Empathy for the Reader

by Kristen Holt Browning

I’ve never been a fan of the “books are good for you” school of thought. Books are not broccoli, and poems won’t make you virtuous.

Plenty of social scientists disagree with me. Recent studies found that readers of literary fiction do better at recognizing, understanding, and inferring others’ feelings and emotions, while children who read a lot display higher levels of emotional intelligence, and increased empathy (http://science.sciencemag.org/content/342/6156/377; https://readingpartners.org/blog/reading-improves-kids-emotional-intelligence-increases-empathy/).

This is all good news, but literature shouldn’t be the vegetable of the arts. Must everything improve us? Can’t a novel, or a short story, or a poem simply be enjoyed, absorbed, and lingered over? Isn’t it enough to notice and admire the suspenseful plot, the gorgeous language, the finely depicted protagonist?

Then I read Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers, and it convinced me that there might be something to this books-make-you-a-better-person thing.

Half of the chapters take place in Chicago in 1985, and feature Yale, Nico, Richard, and the rest of their group of friends, all young gay men, as well as Fiona, Nico’s sister. Nearly all of these men are struggling with or affected by HIV/AIDS in some way. It was a sad shock to read The Great Believers and be reminded of how common, and commonly devastating, death was for this cohort just a few decades ago.

downloadFiona plays the central role in the alternating chapters. She is searching for her estranged daughter, Claire, in Paris in 2015. As we flash back and forth between young Fiona in the 80s—standing by her dying brother even as their family disowns him, nursing her friends throughout their illnesses—and contemporary Fiona, we gradually understand  the trauma of being the one left alive, and left behind. How do you live in a world populated by ghosts?

Makkai’s language isn’t particularly elevated or notable. It’s a fairly long book, and at first I didn’t want to read it: another overstuffed, earnest, well-meaning novel.

But as I read over the course of several days, I felt myself expanding, in my pity and despair and tenderness for these people. I  started to open to the terrible possibility of living during a plague, of dying pointlessly—or, of trying to make a life in the aftermath of devastation. I slid into the lives of these suffering, loving, laughing, crying people. In other words, I empathized with them.

So, while I distrust empathy as a reason to read, I value it as a side effect of reading. If a book can entertain us and bring us into the world of another, that’s only all to the good. At a time like this, marked by so much rage and distrust, anything that grows empathy is necessary, and welcome. We could all use a little more broccoli on our plates.

Let’s Get Political

by Kristen Holt Browning

Politics and writing: do they mix? Up until recently, I would have said “no.” I thought works of fiction and poetry that overtly articulated political opinions or worldviews were artless and heavy handed. 

But it’s 2018, and regardless of whether you’re liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between, politics is everywhere. A very smart teacher recently told me, “All poets are contemporary. You write in the present you live in.” Her point was that your work has to speak, both formally and linguistically, to your era. If it doesn’t, it isn’t honest, or relevant. And if we live in an era saturated by politics, how can our writing not absorb and reflect that reality?

On the face of it, the new novel Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg has nothing to do with contemporary politics. It’s presented as the memoir of Jack Sheppard, famed eighteenth-century thief and jailbreaker, who served as the inspiration for The Threepenny Opera’s Mack the Knife (or, maybe you know him from the Bobby Darin song).

Jack is raised as a girl, although, upon reaching adolescence, he (his preferred pronoun) takes to wearing male clothing and taping down his breasts. Bess, his lover, is a prostitute of South Asian descent. This is a multicultural, polyglot world, where people decry, undercut, and push against the social, economic, racial, and gender constraints and categories put upon them—something that is happening as urgently as ever in the twenty-first century. Confessions of the Fox is a propulsive story that encompasses grand themes of identity and individual self-determination, and that also happens to couch its plea for a rethinking of our ideas about gender and diversity in gorgeously inventive language.

Good poetry pushes language as far as it can bend without breaking it completely. It’s the opposite of bland and simplistic political sloganeering. In Morgan Parker’s collection There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé, pop culture intertwines with urgent political rage to present a wide-ranging overview of black womanhood in contemporary America, as in the opening of “Poem on Beyoncé’s Birthday”:

Drinking cough syrup from a glass shaped

Like your body I wish was mine but as dark

As something in my mind telling me

I’m not woman enough for these days

Parker offers a wide historical range of black female experience, as when she writes a poem on the Hottentot Venus that manages to take in slavery, capitalism, and white domination of black bodies:

No one worries about me

because I am getting paid.

I am here to show you

who you are, to cradle

your large skulls

and remind you

you are perfect. Mother America,

unleash your sons.

Everything beautiful, you own.

Rosenberg and Parker are both expanding the inclusive limits of writing. Their work is political in its topics and obsessions, in the stories it chooses to honor and represent. This, I think, is how politics is best embedded in writing: by incorporating the entirely of one’s world, insisting on the necessity of one’s desires and concerns, and thereby expanding the worlds of others.

Logging Books, Logging Memories

by Kristen Holt Browning

I love historical fiction, and I love to learn about the ancient, classical world. So when I recently heard of David Malouf’s novella An Imaginary Life, which depicts the poet Ovid’s exile to Tomis (in present-day Romania), I rushed, as I so often do, to the online catalog of the local library, and was thrilled to see it in stock (yes, I get that excited over in-stock books at the library).

Settled at home with the slightly worn library copy (the book was first published in 1978), I eagerly dug into Ovid’s struggles to adapt to banishment, living among people with whom he shares nothing: not culture, not habits or interests, not even a common language.

But a few chapters in, a too-familiar feeling set in: an odd mixture of recognition, embarrassment, and a touch of despair. I’ve read this book before! How on earth did I forget? I liked it a lot the first time I read it, and I’m enjoying it now. How could I completely forget that I read this book??

Aside from my job, I read about a book a week for pleasure. So, that’s fifty books a year. That means that, in my adult life, I’ve probably read about 1200 books. Seeing that hefty number, it seems much more reasonable that at least a few of them—even ones I enjoyed—would slip my mind.

Soon after this slip-up, I had coffee with an old, dear friend who reads even more books than me. She mentioned that she keeps a book journal: a log of all the books she’s read. That, I realized, is just what I need. So, I picked up a Muji notebook (my favorite), and for the last three months, I’ve been dutifully writing down every book I read. I just write the month and year at the top of the page, then log each book as I finish it. 

But how does this benefit me as a writer? Although it’s early days for my book-logging enterprise, my hope is that this will prove to be a handy repository of useful examples and models for my own writing. A case in point: I’ve recently been writing short pieces (are they essays? prose poems? honestly, I’m not sure yet) on various ancient women—classical, historical, and mythological. Malouf’s novella centers on a real person from the ancient world, and offers a gorgeous example of how a historical fact of a single life (here, Ovid’s exile) can be broadened  into a full narrative. So perhaps I, too, can take settled fact and play with it, hold it up to the light, and make it into something entirely new.

As I glance at my book log, I notice another recent read that offers an inspiring example of this kind of work: Jim Crace’s novel Quarantine. Crace begins with Jesus’ forty days in the desert (another kind of exile), but his story centers on the small group of fellow seekers who have taken up temporary residence in the desert as well—especially Miri, a young pregnant woman tethered to a lout of a husband. Quarantine takes the bones of a well-known story, and builds from them something original and alive.

I started keeping a diary when I was twelve years old (by the time I was in high school, I preferred the far more mature term “journal”). I occasionally flip through entries I wrote as a teenager or a twenty-something, marveling at how familiar and utterly strange this person is. I wonder if I’ll do the same thing with my book log. Someday, perhaps, I’ll have a pile of these, just lists and lists of titles and dates, and I’ll dip into them occasionally to see what I was reading during various writing projects—or during those fallow times when no writing came. Will I be inspired? Will I remember loved books fondly?

 At the very least, I’ll be able to avoid accidentally reading the same book twice.

Reading About Writing Doesn’t Count as Writing

by Kristen Holt-Browning

I am a sucker for any book that promises a glimpse into “the writer’s life”—books that, in discussing the daily practices of authors, will (I hope) offer a clear and well-trodden path to I can follow to literary accomplishment.

There are plenty of books that offer this big-picture, life-of-the-writer perspective. I’m often dipping in and out of The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from The Paris Review Interviews. Each section opens with a question—“When Did You Begin Writing?,” “How Important Is Plot?,” “Are You Friends with Other Writers?”—and contains brief responses from a variety of writers. Louise DeSalvo’s The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity, devotes chapters to the value of writing partners, of keeping a journal, and of finding one’s own writing rhythm, interspersed with examples drawn from the writing lives of Virginia Woolf, Stephen King, and many others.

And then there’s Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography, a book not, at first glance, about how to write—and yet entirely about writing. In her early 50s, Levy is divorced, living in a shabby apartment with her daughters. She writes about lugging a space heater into the shed where she writes. She describes biking home from the grocery store with a chicken tied to the seat—only for the chicken to fall off and get run over by a car (she rescues it, brings it home, and cooks it anyway). She ruminates on the dissolution of her marriage, and the death of her mother, and she worries about paying the bills.

“I no longer had a study at the most professionally busy time of my life. I wrote where I could and concentrated on making a home for my daughters. . . . to be making this kind of home, a space for a mother and her daughters, was so hard and humbling, profound and interesting, that to my surprise I found I could work very well in the chaos of time. I was thinking clearly, lucidly; the move up the hill and the new situation had freed something that had been trapped and stifled. I became physically strong at fifty, just as my bones were supposed to be losing their strength. I had energy because I had no choice but to have energy. I had to write to support my children and I had to do all the heavy lifting. Freedom is never free. Anyone who has struggled to be free knows how much it costs.”

Writing isn’t a part of life. It is a life. Levy is a woman, a mother, an ex-wife, a friend. She befriends an elderly neighbor, she reminisces about Greece, she rides a bike up a hill in London. She is cold, she is frustrated, she is elated. And always, she is a writer.

 

The Cost of Living doesn’t offer any tips or schedules. It offers a single, ever-shifting perspective on a specific life of writing. It reminds me that being a writer isn’t about habits or word counts; it’s in the living, and it’s in the writing.

Do you have a favorite book about the writing life? Comment below with the title for a chance to win a free copy of The Cost of Living!

Reading Like a Writer: Poetry Every Day

by Kristen Holt Browning

When the poet Lucie Brock-Broido died in March, I felt a pang of shame. I had never read her, even though throughout college and grad school, I read lots of poetry. Heck, my MA thesis focused on the poets Anne Carson, Louise Glück, and Jorie Graham. And before that, I wrote way more than my fair share of crappy adolescent poetry.

But…I graduated. I got a job. I moved to the city. I read novels, I kept up with The New Yorker. And poetry seemed so much less relevant to the everyday. Once my life expanded to encompass a husband, a house, and kids, there was even less space for poetry, which looked by then like a rarified, obtuse genre, suitable only for college campuses and late nights.

I stopped reading poetry around the same time I stopped writing. I realize now this was probably no coincidence. I stopped making time and space for poems, and without that hot language pouring into my mind, it seemed I stopped being able to produce my own words, too.

The day after Lucie Brock-Broido died, I bought her first book, Hunger. That night, before bed, I read the first poem, “Domestic Mysticism.” Actually, I read it four times in a row. Every time, my heart swelled against my ribs as I read the final lines:

Everyone knows an unworshipped woman will betray you.

There is always that promise, I like that. Kingdom of Kinesis.

Kingdom of Benevolent. I will betray as a god betrays,

With tenderheartedness. I’ve got this mystic streak in me.

Poetry can be intimidating, it can appear inscrutable. But for the last several weeks, almost every night, right before I go to sleep, I’ve read a single poem. Sometimes Brock-Broido, sometimes someone else (if I may plug a GetLit regular, I’ve also been reading Ruth Danon’s latest book, Word Has It). As it turns out, poetry doesn’t exist on some purely celestial plane; it fits quite well into a life already crammed full of deadlines, appointments, and PTA meetings. No time for a 500-page novel? Let me suggest you try “Parable” by Louise Glück tonight. Or, if you’re up for something a little longer, maybe Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay.” And don’t think that poetry has nothing to say about the political world of now: read Morgan Parker’s “If You Are Over Staying Woke” or Danez Smith’s “Two Movies” to see how poets are speaking poetic truth to political power.

As a writer, there’s  value in this practice: in my last moments of consciousness each night, I absorb pure, essential language. I like to think the words are burrowing into my mind, and supporting my own writing in some unknown, unseen way.

One poem, every night. Why not give it a try yourself? Whatever kind of writer you are, let poetry infiltrate and influence your relationship to language. Couldn’t all of our stories—hell, all of our lives—use a little more poetry?