What is a literary life?

LITERARY LIFE

By DEENA LILYGREN

When I was young and dumb in that harmless way of a sheltered, pre-internet teen (if you can imagine such a thing), there were limited models available for what it meant to live a literary life. There was all the reading, of course, and the fluttery feeling I had around my English teachers, but what seemed most real were the images I saw on screen: a literary life meant owning a manual typewriter, chain-smoking, and squinting feverishly through a monocle like Veronica Sawyer from Heathers. See also: Bukowski. Young Deena saw a literary life as a black leather jacket you could shrug on as a signifier for cool. My view has evolved since then–it’s hard not to, when you do most of your writing in cutoff leggings and a tank top that’s been doubling as a napkin all day–but these accessories are still the first images that came into focus when Maggie asked me to think about the nature of the literary life.

A quick Google search reveals plenty of books on “how to” live a literary life, but do we really need that instruction? If we’re reading and writing, how can we not live a literary life? We feel as though we need more reflection on this topic because the nature of a literary life is to find and make meaning in everything. You’ve seen the memes: Those ridiculous lit majors! They think that color and names and even the weather can be mined for metaphor. At the heart of these memes is the criticism that we don’t understand the “real world.” In response, I would say that without literary pursuits, the real world is damn near intolerable.

My younger, more fanciful self also believed in God, which I highly recommend, if you can swing it. Belief in God means access to a reassuring entity in possession of all the answers. To believe in God means that when we’re close to despair, we can cast our tragedies into God’s path and there find context, meaning, and relief from our pain. Belief renders us small in the most comforting way.

I don’t have that belief anymore, a loss that left me without the coping mechanism I’d counted on my whole life. But what surprised me was how seamlessly my reliance on literary pursuits was able to cover the loss. Belief in literature means that when we’re close to despair, we can cast our tragedies into literary pursuits and there find context, meaning, and relief from our pain. Literature renders us small in the most comforting way.

Earlier this year, I anticipated inauguration day like an impending, badly-arranged marriage to a dangerous husband. My mind was unable to find a resting place, until suddenly, I had in my hands the brilliant and timely If You Can hear This: Poems in Protest of an American Inauguration. I left photocopied excerpts in the inbox of every discouraged colleague and friend. I read it aloud to anyone who would listen. “Okay, but before we watch the next episode,” I would say, “Listen to this poem that imagines Trump as Frankenstein’s monster. I promise you’ll feel better.” I carried that ream of support in my bag for months. It was both antibiotic and bandage. It was pleasure—the first I’d felt in a while.

This speaks to the role of literature. It comforts, reveals, and opens itself as a receptacle for all the questions, feedback, and resistance we can conjure. In that sense, literature is its own kind of scripture. When things are hard, we read with a highlighter in one hand, goosebumps on our arms. When things are hard, we write with as much courage and risk as a soldier.

A literary life is about where we go when we need to understand, create, and re-create ourselves. Isn’t this what all religions do? The rest is just writerly accoutrements: our special writing nook, the tragically uncool tote bags that factor in more heavily than my younger self would have imagined–and because we don’t ever fully shed our teenage selves, maybe a desk drawer with a half-smoked pack of cigarettes.

What does a literary life mean to you? We publish a new take on the topic the first Tuesday of every month. Submit your 500-750 word response here!

Deena Lilygren lives, writes, and indulges her many obsessions in Louisville, Kentucky. She is an Associate Professor of English at Elizabethtown Community & Technical College. She graduated from UofL with an MA in English Literature and is currently completing an MFA in creative writing at Murray State University.

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