Women We Read This Week

A gathering of the best pieces by women we’ve read this week.
Rebecca Solnit’s “The Faraway Nearby” on Guernica

I love Rebecca Solnit‘s writing for its ability to render the intangible graspable without losing a sense of wonder, a whiff of the ethereal. She is a writer you want to read for the pleasure of inhabiting her brain, listening to her think on the page. Here, she thinks about reading and writing, envisioning each as a solitary wood through which one emerges into connection, communal understanding, a terrain of shared and vital stories. She frames the piece through her childhood of “gorging on stories, fasting on speech,” to the eventual emergence of her spoken voice, and her realization that her words, crafted in solitude, are creating intimacy with distant readers. Ultimately, Solnit comes to understand the paradox of reading and writing: “You have an intimacy with the faraway and distance from the near at hand.” Also featuring, in classic Solnit style, the road runner, tern’s eggs, and a Tang dynasty artist Wu Daozi. — Sarah

Judith Shulevitz’s “The Lethality of Loneliness” in New Republic

To say that Shulevitz‘s piece about the brain science of loneliness struck a chord with me would be an understatement. I can only remember having such a strong personal identification with a piece of writing one other time in my life, when I first encountered alcohol/drug recovery literature.

As I read her exploration of the long-term physical, behavioral and intergenerational affects of loneliness, I felt like I was reading the story of my life. Someone was finally articulating and making sense of what I’d thought had been a solitary, isolated experience: “[L]oneliness must be seen as an interior, subjective experience, not an external, objective condition”; “A key part of feeling lonely is feeling rejected, and that, it turns out, is the most damaging part”; and “Deprive us of the attention of a loving, reliable parent, and, if nothing happens to make up for that lack, we’ll tend toward loneliness for the rest of our lives.”

Shulevitz includes studies on HIV-positive gay men, Romanian orphans and American college students to create a broad, intercultural picture of the affects of loneliness, and how they aren’t just individual but seep into a society. While she makes some recommendations for the ways schools and societies can combat early childhood loneliness and thus prevent the deepening of its harmful effects, what I found most encouraging about this piece is the very idea that one is not alone in the experience of loneliness: “Who are the lonely? They’re the outsiders: not just the elderly, but also the poor, the bullied, the different.”

A few days before reading this article, I was talking to a friend about feeling lonely in my expat life. I made the passing comment: “But really, is there anyone who isn’t lonely?” It turns out that maybe there is, but also that I’m a lot less alone in my loneliness than I thought.

Heather Havrilesky’s “Ask Polly: Jesus, My Struggling Writer Friends Never Shut Up!” on The Awl

Any writers–or friends and family of writers–in need of a good kick in the ass laced with plenty of humor and profanity (sugar helps the medicine go down!) should read the first response on Heather Havrilesky‘s “Dear Polly” column this week. She basically tells writers to get off their pity pot, man woman up and take responsibility for the direction of their own writing. She isn’t condemning or asshole-ish (not to me, at least), and she includes herself in her call-to-arms: “You know what I need to do though? Put the phone down and ask myself who in the whole wide world is supposed to take responsibility for what I write if I won’t do it myself.”



Emily Gould’s “Feels Blind” on Emily Magazine

I don’t necessarily agree with everything here (I’ve spent the last two years convincing myself it doesn’t always behoove me to be at my desk between the hours of 9-5 now that I no longer have a 9-5 job; are having babies and writing novels really “two distinct and unrelated life paths”?, etc) but there are two things about trying to make a living as a writer that Emily Gould describes perfectly: first, the moment of realizing that “while I was busy fantasizing about the future…I was already living my fantasy life” – and second, a particular kind of (giddy, and almost paralyzing) hopefulness that comes from not quite doing anything, but knowing that you could, maybe: “Most days, my work did not go well and I felt dejected about my actual writing. But I still felt good and hopeful, because all these potential paths seemed possible. Everything seemed possible.” — Miranda

Emily Rapp’s “On Survivor’s Guilt” on Role/Reboot

I realize this is at least the third piece by Emily Rapp I’ve included in this round-up, but every time I read an essay by her — and I read pretty much every essay she publishes — I have an urge to share it that I find impossible to ignore. Since her son Ronan died three months ago, she’s written bits and pieces about him, and the experience of living on in his absence. In this essay, she explores the survivor’s guilt she’s left with, the feeling she gets when she witnesses a gorgeous New Mexico sunset that her son is not alive to experience: “Why Ronan and not me? This is the echo of an old, wishful bargain: that I could have traded places with him. My life for his, a very epic, Biblical trade. This is my body, given for you.”

Rapp is slowly learning what it means to survive with this guilt in a world that expects you to mourn appropriately, but not too much, to live on in a world where “you can only be a mourner for so long.” She wishes she could spend months wearing black, wandering around an island alone during the day, and spending less and less time on that island as the seasons change. Right now I’m reading Meghan O’Rourke‘s memoir about her mother’s death, The Long Goodbye, and she expresses the same sentiment, that she wishes she could wear her grief as we once used to, live in a culture that values the ceremonies of mourning. Their twin desires are perhaps an example of what Emily says so beautifully in the last paragraph of her piece — that in the isolation of grief, there is one comfort, and that is that in some essential way, all mourners are the same, are part of a lineage that is as old and long as life:

Survivors rustle around in the world, in emotion, in the strange and unpredictable weather of grief. We burst into tears at the sight of a bib, a favorite piece of jewelry, a street sign. Then our laughter might raise a roof. And then we walk out into the day, connected to all those mourners who will come after us, and all of those who have gone before. It is comforting to know that in this way, we are all the same.



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