I’m not here this week, which is why you can’t see me right now.
But that doesn’t mean the conversation won’t go on. We’ve been talking this month about How You First Got into Writing and How Many Degrees of Separation You Are from Your Literary Idols.
And today I’m going to ask you to bare your soul:
What does writing mean to you?
I do so much of this work—and have been doing it for so very long—sometimes I lose track of what it means to me in the greater scheme of things. I’ll be drawing cartoons with my son, or reading something wonderful about gardening, or fainting over the glasswork of Dale Chihuly, and I’ll think, Fabulous! Now I know what I want to do with my life!
I forget, for a moment, that I’m into the second half of my personal century and that means—guess what?—I already decided what I want to do with my life.
And I talk about it all. . .the. . .time.
So I have to take a little while to sit down, be quiet, and remember why. What is it about writing? What is it, specifically, about storytelling? Why do I do what I do?
It’s the truth inside it. The truth about being alive.
Storytelling (as we’ve been discussing on the lab this week) is the perfect marriage of the right and left hemispheres of the brain. At this point in the history of literature, we’ve honed this profound art to a craft of exquisite proportions. We know so much, now, about creating effects through the written word. We’ve developed so many techniques for inspiring visceral responses in readers. A great many of those techniques we can use with mathematical precision, the tangible formula of human experience.
We are such simple creatures, really. Just the two parts: the body, which responds to exquisite craft, and the soul, which responds to art.
I love that storytelling makes sense of life by making a pattern of the two halves. In a world where every aspect of reality creates the inherent need for its opposite, only in philosophy and art can we ever hope to transcend such impossible paradox.
And in storytelling, we get to transcend it with words.
I love paradox. I love words. But most of all, I love using words to transcend paradox, to cast myself out of the limits of reality into a greater truth beyond.
That’s why I’m here.
What does writing mean to you?
Last week we told the stories of how we got into writing. They were great fun—all those busy four-year-olds cooking up stories, all those mad teens clacking away on typewriters under the raised eyebrows of the taken-aback, even some of us who came to this craft recently and are only now discovering the fascination of it. What maniacs we all are, utterly devoted to this simple world of words!
So this week let’s tell more stories, this time about those marvelous, convoluted degrees of separation that separate us all from each other—and from the authors we love.
How many degrees of separation are you from your literary idols?
One of the writers I love best is the extraordinary early-twentieth-century Danish story writer, Isak Dinesen. Famous in our time as the author of Out of Africa—starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford—which is the memoir of her life on her coffee plantation in Kenya, Dinesen was known throughout Europe for decades before that 1985 movie as the author of some of the most wonderful gothic, mystical literature ever, through her collections of short stories, Seven Gothic Tales, Winter’s Tales, and Last Tales. She also wrote a companion book to Out of Africa, even more beautifully-rendered stories of Africa, Shadows on the Grass, as well as many wonderful essays and a ‘potboiler’ mystery, The Angelic Avengers, under the pseudonym Pierre Andrezel. She was interviewed as Baroness Karen Blixen, her real name, by The Paris Review in 1956, only a few years before she died.
Now, one of the people Dinesen knew in Kenya was a young American woman, Beryl Markham, who’d been raised there by her father. Markham was a teen when Dinesen was an adult (she makes a brief appearance in Out of Africa under the name Felicity), and she was always deadly jealous of Dinesen, particularly of her love affair with the coveted Denys Finch-Hatton. Markham has claimed Finch-Hatton was in the process of leaving Dinesen for her when he died and, in fact, that Finch-Hatton invited her to join him on his fateful plane ride. Markham was studying at the time to become a bush pilot, delivering mail and supplies around rural Kenya in the early days of the airplane, and eventually became the first woman to cross the Atlantic in a plane from east to west. Markham wrote a gorgeous memoir chronicling that trip, West with the Night, in the style of one of her lovers, the quintessential Antoine de Saint Exupéry.
However, when Markham was old, her third husband, LA scriptwriter Raoul Schumacher, came out with the claim that, in fact, he had written West with the Night. This claim got quite a bit of coverage in works written about Markham in the 1980s (when West with the Night was rediscovered and republished), especially by the biographer Errol Trzebinski.
In fact, the LA writer Scott O’Dell, author of the Newbery award-winning Island of the Blue Dolphins and friend to both Markham and Schumacher, made quite an issue out of Schumacher’s assertion, trying very hard to have it verified in order to force Markham to give up her claim to authorship. He failed—to this day, nobody knows for certain who wrote West with the Night, although most agree somebody edited it into its final polished form.
As it happens, O’Dell and his wife, the author Elizabeth Hall, were close friends of my aunt and uncle, who helped raise me. From the time I was quite young, I had autographed copies of Hall’s children’s books on my shelf, along with Island of the Blue Dolphins (which I’m afraid I found intensely dry and unreadable until I was an adult). My aunt and uncle even took in Hall’s daughter when her marriage ended in the 1970s and helped raise her baby daughter in their home for her first year of life. Hall’s granddaughter is still a close member of our family—she and I spoke together at my uncle’s funeral several years ago.
And all that makes me four degrees of separation from one of my greatest literary idols of all time, the brilliant Isak Dinesen.
So who are your literary idols? What stories can you tell? And how many degrees of separate stand between the two of you?
NEXT WEEK: What Does Writing Mean to You?
It’s the Fourth of July this week, which is America’s version of a Summer Solstice extravaganza. We set off fireworks, eat too much barbeque, take a long weekend to look around at our loved ones, recognize their faces, and remember why we’re here.
So let’s talk about four ways writing—because we are all writers here—reminds us we’re alive:
It grounds us in the experience of living
Storytelling is just scenes—thrilling, fascinating, important scenes in concrete, realistic detail. Where do we get the detailed material for these scenes? From being alive.
And every time we read or write such a scene, we get to live in multiple layers. Our lives are richer, more full of material. . .more vividly about living.
It makes sense out of the life trajectory we’re traveling
The meaning of stories is derived from the juxtaposition and order of the scenes. And that juxtaposition and order creates a trajectory—carrying the characters through their experiences toward their Climax, a trajectory that makes sense.
Every time we read or write such a series of scenes we get to live through a meaningful trajectory. And meaning matters to us. We are creatures who long for it all to make sense.
It keeps us awake to the relationships that give our lives meaning
Of course, scenes have little to offer us without characters living them. And those characters have relationships: with each other, with their environments, with themselves. With us.
Life alone in a single skull is lonely. We need each other to make the struggle of this mortal coil worthwhile. Even hermits need to know other people are out there. We read for the sake of the human connection between characters, between characters and themselves, between reader and characters, between reader and author.
Particularly those of us who write.
It transcends our familiar life through its sheer familiarity
And that is the mystical in this earthly existence. Because when you take real detail, trajectory, and human connection and put them all together. . .you get epiphany.
I mean, here we all are out here on this planet, doing what we have to do to survive—waking up every day, cooking, eating, working for shelter, working for protection from the elements, working to raise our families and care for our elderly and each other.
At the same time, we’re searching for the clues in that existence that show us why it matters. What are we doing here? How did we get here? Why do we work so hard and suffer so much to stay here? (Years ago, I asked a friend this, and she answered without a second’s hesitation, “To rent videos.”)
Storytellers give us that. Writers, especially, give us that. Because writing is an extremely detailed and complex and layered form of storytelling. And all those details and complexities and layers come. . .straight out of real life.
Illuminating what life really is.
You are here as a writer to add, to life in general, your extremely specific experience of living.
So we can all live as fully as humanly possible.
MILLLICENT G. DILLON, the world's expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles, has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb.
BHAICHAND PATEL, retired after an illustrious career with the United Nations, is now a journalist based out of New Dehli and Bombay, an expert on Bollywood, and author of three non-fiction books published by Penguin. I edited Patel’s debut novel, Mothers, Lovers, and Other Strangers, published by PanMacmillan.
LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth.
SCOTT WARRENDER is a professional musician and Annie Award-nominated lyricist specializing in musical theater. I work with Warrender regularly on his short stories and debut novel, Putaway.
STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited Wakefield's second novel, Memory of Water, and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water.
ANIA VESENNY is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny's debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights.
TERISA GREEN is widely considered the foremost American authority on tattooing through her tattoo books published by Simon & Schuster, which have sold over 45,000 copies. Under the name M. TERRY GREEN, she writes her techno-shaman sci-fi/fantasy series. I am working with Green to develop a new speculative fiction series.
CHRIS RYAN drew acclaim from the New Yorker for the hook to his novel Heliophobia. He is the author of poetry collection The Bible of Animal Feet from Farfalla Press. I edited Ryan’s debut novel The Ishmael Blade and worked with him to develop Heliophobia and his work-in-progress Pogue.
JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with Dunn to develop and edit her memoir of reconciling liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland.
In addition, I work with dozens of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this literary art and craft.