books i am reading, special "who needs self help NOT MYSELF I SWEAR" edition

ate a smoothie in direct sunlight hope you're happy los angeles #yallwest

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I clambered out of the Malaise of the Wrong Book by accidentally reading three rather dark books in a row: Esmé Weijun Wang’s wonderful and macabre claustrophobic gothic fantasia The Border of Paradise, Susan Barker’s brilliant, century-spanning multivocal masterpiece The Incarnations, and now Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, a memoir/theory hybrid (as is her wont) that combines autobiography, true crime, and an extended meditation on our cultural obsession with sexualized violence against (white, young, pretty, middle- to upper-class) women. Here is an excerpt from The Border of Paradise, which I highly recommend, and a super-smart interview with Wang. The Nelson is rough going (spoiler alert: lots of sexualized violence against women) but so far very, very good. The Incarnations is amazing if you like virtuosic novels that are splendidly written and jump around in time and involve creepy centuries-long obsessive love/hate/revenge stories and reincarnation (maybe) and Lost Love and Crazy Families and the language is so fantastic I am going to read everything else she has written. (It is also pretty gruesome in places, so consider yourself warned; I did okay and did not find the violence gratuitous, and sometimes it’s even funny in a Heathers sort of way, but it’s explicit and a fair amount of it happens to women.)

I also went into a minor self-help k-hole while processing my Wrong Book/Brain Malaise/procrastinating the various things I am meant to be working on, which I am (spoiler alert) doing now as well. When I worked as a bookseller quite some time ago I sold innumerable copies of Julia Cameron’s originally self-published self-help bestseller The Artist’s Way, almost without exception to crystal-festooned white women of a certain age in shapeless garments. I was young and I knew everything and I did not like those women, or their breathy voices, or their craft projects, and I thought that anybody who needed a book to help them write books was probably not very good at writing books. Now, of course, the joke is on me, as I am a crystal-festooned white woman of a certain age, quite fond of shapeless garments, and an inveterate procrastinator of both the books I am supposed to be writing for money and the book that I am ostensibly writing for love, and in the last month I read two essays by writers whose work I quite enjoy on how, as much as it embarrassed them to admit it, they had themselves come to The Artist’s Way and found it useful if slightly silly. So I checked it out of the library.

I opened up The Artist’s Way at a bar I am partial to near my house, on a sunny afternoon, and I have to tell you that I was ready to throw it at a wall within about ten pages. I think it’s fantastic if you like The Artist’s Way! or if it has been useful to you! I am not such a smug little twerp as I was when I was young, not about self-help books, anyway. But its systems are not of great interest to me. To be honest, faith in my own creativity has never been much of a problem for me; if anything I have rather a more robust sense of my own worth than is strictly necessary. My problems are, for the most part, not self-love or lack thereof but time (and lack thereof) and money (and ensuring I am making it). Everyone wants to tell you how to become a writer—Battle despair! Embrace the Universe! Delve into your creative well! You already are one! (this last is true, gentle reader-writer)—but not as many people want to talk about the material realities of being a writer (I quite liked Yasmin Nair’s sardonic and pointed review of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, which is basically a more oblivious The Artist’s Way written in a more expensive house, and which I also read and mostly despised last month). How do I retain my Divine Inspiration when I am so broke I am waking myself up with panic attacks at 4am on the dot every morning? (Sell a memoir for several hundred thousand dollars before I even write it, I guess, she said brattily.) How do I behave like a responsible adult if I actually make some money? How do I carve out time for my own work when so much of my energy goes to other people’s? How do I fucking log off Twitter no for real this time no like for real? How do I stop confusing “being depressed” with “being lazy”? And other important questions, which I shall answer someday in a self-help book of my own, once I have all the answers. I'm sure I'll come across them shortly.

I’m still working out how the fuck to be a writer, and I’m three books and thirty-six years in now. I should like to be more regular in my habits and more functional in my output, but I would also like not to be crazy, and to be a millionaire, and to live in a world where all human beings have basic human rights and my taxes go to fund schools and free healthcare and abortions instead of drone strikes on children, so. We work with what we’ve got.

Oh also I read The Nest, which is quite fun, like The Emperor’s Children with a much gentler bite. I forget if I wrote about Hope Jahren’s memoir/science manifesto Lab Girl, but even if I did I loved it so much I’ll write about it again; it is a brilliant book about loving things and being human and thrashing out your own space in a world hellbent on not giving you any (also I saw it in the airport bookstore, which made me quite happy). I got back last week from Los Angeles, where I sat on the beach and drank a ten-dollar smoothie (see above) and ate a sandwich with “raw bread” made from seeds and nuts of some kind and also appeared on some panels, and it was damp in New York until today, and chilly, and I loved it; I can’t help it, it’s how I’m made. Too much sun makes you soft, if you ask me.

If you didn’t see already About A Girl was nominated for a Lambda Award (!!!) and I talked to the always excellent s.e. smith about writing and teen dirtbags for Bitch magazine. For my birthday I am going to a panel about dark matter and I just bought myself a pair of summer boots and that’s about it for me. Happy writing, dear readers; I hope you’re further along than me.