From the archives: The Writing Life
From the archives: Poetry Pie

Trading Stories

Rune Guneriussen 1

Jhumpa Lahiri, one of my favorite writers, has a gorgeous piece in the New Yorker Magazine: "Trading Stories: Notes from an Apprenticeship." In this short memoir, Lahiri describes her journey from book-loving child to Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and examines the mindset that turns some of us into writers  despite every other intention.

I found "Trading Stories" of particular interest because, despite our vastly different family backgrounds, Lahiri and I have one thing in common: we were both children who wrote incessantly in youth...and who then stopped writing (for a time) in young adulthood, channelling our creativity into other areas instead. She writes:

"As I grew into adolescence and beyond, however, my writing shrank in what seemed to be an inverse proportion to my years. Though the compulsion to invent stories remained, self-doubt began to undermine it, so that I spent the second half of my childhood being gradually stripped of the one comfort I’d known, that formerly instinctive activity turning thorny to the touch. I convinced myself that creative writers were other people, not me, so that what I loved at seven became, by seventeen, the form of self-expression that most intimidated me. I preferred practicing music and performing in plays, learning the notes of a composition or memorizing the lines of a script..."

Rune Guneriussen 2

For me, too, the writing impulse was channeled into theater work, and I actually entered university intending to major in theater -- an intention so ill-suited to my nature that it seems little short of insane to me now. Fortunately it wasn't too long before I found my way back to my true vocation.

Lahiri explains her own detour away from her proper vocation with the following words:

"For much of my life, I wanted to be other people; here was the central dilemma, the reason, I believe, for my creative stasis. I was always falling short of people’s expectations: my immigrant parents’, my Indian relatives’, my American peers’, above all my own. The writer in me wanted to edit myself. If only there was a little more this, a little less that, depending on the circumstances: then the asterisk that accompanied me would be removed. My upbringing, an amalgam of two hemispheres, was heterodox and complicated; I wanted it to be conventional and contained. I wanted to be anonymous and ordinary, to look like other people, to behave as others did. To anticipate an alternate future, having sprung from a different past. This had been the lure of acting—the comfort of erasing my identity and adopting another. How could I want to be a writer, to articulate what was within me, when I did not wish to be myself?"

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This too I can relate to. Born to an unwed teenage mother (at a time when the stigma from this was still great) and shunted between various relatives, all I wanted in adolescence was to be ordinary, from an ordinary family. The very things in my background that give me strength and compassion as an adult, both as a woman and as a writer, were the things things that mortified me in adolescence; and I was no more willing to "alchemize" them into prose than I was to strip in public.

"It was not in my nature to be an assertive person," Lahiri continues. "I was used to looking to others for guidance, for influence, sometimes for the most basic cues of life. And yet writing stories is one of the most assertive things a person can do. Fiction is an act of willfulness, a deliberate effort to re-conceive, to rearrange, to reconstitute nothing short of reality itself. Even among the most reluctant and doubtful of writers, this willfulness must emerge. Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, 'Listen to me.'

"This was where I faltered. I preferred to listen rather than speak, to see instead of be seen. I was afraid of listening to myself, and of looking at my life."

Rune Guneriussen 4

I can't help but wonder how many other young writers have likewise faltered in making that step -- or, worse, have stopped in their tracks altogether. It takes courage to write, and to expose oneself. And to be oneself. But then, all art takes courage.

And stubbornness.

And foolishness.

Stirred together with a teaspoon of talent, a tablespoon of craft (or maybe it's the other way around?), a heaping cup of plain hard work, and a pinch of luck.

Rune Guneriussen 5Art above: Book sculptures by Norwegian installation artist Rune Guneriussen, whose whimsical light sculptures were featured in this previous post. In addition to Jhumpa Lahiri's essay, "Trading Stories," I also recommend  Tea Obreht's short memoir "High-School Confidential," published in the same issue of The New Yorker. And the wonderful books of both authors.


I enjoyed reading this, especially having missed it first time round. Self doubt, it is a malevolent demon on the back; one that whispers in our ears and takes a lot of effort to shake off. Hopefully we learn to live with it and ignore the sibilance of it's words.

too tasty to devour in one sitting. I'll bookmark and be back with rivers of books dancing in my head. I read that Lahiri before, but in the context of your life, it's even more. Lovely.

Being Other People, Living Other Lives

"For much of my life, I wanted to be other people. . ."
--Jhumpa Lahiri, from "Trading Stories: Notes from an
Apprenticeship," The New Yorker Magazine

Like wizards, writers put on the skins of other people,
Some are like heavy coats, warm, hanging to our knees,
difficult to walk about in. Some are like silk slips
fitting the curves. I knew a writer who chose only underwear,
and handcuffs softened by a surround of cotton batting.
Some writers go naked, some in drag.

I prefer a comfy housecoat, like my grandmother's,
well-washed floral that hung formless, yet suggested
the woman she'd been in her youth. It smelled of lemons
that she sucked on each night and talcum
I can still distinguish sixty years later.
Easy to put on, easy to get lost in, too.

©2013 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

I was struck by "Fiction is an act of willfulness, a deliberate effort to re-conceive, to rearrange, to reconstitute nothing short of reality itself." - I definitely feel I am doing this in painting... imagined landscapes where the deeper mysteries thrive and no one is there to cut the forest down - or me, if I'm truthful.

Hope you are all getting better, Terri!

I can relate to both of your stories, as well. I declared at at a very young age that I wanted to be a writer, maybe 9 years old, and maintained this dream until I went to a very prestigious art school in 9th grade. Here, so much weight was given to my visual art "talents" that in everyones' minds, to not pursue art was insanity. I followed their cue and enrolled in an art college, only to drop out two semesters later. Though I really enjoy painting and drawing, those alone don't sustain me. I still struggle with this from time to time, because even though my family has (thankfully) laid off the studio art stuff, a duality has been created in my psyche of what I should and shouldn't be doing, and I've just been making it worse on myself by falling in love with jewelry design and getting a degree in that. But I've realized writing is my ultimate love, that the other things, painting and jewelry, can only measure up with I entwine them with a story, with the significance of a tale. That's why I have a dream to incorporate all these into a career... someday. :)

When I look back I am surprised I accepted being left out of normal life. I think it was knowing what
death is. Not a way to get popular but I was the half orphan, step child, and removed from any chance
to change that. My dedication to art was like a guardian angel, a fairy godmother, a way to the somewhere I might fit in. I loved and lived for the arts. When I look around me I an astonished at how
many long time and new friends share this need. Many in my writing group struggled to find their way.
Luckily I married a talented man and we raised musical, art savvy children. It is true, art saves lives.
Not for money or prestige; because it calls and not to answer is a kind of death.

Now I'm wondering what it is I put on....probably something long and flowing in Morris-patterned cloth, but bramble-torn and worn with muddy Wellies...or steel-toed cowboy boots....

"My dedication to art was like a guardian angel, a fairy godmother, a way to the somewhere I might fit in."

Yes, yes, yes.

Nah--you already wear that.

Try a dress of crow feathers and high heel black leather books with toes as narrow and sharp as talons.

Or a bustier that shows off your pearly white breasts, brown and white striped hose, and a thick leather belt hung with skulls.

Or a classic Mumu with garish roses and a garland of garlic twined in your hair.

Or an old gray from too much washing ribbed robe, stained with snot, and filthy kleenex falling like snow from the sleeves, over a pair of gray drop bottom footie pajamas.

Characters ready for the taking.


Thank you. To add to this, I used my lucky number in the poetry pie, and it is Marge
Piercy's To Be Of Use. My yes, yes, yes.

Dearest Terri,

In my teens and early twenties I tried hard to write but what I had worth writing about I was still too frightened of and hurt by so I ended up turning out poor imitations of other people's work that I admired. I still didn't know what I wanted, needed, should, have to say.

I never quite stopped writing altogether but it certainly became a secondary activity. In any case there was immediate bread and butter to be made in performance and that is where my energies went; then a young family, my personal struggles with alcohol and depression - all very fine distractions!

Since, I've written countless short stories: some truly dreadful, others rather good. Some published and paid for, others still without a home in print or pixel.

I've also turned out five unpublishable novels. Three of them not worth the paper they are scrawled on, two containing seeds of promise but not very commercial.

I am now working on something that I am incredibly excited about, the first of a series as I have it conceived. I believe I'm ready now. This time...

I suppose that is what I am trying to say in response to this post. After all these years, here I am still pursuing this urge, this need, to write. I look back now on the literally hundreds of thousands of words that have flowed, tumbled or been squeezed out of me - and I see a slow progress, a development, a maturing; of craft, of self, of ability. Slow, painfully slow. But happening. My hope is to live long enough to see this painstakingly cultivated plant bear fruit.

I think Tolkien (or was it C.S. Lewis?)wrote somewhere that he didn't think anyone should attempt to write a novel until they had at least forty years of life behind them. That is to say, sufficient experience and maturity. Clearly, that is far from true for most great authors, but I have always taken heart in it. I believe I am proving that true for me.

It has taken a long time to get here but I know now, quite precisely, what I want and need to write, I have exorcised many of the demons that held me back and I have learned not only more of my craft but I have learned, most importantly, the pleasure and rewards of discipline.

It is twenty years ago more or less since you read my first attempt at a novel and were so gracious and encouraging. I have a treasured copy of 'The Armless Maiden' you gave me, in which you inscribed 'For Austin, looking forward to the day you give me one of yours, love, Terri.'

Well, it's a long time coming but I believe it is coming, and will come, and I look forward to that day still, with ever-growing confidence. After all, what is the passing of time but the amassing of treasure?

Quite why there is this compulsion to keep writing I still don't know. To tell stories yes, it's partly that, as to tell stories is to live consciously, to live a life of engagement, isn't it? But why write rather than simply tell? I don't know.

It may be as simple as wanting to set the world right; to heal the wounds; to bless with beauty, courage and hope all that suffers and is afraid.

A crazy thing to say. I feel a fool saying it.

But yes, that's what it is.

Love, A.

This is so truthful and brave. I have about seven unfinished novels, one finished and
I guess, cursed. Many close calls with agent, a contest and then, no time to continue
pitching it. I now have doggedly finished my new novel and have bravely sent my first query letter out, and have choses the next twenty, so far, thanks to Jane, Terri and Myth and this place of safety, Myth and Moor. We're all on our own unique quests. I also have a circle of poets, writers, theatre folk and such in my city and scattered around. And a handful of published work I feel good about.

Your eloquent wish to tell stories is not a crazy thing to say. I hesitate to say you are not
a fool because look at Shakespeare's fools. Fools take risks. It's in our nature.

Having just recently returned to writing at 57 and now seeing it as a daily journey I'm taking, unsure where the story will end, I am very moved by this post. I also love Jane Yolen's poem. Thank you.

What a beautiful comment, Austin. Particularly this:

"It may be as simple as wanting to set the world right; to heal the wounds; to bless with beauty, courage and hope all that suffers and is afraid."

Simple, perhaps; but wonderful too. Bless you, my old friend.

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