October 7, 2019 § 12 Comments
by Sweta Srivastava Vikram
If you are a writer, you have most definitely met your worst enemy: writer’s block. Aside from the inner critic that wins at ripping apart the writerly confidence, writer’s block can be a real catastrophe too. It can make you question your creative abilities, send you into a spiral about your identity, and make you ponder over your future, amongst other things. Writer’s block, like the indignant cold & cough, is impartial; it impacts most writers from time to time. Be it because of waning passion or unrealistic expectations or burn out or real-world distractions, most of us get stalled in our creative work.
Getting out of this sterile, uncreative funk is in the writer’s hands. While some might think that procrastinating or waiting for the muse to show up or writing only when you feel inspired or wallowing in self-pity or watching nonstop television or making excuses for the dry, creative spell might help overcome writer’s block…that’s not the case. Overcoming writer’s block takes sincere efforts. To get out of the funk, you have to take active steps and create momentum:
- Create a routine: After months of not being able to write because of personal and professional commitments in life, I open my laptop and a journal. Guess what? Nothing happens. Not even a word. For six days in a row, I show up. I swallow my pride (After having written and traditionally published 12 books inside 9 years, battling writer’s block isn’t easy for me), embrace my frustrations, and deal with another non-creative day before leaving for work. On the 7th day, I show up to my words and this time, my words transform into sentences and inside an hour, I write this essay. I am not trying to tell you that I am a genius: This productivity is attributed to conditioned response, something I learned from studying Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov’s, experiment with his dog. In a nutshell, whenever the dog heard the bell, he started to salivate. This was an association that Pavlov cultivated. I don’t have the luxury of being a full-time writer, so I have been training my mind to make an association when it sees my laptop and/or journal at the same time every day. A simple trick to get words moving on the page using conditioned response. The only guaranteed way of overcoming writer’s block is by writing. So, create a routine and follow it diligently. Practice. Practice. Practice.
- Free write: I was telling a dear friend of mine—who happens to be a psychotherapist—about the unintentional distance between me and words of late. Between my day job, running a business, and managing the home front, I don’t always find the creative juices flow instantaneously. She suggested changing how I envision writing. “Write for the joy of writing. Write for yourself. Not for the editor or publisher or to sell a piece.” She continued, “It doesn’t always have to be a completed essay or a blog post or an article or X number of words from a new book. Don’t try to say or produce anything; just get some words on paper or your laptop. A scribble in the journal. A tweet. An Instagram post—they all make for writing.” Aah, the power of free writing. I have to say…there is something liberating about writing without an agenda or a deadline or filters. The catharsis is real. You start to see words pour onto the page and morph into sentences and then paragraphs.
- Create bullet points on paper for ideas and brainstorming: I always bring a tiny journal with me wherever I go. Writing by hand connects you with the words and allows your brain to focus on them, understand them, and learn from them. Bullet points helps to stay organized and work as sunken treasures you can dip into when looking for ideas on a barren day. Writing down ideas in an organized way by hand gives your brain the space to think and concentrate on what it is you are writing about. Handwriting can be particularly useful during goal setting and brainstorming because it’s slower and more deliberate. It also helps improve memory. Research shows that writing entails using the hand and fingers to form letters…the sequential finger movements activate multiple regions of the brain associated with processing and remembering information. Writing on paper also allows us to break predefined formats and layouts.
- Change your environment: One other thing that helps me get out of the non-writing funk, aka writer’s block, is being mindful of my environment. What do I mean by that? Given that I haven’t hit the jackpot yet (*inserts sarcastic smile*), there is only so much space my New York City apartment can offer. I find parks and coffee shops and trains and make them home to my writing. But here is the deal: I keep each environment sacred to a particular genre. For instance, if my favorite coffee shop in the neighborhood is where I write nonfiction, I would never bring my poetry or fictional writing into that space. If poems pour in subways, nonfiction and fiction stay buried during the commute. Changing the environment can help with creativity.
- Walk away the block: Walking offers unique advantages to improve health and boost creativity. Research tells us that when a creative professional doesn’t get to write and express their creativity, they can get into depression. A nice brisk walk might be just what you need to stimulate your brain’s creativity and get you back in writing mode as walking unleashes creativity. Researchers from Stanford University have found that walking boosts creative inspiration. They examined the creativity levels of persons while they were walking and while they were sitting down. On average the creativity level of the walking people increased by 60 percent. Walking helps release creative juices along with endorphins. It circulates more oxygen and blood to the brain.
In the end, don’t wait for the perfect moment, optimum word, or seamless spot to start writing and overcome writer’s block. Start somewhere, anywhere. A few words. Sentences. Paragraphs. Write something. Anything. Definitely don’t make excuses or justifications for not writing. Don’t be bogged down by perfectionism and eloquence. Start today wherever you are. It’s easier to pick up speed when you are in the habit of writing. You’ll be writing before you know it—conquering writer’s block and returning to creative work in due course. The idea is to get words on the page. Eventually, the writer’s block will become a distant memory.
Sweta Srivastava Vikram is a mindset & wellness coach, global speaker, and best-selling author of 12 books, including, the recent Louisiana Catch. She helps entrepreneurs and creative professionals increase productivity through health and wellness. Winner of the “Voices of the Year Award” (past recipients have been Chelsea Clinton and founders of the #MeToo movement), Sweta is also a five-times Pushcart Prize nominee. Born in India, Sweta spent her formative years between the Indian Himalayas, North Africa, and the United States. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, among other publications, across nine countries on three continents. A graduate of Columbia University, Sweta lives in New York City with her husband and in her spare time teaches yoga to female survivors of rape and domestic violence. She is also the CEO-Founder of NimmiLife, which helps women share their stories, heal from trauma, and empower their mental health and lives using Ayurveda, yoga, and storytelling. Find her on: Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
September 23, 2019 § 14 Comments
By Suzanne Roberts
Before my memoir was published, I received a rejection from someone I’ll call Professor X; he told me how much he hated my characters, especially the narrator, who he called “appallingly self-conscious, overly obsessed with men and how she appears to them, and—finally—just plain untrustworthy on a deep emotional level.” He also didn’t appreciate “being dragged through the dull, narcissistic terrain of the narrator’s psyche.” He suggested I forget about revision because my writing is “neurotic and often pretentious,” and that the “palsied humor,” which I “have no talent for” was “embarrassing and unseemly.” When I showed one of my well-published mentors this litany of my shortcomings, she called it “mild.” She said if I wanted to be a writer I had better “soldier up,” because there would be much worse ahead. She reminded me that a critic said the person who wrote Wuthering Heights must have been deranged and should have killed “himself.” Criticism and rejection are part of the writers’ life.
I drove home from my mentor’s house and was stopped at a traffic light, wondering what sort of horrible little man would use the archaic word “unseemly.” That’s when I noticed him—a giant furry dolphin with a sign that read “Car Wash, Next Right.” He was jumping around, twirling his sign, urging passing motorists into the car wash. His plastic face was fixed into a frozen pink smile, the cartoonish blue eyes bulging. I watched him prance about and burst into tears, not because I felt sorry for this poor asshole, dancing on a street corner in a dolphin suit. No, I felt sorry for me. I could only think about how many people had said no and how they didn’t like my narrator, who is, of course, me. I thought about how I didn’t want to “soldier up,” and how I should have hiked up mountains or skied down them with all those hours spent writing. Mr. Dolphin noticed me crying; he put his sign down and waved at me with both flippers. I waved back and figured that if he could do what he was doing with all that dolphin dignity, I could very well keep writing and sending out my work.
I went home and Googled “famous literary rejections.” Harry Potter was rejected by 12 presses; Stephen King’s first novel Carrie was rejected 30 times; and William Saroyan received 7,000 rejections before he published a story. These famous literary rejections made me realize comparing my own rejections with another writer or group of writers would make me feel better.
My first recruit for the rejection contest was a teaching colleague. We kept a sheet of paper taped to our office wall, and we wrote the names of the journals that rejected us underneath our names. Students came into our office and assumed our lists were places we’d been published. When we explained that they were our rejections, they laughed, thinking us strange. However, more often than not, they were relieved: not only were their teachers getting rejected, they weren’t ashamed to post it on the wall. The longer my list grew, the more accomplished I felt. At least I was doing something. But my officemate found it depressing, so she declared me the winner and ripped the sheet off the wall.
When our list was gone, I missed that reminder of just how hard I was trying. I knew what I had to do: I solicited members for the Rejection Club.
How the Rejection Club Works
This club is based solely on sending out work and tallying rejections, so it works differently than a Writing Group (which I wrote about here); therefore, you might never see your fellow club member’s work, though if you have, it will allow you to make suggestions of where to send rejected work next time.
Each member of the Rejection Club forwards her rejection to the group via email, allowing the other members to comment on the editors’ poor taste and lack of judgement. Certainly, we all know that perhaps our piece wasn’t ready or doesn’t fit with the aesthetic of the journal, but what’s the fun in that? Poking fun at the diction, grammar, and tone gives us a chance to reject our rejections, which is a necessary first step in coming to terms with the fact that the editor might be right. You have to be careful not to reply to the editor with your witty repartee by mistake, which will then require an apology and explanation that can only make you sound like a crazy person and will ensure that the journal in question will never take your future work. I know this from experience.
Each submission packet counts as one rejection, whether it’s one prose piece or five poems. Anything you submit your writing to—contests, grants, fellowships, panel proposals, residencies—counts. In my little group, the competition has become fierce, and the biggest loser will end up with over 100 rejections. At the end of the year, whoever has the most rejections, is the new Rejection King or Queen. We keep track from one AWP conference to the next, ending with a celebratory dinner. The winner/ biggest loser gets dinner paid for, but more importantly, she earns bragging rights for the entire year. We’ve been at it for four months, and I’m in the lead with 40, though one of my MFA students is closing in, so it’s looking like I’ll have to up my game.
Why Join a Rejection Club?
The Rejection Club makes those “Fuck you, Dear Writer” messages fun. One RC member calls it “a sick reverse-psychology game that’s pretty cool.” Losing is winning. That’s better than a dude in a dolphin suit, waving at you. But more than anything, being in a Rejection Club forces you to send out your work. It’s a game of odds, and in order to publish, you have to gamble on yourself. As you might guess, the person who gets the most rejections usually ends up placing the most work. The more you submit, the more you will publish.
The writer’s life is full of rejection, so you might as well get used to it. When your book is accepted for publication, there are new rejections to face—your book won’t win that contest; you won’t get that fellowship; Oprah never calls; and no movie deal for you. And the Amazon trolls will give you one star because they could have written your book better than you did. There’s always something else to lose. You will not be happy when ____________ happens, if you aren’t happy now. You must find your happiness in the writing; that’s the only thing you can control.
So be an employee to your art—spend time with your words and then offer them to the world. While it’s true that many people don’t want what you’ve written, it’s your job to find the reader who needs your words. The path to that reader isn’t always easy, but that’s where your Rejection Club comes in. They will cheer you along the way and keep you accountable. You cannot participate in a Rejection Club unless you have things to send out, which means you’re writing.
And the only real way to fail at writing is not writing.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the award-winning memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, as well as four collections of poetry. Her work has recently appeared in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, CNN, The Rumpus, Longreads, and The Normal School, but she has been rejected by many others. She teaches for the MFA program in creative writing at Sierra Nevada College and serves as the current El Dorado County Poet Laureate. More information may be found on her website: www.suzanneroberts.net or follow her on Instagram: @suzanneroberts28
September 20, 2019 § 1 Comment
In the craft essay from our new issue, Ana Maria Spagna explains how the complicated threads of environmental stories can be untangled by embracing contradictions. She acknowledges that tackling these vital stories is a challenge and hopes her contradictory lessons will compel more creative writers to explore this theme.
Here’s an excerpt:
So often what draws me to environmental stories is the sheer energy of people fighting on the fringes, exploring solutions, working with shovels and saws, with computers and maps, with megaphones and musical instruments. Super heroes proliferate on the big screen, in the realm of so-called make-believe. They also surround us every day: sheep shearers, oyster farmers, citizen scientists, teachers, students, writers. Always writers.
September 19, 2019 § 1 Comment
In the Craft Essay section of Brevity’s just-released September 2019 issue, Haley Swanson discusses how acknowledging emotional commonalities between the writer and reader is “the key to writing about what doesn’t belong only to you.” Here’s an excerpt from Swanson’s essay:
Knowing other people have lived iterations of your experience, undergone versions of the same emotions, requires a vulnerability impossible to access in the moment. After the moment passes, when it’s time for reflection, consider letting that knowledge—someone felt this before you, someone will feel this after you, someone else is feeling it now—fill the gap an essay is sometimes believed to close. Then, the writing might come.
September 4, 2019 § 12 Comments
by Nancy Jorgensen
My daughter Gwen is on the start line, leaning, left foot forward toward the waters of Copacabana Beach. She has devoted every day of the last four years to the next two hours. It is 90 degrees Fahrenheit and windy, and she intends to win this Rio 2016 Olympic triathlon race.
My other daughter, Elizabeth, and I spy Gwen’s husband Patrick. “How is she? How are you?”
Patrick tucks back his wavy hair, calm, confident, composed. “She’s great. We’re feeling good. All she has to do is have an average day.”
I knew what he meant. Gwen didn’t wish for ideal weather, optimal race tactics, or a once-in-a lifetime race. She prepared for choppy water, a competitor’s breakaway, and dangerous descents. Every day, she practiced the required skills. She only had to replicate those today.
Gwen may have been born with the physical characteristics and mental discipline of an athlete but she believes success is not found in talent or a single standout day. Success results from consistency: weekly, daily, hourly deliberation. From habits: workouts, nutrition, recovery. From collaboration: with coaches, therapists, teammates.
In the London 2012 triathlon, Gwen punctured her tire and finished 38th. She didn’t quit. She decided to win gold in Rio. To accomplish that, she adopted the attitude of “average everyday”— incremental daily progress, converting good practices into habits that achieve best outcomes.
I try to write the same way. With consistency every week, even when I’m busy or tired or traveling. Every morning, from eight to eleven. Every hour, resisting the pull of emails, Facebook and Twitter.
I try to convert practice into habit. With workouts of five hundred words a day and submissions each week. With reading fiction and nonfiction, reading harder, reading diverse voices. With recovery on the StairMaster, walks in the park, and friend and family time.
Gwen surrounds herself with coaches and staff who make her better. My own coaches are a writers’ workshop, online blogs, and websites. My therapists are a husband, supportive friends and encouraging family members. My teammates are a partner to edit my work, workshop classmates to discover my best and worst, and a writing coach to steer me toward markets.
In Rio, Gwen swam with the current, rode with the front pack, ran side by side against the defending Olympic champion—and won Olympic gold. We celebrated with her in Rio, celebrated again at home and celebrate now. I still can’t believe I am the mother of an Olympic gold medalist.
After Rio, Gwen birthed a baby, transitioned to marathon, and had surgery for Haglund’s deformity—three new challenges she approaches with the same discipline. With patience for her body, trust in the processes and a belief that hard work is not sacrifice but investment.
Again, I use her example. To be patient when rejections outnumber acceptances. To trust that writing, editing and submitting will lead to best results. To decide that the hours each day are not a sacrifice but an investment.
So far, I have published a few books and several essays. My words don’t represent the best on the planet like an Olympic win, but I still celebrate. And then I go back to work.
Elizabeth, who is my writing partner, asked for an edit this week. I sent corrections, we conferred and she prepared her submission. “Any other advice?” she said.
“Yes. Have an average day.”
Nancy Jorgensen is a musician and writer. Go, Gwen, Go, her 2019 memoir of daughter Gwen Jorgensen’s journey from CPA to 2016 Olympic Champion, is published by Meyer & Meyer Sport. Her choral education books are published by Hal Leonard Corporation and Lorenz Corporation.
September 2, 2019 § 11 Comments
By Carolyn Roy-Bornstein
It may be horrifying for lay folks to learn this fact, but there is a mantra in medical residency called, “watch one, do one, teach one.” As an intern, I did not have the luxury of watching scores of intravenous insertions before I tackled my own. Lumbar punctures are done less frequently. If I had been supervised just once by my senior resident doing a spinal tap and deemed competent, chances are when the next one came along, I’d be supervising someone else doing one. It may not have always been literally one procedure under my belt before I’m teaching it, but it sure wasn’t much more.
That’s why it doesn’t strike me as strange or unusual that after publishing one memoir, I find myself teaching a memoir-writing class at my local adult education program. And after giving one key note speech, I feel qualified to teach a speech-writing class at Grub Street, Boston. I also have no problem teaching a workshop at the University of Iowa on creating a portfolio career in writing, even though my unpaid writing gigs still outnumber my paid jobs. And I’m lecturing doctors at Harvard University about medical journalism even as I work hard to advance that aspect of my career.
Now, full disclosure, I have given many smaller speeches in addition to the keynote, and even though my paid jobs lag behind the unpaid ones, I still have dozens of publications to my credit. I’m not a total fraud. But it’s also true: just one memoir.
But there’s another saying in medicine: teaching is learning twice. So, as I research my lessons and prepare my hand-outs for the classes and workshops I teach, I’m learning, too. I learned that when I was repeating those central elements in my keynote speech, I was using the rhetorical technique called anaphora. I had to learn the difference between direct and indirect dialogue before I could teach the students in my memoir-writing class. I was fuzzy on the precise statistics on physician burn-out before I started fact-finding for my University of Iowa writing workshop. And I didn’t know much about blogging software until I had to incorporate its use into my talk at Harvard.
All of this, I hope and believe, is making me a better writer. Watch one, do one, teach one may sound like so much chutzpah to non-physicians. But in the writing world, a little chutzpah may be in order. If JK Rowling had been discouraged by rejection and not believed in herself, we never would have met Harry Potter. Likewise, Joseph Heller and his character Captain Yossarian. Both Catch-22 and The Sorcerer’s Stone were rejected multiple times before being published. All writers need self-assurance. We have enough critics and skeptics in our lives without being doubters of our own abilities.
So I will continue watching one (in the form of reading great writers’ works), doing one (by continuously working on my craft), and teaching one (by sharing what I’ve learned along the way with other writers). As one of my medical colleagues told a group of young physicians who wanted to know how to make the big discoveries in cancer research, “Look for the question… (Then) make the answer important.” I can think of no better advice for a writer.
Carolyn Roy-Bornstein is a physician, writer and mom whose work limns the places where those worlds intersect. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Writer, Poets & Writers, the Journal of the American Medical Association and many other venues. Her forthcoming third book. Last Stop on the Struggle Bus: A Memoir of Foster Love, is about taking chances, making commitments and redefining love.
August 28, 2019 § 7 Comments
Brevity’s Associate Editor Kathleen B. Jones, author of Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt, interviewed memoirist Vivian Gornick about The Situation and The Story, her career as an author, and her other works.
Part 3: Modes of Writing and the Art of Structure
JONES: A lot has changed in the world of writing since you published The Situation and The Story in 2001…
GORNICK: Really?? No kidding? That went right by me. (Laughs)
JONES: Oh, c’mon.
GORNICK: Well, what do you mean by that?
JONES: I’m just thinking about the explosion of the internet, the development of other arenas for writing, whatever you think of them, blogs, other forms of instant writing. I wonder what effect you think this has had on literary nonfiction, if anything?
GORNICK: Well, that’s something even I think about a lot, by which I mean, I’m completely out of the world of the internet. Totally. I don’t do anything. I’m not on any of these social media outlets. I don’t read blogs. I don’t do anything. However, even I have become aware of, as you say, this explosion of intensely immediate—I don’t really look upon it as writing—it’s an intensely immediate form of expressiveness through words. I look on it mostly as venting more than anything else.
Sometimes a blog is called to my attention and I read it and I think, this person is just free-associating here on the page. And it can go on and on and on because they’re not really writing, they’re waiting to figure out what they think themselves. Then again, there are times when I have to look something up myself and then I will stumble on these thousands of reviews of a book that I was looking for or wanting some more information about, and I’m amazed by how intelligent and thoughtful so many of them are. They’re usually short reviews.
For instance, I was writing a piece on Elizabeth Bowen some time ago and I looked something up on the internet about one of her books, a piece of information, and I stumbled on a variety of reviews, peoples responses. Elizabeth Bowen is a hard writer to truck with; her syntax is extremely demanding and, because her sentences are so convoluted, many people are put off. But there was so much smart, thoughtful responsiveness and often from people who said, ‘I’m not much of a reader but I stumbled on her and this is what she made me feel.’ But this is not writing. None of this is about writing.
It reminds me of the fact that, you know, children have all kinds of minor talents, a child can suddenly produce a poetic sentence. I remember a teacher once did a study in which he made all these 6 and 7 year old kids write something about some subject and one of these kids wrote, and I still can remember this, ‘I am so sad that my tears go around the corner before they come out of my eyes.’ So now, I’m sure his mother put that sentence up on the refrigerator and announced, ‘My kid is a genius and he’s going to be a writer.’ Well, he wasn’t a genius and he wasn’t going to be a writer. And in all the years of teaching, there’s never been a single student who didn’t have one piece in them. But this is not writing.
JONES: Well, some blogs are different. Brevity’s blog has a blog of very focused essays, usually by teachers of writing for other writers about some element of craft, and they’re edited.
GORNICK: OK. Oh, well that’s different. Then that resembles the world of print. The old world of print.
JONES: Exactly, so in a sense what I’m saying….
GORNICK: So that hasn’t changed…
JONES: No; there’s a shift where what you would call writing has another venue for being circulated.
GORNICK: Yes, yes, right. So it’s electronic now instead of print.
JONES: In books too, there’s the potential for even the form of the book to be exploded again. The way we moved from the illuminated manuscripts to the printing press…
GORNICK: Yeah (quizzically).
JONES: Now, with this electronic form, there’s the possibility for layers to be added.
JONES: Visual, aural…I have a friend who’s a poet who experimented with different ways of integrating forms of visual and aural creativity into a set of poems about a river.
GORNICK: You mean you’d be reading a book on your computer and suddenly it would speak to you?
JONES: No, it wouldn’t speak to you, but the possibility would be there for visual images and sound to be pulled up, to explore other dimensions about what’s been written.
GORNICK: None of that means anything to me. (Laughs) I will live and die a very conventional reader. What I require from writing is structure, and language, and development that is conscious. What can I tell you.
JONES: Because other modes would be distracting?
JONES: Pulling you out of the flow of the writing, you’re pulled out of the story?
GORNICK: RIGHT! Exactly, you are pulled out of the story.
JONES: Let’s talk a little about structure in relation to The Odd Woman and the City. How did you discover the structure for this?
JONES: I read it the first time all the way through. Having just reread it, I see how you’re making quite substantial leaps from one thing to another, your conversations with Leonard then on to something else.
GORNICK: I wrote it 50 times.
JONES: 50 times?
GORNICK: I put this thing together differently 50 times until it felt right. I can’t really say anything more than that. For years, I wanted to write about Leonard and me because I thought we were a paradigmatic friendship. Between the two of us, the things we said to each other over these 20-25 years, were really sufficiently indicative of a generation, of what we were all living through. And I couldn’t find a way; I didn’t know how to do it.
Then I discovered what I always knew about my relationship of walking through the streets of the city and I thought, ah, I can do it that way, if I can figure out how to write about walking in the street and the adventures that I have with people and then using Leonard and me, not as the main characters, but like a Greek chorus. So that was the first part. I got that and I knew that was right.
And then…well that was it, there were so many other things I wanted to fit in and I didn’t know how to do it until I did it. The style I adopted over many books is collage and collage depends on your intuition for what goes with what. And I can’t explain that, when the transition feels right and when it feels strained and when it doesn’t. When does one thing lead naturally to another? I can’t tell until it feels right. And also, before I wrote the book, I had about 30 pages of this stuff and I sent it to a friend of mine, then the editor of the Paris Review, and he loved it and said, I’d like to publish this, if you’ll allow me to fool around; I don’t think it’s in the right order. And he had a little bit of genius. So he changed the order of things and once he did, I saw it differently myself, and saw he was right, and I took my lead from that. I was able to think more clearly about what should go where. But there are essentially two things: the incidents in the street, and me and Leonard.
JONES: But then that is refracted through many other things, other friendships. With Emma for instance.
GORNICK: And literary stuff, little bits and nuggets of literary history, and life that I just throw in. It all began to feel right, once it did feel right. I can’t really tell you how.
JONES: What are you reading now and what are you writing now, and how are the two connected?
GORNICK: Well, I just finished writing, but I can’t seem to finish it. For two years now, I’ve been writing a book about rereading—rereading books I loved as a young woman. So it’s that hybrid form of memoir and criticism, in which I describe myself at various stages, reading different books. I start with Sons and Lovers, a book I read three times between the ages of 20 and 35, and each time, identified with another character, and I show why and how. It’s a very short book, really like a book-length essay. But I can’t seem to bring it to conclusion. I’m having a hard time.
JONES: You recently wrote about Doris Lessing in the New York Review of Books.
GORNICK: That’s right, the cats. Actually, that little story about Lessing and the cats was written in one of my low points in this book. I did that for comic relief, to amuse myself.
JONES: Yeah, but you had these insights about yourself. What you got from reading Doris Lessing at this point in your life. What you heard in her that might have attracted you before, but now repelled you. Her lack of compassion.
GORNICK: Right. Her inability to stop protecting herself. I have to explain that better. I have to rewrite that part.
JONES: I read the D. H. Lawrence excerpt in Harpers.
GORNICK: That’s the first piece in the book. And then I do Collette and Marguerite Duras, Elizabeth Bowen, Natalia Ginsburg, a lot of women. Delmore Schwartz, Thomas Hardy, all very short. Whole thing is 120 pages. And I can’t finish it. I am so exhausted. This past week I swore I would make all the changes by Thanksgiving. But I got this cold and my head is in a fog. So I am torturing myself because I think I should sit down at the desk every day…By Christmas it will be finished.
JONES: What else are you reading?
GORNICK: When I am in this mood I’m reading three things at once. Actually what I read to calm myself when I’m feeling rattled is George Orwell.
JONES: (Laughs) You find Homage to Catalonia or 1984 calming?
GORNICK: Not those books…There’s a four-volume work of all his journalism, written during the Second World War, with a huge amount of literary work, book reviews, essays. A lot on literature. He wrote as an English socialist, and critic of socialism, but as an intensely political man. He wrote because of the politicalness of life. He was really extraordinarily educated. In one long piece, an excerpt from a book he was writing about the English people, there are parts where he’s trying to pull apart the English language grammatically to shed light on the English people. And he’s so brilliant and knows so much. I don’t know anywhere near enough to process this grammatical essay. During the Second World War, for two years, he wrote a column called ‘As I Please’ for a newspaper called Tribune in England. You would be amazed at the things he wrote—a nice cup of tea, the perfect pub, American soldiers on the street—and I read these things, they’re small gems. His voice is so clear, so direct, you would think it was yesterday. He’s writing from 1942, I feel like he just wrote it yesterday. It calms me.
There was a time, in every culture I think, when the culture was in trouble, people read. And it certainly doesn’t feel like that’s happening now.
Kathleen B. Jones taught Women’s Studies for twenty-four years at San Diego State University. She is the author of two memoirs, Living Between Danger and Love, and Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt. Her writing has appeared in Fiction International, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, The Briar Cliff Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She recently served as Brevity‘s Associate Editor while completing an MFA in writing at Fairfield University.