I have been involved recently with trying to save a beloved, historic community pool in our town. Activism is so much fun! You immediately feel part of a community, and there is something new to engage with everyday. As a kid, I always wanted to be Brenda Starr–that dates me–and now I’m getting my Brenda Starr kicks. I use my writing skills for the purpose of something concrete and useful.
Sadly, I can’t spend all my time on activism. I feel the tug of my own work waiting for me, stamping in the wings, getting a little impatient. I’ve set aside these months to review where I’ve been and where I want to go. It has been very nurturing, for instance, to look through old letters, finding pieces of myself I’ve forgotten. I am “feasting on my life,” as Derek Walcott admonishes in his beautiful poem, “Love after Love.” I sense I’m at a turning point–certainly my daughter’s marriage and my aunt’s death both have pushed the wheel of my life forward, and I’m trying to find my balance in this new place.
Speaking of Derek Walcott, when I was a very young woman, I went to a writers’ conference where he excoriated one of my poems, and I stopped writing poetry for 15 years. “You don’t understand poetry,” he raged at me, red-faced. Since I held his work in high esteem, I was as hollowed out as a tree struck with blight. Now, as an older woman, I understand that every judgement of another’s work is in some way a projection of the judge’s own issues. I would caution a young poet not to give away too much of her power, no matter how highly esteemed the judge is.
Having confidence is important to a writer, but a difficult trick. Nadine Gordimer once used this simile about writing a novel : “it is like tight-rope walking over a chasm. If you look down, you are lost.” Stubbornly, a writer needs to go back to the well of his own imagination, even if that imagination is not in sync with the times.
I just read a marvelous review of the work of Gina Berriault by Daphne Kalotay in the September/October issue of Poets and Writers. Ms. Berriault is one of my favorite short-story writers, and even though she had a good career, her work is still little known . She had a marvelous restraint in her prose, and quiet empathy for her characters. If you haven’t read her work, you should. She had a sense of writing as both a vocation and a career, and the vocation came first. She was never as well-known as many of us thought she should have been, but I think the fact is that she kept at it, she was true to herself, and whether or not she found favor in the marketplace wasn’t her not her primary concern.
I look to her as a model as I attempt to “get my work out” into the world. I am not unhappy with the choices I have made and where I find myself in life. I’m no superwoman, and my family came first. I never stopped writing–even though for two years I was unable to write. I stayed true to my contract with myself as I slowly recovered, even though I had no energy for a career. I am even happy for those years of illness and recovery, for what I learned and the places they took me. I am happy to have found another vocation, that of teaching writing as a healing modality. Yet now, I find myself coming back to my own work, interrogating it. What does it want to be, how does it want to be used? At a time when most people are safely gliding to retirement, these questions are still alive for me.
One writes for oneself, but also, in the hopes of readers. My enduring model of the artist is of the chef in “Babette’s Feast.” Authentic art is prepared with skill to give pleasure to both the chef and the diners–not all diners will appreciate the skill that goes into it, but the point is the feast itself, and the transformations that may come from it.
I find the vocabulary of the literary marketplace disheartening: pitchings, platforms and pandering. However, I try to visualize my reader–someone to sit down with to enjoy a good feast. Maybe fig tarts and lamb stews are not to everyone’s taste–all we can do is put them on the table.