Saturday, April 28, 2012

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Truth and Beauty and Regret

I just finished reading a lovely memoir by Ann Patchett, writer of acclaimed novels such as State of Wonder and bel canto.  In the memoir, Truth and Beauty, Patchett chronicles her own development as an author.  But the main focus of the book is her friendship with a fellow writer, Lucy Grealy (Grealy's own memoir, The Autobiography of a Face, won her visits to the Today Show, Charlie Rose, and even Oprah).  Patchett describes herself as a loyal friend to Lucy, a talented poet and writer who struggles with depression and undergoes countless painful surgeries to repair her face, disfigured from facial bone cancer and the subsequent radiation treatments and chemotherapies.

While both women went to Sarah Lawrence for undergrad, they didn't become close until they enrolled in the Iowa Writers' Workshop and roomed together:
We had invented time, and we could not kill it fast enough.  After dinner, dancing, and baths, we read, wrote our poems and stories, brushed our teeth, and tumbled into bed, only to find the next day was exactly the same.  We had not moved one inch forward in the night.  It was like prison, not in the punishment but in the vast sameness of the days.  We were impossibly rich in time, and we lavished the excess on one another.
Patchett describes herself as the ant, Lucy the grasshopper. Patchett was steady.  She wrote her pages, finished manuscripts, and got them published.   Lucy was a gifted writer, but she was also impulsive.  Sporadic.  She didn't meet deadlines or pay bills.  When Lucy was struggling to write a novel for which she had already received (and spent) her advance, Patchett even offered to write it for her.  Lucy constantly asked, "Will anyone ever love me?" even though she had an enviably large circle of friends.

When Lucy died at age thirty-nine, she was alone in an apartment.  It was ruled an accidental overdose, and Patchett shows how haunted she is by the death:
Most nights I dream of her.  I am in a strange city and I see her sitting in a cafe, drinking coffee and writing in a notebook.  She is frail beyond anything I could have imagined, barely able to pick up her cup with two hands, but she's happy to see me.  I run to her, kiss her, and she pulls herself up in my arms to sit in my lap and curl against me like a little bird.
But she dreams of her less and less and concludes,
Lucy, weighing about a hundred pounds, having survived thirty-eight operations, had become officially invincible.  She believed that the most basic rules of life did not apply to her, and over the course of our friendship, without me knowing when it had happened, I had come to believe it myself.  The sheer force of Lucy's life convinced me that she would live no matter what. 
That was my mistake.
Robin and Me, December 1994
This book, about a gifted woman whose demons prevented her from reaching her full potential, struck a personal cord.

My mom's sister passed away last Wednesday at age sixty-five.  I've written of Robin's encounters with the hospital in the past and of her nine lives.  Because her health problems and personal struggles have so dominated the last decade of her life, it's easy to forget what a vibrant, funny, and creative person she had been.  She made us homemade cards on our birthdays that, when you pulled a tab, dropped confetti all over.  Robin had a dog she named "Zac" because, she joked, he smelled "egg-ZAC-ly" like poop!  She was a constant and welcome presence when I was in the hospital following my accident.

I wish I had been more of a presence for her these last ten years; I no longer had the excuse of being a child.  I think of how regularly I visit my grandmother, how I've been a steady presence in her life, and wish I had been better for my aunt.  It may not have made a difference in my aunt's life, but it probably would have made one in my own.

When someone dies, we reflect on that person's life.  We think about its arc, its highs and lows.  But we should also reflect on our own lives.  I wonder, am I being the kind of person I want to be?   What are my values, and am I living up to them?  But for now I'll just allow myself to be sad--sad for my mom who lost her only sister, for my 96-year-old grandfather who lost his child, and for me and my brothers who lost our only aunt.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Last night, as I handed off my manuscript to one of my beta readers, I nervously prattled on:

  • "Thanks for doing this."
  • "I hope this isn't tedious."
  • "I hope it's at least somewhat enjoyable."
  • "I hope you don't hate it."
  • "Thanks again."
I might have said some other things.  You'd have thought I was embarrassed by my writing; that I didn't expect others to enjoy it.  But the truth is, this is the scary part.  Sending my baby out into the world and hoping she does okay.  Can she stand up for herself?

While I was writing, I didn't have these insecurities.  It isn't that I was totally confident in everything I typed, just that I wasn't worried about it:  I concentrated on the story and the characters.  I tried to make the language as sharp as possible.  

Here's my baby!
During the next few weeks, as my beta readers critique the 287 pages I've been working on for the last year and a half (geez, that's less than a page a day!) I should start my next project.  Do what calms me most: concentrate on characters and story.