Here’s a link to my latest essay for the Kenyon Review, in which I watch a movie from the 80s, get sappy about it, and come out about depression. It posted last week on the Kenyon blog, and I’ve heard from lots of people from different parts of my life—I didn’t know how many people loved and were moved by Judith Guest’s Ordinary People—that it struck a chord for so many.
I’m at the Ragdale Foundation for a few weeks on a fellowship: it’s a beautiful place to write and work. Yesterday, I met up with a former resident here, Michele Morano, and we walked along the shores of Lake Michigan with her young son. Michele is also a writer, and asked me what I was working on. I mentioned that I had brought with me a couple of folders of essay drafts, but that I couldn’t bear to delve into the messy drafts.
Over tea we ended up talking about our recent (December) trips to India. Michele’s descriptions of Delhi and Varanasi and all the details she mentioned (the ghats, the carnation and rose petals, the getting sick) brought back some of my own memories of my time in Tamil Nadu. I got to thinking about photographs.
Before leaving for Ragdale, I had an appointment at the computer store to address the fact that I have four different photo libraries- it somehow happened from transferring what was on my previous computers to my current one. I had trouble even finding my recent photos from India. When I located the photos from our India trip, I glanced through most of the photos (I created an album), and it brought back some of my memories, too.
Look through photos from any particular time in your life and wait for one that suggests a story or that rises from the desktop a bit, that calls to you, talks to you, that you want to spend time with a little more. What made you take the photo in the first place? What’s the story behind the image and within the person who was moved to capture that image in the first place? If you’re feeling stuck, look at photos. Write about one or two. These three captured my imagination when I looked back at them. I am writing about them now.
The title of this post comes from a poem I love by Naomi Shihab Nye called “The Art of Disappearing.” I was talking about this poem with my friend Holly last week, and was reminded of it again when I read her wonderful blog post this week about Nye’s poem, attention, and creative work. Holly and I are spending this week on a writing retreat at The Millay Colony for the Arts.
Most of the time, I’m someone who walks around (without even thinking about it) with E.M. Forster’s adage in my head: “Only connect!” Talking, deepening friendships, enriching conversations, creating community- these are never far from my mind. However, it takes time, attention, and solitude to work on a longer writing project, and too much connection (online, phone, coffee dates) and that sustained attention, so hard to come by, withers.
Here’s Nye, from “The Art of Disappearing”:
“When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven’t seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don’t start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.”
I think she has point. Another Rochester writer, Sonja Livingston, and I were also recently talking about Nye’s poem. Rochester is a small town. I spend my life running into people I know just about everywhere (especially Wegmans) and I like it. But maybe it’s important to save your singing for your work, for your writing. It’s worth reading the whole poem here as well as Holly’s blog post on attention, Nye’s poem, writing, and Millay.
Last week at Blue Mountain Center, where I was invited to take part in a mini residency, I finally delved into Abigail Thomas‘ new memoir, What Comes Next and How to Like It. It came out earlier this year and I bought it months ago and it has sat while we slowly moved into our new place and got used to too many changes. New apartment, new husband, working from home, etc. I did something while away I used to do a lot—just recopied passages from her book and other things I read there. I’d fallen out of the habit of doing that, but at BMC, I just settled into the book and reading at a table next to my friend, Holly. Hours passed.
I admired that Abby wrote about failure. It’s something I have thought about a lot—how to deal with it, why my students and their parents struggled with it, why I do, and how to write about it. Everyone fails at something, at some time. So why is it so hard to accept it? I do think half of life is showing up, but do we need participation awards? I got a D in calculus in college and most likely should have failed. I was horrified, and life went on. I’ve failed at much larger things with far greater stakes than that, too. Everyone has. It’s what comes next that says something. What did I do with it? What am I doing with it?
Here’s something Abby wrote in What Comes Next and How to Like It:
“I am trying to convince myself that failure is interesting. I look the word up in the American Heritage Dictionary to find its earliest incarnation, but it has always been just ‘failure.’ There’s no Indo-European root meaning originally ‘to dare’ or ‘mercy’ or ‘hummingbird’ to make of the whole mess a mysterious poem. I can find no other fossilized remains in the word. Humility comes along on its own dime.”
One of the many things I love about Abby’s writing is short chapters. Suits my way of thinking—these interconnected fragments. I loved her various two-page assignments (I took a four or six week class with her at the 92nd Street Y in TriBeCa, the last year I lived in NY) and I used them sometimes in my classes—and I love how she has composed whole books (like one of her memoirs, Safekeeping) in these segments. Here’s one for today from What Comes Next:
“Late fall, and the color is gone. This is the season of bare trees, the kinds of trees my sister Judy describes as looking as if they died of fright. A perfect description. Judy should be a writer, I nag her all the time. ‘If you’re not going to use it, I am,’ I say, but I’m careful to give credit.
The leaves were glorious yellows and reds and browns, but a few along Tinker Street (and one you could see only from Cumberland Farms) were a deep shade of rose. Rose! You had to gasp. But except for those moments of painfully beautiful color, I haven’t felt anything like shouting, can’t think of anything to write or paint (I don’t know how to do autumn), and nothing more has occurred to me recently about failure, except that it’s failure.
But when it gets dark, I’m off the hook. The day is officially rolled up and put away. I’m free to watch movies or stare at the wall, no longer holding myself accountable for what I might or might not have gotten done because the time for getting something done is over until tomorrow.” —Abigail Thomas
Thank you, Abby. It’s nearly time to stop working.
I’m just back to the world after a beautiful five-day artist residency at the wonderful Blue Mountain Center in the Adirondacks. It was a transformative opportunity to connect with other writers, artists, and activists, and a welcome chance to disconnect from the internet and the everyday demands of our jobs and lives.
I was especially grateful to have time to reflect and write at the end of my first year teaching at a new school.
guest post at Rochester Arts Blog–
Over the last ten years, I have had the opportunity to spend time at a few different artist colonies including Blue Mountain Center (the Adirondacks), The Millay Colony (Hudson Valley area), Ragdale (Chicago area), and Sanskriti (New Delhi, India). Wherever you are geographically, a residency at an artist colony means the gift of time to read and write and create.