Thank you. Thank you for coming to my home for a Happier Hour during your very busy publication month, for sitting with all of us in my big yellow living room, for talking so honestly and eloquently about the perils and pleasures of a creative life. I said it when I introduced you to the 70 lovely women who crunched democratically into the suddenly quite cozy room, but your book Still Writing could not have come to me at a more perfect time.
As the world knows because I am apparently intent on sharing these things with the world, I am immersed in writing my second novel. Some writing days are brilliant and some are beasts. Reading your book, feeling your book, I was reminded again and again that this is all part of it, part of the essence of creating.
As I also said last night, your book is not just a book about writing, but a book about living. Its lessons pertain not just to those of us who are foolish/privileged enough to face the literal blank page/screen day after day, but to all of us who have no choice but to face the metaphorical blank page – Life – day after day.
Each day is a page.
Lindsey, our common gem, was in from Boston for the night and slept over. We'd been looking forward to this sleepover for a while and after we said goodbye to you, Lindsey and I stayed up late talking and picking at leftover sandwiches. We talked about how wonderful you are, how honored we both feel to know you. We talked about this life, this writing life, this parenting life, this life life. We talked about the complex and amazing the online world. How in its befuddling ether there are real connections to be found. And there are.
When I finally took out my contact lenses and put on my jammies and crawled into bed, it was almost midnight. I was at once tired and wide, wide awake. I lay there, next to a snoozing man I love deeply, and I thought about the night. My mind buzzed with all of the incredible, inspiring things you said. Here are just a few and obviously I’m not quoting you. It is entirely possible that these reflections include my interpretation as much as your original thought. But so be it. Here are some of the pearls as I remember them:
On Permission. You said that if we write, we are writers. We cannot wait around for someone to give us permission to write, to anoint us Writers. No writer wakes up and looks in the mirror and says Look out, world. I have an MFA. Or a Pulitzer Prize. Each day is about beginning again. About facing the blank page. About granting ourselves permission to cobble words together, to create something from nothing.
On Envy. It is part of the game. You noted an interesting distinction, one I will remember. That you have only felt envy when you felt the work wasn’t great, when someone garnered attention or accolades for something that just wasn’t that good. When the work is beautiful, you do not feel envious of the artist who created that work.
On Social Media. We must cut through the noise and “keep good sentences in our ears.” As modern authors, we are often expected to have a presence or a “platform” in the virtual world, but our focus must remain on “doing the work,” on sitting alone at the desk or in the chaise and telling our stories. If we do this, if we put our head down and do the work, the rest will come. (Oh how I believe this and am trying to live this.)
On “Choosing” to Be a Writer. You said more than once last night that becoming a writer is not really a choice, that those of us who spend our lives writing do so because we must, because it is indeed who we are. You told a wonderful anecdote about a student of yours at Columbia who pulled you aside and asked whether she should interview at Merrill Lynch or pursue an MBA. Anyone who can formulate such a question should go for Merrill Lynch, you joked. When one guest asked how you would feel if your son grows up and wants to be a writer like you and your husband, you said that this would be fine with you if it was the only thing he could do.
On Starting Again. And again. You said that each day we must start again at the bottom of a hill or a mountain and climb. Every time you start a new book, you say Here goes nothing, and you genuinely believe, despite previous accomplishments and successes, that this time might not work. Every writer, rookie or royalty, feels rejection and despair and indignity and deep insecurity at times.
On Confidence & Courage. You noted that there is an important distinction between these two things. Confidence can be a flimsy veneer but courage is the real deal, what we must strive for. Courage is feeling fear and doing it anyway.
On Writing About Those We Love. You read the very powerful “Smith Corona” passage about your mother. You were honest about your difficult relationship with your late mother, about the struggles you had when she was alive, how you know her even better now that she is gone. As someone who has lost her father and is still processing that loss, this inspired me. I feel this way. That I am still getting to know Dad. But what about writing about the people in our lives, the people we love deeply, the people with whom we have tricky, formative relationships? A guest asked you this, how to write openly without anger. You said that we must not take any pot-shots, that we must get it all out in a first draft and not hold back, but that when we are editing we must do so with a keen thoughtfulness. On rage, you said something wonderful, something another author once told you, that observed rage (or any other emotion) can be coherent, but that rage itself is not. We must write from the cool embers of a once fire. The fire is constitutionally there still, but we are not working with flames. This made so much sense to me.
On Inwardness. You read this beautiful letter by Susan Sontag. A letter on the fate and future of books. A letter which warned about the “End of Inwardness.” You gave a telling example about being in the back of a taxi cab, going through Central Park, when cell phones were first a thing. And you talked about how this represented for you the end of inwardness in the back of a taxi. How true is this?
On Technology. You were wonderfully honest about your own love/hate relationship with technology, how you don’t like being “off the grid” any more than your teenaged son does, how you are disciplined in your writing, yoga and meditation practices, but totally hopeless when it comes to the Internet, how sometimes you accidentally spend hours on Twitter or Net-a-Porter. But you also talked about how you have worked on this… How when your son was young, you never checked your email until he was out the door to school, how you decided to actually scramble the eggs and toast the bread and not divide your attention, how you try not to go on the Internet before beginning your writing day, how you limited your son’s access to video games, but how you allow him to watch Breaking Bad because it is an example of good, dynamic story-telling.
Dani, I could honestly go on and on. But here I am, plugged in at another New York City coffee shop, my time limited. I sit here listening to Christmas music in October, sipping coffee from a straw, thinking about last night, writing you this letter, feeling overwhelmed and lucky. Lucky to know you as a writer and now a friend, lucky to know so many beautiful women who are interested in creating big stories and big, fulfilling lives, lucky to be able to fill that yellow room month after month with true connections and true conversation.
When Lindsey came downstairs this morning, I was in my yoga pants and elephant sweatshirt and glasses. My fake eyelashes were doing funny things and I was on my umpteenth cup of coffee. My kids were running around making messes, refusing breakfast, tugging at my legs, being themselves. “This is my real life,” I said to her and she smiled. It is.
It is my real life.
Oh and humor me but I must include a final photo because on 99.9% of my days, I do not look have my hair and makeup done (totally superficial & fun!) and look like this. I was worried my little girl wasn't going to recognize me at First Grade pickup. Alas :)
Last night? It feels like a dream as I sit here, but it was real, wasn't it? Wonderfully real. It too was a page. A brilliant one.
Dani, again and again: Thank you.