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.
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.