Tuesday, May 12, 2009

a movie recommendation is in here somewhere

My first memory from graduate school is a repellent one. You’d think I’d have remembered that this is the way it goes for me. Allergic to beginner’s mind, I never feel quite right at the start of things. I tend to be surveying the walls for cracks. Not only must I practice things ten-thousand times more than the next to get the shot, strike the chord, tap the vein, but I don't always appreciate what's in front of me until it's long since gone.
     The forces of the universe, so extravagantly generous with me in all other ways, are sadistic witches when it comes to my initiation rites. I suspect my karmic terms must specify the ability to thrive despite a high threshold of adversity and a hefty factor of failure. But I am nothing if not relentless.
     Since March, I've been hammering away at two stories and have taken the last couple days off to drift around in those imaginary landscapes and see what might happen. This immersion sent me back to my arrival on the Bennington College campus, how eager I was, much like my comrades, to suck that place dry of everything it had to offer. And I did, after a stumbling start. I arrived mid-day in mid-June. I unpacked, immediately went for a run all around the neighborhood, showered, and still red-faced and a little sweaty, shot out to the campus social, striking up a conversation with the first woman I saw. I asked about a cup of coffee; she offered a heady riposte about our shared Colridegean susceptibilities—this before we’d even managed names, let alone specializations or states of origin. My spirit shrank. I shuddered at the vision: two years ahead of me, each month bloated full with dull, pretentious allusions from bespectacled, near-transparent library trolls. And well, yes, there was some of that.
     But on the whole, I softened from the mercenary I was upon arrival, and my experience of Bennington College improved along a steady trajectory, even as the life I had around it spun into sloppy, sad disarray. And that education, I realize, continues. I have since spent the greater part of the intervening four years revisiting those maudlin wine-soaked years to get back to the root of all I’ve learned from the four mentors with whom I worked—Martha Cooley, Amy Hempel, Askold Melnyczuk, and Sven Birkerts.
     And I’ve begun to write again, in earnest. And though you may rightly consider graduate school something of a failure if I say I have yet to write a short story, you’d be wrong. Remember the students who were always staying late in the art room to finish the kiln project? The ones who just couldn’t hand in the Blue Book when the bell rang? Likely the same students caught staring out windows, or perhaps even at walls, lost in teenage reverie? I did that then and I remain the same today. I am that student, sometimes slow-witted, yes, but also slow to call out and deliberate to absorb it all before drawing conclusions. Even my pulse and temperature are slower and lower (respectively) than the average person's. It is this late-blooming quality that makes this moment a pleasant one for me.
     In drafting a relatively new story, I came today to understand several small functions of my own writing, the ways that my structures align and depart from Baxter, Ford, Moore, Gordon, Russo, Wolff, Woolf. And the way I want to work with those intricacies—something as simple as the echo of a spoken word.
     Now that I've finished these luxurious few days of reading and writing, I am awash in that exultant exhaustion that comes from so few things in life—a far run, honest conversation, you know the rest. With all the windows open to the sultry California night, I sit with my dog at my feet and watch the movie War Dance. And I weep and I weep and I weep. This movie is one that should be required in all schools, along with Born Into Brothels or Darwin's Nightmare. You owe it to yourself to watch it. These children have seen the very worst humanity has to offer, yet they bring unflinching beauty to the screen. They wake up early and give life everything they've got. They are breathtaking. I mean that literally.
     I turn back to my notes after the movie and it all comes flooding back to me again--the same feelings I had when I received the acceptance call from Writing Seminars founder Liam Rector, how I was instantly filled with that headstrong, heartsick feeling that absofuckinglutely anything is possible. And I mean anything in all senses of the word—yes, the euphoria of goals realized, but also Conrad-variety brutality, deadening addictions, sudden saviors, the warmth of close and reliable friends, unexpected kindness, moments that we can take to hear our own breathing, any of it, all of it. So knowing all that's out there, remembering that, well good God, I just have to say how lucky we are to be alive.
     Specifically, how lucky I am to still be alive at thirty-five, past my own dark days. Alive before friends and family, in this incredible home, in a safe city, with salt-of-the-earth neighbors, a yard like a garden with butterflies and hummingbirds everywhere, shallots and garlic growing, fish in the pond, food in the fridge, a room and deck and a gourmet kitchen, all of it my own, all of it familiar. And I look at my colleagues—with their best-selling books out, on reading circuits, sitting on panels, so busy and entangled in the web of literary life. And I don't deny them any of it. I'm so happy for them, for you, for all this we've got. But I have to say that having had the chance to sit and bask like this fat cat back here in the Bay Area sun, to take it all in, just watch at my lazy pace, to feel my mind saturate with sensation and concepts, filling my journals with models and devices and characters and settings, I am suddenly aware for the first time in a long time of my rich and lucky library, all these little treasures, each sorted into its drawer in my Silverstein cabinet. This kind of privacy to grow and wonder is an exceptional luxury; likewise time. And sure, I may be a hardened and shameless tea drinker, as they say, but Jesus, looking at my life against his, well I couldn’t be less like Coleridge if I tried.