If you get HBO, don’t miss this. All the YoungArts shows are terrific but this has been my favorite yet.
It started as a flicker of interest. A throw-away phrase that hit home. An understanding. I am a married woman.
Suddenly he wasn’t married anymore. He told me a few of the stories and we railed together against faithlessness. I had also been cheated on, done wrong. But not by my husband.
How hard it is to think you’re looking at the horizon with someone only to find out that she is looking at the door. But sympathy is tricky. It can lead to the desire to comfort. He was so alone.
Desire is easy. It is casual and plentiful. It comes like wind off the water, quick, steady, and passing. In this other man, I see other places I have been. In other times, and in other situations, we would have had sex. And the sex would be good. Sometimes you can just tell.
I know that crushes happen, even if you’re in for the long haul. And it’s the long haul that makes me more sympathetic to this other man. I know how to love better than I used to, how to balance the thick and the thin.
And I think he knows this too. But I am not his wife. I am not a betrayer. I keep thinking crush, keep thinking no, keep thinking desire is easy, and love is hard. I am getting older. I let myself feel desire. And I continue to choose love.
Tell us, if you like, about a crush.
When I was a girl, my family had a collection of records and a pair of enormous cushioned headphones with a curly cord to connect them to the stereo. I used to lie on the floor for hours, lifting the needle like a junkie to replay my favorite songs, over and over and over and over, hundreds of times in some cases. I’ve always had strange taste in music, strange addictions to songs that caught my attention and refused to let go until the song and the images it evoked had played out so many times that they finally failed to move me. Only then, exhausted and dissatisfied at losing the high, would I be able to move on.
These compulsions are still with me. I read things—passages and whole books, blog posts and comments and emails and articles—over and over, for no productive reason except to satisfy the deepest imaginable itch. Some words, some collections of words, have such a rhythm and fluidity, such a dizzying rightness, that I can’t let them go. I often feel as if I’m dancing a reel, spinning first with one partner and then the next, caught in the centrifugal force of some mysterious reaction that to this day I can’t explain.
This song was on a record I saved up my allowance to purchase: The Storytellers, a double album by various artists, which I ordered from a magazine insert. It had songs like Ode to Billie Joe, Shannon, Killing Me Softly, and Daniel. But this song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot, is the one that haunted me, the one I played again and again. And again. And again…
Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice water mansion
Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams
The islands and bays are for sportsmen.
And farther below Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her.
And the iron boats go, as the mariners all know,
With the gales of November remembered.
That I listened to this song, (such a repetitive melody, like a prayer or a meditation) at least four hundred times tells you as much about my childhood as it’s possible to know.
How obsessive are you, really?
I got with somebody’s date
you’re like a soap opera cover
my lover self-automates
you say a-somebody say
you’re like salve for a leper
you’re sweet for somebody’s pain
yeah, you got to live for your own
you say you got all the sordid details
check out retail
watch it sell
Dear Mr. Green,
I’ve never written a fan letter to an author before. It has always seemed self-evident that anyone who could write something as funny and romantic and achingly tragic as The Fault In Our Stars should know his book is going to leave a wide swath of toppled readers in its wake. Far be it from me to add unnecessarily to the inbox. But in this case I really must stuff my note into the metaphorical Hefty bag, because I loved Hazel and Augustus and even horrible old Peter the Doughboy (okay, maybe not him so much), and I want to thank you for the experience you’ve given me. I am grateful for every second these characters spent in my mind. They will never leave it.
I happened upon this lovely set of videos by Lauren Oliver, who describes how her book, The Spindlers, went from idea to finished product. The videos are probably intended for children but I watched some of them twice.
Today I got approval for my next book, Blackbird. (!) Time to celebrate and build a writing play list—the best of writerly treats, and not to be missed. Sir Elton’s kicking this one off.
Yeah. I’m singing it and I don’t care who hears me. Sorry, neighbors.
I’ve been emailing with my sister about our various projects and goings-on. She’s planning a second trip to India, and said this when I asked about the itinerary:
We were going to concentrate on the south of India, but if we are going that far I must go to Dharamsala which is where the Dalai Lama lives. So there is all kinds of Tibetan culture and a huge Buddhist temple/compound that I want to check out, and just putts around the town. Then since we are north we are going to Varanasi which we wanted to do last time, but cut it out. Then south to Kerala and Goa where we went before, but spending more time there. The beaches of Goa are glorious! And Kerala is where we stayed the night on the houseboat last time and cruised the backwaters. It’s so lush and green. Then maybe Mumbai for 2 nights on our way home. I don’t really care about Mumbai and Sharon did it last time with TJ, so we’ll see. . . .
There is something so beautiful about a traveler’s spirit. That wish for new experience, for foreign cultures and unfamiliar vistas, the willingness to accept a stranger’s generosity with gratitude and wholehearted joy—it takes so much more than I have. More courage, more physicality, a bigger heart and an open mind. My sister has those qualities in abundance; me, not so much. I satisfy my wanderlust the lazy way, in the vicarious thrill of reading about these exotic places and knowing my sister will see them. She’s going on a journey. An adventure! She’s going to see the world.
I wish I shared her desire for sensual experience. My world is vast but locked up tight inside my head and largely unsharable. I’d rather think about a place than actually go there. I am the mountain to my sister’s Mohammad, and this post is as close to Varanasi as I will ever get.
How do you feel about travel?
This morning I finished Breath by Tim Winton. (And I started it yesterday afternoon.) It’s been too long since I was swept up in a novel like this:
I couldn’t have put words to it as a boy, but later I understood what seized my imagination that day. How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared. In Sawyer, a town of millers and loggers and dairy farmers, with one butcher and a rep from the rural bank beside the BP, men did solid, practical things, mostly with their hands. Perhaps a baker might have had a chance to make something as pretty as it was tasty, but our baker was a woman anyway, a person as dour and blunt as any boy’s father and she baked loaves like housebricks. For style we had a couple of local footballers with a nice leap and a tidy torpedo punt, and I would concede that my father rowed a wooden boat as sweetly as I’d seen it done, in a manner that disguised and discounted all effort, but apart from that and those old coves with plastic teeth and necks like turtles who got pissed on Anzac Day and sang sad songs on the verandah of the Riverside before they passed out, there wasn’t much room for beauty in the lives of our men. The only exception was the strange Yuri Orlov, who carved lovely old-world toys from stuff he fossicked up from the forest floor. But he didn’t like to show his work. He was shy or careful and people said he was half mad anyway. When it came to blokes, he was all the useless beauty the town could manage.
For all those years when Loonie and I surfed together, having caught the bug that first morning at the Point, we never spoke about the business of beauty. We were mates but there were places our conversation simply couldn’t go. There was never any doubt about the primary thrill of surfing, the huge body-rush we got flying down the line with the wind in our ears. We didn’t know what endorphins were but we quickly understood how narcotic the feeling was, and how addictive it became; from day one I was stoned just from watching. We talked about skill and courage and luck — we shared all that, and in time we surfed to fool with death — but for me there was still the outlaw feeling of doing something graceful, as if dancing on water was the best and bravest thing a man could do.
If that doesn’t enchant you, I don’t know what more I can possibly say.
What kind of danger did you find as a kid?
“You know, there is a quote-unquote political story by Chekhov. It’s called “Grief,” and in the story all that happens is there is a man who drives a horse-drawn cab and his son has died earlier that day. The whole story is he can’t get anyone to listen to him about his heartbreak. At the end of the story, he goes into the stall with the horse and takes the horse’s head and just says, ‘My son died today, I loved him very much.’ Is that a political story? Not really, except we are 10 years away from the Russian Revolution. So to me, if you want to explore a political idea in the highest possible way, you embody it in the personal, because that’s something that no one can deny. Whatever your supposed politics are — left, right — if you put it in a human connection, most people will rise to the occasion and feel the human pain in a way that they might not if it was presented in a more conceptual way.”
~ George Saunders
All those men were there inside,
when she came in totally naked.
They had been drinking: they began to spit.
Newly come from the river, she knew nothing.
She was a mermaid who had lost her way.
The insults flowed down her gleaming flesh.
Obscenities drowned her golden breasts.
Not knowing tears, she did not weep tears.
Not knowing clothes, she did not have clothes.
They blackened her with burnt corks and cigarette stubs,
and rolled around laughing on the tavern floor.
She did not speak because she had no speech.
Her eyes were the colour of distant love,
her twin arms were made of white topaz.
Her lips moved, silent, in a coral light,
and suddenly she went out by that door.
Entering the river she was cleaned,
shining like a white stone in the rain,
and without looking back she swam again
swam towards emptiness, swam towards death.
~ Pablo Neruda
This morning over toast and OJ, my son told me about a book they’ve been reading in class. On the surface, it’s a story about a donkey who finds a magic orange marble and uses it to change into other things, and to change the world around him. But the unfortunate donkey accidentally morphs himself into a rock and becomes stuck that way. My son’s teacher explained that there is a second story behind the scenes, the marble being a metaphor for the prescription drugs the author’s son became addicted to.
As a rule, books are not a popular topic of conversation at my house. If pressed, my son will offer a plot rundown or give me some of the action-packed highlights, complete with sound effects. But this simple story about a talking donkey got his attention, because of the symbolism. Because there’s something more to it than what’s on the surface, and that deeper meaning makes the story infinitely more satisfying. I remember reading Billy Budd in high school, and listening to my teacher’s discussion of how Billy might be a metaphor for Jesus, and how this explained the profound effect his death had on the other characters. I remember feeling as though someone had given me a golden key.
My son is off to school now and I am back to work on my synopsis, reading my editor’s notes and wondering what it all means. What’s the orange marble here. Where’s the golden key.
What are you really writing about?
To be inspired: we know what it means, even how it sometimes feels, but what is it, exactly? Filled suddenly and often helplessly with renewed life and energy, a sense of excitement that can barely be contained; but why some things—a word, a glance, a scene glimpsed from a window, a random memory, a fragrance, a conversational anecdote, a fragment of music, or of a dream—have the power to stimulate us to intense creativity while most others do not, we are unable to say. We all know what it was like to have been inspired, in the past; yet we can’t have faith that we will be inspired in the future. Most writers apply themselves doggedly to their work, hoping that inspiration will return. It can be like striking a damp match again, again, again; hoping a small flame will leap out, before the match breaks.
~ Joyce Carol Oates, The Faith of a Writer
Do you strike the damp match, or wait for inspiration to strike you?
I was following the pack,
all swallowed in their coats
with scarves of red tied ’round their throats
to keep their little heads
from falling in the snow
and I turned ’round and there you go
and Michael, you would fall,
and turn the white snow
red as strawberries in the summertime
I believe that the main thing in beginning a novel is to feel, not that you can write it, but that it exists on the far side of a gulf, which words can’t cross: that it’s to be pulled through only in a breathless anguish. Now when I sit down to write an article, I have a net of words which will come down on the idea certainly in an hour or so. But a novel . . . to be good should seem, before one writes it, something unwriteable; but only visible; so that for nine months one lives in despair, and only when one has forgotten what one meant, does the book seem tolerable.
~ Virginia Woolf, excerpted in The Faith of a Writer by Joyce Carol Oates
When does the story seem most real to you? Before or after you write it?
Drew left this morning for another two or three-week stretch. I stood in the silence on this side of the door, looked down at Izzy who was doing the same thing. We decided on an extra-long walk, breakfast, and a cuddle in the big chair which is where I am at the moment, wedged between the cushions with Izzy’s warm little body pressed to my thigh and the wind hissing through the trees outside. The birds are quiet today, hushed by the wind, tossed across the sky like leaves or cleaving grimly to the branches with their heads tucked down, small and scowling. A strong gust sweeps through; some acorns plunk to the ground in a rhythm, like the paws of an animal padding by. Closer, my pen scratches a doodle in the margin. Izzy whimpers in her sleep. I yawn, blow the steam from my coffee, tuck the blankets around my feet and begin to write.
What do you hear?
I am sitting on a park bench, a spiral notebook in my lap. The lake has grown still, with jewel-bright patches of algae on its surface and the dissipating wakes of the water birds. The tire swing is empty, dripping with dew. Everyone is walking in unmatched pairs: an old Asian lady with a towheaded child of three; teenage boy, dark as mahogany, and a middle-aged white man in a button-down shirt; an overgrown boy in plastic glasses, bent sideways to look into his father’s face as they walk together down the path. The father is limping, the son padding eagerly underfoot. Pooooor Daddy! the son says, and the older man’s expression is equal parts love and masculine chagrin. He switches the aluminum cane to his other hand–a one-post fence in the space between them.
Who did you see today?
It’s been a rough week. Hearts are breaking all around me. People–my people–are in pain. Some kind souls are made for comfort and always know the right thing to do or say, always have a helpful perspective or a sturdy shoulder to cry on. I wish I were one of those people.
I can only say that I love you, and you’re on my mind.
The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words all being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible. You might, if you chose, develop any part of the picture, for the idea of sequence does not really exist as far as the author is concerned. Sequence arises only because words have to be written one after the other on consecutive pages, just as the reader’s mind must have time to go through the book, at least the first time he reads it. If the mind were constructed on optional lines and if a book could be read in the same way as a painting is taken in by the eye, that is, without the bother of working from left to right, and without the absurdity of beginnings and ends, this would be the ideal way of appreciating a novel, for thus the author saw it at the moment of conception.
~ Vladimir Nabokov