In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing
“A vivid and concise introduction to effective writing for students and professionals alike. . . . This book is a true treasure and could provide an important guide for other marginalized writers looking for their own voices.”
This short book about a writer’s development through reading and writing began as a proposed lecture series. The pandemic delayed things, but an actress ultimately delivered the talks for Ferrante. For those who couldn’t be present, this book will prove a more lasting pleasure. Ferrante opens her first talk with an image of early schoolwork, written on the lined paper used by Italian children, more of a grid than what Americans are used to. What remains the same, however, are the margin lines. In our notebooks, the pink vertical line on the left, intersecting the blue lines meant to be written on, sets a boundary. There is no margin line on the right. For Italians, there is a margin line on either side and all writing should be neatly contained between them. Beyond those margins, however, is exactly where Ferrante found herself to be most creative. As someone who wrote a series of notebooks filled with writing and drawing all over the margins, I well understand the freedom Ferrante exalts here.
So margins have a physical, literal meaning for Ferrante, but they also have a deeply metaphorical one. First in terms of language. Growing up in Naples, Ferrante’s first language was the dialect of the city, not Italian. Americans may think that regional dialects are simply a matter of accent and a few odd vocabulary words, but that isn’t true. The dialects spoken in Sicily, Naples, Venice, etc., are all distinctive and for an Italian speaker, largely incomprehensible. Italian is the language that unifies the country, the one taught in school, but Ferrante’s mother tongue was literally a marginal language. She struggled in her first books, wondering whether she would be more true, a better writer, in dialect.
The other marginal identity Ferrante grappled with was being a girl. The books she read were all by men, male experience, male voices, male language.
“Not only was writing difficult in itself but I was a girl and so would never be able to write books like those of the great writers. The quality of the writing in those books, their power, fired me with ambitions, dictated intentions that seemed far beyond my possibilities. . . . At this point—I was around twenty, I think—a sort of vicious circle established itself clearly in my mind: if I wanted to believe that I was a good writer, I had to write like a man, staying strictly within the male tradition; although a woman, I couldn’t write like a woman except by violating what I was diligently trying to learn from male tradition.”
What place was there for the lives of women? Ferrante had to invent both a new language—Italian with some dialect—and a new kind of storytelling, honoring and evoking the lives of girls and women. Facing both difficulties, Ferrante drew on the structure of narrative provided between the margins and the deep creativity on the edges. By combining the two, she created a new kind of writing for herself, something powerful and freeing.
“I start from writing that is planted firmly in tradition and wait for something to erupt and throw the papers into disarray, for the lowly, abject woman I am to find a means of having her say. . . . I waited patiently to start writing with all the truth I’m capable of, destabilizing, deforming, to make space for myself with my whole body. For me true writing is that: not an elegant, studied gesture, but a convulsive act.”
Ferrante is a generous guide, taking us through her evolution as a writer and the processes she draws on in each story. She is not shy about sharing the discoveries she made along the way, clawing her way to her own kind of realism. This brief book provides a vivid and concise introduction to effective writing for students and professionals alike, as well as intimate insight into Ferrante’s thinking that will be deeply appreciated by her legions of fans. This book is a true treasure and could provide an important guide for other marginalized writers looking for their own voices.