My best friend is a writer, too, and we help each other through the process. This means reminding each other to sit our ass down and write; reading through each other’s work; and talking about other writers who we love to read. For Christmas, she gave me Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women.
“A writer’s embrace of the world is all the more evident when she sees the ordinary along with the extraordinary, the commonplace or the ugly along with the beautiful,” writes Lydia Davis in the Manual’s foreword. On walks, over lunch, in emails, and on the phone, my friend and I laugh about weird details, things only we would notice, and things only the other person would get: strange behaviors, funny moments, and bizarre occurrences. Like street photography, our conversations are a sweeping study of life. Our lenses may be opened to the widest panoramic setting, or narrowed in on the tiniest detail, and we relish the information from each view.
Leaning over my latte, I listen to her tell me about hearing Zadie Smith speak. Or I remember what Robert Boswell said about Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog,” which helps her get through a hard part in her story. The secrets and observations that we share about the craft are the expansive gifts of our friendship, better than any scented candle and other random stuff that women give one another (but I do love scented candles).
Berlin is a writer’s writer, the possessive writer in this case being Davis, who writes novels, short stories, essays and poetry, and who won the Man Booker Prize in 2013. (When I researched Davis, I discovered that she has written short stories that are as short as two sentences. Then I read that she has, in turn, been called a ‘writer’s writer’s writer.” Ha!) Berlin’s writing is what other writers like to teach, because they recognize and admire her artistry.
“Her stories are electric, they buzz and crackle as the live wires touch,” begins Davis in Manual’s foreword. Berlin uses “concrete physical imagery” and “realistic Flaubertian detail.” She “wastes no words;” she plays with time; she’s unpredictable.
Also, Davis points out that Berlin has been writing “the form of fiction known in France as auto-fiction (“self-fiction”)” since the 1960s. This means “the narration of one’s own life, lifted almost unchanged from the reality, selected and judiciously, artfully told….” Knowing this helps me to contextualize Karl Ove Knausgaard. I finished the first of Knausgaard’s six book autobiographical series last fall. It’s called My Struggle: Book 1 and the title made me laugh, because it reminded me of my sister and myself. “Such a struggle,” we have always joked, about getting the bed made, not splashing Caldo Azteca all over a new white shirt, not forgetting to show up to some luncheon.
Knausgaard’s writing is easily readable and he makes beautiful observations, retelling his life events in simple prose. Although translated from Norwegian, his sentences have a conversational, matter-of-fact tone. While Berlin’s prose is complex and artful, Knausgaard’s skill stems from his reflective, philosophical approach. Remembering his dreams, he writes:
“It was as though in dreams I had not grown up, I was still a child surrounded by the same people and places I had been surrounded by in childhood. And even though the events that occurred there were new every night, the feeling they left me with was always the same. The constant feeling of humiliation. Often it could take several hours after waking before that feeling had left my body. Moreover, when conscious, I hardly remembered anything from my childhood, and the little I did remember no longer stirred anything in me, which of course created a kind of symmetry between past and present, in a strange system whereby night and dreams were connected with memory, day and consciousness with oblivion.”
The poetry in Knausgaard’s writing has to do with his perceptions of time and the poignant observations he makes about his family. A Proustian melancholy colors his childhood memories. As a reader, I puzzle over the mysterious, abusive behavior of his father and his parents’ broken relationship. I share his grief of losing a father. Knausgaard’s writing makes me want to turn the page, because I am addicted to his candor, and how well he articulates the subtleties of his emotions. In this way, he elucidates my own experience of grief. I ordered the second book before I finished the first.
With Berlin, it’s clear that she’s working from personal experience, but then she spins it into a delightfully caustic story that can be both humorous and haunting. Knausgaard and Berlin are such different writers, it’s not fair to even compare them. Auto-fiction can be written in as many literary styles as there are writers; I’m more fascinated with the invisible lines hidden in their stories, the intersections of truth and fiction—how they turn the material of life into the art of their writing.
In Angel’s Laundromat, Berlin writes about “a tall old Indian in faded Levi’s and a fine Zuni belt….we sat next to each other in connected yellow plastic chairs, like at airports. They skidded in the ripped linoleum and the sound hurt your teeth.” She describes herself sitting there, with “An old Indian staring at my hands through a dirty mirror, between yellowing IRONING $1.50 A DUZ and orange Day-Glo serenity prayers.” They communicate with one another during the mundane task of laundry, in subtle, non-vocal ways. Watching one another, and seeing the other person with the shakes, or visibly sober, they recognize the alcoholic in each other. Berlin does such a good job of describing the laundromat, I feel like if I look up from the page, I might catch the Indian’s eye in the mirror myself. The laundromat’s mirrors and signs are huge parts of the story, little mini-narratives with heartbreaking revelations.
“I read all the signs,” Berlin’s character writes (who shares her name in the story, Lucia). “GOD GIVE ME THE COURAGE. NEW CRIB NEVER USED—BABY DIED.” Can that sign actually be real? Or did she make that one up? It doesn’t matter; through the container of her story, it’s believable. And as my friend and I always observe, we don’t have to make up the best material. It’s even better in real life.
Just as I was marveling over how she devised her stories, I came upon Point of View, which is a masterful exercise in storytelling. As a reader, I get to watch her make up a character, Henrietta, and tell her story, while considering the effects of first person narration versus third person. She also remains present as the writer throughout the story. It’s like she’s teaching a writing class through the writing of the story, but doing a stand-up comedy act at the same time. She’s being funny and smart, and all the while, delving down into the deepest, darkest spaces of existence.
Berlin knows the darkest spaces the best. Because she is funny, when she takes the reader there and back again, it feels like coming out of the movie theater on a bright sunny day. Like Knausgaard, she includes memories of her childhood and growing up. In Good and Bad, the first person narrator describes an ambivalent relationship with her liberal, lesbian high school teacher in Santiago, Chile, 1952: “Miss Dawson thought that she was reaching impressionable young minds, whereas she was talking to spoiled young brats. Each one of us had a rich, handsome American daddy. Girls feel about their fathers at that age like they do about horses. It is a passion.” I love that line about dads and horses. I remember feeling exactly like that about my father. It captures a specific time in life that falls into great contrast with age, when you begin to see your parents as human.
Or Berlin writes from a the point of view of getting older, in the Laundromat again:
“So many Laundromat attendants I have known, the hovering Charons, making change or who never have change. Now it is fat Ophelia who pronounces No Sweat as No Thwet. Her top plate broke on beef jerky. Her breasts are so huge she has to turn sideways and then kitty-corner to get through the doors, like moving a kitchen table. When she comes down the aisle with a mop, everybody moves and moves the baskets too.”
I recognize the writer’s eye in Berlin’s writing, how every experience in life becomes fodder. This is not even a choice. It’s a necessary way to live in the world, because to deepen this practice of looking and listening means to deepen my writing. Somehow, in between the moments of observation and the act of writing, these real life experiences become more than just something that happened. They get related to another, retold in the form of stories, and in that process, transformed into something meaningful. As a genre, auto-fiction must be the most compelling because the boundaries are so blurred, and this gives the writing an element of mystery. Because the words are so close to real life, it’s the trickiest of genres, like writing something in pencil and then erasing it and writing something better in its place.
 Lydia Davis, “Foreword: The Story is the Thing,” in A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), p. ix.
 Goodyear, Dana, “Long Story Short: Lydia Davis’ Radical Fiction,” 24. New Yorker, March 17, 2014.
 Davis, A Manual for Cleaning Women, vii.
 ibid, ix.
 ibid, xiv.
 ibid, x.
 Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book 1 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), 202.
 Berlin, 3.
 Berlin, 4.
 Berlin, 126.
 Berlin, 106.