Are you a writer? he asked kindly, signing my book and drawing a Sharpie ghost.
Yeah, I said, surprised, blushing. Or I mean, I’m trying to be.
Are you a student? Who’s teaching these days?
Oh, no, I mean, I work at the newspaper. Trying to make it work with my job.
Well, that’s how I did it, he said. That’s how Hemingway did it!
At this point the redness of my face was out of control.
I’ll tell you one piece of advice, he said, as a husband and a father of two daughters. Women have to be fiercer in this world.
And then I think he told me good luck. And then I went and drank a gin cocktail and debated at length, not for the first time this month, which songs rise to the level of a Strictly Bangers Only playlist. And a few days later, I shelved a story I’d deadened via nervous revision and returned to messy scenes I’d written of something truer.
I’m making and breaking resolutions all the time. Surprising myself, disappointing myself. Highs and lows: A sunset picnic with cheese and strawberries and my dog barking at the air, then coming home to find another dead mouse behind the bookcase. Mapping out the scaffolding of stories I love, then flushing at flimsy attempts to construct them myself. Meals in the sunshine and in the windowless office.
As always I take solace in the ongoingness of things, blue skies, days compounding. I think about Zadie Smith’s essay on the terror and rarity of real joy, and the sustenance we find instead in smaller pleasures (popsicles, people-watching). The small good things gather into something potent. Like this, from a New Yorker piece on Leonard Cohen: “He seemed not so much devastated by Marianne’s death as overtaken by the memory of their time together. ‘There would be gardenia on my desk perfuming the whole room,’ he said. ‘There would be a little sandwich at noon. Sweetness, sweetness everywhere.’”
Really all I’ve done since the new year is read. I devoured All My Puny Sorrows, which nails the absurdity and terror and tenderness of grief while also managing to be funny (How! I kept writing in the margins). Stag’s Leap was about a different kind of grief, being left by a husband of three decades and rifling through the years to see where, exactly, his love shifted. I began My Name Is Lucy Barton without expecting to love it, but I closed it a few hours later profoundly moved, texting photos of favorite passages to my best friend, who’d read it, so she could say, I know! I know! (For example.)
I read The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time and was relieved to be reading Atwood’s dark, measured depiction of what it is like to live in a female body. And it was a relief in a very different way to visit Saunders’ America in Tenth of December, full of people beleaguered by the indecencies of corporate life and making rent, but kind, and always tethered to hope.
Ahead of the reading, I immersed myself in a sort of Saunders syllabus. He wrote a timeline of his writing education for the New Yorker, gently teasing the older version of himself stumbling around in the dark, trying on all the voices but his own.
“December 1986: End of our first semester. We flock to hear Toby read at the Syracuse Stage. He has a terrible flu. He reads not his own work but Chekhov’s “About Love” trilogy. The snow falls softly, visible behind us through a huge window. It’s a beautiful, deeply enjoyable, reading. Suddenly we get Chekhov: Chekhov is funny. It is possible to be funny and profound at the same time. The story is not some ossified, cerebral thing: it is entertainment, active entertainment, of the highest variety. All of those things I’ve been learning about in class, those bone-chilling abstractions theme, plot, and symbol are de-abstracted by hearing Toby read Chekhov aloud: they are simply tools with which to make your audience feel more deeply—methods of creating higher-order meaning. The stories and Toby’s reading of them convey a notion new to me, or one which, in the somber cathedral of academia, I’d forgotten: literature is a form of fondness-for-life. It is love for life taking verbal form.”
In a new preface to Civilwarland in Bad Decline (also a delight, weirder than his newer work), Saunders wrote about his soul-grinding years biking along a frozen river to a dehumanizing job where he wrote fiction at his cubicle, years that managed to land among the happiest of his life.
“I will forevermore, I expect, be trying to re-create the purity of that time. Having done nothing, I had nothing to lose. Having made a happy life without having achieved anything at all artistically, I found that any artistic achievement was a bonus. Having finally conceded that I wasn’t a prodigy after all, I had the total artistic freedom that is afforded only to the beginner, the doofus, the aspirant.”
A few other things:
So many lovely images in Donald Hall’s short essay on the “soft power” of double solitude, the way he and his wife retreated to different rooms to write, then talked about their separate days over slow dinners.
I’ve read this Lauren Collins piece on love and learning a new language three or four times now and it’s so dense and gorgeous and funny that I keep finding new things to pocket.
Carrie Fisher’s diary entries during her affair with Harrison Ford. “I’m sorry it’s not Mark—it could’ve been. It should’ve been. It might’ve meant something. Maybe not much, but certainly more.”
Napkin love letter / Top pinks and purples of 2016 / How Moonlight undoes our expectations / Loving Oliver Sacks / Places to go / 100 years of women’s protests / The new White House after dark.
“The inside threat to feminism in 2017 is less a disavowal of radical ideas than an empty co-option of radical appearances—a superficial, market-based alignment that is more likely to make a woman feel good and righteous than lead her to the political action that feminism is meant to spur.”
The pleasure and pain of the climbing life / Becoming reduced to a body on the Appalachian Trail, then transforming back at trail’s end / Being a black woman on the trail, carrying black voices.
“As the image of myself becomes sharper in my brain&more precious, I feel less afraid that someone else will erase me by denying me love” — Jenny Slate.
One more quote from Saunders. “Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.”