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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


On a cloudy Sunday morning in the Dickinson Plaza on the UCLA campus I shook hands with a blue-eyed woman in a black leather skirt -- a friend was introducing her to me -- and then I heard her name. I heard and understood with a lag of a few seconds what it meant that her name was Janet Fitch. This was the Janet Fitch, who wrote White Oleander and Paint It Black, whose interviews I'd listened to on the radio, whom for a while everyone was talking about, who has a movie made after one of her novels. And there I had stood looking at her tear-shaped eyes and pale pink mouth, at her blond hair with whitish strands in it, only half-listening to her words while my friend was talking to her, and thinking her an ordinary mortal.

Well, she is. But not to me, not at least for those few minutes after I found out who she was. I felt and must have looked slightly ridiculous: my eyes wide, my mouth half-open, my face glazed over with exhilaration and disbelief. And this was not just a reaction to her fame but to something simpler but all the more admirable in my eyes: here was someone who had completed a novel -- no, two novels! -- and had had them published and read. Here was someone whose work was outside herself and lived its own life in the world, changing the world even if it was only in infinitesimal ways. Because my sister, who was with me, was unmoved by this encounter with Ms. Fitch. She is one of many who have never heard of her novels. And she stared at me half-frowning, half-laughing at the peculiar things her older sister gets excited about.

It took me a while to get my bearings after this. I might as well not have bothered, because several hours later I got knocked off my feet again. This time it was Jane Smiley who did it. I was half in love with her before she even opened her mouth. She walked on the stage for her panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and all I saw was legs -- thin and slender and horse-like. She looked enormously tall but at perfect ease with her body. I wonder now how long it took her to become comfortable inside it. Throughout the talk she moved in small, subtle ways: turned her torso, leaned towards the microphone then away, spread her palms wide so that her fingers look spidery, took swigs from her bottle of Diet Coke and burped quietly, and then, when she wanted to emphasize something, suddenly snapped her fingers. It was like a familiar dance -- no awkwardness, no extravagance, just a sense that this was where she was supposed to be.

Oh, but the things she said. (Yes, I took notes. I scribbled feverishly in my pocket notebook with yellow cloth covers, hanging on her words like an infatuated disciple on every syllable that falls out of his teacher's mouth.) She said that it was more courageous, to her, to write a book without a plot than to write a book full of explicit sex. That novels are being written and will continue to be written because the complexity and richness of the worlds they create cannot be held anywhere else but in the mind. That "chick lit" is often intelligent despite the frothy, frivolous pastel-colored book covers you find it ensconced between. That novelists have always said, and will go on saying, "Oh shit, I'm getting out of date." That as a young writer she created her characters by reasoning out who they were, but now they just come to her. That the novelist, unlike the poet, does not work in solitude; her characters are always thronging around her, arguing with themselves and each other, living their lives, making the noises of living things inside and outside and all around the novelist's mind.

When she finished speaking I found myself unable to leave. I lingered and watched her gather her things, chat with a girl who wanted to know if this time Jane Smiley's clothes were real. (Presumably the girl had seen Jane Smiley some place else dressed in unreal clothes.) I had butterflies not only in my stomach but under the skin on my arms and in the back of my throat and fluttering against the insides of my skull. I felt utterly silly. And utterly happy.

How strange to find out, then, that Jane Smiley is an ordinary mortal too. She has a web site called The Real Jane Smiley, where she's attempting to create an atlas of the novel, and where she keeps, among other things, a food blog. So I found out that Jane Smiley eats scones and Eggs Neptune and golden potato soup! More even than the pictures of her next to her horses, more even than her voice during the interview -- clear and sharp and rising slightly in pitch at the end of some sentences -- more than all these things it was these recipes that turned Jane Smiley into an ordinary person for me. This work in the kitchen -- the peeling of potatoes and boiling of eggs and mixing of cookie dough -- to feed the unescapable body humanized her more than anything else. She doesn't live on words alone. Just like me, and you, and everyone we know, she breaks literal and figurative bread.

I've come away from the Festival of Books not wanting to be a writer any more. It's paradoxical, I know. Perhaps what I mean is that I don't want to be the writer I've thought for so long that I had to be. Although I don't believe in God, I waited for a dispensation from him, for a sign, a mark on my forehead, an anointing. I knew I did not have it, and I kept waiting for it, taking its absence and this inexistent God's silence as a sign in itself. Perhaps the time has come to stop waiting, to pack up my things and walk the road alone. No angel at my side. Just the road, the sky, and one foot in front of the other.


Blogger Rebel Girl said...

ah - happiness!

for you - a poem by Jane Kenyon that your post made me think of:


There's just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.

And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.

No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.

It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
a sock, to the pusher, to the basket maker,
and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots
in the night.
It even comes to the boulder
in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,
to rain falling on the open sea,
to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.


apologies for the odd line breaks - if there are any.

stay happy.

May 01, 2007  
Blogger Rebel Girl said...

but you ARE a writer.

May 02, 2007  
Blogger Jonathan K. Cohen said...

I would second Rebel Girl on the question of your being a writer.

I am amazed when any writer has such a broad life that she can put out brilliant work and breed horses at the same time. My model for a writer is more monastic -- and more limited.

May 03, 2007  

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