Tuesday, January 1, 2013

the howl you howl

Thinking about indebtedness this holiday. Usually I take some time and read an old classic - Jane Eyre, or one of the Austen books. One year it was Middlemarch. This year I read Kate Zambreno's Heroines.  Which is a really harrowing, gorgeous, brilliant book in part about how we live while reading, how what we read gets tangled up with how we live, and how the narrative of women writers becomes ingrained into those of us who write with such crazy beautiful and sometimes a destructive depressing gnawing intensity. (That's actually a horrible description of the book - it's so much more than that, and maybe mainly about modernist wives and mistresses).

It took me back to all those books I swallowed whole in my undergrad, the ones that swallowed me right back. All of Jean Rhys's desperate and fragile books, Woolf and Duras, Adrienne Rich. The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton. Alice James. Hélène Cixous. Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga. All of those books I read in my Women's Literature class. How those books became a part of me. After that degree I somehow found The Pink Guitar by Rachel Blau Duplessis, read it over and over. But also Clarice Lispector (my obsession), Gail Scott's Spaces Like Stairs, and the work of Kristjana Gunnars. The Rose Garden would come out in 2002.

What you're doing as a writer, what I was doing, was looking for models. I mean, it's impossible not to be drawn into the narrative of the writer, herself. You're trying to understand, how this can be done, how write, without driving yourself mad, those around you, mad. And without sacrificing the art. How to live as an artist. You're driving yourself wild with all the endings - involving rocks in pockets and gas ovens. (In every creative writing, poetry, class I took someone would write the poem about these endings). After my undergrad, I was also reading about the lives of women artists. Artemisia Gentileschi, Rosa Bonheur. On and on. I mean, you're looking for women who find a way to create, usually against all odds. I read the diaries of Woolf, Plath, Alice James, Paula Modersohn-Becker, P.K. Page, and I read collections of letters - Margaret Laurence and Adele Wiseman. I was also constantly on the look-out for women who wrote and managed to have a child too. Women who didn't completely disappear after having one. I read the essay, "One Child of One's Own" by Alice Walker. (Her daughter would later respond....but that was later). I mentally noted other women who had had children and also a literary career. My go to was always, if Margaret Atwood can do it, so can I. But it's a balancing act, that's going to be different for everyone, the writing life - whether you have a child or not. There are parts where you are going to be in a sort of hell.

What we read, is what makes us as writers. Allows us to see possibilities, small openings. Reading the Zambreno book reminded me of all those writers, those books, that become part of your skin, part of the howl you howl when you've lost your nerve.

I'm glancing over my shelves, and trying to pick out more of those women I read, who have kept me sane. Annie Dillard, Susan Griffin, May Sarton, Marilynne Robinson, Phyllis Webb, Elizabeth Smart, Hannah Green, Jane Hirschfield. I'm just warming up now. There are so many more. How important it is to keep howling out these names, singing them.


  1. Shawna, I sing YOUR name.

  2. Comparatively, I'm a literary pauper, so I thank you for this particular howl.


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