For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of — to think; well, not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others. Although she continued to knit, and sat upright, it was thus that she felt herself; and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures.
from TO THE LIGHTHOUSE by Virginia Woolf

Woolf worried about the childlessness from time to time, and suffered from the imposed anxiety that she was not, unlike her friend Vita Sackville-West, a real woman. I do not know what kind of woman one would have to be to stand unflinchingly in front of The Canon, but I would guess, a real one. There is something sadistic in the whip laid on women to prove themselves as mothers and wives at the same time as making their way as artists. The abnormal effort that can be diverted or divided. We all know the story of Coleridge and the Man from Porlock. What of the woman writer and a whole family of Porlocks?

For most of us the dilemma is rhetorical but those women who are driven with consummate energy through a single undeniable channel should be applauded and supported as vigorously as the men who have been setting themselves apart for centuries.

from ART & LIES by Jeanette Winterson
As a reader, I finally knew what I wanted to read, and as someone now yearning to become a writer, I knew exactly what I wanted to try to write: narratives of steep verbal topography, narratives in which the sentence is a complete, portable solitude, a minute immediacy of consummated language—the sort of sentence that, even when liberated from its receiving context, impresses itself upon the eye and the ear as a totality, an omnitude, unto itself. I once later tried to define this kind of sentence as “an outcry combining the acoustical elegance of the aphorism with the force and utility of the load-bearing, tractional sentence of more or less conventional narrative.” The writers of such sentences became the writers I read and reread. I favored books that you could open to any page and find in every paragraph sentences that had been worked and reworked until their forms and contours and their organizations of sound had about them an air of having been foreordained—as if this combination of words could not be improved upon and had finished readying itself for infinity.


"I have dreamt in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind."—from WUTHERING HEIGHTS by Emily Brontë

I need to reread this book sometime soon. The photo above features another book I recently had the pleasure of diving back into: MIDDLEMARCH. If you haven’t read it, you must. I’m so pleased that Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch is bringing much-deserved attention to one of the best novels of all time.

Is there anything better than returning to favorite books?

It’s February and this weather is the worst. Everyone in NYC is impatient. There’s something cleansing about the bracing cold air; it’s way better than the smell of rotting food and semi-empty beer cans that pepper the streets during the summer months. But people don’t linger on sidewalks in this weather; we rush from one location to the next. We’re protecting ourselves by piling on the layers, but somehow the frosty wind makes its way through our winter coats. We swear a lot in February.

These are my tips for getting through the shortest but longest and most tedious month of the year: homemade soup and strong black tea and hot toddies and blankets. Lots of blankets. Books. Many, many books. The longer, the better. Now is a good time to reread Middlemarch or finally tackle War & Peace. Gchat conversations with friends in which you can complain about everything and anything. Salted caramel hot cocoa. Dark chocolate with sea salt. Anything sweet to counteract the bitterness in your soul.

It’s a good month to set easy goals and check them off of your never-ending to-do list. To feel productive in whatever way possible. To not feel like you’re frozen and stuck and trapped because of this damn weather.

I took this photo a little over a week ago when I was walking home from a friend’s birthday party. It’s a reminder to myself and to all of you to look up, to notice, to observe. Not everything is ugly about this month. The beauty of new snow won’t last long. It melts away, it gets dirty, but if we don’t notice it and appreciate it, we’re living our days with woeful spirits.  We’re preoccupied by the cold instead of the moment. Right now. Right here. And if finding something to appreciate means freezing your ass off so you can stand there for a few seconds and take it all in, then do that.

I still long for the sweet and less grueling days of spring, but there’s something about winter that makes you a stronger person. Winter tests you. Winter wants you to stand the fuck up and do something with your life. Winter wants you to see things you don’t always want to see. Winter is uncomfortable and necessary and perhaps when we’re most alive.

What, then, do we have to thank for the survival of American literature’s three greatest figures? Remaindered copies bought from book peddlers. A man, sitting at his desk, an oxidized copy of a forgotten novel beside him, cobbling together an essay with no idea of what it would accomplish. The lovely devotion of solitary women and men. Essays published at the right time, in the right journals or books, noticed by the right people. Clearly, these are not the props of fate. They are, rather, the stagecraft of chance.

from the essay “Unflowered Aloes” in Tom Bissell’s MAGIC HOURS. The  communitybookstore Essays Book Group will discuss this book tomorrow (2/11) at 7:30pm. Join us! All are welcome.

The “three greatest figures” Bissell is referring to = Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman.