By: Louise van Oel
Photo Credits: Margaux H
The books you read anchor you to who you are at a point in time, in a way you can return to years or decades down the line just by cracking open the pages. I look at my Goodreads lists and, as I scroll down the rows of covers, I get brief flashes of what my life was like while I was reading that book. This is most true for the books I read that made me want to write.
I have recently discovered an interest in the relatively niche genre of female authors’ autobiographies. These autobiographies often have the author reflecting on how life influences art, and vice versa. Specifically, over the course of December and January, I have read Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson, Things I Don’t Want to Know and The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy, and two-thirds of M Train by Patti Smith. Any autobiography by a female writer will address to some degree how her life and art are connected, often also to her experience of gender, and that's exactly what I—also a female writer—hoped to find in these works.
There’s just something about reading beautifully crafted paragraphs by highly skilled authors—who have lived the kind of life you’re pursuing—writing beautifully about how they understand that life, and being given these books by people who know you and understand that you want that life too. I borrowed or received all of the aforementioned books from female writers, which adds an extra dimension to that (yes, Mom, I do mean you too).
More fiction writers and poets should appreciate the genre of nonfiction. I’m also a historian, trained to acknowledge my biases, so I’ll admit I was already partial towards factual writing to some extent. But now I’m learning to see the art in it too. And beyond that, what writing about your own life can mean for yourself and others, particularly as related to the desire to create.
On January 4th of this year, in my newly-started writing journal, I scribbled, “Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know has just made me sure in a way I haven’t been before that I want to be a writer.” I think what I was trying to express was more of a need than a want, and certainly more of a state of being than an occupation. I don’t know that I would want to put the pressure of being the breadwinner on my art, as I have heard mixed reviews about doing so. I do know that the sentiment I expressed is far from unique. Many of us who write have these special books that anchor us in that aspect of who and what we are. Works where reading them was not so much an action as an experience. Works that can reignite the desire to create in us even when we just hold them.
That desire to create can sometimes make itself scarce during difficult periods of life, and that is one of the main reasons why I think having these kinds of talisman-books is so important. Life throws a lot at us to juggle, and sometimes writing is just the easiest thing to drop. Sometimes (or oftentimes, for many of us) mental health takes a hit even when everything is going fine. In the latter situation, it can be hard to even want to create art anymore, let alone make the time. So why should you? The world isn’t going to end if you don’t write, so you don’t write. Nothing happens, but nothing happens. This can last years if you’re not careful.
Winterson, Levy, and Smith all come back to the intertwined nature of life and art for writers, and often return to the effects of hardship on both. All three women have experienced manifold levels of tragedy in their lives, sometimes lasting a long time and cutting incredibly deep. Abuse, poverty, deaths of loved ones, more. All worse than I’ve ever known. (You probably shouldn’t read large portions of these books in public places, is all I’ll say.) Writing was a way for each of these authors to pull herself out of despair. Or rather, to pull the despair out of herself before it could destroy her.
Turning sadness into beautiful prose is something storytellers have done since before Homer’s gut-wrenching scenes of Achilles mourning, and especially when you apply that action to your own life, writing can be a literal lifeline. Writing the sadness doesn’t make it go away, but it can help you understand yourself. And if you share it, it can help others understand themselves too.
In the second installment of her autobiography, titled The Cost of Living, Levy describes how she once came across a fountain that had been turned off: “A sign from the council read, This fountain has been winterized. I reckoned that this is what had happened to me too” (Levy 94). The fountain had been turned off so that water wouldn’t freeze inside it, to prevent damage. I jotted down this quote (with page number, well-trained lit student that I am) in my journal on January 8th. I have since left the book itself behind in Belgium, but I wrote down that line because I wanted to keep it with me.
I couldn’t help but apply it directly to myself. At some point during my early teenagehood, I taught myself to respond to difficult interpersonal situations by flicking my emotions off like a light switch. I have now discovered that this might not in fact be the superpower I once thought it was—I no longer have total control of the switch—and is not so easy to unlearn. So when I read that line in Levy’s book, I thought, Oh my God. I winterized myself. This is what had happened to me too.
The realization made me a little sad, of course, but it also elegantly pinpointed the problem by way of a metaphor that I never would have thought to use. I don’t know if Levy meant with that line what I understood from it (as I said, the context that might tell me is sitting in Belgium), but her use of a real memory of a real fountain to create a metaphor for that chapter of her life stuck with me.
I started my writer’s journal because I had started reading Levy’s autobiographies. Out of professional curiosity, I decided I would find out if I could also be the kind of writer who makes better sense of her own life by viewing it through the lens of narrative.
V.E. Schwab, another author I admire, has said that she is constantly reading (auto)biographies precisely because real people’s real lives often have such compelling stories to them. She does this mainly for the purpose of writing more compelling fictional characters, but why not apply this method the other way around, too? Why not embrace the idea that you are the main character of your life (cheesy though it is, objectively, you are) and value your lows and highs as equally formative parts of your story? Why not write them down as such, to help yourself understand?
Try not to accept unhappiness. Certainly don’t accept unfulfillment. Write your way out of there. When you look back at what you wrote years down the line, you’ll feel what it felt like to be you at that point, and trust me: you’ll view the struggling, trying person you were with such compassion.
Levy, Deborah. Things I Don’t Want To Know. Penguin Random House, 2014.
Levy, Deborah. The Cost Of Living. Penguin Random House, 2018.
Smith, Patti. M Train. Penguin Vintage Books, 2016.
Winterson, Jeanette. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Penguin Vintage Books, 2011.