Archive for August, 2009

14 August, 2009

What the World Looks Like…

…I do not know. The world seems to fall away and whatever concerns I set out with seem to seep out and leave me empty and ready for something better when I drive up the mountain to Bread Loaf. I would like to write about being here, but it is nearly impossible to convey what this particular place in America means to me, so I probably should cease trying. Here’s a recap of what can be communicated a little more easily.

Today I listened to a series of gifted voices, among them Celeste Ng, who also happens to be in my workshop, who read a lively excerpt on being Chinese, Elena Passarello, who read the most well-turned reflection I’ve ever heard on the call of the Cuckoo bird, and James Arthur, who recited three beautifully articulated poems. Earlier this evening I was able to catch my mentor and friend, Lynn Freed’s reading from her new book, The Servants’ Quarters, and the poet Alan Shapiro read an entire series of poems, some of which he had worked on with Tom Sleigh, among which was a brilliant exposition of the robust desires that exist among the long-term, long-suffering married.

The rains came, they cleared, and the evening all-campus reception went on in what is referred to as loaf-light, a particularly benign glow that descends upon the lawn in front of Treman each evening like a gift from some indulgent, literary minded and happy deity.

I haven’t done much writing – or reading – since I got here, for obvious reasons, but I am posting the link to a short piece I did write about what I was reading just before I left for Bread Loaf. It is on Marshal ‘s Zeringe’s blog, Campaign for the American Reader, and you can read it here.

It is 1.11 and I must be off to bed.

9 August, 2009

I’m Leaving in a Mini-Van

The mini-van is actually a clapped out jalopy. When I take her into the local Firestone place down the street for inspection she is tucked way in the back. Parked, I kid thee not, next to the dumpster. People who are car-proud usually keep them sticker-free. Here are some photographs of the crazy stickers on the back of mine.

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Anyway, I’m leaving in this Mini-Van today and heading out to the place in America where, I hope, when I am dead, my ashes will be scattered: Bread Loaf in Ripton, VT. This is where, for the past five years, I have had the enormous good fortune of attending the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. It is the first place where I ever sat in a workshop – which ended up resulting in the beginnings of my first novel. It is the place where I grew most into the parts of myself that I love, in my writing as well as in my personal life. The place where I felt completely at home and affirmed for the best iterations of my personality and where whatever was dark could be laid to rest. I will try to blog from there but I cannot promise to do so; there is an inviolable trust among its participants that I am not willing to break. But perhaps I will be able to write about the impact of a reading, a lecture or provide a guest post from a friend or two that will communicate what it means to be there.

Bread Loaf is unique for the fact that it is a conference where writers come to be around other writers rather than to write. Of course people come to Bread Loaf hoping to meet agents, make connections, and get their books published – I certainly did – but sooner rather than later, this desire is replaced by the realization that the best thing that can happen to a writer is to fall freshly in love with the art-form. img_1077The campus is situated on a loaf-shaped mountain in the village of Ripton, inaccessible by cell-phone – unless one chooses to go and perch upon a particularly craggy rock in the significantly tall grass, but why would you? There are pay-phones of the variety that is hardly ever seen anywhere these days, and phones linked by a network in small cottages which ring with a sound that most people in high school now would never have heard in their lives. Few Bread Loafers use the phones, in the end. There is wireless access in some spaces, and people will send the occasional email home, but there is very little time or, indeed, desire, to communicate with the world outside Bread Loaf.

The conference takes place over ten days and is charged from the get go with a schedule that brings the campus together for no less than four readings and a lecture by its distinguished and relentlessly gracious faculty and fellows each day alongside workshops in poetry, fiction and literary non-fiction, and craft-classes and panels and special talks and social gatherings. Most evenings are also given over to late-night readings by the amazingly talented waiters and staff (to which group I have belonged for the past three years as well as this), its accomplished scholars and fellows (Jhumpa Lahiri was a fellow img_1116 – the year her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection came out), as well as its faculty. Readings in the famous, and famously Spartan, Little Theater, go on until around ten thirty or eleven on many nights. There are also themed readings in the Blue Parlor, handled for the past three years and again this one, by the talented Nina McConigley whose book will undoubtedly be out soon. And there are informal readings arranged by conference participants during the day. And parties, and meals and conference-wide receptions and dances all of which revolve around being with and around and about writers and writing.

If I had to pick the one thing that made the dream possible, it was this one place. There’s a detoxifying atmosphere to Bread Loaf. Being exposed to 200 plus incredible writers at all levels of their career is like taking your seat among the blessed. You get a snapshot of the literary exercise, the journey, from before it img_1345 began to where it will still go, before you existed and after you are gone, and it is both sobering and heady. How can you compare anything to being able to stand and read from your very small contribution to the literary endeavor, in the same place where writers like Robert Frost, Toni Morrison, Eudora Welty, Anne Sexton, William Meredith, May Sarton, Ralph Ellison, Sinclair Lewis, Wallace Stegnar, Carson McCullers, and Edward P. Jones and a hundred others, have stood to read from their work long before they achieved greatness in their chosen field? A plain theater, hard seats, one light on a wooden rostrum and nothing but your words in the air, nothing but people who love words listening.

For me, Bread Loaf = heaven.

5 August, 2009

The End

butterfly2The words, “The End” apparently only exist for the purposes of lulling very small and, presumably, unimaginative children, into believing that stories should only be entertained so long as an author has control over the words. There is no other place that I have found which can lay claim to those words.

We may die, but, as pointed out so eloquently by James Ellroy in an article that appears in this week’s issue of Newsweek about the death of a girl, Lily Burk, he barely knew, we live in our words, our work, and the thoughts and memories and commitments and photographs and circumstances of the people who have known us. There is, in death, often more life than the dead could have dreamed possible.

We may come to the end of a story and know, as writers, that the unknown sometimes leads us to pause at that particular moment, allowing the characters to carry on and leave us voyeurs behind. Readers reach the last page and look away, taking fragments and associations with them, using them as advice or warning, handing bits and pieces away in reference, praise or blame.

I have been preoccupied with endings afresh, or the lack of them, as I came to the end of my treatment. I realized that this new “free” time was defined, for me, not by the ceasing of treatments, but rather the loss of a series of rituals I had come to enjoy:

My morning bike rides where I have to decide whether to take the low or the high road, the way I braced for – and twice misjudged – the approaching pavement, the preparation for the last stretches of uphill paved roads in both directions as well a the anticipation of the downhill runs, the way I had to think up some new way to announce my arrival to people who shared the sidewalk with me (to whistle? to talk over their iPods? to yell? to creep along near their ankles? to hope for psychic awareness on their part?), the exhilaration of making it each day and the inward thank god when I come across the bar blocking the escape of cars in the parking garage which was perpetually untended in those early morning hours.

img_9657The way I glanced at the clock by the empty reception desk to see how I had done in terms of speed and the daily contemplation and religious avoidance of the stack of new cookies in the waiting room (yes, they are out by 6.15 am!) and the way I experienced network news on TV, something I have never done at home.

Most of all, my curiosity about the nurse who looked after me as well as tended to the application of treatments. She works two jobs, coming in to this one early, by 6 am, and leaving by 3 to sometimes do a shift at the second. She has a home she just bought, a family of parents and siblings that gather together on occasion, a father to help her with installing a window in her garage, a dog who can no longer see her working in the garden over the raised fence she had installed, a couple of weeks back, to keep him in. She has flown in a plane just once, to go to a beach with friends after school. She doesn’t quite like NYC, but she likes the Jersey Shore. She is good at what she does, but she is terrified of my physician, Dr. Weiss, and of not having me set up to her perfect specifications before she comes in to check on me. She clips up her blond hair in a sort of casual up-do, and walks with a slight side to side step, like a skater might do out of habit, which makes her seem tentative and child-like. She bought a bike for $20 at a garage sale and they told her she only had to get the tires some air, but she hasn’t done it yet though she hopes to. She “has someone” but she never said more than that.

I wonder what her relationships are like, what she does when she goes home, whether she feels the same antipathy I did toward the resident who came in to help during the last ten days of my treatment. She seemed genuinely sorry to see me go when she said she would miss seeing me early morning. She always had a question for me, and she never sounded like it was just standard OP. She moved my hair away like it belonged to a person she knew, she averted her eyes when I drew back the covers, she smiled and in ways I cannot quite describe, made it something we were experiencing together. I miss her.

Which is how and why, I suppose, the end is not quite here. A specific time period during which I had to undergo a certain form of death, of a part of me if not my whole, came and went. And yet I remain, she remains, and we go on in each others’ lives. That period came and went and because of it I am a little less quick to own the road as it were. A little quicker to remember what blessings still exist. And even more than before, interested in ordinary stories, the ones that tell of people going about ordinary days, where nationality and culture and personal history simply illuminate interactions and imbue them with a truth that points to the ultimate insignificance of those broad-brushed colors in the scheme of human life and death whose own hues are both feather light and brilliant.

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


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