3 min read

15. The invisible work of a book

The more I write, the closer I cling to the books that, in turn, provoke, comfort, and move me.
15. The invisible work of a book

You're reading The Ponder, and I'm Devin. Welcome! This is where I connect the dots between seemingly disparate ideas floating around in my head. Thank you for being here. I hope you stay awhile.


Hi, friends. Are you experiencing any coincidences that are pointing you in a certain direction? I've found two different D.H. Lawrence quotes in two different places (and included them in two newsletters in a row), so apparently, I need to read one of his books. I hope you're finding rest, nourishment, and comfort.

The dots

  • "I'm speaking now to my comrades, / the artists, the ones who want to be seen / as good ones more than anything else." From the poem THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2006) by Leigh Stein
  • “Morality in the novel is the trembling instability of the balance. When the novelist puts his thumb in the scale, to pull down the balance to his own predilection, that is immorality.” — D.H. Lawrence
  • "A moral novel has no interest in what is socially acceptable." — Brandon Taylor

How do they connect?

Over the last two days, I devoured Leigh Stein's new book WHAT TO MISS WHEN and left underlined sections and scribbled notes in my wake. This excerpt cracked my heart open a little bit:

I'm speaking now to my comrades,
the artists, the ones who want to be seen
as good ones more than anything else.
—  THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2006)

Because don't you know exactly what she's talking about? I believe I do, and this poem made me go searching in my inbox for a certain issue of Brandon Taylor's newsletter: a dark room on the other side of the world.

Brandon writes: "In the D.H. Lawrence sense, a moral novel is simply a novel that preserves the instable, ever shifting balance of relations between a subject and the subject’s circumambient universe."

And how can we write a novel like that if we're worried about being "seen as good ones," as Leigh said? Art takes energy, and the more energy sucked up by worrying about "resonance with the Twitterfied set of ethics" (Brandon again), the less energy for the art.

I'm working on taking my thumb off the scale of my novel. And my mind is spinning. I believe the novel's core is uncertainty (Milan Kundera) and instability (D.H. Lawrence), and I want to write that way. And I still must pick words and arrange them on a page, and then those words one day are set in 'stone' and are stable, but must evoke instability. My.mind.is.spinning.

When I re-read Brandon's newsletter and came to the part where he wrote: "You can’t wear [the novel] like a hair shirt," I laughed. My husband was sitting next to me and wanted to know what was so funny. My explanation mangled the humor, but I tried. Back to the point: For some writers (like myself), writing may be part of reparations, but that's still not an excuse for heavy-handedness or flattening characters into single-note good or bad people.

Using a novel to hit someone over the head with a lecture is not what I'm here to do. It never was, in theory. But I'm finding out that I'm very rigged to be heavy-handed. And it will be a careful, disciplined, open-hearted work to keep navigating back to uncertainty and instability so that, in the end, the book reflects life with all its warts.

I'm grateful for Leigh and Brandon, and other writers who venture out past the bounds of Twitter ethics and into the roiling mass of instability and uncertainty. The more I write, the more I realize the work there is to be done. The more I write, the closer I cling to the books that, in turn, provoke, comfort, and move me. —DKP

P.S. I'm reading this luminous essay Going Back was the Beginning by my friend Victoria Meléndez on grief, being parented, and a ~*creepy clown puppet*~. I'm watching The 100 Foot Wave  (link to trailer), eating lots of sweet potatoes, and checking in with people I love.


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