Tightrope-Walking Over Niagara Falls

Amethyst Brook and the Robert Frost Trail in Amherst, Massachusetts. My dear friend, poet Holly Wren Spaulding, suggested this walk on the equinox, which is also her birthday.

A labyrinth near Amethyst Brook and the Robert Frost Trail in Amherst, Massachusetts. My dear friend, poet Holly Wren Spaulding, suggested this walk in Amethyst Brook on the equinox, which is also her birthday.

September is the month of the autumnal equinox—the time when summer ends and autumn begins. In the weeks before this, I was thinking about goals for the fall and mourning the end of summer a bit, especially for R, since his life (and mine) change dramatically once the school year begins. But not all change is bad. He loves teaching middle school and coaching tennis, and I love the fall.

My fall classes at Writers & Books begin next week, in October, so I’ve had the chance to do some meaningful traveling and attend events related to art and writing in September. For that, I’m exceedingly grateful…especially since we’ve had health issues in our family, and our summer was mostly spent with parents, my grandmother, and extended family who had come to visit my grandmother.

At the New York book launch for Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion, held at the Asian American Writers Workshop.

At the New York book launch for GOOD GIRLS MARRY DOCTORS: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion, held at the Asian American Writers Workshop.

Some September highlights: R and I took a trip to New York—our first visit since we went there together at the end of 2013. It was a lovely vacation, instigated by an invitation from writer Jyothi Natarajan to moderate the Q&A for the book launch of the anthology, Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion (edited by Piyali Bhattacharya), at the Asian American Writers Workshop. Piyali had invited me to submit an essay to the anthology, but it was due right after my wedding, and I didn’t have the mind space to be able to see an essay through to completion then. So I was especially pleased to be able to participate in this book project in some way. It was a wonderful event—moving essays, a packed house, and a chance to reconnect to some of my literary community in New York.

img_0531I’d vacillated on this next trip, but I am so grateful I went. Stephen Clingman, a former professor of mine at UMass Amherst, invited me to take part in a symposium on the life and work and legacy of my MFA classmate, slain American journalist Jim Foley. Besides his work as a brave witness to the suffering in Syria, Jim was also a talented fiction writer. We were honored to spend time with Jim’s parents, John and Diane Foley, who also attended the symposium.

Other writers on our panel included MFA classmates Erin White and Yago Cura; Jim’s friend from Teach For America, poet Daniel Johnson; our MFA professor, Noy Holland; and Jim’s close friend from Marquette University, Thomas Durkin. One of the writers for the documentary about Jim also attended—his childhood friend, Heather MacDonald. I read from an essay I’d started about Jim a couple of years ago and still need to finish.

img_0428September brought with it the Rochester Fringe Festival, which meant the chance to see my favorite hometown modern dance company, Garth Fagan Dance. They have been inspiring me my whole life, and R and I were lucky enough to have one of the dancers, Natalie Rogers-Cropper, choreograph our first dance at our wedding. Fagan created his own dance vocabulary using elements of Afro-Caribbean, ballet, and American modern dance—and this influenced me as an artist; he extended what was possible, or what seemed possible. We all have different stories to tell, complete with different vocabularies. You don’t have to use someone else’s—in fact, you can’t. How liberating it is, but it requires confidence—a certain strength of will and belief in your story.

Rachel Hall (center) with Howard Solomon and Marijana Ababovic, 9.27.16.

Rachel Hall (center) with Howard Solomon and Marijana Ababovic, 9.27.16.

September also brought with it the publication of an essay of mine in Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction’s special issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization—“Things People Said: An Essay in Seven Steps.”  In addition, This week was the book party for my friend Rachel’s Hall’s debut collection of stories, Heirlooms. l was so pleased for her! In the last few years, we have talked a lot about the process of writing a collection and sending it out to find its home. I interviewed her about Heirlooms in my final column for the Kenyon Review Blog.

img_0717The day after Rachel’s book party, I had the opportunity to hear the venerable, acerbic, witty, and wonderful Margaret Atwood! (I can no longer say there’s “nothing going on in Rochester.”) Not only is the epigraph from my manuscript from Atwood, her essay, “Nine Beginnings,” is one I regularly teach and come back to in my thinking and writing. I’ve also been reading from a collection of interviews with her (books were generously given out at the event, held at The College at Brockport, The State University of New York).  Here’s an excerpt of an interview I read this morning:

Geoff Hancock: What do you think your strengths are as a writer?

Atwood: I used to say, in the usual Canadian way, ‘Well, aw shucks,’ I don’t know.’ We’re trained to be modest. But now that I’m middle-aged I’m going to allow myself to say, ‘Well, maybe I’m good.’ Not all the time, but enough times, I can get the words to stretch and do something together that they don’t do alone. Expand the possibilities of the language.

Hancock: And your weaknesses?

Atwood: Weaknesses? We can’t afford to think about those kinds of things. Most writers are tightrope-walking over Niagara Falls all the time. Look down and you’ve had it. If I thought too much about weakness I’d block.

—From “Tightrope-Walking Over Niagara Falls” in Margaret Atwood: Conversations (edited by Earl G. Ingersoll)

Let me just say I want to be her when I grow up. In the meantime, I’m learning to be me as best I can. It’s the task of a lifetime.

Finally, I wanted to share some essays I came across this past month, so as not to forget them. These are also some of my reading recommendations, if you are looking for any:

  • Holly Wren Spaulding’s thoughtful essay on art installations in nature.
  • My friend Meera Nair’s essay about food, longing for home, and the importance of cooking.
  • A smart NYT article my friend, writer V.V. Ganeshananthan, recommended about networking. It’s about more than networking though—it applies to literary citizenship, manners, and being mindful about paying the help we receive forward.
  • My friend, local writer Nate Pritts, on writing outside and the importance of spending time in nature.
  • Also flagged to fully read / listen to (I caught just the end on the radio): Mary Karr on writing memoirs on NPR’s “Fresh Air.”
  • An essay on death, dying, and happiness, by Brooklyn-based meditation and yoga teacher, Jess Geevarghese. (I met Jess in a yoga class while in NY in September, and we ended up striking up a conversation at a cafe down the block from the studio…one of the most meaningful interactions of my trip.)
  • Last one: I heard Sarah Cedeno read this essay in July, but it stayed with me, and I’m adding it to this list to remind myself (and you) to take a look at her haunting essay about family, hoarding, and the stuff of life.

What are your reading recommendations? I’d love to hear from you about them.

Temporary Talismans

BruceLeePostcardMy penultimate essay for the Kenyon Review blog continues the theme I’ve been exploring of late—what we hold onto, what we keep. In this mini-essay I explore postcards and epistolary friendships with writers Holly Wren Spaulding, Wendy Call, and Michael Martone. I’ve never lived near any of them and our friendships grew in part out of writing to each other. I have a lot more to say about postcards, and can imagine expanding this mini essay into something larger.

Though I didn’t write about the above image for the KR blog, Kundiman, an organization for Asian American poets and writers, has a postcard exchange for its fellows every April. The Bruce Lee postcard is one I picked up at the Kundiman table at AWP. Actually, I picked up several and have sent some to friends, one to my brother, and kept one for myself to remind me of this about writing and life. The importance of being fearless. I see the postcard I gave to my brother when I visit;  he’s kept it pinned to a bulletin board in his office (he’s a Bruce Lee fan).

Postcards also make great writing prompts—I used this in the creative writing workshop I taught this week for teens (I read my essay at the instructor reading, too).

From my Kenyon Review essay:

A postcard arises from a quiet place, before picking up the pen—I think it’s about attention and intention, though there can be something breezy or even rushed, offhand about a postcard….Postcards are incomplete, imperfect, and often say something about one’s travel or daily life—they free us from the sense of having to write something extraordinary or profound. They are a first and only draft. For me, as a writer, that’s such a relief.…Read more here.

What We Keep

IMG_9090My latest essay for the Kenyon Review, in which I write about getting married, the books we keep, and the books we give away—along with thoughts from other writers about how to decide which books are keepers:

“In Marie Kondo’s best-selling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, she writes, “Books are one of the three things that people find hardest to let go.” (The others are paper and miscellany / mementos. Perhaps books are especially hard because they involve aspects of the other two?) So how do we decide what to keep and what to give away? I wrote to several friends, mostly writers, curious to know their thoughts….” Read more here.

Writing with Others

Why is it difficult to begin? At least it often is for me. Right now, my friend Rachel, also a writer, is over and we’ve had oatmeal and strawberries and are writing in my living room instead of a cafe. We went to a cafe a few times last week, but the noise and not being able to control the sounds of people on their phones and talking in loud voices rattled me and left me in a foul mood. It’s easier right now to be at home and to have quiet company.

I’ve got Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind next to me—a book I bought in 1991, with the money from a $10 check I received for publishing a poem in the journal Hanging Loose. Goldberg (I want to say Natalie—I’ve lived with this book for so long—and did hear her speak in Newton, MA once) often writes about the writing and processes behind books—about what it means to be a writer and to commit yourself to that life.

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I retrieved Natalie’s book from my bookcase yesterday to look for some words (an idea of hers) that I may use for a speech I’m giving tomorrow at the Rochester Public Library. Although I seem to have public speaking gigs regularly, they still make nervous. The chapter is called “Who Gave You Permission?” As in—who gave you permission to be a writer. She writes:

There’s someone further along the path, who gives you the nod, who says yes, who adores literature as much as you and so gives you permission to love this odd thing all the way and to continue with it in the face of everything. When I say ‘you ask permission,’ I do not mean you have to go to someone higher up on the totem pole and inquire, Is it okay if I write? Write before you ask anyone. As a matter of fact, never ask anyone; always write, but it is about relationship. You know another writer and this reinforces your own love and commitment. It is not about them saying yes or no; it is about encouragement and friendship. And it is about something deep and unspoken.

I want to say something about this to the high school students I’ll be speaking to tomorrow. They’ve all won awards in a literary contest—the same one I won in 1989, when I was in high school. I want to say something about why writing is important and how I hope they will keep writing—whatever else they may do with their lives. My friend Holly is reading my draft now. I’ll see if Goldberg’s words get cut or stay in. Whether or not I need to edit them for my remarks tomorrow, they stay in here in this blog post.