On Kelly Cherry’s Girl In A LibraryOctober 25, 2016
I wrote this piece a few weeks ago, hoping to place it on a blog with a larger audience than my own. That didn’t happen, and in the meantime, Kelly Cherry has won lifetime Achievement award from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I’m not the only one who loves this writer’s work.
One recent morning, I picked up Kelly Cherry’s Girl in a Library, a book of essays that speaks to the intersection of life and literature. I first met Kelly when we were both in residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and we gravitated to one another, two women of a certain age, cloaking rebelliousness under convention, she the genteel southerner, I the outspoken northerner. I can’t remember what I was writing at the time—so many unpublished manuscripts on my shelf—but whatever it was I was near completion and Kelly very generously gave me the names of editors and publishers, and yes, of course, use her name. Over the years, she continues to offer support. She’s that kind of writer.
Girl in a Library is a book of short pieces about Kelly Cherry, about her mother, about women writers, Emily Dickenson, Elizabeth Hardwick, Eudora Welty. The book is neatly framed by bookend essays, “Why I Write” and “Why I Write Now.”
In “Why I Write,” Cherry speaks of her younger self, her diffidence, her reluctance to have opinions. What she is talking about is declaring her authority, something a woman at that time—this time?—was not allowed to do. Writing is a rebellious act, and those of us who choose to write are rebels, although at the time we begin, often, we don’t know that—especially, if we are women of a certain age. Cherry says she “loved the process of creating a problem, of developing a line of thought, whether theoretically or metaphorically.” Yet, she felt as if she was in hiding, unable to declare herself. I understand. This is a woman’s dilemma—even today, we see what happens to women with strong opinions. Not all of us are as strong as Hillary Clinton.
Kelly Cherry has published more than twenty books of fiction, memoir, essay and poetry. Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize. She is one of the most insightful, smart writers I have read. She teases complex questions into clear, precise prose. That, I suppose, is the poet in her. She is the kind of writer, I can read over and over. So why isn’t she a literary celebrity?
In “Why I Write, Now,” Cherry says she made every mistake in the book, leaving New York after her first book came out, choosing the wrong literary agency, following a novel with a book of poetry. “So I missed the brass ring,” she writes. This comes home to her one night at the opera, when a much younger writer tells Cherry that as artists, they must hope for fame in their lifetimes. Cherry is devastated. Then, she ruminates. Her friend has created an equation with two terms: the artist and the audience. For Kelly Cherry there is a third term: the art. Not art for art’s sake, but art that discovers the shape and substance of the soul. That shape, that substance: that is the work of art.
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