On April 11, 1931, Virginia Woolf ended her entry in A Writer’s Diary with the words “too much and not the mood.” She was describing how tired she was of correcting her own writing, of the “cramming in and the cutting out” to please other readers, wondering if she had anything at all that was truly worth saying.
The character of that sentiment, the attitude of it, inspired Durga Chew-Bose to write and collect her own work. The result is a lyrical and piercingly insightful collection of essays and her own brand of essay-meets-prose poetry about identity and culture.
I’ve been eager to finish Too Much and Not the Mood for awhile now, but was having trouble completing it because of the sheer length of the first essay. “Heart Museum,” while exquisitely written, was a lot longer than what I’m used to in essay collections, and as the author said: “This piece, for example, is largely composed of interceptions. Starting somewhere, ending elsewhere. Testing the obnoxious reach of my tangents. Likely failing.”
So I was quite dismayed to see that this book was starting to fail to absorb my full attention, especially since the writing started out so strong. When I first began reading the book, I was savoring each page and letting the words really sink into my mind. However, the author’s thoughts were quite erratic and hard to follow because of the tendency to skip from thought to thought, and so it turned out to be kind of hard to remember what was mentioned just a couple of pages ago.
Also, my mind kept roaming off the page, searching for something meaningless to distract me, “I’m proficient at having my attention drawn away,” which I usually take as a sign that I’m not vibing with the book. In the end I decided to skip the first essay halfway through while hoping for a better connection with the second one… with no success.
Thankfully, though, Durga Chew-Bose was featured in the most recent episode of the Rookie Podcast, and I was instantly enchanted by her voice and use of words, so that confirmed my decision to give her book another chance.
Like I’ve mentioned before, the writing is terribly detailed in the introducing essay, which I personally don’t get along with well. (I really don’t need to know the exact color of the pea soup you were eating that one afternoon.) So, since I like my writing specific but not detailed, I got along quite well with the following essays that were full of wisdom and grace while ringing so many undeniable truths (and also a lot shorter). And the only way I could describe the kind of specific I adore is with borrowing Hannah Kent‘s phrasing: “He loved the way she knew how to build things with words. She invented her own language to say what everyone else could only feel.’”
Speaking of which, here are some of my favorite passages in Too Much and Not the Mood that captured my attention in an instant:
“There’s strength in observing one’s miniaturization. That you are insignificant and prone to, and God knows, dumb about a lot. Because doesn’t smallness prime us to eventually take up space? For instance, the momentum gained from reading a great book. After after, sitting, sleeping, living in its consequence. A book that makes you feel, finally, latched on. Or after after we recover from a hike. From seeing fifteenth-century ruins and wondering how Machu Picchu was built when Incans had zero knowledge of the wheel. Smallness can make you feel extra porous. Extra ambitious. Like a small dog carrying an enormous branch clenched in its teeth, as if intimating to the world: Okay. Where to?”
This is so oddly on point that it made my heart sing.
“Nudging my mother’s eldest sister for details while she tells me a story about my grandparents. This too gauges smallness. The muscle that builds from yielding to my aunt Jennifer’s decades, to the scalloped edges of her memory, reacquaints me to my most atomic self: where I come from. Even when I was nothing, I was arriving.
This Christmas, Jennifer recorded a story about her parents for all the grandchildren on my mom’s side to keep forever. She titled it “Such Fine Parents.” The insistence of “Such” is not merely avowal, but love distinguished. She typed out the story and printed copies. She punched holes in each page and placed them one by one in red folders. I received mine in the mail and hurried to read it, only to be slowed down by tears every few sentences. The pull of ancestry. How without stint I could love someone I will never meet: my maternal grandmother. She died when my mother was fourteen years old. I was born sixteen years later, to the day.”
I love this so much I ended up rereading it a couple of times.
“There’s a type of inborn initiative that comes from having never been obligated to answer questions about the meaning of one’s name, or one’s country of so-called origin, or to explain that the way you look is generationally and geographically worlds apart from where you were born. Since childhood, there’s been an assumption that I owe strangers an answer when they inquire about matters I myself struggle to have words for, let alone understand.”
The essays in here touch upon so many important topics, from the Durga Chew-Bose’s Indian heritage and Canadian childhood, to microaggressions and racism, on living alone, and summers in NYC with its stifling heat and abundance of opportunities. That is to say: My favorite pieces were the ones that explored a single theme and didn’t wander off with random thoughts. Plus, when the author stayed on track and gave a more personal side on things, I was instantly captivated.
All in all: Too Much and Not the Mood (my favorite title) was a fascinating take on writing and so much more that I’m beyond glad to have finally read.