Reviewing The Artist’s Way: Week 9

Being told I wasn’t lazy lifted a weight I hadn’t known I was carrying…

As we inch toward the end of The Artist’s Way, some loose ends begin to wrap up. Week 9 closes out the prior weeks’ thoughts on our negative conditioning, revealing what keeps us blocked. It also provides us with insights into what we need to do to start and sustain our creative work.

Fear: What’s in a Name?

Blocked artists are not lazy. They’re blocked.

Week 9’s theme is one of compassion, the kind that artists likely need when recovering from the losses discussed in week 8. Cameron introduces this theme by investigating how we label ourselves. She observes that artists often engage in negative self-talk by calling ourselves lazy when we fail to get creative projects underway (never mind finished). Gently disputing this opinion, she states that we actually are blocked. To prove her point, she recounts how much energy we spend on feeling of self-doubt, regret, and grief (among others). Our artistic inaction, she asserts, is caused by being blocked, and as she reveals, we’re blocked due to fear.

A friendly reminder: blocked artists are not lazy, they’re blocked! (Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay.)

Cameron doesn’t specifically draw out why our calling ourselves lazy is so harmful, but we can readily observe how blaming our “lack” of willpower turns to shame when we fail to get artistic projects underway, in turn begetting a cycle of regret because that fear remains unnamed and unaddressed. For Cameron, calling things by their right name is not a matter of semantics[*] but an act of compassion, because we cease scolding ourselves when we acknowledge what truly impedes our artistic endeavors. Moving deeper into this conversation, she explores what makes us afraid, focusing on how these fears (eg, fear of abandonment caused by parental displeasure[†]) may contribute to an artist’s desire to be wildly successful.

The internal pressures fueling our ambitions and need for success (regardless of the source), however, make it challenging to either create art or be an artist. As Cameron reassures us, we should regard any difficulties in getting going as an indicator that we need help versus a sign that we’re not meant to be artists. Such help comes from our supporters, higher powers (if one is so inclined), and ourselves (eg, “filling the form” from week 8). Conquering our fears, according to Cameron, requires us to love our artist. Normally verbose on these matters, her instruction here doesn’t exactly explain how she envisions this working—which would’ve been helpful—but surely the impetus to be kinder to ourselves is an excellent place to begin.

Contrary to what we often think, finding it difficult to start an artistic project is a sign that we need help, not proof that we’re not meant to be artists. (Image by Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.)

Enthusiasm as Motivation

Remember, art is a process. The process is supposed to be fun.

In the next section, Cameron answers an unposed question: How do we keep going once we’ve finally got those artistic projects started? Many of us believe that rigid discipline, powered by an artist’s indomitable willpower, is the answer. Cameron’s disdain for self-will, long a familiar sight to readers of The Artist’s Way, surfaces as she somewhat uncharitably states that this belief merely panders to one’s ego (making discipline our source of pride opposed to creativity). Discipline, she argues, only delivers temporary results. What sustains us as artists is enthusiasm.

Throughout The Artist’s Way, Cameron firmly states that art is meant to be an enjoyable process. Enthusiasm, in her view, is both a “spiritual commitment” to this process that allows us to recognize the creativity surrounding us and a source of creative energy flowing from “life itself”. Therefore, it’s the joy that we experience from our artistry that keep our artistic momentum going more than our slogging through a schedule. While we may still set schedules, we use them to plan our creative playdates. Similarly, our works areas are more likely to be a bit messier and colorful than the “monastic cells” that we tend to associate with disciplined artists. After all, our artist child self is more likely to create art when their efforts feel like play and their workspaces resemble playgrounds.

One of the items that makes my desk a fun place to be is my color-changing kitty cat humidifier. (Image by R. E. Gould.)
One of the items that makes my desk a fun place to be is my color-changing kitty cat humidifier. (Image by R. E. Gould.)

The one question Cameron hasn’t answered, however, is how enthusiasm relates to compassion. Between the lines, though, one might note the exclusionary whiff associated with discipline as would-be artists see this as the obstacle to their becoming artists. Subscribing to the myth of discipline is another way in which we’re unkind to ourselves, as this belief implies that creating art requires great willpower that only certain people possess. In truth, creativity is available to all, once we give ourselves permission to have fun and see what happens.

Creative U-Turns

A successful creative career is always built on creative failures. The trick is to survive them.

Week 9 opens with Cameron urging us to keep going, noting that we’re on the cusp of learning to disassemble our emotional blocks. It’s an appropriate warning, as impending success is when we most often experience a creative U-turn. As mentioned previously, creative U-turns are losses associated with self-sabotage (eg, opportunities we refuse). Cameron, as promised in week 8, returns to creative U-turns to flesh out why they occur and how to deal with them.

Creative U-turns represent moments when we self-sabotage ourselves, because we’re intimidated by our next artistic move. (Image by mark jennings-bates from Pixabay.)

Cameron cautions that some artists might feel threatened by their approaching recovery and balk at this progress. Others may find it easier to remain “victim to artist’s block” than to take on the risks of being a productive artist. While Cameron is wearing her “tough love” hat here as she uncomfortably points out how we resist recovery, she also wants us to be sympathetic when we reflect on our U-turns, because creativity has its frightening moments. We can, as she suggests, look at such moments as “recycling times”, that is, moments when need a few tries before we succeed in making a creative leap. However, she emphasizes that creative U-turns happen in all artistic careers—a point so important she mention it twice in short succession before providing a lengthy list of artists who themselves had creative failures preceding their eventual successes.

Failure is a part of the creative process, but it is survivable. To do so, we need to recognize that our creative U-turns or series of U-turns represent a reaction to our fear.[‡] Once we’ve acknowledged our U-turns and their sources, we need to seek help. To begin, we can outline what part of the creative process makes us feel uneasy. We might give ourselves confidence by building up to these difficulties (eg, trying a workshop before seeking an agent). We also can tap into our resources by asking other artists we know for assistance. As Cameron assures us, the help will come.

Blasting Through Blocks

Blocks are seldom mysterious.

Artistic Block Blaster
1. List resentments (anger) connected to project.
2. List fears associated with the project.
3. Ask if there are any fears or anger left, however small or petty.
4. Ask what you gain by not doing the project.
5. Make a deal with yourself to complete the project. 

Source: Cameron, Julia. The Artist's Way: A Spirtual Path to Higher Creativity. Souvenir Press, 2020.

Perhaps the most exciting part of week 9 involves some advice on how to “blast” past our artist’s blocks. Cameron maintains that we need to be relatively “free of resentment (anger) and resistance (fear)” before we can work on our artistic projects. Therefore, we first need to consider what undisclosed concerns exist with a project or whether we have some lingering, unstated payoffs for not working. As she observes, our blocks are relatively straightforward: they act “artistic defenses” against what we may feel is an unsafe situation. Our mission, therefore, is to assure our artist child that it is safe to proceed. Cameron closes this week by providing a short questionnaire that’s aimed at unearthing these concealed barriers to artistic work, which she indicates is also helpful for clearing away obstructed flow in instances where the work becomes challenging (for an abridged version, see the text box).

Some Closing Thoughts

Week 9 ventures into both new and familiar territory as it persuades us to treat ourselves compassionately. While Cameron’s not one to shy from tough talk should she feel it’s necessary, this push to be kinder to ourselves is as valuable as deepening our understanding of how we artistically block ourselves. We’ve all experienced failures in our artistic lives. But we rarely do we let ourselves off the hook for them. There’s something comforting in being permitted to recognize our fears, let go of shame, and accept that we can move past our creative U-turns.

What particularly resonated with me this week, however, was Cameron’s insightful conversation on calling things by their right names. Being told I wasn’t lazy lifted a weight I hadn’t known I was carrying until I realized that my undone projects had little to with my drive.[§] This section makes the case as to why willpower and ego aren’t to blame for our artistic works in limbo—or sufficient in themselves to get us across either the start or finish line. In doing so, Cameron also highlighted (perhaps inadvertently) how dangerous negative self-talk is. Here, it works as a subtle pattern of self-shaming that convinces us we haven’t what it takes to be an artist while neatly preventing us from dealing with the fear blocking our path. This behavior does a tremendous disservice to our creative lives and likely elsewhere. It’s something that gave me pause even as I enjoyed the sense of liberation I felt at being judged “not lazy”.

Many chapters in this book deal with difficult subjects (shame, anger, jealousy, etc), with week 8 focusing heavily on our artistic losses. It’s easy to see why week 9 might seem like a good place to call it quits. Despite the time it took for me to get to and through this week,[**] I found it to be among the more positive experiences with this book thus far, because Cameron’s advice here generally is useful and easy to enact. While I continue to long for Cameron’s writing to stay a bit closer to the point or to explain how love will conquer my fears, week 9 overwhelmingly is one that should be considered unmissable for those reading The Artist’s Way.

Be kind to yourself
A gentle reminder to treat yourself kindly from Julia Cameron and myself! (“Be Kind” image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay.)

NOTES:


[*] Similar to week 7’s discussion on the difference between invention and inspiration in terms of “thinking something up” versus “getting something down”.

[†]Cameron’s is laser focused on attributing artistic blocks to negative childhood conditioning from parents, which, while important, becomes tiresome and neglects other ways in which the same results may be achieved by different means. For instance, someone from a working-class background could also feel compelled to excel artistically to justify the sacrifices their made to provide their child with the opportunity to be an artist.

[‡] We should, too, mourn them as was suggested in week 8.

[§] Briefly, I wished this was something we were told from the outset of the book or was emblazoned on its cover. But I also almost instantly recognized that I would’ve unlikely to accept this point so early on.

[**] I’m closer to a 12-month than 12-week plan.

The Artist’s Way: A Review of the First Three Weeks

Cameron doesn’t teach creativity per se, so much as she encourages her readers to allow themselves to be creative.

Towards the end of 2021, a writer friend shared that she planned to work with The Artist’s Way. I’d never heard of Julia Cameron or this book before, so I was curious about it. Since we were discussing how we both wanted to write more going forward, I decided it might be worthwhile to see if this book would help me achieve that end. When in a pandemic and dealing with another surge and some unpleasant life stuff, jumping feet first into a new endeavor sounds fun—especially if it helps your writing life. So, without further ado (that is, reading up on it), I ordered it and planned to get underway in January.

Nothing like leaping before you look, right?

What is The Artist’s Way?

It’s a self-help book based on classes that Julia Cameron teaches on creativity. Meant to be used by any artist (from the hobbyist to the professional), it does not focus on a specific art form, although writing does feature in it (more on that shortly). Cameron doesn’t teach creativity per se, so much as she encourages her readers to allow themselves to be creative. For this reason, the book works on what undermines people from embracing their creativity and provides various techniques to encourage/explore creativity.

People who study certain subjects (psychology, philosophy/religion), attend therapy, or belong to 12-step programs (the course is 12 weeks, which I doubt is coincidental) may recognize some techniques from these disciplines. The benefit here is that these various ideas are specifically aimed at living a more artistic lifestyle. Spirituality is heavily emphasized, as is the belief that all of us are meant to be creative (a central tenet). Overall, this book focuses on helping its readers to live a more artistic life.

The Good: Tools for Growing as an Artist

Morning Pages

The Artist’s Way provides two tools (meant to work together) to use throughout the 12-week course and, ideally, going forward: morning pages and the artist’s date. Morning pages, as the name suggests, should be completed every morning upon awakening.[*] Whether the reader happens to be a pianist or a sculptor, they must sit down and write three sides of paper (that is, 1.5 pages) of text by hand every morning. Generally, no one should look at them—not even their composer initially.

Caffeine is a must for morning pages.

The purpose of these pages is a more difficult to explain. Their job, much like a first draft, is to exist. They don’t have to be about anything specific or planned, just what comes to mind. By getting them done early, it allows you to express yourself less critically, regardless of your mood. They may reveal problematic patterns in your life, provide inspiration, or be an outlet for your complaints, but primarily they help you clear your mind.[†] Cameron describes them alternately as meditation or prayer.

The Artist’s Date

If morning pages are a freewheeling process designed to get your thoughts on the page, the artist’s date is about doing. Much like morning pages, the second tool should not be missed but be performed weekly (around two hours, although a specific time is not required). The artist’s date requires you to go on something like a solo playdate. The idea is to experiment with things that interest you, which don’t have to be especially artistic.

I was well-prepared with some herbal tea and warm outerwear for taking a walk on my first (chilly) artist’s date.

While what you do on the date varies (this depends on the reader’s tastes but there are exercises that provide inspiration), the goal is to help you refill your artistic well (that is, replenishing your source for creativity) by observing and experiencing. Some examples of artist’s date can include taking a walk, cooking a new dish, visiting a museum, etc. Cameron notes that artist’s dates can provide solutions to concerns that come up during morning pages.

Benefits of These Tools

Both tools have the potential to help readers working on their artistic recovery (that is, embracing their creativity). Arguably, we all have artistic blocks that prevent us from creating, whether it’s holding us back in our artistic expression or preventing us from being creative at all. Using these tools can help expose those blocks (morning pages) and work through them by allowing yourself to do fun things (artist’s dates).

Potential Challenges

In the introduction, Cameron announces that she uses the term God throughout (accurately), but the reader can interpret “God” however they choose. She is clear that she does not want or expect people to believe in God if they don’t or aren’t sure about that concept (she suggests the workaround of viewing God as short for “good orderly flow”). I would’ve preferred that she more liberally used generic terms (eg, the universe or even higher power) to be inclusive and more neutral, but the burden is really on the reader to work around the terminology if it makes them uncomfortable. Although she insists her version of God is benevolent, I doubt her assurance erases the reader’s constructs of God, religion, and spirituality that term evokes, for better or worse. Week 3, which involves a more in-depth discussion of God, may prove challenging for some.

Some Minor Difficulties

The Artist’s Way is meant to be used creatively, with readers having a lot of freedom to use Cameron’s suggestions as works best for them. As such, it was not designed to operate as a traditional textbook, but there are areas where I wished there was more guidance present. I ran into a few minor difficulties trying to find information and instructions.

What’s the fuss about paper? Cameron assures there’s “no wrong way to do morning pages”, but some tasks seemed to suggest otherwise.

Cameron states in an early chapter called “The Basic Tools” that there’s “no wrong way to do morning pages” and suggests writing on loose pages and storing them in an envelope or using a spiral notebook .[‡] With the idea that any approach would work, I initially decided to use a comparably sized composition notebook as that works better for me. However, the first two tasks in week 1—when you presumably get underway with these pages—specifically refer to loose paper stored in an envelope. Fearing I misunderstood, I went hunting for the instructions on morning pages, which took some time to find as I forgot that they were in the aforementioned chapter (the index eventually led me back). But better instructions here would have saved me the bother. If the paper choice isn’t set in stone, the associated tasks should reflect that freedom (eg, it could state the notebook cover or envelope could get a star for task 2 of week 1).

Cameron recommends using larger notebooks and paper (left), because she feels they let your thoughts be more expansive—unlike smaller journals (right).

Admittedly, this is a mild quibble, but there are other instances where more detail would be helpful. When you encounter tasks for the first time, there are no instructions provided about how to do them, because this was again discussed previously in the chapter called “Spiritual Electricity: The Basic Principles”. Here, referring to that chapter (as is done elsewhere: tasks 1 and 5 refer in week 2 refers you back to week 1’s affirmations) or just restating the instructions would be useful. With that in mind, the reader might need to be more diligent about taking notes or highlighting specific instructions.

I should also note there are some potential areas of confusion when it comes to some ideas and topics. Morning pages, as discussed above, are hard to describe, because potential use cases and benefits may vary depending on the person and their specific blocks or challenges—which is fair. However, Cameron does occasionally hint at topics that will be discussed in more depth later. Flagging such instances as future topics would be ideal, as I found myself wondering what she meant or whether this was an important practice.[§] Again, it might be best to be patient with the process or just look up items in the index if you want the description immediately.

My Own Journey with Artist’s Way Up to Week 3

Having made the plunge and purchased the book without investigating what it offered, I likely expected something more focused on writing than artistic recovery. I also missed the “spiritual path” part, which normally I would hesitate to buy. As a rule, I avoid discussing various religious or spiritual belief/disbelief systems for various reasons that include weariness with such discussions.

Since I made the commitment to try something new,[**] I decided to continue onward despite my trepidation. As soon as I began reading the prefatory chapters, this book turned up in numerous places online—and another writer friend also started working with it. It seemed like a sign I should give it a chance. As with many self-help books, it’s useful to have a read, learn from what works, and ignore what doesn’t. So far, the morning pages seem helpful when it comes to meeting my goal to write regularly, although I’m not sure I’ve had enough artist’s dates to comment on their effect.

Going forward, I will continue to skip reading ahead as it’s a bit more adventurous this way—plus it allows me fewer opportunities to avoid anything else that’s challenging but negotiable. And, having just completed week 4, this choice already proved to be a good one, as this particular lesson was sufficiently challenging (though negotiable) to merit its own post, which I’ll link to when I finish writing it.

NOTES:


[*] Acquiring caffeine first is permitted and is, in my opinion, mandatory. Under the tasks for week 1, she also suggests getting up half hour earlier to do your morning pages, which I cheerfully ignored as I’m a night owl.

[†] For writers, there is the additional benefit of establishing a daily writing practice, which potentially could extend into establishing a more regular creative writing practice. This is one reason I’m interested in continuing onward with this course.

[‡] Her website offers clearer, perhaps more prescriptive suggestions about morning pages that you can find here and here. For the artist’s date, some more information can be found here.

[§] The most intriguing instance of this (thus far) involves a task in week 4, which asks you to create an altar. Here, it states the altar reminds us creativity is a spiritual versus ego issue. Using an altar and its purpose were not mentioned let alone discussed in any detail previously, which made this task seem out of place. However, the index suggests this conversation will occur in about 100 more pages, so I assume their relevance will become clearer then.

[**] Yes, I’m familiar with the sunk cost fallacy, but I think a trial in such cases can be worthwhile before you decide whether it’s prudent to cut your losses.

The 2021 Reading Review

In which I discuss some of the amazing books I read last year.

I often think that the “new year, new me” vibe asks a lot of January. It feels unfair that, with a flick of the calendar, we switch from merriment to self-improvement (surely, a yearlong project) just when winter blasts into its stride. But given that change has been something of the new normal,[*] perhaps some introspection is warranted.

Certainly, this changeability influenced my reading last year. I read a respectable 45 books in 2021, mostly fiction (heavily leaning towards literary fiction and mysteries) mixed with a few memoirs. While I thoughtfully chose some books, I spent a lot of time reading on a whim. After the last few years, being flexible felt like the right approach. Many books I read also dwelled on serious and/or dark themes, perhaps another side effect of these difficult times. But what hasn’t changed is how reading connects us to ideas, places and people, both familiar and beyond our reach. Below, in no special order, are some of the books that made my reading year memorable.

Journeys: Traveling in Words

While travel stayed limited to nonexistent for many in 2021, books continued to let us explore worlds. Many of these journeys were physical, but they also could be spiritual. Although the characters in these books might be unsure of where they’re headed or if they’re ready to undertake the attendant trials, such trips often prove to be both worthwhile and, indeed, necessary.

Band on the Run

Black and white photo taken of Kindle showing the book cover for The Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia. Photo taken by Rita E. Gould
Kindle view of The Bellweather Rhapsody.

The Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia focuses on a single (somewhat wild) weekend where hundreds of high school musicians gather for an annual state festival, which happens to coincide with the anniversary of a murder-suicide that occurred in the hotel. The past is on a collision course in many ways in this ostensibly YA novel (there’s plenty for adults here), as old lovers meet, new affairs begin, a witness to the murder comes to confront her past, and a musical prodigy disappears from the room where the murder occurred. In addition to giving me serious high school music department nostalgia, it’s poignant to see these teens negotiating their encroaching adulthood while sorting out new friends and being snowbound in a creaky hotel that might have a murderer on the loose. The resolution comes with a few bangs but is satisfying in its messy, glorious finish.

Cats on the Go

Curling up with The Traveling Cat Chronicles

Up next is The Traveling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa (translated by Philip Gabriel).[†] This novel explores the bond of “pet” and their person as Nana and his human, Sakura, undertake a journey through Japan. Street cat Nana decides to live with the kindly Sakura after Sakura rescues this self-reliant feline from a serious injury. Several years later, Sakura decides that both should visit his closest friends from important times and places in his life. As Nana discovers, Sakura wants one of these dear friends to take in his cat, as a situation arises where he feels he can no longer live with Nana. Nana politely thwarts Sakura’s intentions, choosing to be at Sakura’s side through his challenges. Sakura, however, doesn’t leave his friends emptyhanded, as he continues to touch their lives and Nana learns about the events that shaped this remarkable man. While The Traveling Cat Chronicles leans sentimental in places, Sakura and Nana are a heartwarming pair dealing gracefully with life’s hardest moments.

Dreams for the Future

Photo (taken by Rita E. Gould) of Kindle screen showing the cover of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.
Mother of Floods offers hope, connection, and kinder Internet.

Rounding out this group is Madeleine F. White’s cli-fi speculative novel, Mother of Floods, which centers around the encroaching apocalypse. While the end of the world should be grim (and there’s certainly dark, difficult moments in this novel), here it proves to be an opportunity for hope. White draws on both spirituality and mythology across continents, weaving a multicultural cast of characters (the majority of whom are women) from different traditions, walks of life, and incomes. Set initially in present day with our world’s too familiar and seemingly intractable problems, Martha (England), Fatima, Badenan (both Iraq), Mercy, Chipo (both Zimbabwe), and Anjani (Indonesia) all struggle, whether it’s with a brutal marriage undertaken for survival, widowhood and debt, physical incapacitation, limited prospects, or lack of fulfilment. The common thread among them is spiritual awakening and connection. Meeting both online and off, in dreams and visions, these mostly ordinary women,[‡] with the aid of the newly ensouled Internet (a clever approach to a “ghost in machine” that gives a conscience to the information highway), these women help reshape the world into one of freedom and plenty. Unlike anything you’ve read and deeply fascinating, White’s novel envisions a better future where smalls acts lead to big change.

Glamor with a Side of Secrets

Wealth is not without its burdens and that includes secrets, both scandalous and terrible, they’d rather keep quiet. Whether it’s a character study of the woman with a façade designed to appeal to her adoring public or a high society affair turned thorny mystery, these novels let us peek behind the scenes and learn what they’re hiding.

Murder on the Island

Kindle view of The Guest List.

In The Guest List by Lucy Foley, power couple Will and Jules’s spare no expense on making their society wedding a perfect, private event by choosing a seemingly charming but remote island (accessible only by boat) off Ireland’s west coast as the site for their nuptials. But, as Foley reveals, both guests and the brooding island are harboring secrets as a storm threatens. Careful to conceal the murder victim’s identity for most of the book (no spoilers here), Foley weaves in the various narrators’ impressions of events from rehearsal dinner through wedding night, revealing pasts best forgotten—and the reasons that might mark them as victim or murderer. Foley scatters numerous clues through her story, many which lead to false trails that keep readers guessing. While I did guess the victim’s identity before the reveal (after a few false starts), the killer was quite the shock. The Guest List is a well-paced, tense read that reveals guilt and hidden sins, mends families while renting others, and, arguably, serves a sort of justice.

A Star with Something to Hide

In The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s portrayal of a film legend is so successful you could swear that the titular character stepped out of a magazine spread, which (as it happens) is the ruse she uses to meet with relatively unknown magazine reporter, Monique Grant. Hugo, in fact, wants Monique (who she recognizes as a talented writer) to pen her biography. With both career and love life stalled, an intrigued Monique can’t refuse what may be an opportunity of a lifetime, particularly when Hugo mentions they share some mysterious connection. And Evelyn has plenty of other secrets she’s ready to air about her time in Hollywood.

Kindle view of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

As a character, Hugo intrigues on every page, because she’s an unabashedly sexual woman who remains unashamed of her desires (however discreet she must be about them; this novel involves same sex romances) and unafraid to use that sexuality as a tool to get what she wants. Evelyn’s naked ambition is a refreshing thing to see in a female character, particularly as Jenkins Reid explores the dual nature of such ambition that both helps Evelyn escape her abusive childhood and propels her to fame but also costs her identity and even love. Hollywood often put it stars through the wringer (and on the casting couch), and Evelyn is no exception. Her resilience and path back to herself and love is extraordinary. Monique, too, grows through the novel (taking more than just notes about Evelyn’s history) and finds herself inspired to demand more from her own life and prospects. As Monique becomes increasing fond of her subject, Evelyn reveals regrets, which, of course, risks this regard. A story reflecting on the price of fame, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo manages to give us a complicated portrayal of woman living behind the glamorous mask

The Dark Side of Sisterhood

Literature has its fair share of loving sisters who persevere through hardships (eg, the March sisters from Alcott’s Little Women), some who unwaveringly support each other as they survive challenging upbringings (as Jeannette Walls recounts in her memoir, The Glass Castle).[§] However, the books I’ll be sharing do not belong to their numbers. Reminiscent of Oyinkan Braithwhite’s novel My Sister, the Serial Killer (from last year’s review), these sisters are more inclined towards mischief, malice, complicity, and some unhealthy co-dependence. Each reveals a fascinating though upsetting look at sisterly love.

The Recluses

Photo (taken by Rita E. Gould) of the Kindle book cover for We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.
Kindle view of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

In We Have Always Lived at the Castle by Shirley Jackson, we meet the reclusive Blackwood sisters, Constance and Merricat, six years after most of their wealthy family perished by poisoning that both avoided. Living with the now handicapped sole survivor of the poisoning, their Uncle Julian, the group ekes out a happy enough existence. Only the unusual Merricat (the book’s narrator and a clever young woman who seems rather immature for her age) ventures into the nearby village when she fetches books and supplies. The family, once quietly resented for their wealth, is now openly ostracized after Constance’s acquittal for their family’s murder, with Merricat often being tormented by the angry villagers.

Merricat, who lists sister Constance among her favorites despite her being the likely murderer,[**] is dismayed when her sister suddenly shows signs of wanting to rejoin society at the behest of loyal family friends. To make matters worse, their cousin Charles drops in for a visit. Merricat resents Charles’s intrusion, as he clearly wants to curb her wildness and expresses far too much interest in the family money. Without giving more away, the ending is both dramatic and near perilous for the sisters who nonetheless choose each other and their solitude, right or wrong, as Charles leaves emptyhanded, and the villagers end up repenting their misdeeds.

An Inseparable Pair

Kindle view of Sisters.

Sisters, by Daisy Johnson, is a dark, disturbing look at sisterhood. Fleeing from Oxford after some harrowing school incident involving sisters July (the primary narrator) and September, the girls and their mother, Sheela (the secondary narrator), arrive at Settle House in North Yorkshire. Located by both the moors and the sea, the aptly named Settle House adds a gothic element, as the dilapidated structure provides little respite as it reluctantly shelters the troubled family. The girls, born 10 months apart, share a suffocating, with elder sister September ruling the pair.

Throughout the novel, Johnson slowly parses out the puzzle pieces that reveal why the family left home so abruptly. Their backstory involves both violence and abandonment. September and July respectively resemble parents Peter and Sheela, both in looks and character. Peter proves to be a controlling man who was violent with both his own sister (Settle House’s owner) and wife, and who left the family long before he died. The more fragile Sheela is a single, working parent who suffers from crushing depression—a combination that often forces the children to shift for themselves (Sheela, in the throes of depression, rarely leaves her room during the novel). Johnson’s pacing allows the tension to increase in pitch, with each revelation hinting that the truth to come is worse yet. However, the revelations by no means spoil the shocking twist, as July’s devastating choices prove the ties that bind are inescapable in this novel.

Reading Resolutions

While I may not be a huge fan of January resolutions for myself, I mind them less for my yearlong reading goals. I am continuing to work on both my writing projects and my writing process, which is an ongoing process. Since November/December, I’ve been working through The Artist’s Way (first sampling the text, and now, in January, going through the lessons) to see what insights I might glean. I’ve also put together a few books that I’d like to read by the year’s end in addition to the six(!) books I already finished this year. While my list is shorter than it has been in the past (keeping last year’s flexibility in place), it includes books I’ve meant to read already (again), ones from indie authors, and even poetry. As always, I look forward to the year in reading and wish you many good reads as well!

2021 Reading List[††]
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie Hawkes
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
Bestiary by K-Ming Chang
The String Games by Gail Aldwin
Dear Blacksmith by Beverley Ward
The Salt Lick by Lulu  Allison
Cajoncito by Elizabeth M Castillo
Photo (by Rita E. Gould) of 4 books on a grey and white striped background. The books are The Salt Lick by Lulu Allsion, Cajoncito by Elizabeth M. Castillo, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, and Bestiary by K-Ming Chang.
Some books from my 2022 reading list: Lulu Allison’s The Salt Lick, Elizabeth M. Castillo’s Cajoncito, K-Ming Chang’s Bestiary, and Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing

What are reading in the new year? Share in the comments below!

NOTES


[*] The resolve to stay safe but separate in 2020 turned into the hope of Spring vaccinations. But, as more variants emerged, we’re reminded we’re not quite through this storm.

[†] This book, written by a woman in translation, was recommended to me during #WITmonth. And…it’s about a cat.

[‡] Billionaire entrepreneur Anjani might have humble roots, but her life story is extraordinary in many ways.

[§] Walls’s memoir recounts the unusual, difficult upbringing her parents gave their children (including Jeanette, her sister, and brother) who worked as a team to make better lives for themselves and, when permitted, their beloved parents.

[**]Guests, unlike Merricat, are appalled when Constance offers her cooking.

[††] You can find previous years reading reviews from 2017, 2018, and 2019 by clicking the links.

Reading Partners: The Relationship Edition

For my spouse and I, being on different pages when it comes to our reading preferences can be an advantage.

When I’m ready to curl up on a comfy sofa with a good book, I rarely browse through my spouse’s books. Ignoring our professional tomes or old schoolbooks that survived the Konmari purge, there’s limited overlap between our bookcases. Our common ground appears to be Stephen King’s books[*] interspersed with fantasy or science fiction selections and a smattering of literary fiction. My spouse’s tastes center around the said genres and nonfiction, while I wander freely through many genres. We may read together in the same room, but we’re still reading miles apart.

But, as it happens, being on different pages when it comes to our reading preferences can be an advantage. Allow me to explain.

Reading together. Image designed in Canva by R. Gould

Unexpected Common Ground

As most bibliophiles know, there’s no greater pleasure than unexpectedly finding common reading interests with another person. Early in our relationship, my spouse and I discovered several books and authors we mutually liked, which led us to recommend books the other hadn’t yet read from our shared authors.

But even years later, we still surprise each other when we discover a reading connection that allows us to share new authors/titles with each other. When my husband recommended Good Omens co-authored by one of his favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, I knew I wanted to read it because I already was a fan of its other author, Terry Pratchett. I enjoyed it as much as he did, and we discussed it for ages afterwards. As a result, I ended up delving into a few other books by Gaiman (Coraline, The Ocean at the End of the Lane), while my spouse read Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic.

The Book Finder

Some time ago, my husband purchased Helene Tursten’s short story collection, An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good (translated by Marlaine Delargy). Initially intrigued by the cross-stitch cover and its premise, he purchased this book as he felt like it was one that I’d like (crime/detection fiction is a favorite of mine but not necessarily one of his). I loved it so much I’ve written about it here, as well as pretty much re-shelved it to my bookshelf.[†] But I wasn’t the only one who loved Maud. He’s also a huge fan, and both of us couldn’t wait to tell each other the next Maud collection would be released soon.[‡] Similarly, I’ve found several books that match his interest in science fiction (eg, Arthur C. Clarke winner Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time) or travel (eg, Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path) because I spend more time on book Twitter than he does.

In some ways, our situation is akin to having a personal book shopper who gets what you really want and isn’t afraid to suggest some more eclectic choices. Beyond this, I’ve discovered that our different interests and approaches to finding books often lead us to find authors and books for each other that we individually might not have discovered.

The Influencer

To be honest, I read more nonfiction now than I would have without my spouse’s intervention. Sometimes, his reading features how-to books, tomes on self-improvement, and deep dives into history. Over the years, he’s suggested a few books from these categories when he thought they might be mutually relevant so that we could read or listen[§] to them together (eg, Nuture Shock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman when our kiddo was young as well as Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up when we wanted to declutter).

But some books more related to his career caught his attention, and and my spouse later referred to them me as they touch upon my interests (eg, Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech corresponds with interests in feminism and science). For my part, I’ve gently nudged him to read more detective fiction (eg, anything Agatha Christie) and literary fiction than he might have otherwise considered reading (eg, Kindred by Octavia Butler, which has elements of speculative fiction).

While having someone (again) introduce you to new book is fantastic, the larger victory is that we both found ourselves more willing (albeit selectively) to read from categories that we might not otherwise given a chance. In short, we’re both a bit more openminded when we peruse books, because we now know that there are great books even in categories that don’t spark joy for us.

Here’s a sample of some of the books that my spouse and I’ve recommended to each other. (Photo by Rita E. Gould)

The Seller

Ever read a book so good that you tell everyone you know about it? My spouse and I both are susceptible to this phenomenon. We’re both well aware that a particular book might not be something the other would standardly enjoy (or even close to it), but we recommend it because it’s that good. I know literary fiction (particularly the grimmer sort) isn’t something my spouse runs toward, but Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (trans. Deborah Smith) is a masterpiece. Similarly, my limited interest in science fiction hasn’t stopped him from insisting that I also read This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. I can’t say that time traveling enemy agents is my thing, but I’ll give it a whirl because its epistolary format interests me. If nothing else, we’ll have plenty of opportunities to discuss why we didn’t like each other’s suggestions.

The Wrap Up: Reading Couple Goals

As two people who love reading and writing, we often do want to talk about the amazing books we’ve read—even if one of us will never read that book. But we’ve found that that our differences worked well to expand our individual reading horizons. While it’s great having a book buddy when it comes to chatting about favorite reads, being able to discuss any book with your reading partner is amazing.[**] And who better to do start that conversation with than your significant other?


Do you and your significant other read together or separately? Let me know in the comments section if you recommend books for each other.


NOTES:

[*] He’s his own genre by now, right?

[†] In the writing of this essay, I’ve discovered I’m something of a book thief. I promised to return…most of them.

[‡] We actually put it on our Goodreads to-read lists within 5 days of each other.

[§] As a rule, I rarely listen to audiobooks, as I read much faster than the book can be spoken. But it’s an ideal way to jointly go through a book, particularly if you’re stuck in a car for a few hours.

[**] Of course, you don’t need to be in a romantic relationship to form your own miniature book club or salon, but it is a bonus if you and your significant other can do so.

Reading Women in Translation 2020: Finding Connection

More seriously, though, reading women in translation is yet another way in which we can find our common humanity and build our empathy for each other. I think this is the year we can truly use that connection.

Over the last few years, I made a point of including books by women in translation—that is, once I discovered this gap in my reading habits. As I discussed earlier, it’s a tremendous loss to be unaware of these amazing women writing excellent books—a compounded loss, when we consider how many women’s books don’t get translated in the first place. WITMonth[*] goes some ways towards changing that trend as each year passes, which is why I like to remind folks about this event. After all, it’s always a great idea to support women writers. Speaking personally, reading these works has enriched my life, and I’m glad that these books and writers are getting their deserved attention.

WITmonth 2020

This year, however, I found myself looking forward to WITMonth a bit more than I previously did.[†] On Twitter, I enjoyed conversations where people shared their recommendations for books they recently read or favorites they felt everyone should read. There was the joy of discovering people who liked books that I liked as well as the thrill that someone was going to read a book I suggested. It was a stimulating experience that made me ransack my bookshelves and download a few new books.[‡] Perhaps this represents my passion for books or the pleasure of an uncomplicated conversation in a tumultuous year, but I think there’s more to it that I may have overlooked at a different time.

Connection and Community

WITMonth is a connector, both through books and social media. I chatted with folks from England, Australia, and distant parts of my own country about books and why they or I must read them. The act of reading these books, too, forges connections. When I picked up books written by writers from distant times and places, people who speak and live differently than I do, I travel through these experiences—something for which I’m grateful as my opportunities to travel and meet people are limited at present. More seriously, though, reading women in translation is yet another way in which we can find our common humanity and build our empathy for each other. I think this is the year we can truly use that connection.[§]

WITMonth both celebrates women writers we might otherwise miss without an annual event to bring these books more attention and creates community. And it’s not limited to just one month: we can read these books and continue discussing them online throughout the year.

RESOURCES

If you’re looking for great titles to add to your reading list, check out Meytal Radzinki’s web site. As the founder of #WITmonth, her suggestions span the globe.

NOTES:


[*] Held in August each year since being founded by Meytal Radzinki in 2014, Women in Translation month (#WITmonth) celebrates books by women translated into English.

[†] Though, I confess I read less than I hoped to do. Covid-19’s effect on my reading is to allow time to read in great gulps or not at all. Also, I undertook reading The Tale of Genji, and it is massive.

[‡] My local library had The Perfect Nanny (in England, Lullaby) by Leïla Slimani (translated by Sam Taylor), a haunting, tragic novel exploring class, race, and parenting. (Warning for violence against children/death and suicide.)

[§] More on this point in an upcoming post, as 2020, also has been a time of unrest and protest for social justice.

The 2018 Reading Review

This year’s review features books I didn’t choose but read anyway, procrastination, and, as always, the new year’s reading list.

At this time of year, I normally like to compile a list of notable books that I’ve read over the past year as well as create a reading list for the year ahead. However, there’s been a change in plans this year, because I have already shared my shortlist of notable books from 2018 elsewhere. As you may know, I belong to the Women Writers Network, which is a volunteer group running a Twitter account that focuses on supporting and promoting women writers. Helen Taylor (one of the founder members and author of The Backstreets of Purgatory[1]) compiled our favorite reads of 2018. Since my top six books of 2018 appear on this list (you can find the list at Helen’s web site), I thought I’d focus on some very different reading highlights from the past year before presenting my to-be-read list, which I eternally hope to complete by the year’s end regardless of how faithless I was to the previous year’s list.[2] But I digress. Let’s get back to last year’s reading adventures.

The Alternative Reading Highlights of 2018

Procrastination Stopper

The 2018 Reading Review by Rita E. Gould. Photos taken of book covers by Rita E. Gould

Over the past few years, I’ve participated in both reading and book photo challenges (you can view my entries to the Reading Women Month book photo challenge and Bookriot’s #Riotgrams here). Although I’ve never per se “won” a challenge by completing all the categories, it’s fun to see what fellow book lovers share.[3] Generally, the highlight of my reading challenges is that they inspire me to stretch outside my reading comfort zone or discover more diverse perspectives.[4] However, this year’s Reading Women Challenge inspired me to stop procrastinating and finish the book that’s lingered the longest on my reading list. I’m pleased to announce I finally read Woman in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret Fuller. Despite it being a more challenging read, this fascinating early feminist tract makes a strong religious argument for woman’s self-sufficiency and expanded rights. Partly inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Fuller’s work in turn spurred suffragists in the United States to demand the vote.

Most Unlikely to Be Read

The 2018 Reading Review. Text by Rita E. Gould. Photos taken of book covers by Rita E. Gould.

Book challenges influence my reading greatly, as do Twitter chat suggestions and personal recommendation. One of the more whimsical books I read this year is one I wouldn’t have chosen for myself, even had any of these sources suggested it.[5] Though a difficult to categorize book, Hannah Hart’s My Drunk Kitchen: a Guide to Eating, Drinking and Going with Your Gut proved to an enjoyable read. Part sentimental, part hilarious, part memoir, and part cookbook, it left me bemused but feeling upbeat. While I’m not sure I’d attempt some of the recipes, I’d definitely read it again.

Most Unexpected Source of Reading Recommendations

The 2018 Book Review. Text by Rita E. Gould. Photos of book covers taken by Rita E. Gould.

Speaking of books I wouldn’t have selected without an outside influence, I curiously have Netflix to thank for my discovering the Phryne Fisher mystery novels by Kerry Greenwood. Halfway through the first episode, I already suspected it was based on a book (Cocaine Blues), and the credits proved me right. My thoughtful spouse picked up the first three books for me, which I then read in short order. Reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s work (roughly the same period, different country, very different detective), these flapper detective novels were a great change from stuffy male detectives. Since the television series diverged a fair bit in places from their source material, I’m glad I saw it before I read it—I happen to be one of those people who usually takes a strong dislike to films/television shows when I read the book first. Either way, I intend to check out the credits in the future, in case they point me to a good book or two.

Hopefully, you’ve found some reading inspiration here, regardless of the source. Here’s to the new year and happy reading!


2019’s Reading List
That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Black Faces, White Spaces by Carolyn Finney
Barracoon: the Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston
A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecroft
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)
Claudine at School In: Colette: The Complete Claudine by Colette (Translated by Antonia White)
Migratory Animals by Mary Helen Specht
Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett
Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie
Hawkes
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto (Translated by David Brookshaw)
Waymaking: an Anthology of Women’s Adventure Writing, Poetry and Art
(Edited by Helen Mort, Claire Carter, Heather Dawe, and Camilla Barnard)

NOTES


  1. [1] My review of The Backstreets of Purgatory is here now available here! (Updated: 10 March 2019.)

    [2] Remarkably, I only missed four, one of which was a planned re-read. For the curious, these books are Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto (Translated by David Brookshaw), Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock, and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Little Women was my re-read, because I wanted to see if I still enjoyed it as an adult.

    [3] In itself, a great way to get reading recommendations.

    [4] These reading challenges include the Black History Month Reading Challenge (two books), Women in Translation Month (2 books during that month, 3 more later), and roughly half (around 13) of the Reading Women Challenge. I’m still working on making my reading more diverse.

    [5] This book was a gift from my oldest brother who chose it because it reminded him of my food-based coffee table books (ie, The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan: Classic Diet Recipe Cards from the 1970s by Wendy McClure and The Gallery of Regrettable Food by James Lileks). Thanks, Jon!

Taking the NaNoWriMo Plunge

Nothing, I find, motivates writing more than a deadline.

Sometime earlier this month, the pitch began:

“You know, NaNoWriMo1 is just around the corner.”

My spouse has long thought I should give this writing event a whirl. I, on the other hand, am less enthused. And not just in the usual introvert-not-interested-in-joining-groups way.

As you may know already, NaNoWriMo challenges it participants to start writing a novel over the course of a month. The goal, of course, isn’t to produce a polished novel, but a first draft—or at least 50,000 words into that draft. Therefore, writers should aim to write at least 1667 words every day of November. While approximately 2000 words seems a reasonable amount to write in a day, I worry about whether I can do so every day.2 Like most writers I know, I squeeze my writing in whenever I can. Committing to a daily word count in practice sounds fine but sustaining that effort for weeks despite other obligations seems intimidating. As far as months to devote oneself to writing go, November is hardly ideal for me.3 But my ability to maintain this writing pace aside, I’m more concerned about, well, writing a novel. Until now, I’ve only written short stories and poetry. While I think my current story is a much longer one, I’m worried that I might not have enough material for a novel.

Despite my concerns, however, I am taking the NaNoWriMo plunge this year. Nothing, I find, motivates writing more than a deadline. As a potential side benefit, I’m hoping that the pressure to meet this goal will inspire me to discover opportunities for writing alongside other commitments. I wouldn’t mind walking away from NaNoWriMo with a better writing schedule. With my writing buddies to cheer me along this month (thereby keeping me accountable), I think I’ll be more likely to keep at the keyboard. But the final push for committing to NaNoWriMo, however, stemmed from my decision to prioritize my writing more and worry less about whether it fit a certain category. Regardless of my story’s final word count, I’m just going to write it. If it proves to be much shorter than I hoped, I’ll start another one. And, as I’ve been delighted to learn, many others look at NaNoWriMo as an opportunity to work on writing short fiction or poetry, while others use this time to edit their work. Although it may not be the official way to participate in this event, it achieves a larger objective: to get out there and get writing. And that is certainly a goal worth accomplishing.

Good luck, fellow Wrimos!

NOTES


  1. National Novel Writing Month, for anyone who doesn’t know. 
  2. My favorite advice for keeping pace with the NaNoWriMo writing goals involves the JUST WRITE mantra, meaning that one should skip both revising and editing, with it being suggested that one should ignore both spelling and grammar errors as well as typos. Ignoring the latter alone would make my draft illegible. (Never mind what the  professional editor in me thinks about leaving even glaring errors unchallenged.) 
  3. Every Saturday (and one Sunday) is already booked. In addition to two family birthdays (one of which is mine) and American Thanksgiving, I also will be attending a few family events that involve travel. 

Elusiveness of Existence: The Hour of the Star

“But Macabéa in general didn’t worry about her own future: having a future was a luxury.”

Although Clarice Lispector’s final novel, The Hour of the Star (translated by Benjamin Moser), is a slim volume, no less than the creation of the cosmos serves as its opening. Author Rodrigo S. M. (the book’s narrator), unable to decide where he should begin recounting the tragic tale of his young character, Macabéa, chooses prehistory. It’s all the more a remarkable place to start, given that the narrator emphasizes how insignifcant Macabéa is: she could be readily replaced by any other girl like her. But in Lispector’s contemplative work, this signals the novel’s philosophical concerns with poverty, identity, and existence itself. Because if Macabéa is practically interchangeable with countless other poor, northeastern girls of Brazil, she also symbolizes them and becomes something akin to an archetype whose ancient roots are difficult to pinpoint. Rodrigo seems to ask: Have girls like her existed since life has?

“Make no mistake, I only achieve simplicity with enormous effort.”

From this perspective, it’s little wonder that Rodrigo suffers as he writes about Macabéa’s humble life. Lispector’s dichotomous characters illustrate both the difficulty in truly understanding another’s existence and with communication.1 In many ways her opposite (well-educated, clearly older, and affluent), the narrator anxiously strives to pare down his linguistic excesses, because they don’t suit Macabéa’s circumstances. Yet, Rodrigo often fails to retain this simplicity as he expounds on his writing process or as he struggles to explain Macabéa’s “delicate and vague existence”. His attempt to bring himself closer to the virginal Macabéa’s level—by swearing off sex and sports—is undermined as he dines on fruit and sips on chilled wine, luxuries unavailable to her. Here, Lispector entertains the possibilities of empathy while delineating its boundaries. Though pained by his efforts to relate Macabéa’s tale, Rodrigo acknowledges that he writes because he “has questions and no answers”. Macabéa, in contrast, questions nothing and is happy simply because she believes, though not in any specific deity, person, or thing. Rodgrigo’s attempts to define this young woman and her elusive grace seems only to cause him to question himself instead (“Am I a monster?”).2

“But Macabéa in general didn’t worry about her own future: having a future was a luxury.”

As the unlovely Macabéa’s tale finally takes shape, her existence proves to be as undernourished as her body is: orphaned as a child and suffering from rickets, raised by an indifferent aunt, and transplanted from her rural town to Rio de Janeiro, where her life (once her aunt dies) is a lonely one. This young lady’s life is also circumscribed by its material lack. Possessing only three years of education, listening to the radio is a source of unexpected beauty (when she first hears opera) and confusion (when radio hosts discuss unfamilar words/concepts such as “culture”). Lispector’s point that she resembles thousands of girls like her, underscored by Rodrigo’s ineffective guilt that he should do something for this fictional girl, makes a grim point about the haves and have nots.3 Unfortunately for Macabéa, no forthcoming rescue or deeper connection forged with another occurs. Although she briefly attracts the attentions of Olímpico (another northeasterner), he leaves her for her more attractive coworker, Glória. Glória’s guilt prompts her to help Macabéa in some way, but this assistance unintentionally imperils Macabéa. Without revealing too many details, Macabea’s life explodes into that of a “thousand-pointed star” as she departs it, leaving behind Rodrigo—an author powerless to save her—attempting to divert himself from thinking about his own eventual demise.

Summary

The Hour of the Star recalls a certain adage about judging books by their appearance. As someone new to Lispector’s work,4 I wasn’t sure what to expect from such a slim book (under 80 pages), but I was pleasantly surprised to discover this serious meditation on life, death, poverty, writing, etc., complicating a seemingly simple story. The Hour of the Star is a must for a thinking readers, as it gives its audience much to mull over long after its cover is closed.

NOTES:


  1. In Macabéa’s case, she often is misunderstood or unheard even when speaking quite clearly (eg, “As for the future.”). Also of interest, Rodrigo reveals here that he lived in the northeast as a boy. 
  2. Lispector can be somewhat playful in considering identity. Rodrigo, in observing that no one would miss a poor girl like Macabéa, realizes he, too, could be replaced—but only by a man, since a woman “would make it all weepy and maudlin”. Certainly, it’s an amusing idea in an unsentimental novel written by a woman, one that also permits  Lispector to draw a line between herself and Rodrigo and subtly indicate that, though they’re both from the northeast, they are not one and the same. 
  3. In keeping with Lispector’s desire for empathy (whatever its limits may be), Rodrigo encourages wealthy and middle readers to step outside themselves and attempt to experience her life. He assumes poor readers will need not do so. 
  4. This novel appeared on several recommendation lists associated with #witmonth, the month (August) dedicated to reading works by women in translation. 

Igniting Conflict: How the Inciting Incident Sets Stories in Motion

Only an inciting incident can and should transform the protagonist’s life.

For me, storytelling fundamentally begins with an interruption. At one point in a story, something occurs to interrupt the flow of the main character’s everyday life. This moment is often described as the inciting incident or inciting event of the story. The inciting incident represents a decision, action, or event that introduces the story’s main problem/conflict, thus triggering the rising action of the story. When it comes to writing a story’s inciting event, however, the process isn’t always as straightforward as its definition suggests. Whether a writer diligently plots their story before writing or discovers it as they write,1 creating an interesting inciting incident and inserting it at the right moment can be difficult. Since stories hinge upon their conflict, it’s critical that writers understand how the inciting incident operates in stories (for my purposes, fiction). To this end, I’m going to review some of the general guidelines for writing an inciting incident (with examples of what they look like in practice) as well point out a few tips to identifying whether a story’s inciting incident works well.

Placement: In the Beginning…Somewhere

When formulating a short story or novel’s inciting incident, there are two guiding principles that should be kept in mind. The first is that the inciting incident must occur somewhere in the story’s opening. This point is nonnegotiable. If the inciting incident doesn’t occur in the early portion of the story, there isn’t a conflict to generate the rest of the story. The actual placement, however, is debatable. Some advice places the inciting event roughly halfway between the narrative hook and its first plot point (around the 12% mark of the story). While the placement proffered here seems about right (particularly for writers using a three-act structure to plot their tale), there are stories where the inciting event occurs close to the story’s first plot point (the end of the story’s open) or even much earlier. An excellent example of the latter case is the first lines from Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante (trans. Ann Goldstein):

“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced he wanted to leave me….Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.”

Here, Ferrante uses Mario’s desertion as both her novel’s inciting event and narrative hook.2 While this instance demonstrates how writers can be flexible about where they place the inciting incident in the novel’s opening act, most stories will require some exposition to explain why this inciting incident creates conflict for the main character. For example, the narrative hook in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”) appears as the first line of the novel, whereas the inciting event (Maxim de Winter’s rather rushed and unromantic marriage proposal) occurs in chapter 6. This pacing makes sense, partly because the narrator needs to shift from present to past (most of the novel is a flashback) and partly because the characters need to meet and become acquainted before an engagement can occur.

Igniting Conflict: How the Inciting Incident Sets Stories in Motion. Text by Rita E. Gould
Gustav’s Freytag’s “pyramid”, which represents his theory of dramatic structure. [Illustration.] Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dramatic_structure#/media/File:Freytags_pyramid.svg.
 

Impact: Reacting to Life-Altering Change

The second general principle of the inciting incident involves its impact on the main character/protagonist. As I noted above, stories begin with interruption but not just any interruption will do. The inciting incident must have a significant impact on the protagonist’s life, one that forces them to react (in some cases, eventually react when the stakes are raised) to their new circumstances.3 In Days of Abandonment, Mario’s decision to end his marriage with Olga has obvious, life-altering consequences for her. In addition to dealing with this unexpected and unexplained dissolution of her relationship, Olga is also left to care for the couple’s children and home on her own. She essentially transforms from stay-at-home parent and wife of 15 years to single mother. Regardless of how she chooses to react to this situation (in the novel, initially with disbelief), her life is now headed in a new, uncertain direction.

Tips for Assessing Inciting Incidents

Identifying an inciting incident in a published work is one thing. Creating an effective one in our own work, however, is a different matter. Although I can’t claim to have an exhaustive list of strategies that provides specific suggestions for creating the perfect inciting incident (placement of this moment, for example, depends on the story), asking these questions while plotting/writing a tale can help determine whether its inciting incident hits the mark.4

  • Is my inciting incident in the story’s opening?
  • Does the inciting incident divide the story into before (backstory) and after?
  • How does the inciting incident transform the protagonist’s life?

While the first of these questions is more of a checklist item, the others give some guidance on how to interrogate a work-in-progress’s inciting incident. Since one of the hallmarks of the inciting incident is that it cleaves the story into before (backstory) and after (events that occur in response to the inciting incident), we should be able to distinguish them. And the story should be divisible, as the last question indicates, because the inciting incident upsets the protagonist’s status quo.

Backstory events are, of course, necessary for developing the story (the narrator and Maxim de Winter from Rebecca clearly wouldn’t have wed without having first met in Monte Carlo), but they materially change little for the protagonist (following this first encounter, the pair part and go about their usual business). Similarly, the inciting event causes the remaining events in the story (the narrator and Maxim wed but only because he first proposes). Only an inciting incident can and should transform the protagonist’s life.5 If it’s unclear where the division between before and after occurs in a story, the inciting incident is likely weak or absent. When a work-in-progress’s inciting incident fails to alter the main character’s life in some meaningful way (sadly, a problem I discovered in a short story I’m revising), then that incident needs revision. Alternatively, if there are two or more events that could alter the status quo for the protagonist, then the writer needs to choose which option best suits the story and revise accordingly.

Summary

When working with fictional stories, there are numerous moving parts to get in order to before a story is sound. Getting a story underway is challenging though necessary, as the opening gets the readers invested in the tale. And the inciting incident is critical for kicking off conflict in a story. With a firm grasp on how the inciting incident works and a few tactics for detecting whether these story elements work or become wayward, writers should find it easier to get their stories on course.

NOTES:


  1. Better known as a pantster, that is one who writes by said seat of. I’m a bit of hybrid, personally. If you’re curious about where you might fit on that spectrum, have a look at Helen Taylor’s article on plotters vs. pantsters
  2. On occasion, online writing advice conflates the narrative hook with the inciting incident, which is perhaps understandable since both occur early in the story and need to be compelling. And, as the Ferrante’s novel shows, they can be one and the same. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the narrative hook presents an intriguing scenario that baits the reader into reading further by making them wonder what occurs next; inclusion of the story’s inciting incident is optional but not required. 
  3. Reaction seems to be the main character/protagonist’s fate when it comes to the inciting incident, a point discussed well here
  4. This method works also well for identifying an inciting incident in other writers’ works, too. 
  5. Maxim’s hasty proposal changes the narrator from a lady’s companion to the fiancée of a wealthy man (placing her on the same level as Rebecca, his deceased first wife). Given that Maxim neglects to declare his love for the narrator when he proposes, her envy of Rebecca (she wishes she could have the intimacies she assumes Maxim’s first wife share with him but believes a relationship with him is impossible) to jealousy, since she fears that he only wishes to wed her so that he’s not alone with the grief for his first wife. 

On Reading Women in Translation

And the reason I purchased this book had less to with it being a well-regarded translated novel and more to do with it being a book everyone seemed to love…that just happened to be translated from another language.

On Reading Women in Translation. Text by Rita E. GouldI think the first translated book I consciously chose to buy, a book I knew beforehand was translated, was Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate (translated by Thomas Christensen and Carol Christensen). It was by no means the first text (either prose or poetry) I’d read in translation, of course. As a young child, I read Pippi Longstocking, likely unaware that Astrid Lindgren wrote it in Swedish.1 As a tween (or thereabouts), I understood the classic tales I read in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology were written in Greek or Latin originally, though I didn’t appreciate what translation entailed. Through my studies, my awareness of translated works grew and I gained insight into how translation might affect a text’s meaning and the reliability of interpreting it.2 And of course, that also meant I bought many translated works as a student. What differentiated Esquivel’s novel from these other works, however, was that it was (then) a contemporary novel I selected for leisure reading. It had not been assigned reading, as both Wislawa Symborzka’s poems and a heavily abridged version of Les Misérables initially had been. It was not yet a “classic” work that significantly influenced/shaped literature or even a book that a sibling discarded.3 And the reason I purchased this book had less to with it being a well-regarded translated novel and more to do with it being a book everyone seemed to love…that just happened to be translated from another language. It’s this latter distinction that strikes me as important.

I’ve made a point to include translated novels in my reading recently, because (as I observed last year) I realized that I typically overlooked such books in the past. Expanding my reading horizons remains important to me, but I’d be mistaken in not acknowledging that most translated novels generally tend to be well written. For publishers to undertake the risk associated with printing a translated novel, that novel must achieve a certain level of acclaim or popularity for people to champion its translation. My experience of attending a twitter chat focused on reading women in translation was enlightening: so many people passionately recommended novels they’d read, attesting to how great, insightful, or thought provoking these books were.4 And I think it’s this promise of remarkable writing that compelled me to read more women’s writing in translation. Two (very different) favorites emerged from those recommendations: The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith) and Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (translated by Megan Backus). While I can’t claim to deeply love every translated work I’ve read since (personal tastes vary, after all), I generally found reading them all rewarding.

But there is one remaining thought that haunts me when I consider reading women in translation, works that one day may be hailed as classics. As I’ve selected books to read or discuss during Women in Translation Month, I found myself thinking about what my intellectual life would be without the many translated works I’ve read. Losing The Odyssey alone would leave a huge literary crater: Neither The Aeneid nor The Penelopiad would exist without it. Translated works shape how we think and how we in turn write just as much as works written in our native language(s) do. I cannot help but wonder what deeper insights we might be missing when we bypass these works. And given how infrequently women’s writing is translated, I suspect that difference here could be significant. It’s among the reasons I intend to continue reading women in translation year-round as well as rate, recommend, and (when I can) review translated works written by women so that I can help publishers and fellow readers see what they’re missing. And the more often we all do so, the more available these excellent works will become to everyone.

NOTES:


  1. At that rather young age, I treated title pages, the locations where both authors and translators get mentioned, as filler to be skipped past quickly. 
  2. Pun intended. 
  3. One of the advantages of older siblings is that their discarded books become your books years before anyone would think to hand you a copy. Mythology was over my head in some places, but I love and appreciate it more and more every time I read it. 
  4. In this case, the 2016 Women Writers Network twitter chat for #witmonth.