On Being Fierce
By Dr. Susan Neville, Professor of English
Last summer my daughter brought home a dog that weighed two
pounds and still weighs less than five, and as I'm writing this she
(the dog) has got a cat toy, a red felt mouse with chewed up ears
that holds a plastic ball filled with beads between its two front
fake fur paws. The beads rattle as the dog holds the toy within her
teeth and shakes it hard from side to side and growls. To her it's
not a cat toy; it's the primordial mouse her DNA taught her to
catch and kill, the plastic smiling red felt mouse with its death
rattle, and she hardly ever lets it go. All day long this dog is
When I thought about what I might tell my writing students in a
last lecture, I decided I wanted to tell them to stay as fierce as
this less than five pound dog. And so some rules:
Whether it was a photograph in a shop-window that had
first prompted me, or a chance remark negligently dropped in my
hearing, I do not now remember nor does it much signify. I know
only that some time before that spring day the word Eskimo had rung
inside me and that the sound had begun to swell like the vibrations
of a great bell and had eventually filled the whole of my
subconscious being. I had not been possessed instantly by a
conscious and urgent need to go into the Arctic and live with a
primitive people. These things operate slowly, like the germ of a
cancer. They brood within, they send out tentacles and grow. Their
first effect is not decision but restlessness. You find yourself
feeling that something is obscurely yet radically wrong with your
life. You fidget. Your world becomes progressively more stuffy ,
less tolerable. Probably you show it, and show it unpleasantly; for
your friends seem to you more and more to be talking nonsense,
leading a meaningless existence, content with a frivolity and a
mediocrity to which you find yourself superior. In their eyes, very
likely, unbearably superior. But no matter. The thing is at work in
you. Finally, there comes a moment when you waken in the middle of
the night and lie still, eyes wide open in the dark. Life, you
sense, is about to change. Something is about to happen. And it
happens. You have made your decision.
From Kabloona by de poncin
I've always loved this opening to de poncin's book Kabloona
because it describes the way a subject takes hold of a writer, how
something as simple as a word will for some unknown reason begin to
resonate inside you, and suddenly everything but that idea, that
word, seems meaningless and even if in your daily life you have
difficulties with decisions, you have no difficulty with this one.
Why Eskimo? Any reasonable person would ask himself that and do his
best to ignore it. De poncin didn't. And so there he was, a French
aristocrat in the 1930's and he had to present himself before some
priests to ask for a ride. They said all right, but treated the
whole thing as a joke, he writes, like a Sunday picnic. The bishop
took him along as a lark and spent the whole plane-ride absorbed in
a book while de poncins, alert to the mystery of the word that
brought him here, looked below and saw "a wide land of forest sown
with thousands and thousands of shining pools, an unfinished world
from which the waters had still to recede and where you would have
said that no man lived." But "the airplane is radioactive," he
wrote "and itself a creator of life." You "did not drop down from
time to time because life suddenly appeared below" you, for
wherever you looked, no life was to be seen. "Yet wherever 'you'
stooped, life sprang up as if spontaneously generated by 'your'
coming; and it died down again when 'you' rose as if 'you' were
carrying off the seed of life."
And so while the bishop read his breviary, expecting to see what
he expected to see, de poncin's attention was itself radioactive
because he stayed that prayerfully alert throughout the writing of
his as yet unwritten book.
He was open to mystery. If de poncins was searching for a topic,
as long as it was this or that, he wouldn't have ended up in the
Canadian arctic, wouldn't have felt possessed, the subject wouldn't
have caught him in its hooks. Or even if he'd been caught, if he'd
been reasonable, he would have had a drink, dreamed a few minor
dreams, talked it all out at bar or two and let it pass.
But he was not in the least bit reasonable, and hook is the
metaphor I would use for the beginning of his obsession. Something
in the universe is always trolling the waters for a curious mind,
an open heart. There are an infinite number of hooks in the watery
air at every moment, invisible glass ones that you can hear
sometimes in the wind, and each one of those glass hooks is
attached to an invisible string, and each string, if followed, is
attached to all there is. It doesn't matter if the hook is the word
Eskimo or factory or gingko trees or frogs or pine needles or
spiral galaxies or Shakespeare or image restoration and calculus.
All that matters is that in the moment when you feel that pull
toward some subject, you've been caught. The hook is in you. You've
fallen irrationally in love. The priests will laugh at you, You're
dressed like a dandy. You couldn't possibly bear the cold. Your
husband wife, your children mother father friends and neighbors.
All of them might laugh. It will seem absurd to anyone but you. But
the fast is that you ignore it at your peril. It won't go away. The
word will stay inside you, joining the other hooks you have
ignored, creating a nest of them, a messy coffin of a tackle box
that you can sometimes feel right before you go to sleep. When I
feel that box, I'll untangle an old hook and try to follow it, but
usually it's lost its hold on the invisible string. I'm left with
nothing but the hook. The fisherman has shrugged off the loss,
reset another hook. It's drifted back into the air. Little by
little I'll feel the hook, my hook, itself dissolve. And then I'll
look around and see it:
The damn book with someone else's name on it.
Because the obsession, the writing or the research, takes hours
away from other things, things that a good person might do instead,
it takes a certain faith, an irrational leap, and it takes, most of
all, a gathering together of every bit of courage at your disposal
to go ahead with it. Being caught is only the beginning of the
struggle. You have to hold on and follow the thread, take
Rule One? You may in fact be crazy. You may in fact be one of
those people who spends his life building a replica of the Vatican
out of popsicle sticks. It may be a good replica of the Vatican
built of popsicle sticks. Someone may be deeply moved by that
replica. Or not. Who knows? Rule one: Despite the risks, just let
yourself be caught.
Not long ago my sister Melinda shocked me by saying she had
always assumed that the book on Mooreland Indiana had yet to be
written because no one sane would be interested in reading it. 'no
no, wait,' she said. I know who might read such a book. A person
lying in a hospital bed with no television and no roommate. Just
lying there. Maybe waiting for a physical therapist. And then here
comes a candy striper with a squeaky library cart and on that cart
there is only one book-or maybe two books: yours, and Cooking with
Pork. I can see how a person would be grateful for Mooreland
From A Girl Named Zippy, by Haven Kimmel
I lived for five years in New Castle, Indiana, a town whose
primary industry was a large Chrysler foundry. The town,
coincidentally, was about ten miles away from Moreland. The foundry
was so important to the town that, when the high school built the
world's largest high school gymnasium, they named it Chrysler
Fieldhouse and in fact renamed the high school Chrysler without
even thinking of asking the corporation for any money. Why not make
it a sponsorship deal? In New Castle, Indiana, it would have been
simply impolite to ask. They named the high school Chrysler in
gratitude. Chrysler wages paid for the evening meal, for the kids
shoes, they paid the mortgage and made the car payments. Sometimes
those wages sent the kids to college. Of course if some big shot in
Detroit happened to notice how much the town fathers loved their
company and decided to keep the plant open, if there was a choice
between closing the one in New Castle and the one in, say,
Richmond, it was assumed that Chrysler would recognize this
selfless gift, this true devotion and like the gods they were, they
would be just.
Of course Chrysler didn't notice New Castle's devotion, didn't
care, closed down the plant, but oddly the high school still bears
its name. 100 years from now, if the town still exists, the high
school will no doubt still be Chrysler High.
My students often remain in the Midwest, and in the provinces we
think in our heart of hearts that we're invisible but maintain the
eternally optimistic belief that someone somewhere will, despite
all the odds against it, see us. When the bad thing happens, as in
your heart you knew it would, when the powers that exist, always,
someplace else, do the thing they were bound to do you get over it,
and your fatalism grows.. Fatalism is our fatal flaw in the
Midwest, stoicism perhaps a virtue.
But fierceness? It's tough for us. We don't ask for what we want
or recognize what we have.
One of my students has a boyfriend who lives in Henry County.
For years he's been thinking deep depressing thoughts and he'd
decided that meant he'd be a writer. Two weeks ago, we read
Chekhov's Ward #6 in my lit class and the girl said "That's my
boyfriend. Those are all his thoughts." Here's what Chekhov said
and what some boy in New Castle Indiana is at this very moment
thinking: :Oh why is not man immortal? What is the good of the
brain centres and convolutions, what is the good of sight, speech,
self-consciousness, genius, if it is all destined to depart into
the soil, and in the end to grow cold together with the earth's
crust and then for millions of years to fly with the earth round
the sun with no meaning and no object? To do that there was no need
at all to draw man with his lofty, almost godlike intellect out of
non-existence and then, as though in mockery, to turn him into
clay. …Only the coward who has more fear of death than dignity can
comfort himself with the fact that his body will in time live again
in the grass, in the stones, in the road.. To find one's
immortality in the transmutation of substances is as strange as to
prophesy a brilliant future for the case after a precious violin
has been broken and become useless."
My student sent a copy of the story to her boyfriend and he
wrote back on email:
"So. I knew I was miserable, but I thought at least I was
original. And here's some guy who said the same thing 100 years ago
and better. I give up. It's all I had. Who wants to read about
In Ward #6 Chekhov is writing about a very specific hospital in
a very specific time and place. He's in conversation with Tolstoy's
theories of nonresistance to evil, with Marcus Auerilius and
Schopenhauer and with his own demons. But most of all he knows the
doctor's "coarse peasant like face'' as he thinks these thoughts,
he knows that this particular night is not broken by a single
sound, that the room in which the doctor thinks is filled with
books and a lamp with a green shade. And he knows, in particular,
that the doctor thinking these morbid thoughts actually feels
delight and enthusiasm over them and at the same time he's
thinking, he knows that his thoughts are "floating together with
the cooling earth round the sun" while "in the main building beside
his abode people were suffering in sickness and someone was making
war upon the insects or moaning over too tight a bandage or playing
cards with the nurses and drinking vodka."
The ideas are universal, but the particulars-the boy in Henry
County Indiana with its particular light, the way the girl is
sending him Chekhov's story in the mail even though he could get it
on the internet because he needs mail, she says, the Xerox copy of
Nicholas Chekhov's painting of Anton that she's sending her
boyfriend to make him jealous (Chekhov looks in that picture, she
says, like Johnny Depp mixed with Leonardo di Caprio). That will
only happen once in space and time. It may very well remain
invisible. There's much of world that does, and much of literature
that will in fact simply float with the cooling earth around the
sun, that it will grow cold with the earth's crust and exist with
Chekhov believed this. He believed it throughout the 400 some
stories and the great plays, all written simultaneously with his
dying from tuberculosis, taking care of his family, innumerable
love affairs, the building of schools and libraries and the
planting of at least 1000 trees. And he said it despite the fact
that he lived in a still medieval Russia surrounded by the red and
green candles of orthodoxy. The boy in New Castle may not write
because he thinks it's all been said before. Of course it's been
said before, but not by him. Second rule for the fierce writer:
Know this-Every place on earth is filled with stories, with layers
of forgotten history. It's Chekhov's brilliance or Alice Munro's or
Thomas Hardy's or Welty's or Kimmel's or Faulkner's or Flannery
O'Connor's-regionalists all-to excavate those layers and include
them in one human story. To deny invisibility. In the Midwest, we
need to work at being fierce.
Which leads me to rule three.
In an essay titled "Writing in the Cold," the poet Ted
Solataroff researches O'Henry Award winning writers who are still
writing ten years later. He tracked all the writers down and
discovered that the key to holding the course is your ability to
handle rejection-which is relentless and never ends.
Flannery O'Connor was hooked early on by her particular vision.
There was never any question of not following it. Her writing
itself is fierce, but she was personally fierce as well. Right out
of graduate school she received a letter from the publisher,
Rinehart (who had given her an award to complete her first novel,
Wise Blood) and this is part of the response she wrote to her
"The criticism is vague and really tells me nothing except that
they don't like it. I feel the objections they raise are connected
with its virtues, and the thought of working with them specifically
to correct these lacks they mention is repulsive to me. The letter
is addressed to a slightly dim-witted Camp Fire Girl, and I cannot
look with composure on getting a lifetime of others like them."
In response to John Selby, the editor at Rinehart, she wrote: "I
can only hope that in the finished novel the direction will be
clearer, but I can tell you that I would not like at all to work
with you as do other writers on your list. …I do not think there is
any lack of objectivity in the writing; however, if this is what
your criticism implies; and also I do not feel that rewriting has
obscured the direction. I feel it has given whatever direction is
now present. In short, I am amenable to criticism but only within
the sphere of what I am trying to do; I will not be persuaded to do
otherwise. The finished book, though I hope less angular, will be
just as odd if not odder than the nine chapters you have now. The
question is: is Rinehart interested in publishing this kind of
P.s. I thought a bloody semicolon was for a long pause. What is
And O'Connor's stories and characters are as fierce as her
If you've been redeemed, Hazel Motes says to Mrs. Hitchcock on
the train in the first chapter of O'Connor's novel Wise Blood, "I
wouldn't want to be." Like a kid who says something you'd like to
say but wouldn't have the courage to, that's O'Connor.
After Hazel Motes says this, he turns his head to the window.
"He saw his pale reflection with the dark empty space outside
coming through it. A boxcar roared past, chopping the empty space
in two, and one of the women laughed." That reflection with the
dark empty space is both carefully observed and symbolic and bare.
Every hook for O'Connor is in the shape of a cross.
Fiction, she said, in Mystery and Manners, is an incarnational
art. The artist seeks revelation, she explained, through sense
O'Connor was a Catholic writing in the south, but hers was a
Catholicism influenced by 20th century existentialists, and so her
characters learn that a human being needs "to live constantly in
the face of death, in the awareness that here and now may be the
last moment." And that's the way she wrote. She read and read and
read while she wrote. And she kept the windows of perception clean.
For O'Connor, learning to write meant learning to see, and the
fierceness required of a writer is the courage it takes to follow
the thread of perception even if it means that, like the character
of Motes, you might "come off into the dark where (you're) not sure
of your footing, where you might be walking on the water and not
know it and then suddenly (through self consciousness) know it and
O'Connor says about the grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to
Find" that she would have been a good woman if there had been
someone there to shoot her every day of her life. In this she
echoes Chekhov, who says there should be someone standing next to
every happy man with a hammer waiting to hit him in the head. Why?
To keep him awake. Third rule? Great literature takes both the
reader and the writer out of the comfort of illusion and into the
real. Only fierce honestly will get you there. Get yourself a
hammer. Chekhov's a good hammer, as is O'Connor, as is any great
art. Rule number three: Think of rejection as a hammer as well.
Most people don't. And don't go back to sleep.
Rule four: You can whisper and still be fierce.
Or you can scream.
Recently I've rekindled my adolescent love for Sylvia Plath. I
teach a madness and literature course and of course she had to be
in there but I came away with an appreciation for how incredibly
good her poetry is. It's not the romantic vision of her illness
that attracts me, it's the fierceness of her struggle with it. As
she said, when she was crazy she was too busy being crazy to write.
Though what she does maintain from the illness is the thing that
mental illness and creativity have in common-those enormous leaps
against the tide of logic, an easy skimming from lamppost to
redbird to St. Thomas Aquinas. Divergent thinking. But the other
thing she has in her arsenal is her intelligence, her ability to
draw the divergent ideas into something that make sense. Convergent
Oddly, she was obsessed by hooks. The first stanza of this long
The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in
I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the anaesthetist and my body to surgeons….
They have propped my head between the pillow and the
This is a fierce, courageous poem. The initial simple hook is
tulips. They're too excitable. Follow them. Why? Because it's
winter here. Why? It's white, which leads to snowed-in which leads
to absence, to being nobody, to giving away her name and clothes
and history and body, to being propped between the pillow and sheet
cup like what? Like an eye between two white lids that will not
shut, will not die. Eye? And in the next stanza she's become a
"stupid pupil that sees." Sees what? "Nurses that are like gulls"
and that leads her to the image of caps, and that leads her to the
image of water and that leads to an image of the body lying in the
hospital bed "as a pebble being smoothed."
And the idea of being smoothed leads to the idea of numbness,
which reminds her, since she's in the hospital, of needles and of
"letting things slip" and the word slip reminds her again, because
she's been thinking of pebbles and whitecaps and gulls, of a boat
hanging onto its associations because it's a cargo boat-and the
cargo? The cargo is a "tea set, linen, books, all sinking now," and
suddenly in the poem she's become a nun-going back to the water in
the third stanza and a reminder of the white caps and moving
forward to the nothing that the dead close on "like a Communion
tablet," she writes. Communion? You gifts gifts at communion, so
her mind goes from communion to "gift paper" to "white swadlings"
(white for communion) and then to "an awful baby" and then to the
image of red, (a baby's mouth and the tulips) which leads her to a
wound, tongues, color, "a dozen red lead sinkers around her neck."
And we go on with the red and the water and the rust-red engine and
the snags and eddies and back to the tulips again which should, she
writes, "be behind bars like some dangerous animals." Which reminds
her of the mouths of a great African cat which reminds her of her
heart which opens and closes like the mouth of that cat, opens and
closes-what?-"its bowl of red" and the tulips, which, like the
heart "blooms out of sheer love of me." And all these associative
images end with the images of the ocean: "the water I taste is warm
and salt, like the sea," the poem ends, "nd comes from a country
far away as health."
She follows the hook of the hated tulips, tacks through the
water like a sailboat through all the ocean imagery, the religious
imagery, the hooks, the lines and sinkers and the hook of the
tulip, her fierce wrestling with the red of the tulip leads her
back to the tulips to the surprising, to her and to us, image that
her heart blooms out of "sheer love of me" and comes "from a
country far away as health." Why follow the tulip? Why Eskimo?
Because it leads to truth. Follow any thread, and it leads to
truth, if you let it. She is one writer who absolutely had no
choice. The hook was in there early, and it was one quite deadly
hook. This hook would not so easily let go as it would for most of
us- no simple instrument played as a teenager resting in a closet
and calling to you, no unfinished article or book, no half knitted
sweater. This hook was firmly lodged within the heart, and it was
sharp, and the thread was strong and to pull against it was
impossible. To grab onto the string and pull was the only respite
she had. It was a tug of war that finally exhausted her. But while
it lasted, it was fierce.
A rule for the fierce writer who also happens to be crazy:
Remember that you're a shark, and you cannot ever for one second
stop the swimming. Rules for the fierce writer who happens not to
be crazy: Trust the thread. Say what you mean.
But here's where I've caught myself on my own hook. Why did the
word 'fierce' grab hold of me this week and not let go? Isn't there
too much fierceness in the world already? Because the question
remains: how do you know with the simple absolute knowledge that
the word is one to follow or one to resist? When you're writing,
you know it. That's all I can say. But I also know that there are
those other hooks, other obsessions, the ones that lead toward
destruction rather than creation, and they can feel the same. I'm
thinking of Paul Tillich's phenomenology of the demonic in The
Interpretation of History. The demonic wears the face of
fascination, feels like an overwhelming power, we experience it as
a seizure, as a revelation of meaning, of 'depths that lead either
to what is ultimately real or to utter annihilation.' It's the kind
of obsession that feels like an opening up of freedom but which is,
finally, the taking away of it.
When I looked at Tillich's essay again, this week, I saw that
there was something else he talks about. And that's inertia.
Stasis. This is how the obsessions of art are different from the
obsessions of power or the sudden rising up of whatever crazy
illusion it is that leads to war. In O'Connor's stories, it's
violence that leads the characters back out of illusion and into
the real. It takes something that big, O'Connor said, to knock her
blockheaded characters out of their self satisfied worlds. When the
inertial character takes hold, it tends to corrupt the spirit. We
may simply resign ourselves to the inevitable, that that is how the
demonic power takes hold, diverting the spirit from its sense of
justice and, destroying the courage to resist exploitation. Neibuhr
said that human beings are by definition anxious because they're
free. They have to die and along the way they have to make choices.
Stasis seems to be one way of avoiding the knowledge of the one and
the necessity of the other. The more I think about literature the
more I think that narrative is an engine that brings characters our
of stasis, into the real world of that anxiety, away from the
illusory world they've created to avoid it and the more I think
about the creation of art the more I think it does the same. In our
lives, as in our art, we must stay fierce.