It isn’t fair. I try reading other books about writing from my odd “moving to Mexico” collection. But how can any book follow Natalie Goldberg’s? I give it almost two weeks, plodding through the pages, duty and stubbornness combined, hope dwindling. I give up, return to the Ray Bradbury. I’d only read it once years ago, but already, in the first chapter, it makes me cry. It seems unbelievable how lucky I am, to have these two writers who talk about the writing process, who both move me to tears. But it’s a mystery. The other three books don’t touch me, not even Annie Dillard’s whose prose is so lush. So I wonder what it is. Is it like acting? Does the actor need to feel the emotion he’s portraying in order to affect the audience? Is the emotion of the writer able to move into us when we read their work? Is there some mix of mind, heart, body, spirit, the writer’s integrated presence, that hugs their words? Are our words infused, like magic, with how or who we were when we wrote them? Are we transported by a writer who takes us to a world of their own making because the writer was wholly planted there when the words flowed through them, feet buried in the earth? I think so. And I love the idea that our own energy might travel unseen with our writing, ghosts on a night train, lighting people up all over the planet. No wonder libraries are sacred. Holy houses, resonant with this collected energy, like centuries-old cathedrals, dust swirling in the air, caught by the late afternoon sunlight, the smell of old paper, the feel of warm wood beneath your palm, like a prayer.
Last week I began to read Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing for the second time. I tried to resist, read pieces of the Bonnie Friedman, the Annie Dillard. But they didn’t move me. The first day I read the Bradbury it made me cry. Goldberg’s work makes me cry, too. Today I read Bradbury in the courtyard in the late afternoon with the sun in my eyes. He says in order to feed your muse, “you should always have been hungry about life since you were a child.” I wonder if this is true for me. I kind of think not. But maybe so—just a quieter version than I feel from him. And I have imagined for a good while I’d like to be more avid, more eager, more vibrantly alive. Might I be on the road to that even now as I move my pen across the page? I think, too, he grew up in a different world, one I was lucky enough to touch when I was a little girl, like the last sip on the tip of my tongue. The carnival came to his town, real people who talked to him. The magician sent him home with the rabbit from his show. The world was smaller then. It makes me wish I’d been the girl next door—oh, that’s Ray’s friend Riba. I wish I’d felt the silky fur of that magician’s rabbit underneath my hand, that I was sprawled on the ground with the other neighborhood kids listening to his father’s voice in the dark, telling stories of his own childhood when there were no roads heading west, only dirt tracks and the new railroad, or lying on our backs looking up at the sky filled with stars and tasting awe for the first time in our young lives.
I must have been in a weird place when I read Natalie Goldberg’s Thunder and Lightning the first time. Because I remember being disappointed, and I’m loving it this second time through. I am using it the way I’ve been rereading her other books, a chapter or sometimes two before I do my daily writing. I’ve described this before, I think. Letting myself read about writing carves out time and space for me to be a writer. It makes me feel like I am part of the conversation, one writer among many. Now that I feel good about Thunder and Lightening, too, it means I have four books of hers to reread. But I will need to take a break from them when I’m done with this one. I need to read the other books I have on writing, the small collection I bought before I moved to Mexico. I don’t know what possessed me. At that time before I left the country I must have still been reading a chapter every morning, Natalie Goldberg or Ray Bradbury or even Dorothea Brande or Brenda Ueland, four of my favorites. So I combed bibliographies and bought more books about writing, consumed with preserving this ritual in foreign lands. In Hopland, where it began for me, I would sit outside on my stone porch that looked across a big field, a craggy rock embedded in the hillside. I would read first, and then I’d write a page of my novel, my answer to unearthing time for my writing even though I was still in my first years of teaching when there was no time. I promised myself I would write for eleven minutes each day. And the time before the writing, immersing myself in the world of the writer, was sheer joy.
When I’m finished reading Thunder and Lightning, I tell myself now, I will tackle one of the new books. I tried reading a few of them before, but I never made it very far. Now I am determined to read them all. Maybe there will be another gem or two I can add to my “real” collection. If I can grow it a bit larger, if I find enough of them that feed me the way my favorites do, then by the time I finish the last one in my set I can just begin again with the first, Writing Down the Bones. The thought delights me, even if it makes me sound insane. Because no matter how many times I reread them, I’m always reminded of something I’ve forgotten, something timely to my life right now. I see things I missed before, too, or I understand them in a new way. And always in returning to one of these books there is that joining in, that sharing of the writer’s life, the comfort of the writer’s voice like reuniting with an old friend, like sliding into my old, worn sweater, the color of wine, the one with the holes in it I love to dig out at the first hint of chill in the fall air. So, I’m going to read the books I haven’t read but carried with me for eight years, go looking for new old friends. But maybe, before I begin, I’ll first let myself return to Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing. Because it’s been a long, long time, and the thought of his sweet, kind, vibrant being draws me back again.
I am stealing these ten “required” award questions from Natalia (who, I believe, took hers from the person who nominated her, though it is blurry whether or not we are allowed to just make up our own). But it seems like answering them is hard enough—inventing them may be too much. ;-)
What is your real fear?
I have always been afraid of dying before my mother. But this is fading now that I have made it to my fifties.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was in the sixth grade, I wanted to be five different things, and all but one began with the letter “A.” I wanted to be an artist, an author, an actor, an archaeologist and a teacher. (Shall I cheat and say now, “academic”? ;-)
What are some of your hobbies?
I love to read, to walk, to watch birds, to take long naps in the afternoon. (Does napping count as a hobby?) I want to sing when I ride on the bike path, like to sink my fingers into moist earth, catch glimpses of the mountains when I come up for air, stroking my way across the pool.
What hobby would you like to start?
I’d like to work with clay again one day. I took a semester class in high school and fell in love with it. And I’d love to learn to sail.
If you could tell people anything, what would be the most important thing to say?
Hmm. I guess this depends. What people am I telling? People I know well? All people in the world? I love you. Tell the truth. Go for the gusto.
What’s the best prank you have pulled off?
Would that be the smashed Christmas lights, the thirteen rolls of soggy toilet paper, the bag of dog poop, the eggs on the graveyard shift at Denny’s? All are terrible from this side of adulthood, so I don’t believe I’ll say.
What book are you planning to read next?
I have Rad Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine from the library sitting on my table. That’s a handy coincidence, since I have to answer this question in public. (But I may opt for the other book I checked out, a summer romance by Luanne Rice.)
Coffee, Tea or Champagne?
I don’t allow any of the above, except for the rare indulgence in yerba maté, which I steep too long and drink with coconut milk and agave nectar.
Lemon Torte or Chocolate Cheesecake?
Neither, unless it happens to be gluten free and made with maple syrup or ??