A For Books’ Sake Guide to Literary Self-Care
24th Mar 2015
I rarely know what to do with myself, but this existential dread always reaches a critical peak in the first months of the year. My body sags under the weight of New Year’s resolutions — determination born from desperation, in my case — as I slump into another year of chastising myself for not doing better, being better.
However dazzling the concept of a fresh start seems, I’m skeptical of imbuing it with too much clout. And yet, when the clock struck twelve at the start of this year, I found myself, like some kind of sentient automaton, committing to “get it together, bitch” – the same worthless and obscure promise I can’t or — in a more masochistic hue — won’t forsake.
I haven’t experienced any epiphanies to render the start of 2015 less barbed. But I have achieved one productive goal: curate a self-care reading list of women writers. I spent a good few weeks deliberately thumbing through books and essays that encouraged me to come to terms: with my imperfect self, my anxieties, the most tangled knots in my personal history.
I’ve been reading women who themselves have written through the circumstantial darkness of being a woman in this world, whose words encourage me to be kinder both to others and to myself. I turn with regularity to Roxane Gay’s work — I have an especial fondness for her blog — and am nurtured by her fierce, poignant empathy and wide-open heart. I read Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, an exquisite collection of advice columns that teach me, page by page, how to be a human being.
Several months ago I taught Audre Lorde’s essay, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic As Power” (from Sister Outsider) in a class on queer literature. It was not the first time I had assigned the essay, and its words are, by now, deeply familiar and dear to me. But some days the need for certain words, certain tones, is more urgent than others, and that day I needed Audre Lorde: warm, whetted, galvanizing.
Lorde’s essay argues for a definition of the erotic that extends beyond its tie to sexuality; she interprets it “as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.” Wow, ladies. I am here for this variety of eroticism. Lorde’s essay argues for a definition of the erotic that extends beyond its tie to sexuality; she interprets it “as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.” Wow, ladies. I am here for this variety of eroticism.
I’m not always capable of drawing from this pool of energy, but to know it exists, that somewhere Audre Lorde’s spirit nods at me benevolently, whispering for me to live my best life – these are the thoughts that give me wings when I am my most leaden self. Later in the essay, Lorde writes that women “have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings.” Remembering what my “yeses” are — as Lorde reminds me that I can and should achieve them — charges me with a certain psychic pleasure and joy.
My recent turn to Lorde’s essay (which, if you enjoy it, acts as a fine companion to her masterwork Zami: A New Spelling of My Name) encouraged me to ask some of my women friends about the writers (specifically women) to whom they turn for emotional sustenance. Their poignant responses say as much about them as the works and writers they champion.
Samantha Carrick: “In times of darkness and lethargy, I often find myself best reminded of the healing power of language by a poet whose work I now rarely visit on any other occasion. That Denise Levertov has become a companion to my sadness seems both fitting for someone so able to capture the language of death (see: “The Tulips“) but a disservice, too, to someone whose words I often consider tattooing on myself as a reminder to keep living (see: “O Taste and See“).”
Isabella Cooper: “Susan Cain‘s Quiet comforts me by pinning down precisely what I find so alienating in the way our schools, our businesses, our churches, and so many other aspects of our culture are structured: they are hierarchical, implicitly favouring extroversion. She helps remind me of how much I have to offer as an introvert– that, in fact, my culture needs people like me.”
Liz DePriest: “As a woman juggling the responsibilities of family and professional life, I find myself returning most frequently to Mary Hunter Austin‘s short story, “The Walking Woman,” first published in 1907. The titular character provides a model for valuing and balancing romantic love, work, and motherhood. Plus, this sentence about her ranks among my favourites in all of American literature: “She had walked off all sense of society-made values, and, knowing the best when the best came to her, was able to take it.”
Lyz Lenz: “Mostly, when I need solace of any kind, I find that immersing myself in beautiful words is the only self-care I need. I love rereading my favourite Sarah Vowell essays. They are just so perfect for combining fact, insight and humour into a beautiful seamless essay.”
Patricia Nelson: “Reading work by women who write sensitively about their own lives and the world they live in feels to me like self-care. A mix of recent favourites and books I return to: Alison Bechdel‘s Are You My Mother?, Anne Patchett‘s Truth and Beauty and This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Joan Didion‘s The Year of Magical Thinking, Maxine Hong Kingston‘s The Woman Warrior, Ellen Forney‘s Marbles, and on the lighter side, Amy Poehler‘s Yes Please and Tina Fey‘s Bossypants.”
What are your favourite literary self care reads? Get in touch with us via our Twitter and Facebook and let us know!
Rachel Vorona Cote is the creator of the Fake Friends series at Jezebel, where she writes regularly. She has also written essays for The Rumpus, The Hairpin, and The Billfold. She lives in Washington, D.C., but you can also hang out with her on Twitter.