Most Beautifully Alive

July 30, 2007

To feel most beautifully alive means to be reading something beautiful, ready always to apprehend in the flow of language the sudden flash of poetry.
                                — Gaston Bachelard, 1884-1962
French poet and philosopher

As expected, the letter advising that I’m assigned to Stacey D’Erasmo’s workshop for Bread Loaf 2007 arrived today. She was my first choice. I hadn’t heard of her before the Bread Loaf announcement came in January. Two chapters into A Seahorse Year and I knew I wanted to work with her. It was a story in which not everything was going to work out happily ever after for everyone.

While I was reading for story, I was also reading for structure, reading to learn how it’s done, and I was impressed by the way she handled time, the way she worked in backstory, the way she maneuvered through several points of view. Often the basic storyline is simple enough. My novel in progress is about a woman who has to manage longstanding family conflicts when her niece dies suddenly. Stacey D’Erasmo’s novel is about a troubled teen who runs away from home for reasons that have nothing to do with his unusual domestic situation. How to present the genesis and development of all that conflict is the tricky part, the part that gets worked out in the second draft, and the third, and all the ones that follow, the part that makes it necessary for many writers to retreat to a cabin in the woods.

Holding the notification letter in my hand, along with the chart showing when each faculty member would be giving a lecture or a reading, flipped a switch somewhere in me. I opened my new 2007-2008 academic planner, that haphazardly-kept diary of what I do (or fail to do) to advance my Six Goals of a Quality Life, particularly the reading and writing. The planner starts today, a good day to start keeping track, once more, of all my reading, all those books in my room and the ones in my car and the ones I borrow from the library because the cover catches my eye.

At the beginning of the summer I made a list of the ten books I was going to read in the ten weeks between the beginning of June and the day I would leave for Vermont. Not only was I going to read those books, I was going to write about them here!

I did read four of the titles on the original list. But my reading habits have always been organic rather than rigid, meandering rather than linear, and one book will spark an interest in another not on the original list, and I’ll just have to follow my heart rather than my chart. That’s how I went down Memory Lane with Richard Brautigan, after searching for In Watermelon Sugar to check the exact wording of a line I wanted to quote.

I knew I had it around here somewhere, but it wasn’t with the Bs (my fiction, at least, is shelved alphabetically). I found it among books I keep together in a display case because they are Texts Important to the Story of My Life. So I had to draw it down and read it again for the first time in more than thirty years, reading also the breathless comments I’d written in the margins, the parts about the hapless Margaret who wouldn’t leave the narrator alone that I’d underlined. And then I read You Can’t Catch Death, a memoir by Brautigan’s daughter Ianthe that had stood unopened on my biography/memoir shelf (also arranged alphabetically) for about ten years.

And then I stopped reading so much, bringing home Stacey D’Erasmo’s first novel, Tea, from the library but never opening it, and getting only two chapters into Janet Peery’s new work, What the Thunder Said. I was in a Peery-led workshop at Dickinson College in 1996. She taught me a lot and encouraged me, and her new book is just the kind of complex braiding of voices and points of view I want to learn to produce. But I was out of the reading mood/mode, and returned both books before they were actually due.

To kick off my New Year of Reading, I bought The Atlantic’s Fiction 2007 issue, always a treat. There I read Ann Patchett’s essay about the controversy her book Truth and Beauty caused when it was chosen as the book for incoming freshmen to read at Clemson University. It’s about her friendship with the late Lucy Grealy, author of Autobiography of a Face, her chronicle of the way cancer of the jaw, diagnosed when she was nine, shaped her face and her life. That was on my memoir shelf, right there with the Gs, like the Ianthe Brautigan book, unread for at least ten years.

I read a little in that this morning, and then went by the library today for the Patchett book. In looking on the Web for supplemental information about both writers and their books, I fell into some poetry by Rachel Hadas and Stephen Kuusisto, poets I’ve read before. This reminded me that I’ve stopped reading poetry so much.

Time to feel most beautifully alive again.

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