Going to New York

One of my writer friends uses the phrase “going to New York” as a kind of shorthand to herself, to remind her that writing has to go all the way. It’s not enough to hypothesize about New York or view it from a polite distance. You’ve got to go there, to the place in yourself that intimidates you, that’s big and unruly and dirty and magical. The scariest, realest place you’ve got.

It’s a good metaphor, although I modify it for my own use. In my personal mythology, that city-to-end-all-cities tends to be Izmir, Turkey, where I’m always lost. Or sometimes Tokyo, where I’m illiterate AND lost. The principle is the same, in any case.

As the gods of irony would have it, however, I am at this moment in real New York for real. It’s my son’s spring break, so I dropped him off with his grandparents in Kentucky and came that one step further. I am here to meet the many wonderful people who have helped – and are continuing to help – bring Seraphina into the world.

Meeting people is intimidating for an introvert like myself, but it’s exciting too. I met my editor for the first time today, someone I’ve been working with for three years. After three years, you really feel like you know a person – and I think I do know him, but I know him as words and ideas, as this disembodied voice who helps me see my own work more clearly. Until you see that person standing in the world, that real human right in front of you, the picture isn’t complete, somehow. You haven’t actually been to New York, in the metaphorical sense, if that makes any sense at all.

I’m vaguely afraid it doesn’t. I’ll translate: meeting people is scary, but worth doing!

Seraphina is at a similar juncture, strange as it may sound. This book, which has lived so long as an idea in my head, or words on my screen, will soon embark on a journey of its own. Where is metaphorical “New York” for a book? Other people’s houses, other people’s heads. It’s going to walk out into the world, just like me, and meet people.

And that is as must be, of course. And obviously, I feel it on the book’s behalf, and the book doesn’t feel it at all. I feel fortunate and grateful, as the day approaches, that I haven’t had to do this alone and that Seraphina has had so many friends to set her on her path.

(I do need to apologize to the friends, cousins, and cousins of friends who I won’t have the opportunity to see on this trip. I am scheduled right up to the eyeballs. I should have made it a longer trip – next time I will know. When you go to New York, take your time!)

Why yes, I did fall off the face of the earth

But now I’m back, briefly. It’s been a complicated week: Vancouver teachers were on strike for three days, so my boy has been home with me. I’ve been working hard on a super secret project (which may not be super secret in fact, but I’m trying to err on the side of caution these days), and it’s been rough going due to aforementioned boy and the nature of the project. And my own nature, let’s be frank. If you ever need a visual image for “slow and steady”, my picture is probably as good as anything.

Spring break starts next week, which means MORE boy-at-home. We’re travelling for the second week of it, so you may find that posting is light in March and that’s just how it’s gonna be. It doesn’t mean I don’t love you; it means I have too much to do and too few brain cells with which to do it.

I leave you with what may very well be the best algorithmic Hungarian folk dancing you’ve ever seen (hat tip to my friend Josh).

Check out their other videos too. There’s nothing like mathematical folk dance! No, really. Nothing is like it.

A letter from John Steinbeck

He said he loves my book! Oh, no, wait, that was in my dream. Yes, I always dream about dead authors. Did I never tell you the one where Alan Ginsberg and I were running away from groupies? No? That was one of my favourite dreams ever, although Howl fangirls are scary.

Two different friends directed me toward the “Letters of Note” blog last week, because they thought I’d appreciate this real letter from John Steinbeck. And I do, I really do. It gave me a chuckle, although I hasten to add that my own experience with editors bears very little resemblance to Steinbeck’s. His depiction has, I think, become a bit of a stereotype: the artist creates, the editors all jump in and muck it up like too many cooks. I’ve found my editors, all the way through, to be thoughtful, book-loving individuals who care deeply about what they do.

This, however, really struck me:

Miguel Cervantes invented the modem novel and with his Don Quixote set a mark high and bright. In his prologue, he said best what writers feel—the gladness and the terror.

“Idling reader,” Cervantes wrote, “you may believe me when I tell you that I should have liked this book, which is the child of my brain, to be the fairest, the sprightliest and the cleverest that could be imagined, but I have not been able to contravene the law of nature which would have it that like begets like—”

Ah, I love Cervantes. Remind me to tell you sometime about this dream I had where he and I were discussing Proust – ye gods, that was hysterical! Especially since I hadn’t read any Proust and was faking it the whole time. Although for all I know, Cervantes was faking it too. He strikes me as the sort who could be wily that way.

But yes, hope and fear! Hope and fear! That’s what writers are full of (well, that and beans). Either extreme is untenable; the balance is devoutly to be sought, and yet I feel I spend way more time than is healthy bouncing back and forth between the poles.

This is why reading these letters from the masters is important, I think, and why blogging this stuff – where I say, “I am human and sometimes I am afraid” – is important, and why books are important. There’s a comfort in seeing the same struggle in 16th century Spain and 20th century America. We’re not alone, any of us.