We had come to listen to BK tell labor stories about the birth of ANIMAL MINERAL RADICAL. Like midwives, we wanted to be present at the birth for that first lungful. We wanted to see the swaddling cloth wrapped, and unwrapped, and re-wrapped.
“Books are about community,” BK said. “We gather together for books.” We knew that, of course, but we still nodded our heads and smiled, happy to be there—gathered—eager—expectant. Friends, fans, family, even perfect strangers—all gathered together. For a closer look at perfect strangers, read about Ragman in “The Evolution of Hunger” (found in this collection).
A writer like BK looks at the splintered glass that is this fractured thing we call the human experience, and creates a mirror for us that reflects our higher selves, a bridge across which we can walk when our lives seem lost. Not quite memoir and more than most nonfiction, ANIMAL MINERAL RADICAL is driven by STORY.
“I think nonfiction suffers from a lack of imagination,” BK told us, “which is NOT the same as fabrication.”
Someone in the audience asked, “Can you tell us about the seeding and evolution of the book?”
“It wasn’t a collection originally…I wasn’t able to write for ten years and when I came back to it, I understood language in a different way. I loved writing something that felt like it had no home.” (Infer: Unlike a novel, which is housed as mystery, romance, literary, sci-fi, etc.?) “But the book didn’t begin as a seed. It was more of a braiding.”
This comment made me think of the master weavers I met in Peru at the school in Chinchero during last April's "Weaving Words & Women" retreat, how they spin the wool carded from their sheep and alpacas and llamas until all the fibers, once distinctly separate, form single strands of yarn spooled into whole skeins. I think our life stories are like that—organically designed to cling together. It’s just that most of us are pretty slow to recognize the fabric of our lives, which BK is right, is not the same as fabrication.
When asked to talk about the difference between fiction and nonfiction, BK said, “In fiction you get to move the pieces around. When you’re doing creative nonfiction, the challenge is to take your daily lives and turn them into art. Both types of writing make me a more compassionate being.”
Yesterday, during a cross-country flight to Florida, I hunkered down in my seat and finished reading BK's new book. Despite her assertion that the genres are different, ANIMAL MINERAL RADICAL reads like fiction—each essay honed with the same fine wordsmithing tools as her novels. I even found my own sensitivity to language shift as I read, the syntax of my thoughts reordering in more original ways.
I suspect BK often writes standing on her head—I never knew, while reading, just what sensate gem might come tumbling out of her pocket. She looks at the world through her pores, soaks in the smell of it with her eyes, hears every textured nuance with the tip of each probing finger, and tastes with her heart each of life’s dark bitter corners and sweet bright nuggets. Perhaps this is from the aphasia she writes/quips about in the last chapter “Word Hoard,” but I think it’s more than that.
“I am an emotionally driven writer…,” she told us, “I don’t believe in chronology or time. It helps me to get it down raw.”
Raw. But not bloody. BK doesn’t ask us to wallow in the mud with her. She does the grueling work of turning pain into art, crafting stories from her life that are filled more with hope than anguish. But make no mistake, there is plenty of anguish here—BK’s, Laura’s, Ragman’s, her redneck brother Roy’s, their father’s, and especially--their gutsy mother.
Pablo Picasso is credited with saying, “There are painters who transform the sun to a yellow spot, but there are others who with the help of their art and their intelligence, transform a yellow spot into sun.”
This is the bright and shining gift BK offers us with the intimate stories in ANIMAL MINERAL RADICAL—the shimmering hope that by discovering the narrative beneath our own small lives, we will transform them into hard (yes, hard--hard to write, hard to read) faceted brilliant gems—like diamonds, only not mined with someone else's blood, sweat and tears—but with our own.
Thank you, BK, for the literary storm that engulfed me during my flight to Florida as the Boeing 757 powered its way through the atmosphere at the speed of, well…a jet. Thank you for standing on your head and letting it all come tumbling out. And thank you to that generous Anonymous Writer, whoever you are, for hosting the after party and bringing us all together again to celebrate with BK.