This Is How I Speak, a memoir in diary form, recounts the authorís first year in the MFA program in fiction writing at the University of Washington. An intimate portrait of a young woman trying to come to terms with the end of her dance career even as she embarks on a new one as a writer, the book explores the complex relationships between men and women, mentor and student, and the precarious balance between ambition and fear, anger and forgiveness that helps the author discover her own voice in a world already filled with the voices of others.
“...a dramatic and engaging tale...”
“I read This Is How I Speak in a single sitting, captivated by Sandi Sonnenfeld's beautiful and brutally honest odyssey through love, a woman's wounds, literary evolution and yes, even a portrait of the creative writing faculty at the University of Washington in the 1980s. This former prof gives her an A-plus.”
Charles Johnson, National Book Award Winner and author of Middle Passage and Dreamer
“This Is How I Speak is an auspicious debuta journey behind the scenes of an MFA writing program. Sonnenfeld's diary entries depict an awkwardly ambitious young woman desperately reconciling with her art and her place in the world. Her admissions are voraciously sincere, often disturbing, but profoundly literary. One level of thought seamlessly spins into another until we're left in a whirl, wanting more.”
Tim Hohmann, Fiction Editor, Hayden's Ferry Review
“In This Is How I Speak, Sandi Sonnenfeld captures the pressures and delights in the worlds of dance and literature in ways that are delicate, insightful and continuously illuminating. This is a fresh and compelling book.”
Lee Gutkind, best-selling author and founder of Creative Nonfiction
“This book chronicles the author's first year at college and her twin desires to succeed in ballet and in the writing program. It allows us an unflinching look at a 24-year-old artist's bravado and insecurity. The juxtaposition between the physical art of ballet and its emphasis on momentary perfection, and the intellectual art of writing and the process of rewriting is very thought-provoking.”
Lisa Lisle, Davis-Kidd Booksellers, Nashville, TN, Bookselling Today
“Refeshing—and enjoyable in an unabashedly voyeuristic sense. There are also moments of brilliant observation, of humility, of literary growth and of arrestingly lyric prose.”
—Sheri Boggs, The Inlander, Spokane
“This Is How I Speak is a cathartic voyage for the author and vicarious tour of the heart for readers.”
“This is a portrait of a woman navigating through love, ambition, friendship and trauma in an often painful journey, but one told with incredible sincerity.”
—Maurine Tritch, University Bookstore, Seattle
“Reading this diary, we learn that in speaking so others can hear, we rise out of whatever holds us back and move forward toward realizing our art and ourselves. I believe readers finish this book assured that although it often appears we are alone as artists, the long chain of us can form a supportive, empowering community.”
Sheila Bender, published poet, author, and teacher. Her books on journal writing include A Year in the Life and Keeping a Journal You Love.
“It's difficult to easily categorize This Is How I Speak: The Diary Of A Young Woman. Somewhere between a diary, biography, literary memoir and confessional lies a captivating story of one woman's winning literary achievements and her recovery from a sexual assault. Her diary is filled with insight, from her work in the arts to her blossoming skills and identity. This Is How I Speak is an absorbing, high-impact coverage.”
—The Midwest Book Review
“This Is How I Speak is a joy to read. The narrative style is engaging, with good forward momentum. Sonnenfeld's honesty and vulnerability are both reassuring and affirming; her insights are level-headed and wise.”
“Sonnenfeld does a superb job of explicating the creative process.”
“Clever and rewarding”
“An interesting read”
September 10, 1987
I know all about fear. I fear dogs, horses, sharks, snakes, most seafood, farts, hairy men, earthquakes, hurricanes, and flash floods. Basically, anything that can sneak up and surprise me. I'm afraid of failure, growing old, gaining weight, the whole concept of motherhood, and insurance salesmen. But most of all, I'm terrified of complacency, the fear that I might settle for what I have simply because I'm afraid of so much else. I know that I have reached that moment when I get a terrifying feeling that my insides have been bleached white, parched and dry and empty of all ideas.
I am driven by the image of bleached white bones and a growing sense of my becoming ordinary, something more intolerable than all the sharks, dogs, and earthquakes put together.
This is why, despite everything, I am now flying three thousand miles west in a 747 jet en route to Seattle to begin the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Washington.
In Boston, I have left behind a love for the city's old historic walkways, a secure though rather unchallenging job as an editorial assistant for a textbook publishing house, my best friend Rachel, my nightly ballet class at a small professional studio in Copley Square, and my Harvard-trained psychotherapist.
In the cargo hold of the plane, I have two suitcases of clothes, eight leotards, three pairs of worn pointe shoes, a two-thousand-dollar check from my dead grandmother, a three-hundred-page manuscript that represents my first novel, and six books: Margaret Atwood's Bodily Harm, Joan Didion's Democracy, The Complete Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Fowles's The Magus, painter Ben Shahn's The Shape of Content and Helen Lefkowitz's Alma Mater, which recounts the establishment of Mount Holyoke College, my undergraduate institution, and perhaps the place which up to now has had the biggest impact on my life.
Out of all the hundreds of other books I left behind at my parents' house on Long Island where I grew up, I chose these six books because I hope they will serve as talismans against evil and mediocrity.
Too often evil and mediocrity go hand-in-hand, like the time back in high school when two of my classmates broke into my locker and stole my awards jacket which I had received for dance achievement at my local ballet studio. When I confronted the two girls and demanded my jacket back, one punched me hard in the right arm. Then, as I watched in horror, the second girl lit up a cigarette and deliberately burned a hole through one of the award badges sewn onto the nylon lining of the jacket.
“That will teach you to think you are better than us,” the girl said, and tossed the jacket onto the dirty hallway floor.
I wish I could say that I hurled curses at the girls, the sort of curses that witches unleash on their enemies in bad horror novelselectric death rays, impalement on the sharp ivory husks of a mad elephant, permanent disfigurement by a green and purple skin fungusbut everything happened so fast, the painful throbbing of my bruised arm, the rotten smell of the cigarette burning through the material of my jacket, that my mind snapped shut like a trap, leaving me completely wordless.
And the girls had been right. I didn't think that I was better than them because I could dance, but because I knew that I had within me the power to create while they only had the power to destroy the creations of others. But when I failed to summon up the words from inside of me, I realized suddenly how fleeting the power of creation really is. Without warning, it can disappear (dare I say it?) in a puff of smoke.
Which is perhaps why I now always carry a small, cloth-bound journal in which to record my thoughts. And as I write now, the stale air in the plane's cabin blows down upon me, permeating my clothes. The pilot announces that just below us is Mount St. Helens, which blew its top in 1980. Many of the passengers crane their necks trying to look out the tiny, blunted windows of the plane. I'm seated in the aisle, so when I look over all I see is blinding sunlight.
In elementary school, we always studied volcanoes right before we studied dinosaurs, so I think for a long time I was under the illusion that, like those gigantic animals, volcanoes were extinct. I mean, I saw Fantasia a lot as a kid“The Night on Bald Mountain” scene, where the world is created and then the dinosaurs and the volcanoes fall prey to the Ice Age. Anyway, this is what I think of when the pilot mentions St. Helenscartoon lava covering the earth. But now I'm going to reside in the presence of not one active volcano, but two. (The university brochure says St. Helens' twin, Mount Rainier, is visible from nearly all the buildings on campus.)
I try to decide whether to add erupting volcanoes to my list of fears.
Still, I can understand why a mountain may occasionally need to blow its top. Perhaps it fears complacency as much as I dodecides to stir up the wildlife and human fauna a bit to remind them not to take its existence for granted.
“I am here,” the mountain says, feeling a deep stirring somewhere within its fiery belly. “This is how I speak.”
Excerpt Copyright © 2002 by Sandi Sonnenfeld