Category Archives: books

Loud as a whisper: Deborah Levy on becoming a writer

Why write? It’s a question that perhaps every writer considers at some point, sometimes publicly, sometimes not. George Orwell wrote a famous essay on the topic. So did Joan Didion. Countless others have also chimed in: David Foster Wallace, Susan Sontag, take your pick. I’ve always read such accounts with a kind of morbid curiosity about what makes other writers tick, but there’s also a part of me that resists the question. Of course I agree that we need to understand something of ourselves and our purpose as writers, and writing is naturally the most reflective instrument at our disposal. But I also feel that if we’re truly successful in understanding our purpose, it needn’t become a subject unto itself. Ideally, it becomes an unmistakable and inextricable part of everything we write — the backbone — without which our words flounder.

A friend recently gave me a copy of Deborah Levy’s response to George Orwell’s “Why I Write” essay, entitled, Things I Don’t Want to KnowLevy reflects on writing as a way of dealing with “the knowledge we cannot bear to live with”, “the things we don’t want to know” — such as her father’s imprisonment for supporting the ANC during apartheid, or her convent school mentor whose belief in God wavered. The autobiography is in itself fascinating, but there are two quotes book-ending her story that I particularly appreciated because I think they place the emphasis where it belongs — not on defining our purpose, exactly, but on learning to trust our voices to convey it honestly.

In the beginning, she quotes Polish theatre director, Zofia Kalinska:

To speak up is not about speaking louder, it is about feeling entitled to voice a wish. We always hesitate when we wish for something. […] A hesitation is not the same as a pause. It is an attempt to defeat the wish. But when you are ready to catch this wish and put it into language, then you can whisper but the audience will always hear you.”

Then later, she reflects:

To become a writer, I had to learn to interrupt, to speak up, to speak a little louder, and then louder, and then to just speak in my own voice, which is not loud at all.

All in all, a quick, interesting read, and far more insightful, I think, than Orwell’s original essay. But you should know, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with George Orwell — I appreciate his style, but I struggle with his cynicism. That’s another story…


Vulnerability, empathy, and writing through the mess

When I was a teenager, and not yet willing to call myself a writer, I stumbled upon the following quote in an encyclopedia entry on the library computer:

“Lord, let me grow into someone who has something to say! Let me be one of those that Henry James speaks of, one of those ‘upon whom nothing is lost.’ Let understanding and wisdom be engraved on my mind as deep as the lines of living on a wise and weathered face. Teach me to love and teach me to be humble, and let me learn to respect human difference, human privacy, human dignity, and human pain. And then let me find the words to say it so it can’t be overlooked and cannot be forgotten.”

I scribbled down the quote on the back of my math homework, took it home, and from then on, it was faithfully transcribed onto the inside cover of every notebook I owned. I was never much for the prayer bit, but the rest of the quote captured what I could not yet express about the kind of writer I wanted to be. The quote was unattributed, and I carried it around for many years before I was able to trace it back to what I believe is the original source — On Teaching & Writing Fiction, by Wallace Stegner. By the time I finally found it (in my late-twenties), I was surprised and a little disappointed to discover that it came from a book on fiction.

I’d given up on fiction.

To say this so bluntly suggests it was a conscious decision, but it wasn’t really. It just happened that I grew into science writing around the same time that my fiction was becoming more difficult. I wouldn’t have characterized the transition then as giving up — I still dabbled here and there in the odd short story, and even published a couple. But I could no longer ignore the fact that my fiction was missing something. It still struck me as superficial and lifeless. I hated that. Gradually my focus shifted, and fiction fell to the wayside.

My first clue to the problem came from an unexpected source. As a professional writing student, I took courses in rhetoric, learning how to write different styles of argument. This kind of persuasive writing came quite naturally, except for one thing: the emotional appeal. My arguments were always logically sound, and I had no difficulty establishing my ethos as a writer, but when it came to making an emotional investment in the argument and extracting the same from a reader, I came up lame. I blamed my scientific training. It would take me a few more years to understand that this was only part of the story, that my resistance to the emotional appeal was not so much a question of skill, but of comfort. I knew how to write it well enough, but I was simply afraid to commit.

Was it possible that the same was true of my fiction?

My fiction has never been the stuff of sunshine and rainbows and warm, fuzzy, feel-goods. I’ve always aspired to a kind of shadowy realism that reflects the complexities of human experience and conflict. I write stories about people, with characters that are flawed and imperfect, and whose behaviour doesn’t always clearly align with their motivations. Characters who, like us, have room to grow, whether they’re willing to admit it or not.

This kind of character-driven work is hard. To do it well, you have to allow yourself to be vulnerable, not only to the people who may misinterpret the character as a real person (perhaps you), but also to those parts of yourself that you inevitably do share with the characters you create.  You have to be willing to root through a character’s boneyard to understand what makes her tick. What’s at stake for her? Where is the conflict? Why should you — why should anyone — care about what happens to this fictional person?

For a long time, I believed that my writing skills just weren’t up to the task of bringing a character to life with that kind of richness and depth. But looking back now, I realize that I walked away just as it was starting to happen. It turns out I was afraid of the very thing I most aspired to write.

This was a tough thing to accept at first, but as I’ve slowly been working my way back into writing fiction, I’ve learned that it requires a great deal more empathy than I had back then — not just for the characters and their stories, but also for myself and the process. I’ve often questioned the wisdom of that old adage to “write what you know,” but now I think I’m finally starting to understand what it really means. Taken literally, it sounds like nonsense — writing is a creative act; the whole point is to be able to stretch beyond the confines of what you know for sure. But, perhaps it makes more sense to “know what you write” — that is, to share the experience of whatever it is you hope to evoke in the reader — to embrace the messy intensity of it and write through it, honestly.

Or as Wallace Stegner put it far more eloquently:

You have nothing to gain and nothing to give except as you distill and purify ephemeral experience into quiet, searching, touching little stories like the one you have just finished, and so give your uncommon readers a chance to join you in the solidarity of pain and love and the vision of human possibility. But isn’t it enough?

Libraries: the great, unseen, can’t-miss attraction

One of the unexpected advantages of going on a writing holiday, I’ve discovered, is that it takes some of the urgency out of being a tourist. The pressure to see and do as much as I can has been tempered greatly by the fact that my real purpose for being here is to give myself time to write. Don’t get me wrong, the sightseeing has been fun too, but the other day I was standing in a rose garden amid a busload of bona fide tourists who seemed to be in such a hurry to see everything that I’m not sure they saw much of anything at all — and I actually felt a little sorry for them. (I mean, if ever there was a time to literally stop and smell the roses?)

I knew coming into this week that I would not be trying to see everything. I deliberately chose a destination with plenty of options, but kept my mind — and my schedule — open. Today, for example, I ventured off in the general direction of one of the local “must-see” attractions, but stumbled instead into the public library, where, after a brief delay due to a fire drill (during which, I got a terrific lunch recommendation from a random library patron), I settled into a wonderfully peaceful morning writing in the stacks.

Now, to a tourist on a sunny day, there are probably dozens of more exciting things to do than hang out at the library. Truth be told, I think I was secretly counting on it. I knew as soon as I walked in that it was going to be more satisfying than navigating herds of camera-toting tourists, Instagramming their way through the guided tour.

I think you can tell a lot about a place by its libraries. I might be biased, having spent my own formative years under the influence of a pack of librarians (which is kinda like being raised by wolves, but without all the howling at the moon). But I think libraries are just honest, down-to-earth places. Unlike most tourist traps, libraries strive to put their best foot forward to everyone, all the time, and without the underlying profit motive. Libraries are about adding value to the community, in the broadest sense of both words.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had the opportunity to roam an unfamiliar library, but the kid-in-a-candy-shop sense of wonder never really fades. It’s like grandma’s apple pie (or cookies, or pot roast, or whatever your grandma happens to be famous for). The scent of a library — somewhere between that glossy new cover smell and the musty vanilla character of well-travelled books — evokes some of the best memories of my childhood. It’s calm, but not too quiet. And though the layout is instinctively familiar and readily navigable, every library possesses its own distinctive, for lack of a better word — personality.

Whenever I visit a new library, I like to get a feel for the collection. I start in non-fiction, usually around the 020s (because librarians pick the best books about themselves — I once stumbled upon an enchanting anthology of library love stories on just such an adventure). I mostly cruise through the 100s-400s, although I might pause on some of my favourite topics (363.31 – Censorship, 370s – Education). And then I do a thorough rooting through the 500s, the 600s, and the 800s — wrapping up, wherever possible, with a nostalgic thumb through Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (808.882). I took it out on a librarian’s dare once when I was thirteen, and dozens of borrowing periods later (and probably some long-forgiven fines), it’s still my favourite book to just sit and flip through at random. (Though oddly enough, I still don’t own a copy…)

If I ever manage to get my head out of Bartlett’s, then it’s off to fiction. It’s always interesting to see how libraries organize their fiction — sometimes alphabetically, sometimes by genre. Then reference, periodicals, local history, special collections…who says libraries are not “must see” attractions?

Today, however, I found a quiet nook in the late 700s, somewhere between stringed instruments and games of chance, sunk into some words of my own making, and didn’t look up until lunch time, when I saw this quote painted above the library’s main entrance:

You see, I don’t believe that libraries should be drab places where people sit in silence, and that has been the main reason for our policy of employing wild animals as librarians. ~Monty Python

Yup, that’s my pack. Wherever I go, there they are.

How my favourite poet introduced me to my favourite editor (or…vice versa?)

April is National Poetry Month. As many of you know, I’m not much of a poet, and not much more a reader of poetry. It seems I struggle with everything that makes poetry, well, poetic. There’s either too much freedom in form or not enough, counting syllables one minute, dropping capitals and punctuation the next. As in art, there is a fine line in poetry between what counts as a masterpiece and what looks like someone kicked over a paint can. I’ve never really gotten it.

And yet, the most memorable book of my childhood — not my first book, but the book I can still largely recite from memory — was a book of poetry. My first grade teacher used to read every day from Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. I still have my copy, faded and worn and much loved, with my name etched in practised elementary school scrawl on the inside front cover. The book is home to some of my most beloved literary characters: Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout (who would NOT take the garbage out!), Ickle Me, Pickle Me, and Tickle Me (who went for a ride in a flying shoe), and dear old Reginald Clark, who was afraid of the dark, and begged each day, “Please do not close this book on me.” (which of course we did, every day before lunch time…and I still do, as a rule, anytime I feel the need to look up a Recipe for a Hippopotamus Sandwich.)

It’s a book that’s lost little of its charm over the years.  Indeed, it was only a few years ago that I discovered the book’s dedication, “For Ursula” referred to the legendary Harper & Row editor, Ursula Nordstrom, the woman who, over the span of a fifty-year career, revolutionized children’s publishing. Ursula Nordstrom not only nurtured some of the greatest creative talents in 20th century children’s literature (e.g. Maurice Sendak, E.B. White, Margaret Wise Brown – to name just a few!), but she also dared to publish what she called “good books for bad children,” shattering the strict moralistic standard of children’s books in favour of books that catered to the real emotions and imaginations of children.

Nordstrom began her career at Harper & Brothers in 1931, when she accepted a position as a clerk in the College Textbooks Department. Although Nordstrom expressed an early interest in writing, she did not join Harper with any immediate ambition to become an editor. Instead, she climbed the ranks as an assistant to her friend, Ida Louise Raymond, who headed Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls. When Raymond retired from the post, Nordstrom was named her successor, and would remain in a leadership role within Harper for the next forty years, amassing a long list of notable firsts: she published one of the first juvenile books handling the subject of menstruation (The Long Secret, by Louise Fitzhugh) and the first novel for young readers that explored homosexuality (John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip). And when Maurice Sendak’s picture book, In the Night Kitchen, was censored and burned because it depicted a nude boy, Nordstrom publicly decried the “mutilation” of the book and maintained that “it is only adults who ever feel threatened by Sendak’s work.”

Though widely revered by authors, artists, and librarians, she sometimes faced staunch criticism from self-proclaimed authorities on children’s literature. One such critic, Anne Carroll Moore, famously asked Nordstrom what qualified her to be a children’s editor, given that she had no formal education, no children, and was not a teacher or librarian. Nordstrom was undaunted, replying matter-of-factly: “I am a former child, and I haven’t forgotten a thing.

Her letters — many of which have now been published as a collection — are an absolute delight to read. Most are letters between her and her authors and artists, which capture the special bond she had with them. But there are also letters to her readers — mainly children, but also some critics — which are as heartfelt and honest as many of the books we grew up with, thanks to her.

It’s difficult to imagine that Shel Silverstein — who began his career as a songwriter (most famous for Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue“), and whose poems were originally published in Playboy — would have gotten a second look from any other children’s editor of the time. But Nordstrom actually helped convince a reluctant Silverstein that he should try his hand at children’s poetry — and I love her for it.

Because what fun would have been growing up without Me Stew and The Loser and the Crocodile’s Toothache?  (I think I’d rather have been eaten by a boa constrictor!)

Happy Poetry Month!



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