(Re)reading as (Self)-Knowing

This morning I returned to a book that was given to me by a poet friend, Alison Swan, when I got married, and I reread the passages that I’d underlined a year or so ago. This is something I want to do more often: go back to what I deemed significant and continue thinking about whatever it was that caught my attention. I want to remind myself what resonated, and sometimes this feels like a way of remembering what I care about and who I am.

This urge to circle back has become a stronger impulse since I moved away from my friends and family and home, and now live in a place where I have few points of reference, a limited social network, and almost nothing to reflect my history, or who I’ve been. It’s all internal now, and in that sense it’s invisible, certainly to others, but even sometimes to myself.

My friend Sejal Shah says that writing is about making the invisible visible. I think reading works this way, too. I read, and I imagine, feel, react and in so many ways, engage the muscles of being human, thus discovering parts of myself that otherwise don’t come to the surface.

In my notebook, just now, I came came across some notes I made after reading an essay in Tin House, “On Pandering,” by Claire Vaye Watkins: “Let us use our words and our gazes to make the invisible visible. Let us tell the truth.”

The book I’m rereading is When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams. At the right time, in the hands of certain kind of writer, for example a writer who is also a woman, this is the sort of book that will shake loose, and reorder a number of things related to one’s private experience of being alive. Few others will know that this is happening to you. Outwardly you’ll appear still, contained, and quiet, perhaps except for the pen, held ready, that quietly marks the page. I’m tend to be intensely still while I read, and yet so much is moving, so much is vibrating, and on most days the most remarkable things that happen to me do so in this outwardly unremarkable posture.

It was so when I read this book a year ago, heart flexing, mind working over passages like this one:

“We must learn to speak the language women speak when there is no one there to correct us.”—Helene Cixous 

But what if I am the one who corrects myself? The one who says that the words are too severe; that they are contrary, or clumsy, and shouldn’t I keep them to myself where they can remain safe? What if I speak this kind of true language, and there is silence in response? Here is what I know: that kind of silence is worse than a fight. It is worse than being wrong, or being criticized or rejected because it feels like not existing.

Something else I know: it will never be possible for you to know me unless I write, and unless you read what I have written. I accept this.

On a related note, I think, my husband has begun an essay on “Irrelevance,” in which he asks the question: what does it mean to be a writer in a time when millions of books are written and published each year, and a book’s success and worth is measured primarily in sales and Amazon ranking, and who are we, if we don’t register at all in this way—to the market, or to a readership—and what will happen to those stories and ideas that simply disappear amidst the noise of commercialism? What does it mean if you are not interested in this version of success, or this approach to reading, but it’s how the game works?


This recursive mode of reading is one I’m able to practice now, which is to say, now that I’ve learned how to slow down, to take my time, to not always hurry hungrily ahead, as if more is always more; as if I am in some kind of race. No, I don’t think I’m as interested in more as I once was. I used to be too impatient, too eager, to go back to where I’d been. Now I want to become intimate with subjects whose surfaces I have only glanced.

I have given William’s book to two close friends, also writers, and now I realize that I want to ask them what they’ve underlined, where they were shaken, and if they, like me, also feel this rage to speak, to be written as only we can write ourselves, and not for glory, and not for “likes” or “clicks,” but because in writing we know ourselves better, and can come to know other things, too. In writing we begin to get somewhere. In writing we can make a kind of sense, or find some path toward many matters of significance.

In her book Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, Cixous will shake you over and over. She writes of the School of the Dead—necessary to a writer— in which you lose yourself; come to “nothing”. “We are not made to reveal to what extent we are complex. We are not strong enough, not agile enough; only writing is able to do this.”

I don’t know how others figure these things out—the big questions, the mysteries—but for me it has always involved a pen, reading books, a lined notebook, and time set aside (defended) from earning and working and the company of others.

This fall I asked my mom if she remembered telling me when I was a teenager that it was important to “know thyself.” She didn’t, and seemed to have no particular relation to the phrase, which for some reason I’d associated with her. This invocation, which is inscribed in the forecourt of The Temple of Apollo at Delphi, is a mantra that has felt primary and instructional for most of my life. More and more I am trying to know myself and in so doing, I am trying to narrow the gap between who I am when I am alone, and when I am silent, and when I write, and who I am in the world.

One last bit of Williams for you: “When I want to see the furthest into my soul, I will write a sentence by hand and then write another sentence over it, followed by another. An entire paragraph will live in one line, and no one else can read it. That is the point.”

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A page from When Women Were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams


I’m not interested in self-erasure or hiding, but I find this practice compelling. It speaks to the privacy most writers require when working out what we think or feel or know. It’s also the power of the notebook—one’s personal workspace—to provide a forum for trying and experimentation and thinking that’s set apart from an audience or even the lack of audience, as the case may be. This fertile space is something else. A temporary autonomous zone, perhaps, where an essential freedom and dignity reigns, independent of the reactions, sensibilities, and value judgements of others. The kind of thinking that happens in a notebook doesn’t need to be perfect or complete. Instead, the inconsistencies and errors and jagged edges can become something true.

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  • […] what I underlined and garnering it together with the hope of finding connecting threads. (Thank you Holly Wren Spaulding for the perfect blog post about just this today!) So far the circle seems tie it all together. No […]

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