Maui / Oliver Sachs

A few days into my Hawaii research trip this year, I woke up before dawn and drove down the dark, windy roads from Wailuku to Lahaina.  I had yet to see Maui during daylight, having arrived late the night before.  I took this research trip on a tight budget, relying on the public bus systems of six cities, springing occasionally for the economy class on trains.  But twice in Hawaii I’d had to rent cars to reach farther-flung courthouses and archives, and the previous night at the Maui airport my bargain-basement car rental got upgraded to a Mustang sports car.  It revved when my foot approached the pedal, and I guided it warily around the local streets from the airport to my Wailuku hostel.  In the dark pre-dawn hours, when I headed out for the next day’s research, a light beneath the car door shone a shoe-sized mustang onto the pavement below.

I wound my way from the middle of the island to its western edge.  The darkness of a Maui dark is complete.  The road arced under trees, eventually lined the coast.  I trusted in the darkness that substituted for landscape, sensed rather than saw the ocean, the West Maui mountains overhead.  Before daybreak, I parked on a Lahaina residential street and made my way to the downtown port where I would board my ferry to Lana’i.  I sat on a rock and waited by the clapboard ticket shed.

There was so very little discretionary time on this research trip.  Most days I had barely enough time to get from one archive to the next; usually I was running, scribbling notes on a bus.  I ate granola from Down to Earth by the handful.  Once in a while, I would stop and stand in stilled awe: face-to-face with a place my book described.  At night, I typed notes, prepared the next day’s questions, put on reserve yet more materials from the Hawaiian and Pacific Collections at the University of Hawaii.

Occasionally there would be random moments of stillness.  Like that morning, in the dark by the dock of Lahaina, waiting for the ferry to Lana’i.  And in those few minutes of silence I found this op-ed in that morning’s New York Times: Oliver Sachs had terminal cancer (he has since died).  He had this to say: “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.”

So much of my own life is a vacillation between my richest, most productive life and periods of compromise.  A life in the arts is immensely rich: it opens me to wonderful, thoughtful friends and acquaintance who care deeply about the world and create beautiful work.  It opens me to endless curiosity and exploration, it gives me a regular pathway to empathy, and to the great joy of creative work.  It demands that I take risks.  I am happiest when I am in these moments, facing risk, focusing on my work, stretching, growing, building momentum.  My life is not always that: for periods of months or years I often feel stagnant, focused on my income-sustaining second career, which I have not always found as enlivening as my first.

I am so grateful to have had Oliver Sachs’ words resonating alongside my book that morning.  In the dawning sun, I attended carefully to the details of landscape from the ferry.  Soon, I will be describing that landscape (not this one, photographed, but the one I saw of Lana’i, just forty minutes afterwards) in the pages of my book.  In the moment that morning, I was completely present.  And I was also removed: aware of just what it was to be there and to be my most purposeful.

If you haven’t read the Sachs op-ed yet, please do.  His reflection has the charge of a mission statement.  Here is what I would like my life to do:

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.  — Oliver Sachs

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This Year / Hawaii

Morocco

It has been an extraordinary year.  In the course of it, I have traveled in four continents, written my book, built a partnership with a wonderful man, roadtripped with my mother, and connected with dear friends — old and new.  There have been moments in this process — following, as it does, a period of pain — when I have been stunned by life’s capacity for growth and resilience and adventure.

In February, in the middle of my book-research trip, I flew to Hawaii.  I had been to Hawaii once before, at the very beginning of writing my book.  In all the years since, as I’ve worked on the stories in my collection, I have compiled a list of archives and museums and historic sites I’ve longed to visit.  For all these years, I have imaginatively accessed World War II Hawaii, my characters wandering through its hotels and sugar cane fields and internment camps.  But it’s an expensive trip, and I never expected to be able to go back to finish my research.  I found creative solutions; I made do.

When I received my grant last fall — this grant that has changed my life — I almost hesitated to take my research trip.  I had so thoroughly accepted that I wouldn’t get to engage with this creative work, that I could not even recognize how deeply I wanted to.

In the end, I traveled from Japan to Hawaii on a long, backward-through-time, overnight flight.  As soon as I saw the land of Hawaii through the plane window, I felt in my full body the rightness of the moment.  All day as I walked through Honolulu, prepping my notes, walking through spaces that I have inhabited so long in my own book, I just kept thinking, dear life.  It is the title of an Alice Munro collection that I quite like, and that day it also felt like an unprompted prayer.  Here is where that scene takes place, here is a room I wrote about looking just as I imagined it, here is the very building where they danced in that story.  Such an extraordinary homecoming, to come home to places you have never been but so long imagined.  To come home and walk around inside your own book.  Dear life.

There have been difficult moments in the months since, times when the writing has been difficult, or when I have felt unmoored, uprooted, or times when I have felt unspeakably discouraged with myself and the progress of my life.  There have also been moments of such joy and clarity they’ve astonished me.  These, let me hold onto.

Upcoming Readings

This has been a year of incredible progress on my first short story collection.  With the generous support of a Ruby Grant from the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, I was able to spend almost a year focused entirely on my writing.  I traveled to Seattle, Japan, and Hawaii and conducted research that caused my book to shift and grow in directions I’d never expected.   The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts then gave me a home and a community in which to write new stories for Moon Over Sand Island.

So I am beyond thrilled to finally be able to share a few sneak previews of the new stories in the collection.  This fall I’ll be giving two readings in Baltimore.  I’ll be reading at the Starts Here! Reading Series this Monday, September 21. Then on Sunday, October 4, all of this year’s four inaugural Ruby Grant recipients in literature will be coming together to give a reading at the Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore.  (See details below.)  At each of these events, I’ll be reading different stories from Moon Over Sand Island.  I would love for you to join in the fun!

STARTS HERE!

Monday, September 21
7:00 pm
Artifact Coffee
1500 Union Avenue, Baltimore

 

The Ivy Bookshop

Sunday, October 4
5:00 pm
The Ivy Bookshop
6080 Falls Road, Baltimore

Library, Sweet Briar

{Studio, Improvised}

During my VCCA residency, I wound up doing a lot of writing over at Sweet Briar’s library.  Their quiet, wood-paneled browsing room gets flooded with daylight, and I loved working alongside all the lush color and texture of wood and textile.  It wound up being a great space to escape and play through the long draft of the book’s new story.

Sweet Briar Library

Sweet Briar Library

Current Reading

{The Paris Review + Chai Green Tea}

The interview with Hilary Mantel in the new Paris Review is amazing.  And it’s such ridiculously good timing as I work on this book of historical fiction and wrestle through its myriad attendant challenges.

Mantel talks pretty frankly about this writing process:

When I come to write what I call a big scene, especially in… any historical material, I prepare for it.  Whatever I’ve done on that scene, I put aside.  I read all my notes, all my drafts, and all the source material it’s derived from, then I take a deep breath, and I do it.  It’s like walking on stage — with the accompanying stage fright.

And, she continues:

When I’m writing a novel about historical figures, I have to be everybody.  It’s strenuous…. When people are real, though dead,… I consider them my responsibility.

It is a heady business, this writing fiction set in the past.  So happy to have come across this new interview.

Plus, perennially grateful for the stash of green tea my mother sent to Virginia for my residency.  The chai in this blend cuts any bitterness when, writing along mid-scene, I invariably forget and leave it over-steeping.

To the Boathouse

{Lakeside, Sweet Briar}

This spring I’m down at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts for a residency.  I’m already well into a long draft of the book’s second-to-last story. With all the bookwriting, there’s not a lot of mojo left for blog posts.  But there are long walks to the Sweet Briar boathouse with its spindling floors and greening, weather-gnawed clapboards and the music of the lake on those old woodwind pilings.  The perfect antidote to these lengthy days (and late nights) of writing.

Book Research, Japan

My research in Japan has been more amorphous than my research in Seattle and Hawaii, where my days were scheduled into tight timelines of meetings and archives appointments.  Which is not to say that my time here is freewheeling by any stretch of the imagination.  On the contrary, my trip to Japan is charted by the geography and trajectory of my book.  My days here are organized by research.

It’s just that the nature of this research is different.  In Japan I visit temples, shrines, Taisho buildings, specific houses and villages that appear in the book, the few remaining pre-war Tokyo neighborhoods.  And even as I make careful notes on architectural detail and landscape and historic references, I understand that my research here also encompasses a more nebulous set of impressions and observations and thoughts.

Here I am tracing a vanished landscape.

One of the great challenges of writing this book set in Japan and Hawaii and a few other places during the second World War, is that so little survives of that landscape.  Places are paved over, torn down, bombed out, rebuilt.  And in some ways this confers both a freedom of imagination and the obligation that comes with it.  We can know these places only through invention, through the access fiction alone can give us to our past.

For the section of the book that’s set in Japan, I am gathering the intangible.  I am looking for a felt sense, an imaginative access point.  For all the small cues and sensations that later become the fuel and spark and sustenance of creative work.

I do not know yet what they will be or how they will enter my work.   Only that they will arrive as I remain present in these places, and that I will trust in the unforeseen ways they might infiltrate and populate my book.  So much of artistic process is this gathering, this blind trust.  Allowing ourselves to float suspended and see what connects.