Kathryn Harrison on Joan of Arc (b. 1412) in New York Times (Jan. 6, 2012): Writers Workshop Recommendation
Today's New York Times (Friday, Jan. 6, 2012, p. A23) contains Kathryn Harrison's fine memorial to French heroine Joan of Arc in this 600th year of her birth (east of Paris, exact date in 1412 unknown). I recommend anyone interested in current American writing should read this essay, for it not only brings Joan's inspiring story back to memory yet another time, but it also illustrates Kathryn Harrison's emergence as one of our finest new American writers.
Work constraints forbid any new attempt here to summarize Joan's sacrificial life of service to the French, but I do venture to note Joan's lasting contribution to Anglo-American civilization by helping convince the 15th-century English people, and their various kings, that the English belonged in England, not in France.
The Times essay footnote indicates Ms. Harrison has undertaken the formidable task of adding her own new biography of Joan of Arc to the voluminous literature that already exists. This naturally leads one to take a serious fresh note of her whole body of work thus far which includes several well-received novels and memoirs, a book of essays Seeking Rapture, and a biography of St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-97, the "Little Flower").
Kathryn Harrison's writing lacks the mind-boggling density of the new British transplant sensation Zadie Smith (thank goodness!), but in welcome contrast, Harrison's prose usually leaves the reader with enough human time and space to catch up to her penetrating observations and insights into everyday life as, perhaps, a wider spectrum of Americans experience it.
I hope to comment at greater length elsewhere on Harrison's work.
Comments from the Writers Workshop
How to select a topic? How does Kathryn Harrison select her writing topics? She said in an interview that one book naturally resulted after she found her personal interest in the subject leading her into the relevant deep research. Would anyone care to elaborate on this point we frequently make?!
How to turn my insights from everyday life into good writing? This common lament of beginning writers can often be solved by reading the work of established new authors (like Kathryn Harrison) known for writing and publishing their insights into everyday life.
All the time we must remind new writers to read, read, read the best published material they can get their hands on. No one ever yet has successfully separated (a) the task of writing from (b) the joy of reading the best of previous English-language literature, if not from your own library, then readily available to anyone without charge at any public library.
What makes a good story? The Times essay on Joan of Arc suggests one good answer. With so many different accounts of Joan's life, Harrison wonders why "it seems Joan of Arc will never be laid to rest. Is this because stories we understand are stories we forget?"
She looks for stories that not only "rationalize human experience" but "enlarge it with the breath of mystery." In conclusion, she predicts that "as long as we look to heroes for inspiration, to leaders whose vision lifts them above our limited perspective, who cherish their values above their earthly lives, the story of Joan of Arc will remain one we remember, and celebrate."
Notes. Max prefers a paper copy of the Times delivered to his door each day, but you can also reference the Harrison article on the New York Times web pages. Any aspiring new writer, esp. of fiction, should then look up Kathryn Harrison on the Internet to learn more about her work and read a composite of her current interviews where she comes across as a truly genuine and legitimate person.
[Disclaimer: Max does not personally know Kathryn Harrison, or anyone that she knows, so far as he knows, nor does he consider it likely that he ever will.]