Book Chat: Books about writing, mental illness and conversion
The books from my first-ever library haul are due back at the library. Here are some thoughts on each one off the top of my head before I take them back this afternoon…
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
I don’t think this book was supposed to be as funny as it was. Quite a few times I laughed out loud at Dillard’s reflections on the life of a writer, guffawing to my husband over my shoulder, “Aaah! She’s at another cabin in the woods!” adding through laughter, “She’s talking about writing for hours on end with no interruption again!” I would read excerpts like this:
During some of the long, empty months at work on the book, I was living in a one-room log cabin on an empty beach…My husband wrote his book in another cabin…When my husband left after breakfast, I looked around the one-room cabin and out at the water and strip of beach. Nothing changed but the tides. [...]
I walked on water. I played the hateful recorder, washed dishes, drank coffee, stood on a beach long, watched bird. That was the first part; it could take all morning, or all month.
…And compare it to what my own version would be like:
After the epic process of putting my two youngest down for nap, I tripped over laundry while taking my beat-up laptop over to the couch to write while my four-year-old had quiet time. Was that a poopy diaper I smelled? I wondered if I might actually throw up on my keyboard from morning sickness. I had about 90 minutes to write before the girls woke up and the house degenerated into chaos again.
I closed my eyes to gain inspiration and was hit in the head by a tennis ball that my toddler threw in my general direction. After putting him in time out I still had all the inspiration of a wet wash cloth but now only had 84.7 minutes left so I just started typing out a bunch of crap and prayed that I could fix it later.
I did enjoy the book as a glimpse into the life of a brilliant, famous writer, and there were some helpful gems to be found like the one that Kelly at Love Well once talked about here. But in terms of gaining insight that’s applicable to writers who are not able to retire to seclusion for months on end and devote hours and hours a day to the craft of writing, I think I’ve learned more from the 10 Minute Writer blog (run by a writer and homeschooling mom of five) than I did from Dillard’s book.
Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott
I have to say, I didn’t think I’d like this book. I’ve read some recent articles by Lamott that I didn’t care for, so I was prepared to have the same take when it came to her memoir about her conversion to Christianity; I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a good read and maybe the most well-written memoir I’ve ever read.
Her stories of the drug- and sex-drenched culture in which she grew up (and of her own addictions to both that followed) make her eventual conversion to Christianity all the more stunning. And she somehow manages to be both laugh-out-loud funny and painfully eloquent. This excerpt, talking about her pre-conversion life, is a good example of her ability to explain complicated situations concisely:
If I could just do a little better [in school], I would finally have the things I longed for — a sense of OKness and connection and meaning and peace of mind, a sense that my family was OK and that we were good people. I would finally know that we were safe, and that my daddy wasn’t going to leave us, and that I would be loved someday.
Drugs helped. More than anything else, they gave me the feeling that I was fine and life was good and something sacred shimmered at its edges.
Maybe it’s because in my own pre-conversion life I knew so many people who had issues with drugs, but that last sentence actually brought tears to my eyes with its poignancy.
It dragged a bit in a couple parts, and sometimes it seemed like more of a collection of essays than a memoir (maybe that’s what it was supposed to be?), but I was blown away by Lamott’s raw talent for writing and found it to be very good overall.
Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know About Writing by Patricia O’Conner
This is a great, no-nonsense book of quick tips for writers. O’Conner was an editor at the New York Times Book Review and wrote a bestseller of her own, so she’s in the perfect position to give advice to writers. Each chapter is quick, and the variety and number of books she draws from to excerpt as examples is amazing.
If you’ve read a lot of books about writing you might find that quite a few of the chapters repeat information you’ve heard in other books, but there are enough gems in this one (e.g. the importance of imagining a friendly reader) that it’s worth a place on every writer’s bookshelf.
Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen
I almost didn’t read this one. I only got it at the library because it was one of the few memoirs I could think of off the top of my head; then when I got it home I thought the subject matter — a young girl in a mental institution — sounded too depressing. I picked it up one night after the kids went to sleep and found that I couldn’t put it down, finishing it in just a couple of days. Kaysen has a unique style of writing that stops just short of being what you could call stream-of-consciousness (or even rambling). It takes a lot of confidence to pull of a style like hers, and she does it flawlessly.
Probably the thing she does best is offer a surprisingly lucid description of what it’s like to have mental illness. In one chapter she explains it using the example of how we all have two “interpreters” in our brains, one that gets the sensory data from the world and another that processes it:
Think of being in a train, next to another train, in a station. When the other train starts moving, you are convinced that your train is moving…It can take a while — maybe even half a minute — before the second interpreter sorts through the first interpreter’s claim of movement and corrects it. That’s because it’s hard to counteract the validity of sensory impressions. We are designed to believe them. [...]
Sometimes, when you’ve realized that your train is not really moving, you can spend another half a minute suspended between two realms of consciousness: the one that knows you aren’t moving and the one that feels that you are. You can flit back and forth between these perceptions and experience a sort of mental vertigo. And if you do this, you are treading on the ground of craziness — a place where false impressions have the hallmarks of reality.
There are some really depressing stories in the book and a heaping serving of profanity; but Kaysen manages to highlight such interesting little details of life in a mental hospital, showcase just the right observations about the personalities of the people involved, and describe her experience with such clarity that you can’t help but enjoy reading her memoir.
Whew! I can finally get those books off the top of my refrigerator now (where I keep them so that they’re safe from little hands). If you’ve read any of these books or have thoughts you’d like to add, I’d love to hear from you.
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