Margaret Atwood on Existing in Two Places

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from the Canadian poet and novelist, Margaret Atwood.

mg_5527Margaret Eleanor Atwood was born on November 18, 1939, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Because of her father’s work and research in forest entomology, Atwood spent much of her childhood in the backwoods of northern Quebec and traveling back and forth between Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie, and Toronto. She did not attend school full-time until she was eight years old.

Atwood began writing plays and poems at the age of six and realized she wanted to write professionally by the time she was 16.

In 1957, she began studying at Victoria College in the University of Toronto, where she published poems and articles in Acta Victoriana, the college literary journal. She graduated in 1961 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and a minor in philosophy and French.

She is the author of more than thirty-five volumes of poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and non-fiction and is perhaps best known for her novels, which include The Edible Woman, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Blind Assassin, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000.

She has also published fifteen books of poetry. Many of her poems have been inspired by myths and fairy tales, which have been interests of hers from an early age. She has also published four collections of stories and three collections of unclassifiable short prose works.

Atwood is also the inventor, and developer, of the LongPen and associated technologies that facilitate the remote robotic writing of documents.

She is a noted humanist, and, in 1987, she was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association.

“I exist in two places,
here and where you are.”

— Margaret Atwood

This week I’m thinking a lot about Atwood and her book The Handmaid’s Tale. Of course, because today her book becomes a show, and I’m pretty stoked about that since I recently read it, but I’ve also been thinking about time. I’ve been thinking about what it means to be the writer and the reader, and for time to pass between both. I’ve been wondering what it means for me to exist as I am now, and for me to exist again with you when you read these words. I wonder in what forms I will exist when I am read after I am long gone?

I know that I am a human and I know that all humans are mortal and still my own death seems impossible to me. How can there ever come a time when I will not breathe, or think, or write, or love, or look to the sky and feel small, and here, and so myself and so a part of everything that exists? How can there come a time when my heart stops and with it the thoughts in my head while the world goes on spinning and humans go one warring, inventing, and evolving, doing things I will never witness or be a part of?

This makes no sense, and yet it is a certainty, and it hurts me so every time I remember it.

I am afraid, I admit, not to be anymore. I want to face the fact, but I also want to keep it out of my mind. Why let the inevitable distract me and keep me frozen? Then again, the fear can be a motivating and focusing force until my end comes. If I want to live on after my death, I must remember that I am going to die and use what I have to limit my fading into the nothingness.

When I read the words of other writers they come into me, into my time and place, or some form of them does anyway, and I am happy to give them life again. I suppose I want a bit of that too. I want to know what it feels like to exist again and again and yet still be me, growing and changing here and now.

I want to live in every human and in every time after this one and words seem to be the only way to do that. It is a selfish thing to want, but I can’t help wanting it either. I am afraid of not being.

I am angry too. To be limited to this body, to this mind, and to this time feels so petty and unfair. One day there may be better ways to circumvent these pesky limitations, but for now, all I have are words. I have the imperfect ability to write down who I am and the improbable hope that in the future, minutes or eons from now, you will read them and remember me.

But who will it be that you remember? By the time this goes out I will be a little different, and the longer the distance between now and then the more the difference between the Lisa that wrote this and the Lisa that exists. So, I suppose no part of me will live on really, only bits of who I was. Only a snapshot in my history. Still, it’s all I have, and I am happy to give it to you.

Because even though I am not that Lisa anymore that does not mean she cannot be of some use. She can be a friend, a comfort, and warning, or a dream for you. She can walk with you when you feel alone, same as she walks within me. She can exist far longer than I. She can travel through space and time and be what I cannot.

And because the Lisa I am now is jealous of where that past me is able to go and where she is able to be, I will send this out and immediately sit sown to write again. I will send myself out to you over and over again, and one day, if all my works, everything from my little notes and journal entries, to the stories I’ve endeavored to tell here, and the books I may one day write, were to be put together it would be the closest a person could come to time travel. To real, complete, existence in another place and time.

I hope it happens for me one day, and that something like magic will allow me to feel what it is like to be here and there, now and then, and me, with you.

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***

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Biographical information via Wikipedia and Goodreads

See also: Margaret Atwood on Writing Poetry

Featured image via Unsplash

Michele Leavitt on Bravery and Words

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from the memoirist, Michele Leavitt.

8184355Michele Leavitt is a former trial attorney the author of the memoir Walk Away, and the 2013 winner of the inaugural Michael Macklin Poetry Prize, and 2010 winner of the William Allen Creative Nonfiction Prize from The Ohio State University. She’s a high school dropout, former trial attorney, adoptee, and hepatitis C survivor who has taught writing, literature, and critical thinking in New England, Japan, Florida, and Idaho.

Walk Away is an unflinching and inspiring story of how Leavitt lived through the violence of her adolescence, how that violence haunted her through her escape to college and law school, and how she ultimately came to rise out of it to a place of possibility.

Her book-length poetry collection, Back East, won the inaugural Michael Macklin First Book Prize and was published by Moon Pie Press in 2013. A memoir excerpt, “No Trespassing,” won The Ohio State University’s 2010 William Allen Award for creative nonfiction, was published in The Journal, and received a notable listing in 2011 Best American Essays. Other recent works of poetry and prose appear in venues including Guernica, The North American Review, and Catapult. A high school dropout,

A high school dropout, hepatitis C survivor, recovering English teacher and former trial attorney, she now lives in North Central Florida, where she works in a program dedicated to helping women over 50 achieve economic stability.

Her poems and prose are published in a wide variety of print and online journals, including Guernica, Medium, The North American Review, So to SpeakHEArt: Human Equity Through ArtThe Humanist, The Journal, Mezzo Cammin, and Passager

I highly recommend you check out her blog and her Medium page for personal stories on life, and love, and pain, and writing.

“Telling my story is possible not because of bravery, but because I have the words to tell that story now.”

— Michele Leavitt, Memoir, Bravery, & Facebook

I have been silenced, by others and myself. I have felt the fear of speaking up and speaking out. I have shut myself up tight not wanting to say things that couldn’t be unsaid, not wanting to tell my story or reveal my pain. I still feel this way now but words are coming to me easier every day and the more they come, the faster they come, and the more insistent my silenced-self gets.

But it never feels like bravery.

I had no words for my pain, my gender, my love, my wants and needs, my dreams. I couldn’t describe my anxiety, my panic, my hope, and my rage. I spent many years at a loss for words for who I was and where I had come from, and I learned a lot about silence in that time.

I’ve learned that silence is not your friend. It cannot protect you, and it will not save you. I’ve learned that silence is a liar. My silence made me believe I didn’t matter, that I was hopeless and alone. I learned that silence leads to loneliness, and loneliness is some of the worst hurt we can inflict.

I have written some personal things and burned with embarrassment and shame wishing I could gather my words back up and stuff them back inside. I’ve falsely believed that my silence was a place of comfort and I have falsely been called brave for the clumsy, and ugly, and sometimes quite selfish and cowardly ways I have shouted myself to the world.

I am not brave. I am weak, and afraid, and tired, and unsure all the time. I am not brave, I am only at my wit’s end. Hiding hasn’t helped. Keeping it all in hasn’t helped. Ignoring it hasn’t helped, and wishing it away hasn’t either. Below the surface the pressure builds. The guilt, the depression, the anxiety becomes too much and I have found the writing is the only relief. So, I tell my story little by little, and for no reason but because I have to, and people have thought I am brave. I am not brave.

But I am trying to be brave now.

There are things I am not ready to say, but that must be said soon. Maybe at first, it was only for me, now, then it was for me, then, but it is becoming increasing for us all, throughout time. I really do want to have some purpose. I want to be of some help to the world, and these words are all I have.

But no matter how hard it is, and no matter how afraid I feel, and how I fight through it, I still don’t feel brave. I feel compelled and through that compulsion comes practice and with practice comes clarity and skill, and maybe that makes it seem that the words come easily or that I, and all writers who write hard things, are brave when we really have very little choice in the matter.

I am grateful for the incessant need to write. I would never write if it weren’t for it. If I had a choice to be brave or not, I most certainly would not. To be so vulnerable and weak is my worst fear but something bigger than fear works in my mind. I have no name for it though, but it doesn’t feel very much like bravery. In fact, it may only be another kind of fear, a bigger and badder fear, death.

To go to my death having lived with such secrets, to live like a ghost before I become one, is the worst kind of waste, shame, and sin. I only have one life, and I am afraid of not living it more than I am afraid of anything else.

So, I tell my story and to do it right I learn the words and learn the way. The words are coming now, sometimes faster than I can write them, and sometimes at an agonizingly slow, drip, drip, drip but they are coming.

I am still learning to speak, and I have so much more to say, but there are new words now and new ways to use them. I am grateful to those who bring the words to me, writers who have come before, some longer than others, filling my head with all the ways a thing can be said.

I am grateful to those who have taught me the power of words. Words are what humans have to wield against one another, ourselves, and the passing of time. Words are all we have to get what is in us to the outside. Words are the things that change reality. That is why so many are afraid and so many seek to silence. Words are all we have that can survive time. Words can be a salve for the past and a preventative for the future. They shape our minds and our world. They are the closest to magic we have.

If I ever give anything to this world at all, I hope to give you all a few words to shout, to whisper, to share, and to stand up and stand on. If I ever give you anything I hope it is the knowledge that you need never be silent or afraid of words. Words set you free, in the end, after the pain and the work. I hope I can give the lesson to myself one day too.

In the meanwhile, search through your silence. Find the person who made you afraid, find the reason you cannot speak, start there to find the way to freedom.

At first, the words will not be perfect. They will shake from your grasp and fall to the world in ways you don’t mean, but practice makes perfect. Repeat, refine, and restate as often as you need, until you get it right. Until someone understands.

Throughout history, words have been made used, stolen, eradicated, given new life, and gave life in return. Go out and make some words of your own of your own. Find the power to define yourself, your world, and your experience. Don’t worry about brave or cowardly, only worry about what must be done for you to feel alive and real. Bravery comes later, I hope.

***

Check out my weekly-ish newsletter for interesting reads + my own existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering, or buy me a cup of coffee perhaps? :)

Biographical information via Leavitt’s blog and Goodreads

Featured image via Unsplash

Amy Krouse Rosenthal on Trying to Matter

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from the beloved and prolific author Amy Krouse Rosenthal.

1351773Amy Krouse Rosenthal, born April 29, 1965, in Chicago, was an American writer of both adult and children’s books, a short filmmaker, and radio show host.

Rosenthal had several books on the New York Times bestseller list, but she is probably best known for her memoir Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, her children’s picture books, including the Little Pea, and the film project The Beckoning of Lovely.

She published more than 30 children’s books between 2005 and her death in 2017. She is the only author to have three children’s books make the Best Children’s Books for Family Literacy list in the same year. She was also a contributor to Chicago’s NPR affiliate WBEZ, and to the TED conference.

Rosenthal made short films using her iPhone or Flip camera. Some invite further interaction from viewers, some are social experiments, and some build upon each other to become something else entirely. Her films include 17 Things I Made, Today is a Gift, ATM: Always Trust Magic, The Kindness Thought Bubble, The Money Tree, and The Beckoning of Lovely.

Chicago Magazine described The Beckoning of Lovely as:

Rosenthal’s masterpiece, unfolding over the past two years, began with a YouTube video called 17 Things I Made. In it, she invited viewers to meet her on August 8, 2008 (8/8/08), at 8:08 p.m. in Millennium Park to make an 18th thing together. That thing was a party. She expected a group of maybe 30, but roughly 400 curious people showed up, surprised to find themselves singing, dancing, blowing bubbles, and giving flowers to strangers. One couple met and fell in love. “I wish there was a word less obvious than ‘magical’ to describe that night,” Rosenthal says. “It was meaningful to everyone in some way.”

On March 3, 2017, at the age of 51, she announced that she was terminally ill with ovarian cancer by way of a New York Times Modern Love essay, You May Want to Marry my Husband, written in the form of a dating profile to help her husband date again once she dies.The article was picked up by several news sources and quickly went viral online.

Rosenthal died ten days later, on March 13, 2017.

“Just look at us, all of us, quietly doing our thing and trying to matter. The earnestness is inspiring and heartbreaking at the same time.”

― Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Textbook

I am ashamed to say I only just discovered Rosenthal through her final essay and through another favorite author, Austin Kleon, who, like everyone else who read the piece, was deeply moved and saddened by the news of her cancer. I wish I had discovered her sooner. She was clearly a lovely and loving person and a great inspiration to all who knew her or followed her work.

I am working my way through her videos, slowly but surely, and have added her books to my ever-growing TBR.

Her essay was something else, something I can’t quite describe, something all at once disturbing, heart-wrenching, and so, so, beautiful. I tried to imagine myself in either of their shoes, Amy’s or her husband’s, and I concluded that under the circumstances it was the greatest gift a writer could give to their partner in their final moments. I can’t stop thinking about it, and my beautiful girlfriend, and what I would write to and about her at the end of my life.

I am not exaggerating when I tell you that this essay has changed me.

Rosenthal, I think, accomplished what most writer’s set out to do. To reach the hearts and minds of people and in doing so live on forever in what she teaches and inspires in others. She left a body of work behind that, in just the short time I have been consuming it, has brought me to tears and pushed me to rethink why I do what I do, how I do it, and how much of it I do.

Her work, her earnestness and attempts to matter, are inspiring and heartbreaking, and I see now that this all any of us are ever trying to do.

We want to leave a mark and while we know the odds are against us and the competition is steep we go on plugging away in home offices, crowded cafés, and in all the crevices of life, as Rosenthal once said, and it is beautiful.

I wish I could see all of you doing your thing. I wish you could see me too, sitting here at the kitchen table typing slowly, deliberately, every word here hoping that when you read it, you will be moved to change and work the way that Rosenthal inspired me to change and work.

And when I am finished, I’ll open another blank draft, and write again, and again, and again, to try and reach you.

I do it for the same heartbreaking reason I believe Rosenthal did, because time is short and what else can you do? What else is there really to do except bend all your energy to becoming a part of the great wave of humanity. What other reason do we do anything but to try to be a part of a future we will never see?

And how else can you do it but to get up every day and just do it. So far, from what I have seen, this has been Rosenthal’s message: Create, create, create with every free moment of your life create something! Don’t work so hard trying to achieve fame and fortune, work hard making the world a better place and the rest will follow.

I like that message. I like the idea that I can just be me and my tribe will come along to support me in time. Stop chasing the world, just create with an eye for what is good and right and one day you will look up and what you have put out will have come back to you after all. That is how I want it to happen for me.

As for Rosenthal, I will end by saying that to inspire and be loved long after you take your last breath, that is the closest to heaven I imagine a person can get. That is where all the great writers go and I hope one day you and I can be among them too.

***

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Biographical information via Wikipedia, Goodreads, and WhoisAmy.com

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Why Do I Write?

The simple truth is,
I just like the sound of bone on brick and
the feel of brain matter against barriers satisfies me.

***

Check out my weekly-ish newsletter for important weekly reads + existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering (:

Written in response to Ink in Third’s Three Line Thursday Prompt: Blocked

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Willa Cather on Telling The Truth

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from the American writer Willa Cather.

Willa Sibert Cather, born December 7, 1873, in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, achieved recognition for her novels of frontier life on the Great Plains, including O Pioneers! , The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia. In 1923 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours, a novel set during World War I.

willa-catherCather grew up in Virginia and Nebraska, and graduated from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, initially planning to become a physician, but after writing an article for the Nebraska State Journal, she became a regular contributor to this journal. Because of this, she changed her major and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English.

As a student at the University of Nebraska in the early 1890s, Cather sometimes used the masculine nickname “William” and wore masculine clothing. A photograph in the University of Nebraska archives depicts Cather dressed like a young man and with “her hair shingled, at a time when females wore their hair fashionably long.”

After graduation in 1894, she worked in Pittsburgh as writer for various publications and as a school English teacher for approximately 13 years, thereafter, at the age of 33, moving to New York City for the remainder of her life, though she also traveled widely and spent considerable time at her summer residence in New Brunswick, Canada.

Throughout Cather’s adult life, her most significant friendships were with women. These included her college friend Louise Pound; the Pittsburgh socialite Isabelle McClung, with whom Cather traveled to Europe and at whose Toronto home she stayed for prolonged visits; the opera singer Olive Fremstad; the pianist Yaltah Menuhin;  and most notably, the editor Edith Lewis, with whom Cather lived the last 39 years of her life.

Cather’s sexual identity remains a point of contention among scholars. While many argue for Cather as a lesbian and interpret her work through a lens of queer theory, a highly vocal contingent of Cather scholars adamantly oppose such considerations. For example, scholar Janet Sharistanian has written, “Cather did not label herself a lesbian nor would she wish us to do so, and we do not know whether her relationships with women were sexual. In any case, it is anachronistic to assume that if Cather’s historical context had been different, she would have chosen to write overtly about homoerotic love.”

She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1943. In 1944, Cather received the gold medal for fiction from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, an award given once a decade for an author’s total accomplishments. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 24, 1947, at the age of 73 in New York City.

A resolutely private person, Cather had destroyed many old drafts, personal papers, and letters. Her will restricted the ability of scholars to quote from the personal papers that remain. However, in April 2013, The Selected Letters of Willa Cather—a collection of 566 letters Cather wrote to friends, family, and literary acquaintances such as Thornton Wilder and F. Scott Fitzgerald—was published, two years following the death of Cather’s nephew and second literary executor, Charles Cather. Willa Cather’s correspondence revealed complexity of her character and inner world. The letters do not disclose any intimate details about Cather’s personal life, but they do “make clear that [her] primary emotional attachments were to women.”

“The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, knows how difficult it is.”

— Willa Cather

Being truthful is not the same thing as being honest. Being open is not the same as not telling a lie. One is to answer when asked. The other is to pour your soul out thoroughly and unprompted. One is hard to do, the other feels almost impossible.

Telling the truth is complicated, tiring, and terrifying and writers and artist do it every day.

Telling the truth means making yourself vulnerable to judgment and rejection but since no man or woman is an island telling the truth can mean exposing not just yourself, not even just your family and friends, but your hometown, your gender, your race, and even your age group. It means that what you say means something and you have to carry the full responsibility and ownership of what you reveal.

Being truthful is painful. I’ve read over and over that the best way to be a writer is to just write but what do I do on the days when I am too afraid and too hurt to welcome more eyes and acknowledgment? What about the days when I am already exhausted and have nothing left to help carry the weight of revelation? What about the days when I cannot look myself in the eye let alone allow strangers to see such deep parts of me? What about the days when the truth is too disturbing and scary to examine? How do I do on those days?

The ones who say “just write” I wonder if they understand how much the tears sting and how the real the old memories feel when they pour put of you.

There are so many times I sit down to write my truth, and I find I have built so many defenses against what I carry deep down that I see no truth worth telling. I am nothing, I feel nothing, and nothing has ever hurt or helped me.

Society tells me to be happy and grateful and ordinary and getting past that to all the ugly things we would rather look away from is like pulling teeth or climbing mountains. Telling the truth starts with a search, and the mazes of this world are complex on purpose. The truth is hard to find and what you find may be nothing but illusions. More lies. Tell those too until you learn, I suppose.

I wouldn’t go as far as Cather in calling anyone stupid, but I would say they are a whole lot of ignorant, uninspired, and non-introspective ones out there. I would say I am among them, and so are many other artist and writers aspiring to do better too. The truth never comes easy, and the need to hide and run for cover never leaves us. Writers tell other writers what writing ought to feel like, forgetting what is hard for them will be hard for others too.

It’s rare to find people who open so easily and unapologetically, but we cannot deny that the ones who do are the best among us. Most people live lives so closed up and cut of that such vulnerability is beyond comprehension. I have met husbands and wives, sisters, and best friends who reveal less to one another than a writer does to the world.

Being truthful is hard. There have been many times I have written something that left me in tears and utterly exposed. When I read back over pieces like that, I get embarrassed and afraid. They are just too truthful, too raw. I edit and chop away at the feeling until I am once again cloaked and covered. I know that in doing so I have turned my work into lies but being so open is something you have to build up the courage to do.

And that is what all this practice is for, I suppose. Not just to write better but to write a little more truthfully every time. To write what we are again and again. To write what has been forgotten and what is wished to stay that way. To write about right and wrong and reality, about broken dreams and broken hearts and about the way the world doesn’t care or owe us a damn thing, it is exhausting! And it is the most fulfilling thing we can do.

Write often. Open yourself often. Feel pain, feel joy, feel fear, hope and anger, as often as you can and write, write, write, but never deny to yourself or anyone else that it is the hardest thing to do. Never minimize the worth and the work of what you and other writers do every single day.

***

If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for interesting reads + my own existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering, or buy me a cup of coffee perhaps?

Biographical information via Wikipedia and Goodreads

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Anxiety into Art

Hello, dear readers and happy Monday! I know, I know, Mondays aren’t happy. Mondays are for feeling tired, and grouchy, and remembering all the things you don’t like about your life. Mondays are for wanting to crawl back into bed.

But, let’s try something different. Let’s think of Mondays as a chance at a fresh start, every single week. Mondays are do-overs, each one is our own personal reset button. Let’s take this opportunity to do it differently. Let’s make the changes we want to see in ourselves and the world, okay?

This Monday is a hard one, I won’t lie. I spent a portion of the weekend in the doctor’s office afraid and in pain. I am okay now, mostly. My symptoms are still here, but I got the reassurance I was seeking. I will be fine for now. I came away with information and medication and a whole lot to think about. I’m feeling just a little better today, but I am on edge, wondering when it will get bad again.

“Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity”

― T.S. Eliot

My anxiety, as a result of all these health issues, has been uncontrollable. I worry about my body. I worry about medication. I worry about what I am eating. Food has become my enemy, and every meal is stressful. I worry about how I am impacting others and what people think of me. I worry about work and how I can cope away from home.

Breathing isn’t working. I am losing sleep, and I feel myself becoming isolated. In just a few weeks I have stopped writing almost entirely because I am either too tired or worrying so much I can’t focus. I miss writing, even just for myself. I want to do something I love again.

So why can’t I use this pain and anxiety for writing, for art? I can’t breathe or meditate my way out, maybe I need the opposite. Maybe I need something that requires more effort. Maybe I need to pull my pain out by hand. Maybe I need to dig deep in the dark and work for my relief.

Maybe I need to fight for it.

I don’t know exactly what form this writing will take or where it will go, but I think it’s just what I need. It feels right to hurt through writing and sharing rather than all alone and in my own head.

This week, if you’ve been feeling anxious, afraid, angry, or alone, pull that pain out and make something of it. Push, push, push yourself to move forward until you feel better or you collapse in exhaustion. Then get back up when you can and make something more. Write, paint, and sing all about what hurt and don’t worry about what people will think or what it all means. Just express yourself.

Take what you hate about yourself, what you work so hard to control, and let if fuel your creativity. If nothing else it will at least be a change of pace and offer some distraction.

You might even be able to work magic, do the impossible, and turn hurt into hope and joy.

***

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Jorge Luis Borges on What Writers Become

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from the Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges.

jorgeluisborgesenpalermofotoferdinandoscianna198403Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges Acevedo was born into an educated middle-class family on 24 August 1899. They were in comfortable circumstances but not wealthy enough to live in downtown Buenos Aires, so the family resided in Palermo, then a poorer suburb. Borges’s mother, Leonor Acevedo Suárez, came from a traditional Uruguayan family of criollo (Spanish) origin. Her family had been much involved in the European settling of South America and the Argentine War of Independence, and she spoke often of their heroic actions.

In 1914, his family moved to Switzerland where he attended school and traveled to Spain. On his return to Argentina in 1921, Borges began publishing his poems and essays in Surrealist literary journals. He also worked as a librarian and public lecturer. Borges was fluent in several languages. He was a target of political persecution during the Peron regime and supported the military juntas that overthrew it.

Borges was a key figure in Spanish-language literature. His best-known books, Ficciones (Fictions) and El Aleph (The Aleph), published in the 1940s, are compilations of short stories interconnected by common themes, including dreams, labyrinths, libraries, mirrors, fictional writers, philosophy, and religion.

His works have contributed to philosophical literature and the fantasy genre. Critic Ángel Flores, the first to use the term magical realism to define a genre that reacted against the dominant realism and naturalism of the 19th century, considers the beginning of the movement to be the release of Borges’ A Universal History of Infamy (Historia universal de la infamia). However, some critics would consider Borges to be a predecessor and not actually a magical realist. His late poems dialogue with such cultural figures as Spinoza, Camões, and Virgil.

In 1914 Borges’ family moved to Switzerland, where he studied at the Collège de Genève. The family traveled widely in Europe, including stays in Spain. On his return to Argentina in 1921, Borges began publishing his poems and essays in surrealist literary journals. He also worked as a librarian and public lecturer. In 1955 he was appointed the director of the National Public Library and professor of English Literature at the University of Buenos Aires. He became completely blind by the age of 55; as he never learned braille, he became unable to read. Scholars have suggested that his progressive blindness helped him to create innovative literary symbols through imagination.

In 1961 he came to international attention when he received the first Formentor Prize (Prix International), which he shared with Samuel Beckett. In 1971 he won the Jerusalem Prize. His work was translated and published widely in the United States and in Europe. Borges himself was fluent in several languages. He dedicated his final work, The Conspirators, to the city of Geneva, Switzerland.

His international reputation was consolidated in the 1960s, aided by his works being available in English, by the Latin American Boom and by the success of García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Writer and essayist J. M. Coetzee said of him: “He, more than anyone, renovated the language of fiction and thus opened the way to a remarkable generation of Spanish American novelists.”

Due to a hereditary condition, Borges became blind in his late fifties. In 1955, he was appointed the director of the National Public Library (Biblioteca Nacional) and professor of Literature at the University of Buenos Aires. In 1961, he came to international attention when he received the first International Publishers’ Prize Prix Formentor. His work was translated and published widely in the United States and in Europe. He died in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1986.

J. M. Coetzee said of Borges: “He, more than anyone, renovated the language of fiction and thus opened the way to a remarkable generation of Spanish-American novelists.”

“When writers die they become books, which is, after all, not too bad an incarnation.”

— Jorge Luis Borges

Yesterday I wrote a list of ten bookish resolutions for the new year. One of them was to read more books. Another was to read books written by the acclaimed author Jorge Luis Borges.

I first encountered Borges years ago when I came across his short story Borges and I. To me it was a little masterpiece, perfectly written. I planned to read more of his work but then I got very busy trying to be a grown up and making all the grown up mistakes I needed to make, and I forgot all about reading books, and about Borges and his little masterpiece.

I’ve been reading again for some time now. I have gotten back that old obsession for language and stories that draw me in and change me a little with every page. I have come back to books a bit more mature and ready to get more from them than just entertainment.

I want to study how they are written. I want to learn all the ways there are to say things, and I hear Borges said things in very interesting ways.

I went back and read Borges and I last night and I think I understand better what he is saying or at least I know better what it means to me. Borges is a writer, a public figure, a persona, and a mask presented to the world. “I” is the inner self, the secret self the one who lives and dies while the persona endures in books and the minds of others.

Borges and his “I” are very similar. I think everything that Borges is must have begun in the “I” but now has become distorted and at times unrecognizable. I think as time goes on the “I” gives more to Borges and Borges distorts it all the more and eventually there will be no “I” left. The inner Borges will die because we all die one day and Borges the writer, the persona, and the memory will live on.

The whole thing is very powerful, and if you want to be a writer, artist, entertainer, etc. It is all something to consider, but the last line is what hits me the hardest. The last line — “I do not know which of us has written this page.” — is where the problem really lies.

Who is the real you? The one on paper or the one who lives inside? How much of what you write is the truth? Can you tell the difference? Does it matter to you?

All writers have a habit of exaggeration and distortion. We leave out what we feel needs leaving out, and we highlight all the action. The lows get lower, and the highs get higher. The colors become brighter and the smells more intense. We take the chaos of life and give it order and meaning. We write what we feel and forget the rest and the reader creates a version of us in their minds. This other self is who becomes what we are to the world, and slowly we fade away and the other lives on forever.

I thought that writing about myself meant being my true self, but now I think that one human can never fully and accurately explain who they are or what kind of life they have lived. We can only give approximations and caricatures.

I had thought I could obtain a sort of immortality through words, but I think that isn’t true either, not exactly. The Lisa that lives on, if one does at all, won’t really be me. I am giving birth to a new Lisa, one who is much more interesting and colorful than I. The new Lisa is something I had hoped I could be. The new Lisa is the one I dream was born the night that I was. I give her whatever I can, and she uses all that I am for selfish gains. I don’t mind. I love her all the same.

Lisa and I, which one of us has written this?

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Biographical information via Goodreads and Wikipedia

Featured image via Unsplash