My Students' Gifts

September 25, 2015

Tags: NYU SPS writing workshops, the writing life

The gifts they give me are numerous—mostly their presence—physical and spiritual—their hard work, their commitment to the workshop and, after the workshop, to their projects. And so this blog title today is a "double entendre" : the gifts my students have, the gifts they develop, the gifts they give to me. They may be material, such as the needlepoint of butterflies my private student, Valerie Pepe, gave me last week. “Butterflies are free,” she said to me as we sat in the Hollywood Diner on 16th and Sixth Avenue and discussed some new pages for her memoir.

She had had the needlepoint framed and I had asked her to sign the back. I was so touched I could hardly speak, so I took a break as she wrote to go to the restroom to give her some privacy. What would she write? Something simple, something kind. As expected.

We have been working together for a while now and it has not always been easy. Valerie has a demanding full-time job, a new boyfriend who lives a plane-ride away, and she is on crutches. As I have written here before, none of this stops her from anything she wants to do. And so her gift to me is her fortitude, her perseverance, her enjoyment of writing every day in her journal, the stories she tells about her life and her writing life. She pays me yet I am utterly indebted to her. She’s one of the many butterflies I have collected and cherished over the years. This blog and this blog post, in particular, is dedicated to all my students—past, present and future. Thank you.

Serena Stumbles

September 15, 2015

Tags: Serena Williams, tennis tournaments, history of discrimination in tennis, Roberta Vinci

My husband and I watched Serena lose to Roberta Vinci. Or, we watched Roberta Vinci defeat Serena. Why not say it that way? And why haven’t I used Serena’s last name? Because she is Serena, an icon. Did any of the commentators notice that on at least two occasions she looked as though she was berating herself and crying? How can an icon cry?

Because she is human and, by definition, she is not perfect. Because she makes mistakes. Is she allowed to make mistakes, allowed to be imperfect? Does her coach—who happens to be her boyfriend—allow her to make mistakes, to have doubts, to have bad days, to be imperfect? What about her sponsor? Tennis players are walking, breathing, emotional advertisements for various sports products. Their personal narratives are distorted to suit the product. They become mannequins, they become factoids. Sometimes—as in magazines—we are so focused on the make-believe story that we do not even realize we are watching a commercial.

I was thinking about Serena after the match and wanted to put my wise maternal arms around her. I hoped she had a good shower, a good meal and some fun in the remaining hours of the tournament. I hoped she had her nails redone. I hoped she could forgive herself for not achieving the Grand Slam, for buckling under the hype and expectation. Not only a woman but an African-American woman—the best of the best!! All that history of segregation and discrimination in what was once a “gentleman’s game”—embodied in that incredible honed female body.

Oh I was thinking about Serena a lot. I hoped she would be smiling in the morning. I hoped she could rest.

There are analogies to professional writing, to all achievement in our goal-driven society, in fact. The pressures of making a living, the editors we have inside us that inhibit our writing, the unrealistic goals we set for ourselves, can all lead to stumbles and unnecessary disappointment.

There is no way to know what was in Serena’s mind and heart the day she lost the Grand Slam unless she tells us or writes about it. Maybe—someday—she will.

Summer's End

September 7, 2015

Photo by Carol Bergman
Suumer’s end and the last few hours on this beautiful screened-in porch. It’s been a pleasant working vacation: feeding chickens, looking after rabbits, looking after Willow (luxuriating on the wicker settee), and Ninja, the mouse-catching cat on our daughter and son-in-law’s homestead while they have had their vacation overseas visiting our British family.

It’s been dry; we’ve had to water. Two laying chickens died: one drowned, the other was just old. Baby rabbits were born just as we arrived. (My husband has taken care of them as I am pescatarian and they are slaughtered for meat. Big discussions!) The compost has to go out every morning. It’s an active, healthy, physical life, the perfect occasional antidote for the sedentary writing life. Lots of walks of course, a couple of lap swims for me, but no need to get to the gym. I finished a book—“Nomads 2”—and my husband finished a documentary script outline. Productive in the midst of a vacation.

And we’ve entertained city friends. They ooh and aah, ask questions, but wonder at the remoteness of the house and ask, “Could we ever live here full-time?” The answer is yes and no. Yes, because in our virtual world, connection is easy. Our daughter, a graphic designer, works for two big companies and several small ones from her homestead home and travels for appointments—in the city and elsewhere—now and again. Our son-in-law’s business is here: designing sustainable gardens and running a maple syrup business.

No, because some writers do not do well without a lot of stimulation. I am one of them. Typically I write in the midst of whatever is going on in my life. I write inside my life and about my life. I read several books at once. I like talking to people, hearing their stories. And in this remote, mountainous place, I may or may not meet someone on the road as I take my morning walk with Willow. Usually not. So, it’s okay for two weeks to refuel and relax, but not as a place to live full-time.

Sure, my husband, Jim, is company, and we talk a lot, work in tandem and talk about our work, but it’s not the same as a subway ride or a class full of interesting, energetic, motivated students. One of many reasons I love teaching. The NYU term begins on the 30th of this month. I can’t wait.

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