“Schism in the soul, schism in the body social, will not be resolved by any scheme of return to the good old days (archaism), or by programs guaranteed to render an ideal projected future (futurism), or even by the most realistic, hardheaded work to weld together again the deteriorating elements. Only birth can conquer death–the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new.” -Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces
I thought the David Rakoff interview I caught on NPR for the ten minutes it took to drive my daughters to the park yesterday was just a delightful happenstance—I love when I accidentally get to listen to something great in the car on my errand bursts. Only later that evening, as I was rushing to pick up the babysitter, listening to the news report, did I realize that he’d died. At age 47. Cancer. And along with feeling incredibly sad, the fact of his death left me jolted, gave me a little mortality-reminder slap in the face.
David Rakoff was invited to crown the reading series at Lesley University one summer night in 2010, during my first residency at the program. He was brilliant and hilarious and had me completely star struck. Toward the end, he read an essay he’d written on assignment about Utah, of all places. And I decided I’d use that as an excuse to introduce myself. It must be said that I’m typically very awkward at such introductions. Also, that I just can’t seem to help myself in making them anyway. I see someone I admire—someone famous—and think: why not? (The answers “dignity” or “mortification” almost never come up in these moments. Case in point: I literally once threw myself in front of Pierce Brosnan (then, merely of “Remmington Steele” fame) on the slopes of Sundance when I was 14. Rather than helping me up, though, he simply skied around me.)
So after the reading, before the crowds queued up, I went over to him and said hello.
“I’m actually from Utah,” I said. “So I really enjoyed your essay.”
He seemed genuinely surprised, even interested, in this. For once in my life, it seemed announcing myself as a Utahn might be a positive.
“Are you Mormon?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said, nodding.
He nodded with me. Then stopped. “Still?”
“Yeah,” I said again, almost apologetically. We started nodding again and then I slinked away.
Later that night, I tried to salvage the experience by telling my newfound friends about the encounter. “So…you’re from Utah?” they wanted to know.
Me again: “Yeah.”
Being Mormon is about as cool as having warts (for the record, I do also have warts. On my foot. So don’t go borrowing my slippers). I actually never planned on mentioning the Mormon thing on this blog. I wanted this to be my “cool, normal, writer” blog. Not the place where I’m that nerd-Mormon with a foot thing. But the truth is, I am a nerd Mormon with a foot thing. And even though my relationship to Mormonism has shifted and shattered and evolved into a somewhat unorthodox mess, I still consider myself Mormon. They’re my people. We get each other’s weirdness.
What does this have to do with David Rakoff? Nothing, really, except that sometimes when a person that talented and kind dies tragically early, it spurs other people—people who didn’t really know him but still admired him—on to bravery. On to outing themselves to their three-person blog readership. Because life is short. So it may as well be full and honest.
And while we’re on the subject of weird and miniscule subset groups, my favorite Mormon feminist, Joanna Brooks, was on The John Stewart Show the other day, promoting her memoir: The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith. It came out this week—picked up by an imprint of Simon and Schuster after she self published it a few months back. She says no one was interested in publishing a book about a Mormon—even in 2012 with the whole Mitt Romney thing full force.
On her blog, (where you can read her awesome behind-the-John-Stewart-Show-scenes recount) she says she originally wrote the book for the editor who told her years ago that “Mormonism is still just too weird to write about.” And it is weird. No question. But I’m with Joanna, who believes that “good things happen when we’re brave enough to tell our stories.” So here I am, trying to be brave in the telling, true to my own brand of weirdness. As persistently awkward as ever.
“One poem or one story doesn’t matter one way or the other. It’s the process of writing and life that matters.” –Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
“The true artist keeps working long after the heart has been cut out of [her].”
I’m graduated. Finished. Without a net to catch me, a rope to guide me, a paid-and-therefore-obliged mentor on the other end of an email to care about my drafts. And in order not to go completely adrift, I’ve given myself a schedule, which boils down to one solid hour of writing time a day. So far, I’ve stuck to it. It’s day two. I’m going ahead and patting myself on the back. Like everything with me writing related, the daily endeavor is dreadful at the outset, thrilling in conclusion. To say: I wrote today (and to mean pages)! That is a thing of beauty.
I recently moved to El Paso. There is a Writer’s League here–a community that hosts events and lectures once a month. I went the first chance I could and heard author and co-founder of Cinco Puntos Press, Lee Byrd, read an essay on waiting. She wrote about a time in her life when she was home with young children, wondering whether she’d ever become what she yearned to become: a writer. About her years of outwardly unrewarded persistence. I love when writers tell of their beginnings. It gives me much-needed faith.
Here she is, reading this very essay:
dovetail, v. 1. mortise, tenon, join, fit, fit together, intersect, unite, splice, link. 2. tally, conform, correspond, fit or go together, match; agree, accord, jibe, fall in with, concur, go hand in glove, see eye to eye; equal, balance, square, parallel; harmonize, coincide.
“There is a door we all want to walk through, and writing can help you find it and open it. Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up. But publishing won’t do any of those things; you’ll never get in that way.” –Anne Lamott, from Bird by Bird
Tomorrow begins a long trek: driving my girls 6 hours to my sister-in-law’s place, catching a red eye to Newark, connecting to Boston. Then it’s a train ride to Cambridge, where I’ll graduate from a low-residency MFA program at Lesley University. So I guess, really, tomorrow begins the end of a long trek. Two years of deadlines and 9-day residency reprieves. Of wonderful community and the beauties of clustered used book stores and neighborhood Victorian architecture.
I’ll miss it.
In one of the first seminars I attended, the instructor, Anita Riggio, warned us not to think for one moment that this program wouldn’t absolutely change us. Because it would.
Nah, I thought. I’m good.
I’d hoped to pick up some writing tips. Make a few friends who liked to read. Nothing so pesky as changing my life. But it did. These two years at Lesley have absolutely changed me. Broadened, prodded, pressed, and refined me.
The conclusion of school is partly why I’ve begun this blog. To keep the change rolling. The conversation going–even if it’s just with myself.
“If I actually believed that the progress of human understanding depended on our crop of contemporary novelists, I would shoot myself.” –Annie Dillard, from Living by Fiction