Sunday, January 31, 2021

After Dark

When you find a book you love, it's hard not to become an evangelist. 

For instance, it's been all I can do not to write every post about Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man, even though I read it months ago. (What would I write every week? I'd probably just copy and paste “holy shit” a thousand times and call it a post. While that would convey how I felt when I finished the book, I don't think you can call that a blog.)

And now it's happened again. I finished reading Bonnie Friedman's Writing Past Dark, and now I want to write every post about that. Until late last year I'd never heard of it before, and it's turned out to be one of the best collections of writing essays I've ever read. After each essay I'd just sit there and think, "What the fuck? Why didn't anyone tell me to read this?"

It's not like I don't hang around writers, who are all very happy to recommend books. And it's not like I don't read books about writing – Bird by Bird, On Writing, The Writing Life, The War of Art, Writing Down the Bones, Big Magic, and so on. I've got a whole shelf of books like these, so I figured if I'd never heard of Writing Past Dark, that must mean no one has.

Which is, of course, the magic ingredient that compels every new convert to spread the good word. “My god! How did I miss this? I have to tell everyone else!” You launch out in the world with your newfound zeal only to discover that no, actually, people have read the book. In fact your very copy is a 2020 reprint of a book published in 1993 -- not exactly typical treatment for an undiscovered gem.

I suspect the truth is I'm more like the last to know than the first. I'm the last one to read The Story's Body, which contains lines that help unlock everything that's beautiful about Isherwood's novel:

"Transcendence is not fleeing, not an absence, but a most attentive presence. To write well we must sink into the silt of this world."

"The body pulls the soul after it."

Could there be a better explanation as to why, seven months later, I still think about George Falconer's yellow pencil sharpener? 

I'm probably also the last to read Glittering Icons, Lush Orchards, Friedman's essay about failure and success. If that's the case, then I'm sure you've already read this:

"I live in dread that the story I am currently writing resembles those that have been rejected. They are bad, I think. When I recognize emerging on the page a rhythm similar to the rhythm of one of these 'bad' stories, or when I recognize a character that turned up in one of them, I am appalled. I want to cross it out. I want to put away from me forever everything associated with those 'bad' stories because frankly I do not really understand what was wrong with them. Something was probably wrong; one must be realistic enough to admit it. Yet it feels as if my new writing comes from the exact same place.

"The idea of success divides us; it cleaves us. It makes us want to name some part of us 'bad' and the rest, the undiscovered part perhaps, as 'good.' And it is the 'good' that will save us, that will transform us, that will deliver to us the confidence of those we admire as well as their material achievement. The 'bad'--that old familiar impulsive, groping, gooey, fixated, feverish self that keeps turning up on the page; the self that is 'too much'--can't be dispatched with fast enough.

"Yet our finest writing will certainly come from what is unregenerate in ourselves. It will come from the part that is obdurate, unbanishable, immune to education, springing up like grass. It will come from who we already are and how we already write. To love our lives right now--that is the transformative success. To see what is already beautiful--that is the astonishing strength." 

What could I possibly add to that? Except maybe to say, "Holy shit. Holy shit."


Lately I've been in the bad habit of not quite finishing books. I get antsy toward the last twenty pages or so, distracted like a fickle...