Moments of Being

“Every day includes much more non-being than being. This is always so. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; washing; cooking dinner. When it is a bad day the proportion of non-being is much larger.”

– Virginia Woolf

On Mentors

This morning I read these words in Terry Tempest Williams’ Introduction to Wallace Stegner‘s novel, Crossing to Safety: “Each time I pick up my pen, I feel the weight of his hand on my shoulder. Be bold, he says. Be brave. Be true to your birthright, what you recognize in your heart.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about mentors, about the wise ones who have walked a few paces ahead of me and have had the generosity of spirit to show me the road. I’ve also been thinking about being a mentor, since after twenty-five years of teaching, there is an ever-growing flock who think of me that way.

I’ve certainly been blessed by extraordinary mentors. Some have been hard on me. Some have challenged me to be bold and brave. Others have been cheerleaders. Others have opened doors. Still others have made me feel less alone in the world. They form an inner chorus and are with me when I pick up my pen. But in recent years I’ve been accompanied on the journey by a few writers and artists I have never personally known. I keep their books close to me. I carefully write passages from their work into my commonplace books, committing their thoughts to memory, and when I do this, I feel almost as if our souls might be touching through time.

A writer sits on her chaise in her sunny office on a winter’s morning in 2016 and is transported and ennobled by a profound connection to a writer who filled her overcoat pockets with rocks and walked into the River Ouse on an early spring day in 1941. A writer checking Instagram during an afternoon break sees that an artist she thinks of as a muse-mentor has “liked” one of her images – but how can it be? That artist has been dead for more than a decade. It turns out her daughter runs her beautiful Instagram account (I can think of no better purpose for this form of social media) but the feeling is one of communion.

We need those who are able to remind us to become who we are. “Largeness is a lifelong matter,” Stegner writes. “You grow because you are not content not to…you grow because you’re a grower.” But we don’t grow in a vacuum. Nor do we necessarily know how or when or for whom our words and the actions of our lives will have meaning. We do our work – hewing steadfastly along the edge of our most intimate sensitivity – and we protect our gifts in order to best do that work. We nod to the past, and look to the future. And then – then we find the quiet courage to let it go.

On the Space In-Between

I’ve just finished my new book.  Whenever, in my life, I’ve completed this sentence – I’ve just finished my new book — I’m haunted by a sense that I must be lying, that the book can’t possibly be finished.  And, in a way, of course it’s not.  After a while, after it grows cold,  as a dear friend likes to say, I will dive back into it and revise, chisel, hone, clarify, see previously unconscious connections.  I will make it better until I can no longer make it any better.  And then I will abandon it to the world.

My students and other writers I know who are early in their creative lives think that must be the best part — the time when a book is “abandoned” to the world.  Book parties! Interviews! Travel! Readings! Radio! And I assure them that it isn’t.  Their eyes glaze over.  They don’t believe me. Easy for you to say.  I can practically see the words as they think them. But it’s true. The best part – the part every artist lives for – is the complete immersion when on the home stretch. The whole world seems to collaborate with us during these days, weeks, months in which we’re finishing. Overheard dialogue, a flock of gulls against a gray sky, the angle of a man’s head as he sits on a park bench reading a tattered paperback – all seem electric, inter-connected.  As I was finishing this book, I wandered into my local bookstore looking for a particular poem by Richard Wilbur I was certain I needed.  The book wasn’t in stock, but misshelved in the W’s was a volume of poems by Wendell Berry I hadn’t read before, and contained within it a poem that was precisely what I needed but hadn’t known.  That kind of thing happens when in the powerful flow of finishing.

But then…then what? I’ve been bereft, these last weeks.  After training my whole heart, soul, intellect, everything I have within me, on finding the precise language for feeling – all that’s left is the feeling.  What do we do with feelings we can’t contain, place, label, name?  The chaos we can’t turn into art?  With feelings that leak out around all that precise language and are still there, because finding the language may make art, and perhaps art heals the reader or viewer, but it doesn’t heal the artist or writer.  Nor should it.  Making art is not an act of catharsis.  If anything, it embeds our narrative ever more deeply within us by freezing it in time.  It transforms us – yes – but as anyone who has ever really gone there will tell you – transformation is painful and oh, it is ongoing.

In recent years my work has grown more and more distilled. I used to be interested in great big sweeping stories.  I still enjoy reading them, sometimes, but I’m no longer pulled to write them.  What drives me, excites me, makes me want to get up in the morning and write, read, live, is what pulses beneath the narrative – whether a fictional narrative or the well-worn narrative of my own life.  What does transformation carry in its wake?  How do I plumb the depths of now?  How do I inhabit a consciousness – mine, or a fictional character’s – in order to get at what’s true, all the while knowing that what’s true is ever-evolving?

See, this is the kind of thing this writer thinks about when she’s in the space of the in-between.  (It’s probably a little like going off your meds.)  It’s uncomfortable, to be sure. The soil is dark, dank, its gifts revealed only through patience and time.  So over these holiday weeks I will stay as quiet as I can.  I will read books that nourish me.  I will meditate each morning.  I will seek the company of those who ennoble my spirit, or make me laugh (or both.)  I will keep a notebook with me, make notes about the inner storm, and try to observe it, as if through a leaded window in a beautiful castle, a warm room, a safe place.  Look, there’s the lashing rain.  The bolt of lightning.  Look, the world,  lit up, then washed clean.

On This Too

Last weekend I took my husband to a day-long meditation retreat in New York City.  This was ostensibly a birthday gift for him.  He is not a someone who meditates, but – like eating fresh vegetables or going to bed early – he’s usually glad he did.  It was a selfish gift, in a way.  The day was being led by one of my favorite western Buddhist teachers and this was a rare opportunity to do nothing for eight hours but train our hearts and minds on matters such as kindness, peacefulness, forgiveness, equanimity.  We filed into the great hall at Ethical Culture, which quickly filled with six, seven hundred people who had all bought tickets and made room in their lives for a day dedicated to the psychology of Buddhist meditation.  Some had overnight bags with them, and appeared to have come straight from the airport or the train station.

As the day progressed, I sat next to my husband and felt my heart soften and expand.  If it’s possible to feel the hearts and minds of others soften and expand, the whole room felt full of pulsing, aching, tender hearts, all yearning, all longing, all so very human.  Jack Kornfield sat alone in the center of a vast stage, papers and books arranged all around him and wove references ranging from Diane Ackerman to the Dalai Lama into a tapestry that seemed to hold the whole room together.

In the early afternoon – while in the midst of a teaching on equanimity – my phone began to vibrate in my bag.  I ignored it, but it kept vibrating, so finally, I glanced at it.  It was my sixteen year old son calling.  He had just tried me twice.  I slipped out of the great hall and into a corridor to return his call.  When he picked up, he was sobbing.  My breath caught in my throat.  What? I spoke softly into the phone.  What happened? 

A beloved young teacher at his school had been driving down a country road earlier in the day with his two small children strapped into the back of his car.  He’d been in a head-on collision.  He didn’t make it, my son said through his tears.  Information wasn’t yet known about the children.  It seemed that one of them was seriously injured.  The wife and mother – my son’s former English teacher at the same school – had been teaching classes and was not in the car.

I sank to a stair in the hallway and felt tears streaming down my own cheeks.  I’m so sorry, I kept saying to Jacob.  I’m so sorry.  Inside the great hall, six hundred people had closed their eyes and were meditating.  The delicate fabric of the world unraveled and revealed itself in all its fragility, in its invisible pattern.  In its beauty and its terror.  My heart broke for the family.  For the whole school community.  My heart broke for my boy, who had experienced loss, but not this kind — not the kind that comes like a claw from behind the curtain and grabs you and shakes you until there seems to be nothing left.  He hadn’t known about the suddenness, the revelation of randomness and chaos.  He hadn’t yet seen up close the shattering loss of a life cut short on a sunny Saturday morning on a country road.  He was so young, my son said, his voice shaking.

I made my way back into the great hall and slid next to my husband.  I whispered the terrible news in his ear and we both sat there, shaken to the core.  How do we hold all of life in our hearts without our hearts breaking?  How do we love, knowing that love will lead to such unbearable loss?  How do we soften – rather than harden – our hearts to the irrefutable truth that life is suffering?  This too, Jack had said earlier in the day.  This too, this too.  I am familiar with the claw that comes from behind the curtain.  On some days, I have made my peace with it.  On other days – like this one, a flag flying at half-mast on the safe and cozy campus of a small, heartbroken New England school – I shake my fist against it.  But regardless, if I keep my heart soft I will let in the pain, and also the light and love.  This too. 

 

On What People Think

I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the way, I stopped caring what people think of me.  I don’t mean that I stopped caring what the people I love think of me – I care enormously about that – but I stopped caring about the big, wide swath of people who have opinions of me based on their own projections.  I wrote an essay about this recently which seems to have struck a nerve, so I thought I’d offer some further thoughts here – in part because a dear friend of mine was lambasted publicly, earlier this week, in such a wrong-headed, ill-informed, factually misleading and hostile way that it’s hard to sit back and just say nothing about what it means – whether you’re a writer, an artist, a teacher, a doctor, an actor, a trapeze artist, whatever – to put yourself on the line.  Every day.  Whether you feel like it or not.

I’ve been putting myself on the line – literally, on the line of words forming sentences, paragraphs, pages, books – for so many years now that it has become second nature.  I use my own life as a laboratory, or perhaps an archaeological dig.  I burrow down, searching for tarnished nuggets of truth.  I do this not because I think my own life is particularly interesting or special, but because it’s the lens through which I can come to understand the world.  I go deep into the specific, the particular, in order to be able to make a larger sense – one that hopefully resonates and weaves its own tiny strand into the universal thread.

Over the years I’ve been accused of many things: of being self-absorbed, narcissistic, spoiled, privileged, and so forth.  I’ve been accused of these things by people who don’t know me, and who make certain assumptions when they read into my public persona.  A newspaper comes and photographs my house – it looks larger than it is, neater, prettier, more nicely-furnished, because that’s what photographs do – and the next thing I know, I hear I live in a house straight out of a movie set.  I post pictures on Facebook or Instagram of lovely moments: a favorite barn at dusk, my son playing tennis, a view from a writers’ conference.  A schoolmate of my son’s who apparently follows me on Instagram recently said: “You seem to really enjoy your life.”  It was such an interesting thing to hear, and it took me aback. I mean, I do enjoy my life – sometimes.  And those are the times that end up on Instagram or Facebook.  Right? We don’t pause partway through a marital squabble and take a selfie.  We don’t snap a picture of the dog pee stain on the rug.  We curate our lives, airbrush them.  I’m on the cover of a magazine this month, and boy oh boy, I wish I looked like that all the time, or even some of the time.  I had a team of the best hair, makeup and stylists in Los Angeles taking care of me that day.

I try to tell the truth of my life, even as I curate it.  My husband and I are writers.  We live modestly.  I can’t remember the last time we took a vacation in which at least one of us wasn’t working.  Those Instagram posts from Aspen, Provincetown, Taos, Positano?  Working.  Yes, in lovely places – I’ve figured out how to do that, living by my wits – but nonetheless, I am teaching intensively for many hours each day, and often, after workshops, all I can do is go back to my (very nice) room and take a nap.  As a writer, I work pretty much seven days a week on my own work, and on the work of others.  I wouldn’t trade it for anything and feel incredibly fortunate to be able to do what I love, and to live in a way that feels examined and meaningful.  But it isn’t easy, and I refuse to pretend that it is – even as I post the glowing photos.

On my office wall hangs a poster with wisdom from one of my favorite human beings in which she shares seven lessons she learned over the course of her first seven years of curating Brain Pickings.  Among these lessons are: Be generous… it’s so much easier to be a critic than to be a celebrator. To understand and to be understood, these are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them. 

Isn’t it all any of us really want?  To understand and to be understood?  To bear witness to all of it – the good, the bad and the ugly?  The real?  Let the critics float away on their own toxic cloud.  Count me among the celebrators.

 

On Atonement

I’m writing this at four o’clock in the afternoon on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. I am stirred, always, by the Day of Atonement. I light memorial candles for my parents, twin flames that burn side-by-side for twenty-four hours on my kitchen counter. When I light those candles, I think of my own parents lighting candles for their dead parents. I remember seeing those flickering flames as a child, and imagining the lives of those who came before me. Lives I couldn’t touch. Lives I would never know. Grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents. There is something enormously powerful in being part of a generational chain, and the holidays bring up that feeling within me. It is at once painful (so much lost!) and bracingly beautiful to consider. I am only the most recent link on a chain that extends back and back.

family_in_europe

Living in the country, as I do, it would be easy to skip the holiday. There have been years when I have attempted to ignore the whole thing. After all, I no longer live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, or in Brooklyn, where it would be impossible to walk out my front door without being confronted with the holiness of the day in the form of people in their finery walking to or from synagogue. I didn’t go to synagogue today. Where I live – as I have written about extensively – I have never been able to find a spiritual home. But it has turned out that the lack of that spiritual home inspired me build me own. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, time is our cathedral.

I found myself thinking today, as my husband and I took a long walk, that even though it stirs me, in many ways the Day of Atonement doesn’t feel all that different to me than any other day. I lead an inward life. I spend my days alone with my thoughts, searching for words, reaching for ideas. In my study, I am surrounded by photographs of my ancestors, but even if they weren’t looking down at me from the walls where they hang, I would still know that they surround me. My writing brings them closer to me, and me to them. And so I remember, today, as I attempt to remember every day, that I am part of a vast tapestry. That I didn’t get here on my own. And that, if I close my eyes, I can hear the holy sound of the shofar blowing in every synagogue, every corner of the globe.

 

On Protecting Your Instrument

I’m back on the chaise.  I’ve just finished with the last full week of teaching I’ll be doing until March.  All summer long, I’ve wondered what this moment would feel like.  I have no flights scheduled, no dates on my calendar (except for a few small weekend retreats like this one and this one) and a real swath of time stretched out before me.  A magic carpet, rolled out, ready for me to step onto it with the intention of finishing a draft of my new book.

Today is the day.  The fluffy white dog is lying by my feet.  I’m wearing the world’s most comfortable sweatpants, a favorite yoga tee shirt, and a ratty cardigan.  My hair is a mess.  My glasses perched on the bridge of my nose.  My house empty — husband doing errands, boy on a boat ride.  Just a couple of weeks ago, a photographer was here to take my portrait for an upcoming essay.  I was sitting just here, the fluffy white dog just there, and I quipped: this is exactly what my life looks like.  And she responded: it looks pretty damned perfect. 

Ah, yes.  Here I am in my perfect life.  There’s only one problem with it.  Can you guess what problem might be?

Inside my head, all is chaos.  Tears are backed up behind my eyes.  I can barely sit still.  The deepest parts of myself, unfathomable.  This summer involved an unusual number of workshops, readings, or other business in Seattle,  Aspen,  Vermont,  LA,  Atlanta,  Rhinebeck, Salisbury,  Provincetown — with many days in New York City in between.  It has been a summer in which I led meditations, lectured, dove deeply into student work.  A summer in which I said yes to judging a couple of awards and fellowships that have required an insane amount of reading.  A summer I have taken care of my family as best as I know how.  A summer I have loved – completely loved – and yet I am here, as parts of myself feel as fragile as small birds riding wind currents, trying to find their way back to me.

In Still Writing, I quote a list of instructions for writers left by the poet Jane Kenyon:

Protect your time.  Feed your inner life.  Avoid too much noise.  Read good books, have good sentences in your ears.  Be by yourself as often as you can.  Walk.  Take the phone off the hook.  Work regular hours.

I think of this as protecting my instrument – and yours.  When that instrument is out of whack – and mine is now – it is my job to go back to the simplicity of Kenyon’s list.  To have patience.  And above all to understand that the noisy, noisy world we live in – with its carnival of distractions and enticements – is not where we find the words.  The words are stones at the bottom of the sea.  We train ourselves. We expand our capacity to hold our breath underwater.  And then we dive – alone, we dive.  Sometimes we emerge, gasping, our hands empty.  But if we dive deep for enough successive days, weeks, months, years, decades, a lifetime — we might – just might – emerge with something new, some fragile, shimmering thing no one has ever seen before.

 

 

On Inquiry

Lately people have been asking me what I’m working on. A perfectly reasonable question, though one that strikes terror and dread in the hearts of most writers. If we’re not in the midst of a book, the question makes us feel guilty and fretful. If we are in the midst of a book, we need to find ways of answering in a way that doesn’t take away from the work itself. I’ve come to think of this as a sentence that doesn’t cost me much – if anything at all. But part of the problem, in my case, is that I’ve grown slightly allergic to the word memoir. After all, I’ve written two, no, three, if you include Still Writing, which is a memoir at least in part. So: three memoirs. And now that I am well into a new book, and it is decidedly not a novel, I have been searching for another word for what I’m doing, a word that doesn’t drag along quite so much baggage in its wake.

I’ve tried: I’m writing a book-length lyric essay.
I’ve tried: I’m writing a work of creative non-fiction.

Both of these sound pretentious to me.

I’ve tried: I’m writing a memoirish-type thing.
I’ve tried mumbling incoherently and hoping the subject will miraculously be changed.

But finally what I’ve arrived at is this: I’m writing an Inquiry.

Everything I’ve ever written might be described as an inquiry. My novels all begin with questions – though these questions may not be ones I can articulate when I begin. My novel Family History circled around the question of what it might take to shake a happy contented marriage to its core. My novel Black & White centered on questions about motherhood and art. Devotion was a spiritual inquiry. The memoir aspects of Still Writing were an inquiry into what was formative for me as a writer. And now my questions have evolved into ones about marriage and time.

It wasn’t what I wanted to write about it.
To be honest, it scares the living shit out of me.
But this is the book that has been banging against my ribcage, insisting.

I write in order to discover what I don’t yet know. To peel back the layers and see what has been previously hidden from view. I don’t choose the form this discovery takes. When I have tried to force the form, it turns around and bites me. And so I have learned to pay attention to what the work itself wants to be. If we’re quiet, the work announces itself. When it makes itself known, we had best pay attention.

And so, when I’m asked, I now respond that I’m writing an inquiry into marriage and time.
How do we find the right words to describe what we’re doing? Because when we land on them, we know they’re true.

On Getting Lost

“How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”

I copied these words, from the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno, into an otherwise blank notebook about a year ago. The notebook had been blank for quite a while. It was a beautiful, perfect notebook – I had ordered it online after coveting one that a student was using – and I planned for it to be the notebook in which I would begin My Next Book. I didn’t yet know what My Next Book would be. I was on book tour for Still Writing, and traveling a great deal to speak to audiences of writers all over the country. I carried the notebook with me everywhere. The notebook went to Europe. It went to LA, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, D.C., and New York. I didn’t write a word in it, and I became more and more anxious. Panic began to weave a web around me that kept me isolated from my own internal life. I would get up and give keynotes that inspired writers to get to work – but I wasn’t working, because I didn’t know what I was doing, and if I didn’t know what I was doing, I couldn’t do it.

I had lost all sense of playfulness. Of messiness. Of curiosity. That feeling of discovery that happens when the writer follows the line of words – I had forgotten all about that. If I was going to deface the notebook, if I was going to begin, whatever I wrote – that first sentence – had to be perfect. It had to be a sentence to end all sentences. And so the notebook continued to be blank until a day came when finally, my own despair trumped my lunatic perfectionism.

I doodled a daisy. Literally, a daisy. Like the kind of doodles I used to make when I was six years old. And then I ripped that page out of the no-longer-pristine notebook. After which I wrote Meno’s words.

Getting lost is both the plight and the joy of the artist. David Salle once said in an interview: “I have to get lost so I can invent some way out.” And so I began to get lost. I spent much of the next year on a journey of missteps and wrong turns, all of which I had to make to get to that place of the real work beginning. I have to say, too, that this getting lost cannot be faked. We cannot pretend to be lost. We cannot be quasi-lost. In order to possibly find that way out – in order to discover that thing previously unknown to us – we walk through the pitch-black darkness. We feel our hands against cave walls. We slip and fall. We bruise ourselves, blind to our own path. And maybe we don’t find our way out. But maybe we do.

I’m just back home from two glorious weeks at Hedgebrook. If there’s a heaven for women writers, I imagine it looks exactly like this:

IMG_6624

Buoyed by the presence of six remarkable women, I awoke each morning, built a roaring fire in the wood stove, made a big pot of coffee, and got down to the work of feeling my way through the darkness. Alone my cottage, my next book began to reveal itself to me. It didn’t not ask of me that it be perfect. It did not ask of me that I understand it. It asked only that I attend to it. Slowly, softly, with fortitude. Get lost inside of me, it seemed to whisper. It is the only way.

On the Page as Your Mirror

As I write this, I’m somewhere in the sky between New York and Seattle. My lukewarm cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee is on my tray table, precariously close to my keyboard. Behind me, a baby cries. On the other side of the thankfully-empty middle seat, an older woman organizes papers and tear sheets from magazines. I’ve grown not to mind this time out of time that air travel necessitates. So far, on this flight, I’ve listened to a great podcast, have read a couple of embarrassingly junky magazines, and have been working on a manuscript for a friend.

But what I’m feeling, beneath the busyness and accoutrements of travel, is a kind of full and tender sense of what this is –– this life we all share. I lately have been feeling more alive than I have in a long time. I am moved to tears again and again –– not tears of sadness, but rather, a soft, profound awareness of what it is to be human. As I walked through JFK this morning, it was with this sense. Sometimes, in airports, I practice Metta, silently wishing passersby safety, happiness, strength, ease. And when I do, it instantly brings me into a relationship with these perfect strangers, these fellow travelers. But this morning’s awareness was different. It required no words, no formal practice. It just was.

There is only one explanation, really, for this tenderness I’ve been experiencing.
I have been writing.

After a long, painful, fallow period of fretting, pacing, and false starts, I have entered something that has me in its grip, that I think about when I wake up in the morning, and dream of at night. It wasn’t what I wanted to be writing. I wanted a new novel, and that’s not what I got. It wasn’t a plan. I had a plan to write an essay, a few months ago, while at a residency in Florida. I wrote the essay and then was horrified to realize that the essay wanted to be longer — it wanted, in fact, to be my next book. But despite my horror, I knew that there was a rightness to my realization, precisely because it wasn’t what I wanted. I wasn’t attempting to control my writing life. I wasn’t writing for a marketplace. I wasn’t thinking about the glory of it all – because there is no glory. There is no control. And nothing could be worse for the work itself than imagining a marketplace.

No. Lately it has been only me and the work. Me and the words, one lining up behind the next, the words, having been trapped in a place within me for so long that the experience of getting them on the page has come with its own, almost-unbearable, physical energy. At times I leap up from my chaise — the feeling uncontainable. Louise Gluck, in a recent interview, said that the reason she writes in bed is that, if she thinks she may possibly write something, she becomes so filled with despair that she can hardly bear it. I know this despair and it’s always a good thing – though not a comfortable one. When I feel it now, it is a wave I know I need to ride, and not run away from, no matter how I may wish to.

Everything I know about life, I know from the page. Everything I know about myself — about love, maturity, grief, joy, loss, redeption — I have learned by sitting alone in a room (or on a plane) sorting it out. What belongs to what? Why does this sentence next to that one seem to build something that feels like music? What am I really trying to say? What am I getting at? I rarely know until I write it. The words become clay that I mold and mold. Without the daily habit, the daily discipline of concentrating everything inside me on that single point of focus, the world flattens. I know this. And yet these years between books are not anything I can prevent from happening. All I can do — all any of us can do — is take care of my instrument – which is to say, stay healthy and protect my inner life – and wait patiently for that blessed sense of rightness to once again appear.

On The Work Itself

Last night I gave a reading and was in conversation with the wonderful writer Amitava Kumar. I had never met Amitava before, though our paths have crossed at dozens of literary events over the years, most recently at AWP in Minneapolis. I was invited to join Amitava in the event by one of the best literary publicists out there, Lauren Cerand, and we were hosted by a favorite bookstore, The Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, in front of a terrific audience, mostly of writers and certainly of readers.

Being the generous guy that he is, Amitava read not only from his own new book, but asked me if it would be alright for him to read a passage from Still Writing. Before he read it, he asked me if I feel alienated from my own words, if I hear another writer read them aloud. My immediate response was to blurt out that I feel alienated from my own words, almost instantly after I write them. That got a rueful laugh from the crowd, and I laughed too, but I woke up thinking about what it was, exactly, that I meant.

IMG_1621

Lately my memoir Slow Motion has been enjoying a bit of a resurgence. I wrote Slow Motion in the mid-1990’s, it came out in the late 1990’s, and I hadn’t so much as cracked its cover in at least a dozen years, until recently, when it was suggested to me that it might make a good miniseries, and having just watched the brilliant adaptation of Olive Kitteridge, I found the idea compelling. Re-reading my old work, especially such profoundly personal old work, was quite a trip. On the one hand, I found it surprisingly emotional to read about the girl I once was. I thought of her as a character, even as I wrote the book. But now, she has receded even further into the distant past, and I find it harder to reach out and touch her. She was so sad, so lost, so grief-stricken, so out-of-control. To meet her again, frozen within the pages of my own book, was riveting, in a way. I didn’t feel I was reading about myself, or even a book written by myself. And so, I was able to admire it, in a way. The me who wrote it has continued to grow and morph into the me who could read it with a cooler gaze. In so doing, I also understood, for the first time, why people who have recently read Slow Motion ask me whether I feel exposed. The question has always rankled. No, I respond. It’s a book, a memoir, not my diary. But in reading it, I realized that, in many ways, I am quite exposed, and that it was a kind of literary lunacy, a lunacy I’m glad for having had, to put aside the question of what people would think, and just go for it.

The work that holds my attention is always the work in front of me. This blog post is holding my attention as I write. The book I’m now working on holds my attention, and if you were to ask me which of my books is my favorite, I would tell you it’s the one I’m writing. This is always true for me. I feel a sense of distance from each of my books because the woman who wrote them has moved on. She is sitting on her chaise lounge on a cool New England day, pecking away, hoping to find a shape for the chaos, the heartache, the beauty, the confusion, the human catastrophe. She dives deep inside the moment –– as deep as the moment, combined with her own limitations, will allow. And tomorrow, with any luck, she will do it again.