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.