Closing the book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature
This is the most beautiful book I have ever read. It’s at once a memoir, an ode to favorite literature, a glimpse into teaching – and writing. Joelle Renstrom’s new book, Closing the book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature, is a work of art.
It’s a book to delve into and get lost in, as she takes you through her life, teaching, writings, and travel. And, it’s a series of essays where familial love shines through. I’ll share a few of my favorite sections of the book, the quotes I loved from the themes that run throughout:
Renstrom notes, when pondering what writing teaches us, that a Ray Bradbudy quote has it all: “it reminds us that we are alive and that it is a gift and privilege, not a right. We must earn life once it has been awarded to us…Writing is survival. Not to write, for many of us, is to die.” She clarifies what has been an underlying current in my teaching career – how to put into words the practice of writing, and inspire our students.
On travel, Renstrom writes, “to travel is to open your eyes again, wider and rounder. To see the inside of things, like Superman. To see that indeed, life is its own answer.”
On intercultural living, and the divergence of self: “There are two of me – the home me and the away me. The home me is the one that separates from my body and watches, the one that has to schedule a good cry, the one who feels as blandly empty as a sagging balloon. The home me spends hours online looking for places to visit, keeps track of airfares, repeatedly checks the status of frequent flier miles; the home me devotes a great deal of time to getting away from home, to transitioning into the away me. I miss the away me when she’s gone. I try to emulate her bravery, but often find that I don’t know how. The away me reminds the rest of me who I want to be, who I can be. I look for her a lot.”
And lastly, on the journey of life: “We’ve all looked in some unlikely and unproductive places as we groped in the dark for a light switch, a foothold, anything that might orient us and make sense of the world….The search for answers is endless and often messy, and that in many ways, the search itself is the answer.”
Joelle with her dad
These profound thoughts that reflect Renstrom’s life journey, her father’s death, travel, and teaching, resonate deeply with me. I felt, as I rarely have found in a book, something to hold on to, to think through, and to return to again and again. Highly recommended.
We were lucky enough to catch up with Joelle Renstrom, and ask her about her new book, inspiration, teaching, and more. Here’s what she had to say…
Author Joelle Renstrom
Please tell us about your new book, Closing the Book...
Closing the Book is about the intersection of life and literature. You know how sometimes you read a book and it's the absolute perfect thing for you to read at that moment, as though the author somehow knew you'd be where you are and wrote directly to you? Each essay is about such a convergence and takes the themes in the literature and weaves them in with a nonfiction narrative. Ultimately, it's about the way reading can provide life-changing insight if we view it as an event on par with others such as traveling and working.
A young Joelle with her dad at a WMU hockey game
What inspired you to write this book?
I lost my dad and the novel I had worked on for two years at the same time. In the novel, the protagonist's dad dies, and a couple months later, that became my reality. I was completely lost. My favorite person in the world was gone, and beyond that, I suddenly felt stripped of the story I had been trying to tell and my writing in general. I had to stop working on that book—I couldn't pretend to fictionalize this thing that had actually happened—and I didn't know if I could or wanted to write anything else about it. The world and my own personal history was divided into before and after, and I had no idea what the "after" would look like, or even what I wanted it to look like. So I engaged the dilemma and the grief and traveled with both—I went on walkabout, aided by literature. I learned so much and when I felt human again, I knew how I wanted to tell this story.
Professor Renstrom and baby Joelle
I love how you wrote your teaching work right in the book, with the Letters to Ray Bradbury, etc. It is some of the clearest writing I've read on the fact that there is no demarcation between writing, life, and work.
There is no demarcation between writing and living if you're a writer, just as there's no demarcation between teaching and living if you're a teacher. I used to be a great compartmentalizer—my work life didn't bleed over into my social life or vice versa, I observed fairly strict boundaries in my relationships. It took me a long time to realize that maintaining healthy boundaries isn't the same as compartmentalizing everything. I compartmentalized my dad's death, grieving in private while publicly appearing the same as ever. After a while I realized I was doing myself a disservice, that I needed to relinquish some control over my emotions, to let them be what they were, when they were, to stop being afraid of them and to stop compartmentalizing. I had to go halfway around the world to do that—traveling allowed me the freedom of anonymity, which for me involved crying in public places at the drop of a hat, screaming into the wind, and connecting with strangers. I realized that traveling, living, grieving, reading, teaching, writing (and so many other things) are inextricable, and their potency and poignancy increases if they're not forced to be separate. That's also what made me realize I had to write this book. I wouldn't have fully experienced any of this if I hadn't searched for ways to write about it—after all, a writer is someone for whom an experience isn't complete until she's put it on paper.
I love the concept of the Home Me and the Away Me. It resonates, I think, with any traveler. How do we satisfy the needs of both? Can writing help with that?
The Home Me and Away Me is a way of articulating the inherent dichotomy in each of us. Every person exists in iterations—some of us have Winter Me and Summer Me, or Work Me and Play Me, or Morning Me and Night Me. This is what makes us multidimensional and complicated, as well as able to process information in many different ways at the same time. I think we need to remember that all iterations of ourselves need to be fed. It's never the case that one is more valuable than the other—it's the coexistence of them that gives them power. Away Me fights for freedom and movement and has so much bravado that sometimes I barely recognize her. When I'm at home, wrapped up in my own life and work and stresses, I can forget the Away Me exists—she's like a fantasy or someone I knew a long time ago. Because I can't always up and get on a plane, I need a direct line to the Away Me, a way to channel her. Writing does that for me. Writing helps unite the private and the public, the shy and the bold, the refined and the coarse, and any/all iterations that exist for all of us. The best writing is informed by all of these iterations, and in turn helps them all develop.
Your book is really all about the search being the journey - and I love the implications of that, from small tasks to a life well-lived. Can you please talk a bit more about this?
The poet Don Williams, Jr. said, "Our lessons come from the journey, not the destination," and this idea has been around in literature and philosophy since ancient times. We're increasingly goal-oriented, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I do think that focusing on a single outcome leaves little room for the unexpected. I've learned a lot more when I've paid attention to and been willing to adjust my course than I ever have from any single destination, and one thing I love about traveling is how literally true this is. We never ever know what strange and wonderful (or strange and horrible) thing is around the corner, and to assume that we know the endpoint or endgame for our various travels is to assume we know everything about what lies between here and there. But the great thing is that we don't know everything, we don't know what lies between, and the journey is all about accepting and learning to enjoy that.
What's up next for you?
I wish I knew! In the immediate future I'm co-hosting and presenting a paper at a conference about the Anthropocene and I'll spend most of July traveling in South Africa (I want to hug an elephant!) I'm always working on my science/sci-fi blog and I'm also working on some flash science fiction with a visual component. I'll continue teaching writing and research seminars on sci-fi, AI, and space—and writing about all of those things, of course. But in terms of my next big writing project, I have no idea! Part of what's so exciting about publishing this book is that once it's on the shelves, I get to start something new. It's a little scary to have no idea what that will be, but it's also exactly the way it should be, I think.
Is there anything else you'd like to share?
I've found it very helpful to hear about other writers' publication processes, since they're all so different. And while mine has a happy ending, it was a long road. I pitched this book for over a year. Agents and editors liked it just fine, but said it wasn't marketable. I know that's how the industry works, but it was still hard to hear. I finally got a contract with a small publisher just as I was contemplating giving up. Even then, the publication date was two and a half years down the road. About a year before the publication date, I got word of a delay and the new publication date was July 2016, 4 years after signing the contract. I wasn't thrilled and asked the publisher if this was a slow break up. I was assured that it wasn't, so I figured better late than never. Then, last September, I got a one-line email saying that the press had folded. I was back at square one, but it was years later and I didn't have the stomach to do it all again. A colleague at work had mentioned a friend at another small press a few weeks earlier, so I sent the manuscript to him because there was no reason not to, and I hit the jackpot. The moral of the story isn't that pitching and publishing isn't for the faint of heart—we all already know that. The moral is that even a hefty dose of bad luck is temporary. Life changes so fast. Our luck can change from terrible to wonderful in a moment—but only if we allow for the possibility.
All photos courtesy and copyright Joelle Renstrom