Motoko Kusanagi from the Ghost in the Shell series. By Jarred Everson www.jjeverson.com
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On ghosts, or why I never want to be anybody’s muse

It took 27 years for me to admit that I didn’t want to be around people who create things. I didn’t want to be with them. I was already one of them.

Sometimes I occupy beds that ghosts visit.

There was a strong and pathetic need in me up until a few years ago to become someone’s muse. Whether you think of yourself as a feminist woman or not, sometimes it’s hard to get away from the fact that your role has already been predestined, written in curling, delicate hand about Lord Byron, chiselled into stone somewhere, Edie Sedgwick and her ilk lie in ecstasy in the background of some dark, violent party of the mind, the reason the men are there, but the muses are not the centre of conversation, and yes, they are the glamorous, seductive type you are drawn to. You can’t stop thinking of yourself as the romantic figure, floating in and out of heroes’ lives, a Jane Eyre or another long-suffering woman who is foregrounded in your head but just lives to lend all the ideas you have about the world to another, because they seem to have a firmer hand, a choking grasp on life you do not, because you’ve seen it happen before, and it will happen again. There’s no song lyric “men are doing it for themselves”, well, because, nothing so obvious is ever written down and paid attention to. A blackened part of me understands that there are thousands of voices of women in the chasm of history who only ever spoke through the voices of the men they fell in love with. Some of the greatest works of our time would be even finer if they had been written by the hand who first had the idea.

The only antidote to this is to really pay attention to how utterly fragile talent is when contained within the human body. It is certainly not robust enough to be kept in only men. You stay around anyone you admire for their games or art or writing for long enough and you’ll understand that they are awful in some incredibly profound way, and if they aren’t awful they are a nice person who is broken and cut up in ways that it will hurt to think about.

I’ve spoken a lot with the game designer and writer Harvey Smith recently about whether having a privileged background or upbringing helps a person produce better art, or whether having a difficult life helps produce better art (Harvey has a wealth of stories about his background that would make you think the latter). I concluded that when you don’t have things like social ostracisation, war, poverty or sickness in your way, it’s much easier to make things faster, which is probably why middle-class white dudes produce such a vast array of our art. There’s a better hit rate, y’know? And it’s not necessarily that broken people make better art, though perhaps sometimes the ability to communicate pain helps. I don’t believe you have to be beaten down by society to make something profound. You just have to be able to produce it, and that’s the hard part. The hard part is telling yourself you are that person. The person who makes.

There’s something Harvey said recently that really sticks with me, and it’s this wonderful little moment in time in my head. Writers have a real talent for articulating exactly what you didn’t know you thought before, and he said, sitting on the arm of the couch, looking up at me in the loft of his and Leah’s beautiful Lyon apartment, “The hardest part is admitting you want to do it. Saying, I want to be a games designer, or a writer, or anything creative.”

It took me about twenty-seven years, most of them during which I was writing fiction, poetry or criticism, to realise that I was a writer, and that I wanted to be a writer, and that I was a writer who was good enough. I didn’t want to be around people who create things. I didn’t want to be with them. I was already one of them. Why was I wasting time? You do not get to write my story. I write it. I write it myself. Stealing is only legitimate if it’s mutual. There does not get to be a one way road any more. I am no one’s muse because I have the ideas. They are mine.

Perhaps I am fucked up, awful in some incredibly profound way, and if I’m not awful I might be a nice person who is broken and cut up in ways that will hurt for others to think about. Perhaps I am that person that men look at and think, I wish I was her muse, though the canon for some sort of male muse is somewhat absent. None of it really matters to me now, because I understand that talent is fragile and that even trying to articulate it now may be killing any talent I had left.

Right now as I am travelling through France I realise that I have the firmest choke hold on life I have ever had. I do not need the ghosts that I once summoned to my bed: those ghosts that I once thought, perhaps the creativity of life will touch me through them and I will feel good again. Those ghosts that I used to think: they are the only romantic thing about my life. The ones I let go, the ones I could never have, the people who did not respect or love me, the people who slipped through my fingers, or laughed when someone said, “She’s a writer. Sort of.” The ghosts who will watch you sleep and when you wake you are covered in a thousand cuts. The ghosts who whisper hoarse in the dark, they used to say, “You should have asked me to marry you.”

I slit all their throats. And when I occupy a bed with another person who has those ghosts, I can shake the ghosts’ hands and say, I know you, and I have sympathy for you. But you are not welcome. I am waiting for the day this person kills you.

. . . I’ll come back on that day.

This article first appeared on caraellison.co.uk and is crossposted here with permission

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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge