After I read the book Olive Kittredge by Elizabeth Strout I looked up her back list and read both her previous books and now I don’t think twice about getting her new books when they come out.
Last Saturday Jon got me Stout’s new book My Name Is Lucy Barton. I spent the afternoon on the big stuffed chair in front of the wood stove, with Minnie snuggled next to me and Flo purring on the top of the chair (it’s wide enough to be the perfect cat perch) and read it. It’s not a big book, but full in story and characters. I only stopped reading to feed the animals.
I find that I relate to Stouts characters, who are complex and very real. Her books, which are very readable, deal with relationships and I always learn something about myself.
Early on, Jon told me that he is ruthless about his writing. He says he will do whatever he has to do to be a writer. To me the idea of being ruthless isn’t admirable. In my mind it reeks of men (somehow it’s a male thing) imposing their will on anyone or anything they can to get what they want, without caring about the consequences. It’s war and dominance and egotistical selfishness. Not traits I associate with Jon.
As I read through Strouts latest book I saw glimpses of myself and my relationships in the story. Towards the end, there’s a short chapter, just two paragraphs long, and reading it was like looking in a mirror.
Later that night I cried reading out loud to Jon. (The book had as much of an impact on him that it did me and he wrote about being ruthless on his blog and the next day was inspired to write a short story, The Bus to Woonsocket.)
The chapter begins…. “I think of Jeremy telling me I had to be ruthless to be a writer. And I think how I did not visit my brother and sister and parents because I was always working on a story and there was never enough time. (But I didn’t want to go either.) There never was enough time, and later I knew if I stayed in my marriage I would not write another book, not the kind I wanted to, and there is that as well. But really ruthlessness, I think, comes in grabbing onto myself, in saying: This is me, and I will not go where I can’t bear to go—Amgash, Illinois— and I will not stay in a marriage when I don’t want to, and I will grab myself and hurl onward through life, blind as a bat, but on I go. This is the ruthlessness, I think.”
Change a few of the details, and this is my life. This is what I did.
Does this mean I’m ruthless? I looked up the word in my dictionary. It’s horrible, everything I never wanted to be: showing no pity or compassion, cold-hearted, unforgiving, uncaring.. and it goes on.
But I didn’t find Strouts character, Lucy Barton to be ruthless. It was more self-preservation. I was cheering her on, “run for your life” I silently chanted as I read her story. Do what ever you have to do to save yourself.
I did what I had to do. I left my family and husband. And I did hurt them. And they probably did experience it as cold-hearted and uncaring. It was painful for me too, but I was running for my life. So if that’s ruthless, then I guess I am ruthless. And yes, I’ll be ruthless again if I have to, if that’s what it takes to preserve my self.
9 thoughts on ““This Is Ruthlessness”, “This Is Me””
She is even more striking in color! Wow!
Oh….. self-preservation; now I have to read the book. The Bus to Woonsocket to me was Jon’s most powerful work. I can’t stop thinking about it. I keep seeing the struggling fish in its plastic bag on the floor of the bus.
It’s one of those books that will stay with me Christine. I found it affirming, like I’m not alone. And I agree about Jon’s story. I cried for that boy.
Oh yes, thank you for reminding me about Elizabeth Strout’s writing! I enjoyed Olive Kittredge and am looking forward to reading her other work.
I so agree with your initial definition of ruthless. Each word has a resonance, and ruthless actually means without compassion. Listening to our own heart, loving ourselves so fully that we act from that truth is one of the most compassionate things we can do for ourselves and the world. Sometimes fierceness is called for in this movement of love and honesty, and that feels more true and infinitely more powerful than showing up with our hearts shuttered.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
That’s a beautiful way of putting it Lorraine. Thanks.
Brava, Maria!! xo
I have a quote from your neighbor Jenna at Cold Antler Farm that I love. “Be ruthless in your trying.” I think in the way you’re using it and the way Strout is, that ruthless feels like a stronger, more active form of “persistent”.
I too have been ruthless a time or two in my life. I would’t change any of it. I loved Olive Kitteridge. And I absolutely loved Jon’s short story. I have actually thought about it at different times since I read it.
I think you’ll love Strout’s new book too then Cathy. I’m beginning to think being ruthless sometimes is just a part of being alive.