Veronique Darwin

Is the burner on?

In Literary Events on October 16, 2016 at 9:52 pm

When I ask myself whether the burner is on, whether my hair straightener is still plugged in, or if this time I’ve found a way of burning down my house in some more creative fashion, what am I doing? The thought, once it has appeared, has no way of disappearing unless I confirm the absence of the imminent danger. I must return home to check that I’ve locked the door. I must check my work email to ensure there is no one angry with me. Without addressing the concern, I cannot go on with my normal day. Everything becomes trivialized and pales in the shadow of this looming, certain life-crisis. Once I’ve ensured the danger is not present, for a brief moment I feel like I am floating, like I have been given a second chance and all before me is a clean slate. Then it begins again: another ambiguity, another mole to whack down.

When I create an anxiety for myself, is it really just a way of avoiding being present in the moment? I lose track of life, as I focus in on the distant enigma; all my energy leaves this plane to that one. My heart rate rises, my breathing thins, and I problem-solve all manners of addressing the question. What I don’t do is focus any energy toward addressing the anxiety.

I cannot rest comfortably in ambiguity, and that must be the root of the burner, of the hair straightener, of the work emails and the ever-flowing news feed on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. Every time I sense there might be the possibility of something I don’t know about going on, and there is some clear way of me knowing the answer to that question, I take the bait. By attacking the ambiguity, I’ve convinced myself that ambiguity is wrong.

I had a revelation driving yesterday, thinking of the ovens at the school that me and my students had all left on after baking our apple pies. I remember checking each and every one, but did I really check them properly? No, I convinced myself, I checked that the burners weren’t on. But we only used the ovens! The revelation that followed came from some place deep inside of me I don’t yet know but I sense is a God. It told me (in fewer words): what if instead of fighting the unknown, I turned my sword toward the anxiety?

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What if I breathed through every moment of unsureness, worked my way out of it, even made sure to be more mindful each time I real-life turned off the burner or the hair straightener? What if I was simply a more thoughtful person to those around me at every moment? Then I could train myself to react less to the feeling of distress by attacking the reliability of that feeling.

Because how often is the burner actually on? Marc Maron, a great podcaster and comic I listen to who talks often of his anxiety, just recently started his show triumphantly with “This time the burner actually was on!” Mine never has been. The burner is not the problem. I know, because the second I check it I convince myself I didn’t check it well enough. That is often even the nature of the burner: when I check my email, a moment later after I checked it a new message might have arrived, so I must check it again. There is no end to the worry. What needs to be addressed is not the worry, but the worrying.

Life, as far as I know it, seems to be full of ambiguities. I need to be comfortable with that. I need to live with not knowing, and be confident that when I do know something, I will be able to deal with it. And I think the more I leave brain space open to address each moment as it comes, the more I will realize that even when you didn’t leave the burner on, someone else might have, and it’s all about how you react to it. Life is sort of like a game of whack-a-mole but in slower motion, wherein the moles are rational people you know and problems you can solve rather than insatiable subterranean mammals with beady eyes, as they seem at first glance. And maybe you shouldn’t have a hammer.

Book Review: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels

In Literature on September 25, 2016 at 3:38 pm

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels read like memoir, so why are they not shelved that way? Shouldn’t four books, emotionally and factually detailing the life of a woman in a first-person voice, with an author whose given name is the narrator’s, be considered memoir? The form of the books directly compare with Karl Ove Knaussgard’s six-tome memoir My Struggle or Simone de Beauvoir’s four chronological autobiographies. But Ferrante says she is writing under a pseudonym and has not revealed her true identity. Should we believe her?

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Ferrante’s novels follow the lives of Elena (Lenù), her best friend Lila and the people with whom they grew up in a poor neighbourhood in Naples. There is (of course) speculation that Ferrante is a man, but I’ve never known a man or writer so passionate about female friendship, the bones and meat and soul of the story. Lila and Lenù are competitive, jealous, resentful, spiteful and obsessed with each other, or in other words, best friends. Lila is a brilliant but troubled woman who Lenù cannot help but love for their formative memories and their intertwined emotional lives. In a way, Ferrante’s novels follow the narrative style whose most common reference is The Great Gatsby, wherein the narrator is more of a neutral observer of the much more interesting, evasive and irresistible main character. Maybe Ferrante doesn’t care to share herself with her readers because then we would want to find Lila too. Or maybe she is Lila. In any case, I find it hard to believe that whoever Ferrante really is, this all did not happen.

Maybe that is the mark of a good novel: the reader continues to suspend their disbelief even once the reading is done. I generally shy from books that preface with family trees. If the narrative is so complex that I need a reference document, I highly doubt I will lose myself to this world. That is not the case for this series; the world is there, all the characters heaped in and held together by this poor neighbourhood in Naples no one can truly escape. The Story of a New Name, the second book in Ferrante’s series, chronicles the teenage and early adult years of Lenù and Lila and all their friends. People follow or veer away from well-planned paths, and though the writer doesn’t develop characters like Ada and Gigliola enough that I could draw them for you or pick their voices out of a crowd, I can tell you the role they play in Elena’s and Lila’s friendship, which is all that matters.

What is maybe most remarkable to me about these books—what differentiates them the most from other books I’ve read—is the careful balance between divulging and holding back. Elena is not afraid to tell us that she is in love with Lila, or close enough to it, or to take each emotion and analyze it right down to its component pieces. But even then, the language never loses its consistent, delicate distance. This is something I’ve found before when reading a translated work. Maybe it is in the translator’s attention and care to each word, or in the flow that is lost or maintained from the original language. Or perhaps it’s in the translation from a culture whose emotional life I cannot so quickly access. We don’t just learn about Italy through this book, we learn the story of Italian women, of poverty in Italy in the 40s and 50s, and we learn maybe even more: the life of one Italian woman, whether living or not, still very real to me. It’s also only now, reading these works, that I realize how lacking my bookshelf is of Italian literature, and, in particular, Italian female writers. If this book has anything to say to this point, it’s that it isn’t because of a lack of brilliance or determination in Italian women.

Do Not Feel Alone

In Inspiration, Thoughts on Writing on August 18, 2016 at 6:40 pm

Do not feel alone when you write: remember that one day someone will read this, and will not see you lonely at your desk, your hair undone, the tissues piling up. Feel transformed by the words you write, as though they are sprouts or moulds living inside and feeding off you. Pretend you are surrounded by people watching you, waiting for the unique vocabulary and visual imagery pouring out of your finger pads. One day someone will read this and if they think it’s good they’ll want to be your friend. Do not feel alone alone when you write.

Do not ask yourself questions when you write: know that there is nothing more important than trusting instinct and believing that the word you chose out of nowhere is the very best word. Let the winds of poetry roll off your back and the craziness that possesses wolves at full moon time possess you too. Move forward, like a blind woman with a purpose that she has since forgotten. Trust that the answers will come to you as you reread the words you littered behind you. Do not ask yourself questions when you write.

Do not check Facebook when you write: guess that there is probably someone you know minimally in an incredible place you will never visit because you live your life inside your head. Miss a whole day of group wedding photos and baby videos; use that energy not wasted to write fictional versions of these things! Don’t answer a friend request because you are making friends in your stories, and you can make these friends do and say anything. Do not check Facebook when you write.

Do not read someone a passage: like when you recount a dream, you can be sure that this person will not think the passage is as great as you do. Spend time instead making the writing better, so that person will one day want to sit down and read what you’ve written as though you are a real writer whose book they were given to read for a school assignment. Write that person to whom you don’t want to read your passage into your passage in a venomous way, to supercharge your writing. Do not read someone a passage.

 

 

Do not do any of these things when you write, but do them all when you edit.

Feel alone! Let it seep into your psyche until you become a better writer for it, more cynical and isolated, the world your very specific oyster of which only you and the words that you strung together are trapped.

Ask yourself questions! Let the questions become answers become changes, big and small.

Check Facebook! Editing’s boring!

Read someone a passage! See where they wince and where they laugh; where their eyes light up and die down. Even ask them for a suggestion.

In my summer of play-acting again as a writer, I’ve noticed that sometimes I’m not a very good writer. In trying to identify what was going so wrong, I realized that I was acting as an editor while also trying to be a writer. To separate the two parts of my job into creating and cutting is a distinction that works for me in theory, but hey, if I want to check Facebook, that’s a good time to place my editor’s hat on, and if I want to write down whatever comes to my head, which I always do, I am free to call myself back to duty as a writer.

The whole thing is unworthy of categorization until I decide for myself that I need to be more productive and proficient at my job, at which point I might block out times for writing and times for editing, or choose to only edit on paper and only write on the computer. But as the laziness remains, I’m free to continue on this path of two-headed destruction, writing a sentence, rereading the sentence, hating and loving the sentence, changing the sentence, deleting the sentence, and somehow, at some point, my life becoming the sentence.

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