The Cult of Girlhood: Emma Cline’s debut novel “The Girls” and the power of teen girl experience

Note: Both the book and this review discuss sexual assault. This review also includes what some might consider spoilers, so if you haven’t read it and want to go in completely fresh, then save this for later!


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A photo of my second-hand copy of The Girls, appropriately taken in my teenage bedroom

By the time I stumbled upon Emma Cline’s 2016 debut novel The Girls in hardback in a charity shop for 99p in April this year, the book had already been drifting around the edges of my awareness for quite a while. The cover of the U.K. Penguin edition, designed by Neil Krug, had caught my eye a number of times in shop windows or on Twitter and Instagram. It has that alluringly sunset-y, light-leak-y effect that reminds you simultaneously of Instagram filters and the actual photographic processes they emulate – appropriate for a book that takes place both in the present of smartphone filters and in the 1969 of Polaroids and the Summer of Love. The Girls had the look to me then of something unearthed – but also pristine, promising, glamorous, exciting. Whenever I’d come across the book before I’d always made a mental note to come back to it, and the serendipity of finding it waiting for me so cheaply and expectantly was too good an opportunity to pass up.

The novel charts a summer in the life of Evie Boyd, who is fourteen years old in 1969 when she becomes involved in a Manson-esque cult, complete with a grisly quadruple-murder in which Evie mercifully (or, the novel suggests, merely arbitrarily) takes no part. The story is retold by a middle-aged Evie in the present, and the novel divides its action between the two moments with most of its pages spent in the past.

I’ll spare you the suspense about my reaction and say that it’s some of the best writing about being a teenage girl that I’ve ever read, if not the best, and I absolutely loved it. The writing was beautiful enough that I was dog-earing every other page so I could come back to some of Cline’s spectacular turns of phrase, and, at least for me, the two timelines complemented each other and each justified its existence alongside the other.

Given the hype around the book – it was bought for an unheard-of $2 million advance in 2014, and since its publication has garnered a string of celebrity endorsements and a handful of prizes – I was not surprised to find that reviews of it echoed my amazement. But as the reviews wore on I began to get the (appropriately teenage) feeling that, yes, these reviewers got that this was a great book, but at the same time they didn’t really seem to get it. However complimentary they were about Cline’s style – the “perfect pointillism” of her prose, her “obvious talent” for storytelling – they would repeatedly come back to the Manson aspect of the novel as though it were a broken promise. Dwight Garner writes for the New York Times that “Ms. Cline can’t come close to sustaining her novel’s early momentum. […]  The storytelling becomes vague and inchoate, as if you are reading a poem […] about the novel you’d rather be consuming.” James Wood, writing for the New Yorker, says that “‘The Girls’ never entirely succeeds in justifying itself – in making the case that there was anything personally or historically necessary about Cline’s decision to raid the American-culture store and pluck one of the best-known and most lurid episodes from the shelf. […] my admiration for its many beauties was corrupted by a worming question: ‘Why this subject?’ Without an answer, the novel comes to seem manipulative.”

These statements, and others like them in other reviews, were a bit of a sticking point for me. They all seemed to take the cult aspect of the novel as a central premise that failed to get off the ground, and this focus seemed, to me, slightly bizarre. Because after reading The Girls, I really can’t imagine a book about a cult that is less about the actual cult.

Let me explain.

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Charles Manson c. 1970, photographed by Michael Ochs

Everyone is familiar with the story of the Manson “family”. It’s a true-crime, true-horror classic, and much of its appeal lies in the magnetism of its central figure. I’m guessing that most people reading this won’t be able to name any of the women in Manson’s “family” who actually committed most of the group’s murders (I know I can’t) but everyone is aware of Charles Manson. He has become a special kind of dark celebrity, assailed by letters from admirers, even in prison, and remains a staple of internet listicles, documentaries, and books. The reasons for this are fairly clear: Manson typifies a kind of real-life villain that is extremely compelling for exploration in art – a seemingly-ordinary man possessive of a manipulative magic so powerful that it can transform ordinary people into murderers, unrecognisable by “civilised” society. The narrative of the innocent outsider brought into the doomed fold through their fascination with a charismatic leader is a familiar one, one we’ve seen over and over again in fiction and film – and one that these reviewers evidently expected to find in The Girls.

And yet, the magnetic central figure in this novel isn’t the Manson-inspired figure of Russell Hadrick, whom we see only dimly. Instead, it is with Suzanne Parker, one of Russell’s closest teenage followers, that Evie develops an intense infatuation. From Evie’s first glimpse of her dumpster-diving in a local park, Suzanne is the object of a fevered fascination that is not distinct from physical desire. Over the course of the novel she becomes a model of the kind of obsessive adulation that is deceptively common in friendships among teenage girls: the need to cleave to another girl who seems wiser, to see her as a guide, a role model, a kind of idol. Rather than seeing it as a disappointing deviation from the narrative of the male cult leader, the relationship between Suzanne and Evie quickly became for me the compelling heart of the novel (which, one might point out to any reviewers confused about its focus, is after all called The Girls).

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The Manson girls, photographer unknown

Indeed, the novel gives the resonant impression that to be a teenage girl, now as much as in 1969, is to engage in ritualistic worship – of beauty, as when Evie and her best friend Connie spend hours before the mirror experimenting with grooming techniques; of boys, as when they try, like “conspiracy theorists”, to divine meaning from their crushes’ scattered movements; and, ultimately, of each other. Suzanne is canonised by Evie as the patron saint of girlhood: she is beautiful, but with an “error” in her features that renders her impression somehow “better than beauty”; she is self-assured, desirable, yet also vulnerable to the desire that Evie herself seems to feel towards her. Suzanne loves Russell and it is her love for him that binds Evie to him (though Russell does successfully manipulate Evie, it’s pretty clear that Evie would not keep returning to the ranch if it weren’t for her attachment to Suzanne). Cline appears to suggest throughout the novel that the cult of girlhood into which Evie had been inducted over a lifetime of ’60s social conditioning is ultimately what renders the more insidious ranch commune not just a welcoming and promising new environment, but the almost logical culmination of her femininity.

Cline herself certainly seems to see the book in this way. In an interview with the Guardian in May she declared that

The crime aspect is the least important part of the novel. It’s much more a story about the everyday violence of girlhood, the daily brutalities. It was almost a challenge I gave to myself – can I write a book where a literal crime serves as a backdrop to these more psychological crimes?

It is this aspect of the novel that Cline’s male reviewers often seem to miss, an absence that appears with frustrating frequency in the New York Times’ review of the book and elsewhere. The cynical explanation is that the Manson-derived figure of Russell, despite existing on what is really the emotional and psychological outskirts of the novel, by default as the main man in the story takes up much of male reviewers’ interest and the burden of their expectation. If this is the case then I can’t blame them for their frustration with it – of course The Girls seems like it’s slow to getting anywhere if the place that you expect it to be heading towards is a man and a crime that is really not the point of the story.

The point of this review is not to be a die-hard defence of The Girls. These reviewers’ criticisms – most frequently of Cline’s decorous language, her consistently elegiac tone – are fair, even if these things didn’t negatively affect my personal experience reading the novel. The problem was their overwhelming maleness, the fact that, for a book called The Girls, there was a surprising lack of women’s voices in media outlets’ reactions to the book.

This showed perhaps the most plainly in male reviewers’ treatment of the sexual scenes in the novel – all of which are, to a greater or lesser extent, exploitative. Garner in particular writes at the end of his review that Evie “performs sex acts on Russell. She has sex, too, with the grizzled pop star Mitch, whose life will be upended when Russell turns against him.” To be perfectly clear, these are rape scenes: assaults perpetrated by much older men against a fourteen-year-old girl. The trap that Garner seems to fall into here is in thinking that Evie’s unflinching account of her assault, the absence of a claim to victimhood, even the strange pride that she reports after her first encounter with Russell, amount to consent, to “sex”. This is not what these acts are. This is shown even in the way that these scenes are written – there is a notable absence of pornographic detail, particularly in the scene with Russell: we see the before, the after, and flash back briefly later in the novel to the act itself, but it is never directly focalised. Cline’s descriptive attentions signal that enjoyment – both Evie’s and the reader’s – is clearly not the point of these scenes.

Garner’s misunderstanding here speaks to the misjudged focus I felt was common to many of the reviews I read, because surely if someone were paying attention to the way that Cline paints power and gender throughout the novel it would be impossible to read these assaults as “sex”, Evie’s coercion as consent. Because ultimately what The Girls explores, as Cline gestures to in the quote above, is the issue of free will. The background action of the cult and its crime is a tool to bring the novel’s larger examination of this concept into focus – Evie wonders as an older woman whether she could have participated in the murders her friends committed, and suspects that she could. But the novel also zooms in and out from the event, exploring all the big and small ways in which the cult’s structure parallels particularly women and girls’ experiences of coercion and how they coerce each other. Evie’s longing to be loved, her craving to be seen and desired, can be seen as a socialised quality – it’s what makes her vulnerable, but also relatable. Its centrality to her character therefore seems to suggest that what Cline is getting at is that coercion, the blurring of consent, is at the heart of teen girlhood and the initiation into womanhood that it constitutes; Evie’s exploitation becomes a badge of initiation into the cult of girlhood.

With this in mind, it’s possible that the reason I found the book so powerful while these writers merely “appreciated” it is simply that I was indoctrinated into the cult of girlhood, and so were most, if not all of the girls I grew up with. I recognise the rhythms of Evie’s teenage desperations so well that Cline’s writing is not only “accurate” but sometimes almost painful. She has an uncanny knack for describing the minutest shifts in psychosocial relations without sounding paranoid, without taking on the tone of the “conspiracy theorist” attitude she nonetheless recognises these relations to originate from. In fact, much of what the present-day fragments of the novel show and what make them pull their weight as sections is that these relations have hardly changed since the period of the novel’s main action. In the present day, Evie speaks to us from her temporary home in a friend’s vacation house, where she encounters said friend’s teenage son Julian and his girlfriend, Sasha. Their relationship – exploitative, with a disproportionate balance of desperate love on Sasha’s side – serves as a foil to Evie’s own teenage experiences with Suzanne, and despite her efforts to intervene, Evie is forced to accept that Sasha cannot be reached.

For me, clearly, the book’s focus was always powerfully, beautifully girls, their relationships with each other and not their “leader” or leaders, and I think that’s why I never felt that the novel had lost steam or veered off-course. It brought with it an instinctive, even visceral honesty that its male reviewers, through no fault of their own, could not have identified, because it did not come from the buried core of themselves.

In short: I loved this book, and I wish I could have read more, higher-profile reviews from women. I don’t think that only women should have reviewed it, or that every review done by a man was bad – Christian Lorentzen’s review for Vulture for example was really compelling – just that a diversity of views, approaches, and experiences would have done more justice to what is a truly amazing first novel.


Read The Girls if you like beautiful writing, character (rather than plot) -driven narratives, and heady, absorbing period settings that don’t shower you with pop culture references to back themselves up. Avoid it if you prefer a narrative that is moved forward by action and exciting events (this is much more of a contemplative novel), straightforward language that doesn’t mess around so much, and singular narrative structure – the split between the two timelines, as evidenced by other reviews, can be fairly taken as needless and a bit distracting.


Further reading: “See Me”, Emma Cline’s 2014 piece in The Paris Review about adolescence and the Manson girls.


I waited to be told what was good about me. I wondered later if this was why there were so many more women than men at the ranch. All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you – the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.

– Emma Cline, The Girls

Poem on Longwall Street, 20.04.2017

A cool breeze after warm spring rain
and leaves back on the trees again:
a spray of wet green overhanging the sandstone wall.
Dim silver on the pavement and in the gutters,
in a cascade of beads down a woman’s raincoated back
and you not there at all –
not in the doorway that frowns over passers-by
at the noise from hometime traffic,
and not in the coffee shop beyond, hunched
over a book or a laptop or a cup
of bitter black beans brewed
by a waitress who’s not me
with no milk, no sugar, just
a spoon.

Women I’m Listening To #1: Lorde’s “Green Light”

Lorde’s debut album, Pure Heroine, transfixed me from my first listen. Everything about it seemed to evoke the exact feeling of premature nostalgia I had felt between the ages of sixteen to eighteen, and I only wished I could have been born a few years later, to hear that album at that age and feel it like an electric arrow to the heart. As it was, I was a late adopter – my first listen was more than a year after it first came out, but that didn’t stop me from buying it on vinyl after a week. I would listen with rapt attention in my bedroom in York, turning the lyrics over in my mind with joy and reverence. It was the record I would put on when I felt hopeless, or when I needed to escape. It’s still my favourite record that I own, despite its second-hand scuffs and the nanosecond-long skip on one track that I can’t tell if it’s intentional or not. I’ve spoken before about how vinyl collecting is an act of space-making, and I definitely have made a sacred space for that album.

It was a tough act to follow, but now, at last, Lorde is back with something new – and glorious.

“Green Light”, the first single from her sophomore album Melodrama, is the get-up-and-dance song that I didn’t know I needed. It’s the kind of song that so perfectly captures a specific emotion that it makes the urge to dance increase tenfold because you’re not just moving to it, you’re channelling it. Lorde herself explains the emotions behind the song best when she says that “I realized this is that drunk girl at the party dancing around crying about her ex-boyfriend who everyone thinks is a mess. That’s her tonight and tomorrow she starts to rebuild.” And that’s really what it is – for anyone who’s been that drunk girl, or seen her, or danced with her, “Green Light” perfectly evinces the physical restlessness that comes in the dying throes of heartache. The anticipatory chords that impatiently urge towards the explosive chorus; the lyrics – so classically Lorde – that shake you to your bones and yet are simple enough that you can chant them like an incantation (“Honey I’ll come get my things, but I can’t let go…”). The whole song is a revving-up in the chest: it’s Lorde saying emphatically that she is back, and better, ready once again to make something new and strange out of the familiar.

But it’s not just physical restlessness that Lorde seems to appeal to, it’s a kind of creative restlessness too. The lines where Lorde sings that she “hear[s] sounds in [her] mind” evoked, for me, a feeling of being trapped beneath a weight that you feel instinctively should be written away, but which presses on your writing hand and makes creation impossible. Tavi Gevinson covered this brilliantly in her talk at the Sydney Opera House in 2013: she spoke about how, when she was reeling from a breakup, she held her pain out to other people to try to make sense of it, and they’d well-meaningly reassure her with the promise that “This is what great art is made of!” But when she took the pain home and set it on the kitchen table, it didn’t turn out any original metaphors or genius verse. It just sat there. Instead, she found solace in words from others’ mouths – rewriting others’ lyrics and poetry: being, as I said above, a channel. Taking the hand that stretches out to you through art that says that somebody else has been there before, that the words will come, but they’ll stay with you while you wait.

Lorde in this song seems to be at the end of that waiting. She can feel the horrible now receding and is waiting with her eyes on the traffic light, urging it to go green, hearing “brand new sounds in my mind.” Sounds – not yet in discernible shape, not yet truly something, but approaching, gathering speed. It is a truly marvellous thing to be able to write so beautifully the feeling of not being able to write, or, in line with the song’s more generally-accepted arc, the feeling of being stuck on the brink. Her anticipation is intoxicating, joyous, explosive with kinetic energy: it reaches out a hand and promises that you, too, will reach that brink, will feel energetic and explosive and creative again.

The video to the song heightens this feeling to a giddy intensity. Lorde dances in a bathroom, in a crowded club, through nighttime city streets, even atop a parked car, all while clad in a blindingly brilliant pink dress. It’s beautiful for a plethora of reasons, many of which are covered expertly in Rosianna Halse Rojas’s vlog about the video’s use of light (in which she discusses a beloved favourite of mine, The Great Gatsby).

screenshot-2017-03-04-11-27-34What Rosianna points out and talks about in her typically brilliant and perceptive way is all true and important, and for me is key to the way in which the video so expertly navigates illusion and realism to produce a sense of delirium – of apt melodrama. In the same moment that we see Lorde dancing to the music of her own personal pianist (producer Jack Antonoff), placed beside her, as in a dream, in a grubby bathroom, we also notice the girls lined up behind her in the bathroom mirror, waiting to use the toilets. When she dances alone atop a parked car, a blazing figure bathed in red light, we also see, comically incorporated into the frame, the car’s driver vaping, waiting it out. The landscape of “Green Light” is alternatingly dreamy and mundanely lucid, pulling the feverish, transfiguring misery/joy of its central character into the same visual frame as fragments of the real world, of other people unconnected to her consuming catharsis.

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Perhaps my favourite of these moments in the video – though by no means its most dramatic – are those in which Lorde is dancing alone in the street to music from her headphones. It seems like a trivial detail to point out, but the visual presence of the headphones and her phone, clutched desperately in her hands as she dances, indicates that this is not a usual dance track video. Lorde’s is not a performance in the vein of so mascreenshot-2017-03-04-11-32-20ny pop videos in which the song appears to fill the scene like the voice of God, the singer staring directly into the eye of the camera, and the absurdity of the situation is only neutralised by its unspoken recognition as long-abiding music video trope.

Instead, what we get is the exact feeling of reckless abandon that Lorde described in reference to the song’s conception. This intensity of emotion does not belong to a separate dream world, it belongs to ours – it is solitary and ludicrous and funny but these things do not diminish it. In fact, it ties in to one of my favourite moments in Tavi Gevinson’s speech, and something that she has said in many interviews: when the audience laughs at a page from one of her journals, she turns to Screenshot 2017-03-04 11.32.53.pngthem and says, half-embarrassedly, “That’s not funny!” When things that are coded feminine are constantly held up to ridicule and women’s emotions dismissed as hysteria, girls taking ownership of their love and enthusiasm and their ability to feel recklessly for things makes me so happy. These all-important moments of puncture in “Green Light” serve to highlight the absurdity of this intense feeling, even making it (as in the case of the vaping driver) funny, but to me this seems only to elevate the experience, to make it freeing, shameless. It is an indestructible display of vulnerability and it is absolutely beautiful.

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One commenter on the YouTube video of the song suggested that this song is a radical – and radically negative – departure from the stripped-back straightforwardness of Pure Heroine. Some song, he remarked, from a girl who used to sing about how much she hated parties and celebrity life. Isn’t the glamour of the video hypocritical? We thought she was above this!

Personally, I think that if “Green Light” is anything to go by, Lorde is as aware as ever of the “real life” that her inspiration springs from and that her songs voyage out to meet. This is not an inaccessible pop video brewed in a world of its own. It is Lorde’s world, and it is also, she wants us to know, ours, and she is as unapologetic for her honesty now as she was when “Royals” first brought her to fame.

Old Haunt

 

Something about the greyness outside
of the bookshop’s windows on a Thursday afternoon
makes me think of you:
a pressing silver gloom
that clings to the glass
and makes evening approach faster.
Dust gathers thicker;
an unseen clock ticks louder.
On shelves pillowed with dust,
warped and well-loved
spines breathe against each other
as the door opens and closes,
opens and closes,
and the cold bellows of the rain
draw brown leaves, swirling in eddies
onto the brown mat.
We lay like open books once;
lingered for an hour
in this same weakened, weakening
midweek light: a world away,
but one which echoes still
in bookshops on a Thursday
or anywhere, in the dead hours of the afternoon.
I pull a paperback,
fan its pages against my fingers in a whisper
of secrets stored between white sheets
when a clock ticks out of sight –
leave it with its pages clamped shut,
and a trace of regret,
like the umbrella somebody left
shivering in the doorway.


This poem took shape out of a few lines I came across saved on my computer a few nights ago, when I was trying to jolt myself into writing creatively. It wasn’t easy, and it’s certainly not perfect, but I decided that it’s high time I fulfilled the original purpose of this blog, which was to kill the perfectionist impulse and get my writing read by someone other than myself – in other words, to show my work. So, here it is.

Until Next Time

Three weeks ago today I got handed a piece of paper and my degree at the University of York was over. There was a fancy outfit involved, not to mention a nerve-wracking walk across a stage to shake the hand of a man in a gold-tasselled hat, but essentially what the day boiled down to was the presentation of a certificate that was meant to quantify the last three years spent in this beautiful city.

Overall, it was a good day: I enjoyed wearing the dress I’d combed what felt like the whole Internet to find; I enjoyed reuniting with my friends and wearing my graduation gown. I even enjoyed the terror-inducing walk across the stage in front of a roomful of peers and parents. (Note: if I have to list a drawback, I didn’t really enjoy the hat. I now understand why it’s traditional to violently throw them when the ceremony is over.) The sun shone and York shone with it – and for those that haven’t seen it, York in the sunshine is the most beautiful place on Earth.

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However, I couldn’t help feeling that the whole ceremony, all the pomp and bluster of graduation, was somewhat disconnected to what being a student at York had actually meant to me in the three years I spent there. Yes, they were three years spent working (very hard, I flatter myself to think), to get a degree in English Literature: three years of seminars and office hours, of mild hero-worship of various members of staff. But they were three years, also, of moments spent in other places than the library, at other tasks than reading. Where, for example, was the piece of paper that quantified my excursions up and down the banks of the River Ouse, under gold skies or grey, strolling beneath sycamores to the city centre? Where was my certificate declaring my abiding love for the York Minster: for standing in its colossal shadow amid the tolling of its bells? Where, I ask, was the formal acknowledgement of all the bar crawls over cobbles? The deeply personal attachments formed to York’s bookshops and their proprietors? Where was the paper goodbye that I was promised?

Looking back over my time at university, a piece of paper and a handshake was never really going to cut it.

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I arrived in York three years ago wholly unprepared for the ordeal of moving away from home and starting my adult life from what felt like scratch. I was so overwhelmed on my first night that I didn’t even make it out for the first night of Freshers Week. Sleep-deprived and overly emotional, what was supposed to be a sik club night transpired as many hours of hysterical crying on the phone to my boyfriend. There are many explanations for this, the main one being that, while I may have looked (arguably) like a young adult equipped for change, I was actually a tiny baby in a grown-up-human suit, who felt wrenched up by the roots from everything that made me comfortable. After a summer in which I’d never not been busy, being without a foundation of people who knew me and cared about me, not to mention living in a place that I’d only visited once before was paralysing. I felt miserable – and, ultimately, embarrassed. Embarrassed that I could go from being someone who rarely cried to someone who cried nearly every day; embarrassed that anyone was seeing me like this, let alone forming their first impressions of me on this basis; embarrassed, most of all, that I was not having the uni experience everyone expected, and which everybody else seemed to already be enjoying.

IMG_3148.JPGTo cut a long story short, what followed this initial grieving period was me growing the fuck up. Instead of crying about the things that stressed me out – the main one of these being, predictably, money – I made proactive steps for the first time to be on top of them (in terms of the money, it was very sophisticated; there was a spreadsheet involved). I became more independent in other ways: I explored my new city alone, carving out familiar paths through unfamiliar streets, falling in love step by step, oddly-named passage by oddly-named passage. So much of my development into a somewhat-functioning human being happened in York; so much of my personality is coloured by its streets and students that leaving, much like arriving, felt somewhat like a bereavement.

IMG_3153.JPGPeople often push to define university as just one thing – for example, politicians currently seem to be going for “financially crippling” – but the truth is that three years is a long time. It’s easy to look back at my memories of my first night on York campus and to feel that it was wasted time, to paint my first year with the brush of misery and vow never to speak of it again, to imagine that it got better like a light coming on at the beginning of second year. But that’s not the way it was. Yes, my debut at Freshers Week was a teary disappointment, but the next night I went to pre-drinks in the grotty dining room next door, stayed out til 4am and, actually, met most of the people whose company would see me through the next three years. Yeah, I still cried the next day, and the day after, and for a good few days after that probably. To be honest, if you had to take a bet on what I was doing on any given day in October 2013 you’d get good odds on “having a little sob.” But my time at York, despite or even because it began so miserably, turned out to be the best thing that’s happened to me in my life so far, and has meant so many different things. Inside its walls and out, York was the scene of so many intrigues and triumphs and elations and commiserations, so much of my growing up, that it’s no wonder all of them didn’t fit under the roof of Central Hall – a building only a stone’s throw away from the bedroom I thought I’d never learn to love, in the place I thought would never feel like home.

On my last solitary walk through York the day after I graduated, feeling the farewell left unsaid at the ceremony, I kept asking myself how it is that you say goodbye to a place that has meant so much to you, that has so much of you in it. I went to the pub with my friends still wondering, and remembered after a few weeks apart from them how easily they make me feel better about everything, in this case my imminent departure from the best place in the world. There’s no piece of paper that can sum up everything I’ve learned in York. How will I say goodbye to this amazing place? Short answer: I won’t.

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“You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place, I told him, like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place because you’ll never be this way ever again.”

– Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran

On negative space

A few weeks ago I sat at my desk and wrote a poem.

It was, as with every attempt at writing after a long interval, a bit of a painful task. I’m usually a word-processing kinda gal when it comes to writing creatively: the ability to vanish my poor metaphors as if they never existed, and instantly reclaim them if I decide they weren’t that rubbish after all, is a kind of magic you take for granted if you mainly write on a computer. But since starting this blog (whatever meagre degree of productivity it has achieved) I’ve been trying to think more about my self-censorious attitude to my own writing. The illusion that word processing gives you is that the process of writing is without mistakes, as the page you start out with is the same page that you finish with, with all the messiness of the in-between process erased. This is comforting for sure – and it’s a great feeling when you’re writing often. “Look at all these things I did recently that I’m proud of,” you can say to yourself, sweeping a hand impressively across the vista of your open “Poetry” folder. “Look at these things I created so well and so easily.” You can read your own work almost like you were reading someone else’s, and that’s great.

Except for when it’s not great. Except for when you haven’t written for months, and the process feels like pulling a tooth, and when you look back at all of these other poems – fully formed, history-less – you see no evidence of this head-butting-against-a-ceiling kind of feeling. No sense that this thing you’re doing right now could one day be one of the things you’re proud of, because there’s no evidence that any of those things were once what this thing is: vaguely incriminating, a testament to the fact that you are still learning. At these moments, when I’m feeling discouraged and distanced from the past writer self who I always think of as more confident and creative than she probably was, the “Delete” function isn’t so much a space-clearing tool as a kind of writerly ejector seat. In the moment of creative frustration and doubt, I can just press a button, and never have to look at these bad lines that seem so humiliating right now ever again.

So in the spirit of giving myself a break from my own perfectionism, this time I sat down at my desk with a notebook and pen instead. It was, predictably, hellish – at least to begin with. Writing one line out over and over again in different formations, rehashing the same ideas on different pages and with different line breaks feels like a nightmare at the best of times for me, one that’s only made worse by the exaggerated physical act of reinscription that handwriting entails. At least when you’re typing a line that you know is bad, you also know that it’ll be gone as if it never existed in a matter of moments – not so with a notebook. Not only was I writing bad stuff, I was having to look at it again and again and be discouraged by it.

Maybe I got into a bit of a stubborn frenzy, or maybe I just hit my stride around 2am, but for whatever reason I managed to push through the discouragement and stick it out ‘til the end. And I’m proud of myself for that, and proud of the poem I wrote, too. It’s not my best effort, but it is an effort, and that’s something to be happy about. And actually, throughout all this process of striking out and writing over, I found myself thinking much less about the bad stuff I was leaving out than the good stuff that didn’t make it in. I began to remember more and more the labour of love that writing is, the repeated letting-go that it entails. Meanings I couldn’t find the words for; words I did find but somehow didn’t fit. Plotting my progress physically across the pages of a notebook made it so much more apparent to me just how much negative space there is around the edges of the final thing: all the things a piece of writing doesn’t end up being that are, really, the making of it as it is.

I’m by no means the first person to think about writing as a process of selective omission. Every writer nowadays seems to know that Samuel Jonson quote (“Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out”) – or at least, if they don’t know it yet, they have it quoted at them pretty quickly (case in point). Ernest Hemingway’s theory was “that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” This idea – of good writing, selective writing, being able to make us feel more than we understand – is at the heart of why omission is so important to the writing process, and perhaps why it is so hard, too. Leaving out the things we once thought so good or so important is not only letting go of a part of ourselves ,but letting in a little of someone else. Chuck Palanhuik says it best in his essay instructing his readers to stop using “thought” verbs in their writing: “Your story will always be stronger,” he promises, “if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing.” Sure, leaving out lines that you’re proud of, or moments that are so integral in your head to what you’re trying to get across can feel like a capitulation. It feeds a fear I believe that everyone, and perhaps especially every writer, has: that we, our selves and our lives, are inexpressible, unreachable by anybody else. But when we relinquish the need to make someone else understand as we understand, the need to explain everything, we allow the reader to understand for themselves. To ask questions, to think of new answers, to recreate the text in their own minds in a way we would never have thought of. Though writing can feel like a monologue, in the final event it’s more of a conversation: it’s in the parts where you’re not speaking, that negative space, that real connection occurs.

Of course, omission is not always a virtue. We don’t always have control over the things we leave out. The world that we live in implicates us all the time in the erasure of people and problems through the stories that are told to us and the stories we choose to tell back, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (an utterly fantastic writer and human being) speaks about in her now-famous TED talk, “The Danger of the Single Story”. In a world full of stories balanced on the cusp of telling, it’s easy to be petrified by the dangers of omission, to choose silence over a flawed telling: to press “delete”. But I’m inclined to agree with Adichie in that, in this world so full of untold stories, and so overrun with systems resistant to the telling of all but a few of them, it is more important than ever that we write, that we support others’ writing and writing that is othered. That we are aware of systems of omission and our roles in them – and omission’s role in our telling of ourselves.

“How well I would write if I were not here! If between the white page and the writing of words and stories that take shape and disappear without anyone’s ever writing them there were not interposed that uncomfortable partition which is my person! Style, taste, individual philosophy, subjectivity, cultural background, real experience, psychology, talent, tricks of the trade: all the elements that make what I write recognisable as mine seems to me a cage that restricts my possibilities. If I were only a hand, a severed hand that grasps a pen and writes… who would move this hand? The anonymous throng? The spirit of the times? The collective unconscious? I do not know. It is not in order to be the spokesman for something definable that I would like to erase myself. Only to transmit the writable that waits to be written, the tellable that nobody tells.” – Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveller

Routines, rituals, and revolutions

Youth culture, in its short history, has accepted few lasting icons, but the vinyl record is undoubtedly one of them. The unmistakable crackle of the needle coming down; the loaded silence, like a drawn-in breath, before the first note: this is the siren song of the teen age, the call to find yourself, by whatever means necessary. And it has remained so, despite its having been long outmoded.

For me, I think the fascination with vinyl largely comes from movies. From William’s sister’s proclamation in 2000’s Almost Famous that “This song explains why I’m leaving home to become a stewardess”, to smitten zombie R bonding with his human captive-slash-love-interest Julie in 2013’s Warm Bodies, the message is clear: vinyls were damn cool in the seventies, and their damn coolness will definitely survive the apocalypse. But this fascination does not end with (spoiler alert) audiophile zombies finding love and becoming human again: vinyl sales were up 52% in 2014, with much of that surge coming from the under-25s age bracket. The demand for new records is reaching fever pitch, so high that it’s putting a threatening strain on the industry, and becoming known among bewildered observers as the “vinyl revolution”.

Many articles have put this so-called revolution down to the tangibility of vinyl in comparison to digital music, and indeed, there is something to be said for the almost larger-than-life quality of a vinyl record. For a generation for whom vinyl was never the default, the physical quality to records and listening to them is a novelty. Unlike a 79p download that is easy to buy and easy to forget about, they’re a conspicuous investment: you’re investing not only money but physical space in your life, as well as the time and effort put into playing the thing. As Alice Cooper put it to Billboard: “the kids … [are] tired of buying air. They don’t get anything with it.”

But there’s something else about vinyl too, not entirely unrelated to its physical-ness compared to the download. There’s an almost religious feeling to playing vinyl: entering into the vinyl mystique, a willing believer, carefully drawing the disc out of its sleeve before laying it on the altar to be traced by the needle. That’s a pretty dramatic rendering, but it’s not totally unfounded: Dominik Bartmanski, a sociologist at the Technical University of Berlin, put it to CNN that “Digital music […] is now a standard and thus routine way of consuming music on everyday basis. Analogue music requires more elaborate ritualized attention. It is routine vs ritual.” Listening to music on vinyl is ultimately an act of confirmation: of your own love, of the realness of the thing you love, and your dedication, over and over again, to its preservation and reconfirmation over time.

Perhaps that’s partly why the vinyl has been such a staple of teenage Hollywood fantasy for such a long time – isn’t this ritual the most quintessentially teenage thing? Nowadays, “fangirl” is a dirty word, but the rawness of teenage enthusiasm is what makes it so beautiful, and so easy to miss once you’ve grown out of it. That feeling of loving an album so much that you don’t just want to carry it around in your pocket, but to come home to it, to really own it, in its most beautiful, multisensory, and enduring form.

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To me, nothing drives this home quite as much as listening to my mum’s records. Dug out of the garage a few days ago and dumped into my arms, they are the remnants of a time it is otherwise hard for me to conceptualise properly. Before my mother was my mother – before I was anything at all – she was an excited fourteen-year-old running home to listen to her new David Cassidy record. I superimpose the memory of my teenage enthusiasm for All Time Low and Scouting For Girls onto the cover of Cherish and feel a strange companionship. It’s a similar feeling to when I stood beneath pealing bells in Florence last summer, the city she’d insisted I go to, in the shadow of the beautiful cathedral, watching the thriving life of the piazza. There was a familiarity to the smallness I felt beneath that tolling colossus, a familiarity that had nothing to do with me and everything to do with that sense of my mother, much younger, larger than life and looking up. It’s a feeling of proximity, of hidden similarity: companionship across time. Watching the first record she ever bought revolve on my record player elicits a similar kind of warmth.

Entering the next stage of my life, the scariness of my twenties, feels like a welcome moment to feel this kind of connection. In a lot of ways, vinyl coming to my attention now is very opportune. Its steadiness, its realness, its requirement of a love for and focus on what you’re doing right now, feels good for me. It’s a way to connect with the teenager just departed, a girl who cried when she met her favourite band and saw her favourite songs performed live. I see her in my mum’s records, and at the same time I see a vague ghost of the future, in the refusal of these records to ever really go away. There’s a sense of continuum to co-opting this classically teenage medium at the start of my twenties. The sense that, while there are new routines in store that may be daunting, and old rituals (like getting tearful over musicians with elaborate fringes) may be done with, I will find new rituals, and finding these new rituals doesn’t have to mean never looking back.

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Both an Organ and a Blade

When I tell people that I study English literature, there is one question that they almost always seem to ask.

“But hasn’t that totally ruined reading for you? Hasn’t it made it a chore?”

I can see their point. Reading is, after all, an intensely personal experience – the free play of the mind over the landscape of someone else’s words, at once a meeting of minds and a blissful self-isolation. It’s easy to see how the idea of imposing a structure on such a boundless activity, which essay deadlines and seminars and lectures inevitably do, of tuning yourself to what a text is doing and how instead of immersing yourself uncritically in its story, can seem like something of a death sentence.

And yet, I always reply in the negative. No – despite its best efforts, my degree has failed to make me hate reading. If anything, it has made me a more adventurous, more enthusiastic reader. Not only has it introduced me to books and concepts I may never have confronted otherwise, but honing my critical skills has been incredibly rewarding. The quest to be at once a sensitive eye and a keen and seeking blade is something I have found increasing enjoyment in as my studies have progressed. I enjoy the search. I am a reader.

The problem with my studies, then, is not so much what they’ve done to me in that capacity, but in another. If we’re being perfectly honest with each other, dear stranger, this blog post is about the most coherent piece of writing I’ve done in the last three years. The creative urgency I always felt – the urgency that drove me to write with naivety but always with honesty, the urgency that brought me to myself, that fuelled me – seems, in recent years, to have waned. What happened to that flame that was like a furnace? That kept me up at night? That filled pages and hard drives and days of my life?

The truth is, I already know. On those rare occasions that a flicker darts through the dark, there I, the reader, always am. Always over my own shoulder, critical eye and hungry blade: doubly armed with critical skills and a preordained knowledge of my own vulnerabilities, my veteran insecurities. Suddenly Roland Barthes’s assertion that the death of the Author is the birth of the Reader (a staple notion of my first year of university study) takes on an altogether more discouraging, more ruthless tone. I read and dismantle before I have even written. I cut myself to pieces. 

The furthest I get is a scribble in the margins, dogged always by an apologetic question mark – as if to say, “I’m probably wrong.” I put down the pen, move on to something else. Assure myself that the time for inspiration will come some other day.

But that is just not good enough for me any more.

The time has come when I can no longer pretend that this is working for me, this working myself up to the possibility of creation and then chastising myself for its inadequacy. I need to accept that there’s no bolt of lightning coming for me, no magical moment of revelation when suddenly that flame will roar into life again, and I’ll be saved from this long silence. The only solution is to try. To push past my fear of myself, of mediocrity. To write my way back – however painful, however arduous – back to that voice of creative confidence I feel I have lost.

And so, this blog is born. Not in the spirit of despair, but of reconciliation – the reconciliation of reader and writer, critic and creative, self-consciousness and self-acceptance. And above all the hope that I can allow myself to be both organ and blade without tearing myself to pieces.

I hope, for my sake, that it works. I hope for yours that it’s worth watching.

“It is an intrinsic human trait, and a deep responsibility, I think, to be an organ and a blade. But, learning to forgive ourselves and others because we have not chosen wisely is what makes us most human. We make horrible mistakes. It’s how we learn. We breathe love. It’s how we learn. And it is inevitable.” – Nayyirah Waheed