The Narcissus Project

March 20, 2016

Narcissus: A genus that is very complex and burdened with numerous uncertainties.
— Josef August Schultes, 1773-1831, and Julius Hermann Schultes, 1804-1840, father and son Austrian botanists who co-authored Volume 7 of the 1829 edition of the Systema Vegitibilium of Carl Linnaeus

When Eleanor Catton won the New Zealand Post Book Award in 2014 for her second novel, The Luminaries, she announced that she was using the $10,000NZ (about $6800US) prize money to establish the Horoeka/Lancewood Grant “to give New Zealand writers the means and opportunity not to write, but to read, and to share what they have read with their colleagues in the arts.” She envisioned a stipend of $2000NZ (<$1400US) that would support the writer for three months while he or she just read. At the end of the period, the writer would produce an essay about the experience.

She named the program after the horoeka, or lancewood, “a New Zealand native tree that begins its life defensively, with sharp rigid leaves and a narrow bearing, and in maturity transforms into a shape that is confident, open and entirely new—so different, in fact, that the young and old versions of the tree look absolutely unalike. That is what I believe reading can do.”

There have been twelve recipients of the grant. A short biographical statement about each and links to their reading lists and their culminating essays can be found here. It is unclear how the money facilitated their reading. Likely they used it to buy materials or travel to special archives or secure childcare or housekeeping services so they could, indeed, just read.

I began thinking about The Horoeka Project in mid-February, as I entered the last weeks of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference application period. Longtime readers of this space will know my love for Bread Loaf, my angst over preparing an application, writing a manuscript to send to the admissions committee in time for the March 1st deadline, and then the long wait for the up or down vote, which does not come until late May.

My family obligations this year seemed to add further stress and complications to a process I am prone to overthinking and overstressing about in the first place. As I blew past any hope of applying early (as hopeful writers are always urged to do) and got closer and closer to running out of time to send anything but the draftiest of an early draft, I began to think of other things I could be doing. A friend announced that he was no longer writing fiction, only reviews (for publication) of other people’s work, and that in his new life as a retired attorney, he was going to continue to read and review, more widely and more deeply.

By February 22, with the creative part of my Bread Loaf application as finished as it was going to be and only the dreaded and damnable “hope to gain” statement left to  hone, I embarked on The Narcissus Project: Fourteen Weeks, February 23 — May 23, 2016 (about three months to Bread Loaf notification time), Heavy Reading, Light Writing. I decided that I would read only material that I already have, books that have gone unread since I bought them and stuck them somewhere in the house and just never picked up again, or got stalled in reading them by some outside force and not lack of interest in the material.

I named the project after the narcissus because I miss the large daffodil bed I once had. The first bulbs went in the ground in 1979 or 1980. They self-propagated, spread haphazardly into a wide ragged circle under a tree, turned up in odd places where they’d been deposited by squirrels who dug them up, here or in a neighbor’s yard, and then reburied them when they proved to be not an edible treasure. The whole patch got removed in some yard-tidying project in about 2005, and despite my good intentions each fall, never got replaced. “These books I’m pulling off shelves and out of piles are like bulbs that have been planted and have lain dormant,” I wrote in my journal. “Like me, they are complex and burdened with numerous uncertainties. They have something to give me.”

I settled on 16 titles, representing almost 4000 pages of reading and more than $300 cash outlay. They included Best American Short Stories 2015 and Best American Essays 2015, both of which had arrived in October and rested, unopened, on the piano bench, a Robert Boswell story collection I’ve had for probably 8 years but read only one piece in (the book was on a nearby shelf because I’d searched it out to read that story again), and a poetry collection by Allison Joseph that I bought when she read at Penn State Harrisburg in February. I have never read a collection by a single author first page to last, like a novel, only ever dipping in and out. This time, I thought, let’s read it the way the author intended. I also committed to continuing to read every short story in The New Yorker in 2016, and a poem a day. I am also continuing to listen to audio books while I am in the car.

Just about one month in to the project, I can report that I have read or listened to 3 nonfiction books, one novel, one story collection, 4 short stories in BASS, 4 short stories in The New Yorker, 6 essays in BAE, and 27 poems.

I started this piece because I fell into a Facebook group organized around “intentional blogging.” I came upon “7 Posts in 7 Days” on Day 6 (yesterday), that is, extremely late to the party. The leader and the participants seem more interested in building a large following as a marketing tool than in developing craft, but I did get a sense that successful (that is, popular) blogs have a fairly narrow focus. I think I’ll take that up for now, for the two months left until Bread Loaf Notification Day. In the days and weeks to come, I will write more about the reading I’m doing. I’m not sure I’ll write seven posts in seven days, but it feels good to be back to the blog, and to have a focus.

Here is the loose list of things I’ll be reading, begun on 2/13/16, in the order in which I put them in a stack:

Spelman, Cornelia Maude. Missing. narrative nonfiction memoir
Levy, Ariel, ed. Best American Essays 2015. anthology of essays by various authors
Bolz-Weber, Nadia. Accidental Saints. expository nonfiction
Skyhorse, Brando. Take This Man. narrative nonfiction memoir
Perabo, Susan. Why They Run the Way They Do. story collection
Boswell, Robert. The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards. story collection
Yune, Robert. Eighty Days of Sunlight. novel
Boyle, T.C. Best American Short Stories 2015. anthology of short stories by various authors
Packer, Ann. The Children’s Crusade. novel
Ostlund, Lori. After the Parade. novel
Thomas, Abigail. What Comes Next and How To Like It. narrative nonfiction memoir
Pietrzyk, Leslie. This Angel on My Chest. story collection
Groff, Lauren. Fates and Furies. novel
McDermott, Alice. Someone. novel
Joseph, Allison. My Father’s Kites. poetry collection
Jones, Danell. The Virginia Woolf Writers’ Workshop. expository nonfiction



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