Put Virginia Woolf On It!

Speaking of AWP and Portland...I know you remember Portlandia’s “put a bird on it” episode. Every year there seems to be a new version of putting birds on things. There was the owl year. And hedgehogs.

Last year it was llamas and sloths, the latter slowly…in slothlike fashion...leading us out of the what-fresh-hell of 2018 and into 2019.

Sloth everything, including the microwavable hot pad my daughter gave to me after my concussion, and dog toys…

…which I guess sloths like too, apparently.

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Now Virginia Woolf and To the Lighthouse seem to be the bird-on-it of the moment…

Maybe that’s wishful thinking on my part. It doesn’t take long to figure out that Virginia Woolf is one of my muses (the other being Lyra, who looks a bit like Virginia, don’t you think?)

As many of you know, Woolf’s theory of “moments of being”—those breathtaking experiences of complete awareness, the sense of being fully present and connected at once to yourself, the moment you’re living, and the world—and their relationship to the making of art is a foundational principle in my work with writers, as well as my own writing.

If I were in charge every contemporary woman writer would be required to read A Room of One’s Own, still head-shakingly relevant in its analysis of literary gender politics. (Wow, in the 1920s men rarely chose to read books by women! That’s so fascinatingly quaint, since a hundred years later…men rarely choose to read books written by women.)

Reading To the Lighthouse is a given not just for its stylistic audacity and beauty, its usefulness to other writers as a kind of working handbook of technical craft, but also as a prime example of artistic success propelled by the engine of the author’s emotion, of Woolf’s deep and wounded heart.

Her Writer’s Diary is invaluable for other writers, giving us a glimpse of Woolf’s mind at work as she faces down the possibilities and decisions, influences and anxieties attendant on her own writing process. So relevant still is A Writer’s Diary that The New Yorker recently republished W. H. Auden’s acute 1954 essay on the book’s release. “In her diary,” goes the NYer’s subhead, “Virginia Woolf left behind the most truthful record of what a writer’s life is actually like.”

There are a bunch of current VW articles floating around right now, too, perhaps in part because of the popularity of the facebook group What Would Virginia Woolf Do? and its subsequent spinoff website The Woolfer, both inspired by Nina Lorez Collins’ book on feminism and aging with grace, humor, and a sisterhood.

Into this Woolf zeitgeist arrives Katharine Smyth with her first book, the memoir All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf. Smyth’s antidote to the death of her favorite person, her father, is to reread To the Lighthouse, her favorite book—which she first read in her dad’s company, sitting in a wintry English parlor as her father listened to Handel.

“Perhaps there is one book for every life,” Smyth writes, a book that so synthesizes our own experiences and questions and desires that it seems to have anticipated us, knowing what we need even when we don’t know ourselves.

Katharine Smyth graciously agreed to tell us about the evolution of All the Lives We Ever Lived for our monthly series of Q&As with women writers, one of the exclusive features of our year-long mentorship and book cultivation program, Bookgardan. Before and during the interview Katharine and I had talked about how painful writing a memoir can be, and how strange it is that you are rarely warned about that possibility. I was thus surprised and moved by Katharine’s response to my question about the pain she must have felt in writing about her father after his death:

A lot of people said, it must be so hard to write about your father, it must be so painful. But the truth is, I loved it. And I felt like it was really a way, almost every day, a way to go back to him and see him, it’s almost like . . . you can’t succeed in resurrecting someone, but it’s almost like having a standing appointment for grief, to be writing about them. That’s going to be the hardest part going forward, and it’s already been difficult. I’m not even thinking about my dad much anymore. I notice I dream about him a lot less than I used to, for instance. It was really nice to have a reason that I had to think of him every day, that I had to engage with his character every day. “

What strikes me doubly about Katharine Smyth’s emotional response to writing about her dad and his death in her memoir are the parallels and resonances to Woolf’s experience of her mother before and after writing To the Lighthouse. From the time of her mother’s death, Woolf wrote in her Writer’s Diary, she was obsessed with her mother, hearing her voice in her head almost daily for thirty years. By contrast, Woolf realized that she could hardly remember a single time spent alone in her mother’s company, so completely consumed was Julia Stephen in her role as the all-helpful Victorian “Angel in the House.” Woolf, like Smyth, must have found great satisfaction in the time she spent writing about her fictionalized mother, Mrs. Ramsay, about whom Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell, would say in a letter,

“ . . . You have given a portrait of mother which is more like her to me than anything I could ever have conceived of as possible. It is almost painful to have her so raised from the dead. You have made one feel the extraordinary beauty of her character, which must be the most difficult thing in the world to do. It was like meeting her again with oneself grown up & on equal terms & it seems to me the most astonishing feat of creation to have been able to see her in such a way . . .”

Get another taste of Katharine Smyth’s memoir and Woolf’s impact on her in this piece at LitHub, “How Virginia Woolf Taught Me to Mourn,” and also in “Where Virginia Woolf Listened to the Waves” at The Paris Review.

And if your curiosity has been whetted for our year-long mentorship & book cultivation program, you can find more information here at Bookgardan.

Mendocino Frog Serenade

Pond to the right, Pacific straight ahead…

Pond to the right, Pacific straight ahead…

If you made it to AWP and you’re still recovering, or if you didn’t make it to AWP and you also didn’t get a reiki session with Julie Haupert, I’ve got just the thing for you: a lovely frog serenade.

It was one of the high points of many high points from the recent Birds & Muses writing-intensive retreat on the Mendocino coast, in the tiny town of Elk, where each night we were serenaded by the invisible frogs at the pond we could see from our bedrooms (we could also see the majestic, roiling Pacific from our bedrooms, as we were retreating the same week as a historic rainstorm and hundred-year flood hit the Pacific coast, but that’s a story for another day…). I think every one of the nine of us went out to the pond at one time or another, trying to catch a glimpse of the secretive hiding frogs, but we never did see them. Only heard them, without fail, every evening. Thanks to writer Isabel Choi for the sound track! 

Messages from the Universe


No, it’s just Portland.

No, it’s just Portland.

I was so ready for AWP in Portland this year: Voodoo Doughnuts! Powell’s Books! Weird-keeping! Even more donuts! But Portland’s quirky appeal was only half of it. I’d been ready since last year’s AWP, when Melissa Wyse of Idlewild Artists Retreat and I cooked up a panel we were so excited to present: “Women Leaders & Entrepreneurs in the Writing Community: Second (Creative) Shifts.” We wanted to open up a conversation about the ways women writers are innovating to sustain their own writing while building and serving their literary communities, and living to tell their tales. We’d assembled a smart, accomplished panel and alerted tons of audacious literary women who could have easily been panelists as well, and asked everyone to invite the people they knew. Weeks before the conference began we felt the momentum of women’s ingenuity and collaborative generosity already carrying us forward like a powerful wave ready to break over the bow of the Oregon Convention Center.

So, you know AWP. The largest annual gathering of writers in the U.S., it’s either a glorious literary smorgasbord or your worst nightmare, depending on who you share an escalator with. Gazing across a crowded auditorium at all the rapt faces locked on a literary giant reading what happens to be your favorite poem, AWP can make you feel like you’ve found your people. Standing in a sloppy bar with your shoes sticking to the gummy floor as the acquaintance you’re chatting with looks through you, watching the door as he mumbles how brilliant your ex-husband’s last book was (the one you bankrolled though you’d already separated, and then he didn’t pay you back or even thank you in the acknowledgments) — in those moments, AWP can make you feel like you’ve just stepped out of your crumpled spaceship onto an airless, empty planet.

Stick with the panels and the Bookfair, I say, and you can’t help but feel that you’re in the right place. Ego oneupsmanship is not my favorite sport, so I skip the bars and parties and the hoo-hah to attend back-to-back panel discussions with topics like “Alice Munro: We Have No Idea, Either” and “Teaching Novels Inspired by Names Found Scratched Into the Backs of Barnwood Panels,” then finish off with a rushed acquisitive sweep through the Bookfair in the waning hours of Day 3, when everyone is giving stuff away to avoid having to ship it back.

Now that Birds & Muses shares an annual Bookfair table with Craigardan, our partner artists’ organization in the Adirondacks, being ready for AWP means hanging out at the Bookfair most of the time, with the occasional foray to a panel when one of the Birds & Muses or Craigardan writers wants to cover for me at the table (meaning eat candy and plan their next move on the convention floor). I packed a big suitcase full of appealing swag and signage and a little suitcase full of comfortable clothes, homeopathic remedies, the requisite candy, and manuscripts to read during slow periods behind the bookfair display.

And then I tried to get there. And failed. First because of the weather in the Adirondacks. At the end of March it may be spring everywhere else, but it’s the dead of winter where I live. So when I arrived at the ferry across Lake Champlain that would carry me to Vermont and the nearest airport in Burlington, I found that overnight the lake had frozen entirely, closing up the narrow crunchy channel where the ferry had been getting through right up to the day before. I went home and called the airline to rebook my flights while still sitting in my car in front of my house. The next flight I could get was two days later — still okay! I’d get there at lunchtime on opening day of the conference! — but because of the frozen lake, I’d have to drive the long way around the lake to Burlington. For a 6am flight, that meant leaving my house at 2:30am. Still, I was game.

At 3am on the appointed day, just as I crossed the bridge to Vermont, I heard a horrible metallic noise coming from the back of my car, like my car was a banana seat bicycle with a piece of scrap metal stuck between the wheel spokes. In the dark at that hour it was impossible to tell where the noise was coming from. Even the state trooper who passed by and turned back around to help me couldn’t figure it out, but we both thought it was better to head home than to keep going.

So no AWP for me. No reunions with friends and colleagues, no news of the literary universe, no stamp on my passport as a writer-citizen.

Here’s the silver lining. If you’ve ever had a trip or other event cancelled at the last minute like this, you’ll appreciate how it feels: as if you have suddenly been given bonus days. Out of nowhere the gift of time drops into your lap; you can catch up on things, or start things, maybe even do the nothing that you otherwise didn’t have time for. In my case, I had more than plenty of work to catch up on (thanks, concussion!). But I did one other thing that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time: I called Julie Haupert, a writer I met while teaching at the Vortext conference at Hedgebrook. For twenty-three years Julie has had a story working its way out of herself, a story grounded in the memory of working with a severely disabled child incapable of what we think of as the expected means of communication. Whether that experience has anything to do with what happened next might seem unlikely to some, but it doesn’t seem farfetched to me.

Julie is a longtime practitioner of reiki, and had offered to conduct a remote session with me. I loved the idea — receive Julie’s healing energy from afar as she connected to my emotional frequency from 3000 miles away? That had been sounding like heaven from the minute she offered, but I didn’t have time for anything like that! Especially after having a serious concussion in December that’s set me back by months if not years, in every aspect of my life…

Oh…wait a minute. I couldn’t go to AWP. A sudden, five-day deposit in my savings account of life.

So Julie and I got on the phone, me on the east coast and Julie on the west coast, and somehow, honestly knowing very little about me or my private life, she was able to pick up on some radiating energy afloat in the universe that showed her palm trees planted somewhere that palm trees wouldn’t be planted, big red stop signs, a box of fudge, and outside of a gate, a sunny yard, trees in flower, birds flying and calling, a wicker chair…

“I think the palm trees are you,” she said. “Could that be? Are you living somewhere you wouldn’t be planted?”

There are people who will tell you that you can read anything you want into anything you are told. But I would say you should pay attention to what comes to you. Maybe your concussion was the big red stop sign you needed to heed, the box of fudge your reminder that you need to pay attention to the nitpicky directions you’ve been given, but if you follow them you’ll be rewarded. Maybe if you walk through the gate you’ll find the paradise you’ve been needing.

AWP can be a substitute for actually being a writer: it’s a way to prove your membership, to affirm your commitment, to remind yourself that yes, I do belong here even if you haven’t, ahem, been doing as much writing as you’d like to be doing. And that’s okay. We do what we have to do. And other times, AWP can lead you to discover the kinds of things that Julie’s reiki session with me revealed (case in point: the unforgettable panel “Magic and the Intellect” at AWP 2014 in Seattle, with Lucy Corin, Kate Bernheimer, Anna Joy Springer and Rikki Ducornet. That was the answer to why do we do this). But mostly, let’s face it, AWP is an anti-revelation. Every once in a while, though, not being where you are supposed to be is exactly where you are supposed to be. (Thank you Julie for being there with me! ox)

Coming up in a future Musings post: A report from the “Second (Creative) Shifts” panel at AWP 2019. Are you a woman writer who is also a literary entrepreneur or leader invested in your community? Or do you know of one? If so, let me know! As a follow up to our AWP panel, Melissa and I are brainstorming the next step in organizing the energy and experience of this group…Please email me at kate@birdsandmuses.com to find out more.

“I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere”—why I specialize in literary fiction & creative nonfiction, and what exactly I mean by those terms.

Though Lyra believes that cameras steal her soul, she agreed to pose in honor of Denis Johnson. 

Though Lyra believes that cameras steal her soul, she agreed to pose in honor of Denis Johnson. 

I make a point of stating up front that I work almost exclusively with writers of literary (“serious”) fiction and creative (or “literary”) nonfiction, as well as hybrid forms of both. That’s not to belittle any of the subgenres of contemporary fiction or the myriad kinds of nonfiction—it’s just to be clear about my area of expertise and the boundaries of my professional skill. I’m not sure how, exactly, I stumbled into doing something I didn’t even know was a “thing” until I’d been doing it for years, but I did. It started with the books I gravitated toward as a kid and ended up becoming my frequency in the world, like the whistle only dogs can hear. 

I think my relationship with literary fiction began, unwittingly at the time, with my first reading of a “grown-up” novel: the book was The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and I was twelve years old. Rawlings’ novel had won the 1939 Pulitzer Prize, although like not a few people over the years I’d assumed The Yearling to be a children’s chapter book, perhaps because the protagonist was a young boy and the major plotline focused on a pet fawn. But no, The Yearling is not a children’s book. It is a profoundly nuanced, sophisticated elegy to a lost time, the sometimes crippling effect of family and love, and the ineluctable power of the natural world. At twelve I strained to understand all the novel was telling me, though I could feel it even if I couldn’t articulate it yet. Now I see the resonant patterning in the little wooden tombstones in the Baxter family’s yard—all the babies who died before the birth of the boy Jody, the only child of his parents to live—echoed in the description of all the new corn shoots bitten off close to the ground after Jody’s pet fawn gets loose and eats them, leaving the family without a crop to keep them fed; and echoed again in the shocking emptiness I felt when Jody is forced to shoot his beloved fawn. I absolutely loved The Yearling to the point of heartbreak, and coincidentally it taught me that women, too, wrote books. A door creaked open for me, if only I could figure out how to get to the threshold and walk through. 

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    Many years later, as an editor at Salon, I was interviewing Peter Matthiessen—the esteemed naturalist, novelist, and co-founder of The Paris Review—about his favorite books in childhood. Besides the stories of Rudyard Kipling, Matthiessen told me, he particularly liked The Yearling. Earlier in our conversation he’d told me he was at work on a book about cranes; now I asked if he recalled the scene of the mating dance of the whooping cranes in The Yearling. “No, I don’t,” he said, “do you remember the chapter?” I called him back the next day to read aloud over the phone the scene of Jody and his father crouched in the high saw-grass of the Florida Everglades, watching the whooping cranes bow and sway: 

The sun was sinking into the saw-grass. The marsh was golden. The whooping cranes were washed with gold. . . . Darkness came to the lily pads, and the water blackened. The cranes were whiter than any clouds, or any white bloom of oleander or of lily. Without warning, they took flight. Whether the hour-long dance was, simply, done, or whether the long nose of an alligator had lifted above the water to alarm them, Jody could not tell, but they were gone. They made a great circle against the sunset, whooping their strange rusty cry that sounded only in their flight. Then they flew in a long line into the west, and vanished. (The Yearling, p.89)  

    The Yearling is a great illustration of the major qualities of literary (or “serious”) fiction: unlike what we think of as popular or commercial or genre fiction, literary fiction isn’t driven by plot, but by character and language and suggestion, by resonance and patterning. Its form is far from formulaic, and the writing style may be more unusual, even technically adventurous. By extension, creative nonfiction (or literary nonfiction) utilizes many of the techniques and qualities of literary fiction, including an emphasis on language and storytelling and structural form, rather than merely an objective relaying of fact.

     This kind of literature is no passive, force-fed entertainment. It requires a more active engagement of the reader, more of the reader’s intellect and intuition. In literary fiction and nonfiction, readers make connections for themselves, assembling their own ideas about characters and actions, staying alert to nuanced emotions and the complexities of human behavior and the subtext forming under what’s written on the page. Literary fiction invites the reader to take part in the creation of the story. The short essay “Stories” by the late novelist and art critic John Berger (excerpted below) sheds light on how the “discontinuities” in stories allow us, as readers, to partner with the author and characters to enact a story and also how that partnership among reader, author and characters gains its power, ultimately, from our earliest experiences of reading

    As much as I remember my mind’s creation of tender-hearted Jody running with his exuberant fawn, of the enormous bearded Forrester brothers sobbing at the funeral of their littlest, crippled brother, Fodderwing; of flags of moss hanging from the live-oaks and Ma Baxter’s grief-hardened anger, I remember, too, the great welling of feeling this book gave me as I read, and that, ever since, I have yearned after as a reader, experiencing them again in To the Lighthouse and The English Patient and The Optimist’s Daughter, in the short stories of Peter Orner and Gish Jen and Janet Frame, in the memoirs and essays of Jo Ann Beard and Teju Cole. To quote the late, terribly missed Denis Johnson, who has broken and redeemed my heart more times than I can count, I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.*         

    In the last few years, neuroscientific studies of reading and literature’s influence on our emotional and societal development have shed a bright light on what, exactly, we gain from reading and from stories. We know, for example, that the human brain does not differentiate between a story we read or watch on film and events we live through in our own lives—which goes a far way to explain why we have such powerful reactions to beloved characters and their experiences on the page. We also know that sensory details such as “cinnamon” and “leathery skin” stimulate our brains not just in the language-processing area but also, for example, in the neural scent or texture perceptors. What’s more, we now know that reading literary fiction increases our “theory of mind,” or our ability to imagine the experiences and feelings of others. To cut to the chase, reading literary fiction can lead to a higher degree of empathy. In other words, reading literary fiction can make you a better human being, and the world a better place. 

    Is that why I specialize in literary fiction and nonfiction? Well, no—it’s simply that the vast majority of my experience in the literary field and as a reader has been in serious literary fiction and nonfiction. These are the areas of my deepest familiarity and most granular expertise as a writer, reader, and editor. I can think of many examples of fine genre fiction, from science fiction (The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein) to fantasy fiction (His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman), from westerns (Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry) to hard-boiled detective novels (The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett), but my limited experience working with writers of genre fiction has been to help those writers create the most complex characters and layered narratives possible – because no matter the subgenre, nuance and complexity and rigorous language make fiction better. And if writing and reading complex and nuanced fiction can also make the world a better place, we need more of it. 

*Quoted from Denis’s spectacular short story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” published in his seminal collection Jesus’ Son. Thank you, Denis, for every word.


John Berger's "Stories" (excerpted)

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Excerpted from John Berger's short essay "Stories" in Another Way of Telling:

The dog came out of the forest is a simple statement. When that sentence is followed by The man left the door open, the possibility of a narrative has begun. If the tense of the second sentence is changed to The man had left the door open, the possibility becomes almost a promise. Every narrative proposes an agreement about the unstated but assumed connections existing between events. 

    One can lie on the ground and look up at the almost infinite number of stars in the night sky, but in order to tell stories about those stars they need to be seen as constellations, the invisible lines which can connect them need to be assumed. 

    No story is like a wheeled vehicle whose contact with the road is continuous. Stories walk, like animals or men. And their steps are not only between narrated events but between each sentence, sometimes each word. Every step is a stride over something not said. 

    The suspense story is a modern inventions (Poe, 1809–1849) and consequently today one may tend to overestimate the role of suspense, the waiting-for-the-end, in story-telling. The essential tension in a story lies elsewhere. Not so much in the mystery of its destination as in the mystery of the spaces between its steps toward that destination. 

    All stories are discontinuous and are based on a tacit agreement about what is not said, about what connects the discontinuities. The question then arises: Who makes this agreement with whom? One is tempted to reply: The teller and the listener. Yet neither teller nor listener is at the centre of the story: they are at its periphery. Those whom the story is about are at the centre. It is between their actions and attributes and reactions that the unstated connections are being made. 

    One can ask this same question in another way … [W]hen a story makes sense of its discontinuities, it acquires authority as a story. But where is this authority? In whom is it invested? In one sense, it is invested in nobody and it is nowhere. Rather, the story invests with authority its characters, its listener’s past experience and its teller’s words. And it is the authority of all these together that makes the action of the story—what happens in it—worthy of the action of its being told, and vice versa. 

    The discontinuities of the story and the tacit agreement underlying them fuse teller, listener and protagonists into an amalgam. An amalgam which I would call the story’s reflecting subject. The story narrates on behalf of this subject, appeals to it and speaks in its voice.

    If this sounds unnecessarily complicated, it is worth remembering for a moment the childhood experience of being told a story. Were not the excitement and assurance of that experience precisely the result of the mystery of such a fusion? You were listening. You were in the story. You were in the words of the story-teller. You were no longer your single self: you were, thanks to the story, everyone it concerned. 

    The essence of that childhood experience remains in the power and appeal of any story which has authority. A story is not simply an exercise in empathy. Nor is it merely a meeting-place for the protagonists, the listener and the teller. A story being told is a unique process which fuses these … categories into one. And ultimately what fuses them, within the process, are the discontinuities, the silent connections, agreed upon in common.