Author Garrard Conley: ‘Literature Saved My Life’

From the upcoming film “Boy Erased” by Focus Features

Editor's Note:

Also in the news: A rekindled interest in poetry, and what writers today can learn from George Orwell. It’s your Daily Blunt!

June is Pride month for the LGBTQ community, setting a backdrop for stories about survival, sorrow, and celebration – not necessarily in that order. In a new interview with The Guardian, Boy Erased author Garrard Conley revisits the most confusing and painful period of his life, as originally recalled in his 2016 memoir (soon to be a movie starring Nicole Kidman and Joel Edgerton). Amidst the tragedies that landed him in a religious conversion therapy program during his college years, Conley describes his path as being lit by literature he read along the way, such as The Scarlet Letter. “It sounds silly now, but I believed that these writers were speaking to me,” he says, a revelation which reaches peak emotional impact when you get to the part about a phony sweepstakes Conley and his publisher cooked up order to inconspicuously send one young gay reader a collection of books featuring LGBTQ characters.

According to survey results reported by NPR, the US is on the brink of a huge poetry revival: almost 12% of adults read poetry in the past year, which is more than double the amount reported in 2012 – in fact, you have to go all the way back to 2002 to see those kinds of numbers. This data comes to us courtesy of the National Endowment for the Arts, which has so far survived attempts by the Trump administration to completely eliminate its funding. Not only has the NEA managed to survive, but pushback against this proposal actually resulted in the organization’s funding being increased this year.

Just in case you end up being polled on your poetry consumption next year, take a look at this blog post examining a couple of verses from Rainer Maria Rilke, which comment on a spiritual difference between two cultures. This is the context for a popular quotation of Rilke’s that’s commonly passed around without any citation: “Yet no matter how deeply I go into myself / my God is dark, and in a webbing made / of a hundred roots, that drink in silence.” In addition to turning you into an adult who’s read poetry this year, this translator’s commentary highlights the difficulty of expressing specific ideas into different languages, which remains a perennial concern.

Each era’s writers face unique challenges, but that doesn’t mean we are powerless to predict and prepare for them. The New Yorker credits George Orwell with anticipating the particular challenges writers are straining against in these suddenly-more-chaotic-than-absolutely-necessary times, when the definition of truth itself seems open to interpretation. Masha Gessen writes: “The totalitarian regime rests on lies because they are lies. The subject of the totalitarian regime must accept them not as truth – must not, in fact, believe them – but accept them both as lies and as the only available reality.” Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg, and Gessen provides a list of guidelines to help others reach toward as-yet-unseen literary truths, daring the rest of us to keep up… or at the very least, keep alert.