It could be said that my lifetime quest for the perfect measure of communication began when I let go of my mother’s hand and was gently pushed into nursery school. In that one moment, the world expanded, and I discovered that Yiddish, my mother tongue, the language in which I had learned about and knew everything, had to share space with the “real” language of where I lived. Gradually, an English-speaking persona emerged whose words were ever after a matter of self-conscious searching and choice.
Lessons in how to communicate continued with the acquisition when I was 10 of a stepfamily. My widowed mother married a widower whose son spoke virtually no Yiddish. To help blend the four otherwise disconnected persons, English became the primary language at home. The blending was not too successful, and the means of communication that was to facilitate it would have suffered as well were it not for what resulted in a dogged self-preoccupation.
As a young teenager, I began gazing into my own navel, which happened also to be a well-respected cliché and pursuit within a certain cultural circle in my youth. A few defined the circle by naturally being at its center. They produced the writing, mostly poetry, that emerged from navel-gazing, read the Existentialists, and walked around with Rimbaud tucked under one arm and a guitar hanging from the other. The boys started growing their hair out, the girls grew theirs long. Many more thought they wanted to enter this circle, and tried to by faking it or at least embellishing their qualifications. You could tell those by their scribblings of poetry, the virgin copy of “A Season in Hell,” and the preferably miserable eyes beginning to look inward.
The day my consciousness awoke from its puerile slumber was the day I saw GT, a book of poetry tucked under one arm, and his guitar hanging from the other, slouch down the path in summer camp towards the Folk Singing Tree. Planting his lit cigarette behind the strings by the tuning pegs, he played “Baby, Let me Follow you Down” while his frizzy Jewish curls tried to move in the breeze. I was totally smitten and hence doomed to the melancholy of unrequited love. Soon I, too, was ready to feed its black hole by scribbling overly romantic and angst-ridden poetry and reading Rimbaud. I grew my hair long, bought a guitar and kept the door to my room at home shut as I figured out song chords and delved into the Existentialists. In my freshman year in high school, I was already cutting classes to go down to the Village, hoping to return to the Bronx with enough of its ambiance to protect me from my parents and their middle-class aspirations.
I started manufacturing my life, like every adolescent. I have a color photo of myself from those days, but the color is wasted. I am sitting gloomily all in black on a narrow bed, my long, dark, straight(ened) hair falling around an appropriately ashen, almost white face. My face is angled just so to show to advantage the wistful expression I know, I remember, I assumed. This is not to say I wasn’t wistful. In fact, I was a great deal more than wistful. But it was important to me that I not be seen as anything less than that. We were talent scouts of our own potential for angst, nausée and ennuie. Once found, we made sure to nurture it.
What do we know of who we are when our minds emerge from the milky, soft, placental batting of childhood to face, head on, that Big Question? What is there to know, after all? In the end, we are all self-created and perceived characters in plots we superimpose on our lives. Motivations and reactions, causes and effects, can appear and morph, and even disappear as the story unfolds.
One year much later, I was reading Bird by Bird, a sarcastic, witty, self-critical book by Anne Lamott written in that self-consciously cutesy tone pervading a lot of writing those days, whose intent was both to shock and be admired. Lamott’s book means to teach her readers how to write fiction. I’ve read other such how-to books about writing, enigmatic in their underlying intention not to reveal the trick behind the ostensible magic. This one, too, would like to make you think the author, despite her democratic magnanimity, exists and creates in a sphere basically inaccessible to mere mortals. For a price, she offers her workshop and the hands-on opportunity to discover the truth lurking like an oracle in the pages of her book. Primarily, she claims, it all lies in the characters who roam the brain of the writer, ready-made, just waiting to be listened to. I resent this mystical reference to embryonic personalities residing in my subconscious, and the presumption that I only have to “open up” to them. But I also can’t for the life of me fathom how to fashion and breathe life into even one such waiting character. And it takes two, as we learn in writing workshops, to create conflict and an arresting plot.
Not long after reading Bird by Bird, I woke up in the confused haze of a morning, and thought I could make out the faint traces of voices on a radio. I couldn’t be sure because I didn’t own a radio, and the closer I listened, the farther away the voices moved, till I began to wonder whether I was imagining them. It was suddenly very clear how a person might think she was hearing voices and believe they were telling her what to do. The very clarity caused me a moment of panic in which I thought I might be going mad. This kind of thought lands uninvited every now and again – a bird that migrates elsewhere but invariably returns when the climate is right. It is so easy to slip into madness – it isn’t ever so far a slide. Just the loosening of some muscle that keeps you from listening to voices on a phantom radio with any seriousness.
I thought if I let myself meditate on those voices, if I weren’t afraid to, a vast world might open up to me. Maybe, as Lamott professed, all my creativity resided through the rabbit hole, waiting for me to harvest it, all the stories and all their characters my imagination longed to discover. Maybe I’d be forever blessed if I plucked the lid off. Possibly, I’d be swallowed up in this world of illusion, but if so, I’d also rip the covers off every morning with nary a moment to waste on ablutions, coffee, emails, or the dejection that greeted me over my inability to write fiction, and head straight for my rising pile of written pages. I’d go to sleep only when my head started to roll on my neck. I’d be wired, completely engaged, imperturbable.
Would I suffer? Would this madness be what we fear most, next to death? Or would it simply fill the air pockets we spend so much time and energy trying to smooth out?
Of course, those voices could be as elusive as are the flashes of ideas up here on solid ground. I could wind up chasing them down into cold corners and barely be able to come up for air. That would be a madness of a different, desperate sort. Or maybe madness would spit me back out onto the banks, and I’d have to brush myself off and resume in the dull miasma of the sane.
Later that day, I passed a man walking down the street. Clean shaven and freshly coiffed, in a cornflower-blue shirt tucked into clean jeans, he looked like any white collar man on his way home from work, except that he was gesticulating wildly and talking loudly to someone no one else could see. Had he jumped the gap and gone completely mad? Were there plots unfolding in his frenzied universe, points of view emerging spontaneously he could chart and develop? Were his characters now fully embedded in him, alive and in strident conversation? Or was he sent as a warning by the guy in charge of the radio station?
Above him I saw a flurry of birds arranging themselves on a telephone wire in what looked like letters. I pulled my writing pad out of my bag to begin jotting them down even as I saw the Bluetooth glint in the man’s ear.
The pen in my back pack has run out of ink. How will I manage without it? I did find a pencil under old gum wrappers and shredded tissues at the bottom of the bag. It’s been a long time since I’ve written in pencil.
I wrote poetry in pencil, tentative about everything at the time – my emotions, which ran high but sometimes changed in mid-line; my motive and objective for writing, which seemed like innocent expression but winked at recognition and admiration; a modicum of talent that I entertained but also doubted. Writing in pencil made the venture feel more artful than, perhaps, it was.
A pencil is not a pen. They are not held the same way. The pen is held off-handedly, as it were, while the pencil is poised concordant with its artistic quality. The pencil doesn’t so much write as draw the letters with the play of thin line and thick as it moves along the page, and graces them with loops and arches. You are aware of its substance as you work, manipulating the lead along with the words as the one erodes into the other. The working pencil has a soft eraser that can rub out letters, words, entire sentences you never want to see again.
And yet, it is the very temporality of the pencil that made me give it up for the permanence of the pen. Though every page in my notebook is only a first draft of many, writing with a pen feels more serious, more committed. Because it is not an artful medium but simply a tool, I can write faster, ignoring penmanship and neatness altogether. Sometimes the writing looks more like shorthand, beginning letters trailing off into low peaks and dashes, all loops gone, words mercilessly crossed out with angry lines or impatient squiggles as I sacrifice the form to the content.
The pen is the instrument of my maturity, and reverting to the pencil is not only strange and unfamiliar but also worrisome. It’s as if I’ll be writing differently, not only physically but conceptually, regressing to some earlier, more innocent writing self, which, sadly or not, I no longer am.
I’ve tried fiction in pencil and in pen. Neither worked. My brother once told me I had the gift of written dialogue. Given our past, that was ironic. But it also seems right. Watching, listening, assessing and copying while looking inward were the skills I developed growing up under the particular circumstances of my life. These lend themselves to the art of mimesis, imitating the surface perceived through the senses.
Empathy, on the other hand, the ability to reach into the beating and firing mechanisms beneath the surface, demands less navel-gazing and more depth of perspective. I can do character portraits – their physical and even personality traits. But I can’t render them. I can’t enter them and make them come alive. Or rather, I can’t get them to enter me and become unique personalities. No, it’s not penetration I’m staving off. It’s the madness of having facets of my carefully constructed self develop into full blown, independent creations. And so, every character I try to develop on the page winds up being me. I can’t get away from the sum of my parts.
On the horizon are the Green Mountains, a slate blue wall in the haze of the hottest day on record for Vermont. It is still bearable this early in the day, with a soft breeze visible in the stirring trees all along the opposite bank. Between where I sit and the grass-tufted rocks along that bank flows the West River, combed tresses of water falling over the man-made ledge by the old mill and progressing in sprays, rolls and spills over the boulders strewn along its bed. Twigs are perched on the dry pates of rocks jutting into the air. Leaves in various states of decay are hurried along by the water and out of sight. The constant noise of the river blots out all other sounds. Nothing exists but this.
The sun emerges from a group of white clouds and changes the mood and depth of the scene. It is suddenly more insistently cheery and vibrant. The rocks thrown together on the bank now appear pocked with green lichen, a chalky white outline around each cluster as if doodled by a bored child playing by the river. The white water, bounced and churned by the steps of river boulders, shimmers in the bright light.
I’ve been thinking of becoming an interactive writer for the blind and paint beautiful settings in words. I wouldn’t have to get it just right since they’d never know. I could, if I were so inclined, put in things that weren’t there. I’d make the autumn leaves, for example, which are disappointingly slow in turning this year, all fiery and hot, burning up the New England hills that I’d make vibrate with entropic energy under a pale, blue sky.
I’d turn the two jays that just flew onto the grass into two little dressed-up dinosaurs, coxcombs atop their heads and azure capes the color of that sky. I’d draw the complex turns and angles of the head, the soft yet sturdy body, and the wings that sweep color across it. I would have the patience to describe the jays in their every detail, and then the landscape, changed by their simply happening upon it. I could resort to metaphors – the writer’s rescue, when a certain amount of imagination and a capacity for comparing things might compensate for limited profundity.
This dragonfly, for example, is dipping its tail into the water, picking at its surface like a Spanish guitarist. For the job of depicting the music, I’d be smart to collaborate with my blind audience. I would sit watching the stillness, the autumnal reflection of deciduous splendiferous rot in the reflecting water, and they would help me insert the sounds packed into the thickness of the air, the weft of vibrations weaving through the warping shades of fall. They’d do a better job describing the weight of the morning heat and the silkiness of its moisture. They’d be able to distinguish between the many bird sounds and insect clicks. They’d hear the leaves falling like little bombs through the ones still smugly hanging on. Their words would be the stuff of stories, mine just the context. We’d take each other on faith and open up the world together.
There would be plenty going on, but no characters in action.
The sun has gone behind a long stretch of cloud that promises to provide shade and quickly cool things down for a while. Suddenly it starts to rain while I sit writing. The drops first split-splat at long intervals like party favors, happy surprises on the page. Soon they come faster but annoy me only at the fringes of my consciousness, like those large, spidery mosquitoes when they flit around you, insubstantial yet insolent. I become aware of the rain as the main event when the drops start soaking through the page to the one underneath from the day before, and the ones under that. The inks swirl into double entendres woven into the fibers of the pieces of paper, creating a glorious fusion of words and intentions and, as you unfold them, stories.