Leora Skolkin-Smith: Is writing a conversation?

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Leora SkolkinThere have been endless negative essays about the crippling effects of social media on writing and reading, many stating that social media is mostly superficial tweets, self-aggrandizing promotions, and ego-driven selfies. In crueler articles, bloggers have been accused of being “losers”who “can’t get jobs in real journalism”, and those writers outside mainstream publishing as just “unable to make it”.

Yesterday I had an experience which made me think of writing in the way I did once in graduate school when some of us gathered in the college pub to just sort of shoot the breeze about what we were writing, (or trying to get written,) often taking in the books we were reading from which we had hoped to bounce our heavy heads off, and maybe we would throw in some urgent news story. It was all talk and exchanges over a clandestine bottle of scotch or cheap wine. Interruptions were welcome, other dramas in the distance—between lovers, or just two student haggling over something banal-were always fascinating, part of a fabric we would later make in our work out of our voyeuristic journey into the world outside our dorm room. All the noise and strangers added substance to our work, however sublimally, like dreams.

Yesterday, a friend from high school, (whom I would have never met again if not for Facebook), asked me where she could find a source for all the poems I post on Facebook. (she’s a nurse and has fell off reading for a long time but really misses it) And in answering, I rediscovered a poem Grace Paley used to read to us to begin her writing classes. It was Yeats’ The Circus Animals Desertion. It was written at the end of Yeat’s career, and it’s about how Yeats, though he had observed well the showy, glitzy literati of the 20th century, found his voice once again in his later life only in the simple, subterranean world of people and, as with Proust and Genet, in the “foul bone and rag shop of the heart,” It’s probably, to me anyway, his best poem.

A large question for me is:…was this conversation with my friend about Yeats’ poem weaving my everydayness, the interruptions I allow Facebook and social media to make on my thoughts the creation of a conversation beyond my writing room which would enter my work? And was this an incarnation of some valuable and lost treasure, creating a nostalgia for those old days in the college pub which, I hate to admit, I’m old enough to have a yearning for? I do not mean to say it was “intimacy”, but I do mean to say it was a conversation and rather than diminishing literary things, including my own writing, it provided some new tunnel towards a light which might enter my writing—either through the open pores of a character not yet fully realized, or a theme half-developed but needing a sounding board to come to life—becoming an ingredient in the ultimate novelistic stew, unconsciously or consciously. What struck me about all the great writers I have ever read is each and every one had such conversations with their world, sometimes via their inner selves through memory, but always it was a kind of conversation, an intimacy with an Other, whether an individual or a society at large. Stretching these thoughts I wondered: will these new medias actually rescue the novel from the insular, narrow, and for-one-audience-only demographically exclusive novels dominant in the market now? I feel the novel has been stuck for so many years. I do not think I am by any means the first author asking these questions but I have noticed, as so many, the limitedness of our book culture before social media opened it up. And just a personal jolt for me was finding this Yeats poem, in which there is a reminder of a before from which our now might find an affinity .

Here is Yeats’ the complete “Circus Animal’s Desertion”

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last, being but a broken man,
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.


What can I but enumerate old themes,
First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose
Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams,
Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,
Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,
That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;
But what cared I that set him on to ride,
I, starved for the bosom of his faery bride.
And then a counter-truth filled out its play,
‘The Countess Cathleen’ was the name I gave it;
She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away,
But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it.
I thought my dear must her own soul destroy
So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,
And this brought forth a dream and soon enough
This dream itself had all my thought and love.
And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread
Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;
Heart-mysteries there, and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.


Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.



Leora Skolkin-Smith is the author of the critically-acclaimed novel Hystera. You can learn more about her and her book at our website.

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On May 5, 2014
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