“It’s not so easy writing about nothing.”
So starts Patti Smith’s glorious homage to the temperamental nature of the creative life. M Train is one of those books that not only lives up to the unanimous praise of reviewers, it exceeds it. It’s a book that envelops you in an absorbing journey through the “the twisting track of the mind’s convolutions”, as inimitably described by Smith herself. Unrestrained in the rawness of her reflections, Smith is a writer so incisive that you read her words with a sense of wonder and envy.
M Train is the latest book to join my beloved collection of works by women through the ages. As with all writers I admire, there’s the vain hope that through some mysterious process of literary osmosis, I might emulate a speck of their talent and output. A grandiose delusion indeed but in the words of another talented storyteller I’ve recently been binge-reading, Brene Brown, “it’s like walking toward a star in the sky. We never really arrive but we certainly know that we’re heading in the right direction”.
Lately I’ve found myself naturally gravitating towards more women writers, not necessarily in pursuit of a gendered approach, more by way of a serendipitous voyage where they have leapt out from various book shelves as I’ve searched for inspiration or purposeful distraction.
I recently happened upon a copy of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, a long-standing entry on my never-ending wish-list of must reads. It’s a heartfelt rendition of her attempts to come to terms with her husband’s death. As with M Train, as indeed with any great work of integrity, Didion’s writing is imbued with an admirable luminosity throughout. Like Smith, Didion perfectly articulates the joys and anguish of finding the sense of things through her craft:
"As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish. The way I write is who I am, or have become."
As International Women’s Day reminds us of the battles still being fought in the seemingly interminable quest for parity in all aspects of social, cultural, political and economic life, the likes of Smith, Didion, Lorna Sage, Siri Hustvedt (the list really does go on, see a sample below) are testament to the strength and inestimable value of the female voice.
Their work, and that of countless other women writing today, some with recognition, others still fighting for it, is a welcome realisation of Virginia Woolf’s proclamation some 80 years ago that women writing would eventually be freed of social and cultural preconceptions as to the value and purpose of their work, so as to attend “to the wider questions which the poet tries to solve – of our destiny and the meaning of life”.
Mercifully, we’ve come a long way since Woolf grappled with the inequalities and subjugation that would have kept a female artist “in her place”. As Michele Barrett notes in her introduction to Woolf’s collection of essays, Women and Writing, women now have greater equality to access of education, they can control the publication and distribution of their work, and many possess “a room of their own”.
Yet just as at the time Barrett was writing in 1979, these outward changes still fall short of the progress required to bring true parity to the status of women in the arts. Again though, there is hope for change, most recently via Words by Women, a welcome rebuttal to the lack of women journalists recognised in the industry by way of a dedicated set of awards for women writers.
In this perniciously prevalent context of inequality, oddly and optimistically mixed as it is with a growing force for change, it’s vital we uphold and seek inspiration from our peers, past and present. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be read by all for the sake of accessing some of the greatest writing out there, of course.
Susan Sontag, another writer on my shelf of greats, perfectly describes the life-giving force of reading to writing in her classic collection of essays, Where the Stress Falls:
“Writing is a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To invent. To leap. To fly. To fall. To find your own characteristic way of narrating and insisting; that is, to find your own inner freedom.”
What better way to mark International Women’s Day than to immerse yourself in some of the most inspirational and liberating works by women writers. Here are just a few worthy of the time:
- Siri Hustvedt – Living, Thinking, Looking
- Susan Sontag – Where the Stress Falls
- Joan Didion – The Year of Magical Thinking
- Iris Murdoch – Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals
- Patti Smith – M Train
- Sylvia Plath – Collected Poems
- Kate Adie – The Kindness of Strangers
- Janine Di Giovanni – The Place at the End of the World
- Ayaan Hirsi Ali – Infidel
- Arundhati Roy – The God of Small Things
- Donna Tartt – The Secret History
- Brene Brown – The Gifts of Imperfection
What are your recommendations, who's inspired you to read, write, live, look and think better? Share your tips in the comments below.