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Saturday, July 9, 2016

"Our Narrating Species"

I first read British writer Jenny Diski a couple of years ago, while subscribing to the London Review of Books. I’ve kept up with her since on the Guardian newspaper’s website. And so I knew that she had recently died, at age 68 from cancer.

What I didn’t know is that she’d written about that experience in her book In Gratitude.  Here’s a description of the book on the publisher’s website:


This past week, I read more about Diski’s book on the New Yorker’s website, in Andrea DenHoed’s article, “Jenny Diski’s Way of Seeing Beyond the Story.” Two things stood out for me in the piece.

First, what Diski writes in the book about why our stories are often conceived as journeys:

It’s not our fault that time works for us the way it does, or that the linear accelerates our lives. We “journey” as we read books, watch films, look back at our past, imagine the future, even mindfully try to live in the always and only present moment while thoughts of what was, and still is to come, crowd our minds. Otherwise there’s silence, and that’s an option. Though not much of one for our narrating species. Can we even get dressed without a before and after, a beginning and end? Starting with your socks instead of your knickers doesn’t alter the fact of the matter: undone to done. And then the reverse. One, two, buckle my shoe. It’s inescapable. From one state to another, how can the journey not come to mind? That’s the price of living in time. Why should I mind so much? Why should I mind so much now? Because journeys end?

Second, what Denhoed says about Diski as a writer:

But Diski approached writing as a fact of her existence, like one of her essential organs—she called it “the point” of her life. When she began the cancer memoir, it was the fact of the writing, more than what was to be written, that mattered. “I’m a writer,” she explains. “I’ve got cancer. Am I going to write about it? How am I not?” She was in the business of naming things, but also of questioning those names; of giving outlines to what is shapeless, and then pointing to the fuzziness of those outlines, to all the holes on the edges. In writing about herself, even in writing about her own death, she was also writing about writing: asking what difference it makes what you call things, or whether you put things in words. And answering that it makes all the difference, but also, in the end, not much at all.

It was both of these excerpts that made me think: Yes, Diski was compelled to document her experience with cancer as a writer, but also as a storyteller: I was here, this is what it was like for me, this is what I leave you with.

It's what members of our narrating species are wont to do.

To read Denhoed’s entire article:


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