liberty science center

Making the Mountain

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I recently put together a night where people talked about what they make and why. Below is what I read: 

I had a moment when I knew I wanted to write a novel. It was November 3, 2007. I was at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, New Jersey, and I was watching a 3-D movie about sunspots. I was not sober. I’d like to say that the inevitable destruction of our solar system made me think about my own mortality. But really, I was thinking about work.

I had recently changed jobs. I had been at a trade publication called “Sales & Marketing Management Magazine.” The best thing I could say about the job was that it provided me with health insurance. I had been trying to leave since I got there, and finally had. Now I was writing at a media blog, and it had felt like a big move. I had a ton of creative freedom and I was meeting interesting people. But watching this movie about sunspots, I realized that blogging for ten hours a day was not what I wanted either. I wanted to write a novel.

Some people know their whole life that they want to write fiction. I knew my whole life that being creative professionally is hard. My mom is a painter, and each night, she’d come home from work vaguely sad or with news that no one could relate to, like that she had moved a bottle two inches in a still life. Her work wasn’t fun, and she resented when people ask if it was. It’s her second most hated question, right after, “Are you still painting?” Growing up, I’d see her go to her studio every day with the inevitability of gravity, but people still treated her career like a hobby.

But watching this movie about sunspots, the loneliness and the statistical odds of a creative life felt irrelevant. I wanted to write a novel, and I’d rather fail than not try. And so it became my 2008 New Year’s Resolution to make an effort.

Which is more or less what happened in 2008. I gave up blogging and started writing. All the things I feared about having a creative life have proved true.

It’s lonely. The problems I have as I’m developing a character or a scene don’t make sense to anyone but me. My novel exists mostly in a drawer. But that feeling I had at the Liberty Science Center, of having to write, is still there. And now I’m working on a collection of short stories. 

There are all sorts of practical things I like about writing short stories. Mainly that they are shorter than novels. But I’ve always loved short fiction. A short story doesn’t pretend to have all the answers; it’s a snapshot of a character in a moment that feels true.

One of my favorite moments is from the John Cheever short story “Clementina.” It’s about an Italian woman who becomes an au pair for an American family and has lost her visa. Marrying an older, slightly creepy guy is the only way she can stay. Here’s the scene where she makes her decision:  

The room where she read these letters was warm. The lights were pink. She had a silver ashtray like a signora, and, if she had wanted, in her private bathroom she could have drawn a hot bath up to her neck. Did the Holy Virgin mean for her to live in a wilderness and die of starvation? Was it wrong to take the comforts that were held out to her? The faces of her people appeared to her again, and how dark were their skin, their hair, and their eyes, she thought, as if through living with fair people she had taken on the dispositions and the prejudices of the fair. The faces seemed to regard her with reproach, with earthen patience, with a sweet, dignified, and despairing regard, but why should she be compelled to return and drink sour wine in the darkness of the hills? In this new world they had found the secret of youth, and would the saints in heaven have refused a life of youthfulness if it had been God’s will? She remembered how in Nascosta even the most beautiful fell quickly under the darkness of time, like flowers without care; how even the most beautiful became bent and toothless, their dark clothes smelling, as the mamma’s did, of smoke and manure. But in this country she could have forever white teeth and color in her hair. Until the day she died she would have shoes with heels and rings on her fingers, and the attention of men, for in this new world one lived ten lifetimes and never felt the pinch of age; no, never. She would marry Joe. She would stay here and live ten lives, with a skin like marble and always the teeth with which to bite the meat.

We don’t get to know how her marriage works out, if she has kids, if she’s happy, or happier than she would have been back in Italy. We just know that in this moment, she made a choice to always have the strength to enjoy life.

In that way, the short form is more honest than the novel. The length of the novel implies that you’re getting everything. But there is no everything, there’s no whole story. What happens to Ishmael after the Pequod sinks? Maybe Moby-Dick is just a cover letter for his next job.

Cheever used to put on a suit each morning before he went to write in the basement of his apartment building in Manhattan. He wanted to feel like he was going to a job, even if it was only an elevator ride away. My method is to wake up early every day. I learned from my mom that making art doesn’t happen by accident. She still goes to her studio every morning, and I never presumed that I could make something any other way.

It’s not that I want to write every day. I could be very happy—much happier, in fact—watching reality TV every day. I write every day because I want to get better at writing. It’s a vague goal. But the only thing that’s certain is that I won’t get better at writing if I don’t write.

Most mornings, I don’t get much done. I do laundry, I make my bed. I stare out the window. It’s a weird time to be up.

For a while, everything is just black, except for the diagonal streaks of light from the big apartment building on the corner of my street. And then the sky turns navy, the kind of navy you want to believe is black if you made a mistake when purchasing stockings. 

From there, everything gets bluer, though it’s still a dark blue, a blue that could pass for this season’s new black, and the naked branches of the trees become visible. Then the sky is really blue, a blue that, if you were being gender normative, would do well in a baby boy’s room, a blue so light it would surprise you, considering how dark it still is. 

And then, I’m not staring out into total darkness, but the house across from mine, though I can still make out my reflection in the window. Each moment, the sky gets lighter and lighter, which feels like a betrayal of the night, which I suppose it is.

And it’s just like that Hemingway line about going bankrupt—slowly, then all at once—and then it’s time for the day to start. 

(I wrote that a few years ago, while I was procrastinating.)

All of my early mornings are sort of like water on the rock. Every day, I wear away at my inability to understand my characters and connect words to their feelings, and eventually, something emerges.