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End of Year Thoughts

I write this in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown; the first funeral took place yesterday, I believe, though I don’t know for certain as it has been so painful to read and watch the news. I overheard a man talking on his cell on a street corner : “When I watch the news, I don’t even feel sad, I feel sick.” Once again, a communal grief. President Obama’s well-crafted speech gave some solace. He’s a good writer and/ or his speechwriters are good writers. Still, I wonder how Abe Lincoln might have seized the moment with his well-honed oratory. In those days, according to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, “Team of Rivals,” words—written words—could make or break a candidate. A speech was delivered to a crowd and then printed in the local and national press. Few people, after all, could hear it when it was delivered.

What have we come away with here, what greater awareness? That we can do better, that we must do better—in every sphere of our American lives. At a party the other night, I met two young women, both studying opera and musical theater, who have given up on the idea of a well-rounded conservatory education—the path that most performers have taken in the past—because they couldn’t afford a loan with the prospect of no decent job at the end of it, albeit they are performers not scientists, or so I thought. One, in fact, was a scientist and had wanted to study chemistry, but because she knows so many who have wandered the country in search of work with doctorates in their pockets, she decided to wing it, study theater, and scramble for part-time jobs. She now has four—none of them satisfying—and had to leave the party early to work in a bar.

The next day I went upstate for a conversation with a Dean at SUNY New Paltz, one of New York State’s University campuses. Two years ago, I had been called in to discuss the possibility of a summer writing institute but there was no money to fund it, none at all. The Chairs and Deans were completely frustrated: they could no longer try anything new unless they proved in advance that the class had an audience. Nonetheless, they wanted to talk about it; they are educators, not marketers. Maybe one day, maybe one day soon, they all said. Well, nothing has changed, and won’t in the foreseeable future. Yet they still wanted to talk. Did I have any marketing ideas? Well, I am not a marketing person, I said, but I am pleased to be part of the continuing conversation about the changes in higher education, its greater reliance on virtual platforms, and so on.

Sad to say, both public and private universities are so desperate these days that they are competing with each other for students, many of whom have given up the idea of higher education—as my two young friends at the party the other night—or are attending two-year community colleges, which are cheaper. I wonder how will they expand their intellectual/cognitive abilities without more schooling? Will they become autodidacts? And will we continue to fall behind the EU and China in our educational and entrepreneurial accomplishments? I have had half a dozen Chinese students in my workshop these past two years, recruited by the university, and the Dean I spoke with last week has been to China twice this year on that same mission. Meanwhile, our home-grown students languish, and the excitement of a future in higher education has dimmed. Unless, of course, we are born into privilege or take the opposite route: study abroad, and stay there, as two PhD friends of mine were forced to do—one is working in Saigon, the other in Singapore. In a transnational universe this is not necessarily a bad thing so long as there is equal development and opportunity within our borders.  Read More 
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Writing Blind

Privileged with a press pass, I roamed around MOMA yesterday afternoon, avoiding the thick crowd in the painting galleries. What would I find? First, a “fragile” series by the bold feminist artist, Louise Bourgeois. The display of these 8 x 10 drawings of spiders upside down, long-legged and short-legged, women with big boobs and multiple boobs, falling over from boob weight or standing upright full frontal and totally naked made me laugh out loud. Other guests sauntered on by but I just stood there laughing. I was so satisfied by this upending experience that I almost headed out of the museum not wanting to spoil the sensation of this artist’s work with anything else. There’s an earnestness about museums. Curator’s notes and artists’ statements next to the works in a museum are often portentous so I don’t read them. No extensive labeling next to the Bourgeois drawings, though. I was relieved that they were just there to be enjoyed.

I meandered a bit more into the main drawing gallery where I found 24 charcoal sketches by Willem De Kooning, one of my favorite painters, as light-hearted as Bourgeois in many ways. In fact, they knew each other, both of them founding members of “The New York School.” I had never seen these charcoal sketches before. Known as “closed eye drawings,” or “blind drawings,” De Kooning experimented with the feeling inside his own body which he then “pushed” onto the page. Holding the sketch pad horizontal, he kept his eyes completely closed as he drew. The drawings are displayed vertically in order to be “read.”

How did he do this? And what would the analogy be in writing? Or music?

Those difficult questions led me to thinking about a student concert at the Mannes School of Music the other night. The second half of the program was Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, all four of them. When the teacher/director introduced the segment she explained that the students had taken an improvisation workshop. Improvisation? Vivaldi? Isn’t that a “classical” piece of music? Doesn’t it have rules and boundaries? Don’t the musicians have to stick to the notes? Apparently not. Every composer includes a “cadenza,” usually at the end of the work. This is a bit of space which allows the solo musician to strut her stuff, or the ensemble of musicians to strut their stuff. And strut they did at the end of each “season.”

Are writers able to take such liberties? Or do we stick to formulas and trodden paths rather than innovate and experiment? And what about fiction and poetry? When we evoke images, characters, a setting, a story, are we, in fact, “writing blind?” What if I were to close my eyes and write? How would that work? There is a game—exquisite corpse—the surrealists played using either words or drawings. One person begins, the page is folded, the next person continues the drawing or writes a new sentence, not knowing what came before. Does the finished drawing or story make sense? Sometimes, sometimes not. So this isn’t exactly the same as what De Kooning did because he had a strong sense of what he was making.

So here’s another question: How can I push the images and ideas inside my head/body onto the page? Even when I am writing nonfiction, this may be possible, no? Let’s say I conduct an interview, transcribe it, and then read it over. What if I put my notes away and then recreate the experience of the person—his or her essence—without relying on literal quotes? How would that work?  Read More 
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Begin Again

I was in the shower at the gym when I thought of a new first line of a novel I am planning to revise. I had originally written the novel about five years ago and sent it out to readers, including my agent. It wasn’t working and there was nothing else I seemed to be able to do at the time to make it work. I put it into the filing cabinet to rest, somewhat uncomfortably, next to two other failed novels. I was discouraged and exhausted. Novels are commitments—a year or more—and I hadn’t been writing much else. Then one of my well-meaning writer friends had the audacity to suggest that I might not be a novelist after all. Why do most writers assume that they can write a novel or should write a novel? she asked. Isn’t three failed novels enough? Hadn’t I better stick to the novella form—which was my strength—articles, and long form nonfiction? Those were her rhetorical questions. She had never written a novel or even attempted a novel.

The difference between writers who get published and those who don’t is obvious: they persevere. The work has to stand on its merits, of course, and it doesn’t hurt to have a connection or two in the business, alas, but perseverance and the psychic fortitude to begin again—like London after the blitz I’ve always thought—is key. Up out of the rubble, it’s a new day.  Read More 
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