Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer Lidia Yuknavitch.
It would be fair to say that in life and on the page, I lead with the body. For me the two things that mediate all experience are language and the body, and the body in particular—with its contradictions and fluctuations, with its emotional intensities and crazy drives, with its sensory universe—endlessly fascinates me.
I guess I’m to the point in my life where I’m willing to see just how far writing by and through the body can take me.
I’ve noticed something about the forms and traditions we have inherited in this country when it comes to writing. They don’t particularly fit my corporeal experience. Plot points, tropes, modes of characterization and point of view, even description practices don’t quite line up with my body and what she has to tell. I can’t help but wonder if I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Different questions are emerging just underneath the surface of my skin. Different dreams are crouching in my fingers. What if the story became a series of retinal flashes or sensory jolts? What if the character experiences radical change a hundred times during the course of a single day, rather than a stable and coherent character arc? Who the hell came up with that character arc thing anyway? What a crock. What if language lets loose sometimes and follows the spasms and lunges and retreat of an actual body? What if resolution isn’t the endgame, or even possible? What story does the body have to tell, how might the body inhabit a point of view, how might the body inhabit language? In what forms and rhythms? What images might emerge from underneath the ones we’ve been trained to admire?
This photograph is very dear to me. I was on a long walk one day in the middle of my life, in my late forties, and I came across this dead baby bird. I looked around the bike-jog-walk path to see if anyone was around. Dead silence. No one and nothing stirred. I squatted down there where something alive had been felled, and before my brain caught up with my actions, I snapped a photo. The dead baby bird was so mind-bogglingly beautiful to me I couldn’t help myself. The individuation of the feathers overwhelmed me. What was left of its eye. The faint blush and blue colors. The texture of almost-wings against black gravel. I couldn’t breathe.
I have many photos of dead birds. There is a reason that dead birds move me. I understand how it may seem morbid to some people. But other people will understand what I mean when I say I have been at the death moment and held a life as it moved from living to otherwhere. I have been at the birth moment too, and this: I have been at the birthdeath moment. So death doesn’t fall into story for me like it does other people. I don’t see a line with a beginning culminating in an ending. In life or in narratives. I see living and dying happening all at once.
That day, in the presence of the dead baby bird, I convulsed.
What would that physical and emotional convulsion look like on the page? In an image? How would I tell that story? Those are the kinds of writing questions that interest me these days. I look for images and words to convey my corporeal reality.
To have an experience in which the body shudders, emotions surge, in a way that you are not able to control. To affect someone or something suddenly. To loosen language and let it go wherever it desires.
Writing as corporal event horizons.
AND THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?
- The best book I’ve read in the last few months was Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. I chose it initially because I love Claudia’s poetics, but the second it was in my hands I knew something was up. It had heat shimmer. Right book. Right time. Right place. Right body. Right voice. Sometimes a book flashes up in a moment of danger and changes everyone’s life.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Invent your own path. It kind of doesn’t matter how anyone else does it. I know it’s a strong pull to follow the lead of others, especially others that you admire, but in the end? You have to invent yourself, your writing, your writing practice, and no one else’s will work perfectly for you because they are not you. You may as well get to inventing then. Make it up. Embrace it. Ritualize it. Stand up for it. Take a bullet for it. It’s all you have.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I sleep with new books that I love. I also sleep with my first copies of books that I have written when (if) they are published. Yes in the bed. Literally.