Hang by a Thread Not a Rope

I can’t do the sight of it justice. The bright golden, orange leaves of this maple tree, five stories high. Every day, I’ve watched it change. It stayed green as the weed-tree behind it turned yellow and lost all its leaves. Then this happened overnight. I woke up and walked to the kitchen, said, “Wow.”

I love my high perch here in the tree-tops. Writing all day, I feel like a shut-in sometimes, but it’s a nice place to be shut in. My new book, called, I think, “The Accident” is coming along. I should have a first draft done by the end of this month. I started it a year ago. I’m dying to take a break from it, but seem to be unable to. I’m afraid to fall out of the groove. I wake up every day and work on it all day.

I’ve been thinking about compassion. How much compassion do I show my characters? I’ve always loved dark, messy characters. Some of my favorite writers are downright cruel. But I don’t want to hurt mine unnecessarily. I don’t want to be cruel for no good reason. On the other hand, I can’t save them if they don’t earn it. They have to warrant whatever happens to them.

I heard Alan Gurganus read last week at the Y. It occurred to me that he treats his characters with great affection and respect.

I listened to an interview with Andres Dubus lll yesterday, on Book Worm. The interviewer, Michael Silverblatt, thought Andres Dubus lll had dealt one of his characters, a bartender, an unnecessary blow by making him not only a failed poet, but a bad poet. Why couldn’t he be a good failed poet? I thought it was an interesting question.

When it is okay to be cruel to your characters? Or kind? As a writer, you can be any kind of God you want to be.

Maybe since life isn’t fair, in fact is so laughably cruel, some writers feel an obligation to reflect the truth of that. Happy endings feel like bullshit. I hated at the end of Eat Pray Love when after all her soul searching and world traveling she ended up with a guy. Please. I don’t like fairy-tales, I guess, though I know most people do. I want to see my own struggles reflected. Still, I may break my own rule and give all my troubled characters a light at the end of the tunnel that isn’t a train. I may throw them a rope and not hang them with it.

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The Experience of All That

Woke up thinking that I hadn’t gotten the Sequoias right. In my book. The description wasn’t quite accurate, felt shallow. Then I remembered there are no Sequoias in my book. It was from a dream. I felt a moment of relief before realizing that the dream was probably about the fact that there are other things in my book that lack depth: characters and situations. It’s hard to write fiction. I want to be better. All the re-writing is about going back to make a bit of dialogue more authentic or some detail, more true. Worrying that I’m not any good at it might stop me if not for the fact that I really like it. I like living in a fictional world. It’s fun, and when I get anxious, about Sequoias or whatever, I need to remember that I’m learning and I don’t have to be great at it. What is that pressure that I feel to be great? I feel shame, in fact, to realize that I may not be great, that I may only be good, or even just okay. I think this may come from being told that it was unacceptable to be an artist. Artists were other people. People who were Great

I don’t believe this though. If I had kids, I would tell them to have fun with it. Express yourself. Learn something. I think it’s true for forty year old kids, too, and sixty year old kids. What’s so great about being great? The fun part is the learning, the discovery, the being inspired by others, the experience as opposed to the results.

Being Great is about results. You’re great and other people know you’re great. They celebrate your greatness. Once again, ego. Ego, you mother-f*cker. If the goal is to be great, then it’s all about the judgment of the world, while the pleasure is in the work, risking something, learning something, trying, failing. The experience of all that.

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A Full Life

What does it mean to have a full life? My perspective shifts all around on this, determined by my very changeable moods. But by whatever definition, this week my life was full. It was so good that when I reflect on it, I can push other thoughts aside: petty worries, passing concerns. I can remember being in conversation with John Shaefer on his radio show. He was so quick. Asked great questions. Had interesting things to say. Of course, he really liked my book too. Am I so shallow that I have the best times when I am being admired? Maybe so..

Though it was also spending last weekend with Chloe, and she is the opposite of that. Everything is about her when we are together. I am here to love her and take care of her, like the other adults in her life. True, we have fun and I’m special to her in that way. But she is a child. It’s not her job to “see” me. It’s mine to see her and I do. We made paintings. One of mine is posted above. She took hers home with her. We sculpted animals and beads from red clay. Sat on a hill with a million other people in Central Park to watch the first hour of Silver Linings Playbook. Then she wanted to leave, so we went back to my apartment and painted some more. In the morning, she asked me to edit her new story. She provides me with the opportunity to love like that, and it makes my life full.

I had sixteen years of sobriety this week, and spoke at two meetings. Had dinner with a good friend. I took care of my animals and worked on my new book. Now, I look out the window at the maple tree, cool breeze coming in. The sound of a jackhammer is intermittent. I’m thankful for the minutes of silence in between. That’s the key. It isn’t easy and even being able to recognize it, to realize that my life is full and good, is fleeting. I know that.

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New Suffolk

I should be writing but in my defense, I was up before seven this morning, walked Doe on the beach at six-thirty, wrote two pages before nine. Two pages is a good day’s work for me. Another beautiful day here. It’s almost too beautiful. This is a dream. I am that woman, sitting with her dog on the beach. The sun glinting on the water. I want to absorb it, take it into me, and back to New York when I go.

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Thinking dark thoughts these last weeks. Part of it is just the way my mind works. I know that. Watched Michael Apted’s 56 Up last night on Netflix. Whole lives compressed into these brief, predictable summations. Depressing. Also, I’ve been spending too much time alone. It takes me many hours to write a few pages of the new book. Still, I could get out more. What happens is that once I am in the mode of isolation, I’m less able to move.

When I’m feeling this way, whatever is wrong with the world, or my life, seems the reason, but if I were not depressed, I would view things differently. Yes, the callousness of the world is awful. Yes, it is unjust. Yes, there is horrible suffering that goes on, but I’m not always as focused on these things.

I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night and feeling trapped. Like I am in solitary confinement. This is just nuts and not accurate on any level. Just feelings. In fact, I have so many friends, and commitments, a rich life, I am reminded. But I forget in the middle of the night, pacing back and forth as if trapped in a box.

I’ve rented a house at the beach starting next week. Maybe a change of scenery will help. I’ll write, but finish each day with a swim. I want to begin to run again, too. I plan to swim and run and eat. The house is very charming with worn gray decks and a tall privet hedge. The water is just across the road. I’ll have a view of sailboats. Friends are coming out on the weekend to visit.

Of all the men and women in Michael Apted’s documentary, only one never married. Only he has been crippled by mental illness of some sort. The film doesn’t specify what his issue is, exactly, but it’s obvious that there is something wrong with him, poor man. When he says what he does (at age 28, I believe) that he never wanted children because he feared passing on the unhappiness that plagues him, I thought, “I am much more like him than the others.” And this is true, except I’ve been able to channel my discomfort into music and writing, and those things have saved me. But when I become aware that I am less equipped, and the evidence is in my solitary life, it makes me wonder if my emotional impairment is worse than I know.

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I’ve been sick this week. Also it’s been so hot. Sometimes I couldn’t tell if I had a fever or it was the weather. I finally went to the doctor yesterday and got antibiotics, though what I have feels viral, so I don’t know how much they will help.

I found myself wanting to look at this photograph of my niece Chloe because it makes me feel better. There are so many things I like about it. Her home-made bow and arrow, for example. Her commitment, not to archery necessarily, but to fantasy. She is Katness from Hunger Games, then she is a British archery champion (with hilarious accent) here to compete against the Americans. She throws herself into each idea. When she grows up I’ll miss the childish things about her. I hope she never loses this ability she has to imagine and have fun.

As sick as I’ve been this week, I’ve been working on my second novel every day. Everyone I run into asks me, “What’s happening with your book?” and I suppose they’re asking if “The Original 1982″ is selling. The truth is I have no idea, but I don’t even want to think about it. What good can it do to know? I can’t control its fate at this point. The only power I have is to work on the second one and try to make it good.

I’m not immune to feelings of ambition, and sometimes I feel furious when I think about how the world doesn’t care if I write a book or make a record, or whatever. That’s how I know my ego is out of control. The world doesn’t care about almost anything. There are people who have to walk miles for clean water, people who are living on the streets, children growing up without parents, families that don’t have enough food to eat. So if I don’t get to be reviewed in the New York Times, or have my work reach an audience who might like it.. well too bad. I mean, really. I’m so lucky. I think those feelings of ambition are ugly. I really do. I want to be kinder, and more patient. I want to be a champion the way Chloe is a champion, successful in my ability to imagine and have fun.

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Morning After

This is what my life looks like.

This photograph is actually from a week ago, but it pretty much looks the same way today except for the flowers given to me by friends last night, now sitting on my desk and coffee table. I haven’t been able to write this morning. My excitement about the reading at Corner Books has made it hard to concentrate. It was such a wonderful night, one I will remember. But it exhausted me too. I was nervous about the reading (although I shouldn’t have been) and the nerves tired me out.

The bookstore was packed. Paul and Leslie and other friends couldn’t get in; it was so crowded with family and friends from all parts of my life: Music and writing friends, friends from the neighborhood, Patricia Davis from childhood, Meryl and Terry from the East End, a few friends who were actually there in 1982. Scott told my mother, “You know, I was the one who introduced them.” Which is not the way I remember it, but memory is funny. So who knows? Maybe he did.

Chloe was seated to my left, and I stole glances at her. I knew she was looking at me and thinking: “I’m going to do that! Maybe I could do it now.” She is already a good writer at twelve. I love getting to share this experience with her, helping her to know that her dream is possible.

Leon Ichaso came, and Elisabeth R. with Sheila. My editor, Kate with her new husband. My agent, Lisa from ICM, who brought Dan. Jeremy looked adorable as always (the young women were looking at each other like, “Whose that guy?”) My friend, Turney Duff, whose book comes out next week (The Buy Side) was there. We’ve gone through the whole process together, emailing and texting each other to compare notes over the last year, or more.

I read two chapters from The Original 1982, one very dramatic, and the other more subtle, shorter, and a good follow up. Kate helped me with the selection and it felt just right.

After, there was a late dinner at a nearby restaurant with friends who stuck around.

A truly wonderful night, still I was glad to come home, walk Doe, and fall into bed. This morning: there was coffee and a maple tree view. Quiet, the way I like it.

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The Original 1982 – Video

Here’s me reading the prologue of The Original 1982. It’s backwards because it was shot with the built in camera on my Macbook.

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They reach across the bridle path, creating a canopy, and dramatic shadows. There is something else in bloom, too. I’m not sure what it is, but the air smells sweet as we walk on the path, under those heavy pink, scentless, blossoms. When the wind blows, however slightly, we are showered by their delicate petals. They are lush, almost vulgar. Nature is over the top.

Doe is more interested in the dirt, in the grass, rolling in something foul. She is capable of noticing a jar of dog biscuits, inside a shop, as we pass on Madison, but she doesn’t seem to notice the cherry blossoms. She prefers the smell of another dog’s piss, morning breath, a dead bird. Beauty is in the eye (or nose) of the beholder.

Spring in New York City is magnificent. The Central Park Conservancy is a privately run organization. They have transformed the park into a fairy land. It’s breathtaking. Winding paths over rolling green hills. Fields of tulips, banks of daffodils, every variety of tree and shrub. Red-breasted robins, starlings with iridescent feathers, small brown sparrows, silvery, brown-eyed squirrels.

This morning, I sit at my table and write with a view of a tall maple tree, five stories high, now burst into trembling bright green leaves and shadows. A helicopter in the clear blue sky. I’ll work until noon, then take Doe to the park.

Saw two movies this weekend, both good: Disconnect, and What Maisie Knew. The director surprised us after What Maisie knew with a Q & A. I do love that although I never ask questions. I need time to digest a little. If I had asked a question, it would have been something pointless like: what do you imagine happens to the little girl (Maisie) after the movie ends?

Reading Life after Life by Kate Atkinson. It’s massive but I’ve been carrying it everywhere because I’m really into it. I lug it onto the subway and the bus, and hold it over my head to read before falling asleep. It’s pretty brilliant. The protagonist, Ursula, dies over and over again, but in the next chapter she’s alive, reliving the same events in a new way with a different outcome. Very clever.

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Just got back from walking Doe in the park. We walked north, from 90th Street, on the bridle path, and I was so distracted by my thoughts, and the beautiful spring day that when I looked up, we were already on the West Side. I noticed Doe was getting overheated. When she does, she appears to be grinning. So we stopped for a minute to rest on a hill. I could see buds on the trees. We were facing the tree that I’ve written about before, a magnificent specimen on a downward slope. The city has tidied it up a little, so its low branches no longer touch the ground, but I suppose that’s better for the tree. After we’d rested a few minutes, I pulled Doe toward it (she wanted to go the other way, towards the tennis courts), so I could place my hand on a massive low branch. It made me feel momentarily peaceful. Then we turned back, and north, to exit the park and walk toward home.

The thought that so distracted me, while we walked, was about a dream I had last night. I was a man in the dream, following a woman with dark skin and a black stocking cap. I told her that I’d overheard her conversation because I have supersonic hearing, and could make out a conversation from a block away. Surely there was more to the dream than this but it’s all I remember. I’d been feeling nostalgic and also a little sorry for myself, prior to going to sleep, and those feelings were also part of the dream.

The other day A. came over for breakfast. We were talking about the past, and about death, the way we do. He’s been predicting his imminent demise for twenty years, or more, but now it feels less unlikely, for both of us, even if we live a long time. I don’t think that A. wants to live a long time, and neither do I. Little by little things get spoiled, change from the way they used to be, and the disillusionment leads to a feeling of “enough already.” We’ve seen the end of music as we knew it. It’s different now, and the only ones who don’t mind are the young ones who weren’t here. When I met A. we were at the beginning. Cocky, drunk sometimes, and bold. We knew everything and sometimes we were right. A. said he thought I’d had it too easy at the beginning so I didn’t try hard enough later. I thought about it. Was it true? But I think I tried pretty hard. When I argued the point, he said, “I just wish you still wanted it. Still wanted to perform.”

I’ve given up so many things already: obsessive love and performing music among them. The other day, I heard an accomplished writer, one I greatly admire, speaking cynically about writing, and I knew that if I keep writing, one day it will change too. But not yet. I am still a passionate beginner with everything to learn. If I were to lose the joy in writing and reading, what would be left? Appreciation for the natural world and its creatures. I suppose one day it will have to be enough.

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