Near the end of her new book, “Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life,” in an essay titled “A Poet’s Education,” Jenny Boully muses on a literary life that has eluded easy classification. That started in her youth: “The teachers never knew where to put me,” she reflects on her childhood classroom experiences.
Boully is an author who often takes bold formal steps: Her first book, “The Body: An Essay,” is made up entirely of footnotes to an absent text. In her preface to this collection, Boully explains that the essays contained within span her career to date — that they, in her words, “began to appear when I began to write truly as a writer.”
What emerges from the cumulative experience of reading them, then, is a glimpse inside a singular authorial voice, and the way that life experiences and a literary aesthetic are intertwined. The overall effect is hypnotic.
This book’s title comes from a description of Peter Pan in J.M. Barrie’s “The Little White Bird.” Boully speaks of becoming “attached to such hesitations, refusals, yearnings, oscillating and uncertain desires.” And throughout the book, she uses unexpected juxtapositions to achieve a powerful effect. Several of the essays within feature self-consciously sprawling titles: “The Art of Fiction” and “How to Write on Grand Themes” are two examples.
Both essays eschew rote advice on craft and instead delve into the idiosyncrasies of Boully’s own life experiences — and, in doing so, neatly leap over the oft debated argument over the personal vs. the universal.
What the titles of these essays seem to say is that the largest themes in art cannot be addressed without incorporating the deeply personal — and that writing itself exists as a kind of process of revelation.
It doesn’t hurt that Boully can also compose a crushingly good final sentence, with “On Writing and Witchcraft,” “22” and especially “Between Cassiopeia and Perseus” having particularly striking examples.
For all that Boully can write in a heady register, she also incorporates familiar questions in these essays: Family, identity and desire all occupy plenty of space within the text.
Late in the book, Boully writes about urging her students to have hobbies “because if they don’t have hobbies, then that means writing is their hobby, and it shouldn’t be that way; writing should be their life and not their hobby.”
“Betwixt-and-Between” is living proof of that: It’s not only a powerful demonstration of writing as life, but of the ways that lived experiences can illuminate and transform writing.
Tobias Carroll is managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn.
Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life
By: Jenny Boully.
Publisher: Coffee House Press, 132 pages, $16.95.