Jul 3, 2019

A Writing Life

Believe it or not: this picture is not staged. I was not feeling well, and decided to stay in bed, and work there. At first, Luna tried to help, but as kittens will, she dropped off to sleep. I should have taken my cue from that, but I was on deadline.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to attend a “Literature into Film” class to discuss a chapter in my recent book, Cinematic Quests for Identity. As a part-time academic, I love these invitations, and immediately said “yes.” The professor, a former colleague, had assigned her students the chapter on Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, a movie most of her sophomores and juniors had just screened for the first time. All were reading Thomas Harris’s book. She confessed that she wanted her students to see the movie as I had, not as a murder mystery but as a woman’s quest for self-actualization.

Having to re-read my own work is not something I enjoy—few writers do. Afterward, I looked at my notes from a previous class in which I was an invited guest, and at my notes on bookstore readings. By the time I entered the classroom, I was satisfied that I had adequately reacquainted myself with the major themes of the chapter. . . but the students wanted to talk about writing: why write a book, how long had it taken me, what were my writing habits? The latter forced me to reflect on my own creative process, another uncomfortable task.

One student asked: Do you write at night? No, I said. I awaken at 6 AM every day so that I can write for a few uninterrupted hours. Next: What did I do for inspiration? How many words did I write a day? In answer to both questions, I joked that it depended upon what I was getting paid. Most of what is published in writers’ magazines and general interest publications are articles about fiction writers, I explained, and they like to talk about inspiration. If you want to be a non-fiction writer, I told them, you need to be interested in people and their stories. Cinematic Quests for Identity arose out of the idea that so many of the narrative films I liked, and some bio-docs, revealed a pattern of self-actualization that I discovered in my own life and in the lives of my family and friends.
We spoke about Demme’s film, and my analysis of it, but about half of our discussion centered on the act of writing as a job, a profession, a way of being. I said that I found it hard to write if I did not swim laps in the pool, or take long walks along the river. It helps me, I told the students, to have a hobby because writing is not tangible. When I had space to do it, I refinished furniture. I like working with wood, and wish I could do it more often. When we had a country house, I enjoyed gardening and found that I had a real knack for it. One afternoon, as I was making a tomato sauce with the fruit that I had grown, I experienced such a palpable memory from my childhood that I began writing a memoir. Did I plan to publish it, a student asked, and I replied that it was too early to tell. Some students were surprised that a working writer would begin an essay or a book without the thought of it being published. That's a writing life, I explained.

One student commented on her neighbor, a poet, who liked the habit of walking his dog four times a day. He told her it was important for writers to have a routine that got them out of their apartments. He often wrote in a local coffee shop. Did I think routine was important? The horror of being observed as I write, or to write in noisy places, was the reason I disliked being a staff writer; while I did not want to disparage the poet by saying that, I did explain that it was hard for me to comment on the need to get out of one’s apartment. It's where I do most of my writing. I realized then that I was a bit annoyed at having to ponder my “routines.” I was not sure I had any beyond drinking juice in the morning, making my cappuccino, and warming the home-baked scones my husband makes for us.

This is the kind of silly stuff cats do that gets me through a difficult writing assignment. Luca was stalking me!

I replied that I thought rituals were significant, ones that did not have to be repeated the same time of day or in any particular order. Could I name one, I was asked. I could. In our household, which consists of me, my husband, and our beloved felines, we rarely have take-out. Our cats get poached chicken in addition to their can food. I cook nearly all of our meals, but we often prepare them together—my husband chops vegetables for steaming, cleans the ingredients for salad, and I marinate the meat or fish. Like most New Yorkers, we have a tiny kitchen, so many of these tasks are accomplished at our large dining table. In the course of this work, we have time to converse. How does this prep and cooking and talking aid my writing?

Doing is a respite from thinking, I told the class. It’s a thing that gets me outside of myself, not necessarily out of the apartment. The afternoon I was stirring the tomato sauce, I was in the large kitchen in our former country house, and suddenly, my nonna was there with me. As a girl, I would watch her at the enormous iron stove doing just what I was doing at that moment. When I started writing the memoir, I realized that these oft-repeated rituals, cooking or gardening, were acts of creation, ones not valued in a patriarchal society in the way that we value the grander acts, filmmaking and writing among them, perhaps because men did them more often than women.

We returned to the “novel into film” issues near the end of class, when a student commented on the feminist sentiments in the chapter; at one point, I emphasize Harris’s wonderful tribute to women, to Starling’s progenitors, and how that passage was beautifully recreated in a scene in which Starling so gently examines a young woman’s dead body. The last question was from a student who reflected that a writer’s life seemed ideal. I laughed, and said that’s true, if you happen to inherit a fortune and never had to worry about making a living. Then I quoted one of my favorite writers, Red Smith. He was asked about the chore of writing a daily column, and he replied: “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” A respite from that is always welcome, and visiting a college class (as opposed to teaching it) is a wonderful way to get one.