On Middle Age

Goodness, I suppose I must be middle-aged. By which I mean that I’m in my 40s, and that’s what they call middle age, right? It’s supposedly somewhere in the middle . . .

Although my grandmother lived to 96, and I’m not halfway there yet. And I don’t feel as though I’m in the middle of anything. One of the problems of being an artist is that you feel, always and for all time, as though you’re at the beginning, just getting started. You don’t think Picasso sat around thinking, “I’m in the middle,” do you? No, he was always at the beginning of another period, of discovering the way to paint. Sometimes I beat myself up mentally, asking myself, why haven’t I accomplished anything yet? Why am I still at the very beginning of writing? And then I remind myself that I’ve been at this ten years, that I’ve published four books. Oh, but those were poems, stories, essays, I think. Not a novel, not yet. And anyway, I’m still learning . . .

Every night, when I sit down in front of the computer and write a new sentence, I learn something new. Every sentence is a beginning.

So perhaps middle-age means physically? But I feel healthier than I’ve ever felt in my life, more fit both physically and mentally. I have back problems, but those started in my twenties, when an Evil Partner at my law firm cast a curse that kept me revising documents for the financing of a technology startup, twelve hours a day. After a week, I couldn’t move my neck. When I went to see the doctor, she told me it looked as though I had been in a car accident. Ever since, I’ve had back problems. So I go to a magical Physical Therapist, and I exercise, and try to get enough sleep, and manage as best I can. I will never get rid of the underlying injury.

The strange thing about writing a blog is that I can remember back, two years ago, when I started this one. I was still working on my doctoral dissertation, then. I remember writing about butterflies, and how when they are in the chrysalis, they must feel as though they’re dying. I wrote that because I felt that way myself, at the time. I had faith, then, that I would emerge at some point, and that what I would emerge as would look like a butterfly.

And guess what? I feel like a butterfly. A very tired butterfly, sometimes. But free, and beautiful, and able to do all sorts of things I could only dream about, when in the caterpillar stage of my twenties and thirties. Like, you know, fly . . . So whatever age I am now, whether middle or something else, thank goodness for it.

This year, several people I knew died, in their thirties or forties. What was the middle for them — their teens? Twenties? The truth is, we don’t know what the middle of a life is. We never know. So I’ve decided that middle age is like fairies, or the stock market — it exists only if people believe in it. I’m not sure I do. (At least, I’m more likely to believe in fairies . . .)

If I had to describe the way I feel, today, the day before my birthday, I would have to say that I feel as though I’m in my late childhood. Just emerging from the process of learning who I am, for the first time confident enough to say “I think I know.” Not yet confident enough to say “I know,” but I don’t think I’ll ever get there, because I keep changing. As do we all. We have a tendency to discount how much we change, how much life changes around us. We think the present is it, that in the present we have arrived somewhere. But we haven’t. We don’t arrive anywhere until our deaths — everything else is journey. And where we are on that journey . . . we just don’t know.

Personally, I intend to live until I’m a hundred. And I intend to write all the way. Perhaps by the time I reach my 80s, I’ll know what I’m doing.

Dora 1

This was me last weekend, out in the country visiting Fruitlands, the farm where Bronson Alcott and his family tried to create a rural utopia. It didn’t work very well . . . But it makes for a wonderful visit in fall, when the trees are starting to turn yellow and orange and red, and the apples are hanging on the trees. And then there was apple pie and maple walnut ice cream. A wonderful way to spend a birthday . . .

Landscape 4

Telling Stories

In a blog post called “The Storyteller’s Art,” Terri Windling included a wonderful quotation from Philip Pullman:

“[T]here was a sort of embarrassment about storytelling that struck home powerfully about one hundred years ago, at the beginning of modernism. We see a similar reaction in painting and in music. It’s a preoccupation suddenly with the surface rather than the depth. So you get, for example, Picasso and Braque making all kinds of experiments with the actual surface of the painting. That becomes the interesting thing, much more interesting than the thing depicted, which is just an old newspaper, a glass of wine, something like that. In music, the Second Viennese School becomes very interested in what happens when the surface, the diatonic structure of the keys breaks down, and we look at the notes themselves in a sort of tone row, instead of concentrating on things like tunes, which are sort of further in, if you like. That happened, of course, in literature, too, with such great works as James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is all about, really, how it’s told. Not so much about what happens, which is a pretty banal event in a banal man’s life. It’s about how it’s told. The surface suddenly became passionately interesting to artists in every field about a hundred years ago . . .

“In the field of literature, story retreated. The books we talked about just now, Middlemarch, Bleak House, Vanity Fair — their authors were the great storytellers as well as the great artists. After modernism, things changed. Indeed, modernism sometimes seems to me like an equivalent of the Fall. Remember, the first thing Adam and Eve did when they ate the fruit was to discover that they had no clothes on. They were embarrassed. Embarrassment was the first consequence of the Fall. And embarrassment was the first literary consequence of this modernist discovery of the surface. ‘Am I telling a story? Oh my God, this is terrible. I must stop telling a story and focus on the minute gradations of consciousness’ . . .

“So there was a great split that took place. Story retreated, as it were, into genre fiction — into crime fiction, into science fiction, into romantic fiction — whereas the high-art literary people went another way. Children’s books held onto the story, because children are rarely interested in surfaces in that sort of way. They’re interested in what-happened and what-happened-next.

“I found it a great discipline, when I was writing The Golden Compass and other books, to think that there were some children in the audience. I put it like that because I don’t say I write for children. I find it hard to understand how some writers can say with great confidence, ‘Oh, I write for fourth grade children’ or ‘I write for boys of 12 or 13.’ How do they know? I don’t know. I would rather consider myself in the rather romantic position of the old storyteller in the marketplace: you sit down on your little bit of carpet with your hat upturned in front of you, and you start to tell a story.”

I read this and immediately thought, YES. I want to tell stories, that’s what I’m doing . . . telling stories. All of my stories are, actually, stories in which things happen. Important things: people die, countries are born. In other words, they have plot. Shhh . . . plot can be sort of a bad word nowadays. And I understand why, because honestly, a story that is all plot, with little else going on, is rather dull. Who cares what happens when we don’t understand where we are, who the characters are. When the story is written in a purely utilitarian way. But I like to have a plot, and I actually think plotting is an important part of the storyteller’s art. I want my audience to go, “Wait, and then what? What happened next?” I want to keep you awake reading the next chapter . . .

Pullman’s distinction between surface and depth seems important to me. I value art that has both: Van Gogh and Virginia Woolf, where the surface has texture and interest, and the depth has passion and incident. Mastery is being able to work both at once: to create an art that has both surface and depth.

And that, dear reader, is exactly what I’m trying to do. Plot and setting and character and theme and style. All at the same time, like a juggler of golden apples.

Irises

This, of course, is Van Gogh’s Irises . . .

Following Your Road

I keep seeing articles of various sorts about “Finding Your Purpose.” I think they’re about the wrong thing.

Nowadays, we’re all supposed to find our purpose in life: the fundamental reason we were born, the thing we are supposed to do. I think some people have a purpose, but most people don’t. If they had a purpose, they wouldn’t have to find it — a purpose isn’t something you find. It finds you.

I have a purpose: I don’t remember a time before I knew that I was a writer. My first published poems are from high school, in the high school literary magazine. I published poems and short stories in the college literary magazine. I was in a literary and debating society. I was an English major. In law school, I worked on a novel at night and published poems in a professional poetry journal for the first time. While working as a corporate lawyer, I wrote poetry while eating lunch and hid novels in my desk. When I realized that corporate law would never allow me to write seriously, I quit a job in which I was making $100,000 a year (that’s not a typo) the month after my last student loan was paid off. The month after that, I started graduate school. That year, I lived on a $10,000 stipend.

Having a purpose makes things easier in some ways. It immediately sets your priorities. I knew the important thing was for me to learn as much as possible about English literature, so I went to graduate school. Making money was . . . not even secondary. It was nothing, if I could not write. My law firm was full of people who didn’t particularly want to be there, but they didn’t know what else they wanted to do either. So they stayed.

No, if you have a purpose, it will find you. It found me young — it might find you later in life. A purpose has its own timetable, its own agenda.

What you want to do, in the meantime, is follow your road. I think that’s a lot easier than finding a purpose. With a purpose, you think, is this it? Or this? And of course it’s not, because if it were, you would know. But a road . . . you’re already on a road. Now you have to decide whether it’s the right one.

I think we each have a road, and I think we know whether it’s the right road. I think we can sense it. Have you ever been on the wrong road? Been in the wrong town, profession, relationship . . . You knew, didn’t you? You either knew and admitted it to yourself, or knew and hid it from yourself, but secretly knew underneath. You could feel the wrongness. I think following the wrong road makes you feel sick. That’s how I felt when I was a corporate lawyer. I knew it was a road I had not chosen for myself, an road I was following because other people wanted me to, because they very much emphatically did not want me to follow the road I knew was right. I felt that wrongness the day I arrived at law school.

The thing about your road is, it’s not always easy. It’s not always straight. Sometimes, you will twist your ankle on the stones. Sometimes, you will fall in the mire. But that road is always yours. You may sometimes doubt it, or hate the lessons you’re learning along the way. But it will feel authentically your own. Even the lessons you hate will feel like your lessons. You will own that road. You will own the doubt and wrong turns. And sometimes those wrong turns will lead you right. Sometimes they won’t, and you’ll make mistakes, and have regrets, and feel a sense of shame. But those will be your mistakes, and regrets, and shame. At least you won’t be feeling anyone else’s.

Your road may look completely different than what anyone else thinks it should look like. You may have to say, “But it feels right to live on an organic farm,” or “But I want to be a senator,” or “I know, I never thought I would be writing comic strips either, but here I am.” Or raising sheep dogs. Or raising kids. Or running a hardware store. Who knows — well, you do, or you will, once you get there. The thing about a road is, it’s not a destination. You may only be able to see a few steps ahead at some points. You have to trust your instincts, that feeling in the pit of your stomach.  If you can only see a few steps ahead, well, take those steps. Maybe then you’ll be able to see a few more steps . . . And you have to be honest with yourself about whether or not it’s your road. No lying, no “It’s a perfectly good road, and my parents like it, and my friends like it, and everyone approves of me being on this road, so it must be the right one.”

I honestly don’t think you can live a meaningful, fulfilling life walking anyone else’s road.

Somewhere along that road, you may encounter your purpose. Or maybe not. But you’ll be traveling along a road, and the road will be yours. And that’s the important thing.

Dora in Woods

This is me on the road behind the Stone House, at the Stonecoast MFA Program, where I was teaching this summer. That day, it felt like my road, the road I should be walking along both actually and metaphorically.  I owned that road . . .

Learning to Decorate

I’m decorating my new apartment. It’s not that new anymore, actually — I moved in June, but then I immediately went to a literary convention, and then to teach up in Maine, and then I had a few weeks to unpack before I went to visit family in California. And then the semester started. So it’s really only been in the last month that I’ve been able to decorate. This apartment is larger than my last one, so decorating involves buying new furniture or refinishing old furniture. Which takes a while . . .

I never learned how to decorate as a child. I think some people do — they watch their parents put together rooms, and get a sense of what rooms should contain, what they should look like. What makes for a comfortable, beautiful space. But I didn’t learn that, I think for two reasons. First, I was growing up in the seventies, when ugliness seemed fresh and new. No, really — isn’t that what happened? After the sixties, beauty and comfort seemed old, done — and worse, reactionary. Art and architecture embraced the ugly, which at the time seemed powerful. It seemed to make a statement, although I’m not sure anyone actually knew what it was saying. Now, in retrospect, it just seems sad: those hideous sweaters and sweater-skirts, sweater-pants. (If you grew up in the seventies, you know what I mean.) On my university campus, the law school was once a famous example of Brutalist architecture. It’s now being entirely rebuilt, partly because it turned out to be impractical to actually use, but partly because no one wants to look at it. And the same sort of thing happened in decorating.

The second reason was that I grew up with a mother who prefers the modern and minimal: no curtains, a bed that is essentially a box. When I was in Middle School, I was put into a class called Home Economics that really should have been called Reinforcing Gender Stereotypes. (The other option was Shop, in which all the boys built things.) One assignment asked us to take a cardboard box and decorate it, as though it were a room in a doll’s house. I failed the assignment because my room was modern, minimalist. I lost points for the lack of curtains, for having almost no furniture. But our house had no curtains either . . . I fought against that minimalism in my own way. In my room, I put up bed curtains, bought Laura Ashley sheets. I wanted to be romantic (I was a teenager, after all), and so I wanted my room to be romantic. It’s hard to create a romantic modern, minimalist room . . .

I learned to decorate as an adult, the same way I’ve learned most things in my life: from books. I always cared about my living spaces, always thought of them as extensions of myself. And so I bought decorating books. I would flip through them in the bookstore, picking out the ones whose pictures made me go “Yes, that.” They had titles with words in them like “mission style” and “shabby chic” and “cottage.” And I started to create my spaces, buy the furniture that would go in them and that I would carry around with me, from space to space. The curtains, the pillows, the paintings.

I believe, more strongly than ever, that the spaces we live in are important: that they should be comfortable and beautiful. They should help us become, and function as, who we are. And I believe in saving money as much as possible, in doing as much as one can oneself. Which is why I sometimes have paint on my clothes . . . This week, I painted a bookshelf, a chair, and a mirror. You can see them all being painted here:

Painting Furniture

Decorating 2

I chose the color some time ago: it’s called Flax, and it’s a cream, but not a warm cream. Almost a beigy cream. It echoes the beiges and creams that are the basic color scheme of the apartment. The shelf was already that color when I bought it, and just needed some fresh paint to cover scratches and wear. The mirror was a cheap hardware store mirror I had bought, originally stained brown and with that shiny cheap furniture finish. I wanted it to look old, like a mirror I could have bought in an antiques store, or that my grandmother had given me. So I painted it Flax. It makes me much happier now, and looks just right in its corner of my bedroom, in front of the shelf.

Mirror

The entire space is a work in progress, but I’ll show you what my living room looks like. It took a long time to learn how to decorate, because it was a process of learning not just how to put together a room, but of learning myself — my own tastes, what would make me happy. What would fit how I lived and what I needed. If a room, a house, doesn’t fit the people who live in it, it’s decorated wrong. So this is my taste, which might not be yours . . .

Room 1

I love my red curtains, which I bought at a home good store.  They were the cheapest and simplest I could find, all cotton so they can be washed in a machine.  I’m not a fan of anything requiring special care.  You can see the paintings lined up by the shelves, waiting to be hanged.  But I’m not sure where to put some of them yet. And my favorite Victorian slipper chair, which I bought at an antiques store, is covered with a sample of the fabric in which I will eventually have it reupholstered.

Room 2

My small table, which I refinished, with the chairs I reupholstered myself. You can just glimpse the chair I was repainting behind the table.  I found it, battered and needing care, in a thrift store.  It looks so lovely now . . .  And my birdcage, with birds on the outside.  (They always go on the outside.)  The bolt of fabric in the corner came just this week.  I’m going to sew it into pillows for the daybed (not pictured because it’s on the other side of the room, and also being repainted).

Room 3

And one of my desks (I have two), both of which I refinished.  This is the one where I prepare to teach — the other is the one I write on.  The wall is still waiting for more pictures.  And did you notice?  I not only have curtains, I have two sets of curtains (three windows, six curtains in all).  I think I have, at least, mastered the curtains part of decorating . . .

Dealing with Envy

If envy turned you green, there are days I would look like a cucumber.

At the moment, I’m reading Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. In it, she talks about how difficult writing is: how you sit down each morning in front of the blank page, and you have to fill it. She describes her writing routine, which involves writing in the morning, revising in the afternoon, in a room of her house in rural Connecticut. And I find myself envying her.

This is what my writing routine looked like yesterday: In the morning, I got up and prepared for class, which involved grading the papers I had not gotten to the night before. I went over my lesson plan, made sure I knew what I would be talking about that day. Then I taught my morning class. Back for lunch and to drop off my laptop. Then I taught my two afternoon classes. Then I went directly to physical therapy — usually I would have office hours, but it was the only time this week I could schedule an appointment, so I moved my office hours to another day. The physical therapy helps me so much — makes it so much easier for me to do my teaching and writing — that I don’t want to miss a week. Being able to write without back pain is a wonderful, wonderful thing!

Then I had time to run to the grocery store for oatmeal and sugar, and when I got back, it was time to Skype with one of my graduate students. Then dinner. Then a bath. And then, finally then, at about 9 p.m., I sat down in front of my computer, honestly feeling a sense of despair because I had not been able to write for about a week — all the other days had been even busier. Finally, I had time to write, and I didn’t even know if I wanted to.

But I started anyway, because one of my mottoes is “Do it anyway.” So I started, and then I was up writing until midnight, because once I started, I didn’t want to stop. I need to get back to novel revisions, but first I need to finish all the administrative work that one is given at the beginning of any semester. I’m almost done, but in the meantime, I wanted to write something else to clear my head — so I’m writing a fairy tale, called “Red as Blood and White as Bone.”

But envy . . . I envy other writers their time, their space, their financial resources. Their awards.

The way I’ve found to deal with envy is to tell myself, quite sternly, “All right, you can have everything she has. But you have to be her. Do you want to be her?” And when I think about it, I realize that I don’t. Do I want to be Dani Shapiro? No. She seems lovely, but no. Her childhood was a mess, and while my childhood was a mess too, at least it was my childhood, my mess. Would I have wanted to go to Sarah Lawrence, then get married and live in rural Connecticut? Sure, I hated law school, and sure, it was difficult getting through my PhD. But the furniture of my mind includes Alan Dershowitz and Derrida, and I would not trade that furniture. Not even for more comfortable furniture.

I want to be the writer I am, not the writer she is, even if that means being less successful. Even if it means working very hard, and being tired all the time. And trying, day after day, to find the time to write . . .

There is a day, in the life of every writer, when you realize that you have to cut your own path through the forest. That day, you look at the trees in front of you, and you feel your heart sink with despair. Because you just don’t think you can do it.

And then, you start to do it anyway. One tree at a time, one word at a time.

Bay 4