Category Archives: Writing I Love

Ill Nature by Joy Williams

Joy Williams is a writer I feel I should learn more about. This is an odd impulse for me. I never know much about the personal lives of the writers I love unless they happen to write memoir. I would rather focus on their writing than on them and let the writing stand on its own. I was listening to wonderful interview with John Irving recently on CBC in which he says “I have lived almost entirely in my imagination and have been free to do so because my own life has been staggeringly boring, much as I hoped it would be.” Writers should be allowed to be as dull as anyone else. Nevertheless, many of my writer friends study the lives and habits of writers they admire and even know about their agents and publishers. Last night a colleague told me that a casual email exchange I was in the midst of was with the agent of a group of particularly famous writers. I had no idea. Would knowing have altered what I said? I like to think not. I like to think I write and speak to everyone with the same measure of respect, but I admit I went back and reread the exchange with a new eye and winced over a typo. Oh dear. But I always wince over typos.

Anyway, back to Joy Williams. All of this is to make clear that I know very little about Joy Williams except that I joy williams ill naturefell in love with her essays in Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals. Kirkus calls it “savage, serious, hilarious, passionate, loving, and lyrical.” The book jacket says the writing has guts and passion, two things I admire in any writing. Her wit is sharp and scathing. As with A.K. Hellum’s Listening to Trees which I considered in my last post, the essays demand that we become more connected to the natural world. Perhaps I cannot help loving writing that dedicates itself to this theme.

But it is more than that. Look at three opening sentences (and also take a minute to revel in the titles of these essays). From “Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp”: “I don’t want to talk about me, of course, but it seems as though far too much attention has been lavished on you lately–that your greed and vanities and quest for self-fulfillment have been catered to far too much.” Of course, she is talking about herself. Saying she isn’t simply reminds us that she is. The shift to second person is brilliant, enabling a kind of dissociated state from which we can see and judge ourselves, and do so harshly. Such capacity for harsh judgement, having been built, stays with us far beyond the first essay when the second person is no longer in use. Williams is no enabler. There is no mollycoddling, no “We’re all doing what we can,” because we’re not. We’re doing nothing like what we can.

Look at this opening sentence from “Neverglades”: “That the Everglades still exists is a collective illusion shared by both those who care those who don’t.” I read this essay and other works by Williams about Florida before my own visit there. It altered my vision. I knew what I was seeing was a sad shadow of what used to be, a pathetic remnant of a once glorious world “so depleted of its original abundance and ecological function that it was no longer the Everglades at all. The gentle, natural, rain-driven sheet flow that once sustained it had been replaced by erratic pulses of water, which came in gorged polluted flushes, too much or too little, and always in the wrong season.” So much is conveyed in so few words–specific detail, the concrete comparison between past and the present, loss, even grief.

And from “Sharks and Suicide”: “There’s something out there waiting for us, and that’s the truth.” The essay captures our paranoia, our fear. “Wasps or abandoned refrigerators. Dehydration, myxedema, and the three-hundred-year-old elm on the curve. Explosions, and wrecks and electrocutions. Funny-tasting meat treats.” Zeroing in on sharks, she notes that sharks are “known to create concerns out of all proportion to the amount of injury or loss of life incurred statistically.” Sound familiar? Isn’t this sort of like what’s got us all taking our shoes off at the airport and having our hand lotion seized? But wait. This was published in 2001. Williams is not only scathing, savage, hilarious and all the other adjectives; she is prescient.

Is this about Williams or is it about the writing? Is my distinction artificial? Probably, especially when it comes to personal essays. It’s impossible not to learn about a writer who writes personal essays. I will move on to her novels now. I’m particularly interested in a work called The Changeling, a novel published in 1978 that went out of print and was finally reprinted thirty years later. The internet says that it got scuttled by a particularly bad review in the NYT but that it was ahead of its time. I’ll get back to you. I have an idea that it probably was.

Joy Williams. Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals. New York: The Lyons Press. 2001.

On earning an MFA

To MFA or not to MFA. That is the question. Plenty of people have answered it, some with vitriol usually reserved for the mommy wars or politics. It’s a question that has a different answer for every writer. We all find our own path.

My path to an MFA wasn’t typical. I’m in my fifties, for one thing. But a few years ago I learned I was leaving my exceptionally talented and supportive writing community in Calgary, Alberta to live in Boston for two years. (The move was about my husband’s work, and an adventure I was quite willing to take with him.) But I needed to do something to keep my writerly momentum going, and immersing myself in a writing community was the right thing to do. Had I not moved, I never would have considered an MFA. And I would have missed out on a really difficult and wonderful experience.

You absolutely can learn what is available in an MFA outside of a program. Read craft books, lots of them, and apply the ideas in your own writing. Audit courses. Go to every writing event you can find. Watch craft lectures online. Study good writing. Really study it. Write down how it works, what the writer is doing, the techniques they are using, and again, apply it to your own work.

If you choose to go the MFA path, it’s not easy to find the right program. I stumbled upon Solstice at Pine Manor College. It’s small, supportive and low-residency. Low-residency was important to me because I knew another move loomed in our future and it was the only way I would be able to finish. Further, low-residency means students come from everywhere and bring with them lots of different ideas about writing and life that make conversations rich and deep. But no matter what program you take, or how you decide to become a better writer, the onus is always on you to put the work in, to study, to reach for something more.

Truth be told, before I moved, I was having trouble finishing my novel. I was writing myself in circles. I would abandon it for months at a time in favour of smaller, easier projects. At Solstice, the novel was just as difficult, but when the going got tough, I’d have a little talk with myself. I’d say, “You don’t know how to do this. They have a plan. You have no plan. Why don’t you follow their plan and see what happens?” So I did. Trust. It’s all about trust. I trusted them and now I have pages, really solid pages, of a novel that I will be proud of, no matter what happens to it after I’m done. And I know how to finish, something I didn’t know before.

But here’s what really sold me: Meg Kearney, the Director. Writing about the nature of the program, she says, “In an environment of creativity and imagination, the number-one poison is envy; it is by nurturing the work of others that our own work begins, through some mysterious process, to grow and flourish.” I thought if the folks at Solstice can accomplish that, I’d like a piece of it. And I have it now. This has been the greatest gift of this program. And so I embark on my new series of blog posts to keep this gift alive – a celebration of books and stories I like and admire. I offer no other reason for highlighting a book except it moves me in some way. I hope these posts inspire you pick up the work or try something brave in your own writing.

And keep writing. Keep striving to be better. It’s worth the struggle.