Loom w Birds xx

[China: Loom worker, birds, chickens.]

 Jayne Anne Phillips on the writing life

From Jayne Anne Phillips’s essay “Outlaw Heart” on her web site:

Jayne Anne Phillips

[Jayne Anne Phillips.]

The writing life is a secret life, whether we admit it or not. Writers focus perpetually on the half-seen, and we live in the dim or glorious shadows of partially apprehended shapes. We could bill ourselves as perceptually challenged—given that we live two lives at once, segueing from one to the other with some distress—but we accept, long before we publish, the outlaw’s mantle. We occupy a kind of border country, focused on the details that speak to us. Ask those who marry us, or those who don’t: we’re too intensely involved, yet never quite present. Perhaps we’re difficult to live with as adults, but often we were precocious, overly-responsible children—not in what we accomplished, necessarily, but in what we remembered, in the emotional burdens we took on. . . .Writers begin as readers, and words become a means of survival. At some juncture deep within family life, the child sees in written language a way to embrace her own burden. When I was young, words themselves seemed secret because I read them in my mind and no one else could hear. Knowledge was often secret; the most interesting things were repeated in low tones.

Rumpus guy’s metaphors

From The Rumpus editor Stephen Elliott’s recent email about a dinner party he helped host for author Nick Flynn:

Nick arrived last to his own party. He’s here for the Lou Reed celebration tonight at the Apollo and I’m his date. I said this was a prime example of bromance, and then I pointed out to people, maybe more than once, that the OED credits me with the term “bromance.” Though I’ve never looked inside the OED. Apparently I was the first to put the term in writing in 2003 or something, referring to Josh Bearman when we were covering the presidential election which was interesting when Howard Dean was running on health care and tragic when we all ended up solidifying like chillled bacon fat behind John Kerry who had voted to authorize the war in Iraq, the thing we were all most against. I mean, they just squandered our country.

Which is why when it was over I was out there in the Atlantic, floating off the shore of Hollywood, Florida, struck by waves like calm fists, when I was overtaken by nausea. Brent Hoff was on the beach contemplating the birds. The sun was smokey orange and low. Florida is like an enormous apartment with seven foot ceilings. The sky is so close to the earth it makes people violent. It makes you want to live in a swamp, or St. Petersburg. I was taken to the judge’s house and I lay recuperating in their attic with four years to kill.

Anyway, now I have very high ceilings. I would say the ceilings in my apartment are fourteen feet. Plus, we were all sitting on the floor so the ceiling was even further away. And we talked about Snowden, and the holidays, and Almost Human, and Friday Night Lights, and Vancouver, and food, and relationships.

It’s the second paragraph I really adore, what with Elliott’s similies of waves “like calm fists,” Florida “like an enormous apartment with seven foot ceilings,” the line about the low sky, and the crack about St. Petersburg. Plus its lack of connective tissue and plainly surrealistic quality—he feels nauseous and suddenly is in a judge’s house’s attic “with four years to kill,” such wonderful mixes of details and exaggeration. And can the ceilings in his apartment—where? New York? or was he just traveling?—really be 14 feet? That’s airy, even for the South.

Ah, well. Don’t try this at home, kids. But I’d like to. Go for it.


  • J.V. Wylie says:

    Love those three paragraphs! I just got up, it 6am, and I feel like I have already been on a mini vacation.

  • Janice Gary says:

    Love everything about this post- the image of the woman at the loom, the Jayne Anne Phillips excerpt and Stephen Elliott’s excerpt. Like you, I was struck by the imagery in Elliott’s second paragraph. I have been on those seas, and yes, those gentle Florida Bay waters can be like “calm fists” at times. Not too rough, but enough so that your stomach can’t take it. (I wrote about those waters in “Short Leash” where the waves were just rocky enough to make me jump out of a small boat in order to escape the nausea.) Reading writing like this is a treat. Thanks!

    • Richard says:

      Thank you, Jan—I remember that scene from your memoir. And thank you too for mentioning my photo, which I took somewhere in China about this time two years ago; what a vivid mural to have on the side of a building, out in the weather.

  • I love both pieces. They remind me of prose poems. Many of the writers I know would agree that these are delightful collections of words. But as I think of the reactions of a number of the readers I know who are not writers, I’m quite certain they would not agree with me.

    I’ve recently been noticing (during discussions with my book group and family/friends) that I, as a writer, read quite differently than readers who are not writers. I am so much more enchanted by the elements (the words, the tropes, the mystical thing that happens when patterns emerge!) than those who are reading for story/plot, information, entertainment or distraction. When I enthusiastically share writings about writing or writings about metaphor with them, I watch their eyes glaze into a look that communicates, “I don’t see what you see, and please don’t make me try to, because you, and all those details you see, are so INTENSE, and it’s just TOO MUCH.”

    Perhaps the primary reason I read is to know that I’m not really so very odd–that all over the world there are, and throughout time there have been, others for whom this “living in the dim or glorious shadows of partially apprehended shapes” is as breathtaking (and fun) as it is for me.

    • Richard says:

      What a great observation, Tracy. I have really re-learned that lesson this semester teaching freshmen some celebrated memoirs—most of which they hated. Like most readers, they read for STORY, for that evil thing, plot. Writing for other writers, or at best for that tiny subset of very sophisticated readers, can become an aspiration. Probably a worthy one. But not a very commercial one.

      • I think writing for the subset might also be writing for posterity. ? Not many of the “popular” writings endure. I wonder how much of a comfort it would be to people like Søren Kierkegaard, Emily Dickinson and Hermann Melville, to know that they’re work is valued now. It would comfort me some to know that I’d finally reached an audience–but, it wouldn’t make up for the fact that I need to eat while I’m alive, and pay the rent/mortgage, taxes and my health insurance.

        • Richard Gilbert says:

          I know. Given that most writers don’t make money directly from their work, why be frivolous? Write for keeps. Yet so many people do read, well, crap. Life’s too short of that, too, I feel, as a reader.

          • I suppose it’s possible to write for wide appeal and also write well. Shakespeare and Dickens managed it. But then, that is evidently a particular and rare kind of genius.

            I have to say, I really don’t understand why so many people read the, um, crap. It makes me grouchy to think about it. So I won’t.

            I’ll look forward to reading your book. I’m already certain I’ll find value in the time spent reading.

  • Josh says:

    Great post, Richard.

  • My favorite essay is one of the old ones, Richard, perhaps the classic one of its kind, and yet it has a memoiristic tinge too. It’s Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” and perhaps you will find this funny, but all through my adolescence, I treasured Emerson’s remark about “writing ‘whim’ on the doorpost” of his family home if something at home threatened his self-reliance. Since he wasn’t so much talking about the kind of self-reliance that a parent could and would appreciate in a teenager, something practical, but about a kind of mental attitude (and God knows I had enough attitude as an adolescent), my family would’ve found this laughable had they known. It was my secret weapon to re-read this personal essay whenever I was in a sulk, and as a youthful writer I often tried to imitate Emerson’s tone and style, you can imagine to what high-flown pseudo-Wertherian results. Both Phillips and Elliott (who of course are adults, and better at the writing game by that much anyway, not to mention the fact that I am not perhaps as gifted and certainly wasn’t as a teenager) are more poetic and write with more genuine and less bathetic feeling. Thank you for sharing these portions of their work, especially near the solstice and New Year, when we are all hoping for new inspirations and the ability to inspire other writers with our own “dazzle!”

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