[dec 5] here's somewhere to be.

rooms. every room a world. to be god: to be every life before we die: a dream to drive men mad. but to be one person, one woman — to live, suffer, bear children & learn others lives & make them into print worlds spinning like planets in the minds of other men. (306)

some days, i run out of words, and today is one of those. (i also spent a fair chunk of time today working on an essay i’d like to pitch, which mostly explains the inability to pull together words tonight.) some days, the loss of words comes with a lack of inspiration, and, during such times, i find myself reaching for sylvia plath’s unabridged journals — so here are a few quotes, along with a few images of the new york public library.

in bed, bathed, and the good rain coming down again — liquidly slopping down the shingled roof outside my window. all today it has come down, in its enclosing wetness, and at last i am in bed, propped up comfortably by pillows — listening to it spurting and drenching — and all the different timbers of tone — and syncopation. the rapping on the resonant gutters — hard, metallic. the rush of a stream down the drain pipe splattering flat on the earth, wearing away a small gully — the musical falling of itself, tinkling faintly on the tin garbage pails in a high pitched tattoo. and it seems that always in august i am more aware of the rain. (123)


the dialogue between my Writing and my Life is always in danger of becoming a slithering shifting of responsibility, of evasive rationalizing: in other words: i justified the mess i made of life by saying i’d give it order, form, beauty, writing about it; i justified my writing by saying it would be published, give me life (and prestige to life). now, you have to begin somewhere, and it might as well be with life; a belief in me, with my limitations, and a strong punchy determination to fight to overcome one by one: like languages, to learn french, ignore italian (asloppy knowledge of 3 languages is dilettantism) and revive german again, to build each solid. to build all solid. (208-9)


simply the fact that i write in here able to hold a pen, proves, i suppose, the ability to go on living. (334)


very few people do this any more. it’s too risky. first of all, it’s a hell of a responsibility to be yourself. it’s much easier to be somebody else or nobody at all. or to give your soul to god like st. therese and say: the one thing i fear is doing my own will. do it for me, god. (435)


it is raining. steady straight streams of rain falling, falling, slicking the green tarpaper roofflats, the pink and blue and lavender slates of the slant roof, looping down in runnels, taking the color of the slates and tiles like a chameleon water. falling in little white rings in the puddles on my porch. dropping a scrim of pale lines between me and the pines, filling the distance with a watery luminous grey. (512)

what if our work isn’t good enough? we get rejections. isn’t this the world’s telling us we shouldn’t bother to be writers? how can we know if we work now hard and develop ourselves we will be more than mediocre? isn’t this the world’s revenge on us for sticking our neck out? we can never know until we’ve worked, written. we have no guarantee we’ll get a writer’s degree. weren’t the mothers and businessmen right after all? shouldn’t we have avoided these disquieting questions and taken steady jobs and secured a good future for the kiddies?

not unless we want to be bitter all our lives. not unless we want to feel wistfully: what a writer i might have been, if only. if only i’d had to guts to try and work and shoulder the insecurity all that trial and work implied.

writing is a religious act: it is an ordering, a reforming, a relearning and removing of people and the world as they are and as they might be. a shaping which does not pass away like a day of typing or a day of teaching. the writing lasts: it goes about on its own in the world. people read it: react to it as to a person, a philosophy, a religion, a flower: they like it, or do not. it helps them, or it does not. it feels to intensify living: you give more, probe, ask, look, learn, and shape this: you get more: monsters, answers, color and form, knowledge. you do it for itself first. if it brings in money, how nice. you do not do it first for money. money isn’t why you sit down at the typewriter. not that you don’t want it. it is only too lovely when a profession pays for your bread and butter. with writing, it is maybe, maybe-not. how to live with such insecurity? with what is worst, the occasional lack or loss of faith in the writing itself? how to live with these things?

the worst thing, worse than all of them, would be to live with not writing. so how to live with the lesser devils and keep them lesser? (436-7)


two years ago, i read rebecca solnit’s men explain things to me (haymarket, 2014), and, the whole time i was reading it, i thought, omg, this is a book that everyone should read.

i thought the same as i read sady doyle’s trainwreck (melville house, 2016). the subtitle for the book reads, “the women we love to hate, mock, and fear … and why,” and it’s an exploration of the narrative society forces upon women and the glee with which we watch them implode as they fall from grace. in each chapter, doyle gives us an “anatomy of a trainwreck,” examples of women throughout history who went against the norms, women like mary wollstonecraft, charlotte brontë, and billie holiday amongst others, and i appreciated that doyle doesn’t try to deify women or mount a biased defense — her writing is smart and fair and easy to read, her observations astute and well-researched, and her analyses thought-provoking and oftentimes disturbing in the ways that reality is disturbing.

this is a post comprised entirely of quotes. part of the reason for this is that i think what doyle is saying in trainwreck is so crucial. another part is that i have another post in mind but didn’t want to clog that up with so many quotes, so until then ...!



women who have succeeded too well at becoming visible have always been penalized vigilantly and forcefully, and turn into spectacles. and this, i would argue, is a none-too-veiled attempt to push women back into the places we’ve designed as “theirs.” if you stay at home, get married right away, never get a job, never display any unwelcome emotions, and stay away from the public eye to such an extent that you actually never make any sort of impression whatsoever, you can’t become a trainwreck. (xviii)


01.  SEX

similarly, heterosexuality — the grand structure underpinning all these freak-outs — is the “norm.” it’s assumed, until it isn’t. but when a woman is presumed to be heterosexual, it normally takes exposed skin to trigger public freak-outs, invasions of privacy, and media handwringing. when a woman is rumored to be queer — a rumor that tends to arise whenever the press has trouble placing a famous woman with an equally famous man — all it takes is for her to go outside in the company of another woman. (15)


a woman who’s “out of control” sexually isn’t just a person making decisions, most of which will never affect you. she’s a defector from the ongoing sexual warfare; her influence stands to tera the whole system down. (16)


02.  NEED

in an ideal patriarchal world, men pursue relationships, create relationships, and end relationships; women simply sit there and get related to, answering male desire and affection rather than feeling their own. “crazy” women, again, are women who operate as subjects rather than objects, women who want things rather than passively accept the fact of being wanted; they’re seen as unnatural and grotesque because their desire exists on its own terms, rather than in answer to male needs. (48)


when we live in a climate of distrusting women’s voices, of viewing women as primarily obliged to service the relationship demands of men, their pain — pain that goes beyond hurt feelings or loneliness, pain that comes from actual abuse — is always suspect. we can blame them for not being good, not making their male partners happy. we can say, not that abuse has made them act angrily or strangely, but that they were abused because they were angry or strange. and this is true even when the abuse in question is incontrovertible and well documented. (59-60)


simply because we’ve been taught to value men’s voices over and above women’s, our natural response to a woman’s claims of violence is to see her as delusional (she can’t perceive the real story) or unstable (she can’t handle the real story) or just plain frightening (she knows the real story, but she’s out to get him). which means that a tremendous number of female stories — perhaps the most urgent and enlightening ones, the stories we most need to hear — have been shut down or silenced. or it means that women have silenced themselves, believing that if they ever truly admitted what they were going through, they would sound crazy. (63)



for men, the point of this [the rules of femininity] is obvious:  it keeps them distrustful of women, ready and eager to laugh at or dislike women, and quietly, constantly assured that they don’t really have to take women all that seriously. which, since most of the culture is aimed at conveying that message anyway, is not surprising. but in truth, men are not the primary beneficiary of all this rule-defining.

the degrading, the degraded female images are really aimed at you: yes, you, the nice, normal girl trying to figure out how to behave in public. we give you a constant stream of images and a whole lot of very good reasons to play by the rules and never, ever let the act slip because you aren’t a nice girl who spends one night a year playing dress-up as a monster. you’re a monster who spends 364 nights a year playing dress-up as a nice girl. (78-9)


mental illness and addiction ruin women — make them sideshows, dirty jokes, bogeymen, objects of moral panic — but they seem to add to a man’s mystique. […] we all understand that genius and madness are connected. at least, we do when the genius is male. (86)


04.  DEATH

put forth death as the ideal condition for troubled women — as something that makes them beautiful, forgivable, important — and plenty of troubled women will die. not because these women are more gullible or foolish than anyone else, but because, in sufficiently dire straits (at the bottom of addiction, or depression, or simple loneliness) death already looks like an easier and better solution than continued pain and helplessness. suicide-prevention experts know this. it’s why they plead with journalists, over and over again, not to make death look more appealing or glamorous than recovery. (115)


05.  SHUT UP

the more reasonable explanation is that the historical lack of support for women as artists or public figures — the dismissal and condescension they face, the pressure to do the “reasonable” thing and put marriage and family first, the lack of cultural context that would make support and promoting them a political act — has resulted, not only in women avoiding the arts or being shamed out of them (i confess, i do think) but in a landscape where even relatively famous and ambitious women were so unimportant that they could disappear without a trace.

which brings us to the idea that silence is not just an unlucky outcome, for a woman. it may be the natural outcome — as far as many people are concerned, the ideal outcome — of being female in a sexist world. (129)



no one would suggest that plath wasn’t mentally ill. suicide is never a sign of radiant health. but this is another instance of the david foster wallace conundrum: we say that david foster wallace was a genius (because he wrote infinite jest) and that he was also mentally ill (because he hanged himself). even if his experience of mental illness substantially informed his writing (infinite jest, like the bell jar, is drawn largely from the author’s experiences after a suicide attempt in college; the addiction-recovery center wallace fictionalizes was his first stop after mclean, which also happened to be the exact same hospital plath stayed in, and that she fictionalized in the bell jar), his writing isn’t a symptom of his illness, but evidence of his ability to transcend it. but for plath, even the most basic part of writing, the fact that she could sit down and concentrate long enough o compose a poem — the same skill displayed by every third-grader who has ever successfully completed a book report — is supposedly a form of madness. men have problems. women are problems. (167)


plath took her own flaws as her subject, and thereby made them the source of her authority. by detailing her own over-abundant inner life, no matter how huge and frightening it was — her sexuality, her suicidability, her broken relationships, her anger at the world or at men — she could, in some crucial way, own that part of her story, simply because she chose to tell it. and, if she could do this, other women could do it, too. (168)



the primary audience of celebrity blogs, tabloids, and reality TV shows is not straight men. women are the ones who buy these stories. we’re the ones who enjoy them. we’re the ones these narratives are shaped for and aimed at. we’re the reason they exist. but what is it, exactly, that we’re enjoying? (184)


we rarely love or hate public figures for who they are. we can’t; we don’t know them. at a certain point, the media narrative surrounding celebrities stops being about the specifics of their lives or personalities and enters the realm of myth. stars are only stars because they represent something larger than themselves, some archetype, or a story we enjoy telling. (189)



insisting on the needs of your individual nature, being unquiet and unhappy when those needs are not satisfied, requires that you have an individual nature to begin with. and it requires that you not be ashamed of it. (237)


because the fact is, i’ve spent a while looking at the lives of the strongest, most feminist women in history. the icons; the immortal geniuses; the women to whom we are all meant to aspire. and the thing is? there’s not a strong feminist woman among them.

charlotte brontë was a genius, whose work has resonated for centuries as an example of female intellect and expressive power. her letters to constantin huger are some of the stupidest things i’ve ever read, a masterful, two-year-long demonstration of one woman’s inability to absorb the fact that the guy she liked did not like her. mary wollstonecraft was over a century ahead of her time on women’s education, and twice as far ahead on women’s sexual freedom. she still thought she’d rather drown than not have a boyfriend. harriet jacobs was possibly one of the bravest women who ever lived. she survived unspeakable atrocity, thanks only to her own daring, ingenuity, and resilience, and published one of the most important political documents of her age. and she was afraid that “educated people” would make fun of her grammar.

she was scared, but she did it. that’s all being strong is, apparently: being scared, or flawed, or weak, or capable (under the right circumstances) of astonishing acts of stupidity. and then going out and doing it all anyway. trying, every morning, to be the woman you want to be, regardless of how often you manage to fall short of your own high expectations. (243)


we have to stop believing that when a woman does something we don’t like, we are qualified and entitled to punish her, violate her, or ruin her life. (253)


the thing is, i’ve never seen one [a trainwreck]. not in real life. not in the wild. as far as i can tell — and i have more evidence, and more access to it, than i would have had at any other point in history — they don’t exist. even the women who seem Good or Bad at first glance tend to fragment into something more complicated and ambiguous if you look at them long enough. women are not symbols of superhuman virtue. women are not symbols of all that is disgusting and corrupt. women, it turns out, are not symbols of anything, other than themselves.


all the women we were supposed to be, all the women we feared being: they never existed. the only thing that exists is us, in aworld where there are no normal girls. (256)

here's a big chunk of text:

The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships.  Sooner or later, for example, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person.  Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life.

Suddenly there’s a real choce to be made, not a fake consumer choice between a Blackberry and an iPhone, but a question:  Do I love this person?  And, for the other person, does this person love me?

There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of.  This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie.  But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of.  And this is why love is such an existential threat to the techno-consumerist order:  it exposes the lie.

This is not to say that love is only about fighting.  Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are.  And this is why love, as I understand it, is always specific.  Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being.  Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.

The big risk here, of course, is rejection.  We can all handle being disliked now and then, because there’s such an infinitely big pool of otential likers.  But to expose your whole self, not just the likable surface, and to have it rejected, can be catastrophically painful.  The prospect of pain generally, the pain of loss, of breakup, of death, is what makes it so tempting to avoid love and stay safely in the world of liking.

And yet pain hurts but it doesn’t kill.  When you consider the alternative — an anesthetized dream of self-sufficiency, abetted by technology — pain emerges as the natural product and natural indicator of being alvie in a resistant world.  To go through a life painlessly is to have not lived.  Even just to say to yourself, “Oh, I’ll get to that love and pain stuff later, maybe in my 30s” is to consign yourself to 10 years of merely taking up space on the planet and burning up its resources.  Of being (and I mean this in the most damning sense of the word) a consumer.

Jonathan Franzen, The New York Times, 2011 May 29, 'Liking is for Cowards.  Go For What Hurts.'

Of course, logically, I could have simply copy-pasted the above from the New York Times, but, no, I had to spend the last few minutes typing this up myself.  I might be part of the internet generation (or however you may desire to term us), but I have difficulties reading large blocks of text on a computer screen for a prolonged period of time.  I like hard copies, having the written word in front of me in physical form — it tires my eyes out less, and that’s the more practical, physiological reason why I shan’t be making the conversion to e-book any time soon.

(If I were to sum up authors, I’d say that Haruki Murakami does an exquisite job of packaging up human loneliness, Franzen self-loathing, and McEwan poetic ennui, but I think I attribute ennui to McEwan because I still haven’t fully shaken off Solar yet …)

so much of the human experience is familiar.

One of the last times I talked to him after that, in August, on the phone, he asked me to tell him a story of how things would get better.  I repeated back to him a lot of what he’d been saying to me in our conversations over the previous year.  I said he was in a terrible and dangerous place because he was trying to make real changes as a person and as a writer.  I said that the last time he’d been through near-death experiences, he’d emerged and written, very quickly, a book that was light-years beyond what he’d been doing before his collapse.  I said he was a stubborn control freak and know-it-all — ‘So are you!’ he shot back at me — and I said that people like us are so afraid to relinquish control that sometimes the only way we can force ourselves to open up and change is to bring ourselves to an access of misery and the brink of self-destruction.  I said he’d undertaken his change in medication because he wanted to grow up and have a better life.  I said I thought his best writing was ahead of him.  And he said:  ‘I like that story.  Could you do me a favour and call me up every four or five days and tell me another story like it?’

Unfortunately I only had one more chance to tell him the story, and by then he wasn’t hearing it.  He was in horrible, minute-by-minute anxiety and pain.  The next times I tried to call him after that, he wasn’t picking up the phone or returning messages.  He’d gone down into the well of infinite sadness, beyond the reach of story, and he didn’t make it out.  But he had a beautiful, yearning innocence, and he was trying.

- Jonathan Franzen speaking in tribute of friend and author David Foster Wallace, 2008 October 23, Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, NYU, reproduced in Five Dials

nicole krauss, one of my favourite contemporary authors.

Why does one begin to write? Because she feels misunderstood, I guess. Because it never comes out clearly enough when she tries to speak. Because she wants to rephrase the world, to take it in and give it back again differently, so that everything is used and nothing is lost. Because it’s something to do to pass the time until she is old enough to experience the things she writes about.

- Nicole Krauss

She’s going to be at Central Library next Tuesday.  I’m excited, but that goes without saying.