What Can’t Be Cast Off: An Interview with Rachel Hall

At the end of July, I completed a six-month stint writing a bi-weekly column for the Kenyon Review blog. I am proud of all that work (and gained tremendous respect for the work involved in writing a weekly column or blog and for all who do it).

Heirlooms-coverMy final post is an interview with fiction writer Rachel Hall, a friend and fellow Rochesterian. Her first book, Heirlooms, is a collection of linked stories, which will be published in September. From the interview:

I grew up looking at family photo albums and listening to family stories. I’m lucky that my mother is an excellent storyteller, as were her adoptive parents, my grandparents. I loved their stories about the war in France, loved hearing them repeated, and in particular the way a new detail might emerge. At some point I began wondering what was left out or smoothed over or forgotten altogether… Read the entire interview here.

Fear of the Midwest

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Refrigerator magnets I got at a rest stop on the NYS Thruway. Yes, I was nostalgic for the place where I live.

Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, and the Southern Tier all hang onto the moniker of the Northeast by their fingernails. In my story, “The Half King,” I describe Western New York and Rochester as “disturbingly close to Ohio.” New York is part of both the Northeast region and the Mid-Atlantic States. I thought I grew up on the East Coast; it wasn’t until I left for college that I realized my mistake. (New England lets you know they are the oldest, they are the coast.) New York: we are the only state whose borders touch both the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean…to read more click here for my most recent essay for the Kenyon Review.

Become a Cabbage

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A sign on the beautiful landscape of The Millay Colony of the Arts, which was once the summer home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.

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.

 

What Comes Next and How to Like It

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.

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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:

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“Late Fall”

“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.

 

 

 

 

August

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Stone sculpture on the beach in Tiverton, Rhode Island.  Thinking about impermanence, beauty, and change this summer.

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My reading, on August 21, 2014, dedicated to my friend and MFA grad school classmate, James Foley (1973-2014).  The event took place at Roc Brewing Company as part of Writers & Books’ Get Lit Crawl (Rochester, NY).  Your writing and life touched so many people, Jim.  We will always remember you with the love and spirit you embodied.  There is only love.

Get Lit Pub Crawl Photo Credit :  Ivan Ramos

Ithaca Is Never Far

“Keep Ithaka always in your mind. Arriving there is what you are destined for. But do not hurry the journey at all.” –C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.

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Ithaca Is Gorges:  Taughannock Falls, Ithaca, New York

For the last 19 years, while living in New York City, Massachusetts, Iowa, and Rochester, I have regularly visited friends in Ithaca, New York. This past spring I also taught selections from The Odyssey and thought about that other classical Ithaka.  After months of planning (to find a weekend that worked for both sets of my friends and for us), my fiance and I finally drove to Ithaca, NY, last weekend.  It was a relief to have an easy getaway in a summer that has been unexpectedly busy with our engagement ceremony, family and friends visiting, writing projects, and some of our own longer travels (to visit family and for a wedding).

My MFA thesis, a collection of stories called Ithaca Is Never Far, deals with the search for home– both cultural and geographic.  The title story is a retelling of The Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view.  It was also, for me, about growing up in Western New York State–a place often considered at some remove from New York City, other East Coast cities, and anything cosmopolitan. Although I resented the idea of New York State as some sort of culturally remote backwater when I was growing up, after living in NYC myself for six years on and off across 10 years, it is sometimes challenging for me to be back here.

I miss the caffeinated buzz of the city–a constant electric hum–, its diversity, my friends and family who still live there.  Devouring all of Goodbye to All That:  Writers on Loving and Leaving New York (a birthday present from my friend Sally) in one sitting a few weeks ago made me miss the city even more.

These days, I am not able to get back to New York as often as I would like. (My last trip was a one-day whirlwind visit in April to give a reading at the College of Staten Island with my friend, fiction writer Stephen Schottenfeld.)  I try to appreciate what is here, including the quiet charms of my hometown:  great restaurants, ridiculously easy commutes, friends I have known for years, my 91 year-old grandmother, a good job with kind colleagues, a lower cost of living, the natural beauty of places like Ithaca.  And I met my fiance, also a native Rochesterian, here.

I don’t know where the future will take me–whether I will settle down here or if Rochester is one more stop along the way.  Cavafy’s poem reminds me to be patient, to not hurry the journey.

Memorial Day Mini Residency

At Blue Mountain Center, in the boathouse, 2014

At Blue Mountain Center, in the boathouse, 2014

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.

The other residents and myself on the front steps of BMC.  This is writer Elizabeth Graver's photo.  I really enjoyed meeting her.

The other residents and myself on the front steps of BMC. This is writer Elizabeth Graver’s photo.