“I believed that I’d have a pleasant, easy-going life if I could only get the art monkey off my back.” (Edmund White, The Farewell Symphony, pg. 66).
This is the crux of my mid-life crisis, if you can call what I’m going through at age forty-five a crisis when I have a home, husband, and job. It’s more a question of time. I have it, so how do I use it? Do I luxuriate in the chance to stream Alias all day long for no reason other than to develop an established opinion as to whether or not the show truly went downhill in season three? Or do I shut the door, turn off all devices, and take pen to notebook to scratch away at the hours between arriving home and going to bed? I could do both, but I have always been an all-or-nothing kind of guy.
The period White is describing when he says this is during his early thirties when he had completed a handful of unpublished novels. I have an even smaller number of unpublished essays, academic and creative. Most of the time, my ideas do not progress to the stage of completeness where I could consider them to be unpublished. They barely qualify as unfinished and would probably best be defined as unformed.
I have ideas. I have people who tell me my ideas are worth exploring. I always get just enough positive feedback to make me think that it might be worth it to feed and care for the art monkey rather than take it to a shelter to be adopted by someone else, someone who needs the encouragement I’ve been taking for granted. Care and feeding takes work, ass-in-the-chair work, but the pleasant, easy-going life shimmers at the edges.
White clearly kept the monkey around. White earned the right to call himself an author, an artist. I’ve earned a lot but not that.
I am one of those people who was proud to be a fan of Cheryl Strayed (Wikipedia) well before she published Wild. When her essays were included in Best American Essays, people told me I had to check them out. I was hooked. Now she has earned–deservedly–a lot of acclaim. I just finished reading Tiny Beautiful Things, her collection of advice columns she wrote as Dear Sugar on The Rumpus.
Anyone who has read more than one thing Strayed has written will recognize the consistency of her voice. Though it’s obvious she understands the craft of writing, I deeply admire how it is so clear when she is the author of something (and if any of my students are reading this, I do mean “author” in the Foucauldian sense). The advice she offers in this book aligns perfectly with the woman who tells the story of Wild, which itself sounds like it was written by the essayist I first encountered years ago.
She lives it, or she has lived it. She didn’t become Sugar because she believed she could speak on high about how people should behave; she just wanted to offer an engaged and thoughtful perspective. It just happened to be a perspective many of us needed to read. Excuse the cliché, but there is something in this book for everyone, and each reader will find something they need to hear (even if it’s not for the first time and whether they like it or not). It is beautiful, and its effects will not be tiny.
Here are some of the things I needed to hear right now.
“There will be a reckoning. There is always a reckoning. For every one of us. Accounting for what happened in our childhoods and why and who our parents are and how they succeeded and failed us is the work we all do when we do the work of becoming whole, grown-up people.”
“As my thirtieth birthday approached, I realized that if I truly wanted to write the story I had to tell, I would have to gather everything within me to make it happen. I would have to sit and think of only one thing longer and harder than I thought possible. I would have to suffer. By which I mean work.”
“You will feel insecure and jealous. How much power you give those feelings is entirely up to you.”
“But the people who don’t give up are the people who find a way to believe in abundance rather than scarcity. They’ve taken into their hearts the idea that there is enough for all of us, that success will manifest itself in different ways for different sorts of artists, that keeping the faith is more important than cashing the check, that being genuinely happy for someone else who got something you hope to get makes you genuinely happier too.”
“The narratives we create in order to justify our actions and choices become in so many ways who we are. They are the things we say back to ourselves to explain our complicated lives. Perhaps the reason you’ve not yet been able to forgive yourself is that you’re still invested in your self-loathing.”
I know it’s not nonfiction, but it’s a great book. Last night, I led a discussion of Toni Morrison’s Sula (Wikipedia) at our local library (local news story). I love doing these things because the people who show up have always read the book and are eager to understand it more deeply. As long as I walk in with a list of the major characters, events, and symbols on the inside cover, I don’t have to do much of anything, yet I end up leaving having learned a few things myself. I hadn’t read the book since I last taught it in 1995, and I first read it in 1988, the summer before I started college. I loved being reminded what a great book this is.
We covered the standard topics: what love means, what family means, what good and evil mean, what it means to be a parent, what it means to be a child, what it means to be happy. We covered the major symbols of fire (which kills women) and water (which kills men) and Morrison’s ubiquitous biblical allusions. I’m told to shoot for an hour even though it’s scheduled for ninety minutes; it was after an hour when I first looked at the clock to see what time it was.
While re-reading, I found some great quotations.
“Daughters of distant mothers and incomprehensible fathers (Sula’s because he was dead; Nel’s because he wasn’t), they found in each other’s eyes the intimacy they were looking for” (52)
“In a way, her strangeness, her naiveté, her craving for the other half of her equation was the consequence of an idle imagination. Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings; had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like any artist with no art form, she became dangerous” (121)
“And there was utmost irony and outrage in lying under someone, in a position of surrender, feeling her own abiding strength and limitless power” (123).
“Shadrack and Nel moved in opposite directions, each thinking separate thoughts about the past. The distance between them increased as they both remembered gone things” (174).