Category Archives: religion & spirituality

Joe Bonomo on sex, spirit & implication

A review and interview about his new collection of essays.

This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began by Joe Bonomo. Orphan Press, 248 pp.

There is no such thing as was—only is. If was existed, there would be no grief or sorrow.—William Faulkner

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Memoir is made of memories, by definition; some theorists assert memoir must be about memory. Yet it’s notable how much Joe Bonomo explores memory and takes it as his subject. His new collection of essays, This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began, summons and examines a wide range of memories, expressed in often lyrical sentences. He’s had an ordinary suburban boyhood and adult life, but he makes this material interesting because—as he tells stories, and muses interestingly on their meaning—we find ourselves catching our own cast-off thoughts and doubts, thinking about our own stories.

Here’s this reflective person in the present trying to make sense of his life: what every adult does, one supposes, and it’s satisfying being privy to another’s subjective reality and party to his grappling with memory and meaning. His blog, No Such Thing as Was, its title taken from Faulkner’s remark about the past’s persistence, testifies to his steady inquiry into the memories that live inside him.

Some of his essays are strongly narrative, with personal experience dramatized in scenes; others are models of the classical ruminative approach (as run through a poet’s sensibility) and some are short prose poems. Since he’s got all the chops and deploys them artfully, slapping a label on his creative nonfiction is difficult and would be misleading.

Here’s an example from “Caught,” which moves from his adult self’s sexualized encounter with two strangers—two college girls acting up—to depict his adolescent self’s furtive research into sex at his neighborhood newsstand:

One weekend afternoon I discovered that the manager of the newsstand had stocked a ground-level magazine rack with digest pornography, magazines like Penthouse Forum and Family Letters. My heart racing, I cased the store like a petty thief, strolling self-consciously up and down the aisles feigning interest in Creem magazine, soon recognizing that if I stood directly behind the rack, reached in surreptitiously through to the front, and discreetly pulled Penthouse Forum through the rack back toward me, I could prop it up harmlessly between Reader’s Digest and the Farmer’s Almanac.  . . .

And so I remember vividly the instant the manager’s thick hand crashed through the magazine rack and clutched at the magazine I was holding. Startled, I looked up and saw his eyes peering at me through the magazines. The store spun away from me in a swirl of fear, and in a lightheaded haze I felt my feet lift from the ground. Memory seduces us with claims to legitimacy and to truth, though I remember graphically the long moment it took for the manager to sweep around the side of that rack and to lean down into my face, his eyes ferocious behind thick rim glasses.

Sexuality runs as one theme through this collection, which made me realize how seldom creative nonfiction even mentions the topic of sex in passing, whereas fiction fairly reeks of it. Not that it’s a big deal here, just another thread, as in life, but arresting in its candor. Equally unusual is the spiritual theme in some of Bonomo’s essays, and perhaps a riskier one than sex. In fact I first learned of his work several years ago when he read his essay “Occasional Prayer,” collected here, in Ohio University’s chapel where it’s partly set. The essay opens with an adult ritual, Bonomo and his wife praying as they set out on a trip, and depicts how and why Bonomo returned to prayer in college. One thing I like about his essays on faith is their roots in a frankly utilitarian view of religion, which after all is most usefully about practical matters—not abstractions like whether an external God exists but how we might live more humanely.

From “Occasional Prayer”:

My occasional prayer finds me less reaching a higher state than desperately shedding ego. Perhaps this explains my impulse to write autobiographically. Does self-addition wiggle from its straightjacket by turning outward to others in an attempt to make larger humane sense? And I wonder, can I pray for that. Prayer does not change God, writes Kierkegaard, but changes him who prays. . . .

Amy and I are back from our drive later, and I’ll repeat to myself what she’d said in the car when I asked her why her prayers are longer than mine. More people to say hello to. More people to stretch toward on the thin prop of prayer. More to caress in absentia, to tap lovingly on a shoulder knowing that touch is a foreign language, not spoken here. There. And I’ll wonder, who do I have to say hello to? Who do I have to surprise, moist-eyed, my mouth moving oddly, slowly, the other tilting his head tenderly to make out the words. Alone to myself in my room, my words perish on the mirror.

In an interview with the campus newspaper where he teaches, Northern Illinois University, Bonomo said his essays are about “the edges of my suburban youth, exploring issues of spirituality, sex, violence, and myth, and a grappling with language [. . . an] attempt to articulate the past and our shifting responses to it.”

Bonomo Photo

Joe Bonomo

This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began won the Orphan Press Book Contest. Bonomo’s other books include AC/DC’s Highway to HellJerry Lee Lewis: Lost and FoundInstallations (National Poetry Series), Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band, and Conversations With Greil Marcus (edited). He’s the Music Columnist at The Normal School.

He answered some questions:

Your new book is organized into four themed parts, and within the sections medium-length essays alternate with short lyrical meditations or tone poems. How did this structure develop, and once you had it how did it influence individual essays’ content or placement within a section?

The overall structure materialized near the end of the process. At some point I realized that I was going to have these longer essays and these shorter, micro-essays or prose poems together, that they were going to have to work it out. Once I took a step back and recognized the book’s essential themes, I saw clusters of essays that worked well together, and they began to fall into these four sections. The biggest challenge was arranging the pieces in such a way that would, one, imply my subjects and interests rather than name them directly, and two, allow the longer and shorter essays to work together without feeling as if they were gathered together artificially. I had to trust my instinct that in the experiences I was exploring there was a need for sustained attention in the form of longer essays, as well as a need for a brief, momentary recollections or narratives in the form of smaller pieces. Our experiences, and our memories of them, are so varied in shape and texture and temperature, and call for different forms, I think.

Why did you want to imply rather than name your subjects and interests?

Well, I think that comes from Walter Pater who said “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” To my mind, music is an abstraction, and abstraction evokes rather than states, a place where I like my essays, which are generally lyric- rather than narrative-based, to go, and the place where they usually originate. I try in my essays to circumvent designating my subjects; I’d rather the language and the selection of details and the story-telling, if there’s any, to do that.

Phillip Lopate has said that an essay can tell as well as show, and that’s of course true, but I like essays too that evoke rather than declare, though there are plenty of declarative sentences in my essays. That’s one reason why I like segmented essays so much: the white spaces act as a kind of transparent connective tissue. It’s more exciting to be held aloft by wires that you can’t see. And that same strategy went in to arranging the book and the essays within the sections.

I sense a strong link with poetry in your essays, or perhaps it’s that you seem to have a background in poetry as well as in creative nonfiction. Is this impression accurate and, if so, what did studying poetry bring to your prose? What poets were strong influences and why?

Yeah, in graduate school at Ohio University I wrote poems, in fact wrote a poetic thesis and dissertation. Sometime in the mid-1990s I began to grow dissatisfied with writing poems and turned to writing prose. It wasn’t overnight nor was it something I was really conscious of at the time, except that I felt that I wanted to write sentences and not concern myself so much with line breaks. That’s a very simple decision that had a monumental impact on me as a writer. I’d been reading essays but really had to catch up—I still am. I think that because of my love of poetry I gravitated toward writing essays that were lyric in impulse, or in origin. Like most of us I’ve always remembered, and observed the world, in snatches, shards, and brief scenes, narratively-speaking. So my early essays, some of which are in the book, are quite short—not as short as the micro-essays or prose poems; those originated in deliberate attempts at brevity—and in retrospect definitely stem from the lyric moments I’d been working with in my poems. But my poems had begun to feel to me squeezed out, too dry or spindly, and I wanted to push my sentences a bit, to “tell” and chase ideas or analyze more while still allowing imagery and abstraction and music into the writing.

There were poets I loved to read—Stevens, Kinnell, Plath, Lowell and later, Russell Edson, Dennis Schmitz, Mark Irwin, and other contemporaries—but I don’t know that they’ve been direct influences, more like compass pulls toward lyric abstraction as I’m writing sentences and paragraphs.

Your work seems conversant with the entire tradition of the essay, from classical essays—Montaigne’s work comes to mind—to today’s lyric form. What do the essay’s roots have to teach us? Which essayists, whether ancient or modern, have most influenced you?

The roots of the essay have everything to tell us. On some level each essay begins with What do I know? The great turn that an essay can make, has to make in my opinion, is to move from that essential question to Why do I know? That is, why does this linger, why do I now feel compelled to explore it? What don’t I know? Every essayist is fond of highlighting the word essay’s etymological roots in “the attempt, the weighing out,” and that’s always important to remember, for young essayists especially, who need to be urged to go beyond story, to really believe that an essay should start not with What but with Why, an attempt to make sense of something that’s either dimly understood or so well-understood that it might benefit from a skeptical reassessment. My favorite quote about the essay is Huxley’s: “the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.” An essay can do anything in the world as long as the essayist is writing candidly and honestly.

Montaigne, William Hazlitt, and Virginia Woolf have had some influence on me, I think, as have contemporaries Patricia Hampl, Annie Dillard, Phillip Lopate, Albert Goldbarth, Robert Vivian. As a single influential book, Alfred Kazin’s A Walker In The City is up there, both for its subject and its style. But lots of writers from different places—fiction writers like Andre Dubus, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Larry Brown, rock & roll writers and cultural critics like Lester Bangs, Peter Guralnick, and Greil Marcus, the New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane, the baseball writer Roger Angell, even Phyllis Richman, the restaurant reviewer at the Washington Post who I read every Sunday when I was growing up!—all these people have also influenced my writing and my approach toward nonfiction, some directly, some indirectly. A model is always good to have for a writer, to see where one overlaps with that model as well as where, and how, one doesn’t.

The self and its experiences are what the essayist has to work with, yet in practice both components face the presumed “so what” test and are tricky to pull off. You quote V.S. Naipaul on this: “No one cares for your tragedy until you can sing about it.” Could you discuss this in terms of your own subjects and your use of persona?

This is the great paradox of personal writing. Why should the reader care? Because the writer cares? That’s not enough. What I love about Naipaul’s quote is his necessity on song, the crafting. The image I always use, that I’ve discussed before, is of a silhouette: by the end of an essay or a book of autobiographical nonfiction the writer should morph into a silhouette, a persona-outline into which the reader steps, and into which the reader fits, perhaps surprisingly. Montaigne said that we have inside ourselves the entire human condition, and I think the smartest essayist both embraces this and is deeply skeptical of it. The work comes less in being attentive to potential subject matter than in shaping that subject in such a way that might resonate with a reader. And the reader works, too. Some essays —I’m thinking right now of work by Nabakov and John D’Agata and Lia Purpura, Richard Rodriguez or David Foster Wallace, or Walter Benjamin—need time and patience on the part of the reader, to let digressions and footnotes and expansion do their work at coherence.

But the art, and hopefully the resonance for the reader, comes in the shaping. The tops of my students’ heads lift off when they get it, finally, that an essay can come from anywhere—it doesn’t have to originate in sexy or dramatic or otherwise trendy subject matter. Their spirits flag a bit when they realize the work involved. They learn, and I’ve learned: “This does not matter simply because it happened to me, or even simply because the experience might be unique.” Paraphrasing Vivian Gornick, the value is in the telling, the exploring, the doubt and uncertainty, the chase toward something tangible—not in the events. My childhood and adolescence were statistically normal, I’m happy to report. The subjects I explore in my book—suburbia, cities, Catholicism, faith, sex, landscape—are hardly novel or sexy or fraught with drama or abuse or adversity through which I’ve been transformed. What an essay says is: Being alive is startling, an astounding subject; that’s everything, let’s go there.

Your thematic mix is interesting in itself, and your exploration of sex and faith, in particular, is unusual. Despite those being such fraught subjects, your stance seems much the same as for your other topics—here’s something that happened and that interests me—and I wonder if you’d discuss your approach? Also, because many of these thirty-eight essays first appeared in journals, I wonder how readers, including editors, have reacted?

The experience of growing up Catholic was a kind of fun-house mirror held up to sexuality. On the one hand, Catholicism is a very sensuous faith in that among its foci is the body: Christ’s body, both divine and human, sacred and wounded, the priest’s body, devout but flawed, my body, all hopped-up and going nuts in puberty. But the church also taught me about self-abuse, about the dangers of indulging, about the sins of the body. So around age 13 or 14 as I was mentally undressing the girls around me during mass or thinking about the underwear ads in the Washington Post Magazine, while struggling to pay attention to the sermon and the sacraments, there was an age-old conflict going on. Urge versus abnegation, urge versus sin, urge versus propriety, the afterlife. It was a heady mix, to say the least. And, as you said, I approach writing about it as I would anything else intense that I experienced: this must be made to matter. But the mingling of sex and faith was—is—such an overwhelmingly present subject for me, that I trusted to its value.

Readers and editors have been fine with these subjects. I don’t think that I’m particularly explicit, and I try and write respectfully, even if what I’m essaying at times are moments of rather brutal objectifying on my part. But living is complicated.

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Filed under Author Interview, essay-classical, essay-lyric, essay-personal, implication, memoir, religion & spirituality, REVIEW

A narrative of our human nature

Humans’ “emotional fossils,” the rise of ego & the hand of God: pondering life after Charles Darwin, Carl Jung & Eckhart Tolle

I asked my friend, mentor, fellow seeker, and writing posse member John Wylie to discuss the fascinating book he’s writing, qua narrative nonfiction. This also is a test of sorts to see if its exciting ideas are comprehensible to lay readers who may be totally unaware of the battles raging in the field of evolutionary psychology over what amounts to a new vision of our species.—Richard Gilbert

Guest Post by John V. Wylie

Dr. Wylie: why are we “brilliantly creative, cruel, absurd”?

Wylie: “We’re brilliantly creative, cruel, absurd.”

My book is a narrative about my own 35-year secret life exploring the evolutionary narrative of humans, and my subject matter has been the narratives of severely mentally ill patients that I was treating in my “day job” as a psychiatrist.

My first philosophical theater was a maximum security prison where I nearly got killed when an inmate slashed my face and throat. I came away from that experience, having immersed myself in the writings of Charles Darwin, with the conviction that the dominance and submission interactions so evident in prison and in apes had evolved into the authority and obedience in groups so evident in normal human society. But how did this occur?

Mental Illnesses as “Emotional Fossils”

As I worked on this question, I began to realize that the mental illnesses were “emotional fossils” revealing insight into the internal life of our ancestral hominid species. Patients suffering from the two major forms of depression and panic disorder taught me that the two most fundamental fears are separation and being trapped at the periphery of a group, as if “up against the wall of banishment.” These fears greatly intensified in hominids right from the very beginning, serving to tightly bind our ancestral kinship groups together. The central symptom of Schizophrenia—the “sacred disease”—is the experience that one’s thoughts emanate from an external source. Another thread in my inquiry emerged when recent diverse lines of evidence convinced me that our hominid ancestors lived in monogamous groups.

Putting all this together, I deduced that the entity of individual dominance “ascended” into the authority of groups dispensing justice and absolute morality; this helped to sustain and coordinate small groups of multiple monogamous families as if they were organisms. I began to see the hand of God in this transformation from the laws of the jungle to lives lived utterly within the rules of right and wrong. And to view their lives, as harsh as they must have been, to also have been Edenic. All members of a group lived immersed within a single mind that evolved for millions of years to coordinate the survival of their groups. These groups evolved passively by the emergence in each generation of the most fecund (because they were stable, because they were monogamous) and most productive permutations of mutual relationships within groups—not through competition between groups. So these creatures, our ancient ancestors, were inherently peaceful with one another.

Then I recognized that the disorder of mania (the “up” part of bipolar disorder) revealed that, 200,000 years ago, the innovation that resulted in the evolution of our own Homo sapiens species was accompanied by the development of an intensely positive feeling elicited specifically by others admiring us as individuals. The powerful drive to seek this pleasure resulted in the evolution of an endless variety of species-specific behaviors that are tantamount to competitive sexual display. The pervasiveness of this strong proclivity in humans has rendered us at the same time brilliantly creative, cruel, and absurd. An old-fashioned term for this purely human impulse is vanity.

What Mindfulness May Really Mean

So my narrative has ended up along biblical lines: God created us six million years ago with the innocence of Adam and Eve and evolved in us the power to coordinate our work under a single will for the good of our groups. But now we find ourselves in a fallen state, driven by our vanity to glorify ourselves, and worst of all to usurp the power given to us by God to wage war with one another.

I deeply connect with the writings of Eckhart Tolle. I agree with his definition of ego as that which we fear (separation and banishment) and desire (vanity). Mindfulness involves immersing ourselves in the vast spiritual subcontinent (soul, Jung’s collective unconscious) that continues as our living heritage and is the very “platform” of consciousness from which we are (self)conscious of our most recent “ego-mind.” As violent as our species’ ego has driven us to be, all of its accumulated wants have a purpose that is in the process of coming to pass.

Painfully but inexorably the undeniable movement of our history has been toward the amalgamation into ever larger groups; inevitably we’ll live as a single group as prophesied by Isaiah (and as interpreted by Tolle in his recent bestseller A New Earth). For six million years, individuals evolved to live their lives as a single organism within the minds of their small groups. Now it is our destiny to evolve into one vast spiritual creature with eternal life.

Dr. Wylie's previous book

Dr. Wylie’s previous book

Needless to say, there have been gargantuan problems in weaving together the human narrative with my own personal narrative and all my patients’ narratives, while fiercely protecting their privacy. Then there have been all the blind alleys I have gone down and the technical aspects of evolutionary mechanisms along with the narrative of the evolutionary debates that have raged during the last 35 years. My strategy has been just to pump out one manuscript after another (I’ve done eight) mainly as a way to think it all through again and again until finally I could step back and allow all the narratives to fall into place “on their own.” I’m currently polishing my manuscript and drafting a proposal for prospective publishers.

John V. Wylie is the author of  Diagnosing and Treating Mental Illness: A Guide for Physicians, Nurses, Patients and Their Families and blogs about his ideas regarding evolution and human nature at Apes, Ants & Ancestors.

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Filed under braids, threads, emotion, evolutionary psychology, narrative, religion & spirituality

Spiritual affinities: Tolle, Rilke, Woolf

Spooky Sky, Moss x

Spiritual Affinities.

I’m pleased to have a guest post today at Daisy Hickman’s Sunny Room Studio on the spiritual insights and strength I’ve drawn from a number of thinkers, especially Eckhart Tolle, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Virginia Woolf. They’ve given me “fragments to shore against my ruins,” as T.S. Eliot put it in his poem “The Waste Land.”

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Reading Rilke again at Eastertide

Spirituality, authenticity & Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.

Sunrise, Double x

A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity. In this manner of its origin lies its true estimate: there is no other.

Letters to a Young Poet

As a broody kid, growing up in a Florida beach town and grieving my family’s exodus from our farm in Georgia, I found a library book by a guy about his hobby farm. I loved it, probably sensing how both my father’s and my own loss might be redeemed. I shared it with Dad. When I asked him what he thought he said, “I think he wanted to write a book.” Nothing else—Dad was always as concise as a telegram—but I grasped the devastating judgment in his unsparing remark.

Rilke cover

Writers trying to wrest from their guts that necessary, handmade, human thing called art, which involves (among other things) seeking to see more clearly their lives and those of their fellow humans, might enjoy Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. It’s a slender book, some forty pages, with many admirers and much resonance. Rilke was only twenty-seven, already becoming famous in Germany as a lyric poet, when in 1903 a boy in a military school wrote to him for advice. Rilke had spent five miserable years himself in the same school. His precepts, delivered over an eight-year period, float free of whatever experience or thought process produced them. Yet his judgments feel no less true for lacking explanation.

That’s for you to fill in—you with your private inner inquiry into gender, artistic authenticity, human nature, spirituality, and the concept and definition of what might be termed God.

A key Rilke passage:

Perhaps there is over everything a great motherhood, as a common longing. The loveliness of the virgin . . . is motherhood foreboding and preparing itself, uneasy and yearning. And the mother’s beauty is serving motherhood, and in the old woman there is a great memory. And in the man too there is motherhood, it seems to me, physical and spiritual; his begetting is also a kind of birth-giving, and it is birth-giving when he creates out of his innermost fullness. And perhaps the sexes are more akin than we suppose, and the great renewal of the world will perhaps consist in this, that man and maiden, freed from all false feelings and perversions, will seek each other not as opposites but as brother and sister, as neighbors, and will unite as human beings to bear in common, simply, seriously and patiently, the heavy sex that has been laid upon them.

This is strikingly reminiscent to me of Virginia Woolf’s notion of artistic androgyny with which she concludes A Room of One’s Own, and Rilke’s ideas elsewhere mirror her concept in her essay “Moments of Being” of authentic presence. Everywhere he confirms, completes, and foreshadows manifold later spiritual insights. It appears, for instance, that another German mystic, Eckhart Tolle, owes Rilke a great debt, especially in Tolle’s profound spiritual synthesis A New Earth.

Like Tolle, Rilke advises inner communion instead of identification with ego and form: “What is needed is, in the end, simply this: solitude. Going into yourself and meeting no one for hours on end,—that is what you must be able to attain. To be alone, as you were alone in childhood, when the grown-ups were going about, involved with things which seemed important and great, because the great ones looked so busy and because you grasped nothing of their business.”

Unlike Tolle, he refers directly to God, though only twice and in a most contemporary and Tolle-like way. For Rilke, God appears to arise not from knowledge or even from faith but from intimations from the lost realm of childhood:

And if it dismays and torments you to think of childhood and the simplicity and stillness that goes with it, because you can no longer believe in God who is to be met with everywhere there, ask yourself . . . whether you have after all really lost God? Is it not much rather the case that you have never yet possessed him?

Rilke touches upon the adult task of defining God for yourself:

As bees collect honey, so we take what is sweetest out of everything and build Him.

Of course Rilke wrote to a presumed believer in a time of presumed belief. The important ideas of Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud were afoot but hadn’t yet crushed humans’ self-confidence. Nor had we yet put ourselves through two world wars and the Holocaust. After all that, unbelief and hostility to God and religion—and a pervasive doubt about our own species’ worth—became understandable. I have friends and family members across the spectrum, from those who become enraged at the mere mention of “God” or “religion” to those who dispense Jesus’ name like iodized salt. Just more evidence of humans’ long struggle against their own riven nature: a violent simian substrate; a gentler group mind from a long and at times Edenic evolution among extinct human-like ancestors; and greedy individual egos that arrived with the emergence of our shiny, anxious, hypersexual new species only 200,000 years ago.

Humanity’s puzzle and core dilemma—What does it mean to be human?—Rilke touches upon directly or by implication everywhere in Letters to a Young Poet as he works out for himself and for his acolyte his answers. This is all we can ask of any writer, his sincere testimony, expression seemingly driven by some personal necessity—for Rilke, necessity being art’s acid test. We crave the authenticity concentrated in the fruit of someone’s honest emergency. Oh, the struggle by writers to make something authentic from the necessity that impels them!

And the world’s listeners still draw near to lovely songs, like Rilke’s, that seem true.

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Austin Kleon has an excellent blog post about the more writerly aspects of Letters to a Young Poet. 

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Filed under essay-expository, honesty, modernism/postmodernism, MY LIFE, NOTED, religion & spirituality, teaching, education

Values & the writer

Here’s a writing tip from William Zinsser: get intention.

A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity. In this manner of its origin lies its true estimate: there is no other.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

In this blog largely about craft, sometimes I must remind myself that intention is more important than craft. That is, the spirit behind the work is at least as important as that which makes it visible. I saw this years ago in daily journalism, where craft was enshrined to avoid talking about the messy, subjective self (I wrote about this here in 2008, in “Between Self and Story“). Of course the self and its niceties cannot become manifest, cannot become art without . . . craft. Craft is the refinery that processes the ocean of self into the sweet elixir of art. So craft, sure—it’s what we can readily discuss. But who we are determines what we see and what we ponder, which determines what we write.

William Zinsser expresses this notion beautifully in The Writer Who Stayed, a compilation of his concise columns for The American Scholar. Here’s Zinsser on intention:

Zinsser-The Writer Who Stayed Tips can make someone a better writer but not necessarily a good writer. That’s a larger package—a matter of character. Golfing is more than keeping the left arm straight. Every good golfer is an engine that runs on ability, ego, determination, discipline, patience, confidence, and other qualities that are self-taught. So it is with writers and all creative artists. If their values are solid their work is likely to be solid.

In my own work I operate within a framework of Christian values, and the words that are important to me are religious words: witness, pilgrimage, intention. I think of intention as the writer’s soul. Writers can write to affirm and to celebrate, or they can write to debunk and destroy; the choice is ours. Editors may want us to do destructive work to serve some agenda of their own, but nobody can make us write what we don’t want to write. We get to keep intention.

I always write to affirm. I choose to write about people whose values I respect; my pleasure is to bear witness to their lives. Much of my writing has taken the form of a pilgrimage: to sacred places that represent the best of America; to writers and musicians who represent the best of their art. Tips didn’t get them there.

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Filed under craft, technique, honesty, journalism, NOTED, religion & spirituality

The ‘So what?’ dilemma

Craft as conduit to art & Brenda Miller’s seminal essay on form.

Adverse Camber x

If a writer is any good, what he makes will have its source in a realm much larger than that which his conscious mind can encompass and will always be a greater surprise to him than it can ever be to his reader.—Bret Lott, “Against Technique”

I read many student personal essays, memoirs, and literary analyses. I’m not one who bashes student writing, says kids today can’t write—the vast majority of even freshmen are competent writers, especially of essays for teachers. What they’re not is professional writers. Nor do most aspire to be.

But then, while I try myself to emulate a professional’s ability, I’m a student too. Isn’t any writer? I believe that the cure for what ails us aspirants and our flawed efforts lies largely in craft. And craft also addresses the implicit and sometimes explicit curse that vexes memoirists and personal essayists, “So what?” That is, Why should we care about your life? Why should we care what you think? These challenges are fellow travelers with the bitter and ignorant “navel-gazing” charge that faces even bestselling memoirists.

My guest post on this issue, on how memoirists can tell their stories in ways that interest a general audience, appears on my friend Shirley Hershey Showalter’s blog on memoir. Much of my lengthy post discusses a seminal essay by Brenda Miller, “A Case Against Courage in Creative Nonfiction,” which appeared in the AWP Writer’s Chronicle of October/November 2011. Miller, editor of Bellingham Review, emphasizes craft’s role in helping writers turn the raw material of their lives into shapely, publishable stories. Form, the various elements of the craft of presentation, she says, protects writers from the pain of their own revelations, delights readers, and transforms one human’s experience into art.

And it does seem almost magical, really, the way one writer can interest us with her account of her divorce while another’s tale bores or angers. Yet most essays Miller receives as an editor, including over 400 each year as entries for the Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction, fall short. She says:

[U]nfortunately, most of these pieces do bore us, most of them announcing themselves as yet another rendition of “this happened to me, I’m being brave, please listen.” This earnestness makes us sigh and turn to the next piece in the stack. We don’t really want to hear what happened to this stranger.

I can’t help but smile at this pro’s tough love—and she is a pro, Miller having won six Pushcart Prizes herself—even though I know she or her weary posse has rejected my own hopeful submissions for the Dillard Award. Thankfully the models she cites as successes in her essay are ones that I and other hopefuls might learn from. For instance, Miller praises an essay that’s helpfully available on line, Sherry Simpson’s concise “Fidelity,” which cuts back and forth in its braided structure between a bear, which is threatening Simpson and her husband during a wilderness canoe trip, and her displeasure with her mate. In Simpson’s essay one can see how craft imposed on raw experience makes the essay not only interesting but more real, more lifelike. We can easily grasp that even when threatened by grizzly—maybe especially then—a person might still brood about her hubby.

So, craft.

This blog has been mostly about craft, even though craft isn’t the most important thing about writing. The self that produces art and its intent are what’s crucial. A paradox about art, however, is that craft is all we can really discuss. It’s what we can teach and work at. And anyway, craft is the path to art.

Of course, technique by itself is hollow if enshrined. Often to me writing seems simply a struggle with the self, the practice of craft pressuring what’s in the self that engenders art to come forth. This is the real mystery, ultimately, not how it’s done but that it’s made to exist and why. This is a spiritual matter and seems too personal and too various to address directly in a group setting or format; it lurks in the resonant negative spaces, the white spaces, of our discussions.

So we talk about craft, the necessary conduit, the way in.

See also my post from 2008, “Between Self and Story,” about writing’s deeper or spiritual dimension and its relationship to craft.

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Boycotting ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Kathryn Bigelow falsifies an American tragedy.

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That’s too strong a word, boycott. It’s more like deep ambivalence that has kept me away. And today I’ve failed yet again to get myself out the door to see Zero Dark Thirty, despite being between semesters and having my classes pretty well planned. And despite having loved Kathryn Bigelow’s previous movie, The Hurt Locker, about a bomb disposal unit in Iraq, which captures both war’s horror and its addictive quality for some combatants.

Zero Dark Thirty reportedly shows, in sickening scenes, what the Bush administration’s pro-torture policy led to: the brutalizing of helpless prisoners. But widespread criticism of the movie concerns the way Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, portray that torture as having led directly to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. That is false, all knowledgeable experts claim. America’s locating Bin Laden resulted from sustained inquiry of and small kindnesses offered to a particular captive.

Apparently Bigelow and Boal wanted so show the human cost, in prisoners’ agony and torturers’ depravity, and to rub our noses in what our government did on our behalf to find Bin Laden. But it’s so much worse than that! The torture and degradation were worthless in this case, as far as we know from experts and insiders. I cannot imagine a work of nonfiction or a literary novel falsifying this matter because the moral ambiguity here is so rich, the sins against others and ourselves so tragic. Maybe this is “just” Hollywood, a topic too complex for Hollywood and too expensive for indie producers to tackle? For me, though, part of the effect of Zero Dark Thirty’s lie based on a grievous moral and artistic error is to make movies in their execution seem, once again, a lesser art form than literature.

The real story, the real issue.

The real story, the real issue.

For a great book—really a long essay, at only 189 pages—about American policy as revealed in the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal during the Iraq war see A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America by David Griffith (reviewed). Griffith’s book is a brave inquiry into America’s grotesque violations of its transcendent ideals and a meditation upon the larger problem of human evil. A Good War deals a lot with film. Griffith shows himself enjoying violence, becoming uncomfortable, and ultimately grasping a felt, moral response to violence in Blue Velvet and Deliverance in contrast to what he views as Quentin Tarantino’s creepy aestheticization of violence and denial of its seriousness in Pulp Fiction.

Griffith has just published a new essay at Image Journal about writing as a devout Catholic in an age of unbelief.

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Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’

Beachroom x

Narrative craft & spirituality in a classic feminist essay.

Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time.—A Room of One’s Own

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Harcourt, 112 pp.

Like last year when I was at the beach, where I’ve been for the past few weeks, I remember I should have brought Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, what with the Atlantic surf hissing and breaking outside. Sometimes I feel almost frightened by what a ghost I feel here, so much time alone for memories to flood in of the boy I was and of my past friends, some dead or disabled and most scattered. A few people whom I’ve lost touch with are living quietly here where we grew up, and in my mind’s eye they are still eighteen. I wouldn’t know them if I saw them, yet part of me thinks I’d still be eighteen had I stayed here too. At the same time, the beach is magic—it’s the air, so mild, and the ceaseless murmur of the waves and the sun on the living and moving water. Perfect, really, for reading Woolf, that most retrospective of writers, who wrote often of the sea and of water. And so I reread A Room of One’s Own, which I did bring, and marveled anew at her foresight, her courage, her humor, and her artistry.

One might assume that this extended essay, six chapters that make a short book, would be didactic. But I’d noticed before how much Woolf unfolds her essay in scene. For instance, there’s always the track of her mind in a physical place—as she roams a public library or ponders a bookshelf in her home—and there are a series of sexist indignities she suffers while researching the book, which is famous for its dictum that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” This time I noticed Woolf’s caveat about her scenic narrative approach, her “making use of all the liberties and licenses of a novelist” to show her audience how her topic consumed her and how she “made it work in and out of my daily life.” Great novelists are highly sensitive to the murky nature of memory and to the porous border between fiction and nonfiction; Nabokov and Updike made similar statements in their memoirs. In any case, a great move there on Woolf’s part, flagging her method and making her audience complicit in her imaginative approach. And there was at the start of A Room of One’s Own a very specific audience: two women’s colleges at Cambridge University, where Woolf delivered her book in a series of lectures in October 1928.

The first edition's cover.

The first edition’s cover.

Having been asked to speak on “Women and Fiction,” Woolf tells the story of her process, beginning with being flummoxed by what in the world that topic meant and what to say about something so nebulous and vast. Soon we have her brilliant imagining of Judith Shakespeare, the genius sister she creates for William, and her fate. Which isn’t pretty. Indeed the midsection of A Room of One’s Own makes for uneasy reading by a man, despite Woolf’s ever-present tart humor. For we know those opening incidents might well have happened to her—the world’s great lyrical novelist and avatar of modernism chased off the grass at “Oxbridge” by the Beadle (women had to stay on the paths), then barred from the library (being unaccompanied and without a letter), and then too timid to risk entering the institution’s chapel. Thus she gives us experience along with then-radical ideas regarding the equality of women. And of course this resonates too because we know that Woolf herself wasn’t granted a formal university education by her philosopher father, who instead squandered higher education on her cretinous half brothers. Who’d bullied and molested her.

So it’s tough, this little book. But its transcendent reward comes in the final chapter, where Woolf argues that at base gender differences are a fiction of and for the small-minded. Quite simply, Woolf says, beyond that it is natural for the sexes to cooperate, artists must be conversant with their inner opposite sex. The creating mind must indeed be androgynous. Only those with this dual mind, those who partake in this “marriage of opposites,” she says, have a shot at writing with “suggestive power,” at making writing that has “the secret of perpetual life.” The book’s spiritual dimension soars here, so reminiscent of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet with its insistence on the sexes’ deep commonality, their inner union. Woolf: “The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating.” For in the end, for anyone of either gender involved in creation, Woolf observes, “There must be freedom and there must be peace.”

I previously reviewed Woolf’s memoir A Sketch of the Past.

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Salman Rushdie’s new memoir

Joseph Anton is a splendid book, the finest new memoir to cross my desk in many a year.—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

Salman Rushdie is in the news again. Not because he’s living under a new Muslim sentence of death, which sent him into hiding for a decade after the publication of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, but because he’s written a memoir about the period. With the fatwa now almost fifteen years behind him, Rushdie has perspective from which to assess and portray. The New Yorker has published a long excerpt of Joseph Anton: A Memoir—Joe Anton being his self-bestowed code name, taken from Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov, that British cops used when he was in hiding. The excerpt is available for now on line.

It’s always thrilling when a great novelist writes a memoir: John Updike’s Self-Consciousness, reviewed on this blog (see the Favorite Memoirs page), is one of my favorites, and Nabokov’s Speak, Memory (also with links on that page), reviewed here once negatively and once positively, is nothing if not interesting for how he follows his aesthetic star. What you first notice in Rushdie’s long New Yorker excerpt, “The Disappeared,” is that his memoir is written in the third person. That’s an interesting and, to me, exciting choice; the third-person, though uncommon in memoir, maybe because writers fear editors will think their work is fictionalized, offers memoirists a different and perhaps keener perspective on themselves: third person in nonfiction is a distancing perspective.

The second thing you notice in Rushdie’s excerpt is that it’s non-chronological: the fatwa was issued in February 1989, and his essay procedes under these headings: 1989, at the imposition of the death decree, a section which is dramatic and scenic; 1966, when he learned about the “Satanic Verses” while studying history at Cambridge; 1984, when he began writing the novel, which took four years; 1988, when The Satanic Verses was published and began to ignite rage among Muslim extremists; and 1989 again, a long closing section that returns to the fatwa and to Rushdie’s life in hiding.

The third thing you notice after all this innovation is that he uses any memoirist’s tools: scene and exposition, seamlessly in the dramatized bits, and in the purely expository, smooth summary and reflection. Yes, he’s a good writer. Here’s the essay’s first two paragraphs, dramatic and straightforward, that set the scene and convey deftly an incredible amount of backstory:

1989

Afterward, when the world was exploding around him, he felt annoyed with himself for having forgotten the name of the BBC reporter who told him that his old life was over and a new, darker existence was about to begin. She called him at home, on his private line, without explaining how she got the number. “How does it feel,” she asked him, “to know that you have just been sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini?” It was a sunny Tuesday in London, but the question shut out the light. This is what he said, without really knowing what he was saying: “It doesn’t feel good.” This is what he thought: I’m a dead man. He wondered how many days he had left, and guessed that the answer was probably a single-digit number. He hung up the telephone and ran down the stairs from his workroom, at the top of the narrow Islington row house where he lived. The living-room windows had wooden shutters and, absurdly, he closed and barred them. Then he locked the front door.

 

It was Valentine’s Day, but he hadn’t been getting along with his wife, the American novelist Marianne Wiggins. Five days earlier, she had told him that she was unhappy in the marriage, that she “didn’t feel good around him anymore.” Although they had been married for only a year, he, too, already knew that it had been a mistake. Now she was staring at him as he moved nervously around the house, drawing curtains, checking window bolts, his body galvanized by the news, as if an electric current were passing through it, and he had to explain to her what was happening. She reacted well and began to discuss what they should do. She used the word “we.” That was courageous.

Later that morning, after Rushdie and his wife attend a memorial service for a friend, the writer Bruce Chatwin, the police tell him he can’t go home. Too dangerous, Rushdie writes. “Although he did not know it then—so the moment of leaving his home did not feel unusually freighted with meaning—he would not return to that house, at 41 St. Peter’s Street, which had been his home for half a decade, until three years later, by which time it would no longer be his.”

Whisked to CBS’s offices in London for an interview, Rushdie depicts his disorientation: “But he also knew that his old self’s habits were of no use anymore. He was the person in the eye of the storm, no longer the Salman his friends knew but the Rushdie who was author of ‘Satanic Verses,’ a title that had been subtly distorted by the omission of the initial ‘The.’ ‘The Satanic Verses’ was a novel. ‘Satanic Verses’ were verses that were satanic, and he was their satanic author.”

In the next section “1966,” Rushdie flashes back to his second year at Cambridge, when he was studying Islamic history, along with Indian colonial history and the first 100 years of American history. His supervisor, a medievalist named Arthur Hibbert, whom he calls a genius, told him never to write history “until you can hear the people speak”; this turned out to be great advice for a novelist as well, for speech reveals origin, class, temperament, and “beneath their temperament, their true nature, intellectual or earthy, plainspoken or devious, and, yes, good or bad.”

In this purely expository section, Rushdie explains Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, and the Koran in such an elegantly clear and simple way that anyone can understand it—and see his respect for one of the world’s great religions. In a nutshell: “The ethos of the Koran, the value system it endorses, was, in essence, the vanishing code of nomadic Arabs, the matriarchal, more caring society that did not leave orphans out in the cold, orphans like Muhammad, whose success as a merchant, he believed, should have earned him a place in the city’s ruling body, and who was denied such preferment because he didn’t have a powerful family to fight for him.”

Ensconced for the first time in cities, the early Arabs became patriarchal, and were worshippers primarily of three deities, goddesses who specialized in different realms, with Allah an unpopular fourth deity. Muhammad, a successful and spiritual merchant, rescued Allah from obscurity and elevated him over all, deposing the goddesses, who were economically important to Mecca’s elite, since offerings (taxes, in effect) were collected at their shrines. Their ouster threatened the city’s rulers. The “Satanic Verses” stemmed from a vision of Muhammad’s that restored the goddesses, and which he later recanted.

“After that,” Rushdie writes, “the monotheism of Islam remained unwavering and strong, through persecution, exile, and war, and before long the Prophet had achieved victory over his enemies and the new faith spread like a conquering fire across the world.”

It was a good story, the young Rushdie saw, but it would be years before he wrote it. After that digression into history, “The Disappeared” explains the novel’s composition, its earth-shaking reception by extremists who misunderstood it, and depicts Rushdie’s underground life. I found the scenic end of the first section, with Rushdie and his wife on the run for the first time, touching and powerful:

     The night in Lonsdale Square was cold, dark, and clear. There were two policemen in the square. When he got out of his car, they pretended not to notice him. They were on short patrol, watching the street near the flat for a hundred yards in each direction, and he could hear their footsteps even when he was indoors. He realized, in that footstep-haunted space, that he no longer understood his life, or what it might become, and he thought, for the second time that day, that there might not be very much more of life to understand.

 

Marianne went to bed early. He got into bed beside his wife and she turned toward him and they embraced, rigidly, like the unhappily married couple they were. Then, separately, lying with their own thoughts, they failed to sleep.

Those paragraphs provoke as much as any my fellow-feeling for Rushdie’s human plight and, admittedly, my admiration of his heroic response to the mob, which he’d just denounced in his first TV interview. As well, throughout this fine essay and concentrated here, I identified, as a memoirist myself, with this fellow writer, albeit brilliant and of historic attainment, as yet another scribe laboring with the humble tools of his craft—scene, summary, and reflection (all working here in service of more than one story being told)—to show how it was, how it looked and felt and seemed.

Just another soul, after all, suffering more than most here, who lately has patiently made art from life’s dusty remains, which he retrieved from one very lonely valley of existence.

Next: Salman Rushdie on the craft of memoir.

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Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Why Be Happy?’

There are people who could never commit murder. I am not one of those people. —Jeanette Winterson

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson Grove Press, 230 pp.

 Novelist Jeanette Winterson’s searing memoir about life with her depressive mother in working-class England breaks the rules that American memoirists live by. By the rules I mean our emphasis on scene. I won’t bash scene—it’s vital for really conveying one’s experience—and usually scene is deepened and balanced with exposition: summary and reflection. Instead, Winterson’s story is heavily expository—she tells this tale, and she reflects upon it, all from some distance. Scenes come in brief flashes or are heavily interlarded with exposition. She gives the perspective of the writer at her desk rather than that of the child who was “shut in a coal hole” or locked out all night on the family’s doorstep.

Reading Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? took some recalibration, but this Yank got into it, impressed by the distilled rigor of Winterson’s thought, by the cadence of her sentences, by the coldness of her eye, by the still-raw pain that emerges, by the writer’s honesty about her own ornery self.

Forbidden books saved her, sent her to Oxford, to life, to a distinguished literary career with seventeen books on the shelf. Here she is on literature, first on Thomas Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur: 

     In fact, there are more than two chances—many more. I know now, after fifty years, that the finding/losing, forgetting/remembering, leaving/ returning, never stops. The whole of life is about another chance, and while we are alive, till the very end, there is always another chance.

And of course I loved the Lancelot story because it is all about longing and unrequited love.

Yes, the stories are dangerous, she was right. A book is a magic carpet that flies you off elsewhere. A book is a door. You open it. You step through. Do you come back?

. . .

     So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language—and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is.

It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.

. . .

     I had been damaged and a very important part of me had been destroyed—that was my reality, the facts of my life; but on the other side of the facts was who I could be, how I could feel, and as long as I had words for that, stories for that, then I wasn’t lost. . . .

It took me a long time to realize that there are two kinds of writing: the one you write and the one that writes you. The one that writes you is dangerous. You go where you don’t want to go. You look where you don’t want to look.

The Times (UK) is quoted on the memoir’s cover: “Arguably the finest and most hopeful memoir to emerge in many years.”

I supposed this an overstatement—but Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? does feel like some kind of masterpiece. For some reason, perhaps her originality, Winterson reminds me of Gertrude Stein.

Winterson is the author of the autobiographical novel about a young lesbian, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Like Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, it’s about an adopted girl growing up in the north of England with a huge, depressive, religious fanatic Pentecostal mother and a kindly but passive father. It may be that her novel is scenic—I haven’t yet read it—and that like many fiction writers, Winterson tends to tell rather than show in her nonfiction.

This aspect didn’t merit a mention in a review by Kathryn Harrison in The New York Times Book Review, so maybe I’m overstating what struck me. Harrison writes:

     It’s a testament to Winterson’s innate generosity, as well as her talent, that she can showcase the outsize humor her mother’s equally capacious craziness provides even as she reveals the cruelties Mrs. Winterson [what Winterson calls her mother] imposed on her in the name of rearing a God-fearing Christian. “The one good thing about being shut in a coal hole is that it prompts reflection,” Winterson observes, inspiring the question always asked of writers like her, who appear to have transcended misfortunes that might have crippled or silenced another. How did Jeanette Winterson recover from the fantastically bad luck of landing in the embrace of a woman who understood motherhood as a daily struggle with the Devil over the ownership of her child’s soul?

Winterson also writes about her own dominant temperament, her over-reactive rages and black moods. She traces her bereft nature, her soul filled with inconsolable loss, to the fact that her birth mother, only seventeen, gave her up after breastfeeding her for six weeks. She is convinced that she felt the rejection—as was I by the end of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? The title is what her adoptive mother said upon learning that Winterson was gay and intended live with her lovers blissfully and openly. In other words, normal people are unhappy, so get over yourself and join them in their misery. (“Mrs. Winterson was gloriously wounded, like a medieval martyr, gouged and dripping for Jesus, and she dragged her cross for all to see.”)

When Winterson escapes her Dickensian childhood for Oxford she reflects:

     The night I left home I felt that I had been tricked or trapped into going—and not even by Mrs. Winterson, but by the dark narrative of our life together.

Her fatalism was so powerful. She was her own black hole that pulled in all the light. She was made of dark matter and her force was invisible, unseen except in its effects.

Strangely, perhaps, Winterson does not condemn her mother’s fundamentalist church, or even her warped, apocalyptic, Old Testament mother. Her mother was unbelievably strange: she hung watercolors, inherited from her mother, with their faces against the wall because of the Bible’s admonition against graven images. But people lived a “deeper, more thoughtful life” because of that woman’s church, her adopted daughter says, and studying the Bible “worked their brains”; they belonged to “something big, something important” that lent their lives unity and meaning. Winterson elaborates:

     A meaningless life for a human being has none of the dignity of animal unselfconsciousness; we cannot simply eat, sleep, hunt, and reproduce—we are meaning-seeking creatures. The Western world has done away with religion but not with our religious impulses; we seem to need some higher purpose, some point to our lives—money and leisure, social progress, are just not enough.

We shall have to find new ways of finding meaning—it is not yet clear how this will happen.

Suddenly and rather surprisingly, three-quarters of the way through, this literature-saturated reminiscence becomes a tale of Winterson’s search for her birth mother. There are surprises galore in that story, which fuels the memoir’s growing power. I won’t give it away. But the book soars at the end with a meditation on wounds, and another, even more astringent, on love. Winterson riffs on the wounded in classical literature, and writes:

     The wound is symbolic and cannot be reduced to any single interpretation. But wounding seems to be a clue or a key to being human. There is value here as well as agony.

What we notice in the stories is the nearness of the wound to the gift: the one who is wounded is marked out—literally and symbolically—by the wound. The wound is a sign of difference. Even Harry Potter has a scar.

I’ll say this about this not-very-scenic memoir. I want to read it again. That’s because, I think, it isn’t merely a recitation or recreation of a dysfunctional childhood. It’s no Angela’s Ashes. Rather it is about someone who made something of what was made of her—and that’s always interesting, always news. Winterson doesn’t convey experience as much as she conveys the residue of that experience. Herself. Her mind. Her happiness, or at least her feeling of being lucky, that she has the life she does because she became herself, forged by books, by Oxford, and yes, by Mrs. Winterson.

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