I’ve been fussy lately. Nothing I’ve read since Antunes has really pleased me. I spent most of the long weekend making must-do lists and then wandering from room to room to avoid them. I haven’t been out, but I haven’t rested either. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me.
Then last night I started writing a letter to a beloved friend and writer – someone with whom I am honest about my process – more honest than I am with myself – and who is also constantly seeking her center. And I realized how much I have let the outside world get in the way of my writing. So today I’m going back to the basics and re-reading Clarice Lispector, a writer to whom I can return again and again and always find something new and who also reminds me of how I fell in love with her the first time. In the process, I learned something about the balance of living outside and inside myself.
How I Came to Lispector
“I am forced to seek a truth that transcends me.” – Clarice Lispector
My advisor, Micheline Aharonian Marcom, first introduced me to Lispector. We read snippets of her breathtaking short fictions in class. I remember feeling deliciously lost in those stories that were not what I expected stories to be – in a writer who was at once writing a narrative about a character and writing about writing. She was breaking all the rules and yet here she was introduced to me as a model. Micheline freed me with that recommendation (and so many others, she also introduced me to Antunes).
So although I was surprised this morning to find a recording of Micheline reading Lispector aloud, I wasn’t surprised that it would be an echo of Micheline that would gently lead me back to where I needed to be.
The Hour of the Star
I wasn’t at all particular which book by Lispector I would choose for my hermitage this morning, so it’s interesting that my hand settled on The Hour of the Star, a novella, rather than one of the stories that Micheline read from. I was surprised when I opened the book that I hadn’t marked it up at all the first time I read it. Normally my books are wildly annotated with different colors of ink and my own system of symbols. I think I didn’t appreciate this book the first time I read it.
How could I have missed the allegory of artist and muse? Much of the first part of the book is taken up with the narrator trying to tell us about this innocent creature (Macabea) who has imprisoned his thoughts. The juxtaposition between his overly self-aware state and her blissful ignorance is instructive and compelling. The writing has so much in common with Fernando Pessoa’s insightful fragments that I began to wonder why the Portuguese are calling to me right now in their language that is at once familiar and foreign.
“The question ‘Who am I?’ creates a need. And how does one satisfy that need? To probe oneself is to recognize that one is incomplete.” – Clarice Lispector
The Hour of the Star is a story of beginning to want and how desires make us human. I could identify Macabea’s first forays into wanting something for herself – they were akin to how I felt when I first saw words that described my inner being on the page. And like Macabea, I was willing to identify myself in those others for awhile. The trouble and the wonder began when I started to realize that I could create those words for myself – when the world opened up to me and I had to start making my own choices.
It’s a tiny and yet wild little book. There is none of the restraint I love so much in writers like Ishiguro. But I love this book for its chaos. And it’s as much about letting go of our characters as it is about embracing ourselves. Watching the lonely artist narrator live through solitary Macabea as she grew into a creature with wants and needs, I saw some of my own trials and faults as a writer and a person.
On Loneliness and Writing
“I need the pain of loneliness to make my imagination work. And then I’m happy.” – Orhan Pamuk
I try not to think about loneliness too much in my daily life. Instead I fill my days with anything that could possibly keep it at bay. But I read Stephen Fry’s essay on loneliness recently and I saw in his restlessness my own. Growing up I learned that if I felt lonely, I was failing to appreciate the wealth of people around me. But I think it’s really the opposite. When I am most lonely is when I am failing to appreciate the wealth inside of me. And the more alone I feel, the more I reach outside of myself hoping that my beloved friends can console me – when really only I can console myself. Like Pamuk, the loneliness actually feeds me as a writer. But only when I let it.
“My strength undoubtedly resides in solitude. I am not afraid of tempestuous storms or violent gales for I am also the night’s darkness.” – Clarice Lispector
So I am learning from Pamuk, Lispector, and Fry to embrace the solitude and to cherish the people who respect it. When I do emerge from my office and my fog, I’m a far more interesting and kind person. After taking that time to invest in myself I have more to offer as an artist and a friend.
The Life of a Working Writer
“So long as I have questions to which there are no answers, I shall go on writing.” – Clarice Lispector
I can’t devote all my time to reading and to writing, I have to work and this, like so many, is a big week. In some ways I resent the time spent away from my passions, but I also know that the framework of constraints (combined with a reliable income) are things that can fuel my work, when I let them. So in a way I feel like I wasted these four days, but I also feel like by allowing myself the space to do nothing I managed to clean my office and my mind and get myself back on the track of writing.
And next weekend, if I have the energy, I will seek out the place where I began as a human and as a writer. I’ll go back to Port Townsend where I was conceived and visit Goddard, the school where I started to accept myself as an artist. I might pop into some student readings, but I know the space where I existed was as much a time and a confluence of people as it was a place. Still, that peninsula holds magic for me. And I might seek out Micheline or I might simply enjoy escaping to the hill and immersing myself in her newest book. I might run into friends new and old, but for the first time I won’t be planning around them.
I am learning to look inside myself for the things I have asked for from others. I still cherish my friends and need their companionship and gentle reminders when I’m off track. I watch them and learn from them as I think they do me, but I am learning to sustain myself as an artist and as a person.
I don’t know what the balance is between immersion and letting go, between me and you, but I am learning. Better yet, I am writing.
If this review made you want to read Lispector, pick up a copy of The Hour of the Star from Powell’s Books. Your purchase keeps indie booksellers in business and I receive a commission. Consider also picking up a copy of Micheline’s latest book A Brief History of Yes. My copy arrives on Wednesday and I can’t wait to discuss it with you.