Wild Women

owl alan pollard

(photo by my brother Alan)

Over the past two decades, most of what I consider the best creative writing, the best musical compositions, and the best performance and visual art have come from women.

There’s something just odd, I think, about people singing other people’s work, unless the voice of the composer is truly awful. Most of my favourite recent music is hence by women “singer-songwriters” (that’s apparently a genre of music now). What surprises me, as a writer and lover of language, is that in much of this music the words aren’t essential to conveying profound emotional meaning (Sarah McLachlan’s songs come to mind). These songs just reach you, and the role of your conscious mind in appreciating them is pretty minimal.

Likewise, almost all of the art that decorates my walls is by women artists.

In recent years, I’ve found it harder and harder to find music, art or literature that I find worthwhile spending time on. Perhaps my standards are impossibly high or my attention span is impossibly low. I start to read a lot of novels and short stories, but rarely finish them. I can spend three hours in a bookstore, reading first pages and last paragraphs of hundreds of creative works, and leave the store empty-handed.

But this year I’ve found two books that I have read, carefully and patiently, cover to cover. Neither is fiction, though both are highly creative and brilliantly crafted. Both are memoirs — kind of. Both are by women.

Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams is described on the cover as “essays about empathy”, and described in the afterword with the marvellous expression “confessional writing”. It is written in the first person singular but it reads as a collection of stories told by an astute observer, about various experiences of unbearable suffering and how people have and have not coped with it. Revelations about the author’s own suffering emerge with the stories of others’ (people both real and fictional), along with diversions into what it all means, particularly from the perspective of women.

Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk is described on the catalogue page as about “hawks”, “grief” and “spirituality” — pity the librarian trying to decide where to shelve it. Amazon has it categorized under “field guides”! It is also written in the first person singular, and is ostensibly about her experience raising a goshawk, but includes lengthy asides about TH White’s life and his experiences with a goshawk, and is mostly about her own life and her revelations about herself and the world around her. Like Leslie’s book, Helen’s invites us to look unsparingly at the author’s true self and what it means to be human, as if we were seeing from the perspective of the ruthless bird.

If you want a taste, you can read a story from The Empathy Exams here, and an excerpt from H is for Hawk here. If you’re like me, that’s all you will need to buy these books.

They defy synopsis much as they defy categorization, so I won’t attempt a review here. What I will say is that the two books share the following (terribly rare) qualities:

  • They are so well written that if you care about what it means to be human, and in particular to be a woman, you’ll never get impatient with the pace. Every word counts. (Readers looking for advice on self-“improvement”, or for a field guide, will, however be disappointed.)
  • The writers’ choice of words is often unorthodox, even jarring, revealing a stark insight into the writers’ true personalities and situations that defies any banal, conventional description. How and where did these two young women learn to write so damned well?
  • These books (like Derrick Jensen’s A Language Older Than Words) are extremely hard to read. They depict events and realizations unflinchingly, starkly and unapologetically. The language is so perfect, the choice of words so ingenious and precise, that the reader can’t help but feel absolutely what the writer was feeling, which is, more often than not, excruciating misery or pain. Pick them up and you can’t put them down; put them down and breathe a sigh that you needn’t pick them up again.
  • They give you an astonishing insight into what it feels like to be a woman. At least it seems so to me, someone who is not. After reading these books, I look at all women, and their relationships, and the issues of male privilege and patriarchy, a little differently.

They’re roller-coaster rides for a writer of words. The wonderful prose, the delicious imagery, the astonishing juxtaposition of words to capture something you never quite realized before, leave you gasping. But the truths they reveal about who we are, are jagged and harsh, and sometimes almost suffocating.

My guess is that (a few) women are able to write such powerful books because they are more grounded, more connected with their feelings and their true selves, “wilder” (in the sense of less susceptible to intellectual colonization and civilization’s groupthink), more self-aware and self-honest, and emotionally stronger than most men. These two authors’ writings make me wonder if I could bear to be a woman. And they fill me with awe that anyone can be at once so alive, so aware of one’s own suffering, and so accepting.

Those suffering, without end, in situations they did not ask for and cannot change, know all this, I suppose.

I can only wonder.

This entry was posted in Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Wild Women

  1. Jack says:

    Nice Read,

  2. Nathan Shepperd says:

    Has been a while since I left a comment. I have often been confused by the lack of female composers. After reading a fair bit on gender socialisation I wonder if it’s a case of being raised to be deferent or too sensible to “indulge” in creativity. Some women just ignore it but others give up their existence to other people. At least this is what I’ve picked up, and I’ve seen it in the behaviour of women.

    On the other hand, I would rather spend time with women because they are more likely to be connected to their emotions. I find it hard to understand men or conventional ideas of masculinity. Men are frustrating to me, possibly similar to a woman’s frustration. This is weird because I’m autistic and supposed to have exaggerated male traits. clearly awareness of my own lack of emotional understanding has led me to respect a woman’s sensitivity to emotion.

    The only thing is that I’m not sure men have to stay emotionally incompetent. “Civilised” traditions have made them into competitive performers rather than whole people.

    That’s tonight’s ramble then…

  3. Back again, hadn’t quite finished.

    You mentioned Sarah McLachlan, and I realised some emotional baggage from a disastrous relationship was keeping me from picking up her music again. Blow me down, the words hit me straight away. Must be because I’m getting older and I’ve picked up more “life”. Her music also is melancholy. I can’t stand tedious love songs or something dim-wittedly happy.

    By the way, you linked to one of Wierd Al Yankovic’s videos (Mission Statement), and a while later I picked up some more of his songs like “Party in the CIA”. He spends a lot of time being silly, but occasionally gets to the edge of darker satire…

  4. Theresa says:

    I used to find your links of the week/month to be a good source of reading material. It didn’t seem heavily curated but was a good reflection of the interests of the sorts of people who follow your blog.

Comments are closed.