I still feel most myself when words are issuing forth. Have since I was a child and first glad-handed a typewriter of my own: sky-blue, in dire need of a new ribbon, snagged at a neighbor’s yard sale. Clickety clack—the world materialized on the page. Abracadabra.
But though I turned 50 with as much fanfare as can be mustered during a pandemic, the aftermath has hit me hard. What I haven’t done by now feels more final, and I’m a girl who has always lived for the horizons. Witness the word “girl.”
And what scares me most is the lack of forward motion in my writing career. Oh, the irony of writing about this—meta meta meta and not a drop to drink.
I have no patience for the sites and journals where you need to published in order to achieve a decent book contract (any book contract), and my spiky personality ensures I have a limited (if fierce) social media following. Add to that my writing is simply out of fashion, in both substance and style.
A long time ago I realized you should never join a group whose members you don’t really like (sorry Groucho). As in: I don’t have patience for podcasts so I never started one of my own. As in: I don’t care to read literary magazines so why should I submit my work to one?
But the further I take that axiom, the more I find myself at sea. Because I don’t dig the majority of contemporary writing, and I read books mostly written by female authors over 40 years ago.
The gender bias makes sense. Who wants to spend time inside a narrative that precludes your humanity? It’s not that I don’t admire the cool hedonism of Hemingway–or, at that, the lush hedonism of Updike or Joyce. But their objectification of women as nag, plague, drain, idol, thing requires a necessary abdication of my personhood that I resisted long before I learned of feminism. Instead I flocked to Louisa May Alcott, Madeline L’Engle, Mary Caldwell, Eve Babitz, Marge Piercy, Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Le Guin, Jane Kenyon, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Alice Adams, Alison Lurie, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, Eileen Myles, the early novels (not foot-stamping-toward-Bethlehem essays) of Anne Lamott, Ann Beattie, Jamaica Kincaid, Tama Janowitz, Octavia Butler, Mavis Gallant, Ellen Gilchrist, Stephen McCauley (basically I only read male authors who are gay), Vivian Gornick, Laura Ingalls Wilder, LM Montgomery, Edith Wharton, Grace Paley, Edmund White, Fran Lebowitz, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Norma Klein, Toni Morrison, MFK Fisher, Sarah Schulman, Laurie Colwin, (not dideon), Josephine Tey, Mary Gordon, Dawn Powell, Alice Munroe, even the slightly parochial Sue Miller. These were my teachers. My mothers, too.
Just writing out this list smooths me out. Affords me pleasure and ballast.
My resistance to modern fiction—auto and otherwise—seems rooted in a larger issue. I’ve always read prescriptively, not descriptively. Meaning: I clamor for better worlds, and modernity is hardly better. Rather, it hurts. And I don’t jibe with its mode of expression. I like oddbot turns of phrases, voluptuaries, reveries, sharp wit that doesn’t throw a dagger, studies in manners, quotidian details. Lots and lots and lots of description, basically–language for language’s sake. I read for inspiration, new homes, greater empathy and edification, and sheer pleasure and beauty. I like adjectives!
So what business have I in still writing? I’m painfully aware that in these apocalyptic times my posts are less and less read. My last one found almost no one though I put so much of my past in its pages.
I’m sure my growing ennui isn’t endearing me to anyone.
But I will never not write. Selfishly, I scarcely can process an experience without writing about it even if I don’t share the results anywhere. Even more selfishly, I find writing is how I can share my best, sometimes worst, selves. (More meta.) Also writing is simply my favorite way to thrill to the world.
But what’s harsh is I don’t know who I am writing for anymore. Just like I don’t know who’s watching anymore.
I look good for my age—but it’s my age I look good for. I don’t stop cars the way I once did and I’m not done mourning that loss, not because of ego, but because being seen made me feel–ready for it?–safe. Young women complain of assault, of harassment, and that danger is very, very real. I remember it too well. But being discarded and discounted (even by those young women) is lethal unless you’ve found a way to privilege your own vision.
I’m not fishing. I know there are people who may still find me attractive—in all honesty, I still find me attractive (I’m biased)—but the point is I lost the automatic access granted by the glow of youth. Since I opted out of biological family, parenting, and partnering, and finally have admitted I don’t give a fuckaroni about contemporary film anymore, this means I don’t automatically belong anywhere.
There’s a liquidity that ebbs as you age—not just literally. You step out of the flow of life if you’re not vigilant.
As I read over this essay so far—my excuses, really—about not attempting to share my work on a larger platform, it all amounts to not believing there’s much of a future anymore, at least for me. And that’s dangerous, if not not downright ungrateful for the life I still have.
So I’m writing it down here because it is also my experience that putting things out there—ironically—is how I best hold myself accountable. The commitment of the written word. The bond. Not to mention the occasional service.
I pray for the temerity and luck required to secure an audience for the book I’ve already written as well as for those I’m still incubating. I pray to find more of my people. I pray to make others feel less alone–even, dare I write it, more seen.
It turns out that for me there’s something thing lonelier than love lost. Writing into a vacuum is my absolute loneliest.
This is the second and final installment of an essay that I began earlier this spring. It is a window into my book, to which I’ve been slowly returning as the world is too rapidly opening back up.
NYC has opened back up, and the smell of fresh paint suffuses every block, a top note to the concentration of garbage piling up on sidewalks, weed clouding every corner. For every person fleeing their Covid cave for fresher air and wider horizons, another is claiming a new base for big-city dreams, 16 months delayed.
It all involves an awful lot of fresh paint.
Some associate this scent with toxicity—chemicals, ill health, colonization. For me, it’s a gateway to an autumn four decades ago, when Audre resurfaced and the world first opened up.
Really, it was simple. One day Audre called up, and the following Friday, without disclosing any of the long-awaited details of their conversation, my mother whisked Jennie and me into Cambridge, where Audre had rented a long apartment on a tree-lined block between Central and Inman Square. It didn’t occur to any of us to bring my father because he never strayed from his Friday routine: popcorn, tea, computer manuals, sports radio, and bed at 8:30. Of course now substitute poetry for manuals and 70s film for sports radio and my routine is not that far off, but back then his diurnal rhythms seemed the ultimate in passive domination.
Sitting on my stoop, I watch a young woman hurry by.
I call the practice of people-watching “stoop-snooping,” I guess because I’ve done it most while lolling on stoops. My schoolmates recall me watching them from the library stairs, even. (I called that library-stairing.) Watching the world walk by is hands-down one of my favorite activities but since things have opened back up, it’s more charged. I suppose everything has after months of fearing and missing each other in equal parts. Constant life-and-death stakes are not just wearying. They are deteriorating.
Earlier today, my block was abuzz as it has been every day since the café next door re-opened. People drinking espressos, wolfing piadini, cooing over each other’s pets, chattering and clattering over the Italian pop pouring out of the speakers. Now, in what approximates magic hour in these apocalyptic times, the heat is just beginning to abate as the handsome baristas speed off for the night, the last stragglers move into their next NYC dream.
So it’s just the two of us on the street right now–this girl with places to go, and me. She is narrow-framed, long-legged, straight-backed. Wearing no airbuds, wielding no phone. Eyes locked straight ahead, fingers hooked onto the backpack slung over both shoulders, spotless Keds shooting out from neatly creased shorts. She is moving rapidly into her horizon. Continue Reading →