Pals on the bus

I grew up in one of the oldest neighborhoods of Spokane, Washington. For my family, it was a compelling community that also had a river, and glorious sunsets over that river’s steep banks, and just a two-mile walk to the downtown library. For the rest of the city, it was Felony Flats. Perhaps there was cause for that neighborhood nickname, but it doesn’t match my memories of the place.

I rode the city bus to high school. There was a stop right out the door of our kitchen, which encouraged a sort of casual approach to arriving there on time. I was a friendly kid, and nearly all the bus drivers were friendly enough to toot the horn right before they made the turn to my house, which saved me nine mornings out of ten. On the tenth, I had to run like mad to catch the bus seven blocks up, when it doubled back from its U-shaped route.

I liked to sit up front on the bus, close to the driver and the horizontal rows reserved for people who needed some consideration, and I had a lot of friends in that part of the bus, none of whom was a kid and none of whom had ever caught a bus to go to a private Catholic school. In those NIMBY days, every halfway house in the city was located in my neighborhood, and my 2 North A bus was a college education on wheels.

I don’t remember putting particular labels to my friends on the bus, though those labels pop into mind now: a reverse-time categorization. Oh, so that’s who she was. So that’s what he did. Back then, I didn’t notice their bodies or their clothes: the missing teeth, the tattoos, the slippers instead of shoes, the lisped voices, the odd tics and unusual shakes. It’s only looking back, seeing them from the perspective of a different life, that these traits reveal themselves.

The bus driver’s contract allowed him a four-minute break on a certain block each morning. For years, he would give me a quarter, and I would hop off the bus at a donut shop so that I could buy him a cup of coffee and run back before his break ended. On special days, my ragtag collection of bus friends and I would pool our change to buy donuts, and then we would break however many I could get into an even number of crumbly, powdery pieces, and eat them all the way to my stop.

Every morning, I set off to school with a chorus of voices – some rough, many accented­ – wishing me goodbye, and telling me to hurry, and calling out that we would see each other tomorrow. I wasn’t a cool kid, but I think I was a lucky one.

On Oscars and presidents and me

I’ve been thinking about the Oscars and presidential claims, and mostly about my own journey toward becoming the person I long ago chose to become. And while I know what I want to say, the words come hard: the impulse to parse and truss and calibrate is strong. Twice, I thought not to write at all.

And yet.

The thing is: the desire to be enlightened comes before the enlightenment itself. At 55, I still face my own misconceptions. I give myself credit: I’m willing to believe they’re there. I know that finding them requires personal risk. And I give myself no credit, because why the hell is it that hard?

Last night, I watched the winner of the Oscar for best documentary: OJ Simpson: Made in America. I’d been avoiding it, because all these years later, that case still thrums a line of rage through me. For myself, someone who had worked at the New Haven Project for Battered Women for two years, and was the director of the Spokane Domestic Violence Shelter for one, OJ Simpson’s acquittal was simply proof that a man could kill his wife if he were rich enough to hire the right lawyers. To this day, I never see Alan Dershowitz’ name without an instant of fury, without hearing my mother’s voice: to whom much is given, much is expected. How could someone with all those gifts and all that opportunity use them to exonerate a man who had killed his children’s mother?

I remember a black friend telling me that her family had celebrated the OJ verdict. I’ll admit: I was astonished. And somehow, I hadn’t known. I didn’t have the courage to tell my friend I was surprised, because I knew how much pain was behind her family’s celebration; I knew that her case for injustice might be greater than mine.

And yet.

The documentary places the OJ Simpson case in the context of a southern California where four police officers had been acquitted for beating Rodney King a few years earlier. And there’s a moment in the film in which a woman tells the story of fifteen-year-old Latasha Harlins, who was killed just weeks after King was beaten. Latasha was shot in the back of the head by a storeowner who believed, erroneously, that she was trying to steal a bottle of orange juice. The owner was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, and sentenced to . . . probation. And the woman in the documentary, the woman remembering that incident, says something like, “I couldn’t get over that. Hell, I’m not over it now.” And that was the moment of revelation for me. Of course she couldn’t get over it. It’s unbearable. A child died.

I don’t have a grand wrap-up here. I haven’t said anything new. I just share that these moments of revelation come over and over, long after one might claim the I am not a racist prize. OJ Simpson killed his wife, and my rage that he was declared innocent was not misplaced. And those who celebrated that verdict responded from a deep place, a deep hurt. I’m grateful for that woman who shared her feelings about Latasha Harlins’ death, and for a film that allowed me to see that moment in time through her eyes. I’m grateful to teach in a diverse community college that gives me similar opportunities, as I am grateful for all the books – novels and memoirs in particular – that have done the same. Peace Latasha. Peace to those who loved you.

Yada yada . . . Yaddo!

Last week, Touchstone’s associate publisher, David Falk, sent me a photo he recently took in the Yaddo library. Yaddo is an artist residency program in upstate New York, and I wrote a good chunk of We Are Called to Rise there. During that magical four weeks, I wandered into the library every single day. Its shelves were lined with books written by Yaddo artists, and each night, I took a different one back to my room to read. I don’t remember even once imagining that my novel would join them one day. But . . . look!

In 2014, I wrote this essay about the amazing Yaddo:

Even to me, it seems unlikely. A 50-year-old woman – with no writing history, no MFA, no closet of stories, no folder of poems – pens a novel that becomes a lead title for Simon and Schuster.

I’ve been over it a few times in my head – the parts that were amazing, the parts that were hard work, the parts that were honed craft, the parts that were sheer luck – and I think I have decided that the most unlikely, the most serendipitous, moment of all, the one on which so much of the story hinges, was the moment when some unknown person chose me for a Yaddo residency.

Yaddo is one of the oldest and most famous of American artist retreats. John Cheever once wrote that “the 40 or so acres on which the principal buildings of Yaddo stand have seen more distinguished activity in the arts than any other piece of ground in the English-speaking community or perhaps the world.” It is also the place that brought me to an agent, that introduced me to working artists, and that moved me, in some basic way, from one world to another.

In addition to a beautiful and functional place in which to produce whatever sort of work they do, artists at Yaddo are given privacy, wonderful food, lovely living quarters, and clean sheets every other day. For a working mother, without any sort of home artist community, it was bliss. I didn’t know this, however, before I arrived. In fact, when I got the fat acceptance envelope, I was nonplussed. I hadn’t expected to be accepted. I had applied in part to have something concrete to write in my post-sabbatical summary. But now I would be spending four (isolated) weeks in a place I knew little about and could not quite imagine.

I didn’t know anyone who had ever been to Yaddo. Actually, I didn’t know anyone who had ever heard of Yaddo. The information in that one packet was scant. It appeared to be a mimeographed sheet, updated by hand, and copied again and again for decades. I thought about calling, with a few discreet questions. But then, what if my acceptance were a mistake? Could the invitation be rescinded? Better just to show up at the designated time, suitcase and pen in hand. I’d bring the mimeographed letter.

I looked up Yaddo on the Internet. There were lots of ghost stories. Great. I was to head across country, to a retreat without Internet, to a place in the wild, with ghosts. And if not ghosts, what about egos? What if Yaddo were filled with egomaniacs, narcissists, weirdos? Artists, right?

I thought a lot about declining the offer. A mealy-mouthed thing to do.  Declining something one had requested, for fear of ghosts. I worried. I couldn’t sleep. I bought a can of mace, some camping supplies, matches in a tin; I wasn’t sure what to expect. And I booked four tickets home. One for every Tuesday night I was there. I figured that I could survive a week of anything.

I arrived at Yaddo in mid-April. I wondered about the dark trees looming everywhere, about the sound of horses to the west, about the bedroom doors that did not lock. A fellow artist showed me around, but I didn’t ask her my questions. I made it through the first afternoon, the first dinner. I spent a terrifying first night, with the sort of vivid nightmares a child has, nightmares in which a woman wearing a caftan and a turban hovered over my bed and yelled at me. The next morning at breakfast, someone asked me if I’d slept. Bleary-eyed, unnerved, I confessed to having had nightmares. “Oh,” several people murmured, “About what?” When I told them, there was a collective hush, then a murmur. Someone said “That was ——.  She died in that house.”  “Oh no, it was ——-. She only comes to a few artists. You must be really attuned.” “If it was her, it’s good luck. She loves artists.”

“She didn’t seem very loving,” I mumbled. And thought: I can’t last a week here. 

I made it through a few more days. The room had wonderful light.  It was quiet. There were birds nesting outside my window, the sculptor in the room beside made me laugh, I slept without visitations, a videographer smuggled me a flash drive of Game of Thrones. I was starting to like the place. One day, someone asked me if I used a pseudonym: “I can’t find anything you’ve written.” I cringed. The next day, someone else asked about the pseudonym, and I found my answer: “I haven’t published anything. I don’t know why I’m here either.” And the listener shrugged. No big deal.

I wrote like a fiend at Yaddo. I never missed breakfast – it was such a treat to be fed – and then I took my Yaddo lunchbox to my writing studio. (My studio had a turret and people called it the breast room, which someone eventually explained to me was because Philip Roth wrote The Breast there. I have no idea if this is true, but I did reread The Breast in that room, for good measure.) There, I wrote wildly, freely, with the sense that what I was doing mattered to someone, with the idea that I should work at least as hard as all the folks taking care of me at Yaddo, for eight hours each day.

And then I would get some exercise (hitch a ride with another artist to the Y, take a walk, or ride a bike along the trails of the 400-acre estate) and head over to dinner, eager to see my fellow artists, eager for the stories and the laughter and the ideas that 12 or 20 artists who have been intensely working all day will share. I sometimes worked in the evenings, but usually I joined other artists playing games in the West House common room, or snuck into the music hall to listen to a composer practicing, or best of all, joined another artist spontaneously sharing his or her current work with the rest of us.

I didn’t write the novel because of Yaddo. I would have written it anyway, though it would have taken longer, and I think I would have written the same novel. So what did Yaddo mean to me? What does it mean to this book? To this writer’s path?

Well, first, I got a lot of writing done there. I had time and space and care, and for me, those were author steroids.

And second, I made  critical connections, ones I had no way to make from my own life. A fellow Yaddo writer, on learning I did not have an agent, offered to contact hers, and then another writer did the same, and then a third. My agent read my manuscript because someone she trusted had recommended it, and that someone trusted me because we met at Yaddo.

But third, and critically, Yaddo was the place at which I first allowed that what I was doing was not mere indulgence, mere time-out from my real life of teaching students and paying bills and being a responsible member of my community. What I was doing, this thing I loved to do, this thing that felt like indulgence because I loved it so much, was valuable, important work. Not my writing, per se, but that someone writes, that art is produced, that artists thrive.

Yaddo is a living embodiment that art matters. From the generous trust that created it, to the hard-working staff that coordinate the programs and maintain the property and care for the artists, to the folks who give to support it, to all of the artists who have treasured it, Yaddo is one big billboard screaming: trying to say something true in a beautiful way is a worthwhile endeavor, all by itself.

So, I have an unlikely writer’s path. I have always thought of myself as a writer, I have always known myself to be someone who treasured words, I have spent a lifetime thinking about words, about sentences, about communication, about writing. I have read and thought and lived and waited for the chance to write.  And when that chance came, when five months of glorious sabbatical, when four weeks of lovely Yaddo, came, I did not hesitate, I did not dally: I wrote and wrote and wrote. And now I have a book, and you can read it, and I am thinking of another one, of other ones. I am noting and writing and waiting: for the chance again to do something so loved.

Bookanista July 2014

Love the pics . . .

I promised you something new (and something old). The something new is this two-minute video of me talking about ‘Round Midnight, produced by my very cool publisher Touchstone Books.

Photos (and videos) are the only part of being a writer I don’t like. But I do want you to read my books! So, here are two minutes of me answering questions about a story I loved imagining.

On concentration

As for something old, here’s an essay I wrote for Bill Wolfe’s blog in 2014. I’ve been thinking about this piece, because of a conversation I had with some of my students, and because Rebecca Solnit had a beautiful essay about Virginia Woolf in last week’s New Yorker. Virginia Woolf revealed to me the dramatic power of a character’s internal life, and even now, I can close my eyes and conjure up the way I felt when I read certain lines for the first time.

Originally published June 2, 2014 (on my birthday!)

About a million years ago, when I was in college, I did my senior thesis on Virginia Woolf. It was an odd choice of topic – for an American Studies major – but my department was an easygoing place. They didn’t mind that I was preparing to launch my deepest academic work on a British author I knew nothing about. They just asked me to find my own qualified advisor (which they might have thought would be limiting) so I queried my friends in the dining hall, and someone recommended J. Hillis Miller (a famed member of the Yale deconstructionists).  I made an appointment, and asked if he would take me on.

I have no idea why he said yes. I may have struck him as a raw primitive, he may just have been that sort of professor. On that first day, he established the rules. Read everything that Virginia Woolf had ever written, several times if possible. Read the autobiography by her nephew Quentin Bell. Read not one word of criticism or review. Not an essay, not a book, not a damn student editorial. And meet with him, once a week, for an hour, maybe two. (Can you believe that? Yale was great.)

I don’t remember any particular form for our sessions. I don’t remember poring over lines from the text, or discussing any literary theory. I don’t remember any formal analysis at all; mostly, we just chatted about whatever I was reading then. It was courteous; there was a pretense of intellectual equality. I remember my youthful enthusiasms; I must have bored him terribly. And then, when the hour or so was up, Professor Miller said “Alright, Laura, back to your reading.”

And that is how I spent many months, steeped in Virginia Woolf – her life and temperament so different from my own – with no particular expectations and no particular knowledge. It was magical. I don’t know how much I remember from that reading – I have that sort of mind – but I did eventually write a brutally long (for the reader, that is) essay on The Waves. No evidence of it exists – thankfully – but I vaguely remember an experimental beginning in stream-of-consciousness style. Ouch.

It seems to me that I often don’t know when I am in the middle of an extraordinary moment, when I am doing something I will never do again, and those months reading Virginia Woolf and talking about it with Hillis Miller, in that way, in that delightfully casual way, was such a moment.

I also learned two things.

One, it is a great pleasure to discover something in literature for oneself. To read a review, a critique, or an analysis is to lose something of one’s own impressions forever. I am careful of the chatter of other minds, even if they are better than my own. I try to strike the balance thoughtfully: between reading what others are reading at a given moment,which offers the great pleasure of shared experience, and reading what no-one else is reading at the time, for the different pleasure of silent space.

Two, when I write, I focus. I rewrote that senior thesis, all 40-some pages of it, on the day before it was due. I had woken up with the clear realization that the essay was terrible, and also with a clear idea of how to fix it. It was a Thursday in December, bitterly cold; I went to the Mudd Library, which had wonderful light, and I sat down at a table in the middle of the reading room and began to write. I wrote furiously. I remember my hand cramping several times, and I remember shaking my fingers angrily; I had to hurry.

I started writing when the doors opened at eight, and when I finished, when I wrote the very last word, the first thing I did was look at my watch. It was after four in the afternoon. I was relieved that I had finished before the library closed at five, I was surprised that I had been sitting so long. I remember those two thoughts, and then I remember realizing that I was cold. I was freezing. I was so cold that the feet of my chair were banging against the wood floor as my body shook. I could barely stand up – I was so cold and cramped – and also, I was hungry, I needed a bathroom, and it was getting dark; I could barely see the page on which I had just been writing. I looked up to see a young man, a graduate student probably, dressed in a winter coat and a stocking cap and gloves, with a red nose.

“Are you finished?” he said.

“I’m cold,” I almost yelled back. “There’s something wrong with the heat in here. I’m really cold. And it’s dark.”  I was a bit frantic, not at all polite.

“Yes,” he said. ‘The power went out about ten this morning. The library’s been closed since noon. We asked you to leave several times, but you never looked up, so I said I would just wait here until you were done.”

I really wish I knew who that man was. Wow, I really wish I knew who he was. But then, perhaps you can see why I stopped writing when my children were small.

Rebecca Solnit’s essay

“My Year with Virginia Woolf”

Welcome readers

My idea is to post occasional writing here – sometimes just for you, and sometimes an essay I originally published elsewhere. This week, I’m busy going crazy with a new website, but by next week, I’ll have something new and something old for you. Hold me to it!