Celebrate Mother’s Day all year round with Literary Mothers, your new favorite Tumblr. Literary Mothers features short essays by contemporary writers about the women authors who have inspired them, and was launched just yesterday by Nadxieli Nieto. Says Nieto on why she started the site: “My literary mothers, the writers whose work I devoured late at night — cigarette in hand, propped against the flaking metal rails of the fire escape, my own mother exhausted from a day of work in the next room — were invaluable to me.”
“The first time I read Cheryl Strayed I was sitting at a plastic table for four in a studio in Geneva. It was August. I had left my husband in July. Living alone for the first time in my life, I found a lot of time on my hands. I would spend mornings before work reading the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction, a thick book I kept on the plastic table, which stood before a sliding door, which stood before a balcony wide enough for one small, dead potted plant. I found Strayed on page 500. She begins ‘The Love of My Life’ by describing the intensity of her attraction to a dangerous man in a coffee shop. She could tell that he would destroy her the way she wanted to be destroyed, the way the intensity of her grief over her mother’s death was destroying her. I recognized this desire. Not because my mother had died, but because she was barely there. I hated needing her. It made me feel powerless and small. So in my teens and early twenties I learned how to toy with people, or let them toy with me. Sometimes I wanted to destroy them; sometimes I wanted them to destroy me, to break off my porcelain nose.
Strayed writes, ‘I sucked. I fucked. Not my husband, but people I hardly knew, and in that I found a glimmer of relief.’ I had no idea women could write about sex, that women could tread over the crux of demolition with their heads held high. When I’d shared the first sex scenes I ever wrote, my teacher, a man, said, ‘This is really hard to read.’ I was mortified. Because I’m a nonfictioner, I was in the scene, as was an ex boyfriend. It wasn’t rendered with beauty or grace. We’d been fucking on the floor of his dorm, so I’m not sure how beauty or grace would enter into that equation. I thought maybe I should shut the fuck up. Maybe I can’t write this. And so I stopped trying until Strayed showed me I could.”
Erika Anderson’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, Interview Magazine. Read the full essay here.
“Lynda Barry’s characters understand the motherless. Not literally motherless, just the feeling like you’re the only one of a species. Like you’re not the expected or the ideal. You think: Where did I come from? What am I? You worry about permission. If you’re already unaccepted, it’s hard to burrow down even further into that tunnel instead of trying to fit in above ground. You worry no one else will be down there. Barry’s books gave me the proof to make that leap of faith: there is a whole underground colony, nation, world of freaks, they insisted. I knew that trying to blend in was a dead end, but they confirmed it.
Her writing showed me that it’s ok for women to write the ugly—both the real ugly and the perceived-as-ugly-but-not-actually-ugly-unless-you’re-a-boring-fascist. The gross, the creepy, the obscene, the lowbrow—in my brain, these had always been my tools for getting at truth, but I didn’t think I could write them. Cruddy said: write them. Cruddy has a female character reporting about another female character who puts a severed, dried-up penis inside a guy’s bottle of moonshine. Cruddy for the win.”
Alissa Nutting is the author of Tampa and Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls. Read the full essay here.
“My first literary mother, the first writer I wanted to be when I grew up, was Nikki Giovanni. ego-tripping and other poems for young people, published in 1973, with illustrations by George Ford, first put a form to the things I wanted to express, and the music and rhythms and power I could sometimes, though not all the time, feel course through me.
I came across this book by something I can only call fate—her name reminded my father of someone he knew, and he bought it thinking he might have gone to school with her. He did not, it turns out. But I was hooked. I ran the title poem ‘ego-tripping’ up and down my tongue all day long.
I designed a pyramid so tough that a star
That only glows every one hundred years falls
Into the center giving divine perfect light
I am bad
It was the eighties in New York City and every street corner and radio station was saturated with the exclamations, nay the proclamations, of boys being bad. I took Nikki’s poems and held them in my mouth like hidden pieces of fruit. I whispered them to myself as I glared and pouted and snarled and puffed at no one in particular. I tried on being bad.”
Nadxieli Nieto is the managing editor of NOON; her writing has appeared in Publishing Genius and The New York Tyrant, among others. Read the full essay here.
“My career as a shoplifter began with a novel. Mom allowed me two books per trip to the Crown Books in the mall, and that month, the Babysitter’s Club series had put out a double serving, which I had to have.
The book I coveted was small and black. Its cover featured an unremarkable gray silhouette and a title I recognized from a list of books deemed by my school board ‘inappropriate for 6th–8th grade summer reading’: The Giver by Lois Lowry. Maybe I wanted to steal The Giver because The Giver wanted to be taken. I was twelve years old and ripe for subversion. Inside, that is what I found, though in none of the ways I expected. A story of a society perfect because of its rules, its discipline; a society that has mastered emotion, complex feelings (which I had begun to have myself, at twelve, about all kinds of things), a people that existed without pain because they had learned to control its source. And what an astonishing source: memory.
Lowry’s choice to associate the ability to see colors with Jonas’s increasing awareness as he receives memories stuck with me for years. […] I began to ask, How do I see? What are my eyes missing? I played a game—a game I still play when I find myself stranded without reading material, waiting for a bus or in line for groceries—in which I looked for details I was sure no one else would spot. Socks were my go-to. For an only child with an audacious sense of specialness, playing this game nurtured my belief that I was unique, that I was like Jonas: chosen.
This obsession with visual detail made me a writer. Or perhaps that’s too strong a statement. I was already writing when I read The Giver and started noticing. But I believe the book made me an observer, which is what writers really need to be.”
Kelly Luce is the author of the story collection Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail. Read the full essay here.
“Writers create their voices by stealing bits and pieces of other writers and assembling them, Frankenstein-like, into a new whole. Then we pray it comes alive on the page. Since this essay is part of an important series on female literary influence, perhaps here is a good place to say that if a writer only reads men (or only reads white writers or only reads Americans, etc.) then their writing monster is going to be missing some important parts. For myself, good chunks of my writing monster are borrowed from O’Connor. I undoubtedly took parts of her dark humor, her deployment of the grotesque, and her willingness to be a bit nasty.
(O’Connor is a great antidote to the current attitude that says every character—especially if written by a woman—should be ‘likable’ and that every writer—especially if they are female—should be endlessly positive. Is there a single likable character in the ‘Good Country People’ or ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’? What would the Twitter world make of a contemporary writer saying, ‘Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.’ Or, ‘I use the grotesque the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear.’)
However, being nasty is not enough. Writers who are attracted to the darkness and the mud often feel the need to shock people. I had this problem as a juvenile writer, no doubt. Shocking is not unsettling though. The main lesson that I took—and continue to take—from O’Connor is that fiction should enhance the strangeness of the world. It should unsettle us in a way that creates a new sense of life.”
Lincoln Michel’s debut collection, Upright Beasts, is forthcoming from Coffee House Press. Read the full essay here.
“In 2010, I was teaching a class on World Literature in an arts college in Santa Fe and was using Daniel Halpern’s The Art of the Story as one of my readers. In the collection there were only a couple writers I had never heard of and one was Can Xue, of China, whose story ‘The Child Who Raised Poisonous Snakes’ was one of the strangest, most haunting stories I had ever encountered. My tastes veer toward the bizarre, the magical, the absurd, the dark, and the very, very, very deeply weird, so it hooked me, rather relentlessly. I decided to teach it, though I had no idea how to teach it. The whole class was shocked and even a bit traumatized by it—and several were also hooked. Occasionally after that class ended, I’d still get emails: what was that story about the kid with the snakebites, who ate snakes? Which does it a disservice, of course, but tells you something not just about that story, but what it means to read Can Xue.
My obsession has never even slightly relented. Can Xue’s name—a pseudonym that means both ‘the dirty snow that refuses to melt’ and ‘the purest snow at the top of a high mountain’—is synonymous with Chinese experimental literature. She is known as the Chinese avant-garde storyteller. She also happens to be one of the great enigmas of contemporary letters, but while that could be reason enough to be obsessed, it’s not what got me.”
Porochista Khakpour is the author of Sons & Other Flammable Objects and The Last Illusion. Read the full essay here.
“I was in a bookstore in Southern California, 2001, and happened to pick up Say Uncle, [Kay Ryan’s] fourth book. Maybe it was the cover, the image of an amber glass bottle. It looked like a tonic, medicinal. I flipped through its pages and spotted the opening line [of ‘Blandeur’]: ‘If it please God,/let less happen.’ Do I remember what I felt at that exact moment of discovery? No—but I do know I kept reading, and bought the book, that I’ve read the poem countless times since, and I always feel the very same thing: a weight lifting from my shoulders.
Ryan’s literally narrow and very pithy poems […] usually fit on a page, which is sort of misleading to say, because really they’d fit on four of five lines, but she formats them like so: two or three items per line, down the side of a page, looking like a to-do list. Which is not so bad a way to think about them. Ryan’s poems demand to be ‘done.’ You have to ‘do’ them, like a puzzle, a problem, or a Japanese koan. Here was a writer, a poet—a person—thinking something through. And to read her was to think along with her. For me, this was utterly new.
‘Blandeur’ remains a powerful poem for lots of reasons, but mostly because it actually lightens as it progresses, even as its subject is about as literally and metaphorically heavy as it gets. Ryan taught me writing could be a conduit not just for beauty and wonder, but for thought, for puzzling, even problem solving. ‘Blandeur’ taught me if the idea of God is good for anything, it’s good for wrestling with. And if I were going to be a writer, a real writer, I had to stand my ground, own my history, and wrestle.”
Scott Cheshire’s novel High as the Horses’ Bridles is forthcoming from Henry Holt (July 2014). Read the full essay here.
“Once Mabel Dodge’s little boy said he would like to fly from the terrace to the lower garden. Do, said Mabel.” —Gertrude Stein
“I loved that she discarded the comma. I loved that she made fun of the War. I loved that she loved to repeat herself—ten thousand times. I loved that, for her, narrative was like throwing a net around a sound, that to record the patter of a person told you all about them. I loved that she never had children. I loved that she was a lesbian. I loved that she lived through both Wars in Paris, apparently not noticing she was Jewish. I loved that she wrote so so so much and when no one would publish her, I loved that she published herself. I loved her philosophical games. I loved that she wrote Alice’s autobiography. I loved her misuse of capitals. I loved that her tone was mocking, bright, funny, wrong. I loved that she wrote everything outrageously, from tiny Tender Buttons to monstrous Making of Americans. I loved that she wrote a mystery that started with such electric promise and slowly came to pieces—unclear crimes, no one to solve them, too many suspects.”
Deb Olin Unferth is the author of Revolution, Minor Robberies, and Vacation. Read the full essay here.
9. Amber Sparks on Isak Dinesen
“Children don’t care about writing, or writers. Children don’t care about craft. Children care about stories, about the telling of tales, the spinning of yarns. When I was a child, I was no different; I read Hans Christian Andersen and the brothers Grimm and the fairy stories of George MacDonald and Charles Perrault. And somehow I stumbled onto a copy, woefully mis-shelved in the school library, of Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Stories. These felt like fairy tales to me, though they were darker, drawn in more shades than I was used to in my stories. But still, they were tales, the kind you tell aloud, and filled with marvelous things and lands and animals and people, and often, they were written as a tale within a tale. I didn’t entirely understand them, and they frightened me a little. But I was also captivated, enthralled. Here were tales doing something more than I was used to, something more complex than I could capture in words. And yet they were tales as traditional, in some sense, as the very oldest stories: bound in sounds, spun out in suspense—pictures painted of the usual fall and loss of innocence that man must act out in every ancient story.
Dinesen had been dead for a quarter of a century when I began writing, but the words on her pages felt both ancient and timeless. They helped me to understand how one can play with time, how one can write modern while writing old, without being too clever about it. Often her stories begin in one century and end in another, or circle back and swim through several ages. In a Paris Review interview, she said, ‘So many novels that we think are contemporary in subject with their date of publication—think of Dickens or Faulkner or Tolstoy or Turgenev—are really set in an earlier period, a generation or so back. The present is always unsettled, no one has had time to contemplate it in tranquility….I was a painter before I was a writer….and a painter never wants the subject right under his nose; he wants to stand back and study a landscape with half-closed eyes.’”
Amber Sparks is the author of May We Shed These Human Bodies and co-author of Desert Places. Read the full essay here.
“In the same paragraph where his more-famous quote ‘a book must be the axe for the frozen sea with us’ appears, Kafka wrote that ‘we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us… we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide.’ Talking about this quote with my students recently, I joked that no one would buy a book with this for a blurb, but of course that’s not true: I would, and perhaps you would too.
Christine Schutt’s story ‘You Drive’ is such a story for me, her collection Nightwork such a book. In the ten years since I first experienced ‘You Drive’—in the Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, possibly the single most important book I read in my early twenties—I have not yet recovered from what her story did to me, and what the story allowed me to do for myself.”
Matt Bell is the author of In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, How They Were Found, and Cataclysm Baby. Read the full essay here.
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” —Joan Didion
“Didion’s idea seems radical in its simplicity: not to write what you know but write because you don’t. Not to bring an understanding to the page, but to arrive at it there.
Her work has appeared for me at crucial moments. I found Play it As It Lays in a used bookstore in Louisville, KY. I was in my mid-twenties. My shelves were filled with two kinds of books: romances written by long-dead women and contemporary fiction by serious men. I didn’t know yet that anything was missing, at least not consciously. But then I read the dark novel on a gray day in one sitting. It was a piece that shook me: a brutal story told in a brutal way, a modern woman whose life wasn’t coming together like those in so many of books I’d read, but unraveling. Later, The Year of Magical Thinking appeared at an airport kiosk. I was a little older and, while I hadn’t experienced her particular grief, I had by then experienced my own. The book shook my bones as I read with my head beneath a blanket in my window seat, pretending to be asleep during the flight and walking off the plane with my eyes red.
There are other things that Didion has taught me: that precision comes through merciless editing. That a razor-sharp sentence is a weapon. That ‘the arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind.’ That you can be a writer of different genres and that, if you’re curious enough, almost any subject is worthy of investigation. That two writers can make writing lives both separately and together, orbiting each other’s daily practice and collaborating. That you have a responsibility to respond to the culture around you, including its missteps. That you can write throughout your whole life and, because time shifts your obsessions and knowledge and histories, maybe you should.”
Ashley Farmer is the author of Farm Town and Beside Myself. Read the full essay here.
“In 1980, I was in my first year of college, open to influence as never before or since. I spent that year getting high, playing pinball, agitating for a Women’s Center on campus, coming out as a lesbian, and crying a lot. [When a young woman from Argentina asked] if I wanted to come with her to hear a guest speaker in a class she was taking with Catharine MacKinnon, I couldn’t resist. I was, or I wanted desperately to be, what we called at that time ‘political.’
The guest speaker was a radical feminist I had never heard of, Andrea Dworkin. She began at the beginning; she spoke in perfect paragraphs; her arguments were profoundly persuasive; her diction was flawless; she never once consulted notes; she delivered a perfect essay; and she ended at the end, which referred back to the beginning. I had never seen such a virtuosa display of intellection and rhetoric. Dworkin was a stunning thinker and speaker. Her conviction and her analysis blew the roof off my head. Dworkin and MacKinnon would go on to champion a kind of feminism that seemed to me deeply wrong-minded. But that work was still ahead of them, and us.
I then read Dworkin’s Woman Hating, which spoke to me as no other book ever had. Simply put, it explained reality. At the end of Woman Hating, in an Afterword called ‘The Great Punctuation Typography Struggle,’ Dworkin relates that she had written the manuscript without the use of standard punctuation or capital letters, but that her publisher would not print the book that way:
Ive attacked the fundaments of culture, thats ok. Ive attacked male dominance, thats ok. Ive attacked every heterosexual notion of relation, thats ok. Ive in effect advocated the use of drugs, thats ok. Ive in effect advocated fucking animals, thats ok. here and now, New York City, spring 1974, among a handful of people, publisher and editor included, thats ok. lower case letters are not. it does make one wonder.”
Alexandra Chasin is the author of Selling Out: The Gay and Lesbian Movement Goes to Market, Kissed By, and Brief. Read the full essay here.