Karen Russell and Literary Ladies Everywhere

Last Friday night officially solidified my literary icon, my I-want-to-be-you writer: Karen Russell. I first read one of Karen Russell’s stories in a creative writing class I took in the fall — “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” fit right into our discussions on “genre-bending.” It also fit right into my list of favorite short stories (a relatively new, but rapidly growing list). I was drawn to Russell’s exquisite language — her word choice, syntax, and imagery are all so unique, so sensory. I decided to move next to her most recent story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, and I have adored every story in that collection that I have read so far. I dream of concocting sentences half as masterful as hers. Russell came to Town Hall Seattle last week, and I was thrilled to attend (she thanked the audience for coming to see her on a Friday night — is there anything I would rather be doing at that time? Hah. Absolutely not). We were all well-rewarded for our presence. Karen Russell is as charismatic in person as she is on the page. Smiling and joking her way through the night, she offered insight into why she writes, and why she writes what she writes (she decided to beat us to one of the most common questions she receives: “why do you write such weird stuff?”). I had the chance to speak with her briefly as she signed my book, and she was so approachable and personable, I left feeling both inspired in my writing and dazzled by her wit and her warmth. I’m definitely checking out her novel Swamplandia! next.

My experience reading Karen Russell’s stories and hearing her speak aligned well with the theme of a writing class I just started: women writers and their reception in the literary community. The topic of this course couldn’t be timelier, given that 2014 has been dubbed “the year of reading women.” This recent declaration brought about a lot of mixed feelings in our class the other day, and I have to admit, it stirs up a lot of conflicting feelings in me — as a woman, as writer — as well. In essence, at the heart of the discussion is the gross disparity in the number of male vs female reviewers, reviewed works, and publications in literary journals. On the one hand, I am grateful for the attention that “the year of reading women” draws to this issue (although VIDA has done a fabulous job spreading awareness for several years now), and I am also pleased that some people are finally taking action. On the other hand, the notion of a year dedicated to women writers (and “writers of color” mind you, since it obviously makes sense to lump together everyone who is not a white male) somewhat perturbs me. It comes off a little condescending: “Oh here ya go, ladies. You can have 2014 all to yourselves.” What?! Does that mean in 2015 we regress to our former white-male-dominated reading lives? It also doesn’t do anything to eradicate the divide – it just calls more attention to the so-called “difference” between male and female work. It’s an interesting objective nonetheless, and I will be sure to follow the progress of this project throughout the year. Before recently, I had never considered my chances of succeeding in the literary world to have any correlation with my gender. I sincerely hope that 2014 is a year to change my odds, and the odds of women (and writers of color) everywhere.

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Learning to let go: Sarah Dessen sets aside novel-in-progress

I realized this past summer that I missed a Sarah Dessen book. I don’t know how I let that happen. I blame my transition into adult working life for this mishap. Regardless of the reason, when The Moon and More was released in June, I discovered that I also needed to read What Happened to Goodbye. So I had myself a Sarah Dessen summer, which was a pleasantly nostalgic experience. I associate many of the events of my late high school and early college years with the Sarah Dessen book I was reading at the time: junior prom, Just Listen; winter break senior year, This Lullaby; summer before college, Lock and Key.

Then, more recently, I caught wind of some Sarah Dessen news, and my subsequent series of reactions was perhaps a bit melodramatic: momentary doubt, succeeded by surprise, followed closely by intrigue. Apparently this superstar author of 11 YA novels had decided to drop the story she was working on. I needed to investigate. I went to her official website, and sure enough, her most recent blog post was entitled “Abandoning. And listening.

I actually highly recommend this blog post not only to Sarah Dessen fans anxious to know more, but also to all aspiring writers. Sarah has a lot of good things to say about knowing when to let go of a writing project. She shares the emotional turmoil of “abandoning” a project, but she also describes the first time that she learned to trust her gut, and how her gut was providing answers without a trace of doubt: “For me, it was not ‘Give up on this book, you know, if you want.’ It’s like Darth Vader voice: PUT IT ASIDE. NOW! NOW!!!!’”

According to her blog, Sarah started working on a new story in January 2013, but it wasn’t right. She battled against her story from the start, both internally and on the page, and there were many times that her experience contradicted her typical style and process. Acting on advice from a friend, Sarah is determined not to publish a book that does not measure up to her standards. We’ve all seen too many of those novels, and the authors aren’t fooling anyone. We, the readers, we can tell. I commend Sarah for honoring the quality of her craft. With humor and grace, she speaks candidly about her trials and her fears and the finality of her decision. Fans will surely be disappointed by the wait (her story had been on track to be released summer 2015), but wait they will, for the honesty of this acclaimed writer’s decision is admirable.