Alumni Feature March 2017


Writing from the wound

By Features Editor Diana Jenkins

Hanya Yanagihara

Finishing A Little Life by American author Hanya Yanagihara, several impulses struck simultaneously. The first was to put a pillow over my head and scream and weep myself to sleep. The second was to jump on the bed in a mad frenzy of joy and relief that it was finally over and I could start reading something else instead. I’m free! Free! The third was to begin an immediate internet search on Yanagihara to try to discover what the hell would drive someone to write a story like A Little Life, a tale so awful, so often, that I think a little piece of my heart broke in a way I will never be able to mend. Why? Why would she do such a thing to me?

A Little Life cover It is, of course, an entirely unreasonable and facetious question. The pact that exists between author and reader says nothing about acceptable levels of trauma and nor should it. There is no limit. There is nowhere I wouldn’t go with you, Author, so long as you promise to speak the truth of your made up world.

Which is precisely how I found myself gripping Yanagihara’s vast novel with white-knuckled digits, pausing only to howl like a wounded beast – loud, messy intermissions that halted my ability to read on more times than I care to recall. I have never cried so often while reading a single novel. I cried reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (which gave me diabolical nightmares to boot), and I’ve choked up countless times while deep in a character’s fictional universe, but I have never, ever sobbed like this, nor so frequently. Tiny little wounds – a mild chest pain here, a small sting there – mingled with larger blows, some of them landing like a king hit to the skull. Sometimes I felt a brief pang; at other moments, I gasped aloud, tears springing to my eyes, and had no choice but to put the book down. It was painful to read – excruciating – but I kept taking it up again (much to my husband’s disbelief and dismay) because Yanagihara upheld her end of the bargain. And because she did, I was helpless to stop. I cared about her characters too much to turn away.

The Teacher's Secret cover It was the promise of precisely such intensity of feeling that persuaded me to read the novel in the first place. At Varuna alumna Suzanne Leal’s book launch for her excellent second novel The Teacher’s Secret, I was chatting to Allen & Unwin Publicity Director Andy Palmer, who’d just finished reading A Little Life.

“Oh,” I said, wrinkling my nose, “I honestly don’t think I can face it. Everything I’ve read or been told makes me think it’s going to be too much abuse and sadness for me to bear. And it’s such a big book. That’s a lot of misery.”

But – unexpectedly – Andy lit up talking about it.

He gave a little shrug, looked off into the distance with a dreamy look on his face and said, “Yes, sure, the abuse is there, but I don’t know...I really miss them. I miss those characters. I miss being in their world and sharing their conversations. I really miss their company. That stuff is all there, but it’s not about that at all. It’s so much more about love and adult friendship. It’s unbelievably moving. It’s an incredible accomplishment and I feel kind of bereft now I’ve finished it.”

“Huh,” I said. “You’re the first person who’s described it like that to me. Now you’ve got me intrigued.”

So Andy, if you ever stumble across this: damn it, man, you were right. I miss them too. I’m pleased as fuck to be out of there, but wow, what a novel. I will never forget it or them.

I will go anywhere with you: it’s a beautiful pledge, fundamental as well as radical, and I can think of no greater compliment to pay a writer of fiction. But having made the bargain, having committed to reading on, stories like A Little Life – stories that have me thinking, Oh no, please, please, no…for the love of God, where are you taking me... – occasionally make me question what motivates their telling, so of my three equally strong impulses, the third won out, and I went to the computer to find out something of the woman who wrote it.

Anyone who writes knows there’s a powerful catharsis in the act. Yes, it’s hard and ugly, but it’s undoubtedly soothing and therapeutic too. Patrick White says it best in his Letters (p.291; letters, by the way, he explicitly wanted destroyed, but thank goodness his literary executor just glossed over that bit of his will):

cover Patrick White's Letters ‘Probably every book is hell to write. (Yet I am constantly meeting ladies who say “how lovely it must be to write” – as though one sat down at the escritoire after breakfast, and it poured out like a succession of bread-and-butter letters, instead of being dragged out, by tongs, a bloody mess, in the small hours.)’

John Gardner Novelist Kathryn Heyman – currently my mentor and formerly my Faber Academy teacher – and generations of internationally renowned authors including Jeanette Winterson have all taken up the rallying cry of the late writer and critic John Gardner: ‘Art begins in a wound, an imperfection – a wound inherent in the nature of life itself – and is an attempt either to live with the wound or to heal it.’

The phrase ‘writing from the wound’ came back to me as I read a couple of Yanagihara interviews published in the wake of her novel’s release and subsequent success. Intuitively it makes sense, doesn’t it, that something more than a fertile imagination drives her need to delve so deeply into the nature and effect of abuse? The idea that there’s a wound, something that won’t close over, something that no amount of treatment will ever truly heal, seems powerfully persuasive when I think about that novel. I’m not saying that the author herself must have suffered abuse as a child in order to write what she has, but I am suggesting that authors – the good ones, anyway – probably do harness their deepest pain point and excavate that site continually throughout their fiction writing lives.

Do you have a wound? I’d love to know what you all think about Gardner’s contention, and whether or not you have identified a set of themes or a particular scab you keep scratching in your own writing. I’d also love to hear about any authors you love whose work seems to speak to this idea across their oeuvre. In an interview published in The Guardian, Yanagihara, for instance, acknowledges her interest in the long-terms effects of abuse, particularly in men. It’s territory she traverses in her debut novel too, though The People in the Trees is unreliably narrated by an eminent anthropologist accused of abusing a research subject. Yanagihara alludes in interviews to her peripatetic childhood, but offers no other explanation for or connection to her fascination other than a series of photographs she’s collected over many years, some of which feature American motel room interiors. Not only is the classic, featureless motel room one of the great uncanny sites, soaked in possibility across all artistic forms, it’s a place Yanagihara knew often as a child and which becomes a space of unspeakable, nauseating trauma for the central character Jude in A Little Life.

Storm & Grace cover The unhomelike home: hmm, I don’t know, but that sure sounds like wound material to me.

the well As mentioned, I first heard the phrase from my writing instructor and mentor, so naturally I have wondered what her own wound might be. Kathryn’s new novel Storm and Grace ostensibly has little to do with her last, Floodline – though water is clearly elemental, elevated in both novels to the status of a central character – but the figure of the father plays a crucial role in both, especially since that importance is derived by absence. Sometimes in our conversations about my own work and personal history, I feel little shooting sparks of things left unsaid, like Kathryn and I recognise something very basic in each other. Maybe I’m imagining it – not to mention flattering myself – but I wonder if it’s a strange, primal thing, related to the wound, in which my own tunnel-building inadvertently stumbles into the burrows of others, and all the dark, clammy things in my own history occasionally tip into a bucket being lowered down someone else’s well.

Intuitively I believe in this notion of writing from the wound. I think I actively denied such a thing for many years and I am certain it did nothing but coat a thick layer of artifice around all my writing, like a suffocating paintjob in which all the windows are painted over in black. Working against my own wound didn’t protect me from my past or anything else; it only made my writing inauthentic. Better to write from the wound freely and candidly than to be the author of dishonesty. There is nothing fiction readers deplore more than a writer wasting their time with lies. Lies of the soul, I mean, not whether the novel is based on Z and whether X really happened between A and B at precisely Y in Real Life, because, come on, who honestly gives a shit about that?

Readers natively know where the line is – I don’t know how we know, but we know, and writers of the best fiction, historical and otherwise, know where it is too, because they dance nimbly along it without skipping a beat. And the same way we know which facts matter and which ones really don’t, we readers know when an author is withholding the only thing they’ve got to give that truly matters: their bloodied heart, ripped from their chest, slopped onto the desk instead of the butcher’s block during the writing of their book. That’s what we want. It’s what we’ve always wanted, from every artist who’s ever lived: that wet, vital, still pulsing organ. And nothing else will do.

For a long time I thought that a stilted, carefully managed process of omission in my own work, through which I cosmetically concealed aspects of myself from my writing, was an insurance policy that would stop certain people from ever finding me. But that’s simply not true, and those people aren’t worth the sacrifice. Creatively, it would cost me everything. The loss of artistic honesty is too high a price to pay for an illusion of safety. It’s far better, I’ve discovered, to eagerly run toward the danger and blow raspberries in its face.

Tower of Silence It’s taken a very long time to understand and properly embrace the archaeology of my own wound, but now I don’t doubt it’s there, and more than that: I believe it will be the engine of the best writing I can or will ever do. The writing itself may not be good enough even so, because that’s down to ability, not the size of my wound, and certainly not its unfortunate tendency to weep through gauze in public. I’ll probably never be successful in a conventional, commercial sense – in fact, I may never publish a single work of fiction, despite my best efforts – but one thing I don’t worry about any longer is the integrity of my attempts. I’m gouging at my innards even now, writing this. You can take me – I’m yours.

Ultimate vulnerability. It’s a breathtaking leap of faith the very best practitioners of The Spooky Art take each time they head into the uncharted waters of a new project. It’s why readers make that pledge and gladly go anywhere with these authors, because we know how they have sacrificed themselves for us. They have gone in alone, scouted ahead, mapped out foreign territory and returned, half broken but alive, to invite us into a secret and sacred space they have fashioned from thin air. Taking their hand and stepping inside, hushed and awed by what they have created for us, seems like the very least we can do.

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  • A wonderful rallying cry, Diana- thank you!
    Though I still don't think I am going to read A Little Life !

    Julie Bail Monday, 06 March 2017 14:05 Comment Link
  • Fabulous article, Diana - and not just because The Teacher's Secret got a mention (but a lovely surprise that was too!) I haven't yet read A Little Life, but looks like I'll have to remedy that soon. I so enjoy your Varuna articles and I'm already looking forward to the next one.

    Suzanne Leal Monday, 06 March 2017 14:36 Comment Link
  • Great article thanks. A good reminder on the importance of authenticity.

    Lisa Walker Monday, 06 March 2017 16:07 Comment Link
  • Thanks for this, Diana. It's a great reminder that writing is both the mundane sitting at the desk, and the deep interior work of discovering character and motivation. It's a privilege, isn't it, to do the kind of work that takes us there. I'm now working up the courage for A Little Life; you're the third person to recommend to be within a week.

    Robyn Cadwallader Tuesday, 07 March 2017 17:06 Comment Link
  • Julie Bail, how are you? I was thinking about you just the other day. I'll email you. I'm so glad you feel rallied - I don't think writers - Varuna Alumni and beyond - can ever do enough of that for each other, can we?! Yes, I've a friend who was wavering and ultimately decided not to read A Little Life, mostly because she was the unfortunate recipient of a series of desperate texts from me as I tore my way through it, trying to hack my way out of the Jungle of Despair. I feel very bad about that, because it's a very fine accomplishment, but it ain't easy reading by the pool with a mojito, that's for sure.

    Suzanne, you're such a doll. It really means the world to me (you day-maker, you) to know you read the features and enjoy them. That fear of writing into a vacuum in which no reader shall ever pass is always very real, so when you and/or others comment, I breathe a long sigh of relief (which is the precise moment I realise I was holding my breath, waiting to see if anyone was out there). Thank you for hollering back across the ravine.

    Thanks so much for commenting, Lisa (for all the reasons I mention above!). So glad you enjoyed it. Yes, I think authenticity is a big one for readers and writers both. I can overlook so much wrong with a book if I feel it's authentic, but I can't read on, just cannot abide it, when a novel feels false.

    I took the unprecedented step of returning a novel a few months ago and asking if I could exchange it because I found it unreadable for this very reason. Happily, my local bookseller was very obliging and I ended up with a smashing anthology of Australian short stories (written by women, including several Varuna alumna) instead. Result!

    Diana Jenkins Wednesday, 08 March 2017 10:31 Comment Link
  • CRACKING article Diana - well done

    Sarah Menary Wednesday, 08 March 2017 20:18 Comment Link
  • Really enjoyed this article Diana. We've all read books that haven't felt 'honest', so it's refreshing to be reminded here of the possible reasons why and therefore avoid it in our own writing.

    Sally Piper Thursday, 09 March 2017 09:20 Comment Link
  • I'm glad that you read it, Diana. I also think A LITTLE LIFE is an exploration of extreme human kindness, which is unfairly overshadowed by the abuse and self-harm. I still miss them.

    Andy Palmer Thursday, 09 March 2017 10:23 Comment Link
  • Courage is required, I'm afraid, Robyn - bon chance! And yes. It is a privilege. I feel extremely privileged to know where my concentrated labours are best spent, to have vocational clarity. It's a gift many people are denied.

    Sarah, hi! Very lovely of you to call in here and leave such a positive notice - thank you very much! Hope we can get that date back in the diary and that all's well at Faber Academy - I'm missing it and everyone.

    Sally, yes, that's a good point I hadn't quite considered: there's no doubt a reason in many cases for the author subconsciously or consciously withholding something of themselves. I'll be kinder in my estimation next time - who knows what people are hiding from?

    Diana Jenkins Friday, 10 March 2017 07:45 Comment Link
  • Andy, hello and welcome! I want to blurt all sorts of things that are potential spoilers for others, so I have to be careful, but you're absolutely right. I neglected to make clear in this piece that my tears were not always from sorrow - I was often moved to tears by acts of kindness and in particular a group of characters' unfailing commitment to truly care about another human being, which takes not just kindness and compassion, but courage in large doses. Thanks again for putting them squarely in my path - I was quite unable to move on to a new novel afterwards - in a real sense, I was grieving the loss of them.

    Diana Jenkins Friday, 10 March 2017 13:16 Comment Link
  • Thanks for this balanced and interesting take on 'A Little Life'. I was also convinced to read it after a friend implored me to, and endured it, surprisingly, all the way to the end, emerging exhausted and feeling as though I'd lived a lifetime of trauma alongside Jude. I wonder if that was the intention of the extraordinary length of the novel, which I resented but felt compelled to finish.

    At the risk of being shouted down, I felt the degree of trauma in Jude's early life was too extreme and excessive to be entirely believable, which for me detracted a little from my engagement. I felt the emotional manipulation was overdone, but would rather read a story that does this than one which doesn't move me at all.

    Lisa Kenway Tuesday, 14 March 2017 20:24 Comment Link
  • Oh no, Lisa, there's no risk of your being shouted down, at least not here! I read several reviews of the novel (in the aftermath of finishing it) that made the very same point. Personally, I don't want to believe it's plausible for a child to be so systemically abused, so I'm quite happy to imagine it goes too far in a make-believe world so that I don't have to believe it of the real one.

    Diana Jenkins Thursday, 16 March 2017 14:37 Comment Link
  • Thank you Diana. A Little Life is the only book I've ever put down because it was just just too painful to read. Because of your thoughtful and beautiful review I now feel like resuming the relationship.

    Natalie Kestecher Sunday, 19 March 2017 12:03 Comment Link
  • So lovely hearing from you, Natalie. Are you planning to go to some SWF events in May? It would be great seeing you in person. I absolutely understand your putting it down. I spent most of the time it took me to read it feeling stricken and wondered on several occasions if I could or should continue. But...well, as above, really: I felt the need to honour Yanagihara's art and that ultimately carried me through. I'm glad I persevered; it does linger longer than most in a way I find both interesting and rewarding.

    Diana Jenkins Monday, 20 March 2017 13:06 Comment Link

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