Dearest Djuna, On Your Birthday

Dearest Djuna,

For this letter to be successful, I’m afraid that I must wield an enormous amount of candor and very little of its opposite number, discretion. One thing must be known from the start: I don’t think you were very nice. This opinion isn’t a condemnation.  

You’d agree, I’m confident, if you could, that pleasantness in women is overrated. I’m equally happy to dispense with the intellectually suspect idea that one must like someone to appreciate or respect their creativity. Mentors and Muses do not belong on pedestals, gleaming under truth-bending rays of light. The perfection of character is not only unnecessary; it is a hindrance to the real business at hand. Making art is a human endeavor, and human we must remain if we are to be successful.
I am grateful for your troublesome qualities. I praise your irascibility and contemptuousness with the same breath that I accept my severity and selfishness.

“A man is whole only when he takes into account his shadow as well as himself–and what is a man’s shadow but his upright astonishment?” you wrote.


Djuna: rebel-creative, giver of few damns, loud master of your peculiar voice. You insisted on making things-words, drawings, scenes-when polite women kept those impulses to themselves. Polite you were not! Hallelujah! A hundred years on, and The Book of Repulsive Women still makes people uncomfortable. You knew that it wasn’t your job to soothe the sensibilities or intellects of readers or to keep their cheeks blush-free. You fought for the truth of your creativity, even when that truth was polarizing, weird, ugly, shameful. You fought for the truth of your creativity because anything less would have been a lie. And what astonishingly beautiful words you used in doing so.
  There is something faintly frightening about you, even after the removal of death and the passing of decades. It keeps the most ardent admirer on their toes. You’re not quite safe literary company. Where is the warmth, the coziness, the illusion? I’ve never seen someone reading one of your books in public, on a bus or park bench. I know they do; they must. It is comforting to think that your word-mayhem is being unleashed into someone’s consciousness at this moment. Perhaps they are across the world, or just across the street. You push a reader to the limits. You push me, too. The stony coldness of the grave hasn’t softened anything.    


  I spend a substantial amount of time writing about rather obscure dead people, most of them women. Dead writers, dead artists, dead actors, dead muses. Dead, dead, dead. Like you, yet so utterly unlike you. Djuna, your bitterness disguised a zest for experience and a fearless demand for artistic expression. Life was not easy for you, but it was long. It was long, but it was not without reward: Ryder, Ladies Almanack, Nightwood, Creatures in an Alphabet.
  As a writer, you’ve taught me a couple of fine lessons. One: Write what needs to be written, however odd. Anything else is a conjurer’s smokescreen. Two: It’s okay to make people uncomfortable. This knowledge is pure freedom. When I listen to my authentic writing voice, I feel its essential weirdness. It comes from my brain, of course, but also stirs deep within the belly. This voice, my voice, bellows forth from veins and organs and pores. This voice, my voice, whispers from bits of wrinkled skin and broken bones and torn fingernails. This voice, my voice, sees the world through open eyes. Eyes that were opened, in part, by you. Thank you.




P.S.-It’s thoroughly appropriate that you would probably hate this letter. I like that.


Djuna Barnes

Djuna Barnes

[Alternative Muses] Writerly Style: Dressing Like a Work of Art with Djuna Barnes

“One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.”-Oscar Wilde

Our dear Djuna, who wasn’t always so dear, encompassed both of Wilde’s dictates.

Why wouldn’t she?

Djuna Barnes was not afraid to overstep the accepted boundaries of writing, art, behaviour, or fashion. She knew that, sometimes, too much wasn’t nearly enough.

Our favourite tetchy lady knew what she was doing. Here’s why.

Lessons in How to Dress, Djuna Barnes-style:

Tip #1-It’s okay to wear too many layers and accessories, as long as it is artfully done:

Djuna Barnes

Djuna, daring you to find her anything short of magnificent.

A lesser woman would be weighed down by all those layers and accessories, but not our Djuna. She looks resplendent. The open collar, delicate jewelry, and commandingly vibrant lipstick pull everything together.

Tip #2-The key to wearing a bold print is to conquer it by the pure force of your personality:

Djuna Barnes, circa 1921

Djuna Barnes taking charge of some giant dots,  circa 1921.

Clothes smell fear. If you’re scared to wear something, you probably shouldn’t. Otherwise, don it with the conviction that no one else on earth could ever pull it off like you can.

Surrounding a huge pattern with solids never hurts, either.

Tip #3-Shoes and Hats! Shoes and Hats!

Solita Solano and Djuna Barnes

Solita Solano and Djuna Barnes were exceptionally chic in Paris, 1922.

Shoes and hats are all you need to be stylish and memorable. It doesn’t matter if you are wearing a ball gown or a T-shirt dress, as long as you are shod and topped with wit or taste, or even creative vulgarity. Swap those gorgeous 1920s frocks for  modern minis and logo shirts, and Solita and Djuna would still look phenomenal.

Think about that.

Now go out there and face the world with confidence and a bit of writerly style!