Most of the others in my writing workshop took a lit class in “the uncanny.” When we read stories, they always see that. They see the blurring of dreams and reality; they see the Gothic. I, on the other hand, watch a lot of detective shows. I read, seeing crime. Get out the yellow tape.
I went into the post office at a place called Seabrook and asked the white man working there if he knew of a town named Seabrook Village where blacks had settled after the war. And he said, lady, the whole place was settled by black people. We were on St. Helena Island, in SC, one of the Gullah Islands, islands inhabited by ex-slaves from Sierra Leone mostly. On St. Helena Island we found a restaurant called Gullah Grub that looked like someone’s house and I ate fried soft shell crab. We bought in beers from the filling station next door. The Union army occupied the islands at the beginning of the war, but they weren’t always heroes about it. Down the road from Gullah Grub, we found The Penn Center where ex-slaves went to school, where people worked to protect land rights for local blacks and where Martin Luther King Jr. once lived. At Penn Center there is a museum and conference rooms, houses, and there is a church built by black men when they were still slaves. There is a garden and there are big trees. We walked all around the grounds. So peaceful and humbling.
I’m eavesdropping on the people at the next table. The woman is telling the man the name of her five pets: Otis, Milo, Lucky, Fritz, Lola. At first I thought she was being interviewed for a job. Now I wonder if this is what an iHarmony type date sounds like.
I love southern food. I love the smell and feel of the air. I love the voices of the people here.
We went to my old grade school, Sacred Heart. A small brick building with palm trees out front.It is odd to have a memory for so long and then finally see that remembered thing. I went to another Sacred Heart too, in Savannah, and it is where Flannery O’Connor went to the school. I told Chuck that her writing is influenced by her Catholicism, but I couldn’t explain how. Each of her stories has a moment of grace. I remember reading that but, as I explained to Chuck, it’s often hard to see what that moment of grace is.
In DC we went to an atheists rally, but I am not an atheist. It was the biggest atheist rally in history, or something like that. The periphery was lined with people wanting to save our souls, which is something I never understand. I went with Chuck and Maggie. Two atheists whose souls no one should ever worry about.
Afterwards, we went to the National Gallery of Art and looked at paintings by Cassatt, Monet, Manet, Degas, Matisse, Renoir, and Cézanne . In his essay “Impressions of Ernest Hemingway,” Paul Smith says that from Cézanne, Hemingway learned to write sentences that “end just short of verbal or discursive meaning.” Hemingway himself says, “I was learning something from the paintings of Cézanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions that I was trying to put in them. I was learning very much from him but I was not articulate enough to explain it to anyone. Besides it was a secret.” From Cézanne Hemingway saw that what we leave out is as important as what we put in. I used to disparage Hemingway but that’s when I was an ideologue. That’s when I thought I knew so much. When I was like the people on the periphery holding signs warning us about hell.
Last week a woman sitting next to me on the train was reading my book. I’ve always wanted this to happen.
Last night I was at a party and realized the man I was talking to is the ex-husband of the woman on the train.
I’ve been depressed and I think it’s because I’m in school and don’t have a moment for my own thoughts and have only written one small paragraph of my new book in the past two weeks and also because I’ve started looking for a home for my novel, Watching Rhonda Honey, which is nerve-wracking, and most of all because we wanted to use our air miles to go to Hawaii over spring break but realized we only had $8 in our checking account and surely that’s not enough.
I’m reading A Moveable Feast. I want to go to Paris in the 20s but clearly that will not work out. When I went to Paris I met a woman named Beatrice whose apartment was full of books. She had a painting of flowers on the wall that matched the flowers I brought. Beatrice took me to a structure built by the Romans and gave me creme de cassis to drink.
I want to be in my town the way Beatrice is in hers, even though I have less to work with.
Obviously Hemingway should have stayed with his first wife, Hadley, but it’s common to imagine something we don’t have is better than what’s right in front of us.
Last night I went to The Dark Side see Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene with Mya –how’s that for alliteration– and then to Les Caves to drink Belgium beer. I’m willing to experience anxiety during a film, to be afraid, worried, sad, frustrated, and angry, if the film makes it worth it. I’m not sure Martha was worth it, although I admired its portrayal of the way young females can sometimes agree to give up our autonomy, our safety, pleasure, self- respect, our humanity. I did that when I was nineteen, but I don’t want to talk about it today.
Maybe we’ll go to Hawaii or maybe we’ll go to Savannah or Mexico. I want to sit on a beach, drinking cold beers and reading novels. I want the sun beating down on me. Camus said that even the poorest Algerian has it better than a European because in Algiers the sun always shines.
My birthday. I went to Market of Choice for coffee and to read Pico Iyer, Sun After Dark. Market of Choice is a good place to drink a cup of coffee in the morning. It is warm, first of all. You do not have to wear a coat when you drink a cup of coffee in Market of Choice. It’s clean and the chairs are comfortable. There is no loud startling music. It is not vegan. There are quiet out-of-the-way tables where you can sit alone and, when you look up, you see rows of produce or the sky. Grey today because it is November. It is November and all the cold, wet, sunless days are in front of us. It’s my birth month and probably will be the birth month of my grandson.
I had stopped writing much about personal things here. I’m trying to figure out the line between personal and private. I used to think there wasn’t one, but that is ridiculous.
Someone commented on my blog a while back that my writing was getting better, but that isn’t true. And anyway, it isn’t the point. Is it good? I don’t like to think of it like that.
A small quote from Pico Iyer: “as if we are sleepwalking through some diabolical plot that we can’t follow.”
Doris Lessing says that writers don’t need memoirs or biographies.The writer reveals herself through her writing. She says, for instance, that you can clearly understand Dickens by reading his novels. You can see his different personalities. His novels are a map of who he is.
Scott Trurow taught himself to write by studying Dickens.
Lessing is always urging us to experience life directly instead of “through a screen of theories, ideas, political correctness, and so forth.” That is not so easily done.
I went to see Midnight in Paris last night which is about learning to find contentment where we are, but it made me want to find contentment in Paris.
Writing is both deeply personal and oddly impersonal at the same time. My friend Susan Coast always said that when you tell a story it stops belonging to you. It belongs to whoever hears it. I’ve felt that way about my own writing. On one hand, I’m mortified by the way in which my writing exposes me. But, at the same time, I feel like once I put something down on paper it has nothing to do with me.
from last summer, 10 July
on the train
I was wrong to pay attention to Rick Bragg’s disdain for wheels on suitcases.
learn about: Lorca, Catalan cooking, the Spanish Civil War, the art of O’rsay. Study my Spanish.
Although I pretended not to, I was able to understand a man who followed me along the waterfront in Barcelona. What is your name? What is your name? Do you want to eat? Where are you from? And then either he said right now or he called me a whore. I couldn’t tell.
Much graffiti in Barcelona. Old train. German boys, Asian girls, elderly black couple with French accents and large suitcases, English boy with headphones on. I wonder which train station blew up, and how people could do such a thing. Brick apartment buildings with balconies, big dry hills, small trees, a woman in an orange construction vest washing a big black dog, overcast sky- gray, black, and violet.