October 14, 2019
NOTES ON A WRITING LIFE | 4
As I set off to do a series of readings in bookstores of Without Her, in Miami and Key West and in San Francisco and Berkeley, I’m thinking about the difference that writers experience between the private and the public in a writing life.
You start off shut in a room with a typewriter or a computer and probably a stack of notebooks and ideas scribbled on pieces of paper. You have a small idea, just the gleam in the eye of an idea, and you almost dread to write it down. You are wearing clothes you threw on in a hurry – in my case old shorts or jeans and a shirt I think of as my “work shirt” bought in a New Mexico thrift shop and now full of holes. You sit at a desk, or table, you stare out of a window, you drink coffee, or tea, you may walk up and down the room; but the important thing is, nobody sees you, you are invisible, completely private – unless there is a CCTV camera somewhere outside your window, that is – and you are alone with this small germ of an idea that may or may not grow into a story, poem or even novel. It all feels intensely private. You begin to write, and you are immediately outside of time. You only move back into time when you begin to feel tired, or hungry, and your back starts to ache, and you need to move. If you run into somebody after a morning, afternoon or day such as this, you look at him or her with surprise, as if at an alien. You almost don’t exist as a person. Sometimes people have knocked on my door when I’m writing, barefoot and disheveled and probably wild-eyed, and ask me, “Did I wake you up?”
At the other end of this process, months or years later, there is the public face of the work on view, and you are in a bookstore, holding a book in your hand, presenting it to the world. In between, the writing, the waiting, the angst, the sending out, the waiting again, the plans with publishers (you hope) and the eventual sending out of a printed book into the reading world. All this can happen while you are still in your old clothes, your hair unbrushed, your face in its natural state. It happens out of sight, online these days, on the telephone: somewhere else. And then there are the readings, that you are glad to have, that you even look forward to – and fear. Because now there is just you and the book, out there, with an audience of two or twenty or more, it doesn’t matter. You have had to think about your clothes, even buy new ones – I think of Virginia Woolf and her anxiety about “dresses.” You have to look presentable, because people will take photographs and there you will be for years to come, visible at this or that event, preserved online. You worry about this more than you worry about the book. Because at this point, the book has grown up and left home. It is a separate thing, an artifact, something that you and your agent and your publisher have made together, with an attractive jacket design and kind remarks made by other writers – its godparents – to send it out dressed and ready into the world. The book has no worries. It’s you that wakes up at three in the morning to worry about whether this jacket goes with those pants and if you should have your hair colored and some new lipstick and what about shoes, elegant or comfortable, new or old? Or should you have some kind of “reading uniform” that involves no decisions at all?
Once upon a time, writers did not appear in public with their books. Now, we go around with them on show, or even without them, ourselves on show. I like reading to real people in bookstores and libraries: they are our public, the readers, the ones we all need, and a writer can see in their faces and hear from their murmurs or laughter what they enjoy about the book. It all happens in the present moment, it’s spontaneous, it’s unpredictable and real. This, in an era of the fake, the remote, the inhuman, is valuable in itself.
I like book clubs too, especially if they invite me to meet with them: last winter a book club in Key West made up of 18 men invited me to talk about my novel The Lost Love Letters Of Henri Fournier and invited me to lunch afterwards, and it was huge fun. That was a first for me, and knocked out any assumption that book clubs are mainly for women.
So, I’m looking forward to being out in public, however briefly, with my new novel. I like the fact that my book is a real, solid artifact, to be held in the hand or read in bed or on the bus or on the beach – (yes, it’s available on Kindle and Audiobook too, but for me the book is the real thing ) - and that we’ll be together again, out in public, it wearing its fancy jacket, I wearing mine.
WITHOUT HER, BOOK SIGNING & READING
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 15 @ 6:30 PM // Books & Books, Coral Gables
265 Aragon Ave, Coral Gables, Florida
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 22 @ 7PM // Book Passage, Corte Madera, California
Corte Madera Book Passage, San Francisco,
in conversation with Delphinium fiction editor, Joseph Olshan.
51 Tamal Vista Boulevard, Corte Madera, California
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 24 @ 7:30PM // Mrs. Dalloway's, Berkeley, California
2904 College Avenue, Berkeley, California
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 12 @ 6PM // Books & Books, KEY WEST
533 Eaton Street, Key West, Florida