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The Best Pandemic Writing

Katherine Anne Porter

While living through the past pandemic year, I reread Katherine Anne Porter's luminous autobiographical novella, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, about a youthful Denver newspaperwoman's harrowing illness during the 1918 flu epidemic. 

 

In it, she vividly evoked the wartime era, the delirium of her fever, and the rapture of a near-death experience that Christians call the "beatific vision," from which she emerged after remembering her love for a young soldier, only to learn that he had died in the epidemic. 

 

"Everything before was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered, ready," she reflected, and she became a serious novelist.

 

The pandemic of 2020-21 has also changed many of us in various ways. I, for one, have been reminded of the privilege of living.

 

I also realized the importance of finishing the memoir, Word for Word, which I have been working on for a while. My monthly newsletter has explained how I chose its cover, and it will describe the way I wrote it and why, and make announcements about its forthcoming publication.

 

 

 

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A Tree of Light

Writers like myself have had an easier time than many others during the pandemic because we are used to working by ourselves at home. As we have eliminated all but the most essential errands and other activities, we have more uninterrupted hours to write. It's even a little like being at an arts colony.

 

Yet it's been impossible to avoid the fear of getting the virus, great sadness about those we have lost to it, and worry about all the other anxieties engulfing that nation.

 

As the days darken at the end of a very dark year, I remember the words of writer Henry James: "We work in the dark--we do what we can--we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task.  The rest is the madness of art." It's a reason, I believe, for writers to keep writing.

 

I'm grateful that the tradition of placing illuminated holiday trees along main roads in nearby villages has been extended this year to my village. Now a pine sparkles in front of my house after dusk every evening, a beacon of beauty in the dark night

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Why Gardening Makes Writing Easier

Laurie among baskets and plant stakes in her garden room in the barn behind the house.

Only a white clapboard wall of my house separates the indoor and outdoor parts of my existence: the writer and the gardener. The divide is porous, as light comes in the windows, but it is also enormous because of the way it affects my emotions.

 

Whenever I walked out the basement door into the backyard, I discovered as I wrote in Four Tenths of an Acre: Reflections on a Gardening Life, that "whenever I was worried about anything--my writing, my love life, or the yard itself--going outside was like passing through a looking glass from a darker to a lighter state of mind." Even though it's difficult to garden in the harsh and unpredictable New England weather, gloom always dissipated when I began to deadhead and weed, even though I know that more weeds will spring up after the next rainstorm. This doesn't happen when I dust and pick up inside, even though I love all the small the rooms of the house.

 

Once I marveled about this to my mother, a gifted and passionate gardener, and asked her why it was so much more rewarding for us to turn decomposing cuttings in a compost pile than to mix together the ingredients of a chocolate cake. She thought for a moment and then offered: "because it's outside." Being outside wasn't the only reason, but it was reason enough because it explained that being absorbed by what makes everything grow--from bright air to dark porous soil--gives buoyancy to a gardener.

 

I also learned that after hours using my body in the garden, it feels good to go back inside and use my brain in my writing room.

 

 

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How Long Do Writers Write?

 

We now have an inkling about how long writers write, thanks to Emily Temple, a senior editor at Lit Hub, who examined the publishing histories of eighty authors.

 

Average age for initial publication was 28, with young men publishing first books four years earlier than young women. The women's average was age 31,  when Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Doris Lessing's The Grass is Singing came out. Average age for final publication was 64, about the same for both genders.

 

Poetry books were published earliest, starting with Vladimir Nabokov at 17 and Adrienne Rich at 22. Memoirs naturally came later, like Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings, published when she was 75, while Ursula K. Le Guin and Jean Rhys fiinished memoirs in their eighties. 

 

Lengths of everyone's careers averaged 34 years, with men lasting five years longer than women. Fame was often unrelated to longevity; Jane Austen's novels were published within six years, while Sylvia Plath's appeared within only two years. Others including Lessing, Rich, and Nabokov were lucky enough to publish for half a century or more.

 

Since I, like most other writers, wish I had written and published a little more, it was heartening to learn that I am doing just fine. At 37, a little late, I published my first book, but at age, well, never mind, my memoir is still to appear, so I am writing longer than many others.

 

Of course there's a big difference between writing and publishing. Writers rarely stop writing, whether it's letters or journals, essays or articles, or unfinished books. Nonetheless, the Lit Hub editor has given us a fascinating peek at how long we go on.

 

 

 

 

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Writing in Winter

In midwinter, I must confess, part of me dreads the arrival of spring. How can this be since I'm an ardent gardener? The answer is that when my backyard starts greening up, my desire to go out in the garden on sunny mornings, instead staying at my desk, becomes difficult to resist.

 

In winter I spend many short daylight hours in my writing room. "Low rays of weak sun make the shadows of bare branches dance across my hands as I work at my desk," I wrote in Four Tenths of an Acre: Reflections on a Gardening Life. "Even on cloudy days the watery midwinter glow on the other side of the window glass makes me feel bathed in luminescence."

 

The dark days of winter are the time for the germination of ideas as well as the time for the reading, remembering, and reflection essential to the memoir I am working on.

 

While winter gives glints of briliant light off snow, spring offers many hours of warm daylight. Every February when immersed in a manuscript, I am sure I have no time for spring and become apprehensive about what looms like a deadline.

 

I suppose this only happens to writers who garden in places like New England. Certainly the explosion of growth in April around my house in Connecticut is dramatic, as colors turn from grays and browns to greens and yellows followed by the pinks, blues, and purples during the rest of the growing season.

 

I must also confess that another part of myself can't wait.

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The Female Gaze

One of the books I often return to is a slim volume full of important thoughts, Writing a Woman's Lifeby the late English professor Carolyn Heilbrun.

 

It's about women who have written about their own lives--literally as memoir or autobiography, imaginatively as fiction, indirectly via biography, or secretly under pseudonyms. Many have only written honestly about themselves in letters or in their private journals.

 

Professor Heilbrun, a wife and mother, wrote detective novels under a pseudonym about an alter ego who was unmarried, childless, rich, beautiful, and free, "a figure out of never-never land," she admitted when looking back.

 

When writing about Georgia O'Keeffe many years ago, it was as if I was writing about whom I wished to be. A sideways treatment of a life happens because we are often afraid to write openly about our anger or ambition. Even famous women like Eleanor Roosevelt and Golda Meir have described their successes as if they happened by chance instead of through their own determination and drive.

 

Why do I keep returning to Heilbrun's little book, first published by W. W. Norton in 1988? After writing biographies and beginning to publish in the first person, I found it inspiring to read about others who had written truthfully about what they had experienced and what they believed, the way I was trying to do in my books about childlessness, gardening, and in my forthcoming memoir about the writing life.

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Roth's Facts v. Roth's Fantasies

When Philip Roth's The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography was published two decades ago, I immediately bought it. While I liked many of his novels, as a writer of nonfiction I also yearned for some veracity from him. His imaginings could be head spinning--he even wrote a work of fiction with a protagonist named Philip Roth!--so I yearned for some truthfulness.

Roth lived in a nearby village in northwestern Connecticut, and I sometimes sighted him doing errands or at classical music concerts. He radiated intensity, whether looking in my direction or at musicians on stage. Something about his fierce dark glance made me keep my distance.

Recently I reread The Facts again while working on my own memoir. What did it tell me? The book that called itself an unconventional autobiography told me I could uninhibitedly TELL as well as show, two writerly tasks. In its way of playing with mirrors, it encouraged me to imagine and interpret and play around with structure while sticking to the facts.

It was also when I read Claudia Roth Pierpont's fascinating biography, Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books, again drawn to reality. At a book event I had the chance to ask Roth a question from a safe distance when she called him on a speaker phone. Recently, as he reached the age of eighty, he had said he was not going to write any more books, which had shocked me. I thought that writers never retire.

"Why have you stopped writing?" I asked him.

"Well, I'm not going to get any better," he said. It was a reply that brought me face to face with the fact of mortality, and the realization that even a writer as driven as Roth would one day have to stop. And now he is gone, but his fantasies and facts will live on.  Read More 
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How Emily Dickinson Got Her Inspiration

What is it about writing and gardening? The way they go together for writing gardeners and gardening writers? One of the latter myself, I believe they complement each other because of the way one works the brain and the other the body.

When writing my gardening memoir, Four Tenths of An Acre, I discovered intriguing information about poet Emily Dickinson's fascination with flowers. Her large family garden in Amherst, Massachusetts was where she trained her eye, experiences the vicissitudes of nature, and found eloquent metaphors for her poems.

She described her imagination "the garden within," and began a poem with the words: "This is a Blossom of the Brain." She gave specific flowers human qualities, like humility in the little wild yellow buttercup.

A facsimile edition of her gorgeous girlhood scrapbook of carefully identified and pressed plants is testament to her early love and knowledge of the flowers that would inspire her poems. Find it in a library to page through and enjoy! Read More 
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What's More Truthful: Fact or Fiction?

What's interesting about Richard Ford's recent memoir, Between Them: Remembering My Parents, is the way he makes the reader aware of the unreliability of memory--his memory, that is, but also any nonfiction writer's memory.

Many times as he describes an event, he almost stops in mid-sentence to confess that he didn't entirely comprehend what was going on around him as a child. "And for me, how was it?" he asks in one way or another throughout the memoir.

In fact, a novelist's imagination can be regarded as more truthful than a memoirist's memory, as Cheryl Strayed has pointed out in a review of his book.

Reading Ford's book has made me grateful to have many journals to rely on for my memoir. Still, even though the entries were written at the time events happened, I always have to remind myself that my interpretations of them are only my own. Also, from time to time I have to re-read passages in my journals to make sure my re-writing and editing of the manuscript has not affected a passage's original meaning.

I wonder if Ford will attempt nonfiction again, or if I will ever fall with relief into fiction?  Read More 
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Getting Ideas in the Garden

The late prize-winning poet Stanley Kunitz had a house in Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the edge of the sea on the tip of Cape Cod, where he grew plants and wrote poems into his nineties.

In his wonderful little book, The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden, he described his garden as "a work of the imagination" and his unconscious mind as "a wilderness."

What he called "the wild permissiveness of the inner life" allowed dangerous, rebellious, and even unwelcome ideas to arrive unbidden, but they were the perceptions that fed his creative imagination.

I know what he means, as I work in my garden in the inland hills of Connecticut. The memoir I'm deep into depends on vividly remembering. My hours uprooting masses of vibrant weeds these June days have a way of pulling up uninvited memories, rich and powerful messages from the past, the very ones that invigorate my writing.  Read More 
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