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As narrated in her June 2018 interview, Francesca Lia Block is an accomplished writer with over 25 publications. Whether readers are encountering her work firstly in The Thorn Necklace or having a degree of familiarity with her prolific oeuvre, they will find in The Thorn Necklace a unique tapestry of themes, images, and voices woven together by a master storyteller in the presentation of her own life story. The book is unique in that she is not only presenting her life story but, in the recovery groups tradition of sponsor-sponsee guidance (which she also gently critiques), she teaches from her life experiences. The Thorn Necklace is a portrait that mirrors, a biography that instructs, a teacher who uses her vulnerable and difficult memories to guide the reader through to healing. The memoir, self-help book, and creative writing manual are three distinct genres, and Block gracefully blends these in The Thorn Necklace. As an autobiographical treatise on the craft of writing as recovery, The Thorn Necklace, illustrates through the rawness of her life story how not only the author or the illustrious professional artists she works with, are able to transfigure pain into creative expression, but how this alchemy is available to anyone who accepts the vocation of becoming-writer.
The thorn necklace is an adornment in a self-portrait by the Mexican artist Frieda Kahlo, who had suffered childhood polio and a devastating accident in her youth, yet who persevered in creating art that is appreciated around the world. The thorn conjures suffering that is beatified in a necklace, or sanctified in a crown. This pain is combined with the beauty of the flower. It serves as a metaphor for the suffering that desire produces and is produced by, and the pain of existence that accompanies life's beauty. Block explains, "Frida Kahlo's Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, for which this book is named, expresses pain and martyrdom through the image of the thorns, and hope through the hummingbird, which was often worn, in Mexico, as a charm to bring luck in love" (85). These difficult juxtapositions recur throughout Block's vivid images. There is pain and beauty (in a woman's self portrait or autobiography), of glamour and horror (in the case of Los Angeles), or comfort and alienation (her parents' devotion to each other and the growing distance from the security of familial belonging). The "anxious ghosts" of ones life take on a malleable consistency within the domain of creative writing. In one of the didactic sections, Block instructs, "However, even a peaceful, bucolic setting can provide a kind of tension if the protagonist is struggling with an internal conflict that won't allow her to experience the positive aspects of her surroundings, or if the contrast between the inner and outer worlds can be used to create deeper conflict. Remember that no matter how evocative your descriptions (of setting or anything else), they shouldn't be there for their own sake. They should add what Donald Maas calls microtensions that move the story forward in some way, or add complexity to characters." (143)
Block's expert prose is vivid, illustrating by example her lesson to her reader-pupil to let writing serve as an outlet for obsessions, or passion. Elements of a scene are rendered with precision and detail, from the exact adornments that constituted fashion in the author's college years, or the menu items that were part of the scenery on dates with former partners. True to the form directed by one of the writing teachers she recounts, Block respects the reader's ability to take these details and recreate scenes, using nouns and names and eschewing adjectives.
The book is divided into 12 chapters , structured around particular scenes or themes associated with moments or periods in the narrator's life story. Block addresses the universal stages in a woman's life – from her family of origin through the transition into adulthood and her family of creation, punctuated by loss and tragedy. Within the chapters she also introduces elements of fiction writing with several well recognized novels alongside her own life story as an example. The steps for producing a work of fiction are illustrated by vignettes from Block's own life, reflecting on her early family life, college years, life as a successful novelist and creative writing professor, and the process of creating art – as Gloria Anzaldua observes in Borderlands/La Frontera, a mythobiographical account of her own life story -- on the theory of interstitial cultural, intellectual, and psychological spaces – is through a self-fashioning. The artist gives birth to herself as artist (1987). The Thorn Necklace accomplishes this self-birthing through a narrative account of Block's journey through and out of trauma on various levels, on coping with and recovering from loss and vulnerability. The reader is simultaneously audience to her life story and, like a student in Block writing courses, also creating him or herself as a writer.
The memoir is anchored by Block's recollection and working-through of the most painful episodes of her life—the loss of her father and then her mother, her painful eye operations, romantic relationships ending, financial difficulties, and an eventual upward trajectory into professional accomplishment during which Block continued to struggle with irreplaceable loss. Block writes, "My anxiety, whether genetic or environmental, makes it hard for me to organize space. But I can organize words, and teach others to do the same. Even during the most stressful times of my life, as my world shook or burned and my home and body teemed with anxious ghosts, I always wrote. The writing, even in its rawest form, helped me organize the chaos of my life" (139). The Thorn Necklace invites its readers to join the author in experimenting with the alchemization of life's agonies, tragedies, and even its mundane periods, into artistic reflection.
Each chapter contains a biographical component juxtaposed with a didactic interlude. The didactic interlude takes the form of a "12 questions exercise" which gives the work a definitively instructional feel, but also signals a clear nod to the twelve step form of recovery. Block's story is uniquely intertextual and trans-generic as even within the memoir narrative there are segments of polyphony – the writer comments to herself as The Writer, "Banish those critical voices. You have work to do" on page 97 or "Neither the negative nor positive responses really mattered. What mattered is that I'd told the story" (104)
The effect is startlingly reflective and creative – the reader is not simply reading a life story, or reading the lessons on writing. Rather, the author recreates her life, her self, and her art as she writes her life. And, as trauma theorists would observe, Block shows that recovery is recovering one's voice--it is through the rewriting or retelling that healing from trauma is possible. As Block notes in her parenthetical direct address to her readers, "To develop your voice, read widely, write consistently, and live fully." (168)
"Creative Friction: For Francesca Lia Block, Writing is Healing." https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/bitch-interview/francesca-lia-block-thorn-necklace
Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987.
© 2018 Perry Miller
Perry Miller, PhD