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?

How Should A Novel Be? Genre And Sheila Heti’s Motherhood

By Kristen Holt Browning

“So, what do you write?” It’s an often heard question at Get Lit. I have my go-to answer of “short stories and poems.” I don’t mention the multi-part essays I’m working on that draw on events from my own life interspersed with musings on historic events (on a good day, I think of these pieces as “elegant” or “lyrical,” on a bad day, “rambling” or “utterly incoherent”). I don’t bother to mention that I write things that mix autobiography, history, mythology, fiction, nonfiction, the made-up, the concrete. It’s much easier to say, “short stories and poems. What about you?”

As writers, we’re supposed to fit into genre slots. Literary magazines, agents, contests, editors—they all focus on poetry, or fiction, or nonfiction. But what if your work falls between the genre cracks?

If you’re Sheila Heti, you draw extremely heavily on your own life, people your novel with characters who share the names of your actual friends, and subtitle your work “A Novel from Life,” as she did with her first novel, How Should A Person Be?

heti

Heti’s new novel, Motherhood, also barely confines itself to the constraints of the genre. Over the course of 300 pages, the speaker, a writer named Sheila who is the same age as the author, and lives in the same city as the author, debates whether or not to have a child. She talks to her partner, her mother, her childless friends, and her friends with children. She meanders; she posits; she interrogates; she wavers. In other words, nothing happens, except life. This “novel” contains little in the way of traditional plot, climax, or resolution.

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The central question of the narrative—should I have kids?—is the focus of most of the many articles and reviews that have already been written on this book. But for me, as a writer, what I find so invigorating about Motherhood is how unconcerned it is with genre, and with adhering to the rules of what a novel should be. If the genre doesn’t support one’s writing, she seems to suggest, the work—not the category—comes first. So, inspired by Sheila Heti, I’m going to keep writing my messy, slippery little pieces, and I’m going to follow them across whatever boundaries they may transgress.

Reading Like A Writer: The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

By Kristen Holt Browning

My inaugural post for Get Lit Beacon is the first in a series I’m calling “Reading Like A Writer.” Each month, I’ll briefly discuss a book of fiction or poetry that I’ve just read—but rather than a traditional book review, I’ll share my thoughts on what I learned from this book as a writer myself.

So, on to Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion.

I admire Wolitzer for situating “women’s issues” as the central theme of a large, ambitious novel. Although, unlike Wolitzer, I write short works—stories, poems, essays—like her I’m primarily interested in writing stories about women. Even in a shorter work, I want the experiences of my female characters and subjects to be central, not secondary, and to resonate as big, essential narratives that speak to and reflect the world.

This novel covers feminism, ambition, idealism, money, sexuality, aging, death and grief, and generational divides. The story centers on Greer (a college freshman when we meet her, a celebrated 31-year-old author by the novel’s end). Wolitzer uses this focus character from which to dive deeply into the lives of Cory (Greer’s boyfriend, who suffers a massive tragedy that throws his life off its comfortable course), Zee (Greer’s best friend, who stumbles through jobs and a variety of activisms before she finds meaningful work), and Faith (a star of second-wave feminism who runs a foundation financed by a venture capitalist, and struggles to balance her activism with her funder’s bottom line).

As a writer, I’m impressed by Wolitzer’s ability to not only trace, but delve deeply into, the storylines of all of her characters, each of whom have full storylines of their own, beyond their relationships to the central character of Greer. Wolitzer clearly cares about all of her characters, and believes they each deserve a full story. And, she trusts herself to write a wide variety of characters: young and old, male and female, straight and queer.

We may write in different forms, but Meg Wolitzer provides an excellent roadmap for writing women’s stories as the complex, essential narratives they are.