In the fall of 2019, I spent eleven weeks in Middleborough, Massachussetts while my daughter was in treatment for severe OCD. It was strange living in a conservative bubble, having lived most of my life in liberal hamlets — San Francisco, Berkeley, Cambridge, New York, and for the last twenty-six years, Austin, Texas, where the local slogan is “Keep Austin Weird.”
Middleborough is the largest city in Massachusetts (in terms of acreage), but a small-town mentality prevails. The uniform consists of jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt, with a flannel or hoodie to keep warm. All the restaurants feature sports bars where locals gather to watch the Patriots and other local teams on game nights. The same pub menu is served at every restaurant in town—burgers and sweet potato fries, steak tips and butternut squash, single serving pizzas, plates piled high with nachos.
I enjoyed peeking into another way of life. I was charmed by the cranberry bogs and the fall harvest; the old-fashioned coffee shop at the center of town, where white-haired veterans sat in the window every morning looking out over Main Street; and, of course, the public library, built in 1902 with high ceilings, fireplaces, Greek columns, and signs on every table reminding you to be quiet.
But three months is a long time to be away from home, andI grew lonely for like-minded friends, for artists and intellectuals and a progressive point of view. I couldn’t find a New York Times or a New Yorker anywhere.
Aside from the innkeeper and my daughter, books were my truest companions.
Here is a partial list of what I read. While I indulged in plenty of fiction and poetry, I’m sharing four memoirs. These true stories, these authors’ authentic voices, kept me sane and connected to the greater world.
LIDIA YUKNAVICH, THE CHRONOLOGY OF WATER.
I was admittedly late to the Lidia Yuknavitch literary admiration society. I picked up this memoir the day before I left Austin and finished reading it on the plane. It begins with the stillbirth of the author’s daughter, letting you know you’re in a for a raw, emotional ride, and then flips back and forth through her difficult childhood, her abusive father, her drug and alcohol addiction, and her youth as a competitive swimmer. Everything is out in the open, without apology or self-censorship, including the details of an intense sex life.
The writing is so hot it makes you want to get to work and start speaking your own truths. It makes you want to scream onto the page with as much abandon as she does. When I finished reading the memoir, I did not want to leave the author’s world and immediately picked up another book of hers, a novel, On the Backs of Children. Like Chronology of Water, everything in this book is turned on its head. The narrative and structure break every rule, and you are carried along by the author’s daring and intensity.
What books or works of art had you running to the page or the studio?
DONALD HALL, LIFE WORK
Ever since reading Hall’s memoir, The Best Day, The Worst Day, I’ve fantasized about the New England farmhouse he and his late wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, lived and worked in. They called it “The Poetry House,” and he lovingly described their quiet days working there. In Life Work, which he wrote before the The Best Day, The Worst Day, Hall chronicled his family history in that house, especially the hard work of living on a farm, including the division of labor amongst his ancestors. Hall also shares his writing days, laying out for the first time what “the best day” looks like — writing, lovemaking, more writing, quiet reading.
Life Work made me think about what my best day might be and how I might help my students and clients get more best days. Although it crossed my mind that Donald Hall was able to work the way he did because he had inherited a farmhouse and his wife prepared his meals.
What would it be like to assume your days were your own? What would your best day look like?
SONYA HUBER, PAIN WOMAN TAKES YOUR KEYS
In this book of short essays, the author lays out her life after being hit by a cluster of autoimmune diseases. So much was familiar to me — the overwhelming fatigue, the longing for old energy and focus, the frustration of not being able to read when you are engaged in a profession that requires you to be well-read. I loved that she captured her invisible illness on the page, describing her experience in fresh language.
However, there were so many essays about how hard things were, I found myself getting annoyed. Huber never questions why she was hit with autoimmune disease or why so many women seem to be suffering from it Whatever is happening in our bodies reflects what’s happening in our world, the air we breathe, where we get our food, how our homes are built and furnished.
The book made me want to encourage everyone I know to reduce their toxic load as much as financially possible, to stop polluting our bodies and our earth, and to support access to alternative medicine.
Of course, that would have been my book and this was hers and it was about pain and loss and the author’s fight.
What struggle would you like to share? How might it speak to the larger political truths of our time?
ROXANNE GAY, HUNGER.
This book was rough. A few chapters in, the author describes in horrifying detail being gang-raped when she was twelve years old by her supposed boyfriend and his friends. Then the weight she put on to keep herself safe, to make herself unattractive to men. Not fifty pounds, but five hundred. In chapter after chapter, she describes the pain of being a morbidly obese woman in a culture that values thinness over all.
In addition to her personal experiences, Gay surveys the media, especially television, for its shaming of fat people. I admired the way she brought her professional life as a media critic to bear on her personal experience.
There was little light in this book, however. While Gay begins to care for herself in the end, she seemed careful not to fall into the trap of the triumphant narrative. Being that overweight was a misery not easily escaped.
How do you see your reality reflected in the media? What do you want to do about it?
I loved of all of these books, not because they were perfect or because I agreed with everything the authors wrote. I loved them because they inspired me as a writer, especially the way they experimented with language and form, and because the authors challenged me by daring to be exactly who they were.
This is my wish for you, that you stand up and speak the truth of your life in your writing. That you dare to be yourself and not what the culture tells you to be. That you stop seeking approval and start screaming onto the page no matter how unsightly your life might be to others.
What are you reading now? How is it inspiring you to speak your truth?