Book Chat: Books about writing, mental illness and conversion

November 19, 2008 | 21 comments

The books from my first-ever library haul are due back at the library. Here are some thoughts on each one off the top of my head before I take them back this afternoon…

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

I don’t think this book was supposed to be as funny as it was. Quite a few times I laughed out loud at Dillard’s reflections on the life of a writer, guffawing to my husband over my shoulder, “Aaah! She’s at another cabin in the woods!” adding through laughter, “She’s talking about writing for hours on end with no interruption again!” I would read excerpts like this:

During some of the long, empty months at work on the book, I was living in a one-room log cabin on an empty beach…My husband wrote his book in another cabin…When my husband left after breakfast, I looked around the one-room cabin and out at the water and strip of beach. Nothing changed but the tides. […]

I walked on water. I played the hateful recorder, washed dishes, drank coffee, stood on a beach long, watched bird. That was the first part; it could take all morning, or all month.

…And compare it to what my own version would be like:

After the epic process of putting my two youngest down for nap, I tripped over laundry while taking my beat-up laptop over to the couch to write while my four-year-old had quiet time. Was that a poopy diaper I smelled? I wondered if I might actually throw up on my keyboard from morning sickness. I had about 90 minutes to write before the girls woke up and the house degenerated into chaos again.

I closed my eyes to gain inspiration and was hit in the head by a tennis ball that my toddler threw in my general direction. After putting him in time out I still had all the inspiration of a wet wash cloth but now only had 84.7 minutes left so I just started typing out a bunch of crap and prayed that I could fix it later.

I did enjoy the book as a glimpse into the life of a brilliant, famous writer, and there were some helpful gems to be found like the one that Kelly at Love Well once talked about here. But in terms of gaining insight that’s applicable to writers who are not able to retire to seclusion for months on end and devote hours and hours a day to the craft of writing, I think I’ve learned more from the 10 Minute Writer blog (run by a writer and homeschooling mom of five) than I did from Dillard’s book.

Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott

I have to say, I didn’t think I’d like this book. I’ve read some recent articles by Lamott that I didn’t care for, so I was prepared to have the same take when it came to her memoir about her conversion to Christianity; I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a good read and maybe the most well-written memoir I’ve ever read.

Her stories of the drug- and sex-drenched culture in which she grew up (and of her own addictions to both that followed) make her eventual conversion to Christianity all the more stunning. And she somehow manages to be both laugh-out-loud funny and painfully eloquent. This excerpt, talking about her pre-conversion life, is a good example of her ability to explain complicated situations concisely:

If I could just do a little better [in school], I would finally have the things I longed for — a sense of OKness and connection and meaning and peace of mind, a sense that my family was OK and that we were good people. I would finally know that we were safe, and that my daddy wasn’t going to leave us, and that I would be loved someday.

Drugs helped. More than anything else, they gave me the feeling that I was fine and life was good and something sacred shimmered at its edges.

Maybe it’s because in my own pre-conversion life I knew so many people who had issues with drugs, but that last sentence actually brought tears to my eyes with its poignancy.

It dragged a bit in a couple parts, and sometimes it seemed like more of a collection of essays than a memoir (maybe that’s what it was supposed to be?), but I was blown away by Lamott’s raw talent for writing and found it to be very good overall.

Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know About Writing by Patricia O’Conner

This is a great, no-nonsense book of quick tips for writers. O’Conner was an editor at the New York Times Book Review and wrote a bestseller of her own, so she’s in the perfect position to give advice to writers. Each chapter is quick, and the variety and number of books she draws from to excerpt as examples is amazing.

If you’ve read a lot of books about writing you might find that quite a few of the chapters repeat information you’ve heard in other books, but there are enough gems in this one (e.g. the importance of imagining a friendly reader) that it’s worth a place on every writer’s bookshelf.

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

I almost didn’t read this one. I only got it at the library because it was one of the few memoirs I could think of off the top of my head; then when I got it home I thought the subject matter — a young girl in a mental institution — sounded too depressing. I picked it up one night after the kids went to sleep and found that I couldn’t put it down, finishing it in just a couple of days. Kaysen has a unique style of writing that stops just short of being what you could call stream-of-consciousness (or even rambling). It takes a lot of confidence to pull of a style like hers, and she does it flawlessly.

Probably the thing she does best is offer a surprisingly lucid description of what it’s like to have mental illness. In one chapter she explains it using the example of how we all have two “interpreters” in our brains, one that gets the sensory data from the world and another that processes it:

Think of being in a train, next to another train, in a station. When the other train starts moving, you are convinced that your train is moving…It can take a while — maybe even half a minute — before the second interpreter sorts through the first interpreter’s claim of movement and corrects it. That’s because it’s hard to counteract the validity of sensory impressions. We are designed to believe them. […]

Sometimes, when you’ve realized that your train is not really moving, you can spend another half a minute suspended between two realms of consciousness: the one that knows you aren’t moving and the one that feels that you are. You can flit back and forth between these perceptions and experience a sort of mental vertigo. And if you do this, you are treading on the ground of craziness — a place where false impressions have the hallmarks of reality.

There are some really depressing stories in the book and a heaping serving of profanity; but Kaysen manages to highlight such interesting little details of life in a mental hospital, showcase just the right observations about the personalities of the people involved, and describe her experience with such clarity that you can’t help but enjoy reading her memoir.

Whew! I can finally get those books off the top of my refrigerator now (where I keep them so that they’re safe from little hands). If you’ve read any of these books or have thoughts you’d like to add, I’d love to hear from you.


  1. mom huebert

    I think you had a great start there to your memoirs of your writing life. It sounded way more interesting than Dillard’s!

  2. sarahpiliszbabbs

    I enjoy your blog so much…I especially like your posts on books, as I am an unabashed book-o-phile. πŸ™‚

    Congrats on the newest member of your family.

    Do you find it difficult to make time for thinking and writing with a family to care for? I am about to be married and I am wondering how all of this will play out.

    Thanks so much for your writing and God bless. πŸ™‚

  3. Jennifer F.

    Mom Huebert – Thanks!

    Sarah –

    Do you find it difficult to make time for thinking and writing with a family to care for?

    Actually…not really. I do have to get up quite a bit earlier than I’d like in order to have some time to myself in the mornings, but it’s well worth the tradeoff. Also, there are little breaks throughout the day where I can think about what I want to write and jot down notes for later (if the kids are playing outside, or while they’re eating and I’m loading the dishwasher, etc.) Also, naptime is a big blessing terms of getting some time to relax and write!

    Thanks for your comments!

  4. sarah p

    Great reviews. And I’d much rather read about tripping over piles of laundry than sitting in a one-room cabin … I’ve done the latter and I got very little writing done because “nothing changed but the tides” – hard to find creative inspiration in a situation like that! Whereas a busy mother actually has a life.

  5. Shannon

    Jen, I’d love to see your take on “Operating Instructions,” Anne Lamott’s story of her son’s first year, and her book on writing, “Bird by Bird.” Both are classics. I’ve been tempted to give “Operating Instructions” to newly expecting parents, but I think it’s probably better after the kid is at least two!

  6. Jamie

    I’m so glad you mentioned the book Words Fail Me. Today I’ve been jotting down the titles of books I’d like to read in coming months, and was just wondering if that one was worth adding to the list. So thanks for the timely review. πŸ™‚

  7. Margaret in Minnesota

    The autumn that I turned 23, I was working in Manhattan as a nanny to Kurt Vonnegut & Jill Krementz. (How's that for an opening line?) North Dakota girl that I was, I was feeling very homesick on the eve of my birthday and was sitting quietly on my daybed when Jill appeared in the doorway. "Here," she said, thrusting a bag from some little bookshop into my hands. "Happy birthday."

    In it was Dillard's The Writing Life and a collection of essays on New York by E.B. White. I was touched that even though Jill was always visibly unnerved by all my writing (and annoyed by me in general), she would take the time to get me books I could use.

    I still have them both, though like you I can no longer relate to Annie Dillard’s advice to writers.

    Perhaps when we are old and gray?

    I enjoyed these reviews very much, Jen. Feel free to do more because, as you now know, the library is full of books. πŸ˜‰

  8. SuburbanCorrespondent

    I feel the exact same way about Anne Lamott. And Annie Dillard, actually…

  9. littlecbsmom

    I like your writing life version much better! I laughed out loud! I enjoyed this post and added Traveling Mercies to my new library list. Thanks for the suggestion!

  10. Jessica

    I like Annie Dillard, but your version of the writing life makes me crack up.

    And I just requested “Words Fail Me” from the library, so, thanks!

    Have you read L’Engle’s Crosswicks journals? “A Two-Part Invention”, etc? Both memoirs and writing books.

    There’s also “A Severe Mercy” by Sheldon Vanauken? I can never decide whether I like him or not, but its a powerful religious memoir.

    Also, have you read “Ragamuffin Gospel” by Brendan Manning? Another good religious memoir.

    Oh, and a second for “Bird by Bird”.

  11. Rebekka

    Ooh, book reviews!

    I’ve read the Anne Lamott book – she’s hilarious. In keeping with that, I’d recommend her book on writing “Bird by Bird”. Writing from the point of view of someone with (completely normal!) delusions of grandeur (who doesn’t secretly want to save the world?), but with an attention span of 0,0005 milliseconds. Her account of sitting down and making herself write is so recognisable to me when I have to do anything at all. There is even a chapter on perfectionism.

    Also, the book has my all-time favorite quote: “E.L. Doctorow once said that ‘writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.'” As Lamott points out, this is good advice for Life, too. πŸ™‚

  12. Tim Terhune

    Hi –

    I’ve read Travelling Mercies, and
    enjoyed it at the time. Not so much
    the second time around.

    If you can, and I know I risk ridicule even mentioning the name, but see if you can locate: “On Writing” by …. Stephen King. Funny, funny book and I think good advice for writers. Very practical stuff.

    Congrats on your new baby,

    – Tim

  13. Shelly W

    I have to agree with everyone else–your version of the writing life is so much more “real” than Dillard’s. I could never relate to writers who are so “out there,” but you seem much more accessible. Hang in there, despite the laundry, and keep writing!

    I also wanted to say that I think I was about your age when I rediscovered the library, too. Now I can’t get away. Our library has a “new books” section that is just as good as walking into Barnes and Noble–only free! I love it. I hooked my kids on the library when they were very young–we spent many happy hours there when they were little–and now my oldest just started working there. In the children’s section! She’s like a kid in a candy store every day. So much fun!

  14. Ginkgo100

    I also recently read Girl, Interrupted. It was shocking at times how much like a prison the hospital was, especially for someone like Kaysen who supposedly was “voluntarily” committed. Borderline Personality Disorder was a faddish diagnosis; the same symptoms today might have ended up with the current faddish diagnosis, Bipolar Disorder. Or maybe not. But I did think the chapter “My Diagnosis” was pretty scathing of the psychiatric field, didn’t you?

  15. paula k

    It’s been awhile since I read Traveling Mercies but I remember I liked the part about how she let Jesus into her life, comparing it to finally letting a stray dog into your home that’s been following you for a long time. As a former atheist, I found that part very real and not at all religious and it emphasized for me how God meets us where we are.

  16. Not Strictly Spiritual

    I loved your comments on Dillard. I, too, have read that book and wondered what it must be like to have hours upon hours of silence to write and walk along a beach. As I write this, my 3-year-old is standing on the back of my chair pulling my hair. That is how I do most of my writing, so I can absolutely identify with your version of the writing life.

    I’m a huge fan of Anne Lamott, despite the fact that I often disagree with her more recent articles and columns. She is an amazing writer. I have to second an earlier comment: Bird by Bird is a great book, one of my favorites.

  17. Jolyn

    Just wanted to give a thanks for the reviews; I’ve been on a memoirs kick for years (taking small children into consideration, translate that as, when I read, I’ve gravitated toward memoirs, usually traveling ones) so I’m always looking for recommendations.

    I must second “Tim” regarding Stephen King’s “On Writing”. I was so pleasantly surprised by it because I’m actually not a huge Stephen King fan (I can’t always stomach his darkness). But this read, well…almost like a memoir, with personal advice.

  18. Sarah Reinhard

    Jen, Anne Lamott wrote a book on writing called Bird by Bird. It was one of the first ever books about writing I ever read, because a good friend (not a writer) had bought an NPR cassette tape (remember those?) about it and lent it to me, and I was hooked. She had a young child (only one) when she wrote it, I think, so it might be a bit more (ahem) helpful (or not). πŸ™‚ Anyway, I enjoyed it for her style.

    Thanks for the tips on the others! πŸ™‚

  19. The Sojourner

    I third Stephen King’s On Writing. I’ve never actually read any of his novels (I’m only just old enough that my parents aren’t censoring my reading anymore) but my dad is a big fan and over the summer got On Writing from the library for me because he knows I want to be a novelist. Yes, there are passages where he says, “Sit down and write for 3 hours straight” and I just laughed because I can imagine how that’s going to jive with my plans of a big family, but at the same time you get gems like this:

    “It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

    That’s one of my all-time favorite quotes. There are a lot of other great quotes, but I’m still young enough that I’m not allowed to repeat profanity so I can’t quote him very extensively. (He sprinkles a 4-letter word here and there, nothing that shocks me to read but enough that it would shock my parents to hear me saying it.)

  20. Kylie w Warszawie

    I’m a psych major so I’ve read a bazillion psychology books. I thought Girl, Interrupted was a good look at her disorder. It’s written in such a random, rambling fashion, it made me feel as though I was in her brain.

    I also really enjoyed I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb.

  21. Kelly @ Love Well

    I first read “The Writing Life” in college. When I had ZERO responsibility, much like Ms. Dillard. I related to it in that “I’m in college and a Deep Thinker, therefore I understand the tortured artist motif” kind of way.

    Now that I’m a SAHM of three? I have the same sort of reaction. I find myself wanting to say, “Annie? Maybe you just need to LIVE more and seclude less.”

    Also, thank you for the Anne Lamott review. She’s been recommended to me for years, and I’ve read many of her essays online. But lately, some of the stuff I’ve come across with her name on it has been frothing and angry and self-centered. It’s totally turned me off. I don’t know if I could get past that image anymore.

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