popular books or new releases, the Indianapolis Public Library will offer me a 7-day “skip the line” e-book loan shortly after I place a hold. This is my favorite pandemic discovery; an unexpected system that makes it possible for me to actually get new books from the library relatively quickly, and with proper social-distancing.

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

I read City of Girls months ago and was surprised at how much I loved it. The novel features an all-women cast of characters whose lives revolve around the 1940s New York City theater scene. There are playwrights, songwriters, costume-designers, and showgirls. Gilbert creates a vivid, exciting picture of this alternative life — one without husbands, kids, catalogs, and midlife depression. Gilbert’s characters are fascinating, well-rounded, creative, and free. As most of the books about women in the late 1800s and early 1900s in end in the bored, miserable protagonist having an affair or committing suicide (looking at you, Kate Chopin and Anna Karenina), it was such a joy to read a novel set in that time that is so full of joy.


Chickpea has fallen asleep in the back of my chair, where my lower back leaves a kitten-sized gap. Today I started reading Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan, which has a plot suspiciously similar to Such a Fun Age (career woman is lonely and sad, resigned to a new suburban life away from New York City, staying home with with young kids, and tries to befriend babysitter). But I have high hopes, because I’ve loved every single book by Sullivan. Her last one, Saints of All Occasions, was her best novel yet, in my opinion. She writes about women navigating complex lives and relationships (familial relationships, mainly) which never gets old for me. And I’m particularly excited because I bought this book in hardback, after spending about three months exclusively consuming kindle library rentals. It feels good to hold a book again.

Okay, one more Chickpea picture.

Chickpea takes a ride in Thom’s water bottle sling.

Crap, I’m A Crier: Reflections on White Fragility

Like many white people closely following the current Black Lives Matter movement and thus moved to embark on some long-term inner work, I recently picked up Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility. DiAngelo, a white anti-racist educator, calls white people to recognize the subtle, widespread ways all of us uphold white supremacy.

DiAngelo challenged me in a way I didn’t expect. I don’t have much experience with the specific kind of white fragility she discusses: that is, being confronted or called out for racist comments, assumptions, or behaviors. Most of the examples DiAngelo uses take place within anti-racism workshops, or other race-conscious spaces. I grew up in Boise, Idaho, which is 0.9% Black, and then went to Notre Dame, which is 4% Black. I can probably count on one hand the times I remember talking about non-historical—that is, present and active—racism. And even then, it wasn’t with Black Americans.

Still, I do have experience being called out for saying or doing hurtful things to other people. And as defined by DiAngelo, I respond with swift, powerful, conversation-ending white fragility:

“If we need to cry so that all the resources rush back to us and attention is diverted away from a discussion of our racism, then we will cry (a strategy most commonly employed by white middle-class women). If we need to take umbrage and respond with righteous outrage, then we will take umbrage. If we need to argue, minimize, explain, play devil’s advocate, pout, tune out, or withdraw to stop the challenge, then we will.”

I shamefully recognize myself here—but just as someone who employs these defensive behaviors any time she is challenged. About a year ago, my (white) husband told me that every time he tries to bring up an issue with me, I respond with such overwhelming hurt and fierce crying that the original issue always gets lost. The impetus is then on him to comfort me, when really, I was the one who needed to repair a past hurt in our relationship.

It has been hard to confront this fact about myself. I’m still defensive of my crying response. To me, it feels automatic, like a tripwire. I don’t consciously think to myself, “Okay, I know how I’m going to get out of this”… and then start bawling. 

It might be that I have simply not developed the muscle of dealing with regular criticism or negative feedback. Not because I don’t deserve it, but because people reflexively protect my feelings and give me the benefit of the doubt as a young white woman.

This is a key point for DiAngelo—that white people are so not used to dealing with racial discomfort that we respond with white fragility. To understand DiAngelo’s framework, I had to map it onto my mostly white, segregated, and racially unaware life. I have so rarely been held accountable for wrongdoing among white people that when it does happen, I react with shocking immaturity.

Occasionally, receiving a rare piece of negative feedback, I’ve found myself not crying, but full of self-righteous anger. This tends to happen with people I’m less close with—like teachers, coworkers, or other people’s parents. In one instance, when I was a sophomore in high school, I caused a class-wide dress code violation because I challenged the teacher who tried to discipline me individually. Instead of accepting my fate, I responded, “Mrs. G, no one in this entire school wears collared shirts under their sweatshirts. You could check everyone in this room.” She took me up on that, and about 5 minutes later, about 20 pissed-off classmates and I walked down to the principal’s office. I was ashamed to realize that because I had refused to admit I had broken a rule and accept a small, inconsequential punishment, I had become a 16-year-old tattletale.

DiAngelo’s White Fragility couples these two seemingly distinct responses—crying and fighting back—as complementary defense mechanisms. As quoted above, to cry is one option, another is to “argue, minimize, explain, [or] play devil’s advocate.”

DiAngelo writes, “If you believe that you are being told you are a bad person, all your energy is likely to go toward denying this possibility and invalidating the messenger rather than trying to understand why what you’ve said or done is hurtful. You will probably respond with white fragility.”

I realized, reading DiAngelo’s book, that my white fragility is founded upon a false, counterproductive understanding of character. To borrow from Dr. Carol Dweck’s analysis in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, “Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over.” In contrast, a growth mindset is a belief that “your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.”

Underlying my white fragility is a fixed mindset. If confronted for doing a bad thing, I am in distress because I fear that beneath it all, I’m a bad person. If I am bad, no one will love me. Like someone put the Harry Potter sorting hat on my head and it said “Slytherin.” It’s not like they’ll let me into Gryffindor tomorrow if I start being a better person; I have to argue that I don’t belong there in the first place.

A key argument in White Fragility is that racism is unavoidable. We are all racist. We have been socialized in a white supremacy. It’s not our fault, so we don’t need to be defensive or feel guilty. But we invited to work against it, and learn as we go.

It makes sense that these patterns of behavior exist prior to being confronted about racism specifically. I can see that my habits with my family and friends, in white spaces, could end up tanking an anti-racism workshop and frustrating people of color. I just have not been in that space yet. And thankfully, people like my husband are helping me recognize these patterns ahead of time. 

DiAngelo emphasizes again and again that to receive criticism should be encouraging and humbling, rather than terrifying. It’s is an invitation to become better: stronger, more emotionally mature, less afraid, more generous. Every time I read a headline that includes “White Female Tears” now, I am humbled and reminded that the most profound change I can make begins within.

“Your Move, Chief,” Or Why I Love Memoir

My Goodreads data reveals a curious pattern. Over the last three years, more than half of the books I have read have been memoirs. That percentage keeps growing. In 2020 alone, 13 of 17 have been memoirs.

It’s not just me, either. Memoirs have proliferated throughout my lifetime. Readers keep reading them, and more and more writers (and celebrities) are writing them. Most of my recent favorites came from the national bestseller list. These include Educated by Tara Westover, Maid by Stephanie Land, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb, and Untamed by Glennon Doyle.

But why am I reading so many more memoirs than anything else? More than novels, short stories, poetry, or impersonal nonfiction? Am I just extremely nosy?

When I tried to answer these questions for myself last week (yet again fixated on Mary Karr and Glennon Doyle), the first thing that came to mind was the pond scene from Good Will Hunting.

Sean (Robin Williams) has been trying to provide court-ordered therapy to Will Hunting (Matt Damon). In their first meeting, in which Sean attempts to get to know Will, Will deflects and evades every one of Sean’s questions. It ends when Will goes on the offensive and speculates (noticing a painting on the wall of a lone man navigating a fishing boat on a stormy sea) that Sean must have “married the wrong woman.” Switching tactics for their second meeting, Sean takes Will to a park and delivers the following dressing-down:

You got a thing for swans? Is this like a fetish? Something we need to devote some time to? – Will

The gist of the monologue is: Okay sure, Will, you’re extremely smart, good at retaining information, and making connections. But that, my friend, does not a man make.

Sean says:

I can’t learn anything from you I can’t read in some fuckin’ book. Unless you wanna talk about you, who you are. Then I’m fascinated. I’m in. 

That’s it, I think. That’s why the memoir genre resonates with me, and why I consume insane numbers of them. I don’t read to educate myself; I read because I’m curious about people.

As Sean conveys to Will in the movie, it requires far more courage to share who you are and how you think than it does to quote or rehash someone else’s idea. Of course, Will knows this intuitively — as he demonstrates in the Harvard Bar scene, before he even meets Sean:

Who we are and how we see is the truest, most interesting thing each of us has to offer. In The Art of Memoir (2015), Mary Karr writes, “Most of us don’t read the landscape so much as we beam it from our eyeballs.” In other words, how we see comes from within; it’s a gift that cannot be stolen, only shared.

The same sentiment is captured in one of the final scenes from A Star is Born. Bobby (Sam Elliot) says to Ally (Lady Gaga): “Jack talked about how music is essentially 12 notes between any octave. . . All any artist can offer the world is how they see those 12 notes.”

Other people’s stories, told well, do not get old. There are as many unique stories out there as there are people. I will happily read every single one of them.

* * *

Importantly, the truth value of a story has nothing to do with the number of shocking events in it. This perception of memoir is actually counterproductive and can tempt writers to falsity. For example, philanthropist Greg Mortenson wrote two bestselling memoirs about how he came to found a nonprofit supporting girls’ education in the Middle East. His first memoir, Three Cups of Tea (2007) was a national bestseller. I read it for a high school theology class circa 2010 and wrote a book report.

Shortly after Mortenson published a sequel, Stones into Schools (2011), investigative reporters, including John Krakauer, found reasons to doubt the veracity of both memoirs. (Read more about it here.) Krakauer ultimately published a book of his findings called Three Cups of Deceit. In any kind of nonfiction writing, readers have to be able to trust the narrator. Otherwise, the whole enterprise collapses. In other words, it does not matter how well you tell the story of getting captured by the Taliban if your readers find out that it never happened. If I had to burn books for fuel, these Mortenson memoirs would be the first to go. After all, who would read Three Cups of Tea now?

A second example of violating the cardinal rule of memoir-writing — that is, truth-telling — came across my desk this week courtesy of Thom:

Mike Lindell, i.e. the “My Pillow” guy, wrote a memoir titled What Are the Odds?: From Crack Addict to CEO. He boasts “14 near-death experiences,” and a story of “addiction, hope, and divine intervention.”

I don’t want to read Lindell’s book because I already don’t trust him. His promo reveals him to be an unreliable narrator. First, a grammar mistake: “Before this pandemic came upon us, I had already wrote. . . ” Then, he assures the audience that the book includes pictures that “validate” his stories. He concludes, apropos of nothing “By the time you’re done reading my book, you will believe that with God all things are possible.”

In sum, the only thing that really tanks a memoir, in my estimation, is any attempt to cheat the truth. The memoirs that have disappointed me over the years have been ones in which I can sense that I’m not getting the whole story.

This is particularly common (albeit understandable) with celebrity memoirs. Who knows if they even wanted to write the book. They have so little privacy as it is. It’s rare for a celebrity memoir to transcends this limitation. I remember reading Amy Poehler’s memoir, Yes Please, years ago and being disappointed. Even though it had funny moments and interesting stories, she refrained from any major introspection. She basically said “Someone made me write this for money; I would prefer not to talk about my divorce or anything personal,” and moved on to crowd-pleasing SNL anecdotes.

* * *

There is no one-size-fits-all version of the life story. We may arrive at the same central truths, the same 12 notes, but no one sees them in quite the same way as anyone else. Maybe that’s why I keep reading memoir after memoir. “It’s never new and it never gets old,” is how Llewyn Davis defines “folk song” in the Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis. The same might be said of memoir, or life-writing.

As Sean says to Will on the park bench:

You’re an orphan, right? Do you think I’d know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you?

“Does that encapsulate you?” Well, no. I guess not. Mary Karr writes in The Art of Memoir, “Getting used to who you are is a lifelong spiritual struggle.” That is all this is about, really. Your move, chief.

On Burning and Becoming: Glennon Doyle and Mary Karr Part II

Mary Karr’s poem “The Burning Girl,” published in Poetry Magazine in May 2017 and later in her collection Tropic of Squalor (2018) is a devastating poem about a girl suffering from various self-harm disorders. While Karr attends Wimbledon with a group of friends, she observes her friend’s daughter as follows:

Listen to Karr read it herself here.

Karr’s “burning girl” is not the powerful “girl on fire” Alicia Keys sang of. (See here.) Nor is she the fully feeling girl Glennon Doyle describes in Untamed:

“The fire of pain won’t consume me. I can burn and burn and live. I can live on fire. I am fireproof.”

-Glennon Doyle, Untamed

Here, pain is a refining force, an agent of transformation. Its fire burns down old paradigms and allows the new, better, truer ones to grow.

Doyle understands her past addictions and illnesses as the product of pain avoidance. She writes:

“Pain is not tragic. Pain is magic. Suffering is tragic. Suffering is what happens when we avoid pain and consequently miss our becoming. That is what I can and must avoid: missing my own evolution because I am too afraid to surrender to the process. Having such little faith in myself that I numb or hide or consume my way out of my feelings again and again.”

-Glennon Doyle, Untamed

For Doyle, fire represents the uncomfortable feelings that come with being a human on earth — anger, sadness, resentment, hate, shame, etc. For nearly half of her life, she preemptively struck such feelings down with drugs, alcohol, binging and purging, etc. Letting herself become unguarded against these fiery feelings was how she healed.

But when I read Untamed last week, particularly the line: “I can burn and burn and live,” I was reminded of Karr’s poem. What of the real fear of getting trapped in the fire? How and why does that happen? What should we do about it?

“The Burning Girl” is not fireproof, she is tinder. Karr describes the girl’s arms as “birch twigs” and her body as a “flaming tower.” Even with “ocean endless” love from her mother, the girl’s flames are not extinguished, and ultimately, “she burned.” The past tense of this final line suggests that her body was consumed and she died. (So do interviews with Karr on this poem, in which she reflects upon the unimaginable pain of losing a child.) There is no resurrection, at least not here. The poet has witnessed the burning girl’s suffering in her last days, and that is all we have.

Karr compares the burning girl to “the monk who’d doused himself with gas, lit a match, then sat unmoving and alert amid devouring light.” Likewise, she reminds me of certain female Catholic saints and mystics who died of anorexia mirabilis, meaning “miraculously inspired loss of appetite.” For example, Saint Catherine of Siena died at 33 after she stopped eating anything other than the Eucharist. More recently, French mystic Simone Weil died at age 34 from self-starvation, allegedly out of solidarity with the soldiers fighting in World War II.

St. Catherine of Siena, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

So, again, what about people like these – girls who get stuck in the fire? Who set themselves on fire in a misguided search for the Good? Can we learn to differentiate self-annihilating fires from the fires that enable us to become?

The primary distinction, as I see it, is that Doyle’s fireproof girl is in motion. She walks through and beyond the fire. She is alive. Karr’s burning girl, on the other hand, is stuck in it, unmoving: “She sat with us in flames.” Soon, she is dead.

We are fireproof in a human way, after all, bound by time and flesh. This limits our ability to withstand it. We need to jump in the ocean afterwards. Then maybe we need a long interval of watching Wimbledon in the 70 degree, partly-cloudy weather, tonic and lime in hand. In fact, I think this last in-between place is where we would be lucky to spend most of our time.

The essential mandate of motion during the fire walk reminds me of the “Beach Day” episode in Season 3 of The Office. Michael can’t even take the first step; Dwight overdoes it, falling on his stomach into the hot coals, insisting on staying down until Michael gives him the manager job; and Pam does the fire walk as designed, then is brave enough to tell Jim how she feels about him.


Why is it that so many of us stop walking and get stuck in our pain?

For some, myself included, a simple but important answer might be brain chemistry. For whatever reason, I am prone to getting stuck. To do the fire walk, I need a pair of thick socks, or else I turn into Dwight.

For a long time, journaling, running, music, etc. kind of did the trick to propel me forward when I hit the fire, but recently I’ve discovered how much better it is just to coat my brain in fire retardant ahead of time. Importantly, it’s not a pre-numbing; it’s an extra layer of padding. As my husband Thom observed, Prozac allows me to feel my fiery feelings but then later, feel better. Cry and then stop crying. Get up. Keep moving.

Doyle acknowledges her own need for additional padding, or fire-retardant. She writes in Untamed: “I am on Lexapro, and I believe it to be — along with the personal growth shit — the reason I don’t have to self-medicate with boxes of wine and Oreos anymore.”

Per Doyle, pill nay-sayers are “two-legged people calling prosthetics a crutch.”

I am with Doyle here. There are few things I am more thankful for than the invention of SSRIs.

My brain, left to its own devices has done a variety of weird things upon encountering fiery feelings. It has stopped all other activity and made it its full-time job to numb itself to the pain — reveling in its success. Like the burning girl. Other times, it has gone in the opposite direction and become hyper-feeling, so ceaselessly buffeted by pain that it becomes obsessed with it. In Darkness Visible, William Styron describes his depressed self as follows: “My brain, in thrall to its outlaw hormones, had become less an organ of thought than an instrument registering, minute by minute, varying degrees of its own suffering.”

Thus, in my experience, feeling too intensely can be just as confusing and destructive as becoming numb. I’ve tried to ditch pain — too cool for it — and I’ve also tried to get an A+ in pain. It’s as if my subconscious wants to outsmart all oncoming fires by beating them their natural conclusion. Meanwhile, this need to direct and control the fire only amplifies its importance; making its effect way worse than it was ever going to be.

Karr’s burning girl continues to haunt me. She’s dead and gone, not saved by the vast love shown her the poem. “She burned,” and there is no certainty of resurrection. Perhaps all we can do is bear witness — which is what Karr does. “Force her sadness close,” she writes. It seems insufficient. In moments like this, I turn to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets — that perfect meditation on human insignificance, temporality, and the circular nature of all things. Any excerpt might do, but here’s a favorite of mine:

Growing Up Female: On Nonexistence

Rebecca Solnit’s new memoir Recollections of My Nonexistence resembles her many essay collections that came before it: provocative yet relatively opaque. She weaves ideas together, creates surprising connections, and guides readers to see their experiences in new ways (a la “Men Explain Things to Me”) — but she does not delve into personal details. Unlike other contemporary memoirists, she writes towards commonality. Through brief vignettes that begin with her own experiences as a young woman, she reveals the conditional of all young woman. She makes us visible to ourselves.

Thanks to Subterranean Books in Saint Louis, MO for shipping books during quarantine 🙂

As a reader and 26-year-old woman, I found this book hard to read — but not for the usual reasons. Solnit pushes right up to the edge of Emily Dickinson’s advice that “the truth must dazzle gradually.” Many of her conclusions felt like looking into direct sunlight. In a way, I need to write this review to process that initial sting.

Though her memoir collection also includes essays writes about growing up in San Francisco, studying the southwestern U.S., and becoming a writer, Solnit’s most powerful chapters meditate on feminism, i.e. growing up female. She uses the titular word “nonexistence” because “in my case, it wasn’t a silencing. . . no speech was stopped; it never started, or it had been stopped so far back I don’t remember how it happened.” Her goal, she states, is encouragement: “a word that, though it carries the stigma of niceness, literally means to instill courage.” To do so, she begins by examining how courage is ripped away from young women. She then discusses how they might go about getting it back.

Solnit’s careful recounting of her past nonexistence (in “silent fury”) shed new light on my own. I’ll explore a few such instances here.

“I became an expert at fading and slipping and sneaking away, backing off, squirming out of tight situations, dodging unwanted hugs and kisses and hands, at taking up less and less space on the bus as yet another man spread into my seat, at gradually disengaging, or suddenly absenting myself.”

“Life During Wartime”

For me, passages such as these yank to the surface a decade-long pattern of suffering under patriarchy, but not understanding what was happening to me, or knowing what to call it. Solnit’s words brought up so many memories; memories that make me sweaty and nervous; memories that make me sad about the state of the world; memories that, despite my efforts to bury them, inform the way I move through the world.

“Dodging unwanted hugs and kisses,” takes me back to my first job out of college as an executive assistant to a 69-year-old lawyer, a founding partner at a Chicago law firm and real estate attorney for one of the world’s richest men. He would ask me to dinner with business partners, take me out for drinks in the afternoon (“You’ve never had mezcal? I’m ordering it for you”), put his arm around me, ask me why I wasn’t having fun, try to kiss me in greeting (he got the cheek), tell me I was attractive, and make sex jokes to his coworkers, knowing part of my job was to listen to all of his phone calls and read all of his emails.

In response to this treatment, I, to my own frustration, did nothing but comply and evade. “Okay I’ll drink that,” “yeah I’m fine,” “haha,” “okay,” just get through the day and get out. I vented to my friends, where it was safe, but never to him. As Solnit describes, evasiveness stems from a fear of escalation. Escalation leads to violence. She writes, “Men would make proposals, demands, endeavor to strike up conversations and the endeavors quickly turned to fury. I knew of no way to say No, I’m not interested, that would not be inflammatory, and so there was nothing to say. They was no work words could do for me, and so I had no words.”

Eventually, I gave my boss what it seemed he wanted: I vanished. I packed my things and called him to let him know that I was quitting. To him, it was a shock; to me, it was the natural conclusion of his year-long effort to annihilate my personhood. That was in August 2017. When the Harvey Weinstein story broke two months later, I believed for the first time that I had done the right thing. (And considered that maybe I should’ve gone to HR, or Ronan Farrow – but that’s another story.)

“I erased myself as much as possible, because to be was to be a target.”

“Life During Wartime”

Maybe it started earlier than a decade ago. As a 10-year-old in Boise, Idaho, I took a Hunter’s Safety class with my dad, my friend Austyn, and her dad. Austyn’s dad was an avid hunter who wanted to take us duck hunting with him that season. I was game for anything – I just wanted to hang out with my buddy, even if the activity did not particularly appeal to me. The rest of the class was full of other young boys and their dads. One evening, as I remember it, the teacher called on me to answer what turned out to be a trick question. My hand had not been raised. He said, “You there.” I snapped to attention, the blood rushing to my face. “What’s the difference between bending the law and breaking the law?” I quietly began to stumble through some explanation of how the two might be different, but the teacher interrupted. “Wrong, he said, “there’s no difference.” Then another kid’s dad shouted: “Women, am I right?!” and the whole room cracked up.

I took away a feeling that it was dangerous to speak; that I lacked knowledge because of my gender; and that men only listened to me insofar as it gave them an opportunity to appear superior, or to make other men laugh.

“Thinness is a literal armor against being reproached for being soft, a word that means both yielding, cushiony flesh and the moral weakness that comes from being undisciplined. And from consuming food and taking up space.”

“Disappearing Acts”

Around 16-years-old, when my body started shape-shifting, I was horrified to be losing the one thing I had long been praised for — being skinny. When I tried to regain control of my body, I tripped some internal brain wiring and fell into the obsessive hamster wheel of an eating disorder. I went from 120 ish pounds to 96, eating with rigidity and running every day. I stopped caring about boys, about friends, about what people thought of me – which in a dissociative way, felt like freedom. But as my condition deteriorated, I realized it was a dark kind of freedom. When I began to fight against it almost a year later, it was because I began to understand that life had moved on without me – sports, friends, boys, prom etc. I had wholeheartedly embraced nonexistence, only to find that nonexistence did not lead to societal acceptance, but to a lonely death.

“And so there I was where so many young woman were, trying to locate ourselves somewhere between being disdained or shut out for being unattractive and being menaced or resented for being attractive . . . trying to find some impossible balance of being desirable to those we desired and being safe from those we did not.”

“Disappearing Acts”

Most of the compliments about my thinness (and disparaging comments about other girls’ thickening, maturing bodies) came from a grade school friend who later came out as gay. I still remember him telling me that I was pretty “because you are skinny” and that other friends were losing their edge for “fat thighs,” “mom butt,” or “grandma butt.” He called my best friend a “butterface” (i.e. everything looks good but her face). I have no idea how he’d explain himself now, but I imagine that it was a way of processing his own sexuality; of coming to realize that he did not desire women’s bodies, and, taking full advantage of his power as a white male, used his voice to disparage and reject them. As Solnit says, within patriarchy “no [woman] is ever beautiful enough, and everyone is free to judge you.”

It’s a hard truth that in my own experience, the harshest judges were men who felt disempowered themselves – gay men, awkward men, short men, etc. Men whose fathers talked about women disparagingly inherited their menace. It all rained down on the teenage girls in my middle school and high school. And it shaped how we entered the adult world.

“There was a real joy in the creative and intellectual life, but also a withdrawal from all other reals of life. I was like an army that had retreated to its last citadel, which in my case was my mind.”

“Disappearing Acts”
Solnit’s writing desk, given to her by a friend who had been stabbed 15 times by a violent ex-boyfriend. She writes, “Someone tried to silence her. Then she gave me a platform for my voice. Now I wonder if everything I have ever written is a counterweight to that attempt to reduce a young woman to nothing.”

Like Solnit, one of the only places I ever felt confident was in academia. Reading, writing, twirling ideas around my mind like a strand of hair around my index finger. If I am smart, so went my thinking, at least I have somewhere from which to draw courage. And writing was a place where I could say what I was thinking and feeling without fear of upsetting men — in other words, without fear of escalation.

Solnit’s greatest gift to me, and to all women, is finding the courage to become a writer (“despite it all”), and to hold fast to her perspective. She gives young women permission to question the literary and cultural canon, to investigate the untold impacts, and to push for change. She points out how many stories – told in books, on TV, in movie theaters, on podcasts, and in music feature the abuse, torture, and death of young women. Solnit observes this reality and its impact without agreeing that any of this (Tarantino, Eminem, The Ted Bundy Tapes) are productive, revolutionary, or attention-worthy works of art despite their commercial success. For me, that is a powerful permission to stand firm in my aversion to violent “art,” and to call it what it is: mundane.

In addition, Solnit gives herself (and everyone else), permission to put down canonical literary works that subjugate women, such as On the Road by Jack Kerouac:

“I did like some things bout Kerouac’s prose style, just not the gender politics of the three men who were most often meant when people talked about the Beats. . . It seemed to me that I would never be the footloose protagonist, that I was closer to the young Latina on the California farm who gets left behind, and halfway through I put the novel down. The book was going to go on without people like me, and I would go on without it.”

“Diving into the Wreck”

I’d recommend Recollections of My Nonexistence to any and every young woman, with the caveat that it’s not easy to read. But as Solnit herself says, “Sometimes when you are devastated you want not a reprieve but a mirror of your condition or a reminder that you are not alone in it.” Solnit reminds me of this, and makes my experiences, my painful memories, less personal. It’s not my fault that I was taught to be skinny and silent, and that I then became my own oppressor. It’s not my fault that my efforts to push back against the system that annihilates women — efforts such as not wearing makeup, not shaving my body hair, or not wearing a bra – actually exacerbate my fear and self-consciousness when I enter public spaces. It’s not your fault, either.

I’d also recommend it to men. As Solnit points out, “One of the convenient afflictions of power is a lack of [] imaginative extension. For many men it begins in early childhood, with almost exclusively being given stories with male protagonists.” She continues, “Perhaps there should be another term for never looking through the eyes of others, for something less conscious that even single-consciousness would convey.” I established that I have given permission to put down Kerouac (and DFW) thanks to Solnit. Still, I believe I am the better for knowing, intimately, the male reality — and for being taught (by default) to extend my perspective beyond myself.

It’s not always useful to spend a lot of time thinking about the things that make life hard or unfair. It can lead to despair. (In my case, it has to be followed by episodes of Parks and Rec.) What’s more — as Solnit emphasizes repeatedly, categories of doubly-oppressed women, such as young women of color, young women who are gay, or young women whose growing bodies otherwise deviate from Western beauty ideals, have whole additional systems working to exclude and disregard them. That’s a lot to face down, just to exist as a person every day. I don’t know what to do other than begin trying to take up space — even though it scares me.

For more on the treatment of women in Beat literature, read my earlier blog, “Watching Boys Do Stuff.” Thank you, Rebecca Solnit, for giving me permission to quit the Beats, and all woman-erasing literature put to page before or since. Not only giving me permission to quit, but giving me something encouraging to read instead.

Solnit’s signature: a lesson in taking up space ❤

Rachel Cusk’s Search for Truth

I discovered Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy (Outline, Transit, Kudos) last June on some news outlet’s summer reading list. Initially, I borrowed the book from the library, but after reading a couple dozen pages and finding passage after passage I wanted to underline, I capitulated to my desire to mark it up and bought a copy.

In the following passage in the first (and arguably best) novel of the trilogy, Outline, Cusk’s narrator describes the nature of Truth in terms of her two children who previously played happily together daily and were now in a constant state of war:

“Their antagonism was in exact proportion to their former harmony, but where the harmony had been timeless and weightless, the antagonism occupied space and time. The intangible became solid, the visionary was embodied, the private became public: when peace becomes war, when love turns to hatred, something is born into the world, a force of pure mortality. . . Each of them wanted more than anything to be declared right, and the other wrong, but it was impossible to assign blame entirely to either of them. And I realized eventually. . . . that it could never be resolved, not so long as the aim was to establish the truth, for there was no single truth any more, that was the point. There was no longer a shared vision, a shared reality even. Each of them saw things now solely from his own perspective: there was only point of view.”

This excerpt represents Cusk’s main project as an author, as I understand it: to search for captial-t Truth in everything. She asks what conditions Truth requires; she deduces its nature by examining those places where it is absent. She asks her readers to not accept stories at face value, but to accept them insofar as they are True.

For example, in Outline, Cusk’s narrator moves through the world as a spectator and offers herself as a listener. After a character has told Cusk’s narrator his or her story — just when the reader has nearly forgotten there was a character-listener at all — Cusk’s narrator will often challenge the story’s facts and conclusions. For example, after a man seated next to Cusk’s narrator on a flight from London to Athens tells her his life story (unprompted), Cusk’s narrator concludes: “I remained dissatisfied by the story of his second marriage. It lacked objectivity; it relied too heavily on extremes, and the moral properties it ascribed to those extremes were often incorrect.”

In her Coventry essays, Cusk is just as rigorous with herself as a storyteller as her narrator in Outline is with others. For example, in the title essay “Coventry,” Cusk investigates her parents’ use of the silent treatment against her, concluding: “My mother and father seem to believe they are inflicting a terrible loss on me by disappearing from my life. They appear to be wielding power, but I’ve come to understand that their silence is the opposite of power. It is in fact failure, their failure to control the story, their failure to control me.”

However, the next paragraph begins, “But perhaps it isn’t like that at all.” Cusk goes on to consider an entirely different take on what the silent treatment might represent by discussing its employment among middle school girls. She writes: “By sending someone to Coventry you are in a sense positing the idea of their annihilation, asking how the world would look without them in it.” In this sense, the perpetrators of the silent treatment aren’t “like desperate people taking the last of their possessions to the pawnshop” realizing “a failure so profound that all they have left to throw at it is the value of their own selves” (as she first postulated) — but rather they use it to wage a psychological battle against their victim, i.e., “If other people pretend you’re not there, how long can you go on believing you exist?” And both of these ideas are offered by Cusk herself, on the same page.

Thus Cusk demonstrates how multiple perspectives on a single subject can be capital-t True. The second understanding does not undo the first, but rather reveals the first to be incomplete. This is what I love about Cusk’s writing. One of the biggest challenges for me, as someone who likes to write, is constant self-doubt and ever-evolving understanding of the world, myself, and the stories that make up both. If I decide upon one version of events and their meaning one day, but the next alter it completely – what do I do with that first understanding? Erase it? But how would I have landed at the second without the first? And now, what about a third perspective that hits me tomorrow? How do I ever write anything at all, if my understanding of the world is always changing – if the shape and color of Truth keeps changing within my grasp?

As a reader and writer, I find Truth not only in how Cusk sees the world, but in how she reveals her thinking and writing process. Her stories all contain a writer’s journey of postulating, doubting, re-forming, doubting again, and landing at what can only ever be temporary conclusions. Rather than begin at the end – with a single idea – she reveals how her thinking process begins, builds, partly undoes itself, then builds again. There is no certainty in any conclusion – only in the joy of the continued search.

One of my favorite examples is Cusk’s sharp vision is her description of Walt Disney World in her essay “Lions on Leashes.” She describes Disney as a “world where wish fulfillment had become a moral good yet whose ultimate desire was to obscure the truth.”

This image of Disney World reminded me of my family’s Make-a-Wish week-long trip there in the summer of 2015. As a Make-a-Wish family, we were put up in a “village” for a week called Give Kids the World with other Make-a-Wish families. To me, a cynical 21-year-old jet-lagged after a semester studying abroad in London, it felt like a Candy Land board come to life — or like that dystopian episode of Sesame Street where Elmo wishes it were Christmas every day. At Give Kids the World, Santa and the Easter Bunny come every day and will even tuck you in at night (unless that idea is terrifying to you – as it was to my brother Michael). A Wish Kid, as well as his or her parents and his or her college-aged siblings, can order free pizza and ice cream at any time of the day, go on free fair rides, eat unlimited amounts of dining hall food (at the Gingerbread Palace), swim in the pool, fish in the ever-stocked pond, etc. Fun all day, every day – at least, of the material variety.

Is this not a life-sized Candy Land? Image from

The confluence of this colorful, material dream-world with the terminally ill kids it housed was shocking, at least to me. As we rode a golf cart from the Welcome Center to our house on the first day, I saw kids on all kinds of medical machinery being wheeled around under giant Disney sculptures by tired-looking parents. Michael seemed to have no idea of anything particularly exciting in these surreal surroundings, but was excited that our family was together. My brother David and I ordered free ice cream and pizza (not things Michael could enjoy, due to his specialized medically-necessary diet), reluctantly interacting with the overly-cheerful volunteers. As Cusk wrote, “wish fulfillment had become a moral good whose ultimate desire was to obscure the truth,” and yet “the truth had stubbornly continued to insist on itself.”

My memory of our week at Give Kids the World has haunted me for a long time. Why did I hate that place so much? Why is my view of the thing so bleak? The rest of my family did not react even close to as strongly as I did. But now my newfound Cuskian understanding of storytelling and searching comforts me. It’s not that the first version of the story (that Give Kids the World sucks and everything is fake) is not true, but that there remains a perspective by which I can drop deeper into the truth – i.e. move towards captial-T truth. Cusk, rather than trying to make the reader question him or herself, works to make the reader comfortable with uncertainty as a necessary part of the journey to truth.

So maybe it was not like that at all. Maybe Give Kids the World is True for the people it was made to serve – terminally and/or chronically ill children. Kids who only see Santa as Santa – even if he’s played by a different leather-skinned retiree every night. Its goal is not to obscure the truth, but to dare to believe entirely in a child’s perspective of it. And perhaps the experience of college-age Make-a-Wish siblings secretly making fun of the place all week long is an added joy of such an earnest commitment. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll write something else tomorrow. As Cusk says, “A desire to write is a desire to live more honestly through language.”

David meets the Muffin Man.
Shrek characters watch from above in the House of Hearts.

A Miss for Patti Smith: My Thoughts on “Year of the Monkey”

Year of the Monkey is Patti Smith’s third full-length memoir. The book came out last month but the story takes place in 2016. Thom snagged it for me as a birthday present because (a) he knows I love Patti and (b) before we knew each other well, he used to say “Happy Birthday,” instead of “Hi” every time we saw each other, and when I lodged a complaint approximately 4 months in, he switched to “Happy Year of the Monkey.” And now we’re getting married.

I hate to say it, but I didn’t like this one. (Still, it was the perfect birthday present @Thom.) I underlined one good line (to follow), but I had a hard time staying invested and interested.

I deeply enjoyed her previous memoirs Just Kids, M Train, and even Devotion (Why I Write). I also find her photographs and style inspiring and even used to have a prominently displayed poster of her in my apartment. But along the way, I have come across a few of pieces that have not captured me – e.g. most of her music and a lot of her poetry.

So it’s not entirely shocking that a memoir finally fell into the latter category. But first, a few things I did like:

The element of Patti’s memoir style that keeps me coming back is her way of living and thinking like a monk. M Train, for example, was mostly scenes of her walking down the street, drinking vats of 7/11 coffee, strolling back to her house, and watching cable news in bed. She zooms in on these little things, creates a sensory space for the reader, and is not at all anxious or self-conscious. I find these passages relaxing, and almost too weird (too good?) to be true, so I keep reading. An aging, successful artist who takes the same foam cup back to 7/11 every day for 16 oz burnt coffee refills? Puzzling, yet wholesome.

She puts this concept into words halfway through Year of the Monkey: “All is but an intermission, of small and tender consequence.”

It’s the opposite sentiment of Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players;” or the darker Macbeth version: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.”

In contrast to Billy the Shake’s distressing picture of the pressure on each of us to perform as we move through the world, Patti’s philosophy of life is a major relief. The spiritual isn’t found in creation and achievement, but rather in getting stale M&M’s from a vending machine during Romeo and Juliet’s intermission. She does not spell out what she’s doing here (the above sentence is the closest she comes); instead she just dives in. Her faith in the value of these small moments calls the reader to buy in and see these daily sensory experiences with new reverence.

Yet Patti can’t entirely get away with this attitude towards life, because she’s a career stage performer. She is currently performing live perhaps more than she has in several decades. Now 73 years old, she has become wildly popular among a new generation of young people and is publishing a book every two years. But she doesn’t acknowledge any of this change. In Year of The Monkey, where her late-stage success was presumably most prevalent – she alludes to it least of all, never going further than explaining that she’s in X city because she played a series of concerts there Y days earlier.

Moreover, Patti executes the aforementioned concept (“all is but an intermission, of small and tender consequence”) much better in her earlier memoir, M Train than she does in Year of the Monkey. In this new book, Patti oscillates between dreams and reality in a way that’s hard to track and ultimately not that interesting. For example, one scene opens with her sitting on a porch near a beach in Santa Cruz, looking at the waves, feeling the wind, putting up her sore feet, etc. – but quickly shifts and becomes an imagined conversation with a motel sign and hallucination of thousands of misprinted candy wrappers on the beach. I wished she would not keep introducing the latter element. I find the small moments more affecting without the accompanying visions – probably because that is the less-universal part of being Patti Smith.

Furthermore, to put it crudely, all of the real friends she writes about in the book all have one foot (or both) in the grave. That her world was contained to either small sensory moments alone, or imagined, chronically ill, comatose, and dead companions made the whole reading exercise kind of lonely and sad. I wanted more grounded human interaction – and I know it must exist, because she has a band, living kids, and tons of fans.

Maybe she wants to hold onto the vagabond, bizarre parts of herself by describing dreams and (imagined?) hitchhiking experiences and voices in her head. But I can’t help but think there’s some important element of her life missing from this picture. The narrative almost struck me as dishonest – as if her new audience/platform hasn’t changed her days or thought patterns at all. As if this new life was not perhaps responsible for her increasing loneliness. I think she could add some such reflection without losing her artistic center. In any case, I’ll keep an eye on her because, despite it all, I remain her devoted reader.


Thanks for reading! I’ve read dozens of books since I last blogged… but not everything inspires a type-athon. I will be writing reviews more regularly now that I’ve got some unstructured time this winter. ❤

“Watching Boys Do Stuff”: Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters

I recently came across Joyce Johnson’s 1983 book Minor Characters on a Goodreads list of memoirs by women, and I was intrigued to find a female voice from the Beat Generation.

At first, it seemed too good to be true. I hadn’t heard of a female writer among the Beats, even when studying them in college courses. After all, most Beat criticism quotes the following observation from Allen Ginsberg: “The social organization which is most true of itself to the artist is the boy gang.” So who was Joyce Johnson? Would her book have literary merit, or would it be a just-okay read, piggybacking off of Kerouac’s celebrity?

Johnson’s cover features the original photo used in a 1993 Gap ad “Kerouac wore khakis.” As one can see, her figure was gently erased.

Speaking for herself, Johnson is almost unrecognizable as a Beat woman. Whereas in On the Road, et al., the women are all legs and beds – sirens of small towns, briefly featured, ultimately discarded – Johnson is a Barnard graduate and aspiring writer, living in New York City. She holds jobs at various literary agencies, gets a book deal, and rents her own apartment. Kerouac mopes through town, between stays at his mother’s house, and crashes on her living room floor.

One of the highlights of reading Johnson is precisely what she has promised in her title: a sketch of life as a minor character, a girl stuck on the sidelines of the boy gang camaraderie. Consider this image of Edie Parker in Johnson’s opening chapter:

“One night Lucien Carr found an empty barrel and rolled Jack Kerouac home in it — that’s a solemnly recorded fact. As it crashes along Broadway through the hot, empty streets with Lucien attempting to push it faster and faster, I see Edie Parker running after it a little off to the side. She’s telling herself she’s having a swell time as she looks out for cops over her shoulder.”

This scene calls to mind Claire Vaye Watkins’ 2015 essay “On Pandering,” in which Watkins introduces the concept of “watching boys do stuff”:

“As a young woman I had one and only one intense and ceaseless pastime, though that’s not the right word, though neither is hobby or passion. I have practiced this activity with religious devotion and for longer than I can remember. . . I’ve filled my days doing this, spent all my free time and a great amount of time that was not free doing it. That hobby, that interest, that passion was this: watching boys do stuff.”

picture 3
This photo was featured in Watkins’ original piece.

When I first read Watkins’ essay, part of my experience that had remained a nameless frustration suddenly presented itself clearly. Friday nights during junior high and high school spent watching football games, in makeup and tight shirts, even though I didn’t like football. Going over to boys’ houses, only to get stuck watching them play video games. Studying abroad with boys who were always saying “take a picture of me here,” “Liz, can you videotape me doing this?” Senior year of college, sitting silently with my cup of whisky (all they had), listening to them debate in ever-louder registers about a random philosophical question. Primarily interested in each other as opponents, the girls mostly watched.

Reflecting on the social conditioning that leads to hours, days, collective months of forced spectatorship can be embittering. And Johnson understands that – and understood it long before anyone had started using the hashtag #watchingboysdostuff.

Of course, the practice of spectating and the art of writing are naturally intertwined. Baudelaire’s flaneur roams the streets at the turn of the 20th century, yet lives inside his mind – David Foster Wallace writes “Fiction writers as a species tend to be oglers . . . They are born watchers,“ at the turn of the 21st. Johnson recognizes herself as a natural observer, quiet and watchful. But she moved in a community of writers, and, upon reading her eloquent prose, it seems should have had equal footing within it.

Thus Johnson explains not only what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated society, but specifically how it feels to be an emerging female writer in a literary movement that prioritized the kind of writing that only (white, privileged) maleness afforded.

For example, on the first day of a creative writing class at Barnard, a male professor asked Johnson’s class of young women, “Who among you want to be writers?” Slowly, they all raised their hands. He responded, “I’m sorry to say this . . . first of all, if you were going to be writers, you wouldn’t be enrolled in this class. You couldn’t even be enrolled in school. You’d be hopping freight [trains, riding through America.”

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The young Johnson.

Johnson writes, “The young would-be writers in this room have understood instantly that of course there is no hope. One by one their hands have all come down.”

To read Minor Characters, then, is to be part of a victory – to bring to life a tale that was ignored and stifled for a long time. Moreover, to hear the unsexy account of how Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg moved through the world is unexpectedly heartening – it gives hope to the quieter type, the more socially-boxed-in person, that he/she can live fully, and write well, too.


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Articulating the Infinite: Patti Smith on Why She Writes

Patti is back, albeit in brief.


Devotion (2017) is the second volume in Yale Press’s new “Why I Write,” series, which launched in 2015 to publish the keynote addresses from Yale’s annual literary festival.

Smith’s slim treatise is tripartite. It opens with “How the Mind Works,” an account of a recent journey to Paris on a leg of her book tour. Next comes “Devotion,” a short-story about an ice-skating prodigy in WWII-era Switzerland, which Smith composes during the trip while riding the train from Paris to London. She closes with “A Dream Is Not a Dream,” a reflection on the story she’d written and a wrap of the trip.

Notably, Devotion contains Smith’s first published work of short fiction. Her recent, bestselling memoirs Just Kids (2010) and M Train (2014) are rendered lyrically and contain excerpts of poetry – but they are first and foremost glimpses of Smith’s life as an artist. In Just Kids, Smith writes of young, broke, wishful years in New York City with her dear friend, renowned photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. In M Train, she walks us through a day in the life of her present-day 70-year-old self, who wanders around New York City drinking giant cups of gas station coffee and finding inspiration in relics of artists past. But there’s little to suggest in these memoirs that Smith herself has any history of or interest in writing fiction. Thus Devotion presents something new and even unexpected: a parable about creativity and talent in which neither writing nor Smith herself are the focus.


As an addition to the “writers on writing” sub-genre, Devotion is a unique offering because it explores the question of why we write, rather how to write. Instead of breaking down her daily routine, sharing tales of early failure, and offering neatly packaged advice (“write shitty first drafts,” “kill your darlings”), Smith explores the origins of creative passion – where it comes from, how it feels, why it captures us.

Through a young figure-skating savant named Eugenia, Smith describes what it feels like to first discover one’s creative calling:

On my fifth birthday [my uncle] took us to an ice pageant. I remember this most of all. 

After I saw the skaters I cried for three days and three nights. . . Perhaps I recognized my destiny but was too young to fully comprehend what that meant . . . When I first stepped onto the ice I faltered, not out of fear, but excitement, for something wonderful happened. Everything I needed was revealed to me in a split second, like suddenly knowing all the answers to a difficult test, or the exact route to an impossible destination . . . 

Smith’s vision may seem a bit grandiose here – perhaps even unrealistic. For me, it calls to mind the myth of another young prodigy by the name of Will Hunting…

Will: Beethoven, okay. He looked at a piano, and it just made sense to him. He could just play.
Skylar: So what are you saying? You play the piano?
Will: No, not a lick. I mean, I look at a piano, I see a bunch of keys, three pedals, and a box of wood. But Beethoven, Mozart, they saw it, they could just play. I couldn’t paint you a picture, I probably can’t hit the ball out of Fenway, and I can’t play the piano.
Skylar: But you can do my o-chem paper in under an hour.
Will: Right. Well, I mean when it came to stuff like that… I could always just play.

As in any proper parable, these storytellers exaggerate certain details to highlight the point. And the point is not, as one might think, how convenient it would be if things like organic chemistry or pianos immediately made sense.

The key lies in a minor admission Will makes earlier in this exchange. He concedes that he has studied organic chemistry before. “For kicks,” he says. Skylar responds, “Are you mad?”


That’s the point. See alternate title for Smith’s book: Devotion (Am I Mad?)

So, why does Eugenia skate? Why does Will study organic chemistry in his free time? Why does Patti write?

Smith shows us that the mystery is the reason. In the pursuit of our particular, randomly-given talents and/or passions – whether for ice skating, mathematics, or writing – we encounter Truth. For Eugenia, the ice is a point of divine contact:

I saw it all before me, in an instant that instantly disappeared, yet made it’s mark. I intuited that when I was ready I held the key.

Importantly, the sublime glimpse is no more than that – a glimpse. Finding one’s passion is not a gateway to total, unimpeded understanding. It does, however, contain the promise of understanding, which is enough to sustain a life. Whether one responds as Eugenia, heeding the call and building a daily practice (yet forestalled by the evil forces of the world) — or as Will Hunting, denying the call’s centrality (impeded by shame and unworthiness) — the Truth can’t be unseen.


Indeed, Smith affirms this answer in the nonfiction, third part of her book, “A Dream is Not a Dream:”

What is the dream? To write something fine, that would be better than I am, and that would justify my trials and indiscretions. To offer proof, through a scramble of words, that God exits.

The dream gives meaning, purpose, and a shape to one’s life.  It imparts confidence in one’s unique beauty — in being wanted and loved by the universe. It’s attainment is nothing less than communion with the world (however brief) – which is the ultimate joy.

Smith’s final line: “Why do we write? . . . Because we cannot simply live,” affirms our fundamental condition as seekers. As someone who seeks through writing, the story resonated deeply. As someone who has never committed a creative act on ice, I can’t speak to whether this parable rings true beyond the writing few.

If you want to find out, I’ll mail you my copy.


Anne Lamott’s Latest Falls Short

I first discovered Anne Lamott last fall, when I mentioned to my friend, Grace, that I was “getting into Catholic writers again,” like Mary Karr and Thomas Merton. Grace recommended Christian writer Anne Lamott and suggested I start with her recent spiritual memoir, Small Victories (2014).

I liked Lamott immediately. I found her witty tales of growing up among the liberal literati familiar and enlightening, and her story of addiction, recovery, and faith inspiring.  I picked up three more of her shorter books: Help Thanks Wow, Stitches, and Bird by Bird. As I continued to enjoy her flippant yet humble storytelling, I pre-ordered her new book, Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, several months ahead of time (unprecedented).

When the much-anticipated title arrived on April 4, I smiled at it’s salmon-and-silver jacket. Flipping through the purple typeface, I thought “wohoo, Anne is back!”


Or was she?

After reading the first few pages, I had no memory of what I’d just read. I read and reread the sentences, but they weren’t cohering. Did I need sleep? Coffee? Exercise? Earplugs?

I put the book down. I’d try again later.

To regain confidence in my reading comprehension, I picked up Elif Batuman’s new book The Idiot. My quest was a success – The Idiot is not only intelligible, but one of the best novels I’ve read in the last few years (review to come).

A week later, I opened Hallelujah Anyway again. I started from the beginning, hoping for a fresh start.

Again, I met frustration. It soon became clear that Lamott’s writing – the very same writing I had grown to love and trust in Small Victories, Stitches, and Help Thanks Wow – was at fault. Something had gone terribly wrong.

Take the excerpt on the back cover, for instance:

“I’m not sure I even recognize the ever-presence of mercy anymore, the divine and the human: the messy, crippled, transforming, heartbreaking, lovely, devastating presence of mercy. But I have come to believe that I am starving to death for it, and my world is, too.”

This should’ve been the first clue.

That is eight adjectives to describe mercy, the majority of which conjure abstract concepts. Anne invites us to “rediscover mercy” via the dictionary.

Sentences like the one above comprise seventy-five percent of the book. Lamott flits from line to line, paragraph to paragraph tacking so many different descriptors to mercy that the word begins to fade out of focus.

“Mercy means radical kindness. . . Mercy brings us to the miracle of apology, given and accepted, to unashamed humility when we have erred or forgotten. . . Mercy, grace, forgiveness and compassion are synonyms, and the approaches we might consider taking when facing a great big mess, especially the great big mess of ourselves – our arrogance, greed, poverty, disease, prejudice.”

Lamott’s writing does not live up to the promise of its deep purple font.

Lamott gives us too many options. Mercy is a, b, c, and maybe also d; it’s the f and g of h and j. Her sentences feel urgent and unsettled, losing the reader with sharp turns at each comma. I found myself re-reading often, searching for the elusive pearls of Lamott wisdom I had come for. But by the next sentence, Lamott had apparated elsewhere, leaving me sighing with annoyance.

There are moments where Lamott slows down, where glimpses of her former self appear. These are instances in which she approaches mercy anecdotally. For example, Lamott tells the story of her Jesuit priest friend Tom’s experience at an AA meeting in LA, in which a drunk man soils himself walking into the meeting and a team of people help him shower and clean up. She describes retail exhaustion in Zoologie (surely a thinly disguised Anthropologie) in which a salesgirl finds her on a couch and offers a tiny paper cup of water.

Unfortunately, these stories are few and far between. One must trudge through the muck, braving confusion and whiplash:

“Something is at work mending the cut on my hand right now, as if hidden in the skin with atomic knitting needles. Over the years, when it has been in the mood and has its nursing cap on, this something has imperfectly patched up the rifts in my damaged family, the deeper dents in my heart, let alone evil in South Africa, has transformed us from clenched, victimized, and shut down, to taking gulps of fresh air like a baby pinking up.

“Horribly, it does not issue printed schedules.”fullsizeoutput_244c

As Washington Post contributer Anne Bauer aptly put it in her review: “I’m sorry. What?”

In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994), Lamott likens writing to hosting. She suggests that readers arrive at one’s pages seeking communion, and it’s the writers’ job to welcome them home. In Hallelujah Anyway, Lamott is a well-meaning but harried host – multi-tasking and inattentive. She’s dodging through rooms greeting newcomers, moving appetizers in and out of the oven, rearranging the shoe pile, looking for a ladder to fix a burnt-out bulb. One wishes she would put it all down, come sit by us on the couch, and do what she does best: tell a story.