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    What Women Think About Writing

    With apologies to Flowerchild. If I had posted all these quotes on her thread, I would have hogged it more egregiously than I did (in my enthusiasm). 

     Here, then, is what smart women I admire think about writing:

    "Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write yourself. Your body must be heard."  --  Hélène Cixous

    "If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don't write, because our culture has no use for it." -- Anaïs Nin

    "For it would seem - her case proved it - that we write, not with the fingers, but with the whole person. The nerve which controls the pen winds itself about every fibre of our being, threads the heart, pierces the liver." -- Virginia Woolf (Orlando)

    "Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I'm always irritated by people - the ones who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it's very shocking to the system."                                                   -- Flannery O'Connor

     "The fact that he had foamed at the mouth, immediately upon dying, indicated that he had a great back jam of wishes and desires and truths that were never spoken...out bubbled all the words he had swallowed when he was alive."

    --Kaye Gibbons (Charms for the Easy Life)

     "Writing is a consequence of having been 'haunted' by material. Why this is, no one knows."--   Joyce Carol Oates

    "Remember that for all the books we have in print, are as many that have never reached print, have never been written down-even now, in this age of compulsive reverence for the written word, history, even social ethic, are taught by means of stories, and the people who have been conditioned into thinking only in terms of what is written-and unfortunately nearly all the products of our educational system can do no more than this-are missing what is before their eyes. For instance, the real history of Africa is still in the custody of black storytellers and wise men, black historians, medicine men: it is a verbal history, still kept safe from the white man and his predations. Everywhere, if you keep your mind open, you will find the words not written down. So never let the printed page be your master. Above all, you should know that the fact that you have to spend one year, or two years, on one book, or one author means that you are badly taught-you should have been taught to read your way from one sympathy to another, you should be learning to follow you own intuitive feeling about what you need; that is what you should have been developing, not the way to quote from other people."       -- Doris Lessing

     "The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it."    -- Margaret Atwood 

    "A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is."-- Flannery O'Connor

    "...Words have been all my life, all my life-- this need is like the Spider's need who carries before her a huge Burden of Silk which she must spin out--the silk is her life, her home, her safety--her food and drink too--and if it is attacked or pulled down, why, what can she do but make more, spin afresh, design anew...."   -- A.S. Byatt (Possession: A Romance)

    "The secret is not to write about what you love best, but about what you, alone, love at all." ---Annie Dillard, speaking on writing

    "Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea."  -- Iris Murdoch 


    Deja vu. I thought I already got here.

    A little formatting problem, DD, only partially resolved by deleting the copied words of two of my heroines, Rebecca West and Ellen Gilcrist.

    Oh I reedit all the time. You already saw my first comment anyway, but good work, I like this.

    Great quotes, WW. Already saving them. Thanks.

    "When someone with the authority of a teacher describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. It takes some strength of soul - and not just individual strength, but collective understanding - to resist this void, this nonbeing, into which you are thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard."

    -- Adrienne Rich
    "Blood, Bread and Poetry"

    But I love the I, steel I-beam
    that my father sold. They poured the pig iron
    into the mold, and it fed out slowly,
    a bending jelly in the bath, and it hardened,
    Bessemer, blister, crucible, alloy, and he
    marketed it, and bought bourbon, and Cream
    of Wheat, its curl of butter right
    in the middle of its forehead, he paid for our dresses
    with his metal sweat, sweet in the morning
    and sour in the evening. I love the I,
    frail between its flitches, its hard ground
    and hard sky, it soars between them
    like the soul that rushes, back and forth,
    between the mother and father. What if they had loved each other,
    how would it have felt to be the strut
    joining the floor and roof of the truss?
    I have seen, on his shirt-cardboard, years
    in her desk, the night they made me, the penciled
    slope of her temperature rising, and on
    the peak of the hill, first soldier to reach
    the crest, the Roman numeral I--
    I, I, I, I,
    girders of identity, head on,
    embedded in the poem. I love the I
    for its premise of existence--our I--when I was
    born, part gelid, I lay with you
    on the cooling table, we were all there, a
    forest of felled iron. The I is a pine,
    resinous, flammable root to crown,
    which throws its cones as far as it can in a fire.

    -- Sharon Olds
    "Take the I Out"


    Something about a book of poetry written by men lying across an ephebic poetess' lap as, viewed beyond the train's windows, old, gray statues of men pass by -- maleness blocking the female phallic?

    IIR her "Eastern War Time" correctly ---

    ww, I love this thread. I will comment more tomorrow morning. I am blindingly exhausted right now. So, Rec'd and tomorrow, 'k? And if it has gone under, I will find the dead thread and comment on it. :)

    'night. :)

    That's close to how I remember it...

    I liked your list, ww, but where is Annie Lamott?

    Had to look around for this one to make sure I got it right.

    "I truly think that you can’t go and stalk your material, you have to leave the door open and whatever chooses you, chooses you. You can’t go and wrestle it to the ground."

    Louise Erdrich

    Good catch, JR. I intended to include her but no longer have the books themselves. The only quotes I found on line were about her religious experience. What I was after were her hilarious, but useful comments in Bird By Bird.

    So, in honor of Annie Lamott, I can paraphrase the advice she gives her students, advice that she received from who her father: "Don't get worked up about the deadline; if you're writing a paper about birds, just write it bird by bird until it's finished..." or words to that effect.

    I can also paraphrase another one that always made me laugh, something about her writing group being comprised of staunchly supportive friends,"until one of them was published, and then, we of course wanted them to die," or words to that effect.

    Thanks for adding her in.

    I think that open door is right about fiction/poetry, Flower, which may be why it is so hard to write non-fiction over an extended period of time: 90% of writing non-fiction is little but that process of stalking and wrestling facts to use as substantiating footnotes. (Although the flipside of that tedium is that when you manage to report the facts with any grace of phrasing at all, it does feel like an achievement of sorts.)
    The distinction in process between writing fiction or non-fiction is why I still get myself in trouble from time to time on TPM; I seem to be more in the Lessing "skim, scan and move on as interests move one" mode than I am, these days, in the "observe the fair and appropriate protocol of citing links as footnotes" habit.
    Sorry, Everyone. Mea culpa. Blame Doris Lessing, ok?

    Thanks for mentioning AR, Justice. I have always valued this opinion of hers:
    “No woman is really an insider in the institutions fathered by masculine consciousness. When we allow ourselves to believe we are, we lose touch with parts of ourselves defined as unacceptable by that consciousness; with the vital toughness and visionary strength of the angry grandmothers, the fierce market women of the Ibo's Women's War, the marriage-resisting women silk workers of pre-Revolutionary China, the millions of widows, midwives, and the women healers tortured and burned as witches for three centuries in Europe.”
    --Adrienne Rich

    Carol Shields wrote a poem that describes that feeling of disappointment with oneself as a writer:

    "nothing she did
    or said

    was quite
    what she meant

    but still her life
    could be called a monument

    shaped in a slant
    of available light

    and set to the movement
    of possible music"

    — Carol Shields

    One of the southern writers I admire the most is Ellen Gilcrist who, imo, writes transcendent fiction -- made so by her gift for seamlessly combining a fiction writer's skills (in story telling, character development and dialogue) with an experienced scholar's ability to devour and absorb the essential fact or theory in any area of enquiry that strikes her fancy.
    Hers is an educated southern voice that celebrates, as it lays bare, the deeply rooted conflicts and contradictions of her Louisiana/ Mississippi tribe. But unlike Faulkner et al, there is little in her work that is impenetrable or brooding; nor does her work fall into the glib, raucous humor genre that substitutes a cheap laugh about stereotypes for a story of substance. Rather, EG's voice is distinguished by its astonishing range, the recurring note of which is neither savage nor saccharine, but consistently clear.
    Reading her work is a physical as well as a mental exercise because it often evokes emotions that are parallel to those her characters are experiencing. One feels their disappointments, their rage at betrayal, their satisfaction in achievement, their manic happiness, quiet tenderness and essential joy.
    So EG must write as Helene Cixous, Anais Nin, Virginia Woolf and fellow southerners, Flannery O'Connor and Kaye Gibbons advise --- with her whole body, her whole person, her every breath expended in the effort to leave no word unspoken that should be said.

    "I think my poems immediately come out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, but I must say I cannot sympathize with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife, or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrifying, like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience, and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and intelligent mind." - Sylvia Plath

    "...you should have been taught to read your way from one sympathy to another..."

    I learned that, somehow, and it was one reason I found Lessing, probably my all-time favorite novelist. I started with Canopus in Argos, only found stuff like "Golden Notebook" later.

    How many writers are still publishing new work in their late 80s? (And it's still good, too.)

    A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother burns bacon

    From the first it had been like a
    Ballad. It had the beat inevitable. It had the blood.
    A wildness cut up, and tied in little bunches,
    Like the four-line stanzas of the ballads she had never quite
    understood--the ballads they had set her to, in school.

    Herself: the milk-white maid, the "maid mild"
    Of the ballad. Pursued
    By the Dark Villain. Rescued by the Fine Prince.
    The Happiness-Ever-After.
    That was worth anything.
    It was good to be a "maid mild."
    That made the breath go fast.

    Her bacon burned. She
    Hastened to hide it in the step-on can, and
    Drew more strips from the meat case. The eggs and sour-milk biscuits
    Did well. She set out a jar
    Of her new quince preserve.

    . . . But there was something about the matter of the Dark Villain.
    He should have been older, perhaps.
    The hacking down of a villain was more fun to think about
    When his menace possessed undisputed breath, undisputed height,
    And best of all, when history was cluttered
    With the bones of many eaten knights and princesses.

    The fun was disturbed, then all but nullified
    When the Dark Villain was a blackish child
    Of Fourteen, with eyes still too young to be dirty,
    And a mouth too young to have lost every reminder
    Of its infant softness.

    That boy must have been surprised! For
    These were grown-ups. Grown-ups were supposed to be wise.
    And the Fine Prince--and that other--so tall, so broad, so
    Grown! Perhaps the boy had never guessed
    That the trouble with grown-ups was that under the magnificent shell of adulthood, just under,
    Waited the baby full of tantrums.
    It occurred to her that there may have been something
    Ridiculous to the picture of the Fine Prince
    Rushing (rich with the breadth and height and
    Mature solidness whose lack, in the Dark Villain, was impressing her,

    Confronting her more and more as this first day after the trial
    And acquittal (wore on) rushing
    With his heavy companion to hack down (unhorsed)
    That little foe. So much had happened, she could not remember now what that foe had done
    Against her, or if anything had been done.
    The breaks were everywhere. That she could think
    Of no thread capable of the necessary

    She made the babies sit in their places at the table.
    Then, before calling HIM, she hurried
    To the mirror with her comb and lipstick. It was necessary
    To be more beautiful than ever.
    The beautiful wife.

    For sometimes she fancied he looked at her as though
    Measuring her. As if he considered, Had she been worth it?
    Had she been worth the blood, the cramped cries, the little stirring bravado, The gradual dulling of those Negro eyes,
    The sudden, overwhelming little-boyness in that barn?
    Whatever she might feel or half-feel, the lipstick necessity was something apart. HE must never conclude
    That she had not been worth it.

    HE sat down, the Fine Prince, and
    Began buttering a biscuit. HE looked at HIS hands.
    More papers were in from the North, HE mumbled. More maddening headlines.
    With their pepper-words, "bestiality," and "barbarism," and

    The half-sneers HE had mastered for the trial worked across
    HIS sweet and pretty face.

    What HE'd like to do, HE explained, was kill them all.
    The time lost. The unwanted fame.
    Still, it had been fun to show those intruders
    A thing or two. To show that snappy-eyed mother,
    That sassy, Northern, brown-black--

    Nothing could stop Mississippi.
    HE knew that. Big fella
    Knew that.
    And, what was so good, Mississippi knew that.
    They could send in their petitions, and scar
    Their newspapers with bleeding headlines. Their governors
    Could appeal to Washington . . .

    "What I want," the older baby said, "is 'lasses on my jam."
    Whereupon the younger baby
    Picked up the molasses pitcher and threw
    The molasses in his brother's face. Instantly
    The Fine Prince leaned across the table and slapped
    The small and smiling criminal.
    She did not speak. When the HAND
    Came down and away, and she could look at her child,
    At her baby-child,
    She could think only of blood.
    Surely her baby's cheek
    Had disappeared, and in its place, surely,
    Hung a heaviness, a lengthening red, a red that had no end.
    She shook her had. It was not true, of course.
    It was not true at all. The
    Child's face was as always, the
    Color of the paste in her paste-jar.

    She left the table, to the tune of the children's lamentations, which were shriller
    Than ever. She
    Looked out of a window. She said not a word. That
    Was one of the new Somethings--
    The fear,
    Tying her as with iron.

    Suddenly she felt his hands upon her. He had followed her
    To the window. The children were whimpering now.
    Such bits of tots. And she, their mother,
    Could not protect them. She looked at her shoulders, still
    Gripped in the claim of his hands. She tried, but could not resist the idea
    That a red ooze was seeping, spreading darkly, thickly, slowly,
    Over her white shoulders, her own shoulders,
    And over all of Earth and Mars.

    He whispered something to her, did the Fine Prince, something about love and night and intention.
    She heard no hoof-beat of the horse and saw no flash of the shining steel.

    He pulled her face around to meet
    His, and there it was, close close,
    For the first time in all the days and nights.
    His mouth, wet and red,
    So very, very, very red,
    Closed over hers.

    Then a sickness heaved within her. The courtroom Coca-Cola,
    The courtroom beer and hate and sweat and drone,
    Pushed like a wall against her. She wanted to bear it.
    But his mouth would not go away and neither would the
    Decapitated exclamation points in that Other Woman's eyes.

    She did not scream.
    She stood there.
    But a hatred for him burst into glorious flower,
    And its perfume enclasped them--big,
    Bigger than all magnolias.

    The last bleak news of the ballad.
    The rest of the rugged music.
    The last quatrain.

    -- Gwendolyn Brooks

    "The soul is, I think, a human being who speaks with the pressure of death at his head" - Anne Sexton

    More from her letters here.

    ww, I think I love you a little today, in a Platonic way, of course. :)

    Cixous, Nin, Woolf, Lessing, Atwood, Byatt!!! Wow. Certainement mes favoris!

    I would add Plath, Irigaray and Jeanette Winterson --

    There are so many separate selves; no one who writes creatively hasn't felt that.

    And another one, my Winterson fav ----

    I don't understand why people talk of art as a luxury when it's a mind-altering possibility.

    And few more, not on writing so much but on the process of being and interactions which produce writing.

    Let's face it. We're undone by each other. And if we're not, we're missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to, or does, but it may also be that despite one's best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel. And so when we speak about my sexuality or my gender, as we do (and as we must), we mean something complicated by it. Neither of these is precisely a possession, but both are to be understood as modes of being dispossessed, ways of being for another, or, indeed, by virtue of another.

    Judith Butler (Undoing Gender)

    Sexual difference is probably the issue in our time which could be our 'salvation' if we thought it through.
    Luce Irigaray.

    And even though he is a mere man [and I cannot help it, I always read lit/rhet stuff for smut; and in fact don't know any of my previous compatriots who did not... ;)] --

    Both the practice and the study of human culture comprise a network of symbolic exchanges. Because human beings are not angels, these exchanges always involve material negotiations. Even in their most complex and advanced forms—when the negotiations are carried out as textual events—the intercourse that is being human is materially executed: as spoken texts or scripted forms. To participate in these exchanges is to have entered what I wish to call here 'the textual condition.'
    (JJ McGann. The Textual Condition)

    And one more --

    These elective affinities between love and textuality exist because love and text are two of our most fundamental social acts. We make love and we make texts, and we make both in a seemingly endless series of imaginative variations.
    (another one by JJ McGann)

    Another mere masculine voice (it is Women's Herstory Month, I can say that!)--

    Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tips of my words. My language trembles with desire. The emotion derives from a double contact: on the one hand, a whole activity of discourse discreetly, indirectly focuses upon a single signified, which is 'I desire you,' and releases, nourishes, and ramifies it to the point of explosion..
    (Roland Barthes. A Lover's Discourse)

    And finally --

    Who or what the other is, I never know. But the other who is forever unknowable is the one who differs from me sexually. This feeling of surprise, astonishment, and wonder in the face of the unknowable ought to be returned to its locus: that of sexual difference.
    (Luce Irigaray. The Ethics of Sexual Difference)

    To me that's were writing happens, in the interstices of all that. Just my sense of things wordy.

    I'm now going out to feel the sun on my face and to be happy away from all things internet for the rest of the day. I hope you are having a fab day, ww. :)


    I love Plath and Sexton. :)

    Never read the Golden Notebook. Well, I tried once and it was too mindnumbing for me. I loved her Canopus stuff and her autobiog of her childhood elsewhere.

    Oh, one more, my fav of all time, and I would never call him "mere" anything because his seminal works taught me so much about writing and the mind which produces it and how to think differently about language and influence while writing. I love him as much as I love Clarice Lispector.

    Ok. I really do have to go meet my friend for a late lunch. However, thanks for this thread. It was fun to read and fun to participate in. :)

    Thank you, Ellen. Any other quotes or comments you want to contribute?

    I don't know Sharon Olds. Thank you for the new voice.

    Desidero: I think there is a real similarity between Gilcrist in prose and Plath in poetry. Fierce intelligence, a determination not to lose touch with the power of observation while experiencing acute feeling. The balance achieved better by Gilcrist than Plath, apparently. And for that, we can feel sorrow for a young Plath, trying but ultimately failing to balance the stresses of being an ex-pat, her desire to work versus the demands of motherhood, etc. -- all under the implacable, if competitive disdain of Ted Hughes.

    I've been a fan of hers since before a big reading in Los Angeles back in the early 80's; she and a half dozen others were part of and I read also.

    Met Wanda Coleman there as well...

    In That Other Fantasy Where We Live Forever

    we were never caught

    we partied the southwest, smoked it from L.A. to El Dorado
    worked odd jobs between delusions of escape
    drunk on the admonitions of parents, parsons & professors
    driving faster than the road or law allowed.
    our high-pitched laughter was young, heartless & disrespected
    authority. we could be heard for miles in the night

    the Grand Canyon of a new manhood.
    womanhood discovered
    like the first sighting of Mount Wilson

    we rebelled against the southwestern wind

    we got so naturally ripped, we sprouted wings,
    crashed parties on the moon, and howled at the earth

    we lived off love. It was all we had to eat

    when you split you took all the wisdom
    and left me the worry

    -- Wanda Coleman

    E: thank you for your references, some of which I knew (Irigaray and Barthes) and others I did not (mcGann and Winterson). You've given me a start on a new reading list. BTW, do you have a Kristeva quote to throw in? My FF books were lost (in tediously aforementioned hurricane) and I can't find what I want on line, other than this video:

    PS -- Do you teach? And if so, what?

    Who are the other women writers you admire, Tom? And why? (That was the original category; however, if you prefer to cite a man, that's ok, too.)

    Thank you for bringing Gwendolyn Brooks into the discussion, Justice -- a real oversight on my part. As was not including writing quotes from Ntozke Shange (Cypress, Sassafras & Indigo), and Toni Morrison. And, of course, Maya Angelou, although I am personally more mezmerized by her voice, saying or reading anything, than I am by her actual writing, with the exception of "Phenomenal Woman" and "I Rise."

    What a gift you have given me in thelink to letters from Anne Sexton. I am on page nineteen.... Thank you so much. :D (seems appropriate)

    thanks for this post. You've diversified my hour.

    The above-mentioned Ms. Lamott, but Ursulla LeGuin was formative, and later on I discovered Barbara Kingsolver. All write in the way that David Foster Wallace hoped to, about what it is to be human, without too much distracting flashy writerly technique.

    Wallace once said that reading a good novel made him feel less alone. I think all successful art moves us in such a deep way, not only writing from the body, but talking to the reader's body (music does this only) so that deep emotions are induced. I feel exactly what Wallace said, less alone, and like "Hey, that writer feels just like me!" It's my description of the "universality" that I was taught about in school.

    I was absolutely floored by Wallace "Infinite Jest"), BTW, and am equally saddened by his death.

    Love Barbara Kingsolver as you do, Tom, and wonder why I did not think to add her to the list. Her Poisonwood book was astonishing -- not only as a novel but as an exemplar of writing technique.
    And then there is David Foster Wallace. The singular male writer who made me question my decision to foreswear yet another entry into the male author canon. (If you are female, and you have gone through school reading twenty men to every woman, you may develop this prejudice, too.)
    Thank you for your contributions.
    This thread is going to die within minutes, but I would be interested to know why your picks resonate with you. Is it the voice cadence as tied to music? Or something else?

    And also, Tom: reader response. The dance between the author's thoughts/feelings while writing and the reader's thoughts/feelings while reading. Is it so, in music? Is the musician's pleasure in doing what comes naturally, as well as through disciplined practice, augmented and magnified by an appreciative audience response, even if it may respond to different moments in the expression?
    (Asking earnestly, as I know little about music, in the sense of composing or playing it, but respect it, as something well beyond any ability I have.)

    There is plenty of evidence that music induces physical states, (and in the players themselves, variably). We can easily imagine rhythms doing so, and strong harmony does, too. Leaping melodies do feel dramatic, while narrow noodling ones feel cautious, and so on. Some physical analogues might be birds twittering (e.g. flutes at play) which implies peace, no intruders sneaking through the woods. Rumbling drums may invoke waterfalls or arriving caribou, both exciting, and important food issues.

    It is possible to "explain" music, but this is ridiculous and cumbersome for doing it. I simply try to find the feeling I intend, and hold it while testing ideas, if writing. If playing, I do trust my body to help focus the delivery, but one is cautious in letting ordinary things like tension cause unintended effects, like thin tone. Safer to, once again, find the feeling the music is speaking, and let that mediate the playing. I just act as my own audience, with reservations for control.

    Harder to explain novels. Unlike poetry there is less overt rhythm, but one writer said (wish I could remember) that novels were a way to say with words what one couldn't say with words. It is partly the the arrival of an emotional conclusion that affects me, but the words matter, too. I like Twain saying that the effect of the right word is both electric and prompt, an effect produced by his explanation itself (self-referential fireworks).

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