Contradiction Days

An Artist on the Verge of Motherhood

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Book Description

For readers of Rachel Cusk and Maggie Nelson, the rapturous memoir of a soon-to-be-mother whose obsession with the reclusive painter Agnes Martin threatens to upend her life

Five months pregnant and struggling with a creative block, JoAnna Novak becomes obsessed with the enigmatic abstract expressionist painter Agnes Martin. She is drawn to the contradictions in Martin’s life as well as her art—the soft and exacting brushstrokes she employs for grid-like compositions that are both rigid and dreamy. But what most calls to JoAnna is Martin’s dedication to her work in the face of paranoid schizophrenia.

Uneasy with the changes her pregnant body is undergoing, JoAnna relapses into damaging old habits and thought patterns. When she confides in her doctor that she’s struggling with depression and suicidal ideation, he tells her she must stop being so selfish, given she has a baby on the way, and start taking antidepressants. Appalled by his patronizing tone and disregard of her mental health history, JoAnna instead turns to Martin for guidance, adopting the artist’s doctrine of joyful solitude and isolation.

JoAnna heads to Taos, where Martin lived for decades, and gives herself three weeks to model her hermetic existence: phone off, email off, no talking to her husband, no touching the dog. Out of a deep, solitary engagement with a remarkable artist’s body of work emerges an entirely new way for JoAnna to relate to the contradictions of her own body and face up to the joys and challenges of impending motherhood.

About the Author

Praise For This Book

"JoAnna Novak uses obsession as her guide to write sharply and beautifully about different aspects of survival—if she gives herself the right rules in the right place, can she finally get it right? Contradiction Days is fierce in its ambition and vivid in its execution." —Chelsea Hodson, author of Tonight I'm Someone Else

"What more could one want from a memoir? JoAnna Novak shies away from nothing in the portrayal of her struggle towards elusive self certainty and maternal commitment. I have not read a more honest account of the intellectual, physical, and psychological insecurities that both threaten and sustain us. A brave and thought-provoking book about the will to live and the will to create." —Kathleen Finneran, author of The Tender Land: A Family Love Story

"Anyone who's ever thought about—or lived at the intersection of—art, obsession, and embodiment will take solace in and inspiration from Contradiction Days. With Agnes Martin as both her source and temple, Novak charts the fear, euphoria, and madness of both art- and life-making. Contradiction Days is an exquisite ode to the inseparable pain and bliss of creation." —Cyrus Dunham, author of A Year Without a Name

"Contradiction Days is that startling and rebellious work we see too rarely—a portrait of the female artist, pregnant with a baby and ambition, with rage and desire, who remains preoccupied by questions of philosophy, aesthetics, and abstraction, as her body grows. Novak's writing in these pages is as sublime, precise and arresting as the Agnes Martin paintings that transfix her." —Danzy Senna, author of New People