Today I received a heavy box in the mail, and I wondered what my kids had ordered without asking. To my surprise, the box contained Advanced Reading Copies (ARCs) of An Elegant Woman—such a beautiful cover and so many copies. I hadn’t felt that thrilling sensation of seeing a work of mine so composed, so ready to be read, in years. Ten years to be exact. In January of 2010 I received a similar box containing Dear Money, my last novel. My daughter was ten and my son was six; I was younger, too. My mother didn’t yet have dementia. Dear Money was my third book in a decade. I didn’t yet have teenagers. I hold An Elegant Woman in my hand, and the past ten years come rushing in—the challenge to write the novel, the fight for time while taking care of teens and a sick mother, the slow pace of the words making their way from my brain to the page, the false start, the long revision, the clobbering self-doubt. I had a professor who described that kind of self-doubt as “your shit bird.” “Swat it away,” he’d say. Swat and swat and swat, but the little shit bird kept landing again on my shoulder, a little bop-bag doll. Finally, somewhere along the way, with the encouragement of a patient, trusting, and believing editor, the characters took over. The book has a lot to do with stories my grandmother used to tell me about her life, her childhood, our ancestors, the way she made it from poverty in Montana to a bourgeois life in New Jersey. Across the years, I’d scribbled notes, first while she was alive and then after she was dead. I followed those notes like bread crumbs, followed them from Ohio to Montana to New York, Maine, to New Jersey—her life against the backdrop of the American landscape and the 20th century. Word by word, I followed her lead, and now I have a book. That’s how it is done, bushwhacking, swatting away at the bird. But the view from here now is very beautiful.
“Yes,” he thinks. “I should never have let myself get out of the habit of prayer.” He turns from the window. One wall of the study is lined with books. He pauses before them, seeking, until he finds the one which he wants. It is Tennyson. It is dogeared. He has had it ever since the seminary. He sits beneath the lamp and opens it. It does not take long. Soon the fine galloping language, the gutless swooning full of sapless trees and dehydrated lusts begins to swim smooth and swift and peaceful. It is better than praying without having to bother to think aloud. It is like listening in a cathedral to a eunuch chanting in a language which he does not even need to understand.
William Faulkner, Light In August
Creative Writing Workshop with Martha McPhee
JUNE 9-16, 2012
Italianist, Christina Ball, is hosting a writing workshop at the luxury spa and wellness center, Roccafiori, in Todi, Italy in June 2012. She’s invited me to lead the workshops and I would love you all to come.
There are three necessary elements in a story—exposition, development, and drama. Exposition we may illustrate as “John Fortescue was a solicitor in the little town of X”; development as “One day Mrs. Fortescue told him she was about to leave him for another man”; and drama as “You will do nothing of the kind,” he said.
From Stephen Koch’s wonderful and very useful Writer’s Workshop. He was a professor of mine at Columbia University.
“In Chapter 1, we pointed out that the Latin root of the word invent means “to discover.” Writers do not make up stories. They find them. They uncover them; they discover them. Sometimes they find them in the real world. Sometimes they find them in the depths of their imaginations. In either case, they invent stories by finding them and, conversely, they find those very same stories by inventing them. Which comes first? That’s the elusive part—the interplay between making it up and digging it up. Your imagination will not always know the difference.”
I find it incredibly helpful to remember and remind myself that stories don’t come out of thin air, that they are discovered. Koch’s book is enormously insightful. I recommend it to all writers and teachers of creative writing.
The other night my younger sister, Joan Sullivan, was honored by the Bronx Academy of Letters for being its founding principal. She is now Deputy Mayor of Education for the City of Los Angeles. This is the speech she delivered:
I want to get one thing straight. This school was not founded by me.
The school, itself a political act, was founded by a long series of political movements that erupted in the 1960s. It was founded by The Young Lords, who took over hospitals and churches to demand that they operate programs for the poor and who led campaigns to force the City of New York to increase garbage pick-up in neighborhoods like ours, ones that suffered from chronic institutional neglect.
This school was founded by Piri Thomas, a Puerto Rica-Cuban born poet and freedom fighter, who was raised in the barrios of New York and whose name is emblazoned on our school’s walls.
I’m on stage, honored of course by this award, but this school does not belong to me.
The Bronx Academy of Letters is based on the word and sits in the community that gave birth to Hip Hop. The school belongs to KRS-1, a man who continues to use music to fight for social change. This school belongs to the Bronx.
I can’t take credit for this school. This school belongs to its stakeholders.
– It belongs to Richard Kahan, the Urban Assembly, and our Board, who understand that school reform is about building partnerships and who understand that the era of public schools being the exclusive domain of government is over.
– It belongs to immigrants from the Dominican Republic, China and Ghana who saw school as the avenue to success and brought us their brilliant children.
– It belongs to students who, out of boredom and frustration, spent decades protesting poorly run and resourced classrooms.
– It belongs to Qian, Stacey, Jeffrey, and Lucelys who graduated first from the Bronx Academy of Letters and who are now preparing to graduate from Skidmore, Wesleyan, Ithaca, and Columbia.
– It belongs to our teachers, who are scientists, writers, dancers, athletes, and scholars and who have put every drop of their art and genius into their teaching.
This school belongs to all of you, our supporters, who saw that the young people living across the Madison Avenue Bridge in the South Bronx were not only part of your community, but also a part of your future.
If this school belongs to me at all, it belongs to my mother who with her indomitable will, bribed me to read books as a child until I found Roald Dahl and became a willing reader and a capable writer. And to my father, who believed in fairytales and who, when I was five and asked to go on a picnic in a blizzard, took me down to the banks of the Delaware River and set up a picnic in the snow. And to my 9 sisters and brothers, who played so beautifully with ideas and whose books and politics imbued me with a determination to fight and the courage to hope. And to my wife, Ama, who has revealed with her intellect and spirit such a joyful world to me.
All of this is to say that the idea of a founder is a farce. We have all founded this school that continues to be found every day by students, teachers, parents and you. This school belongs to you—which is a gift, a promise, a responsibility.
Because anything that is found can be lost, lost to financial and budget crises, lost to layoffs that disproportionately affect our poorest neighborhoods, lost to those who forget that the Bronx Academy of Letters and its children areour legacy.
And there are more things yet to be found. We need more than a good school. We need lots of good schools. We need them here and in Los Angeles. We need affordable college access and to begin talking not about K through 12 but about Pre K through college. Just as we, together, found each other and this school. We can find strong school systems and turn these into strong communities, knowing that we will never have strong communities without strong schools.
This sounds impractical, untenable. So was the Bronx Academy of Letters. So was the idea of opening a school in America’s poorest congressional district with an open admissions policy and with the goal of sending its graduates to our nation’s best colleges. So is my request of you tonight. I ask that you take joy in and responsibility for founding this school. I ask that you continue finding this school and that you remember that its students will find the things we lost and the things we never even believed to be possible.
There is one other thing. You should know that this school also belongs to our new leader. A woman I interviewed right here in the Italian Academy before hiring her as our school’s first teacher. A woman who started building and leading with humility, integrity, and passion before our doors even opened. A woman who proposed and then assembled our middle school. An inspired English teacher, a devoted advisor, an award-winning poet, a friend and mentor. Please join me in welcoming the person who has now worked for this school longer than any other, Principal Anna Hall.
From them the dust and from them the storm,
and the smoke in the sky, and a rumble in the ground;
and from them the very sky seeming, from afar, parabolic;
from the curve or girth beyond the eye’s reach;
a beautiful level and fertile plain—
with soggy bottoms of slender allium
or nodding onion the size of musket ball,
white, crisp, well-flavored; from the high grass stretching
the welcoming committee assembles & gathers—
each dark visage a massive escarpment
that stares out of bewilderment;
—from their river crossing, and from somewhere
inside the huff, hieratic ohm—
the beck-and-echo, returning call
of calves mothering-up; from the dark script
of the herd, frequently approaching more nearly
to discover what we are,
the cataract of time:
this steady, animal regard,
this gaze of theirs, the size and scale of it,
arrests the men, who look them back
as they must/& do/& will—
from a bookcase, from a window sill.
From Empire Burlesque by Mark Svenvold
Mona Simpson is coming to Hofstra University on Wednesday, March 10 at 7PM to read in the library’s Cultural Center Theater. You are welcome to join us.
In 1988 my father introduced my sisters and me to Mona. We were all living in New York City then and so was Mona. She had recently published her first novel, Anywhere But Here, and my father had read it, loved it, and given it to his girls because he thought we might love it too. He met Mona at Princeton University where he teaches. That year she was the fortunate recipient of a Hodder Fellowship. I’ll never forget how I devoured her book, realizing as I read it that I had to be a writer too, that I wanted to study it, each sentence to see how it was made. And I will never forget the dinner at my sister Laura’s old apartment on 108th Street, meeting this spectacular woman whose work I so admired. We became fast friends, shopping together, running together, being single in New York together. I looked up to her, asked her about writing, trying to glean from her the big lessons of this career. Generous and loving and kind, after a while my father referred to her at his fifth daughter. Young writers are so fortunate if they have a role model. She was mine. She and her work, without doubt, drove me to have the courage to write my own fiction.
Now all these novels and years later, I bring Mona Simpson to Hofstra University’s Great Writers Great Readings series because I want to share her with my students and the larger Hofstra community. I know she will inspire all. Please come.
Next in the series is the poet Rosanna Warren on April 14th. Same place. Same time.