Feeding the hungry writer

Guest Post by Janice Gary

Mavis Gallant, now 90, in her youth

While reading the latest issue of The New Yorker, I came across “The Hunger Diaries,” excerpted entries (March-June, 1952) from the journal of novelist and short story writer Mavis Gallant. From the very first sentence, the writing captivated me, plunging me into a world both exotic and maddeningly boring, a life narrated in cinematic detail by an unforgettable voice.

An armed guard in gray, a church, a wild rocky coast which rushes a steel sea… At Portbou, (I) leave the train…my luggage is inspected by insolent guards…I am caught between a quarreling French couple. Evidently, bringing the baby was her idea – he knew better from the start.

The entries in The New Yorker come from a period when Ms. Gallant was living “hand to mouth” in Spain, having left her husband, her journalism job, and her country to make a life as a writer in Europe. Her training as a reporter is evident in the way she records the sights, sounds and events taking place around her. But the hand of an emerging artist is also evident, both in the beauty of the prose and in the compelling material. This is more than a journal; it is a powerful piece of autobiographical writing.

You can almost hear the rumbling of Gallant’s stomach as she continues to stay the course, typing manuscripts, teaching English and selling her clothes for money. She perseveres, hungering not only for food but for the creative spark to sustain a new novel.

This novel, this bird in my mind, I have carried since Austria, suddenly alighted in Madrid. Sitting in the Café Telefonica, eating a dry bun, I saw one of those girls with the long jaw… and of course, that was the girl in the book.

The rollercoaster quality of the prose takes my breath away. Lyrical in one moment, down to the earth the next, Gallant constantly grounds her writing in the stunning power of the ordinary. The dry bun. The insolent guard. The quarreling couple.

The last few months have been a time of ups and downs in my own writing. The intoxication of being contracted for my first book followed by a disorienting lack of direction. There are long days when I do not write at all, which for a writer is a kind of starvation.

That’s why “The Hunger Diaries” speaks so strongly to me. This is a writer who, although famished most of the time, continues to feed herself with observations and insights. It makes me realize how anorexic I have been these last few months, stubbornly refusing to do what I can, write what I can, about whatever I can.

After reading the essay, I pull out my journal. I write about the unrelenting sun, the sharp cries of osprey circling the sky, the emptiness I feel when I’m not writing. Then I return to Mavis Gallant and devour her writing, awed by the strange and wonderful way we writers feed ourselves – and each other – with words.

Editor’s Note: There’s an interesting 1999 Paris Review interview with Mavis Gallant available online.

Janice Gary

Janice Gary lives and writes in Annapolis, Maryland, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Her book, Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance, is due out from Michigan State University Press in 2013.

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8 Comments

Filed under fiction, journalism, NOTED, working method

8 responses to “Feeding the hungry writer

  1. I like the way this turns on your response becoming ever more personal, Janice. That mirrored my reaction to reading Gallant’s entries—I was awed by how much she physically suffered for her writing, I mean she existed in near starvation, which seemed reflected in her perceptions, but her commitment and confidence seemed not to waver. I felt a bit chastened!

  2. Absolutely. Her single-minded commitment to her art was as striking to me as her prose.

  3. Janice, so great to read this post by you, and catch up with your writing these days. I felt Gallant’s huge need for those checks to come through from The New Yorker! It was torture to wait with her. I like your connecting the lack of writing with starvation for the writer. It brought to mind a quote I read in a Psychology Today issue years ago (which of course I still have!) called “How to Unblock” by Desy Safan-Gerard: “I’ve heard poeple say they create because they need to express themselves. In fact, just the reverse is true. What they need comes back to them from their work. One of my students asked others in class, ‘What do you usually do when you feel blocked in your work?’ A large percentage of the students said that they eat. It is the self-nourishment of the creative encounter that we long for, not the need to give nourishment by communicating something to others.”

    • Thanks for your comments, Paulette. As always, you bring so much to the table (literally!). It’s fascinating that your students revealed they eat when they’re blocked. (Come to think of it, I’m sure I do, too.) It’s true the Muse likes to be courted and fed her peeled grapes. It often takes great effort to do something like that when you feel depleted and discouraged, , and sometimes we need to do that when we feel like it the least.

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  5. This isn’t the first time, Richard, that your blog has featured a topic I’ve also been thinking about, though you got there first! No matter: I so enjoyed this guest post, and thank you and Janice Gray for it. Reading the good writing of others, be they a Mavis Gallant, or you and your guests here, inspire and motivate!

  6. I found that piece in the New Yorker very striking, too. It had me wondering if I would be willing to go there – nearly starving – to live the life I wanted to as a writer. For her observations to remain so sharp when her body was suffering was amazing.

    • It does make you wonder what it takes to dedicate yourself to the writing life. Gallant’s motivation is incredible (not only starving, but leaving behind the life and country she knew). It must have helped to know that her work had been accepted by the New Yorker. Sometimes, we need that slim lifeline to keep hope alive. As writers, we work alone and often without any encouragement. That’s why it’s important to keep connected to our “community,” even if it’s just on forums like this to stay “fed” by conversation and a mutual love of writing.