Last night I finished Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis. I was wiping away tears in the coffee shop and trying not to make a scene; once I was in my car and driving home, though, I really broke down.
It was a new experience of an old feeling—what I know from the Narnia books, which is the longing for complete reconciliation, for a sun-filled courtyard where all beloved are present, and everything is understood, and everything is put right, for all eternity.
But I realized it had also instilled in me a longing for death. Over the years, as my mother grew sicker and finally died, that longing became a romance with melancholy that caused me great damage and would have caused me more, had I not been fortunate enough to have a good therapist and encounter the Buddhist chaplain at MIT, when I did.
So part of me was deeply grateful, again, to Jack for causing me to feel so deeply and to touch the truth that underlies everything, which is that Love wins in the end. But another part of me was angry. I’ve done so much work in recent years to love this life, on earth. I hope my work witnesses that this, too, is truth.
It was very cold when I came back from Belize to my apartment in Durham. I fished out a pair of merino wool socks to put on, but as I unraveled them, there was a susurrus all around me. They were the same socks I’d worn on the cave expedition. They hadn’t been shaken out. So now the sands of Xibalba were covering my diary, my desk, and my floor.
I left them there.
When I come back to the States, I have to reinstall my old operating system. That includes all the programs on humor, ethics, social interaction, and relationship management. And all the individual files on individual people: who just had a baby, who got a new job, who is struggling, and why.
I’m not quite back yet. Mostly, but not all.
Maybe spring will thaw me out.
I wrote this post a year ago, in March 2013, right before the book deal happened. I just came across the draft and thought I’d share it because so much about the freelance life is still true.
Above: receipts. It’s tax time!
I’ve been living the freelance life for about a year. It’s working, sort of. I was thrown into the deep end last winter when a patron who’d signed a contract for my creative work went bankrupt. (Long story.)
As I noted in this entry, I don’t find circumspection to be useful when it comes to artist finances. I want other beginning artists to know what’s involved. Several friends have asked me how they can leave their job, pursue their passion, and head into the wild blue yonder, and they seem to think it’s something only rich people do. It really isn’t. I make very little, but went to Belize for three months anyway because I decided it was essential to my work. It just took intention and planning.
In 2012, for the sum total of my creative work, including artist commissions, fees, publications and performances, I earned $2,230. For my freelance work, including editing, writing and consultation, I earned $10,126. (I should stress that I deliberately under-work; that is, I only invest enough time in my business to pay my bills and save for travel, so that I have the rest of the time to make art.) The sum total of my artist expenses, including fees, mailings, books, supplies, travel, rent and utilities, tickets to shows, health insurance, prescriptions, and doctor visits, was $8,488.
Gaps were filled by (1) liquidating my savings and (2) three microloans from very kind family members. I’m privileged in those ways and others: I have no children, no student debt, and no serious medical conditions. I have a prestigious educational background that was, itself, enabled by privileges of race and class.
I’m really, really happy with the life I lead. I pray I can avoid 9-to-5 jobs for the rest of my life because they make me feel like I’m dying. My mother died at 60. I know how short life is. But still, I look at the numbers above—especially the liquidated savings—and realize my situation probably isn’t sustainable. As Obama says, I’m one emergency away from financial ruin. So this year will probably have to be different.
I’ve taken steps already, and am taking more. Stay tuned.
This past week, I made myself leave San Ignacio to see other places in Belize. I traveled by bus. I saw ruins in Orange Walk and crocodiles on the New River; ate stew chicken in Dangriga and hudut in Hopkins. I passed through ghostly developments on the Placencia peninsula—the moats and mansions of American retirees. They’ve chopped down all the mangrove, so if a hurricane comes, all of their castles will just wash into the sea.
But I missed Cayo, even for five days. I came back home early to see the beginning of Ruta Maya, the big annual canoe race that starts on the Macal River. I wore my prettiest fuchsia circle skirt and a blouse with puffed sleeves and staked out a spot on the low bridge at 5:30am. The day got lighter and the bridge got more crowded, and then the horns brayed and dozens of canoes came around the bend from under the Hawksworth Bridge, including the team in front, in saffron yellow, shooting like a bullet, every movement fierce and sharp and perfectly coordinated. As they passed underfoot we rushed to the other side of the bridge to watch them go. And then they were gone around the next bend.
In minutes the entire crowd on the bank had loaded into trucks to speed to the next viewing location. I hadn’t secured a place with anyone, so for me, sadly, they were just gone.
I sat on the bridge looking towards the bend around which they’d all vanished. Until I was the only one sitting there.
A cameraman came along and said, “Can I take a shot of you? You look very nice.”
I wiped my tears away and said sure.
When he was done, I said, as if to explain, “I just don’t want to leave.”
“You can always come back,” he said, and kept walking.
On Friday night, I put on an orange dress and flip-flops, and went to a basketball game between the Dangriga Warriors (away team) and the San Ignacio Western Ballaz (home team). I sat on a picnic table next to a few teenage girls in tiny jean shorts. I tried to remember the last time I’d been at a basketball game. Was it really high school?…and of course basketball games were not attended for the game, per se, but for the extraordinary social opportunities available to those who knew how to act in just the right way. In the brief period 1993-1995 AD, when I was trying to become popular, I went to these games in carefully designed outfits with meticulously applied makeup. It didn’t go well. My shelteredness was a novelty, then an object of scorn, and then of bullying.
On this warm Belize night, I felt like I was ten worlds removed. I am so happy here. I strain to mark every grackle call, every glass of rum punch, every bowl of escabeche. I tell the people I love that I miss them even when they’re right in front of me.
Today I was riding with my friend Francisco out to the hills, out where the jungle covers all vast ruins of cities where millions of Maya once lived, and I told him, I think that they’re all sleeping under their green blanket, and we are the dream they’re having.
I’m staying at Martha’s Guesthouse in San Ignacio. Alexis is the housekeeper, and she’s awesome. I asked her to bring a sign so hang on my door knob because I didn’t need cleaning every day. The sign she brought said “Please Clean Room,” so I thought, cool, I’ll hang that outside if I want cleaning. But she continued to knock every day regardless. I’m sometimes reading or writing or sleeping in the afternoon, so I got annoyed. I clarified that I’d hang the sign on the door knob if I wanted cleaning. It was only after I picked it up did I realize that there was another side to the sign, which said “Do Not Disturb.” So poor Alexis had been coming by my room every day and, seeing no sign, had to knock to find out whether I wanted cleaning or not, like having to open Schrödinger’s box to find out if the cat was dead.
San Ignacio continues to be warm, restful, and peaceful. I feel like I’m on retreat. I go up to the stadium above town to run a few miles in the morning, when the mists still lie like a blanket on the hills. I’ve been out to caves or ruins a few times, but am very content to just stick close to home, practice Spanish on my balcony, and write with the windows open and the breeze blowing in.
Sometimes I wonder whether this is the last time my life will be relatively quiet. I don’t know what life’s going to be like after May 20th, the day The Girl in the Road comes out. It might go on more or less the same. Or it might blow up. I’m trying not to assume anything. I’m not making any plans.
For now, the box is still closed, and I’m content to let it be.
I’m currently obsessed with the idea of travel as religion. At the very least, as ritual. Even though I’ve only done it three times, departing for Belize—and all the stages of transition to Cayo, the western jungle—have acquired the weight of a holy rite in my head. They’re like veils I pass through, the most profound of which is stepping off the plane in Belize City, where the warm wet air cups my face in its hands. Everything realer than real. I forgot how bright the sun is, how bleached the dust. How when I walk on the road, my flip-flops kick up the mud, so that I always arrive at my destination with my bottom spackled.
At the same time, I feel like my perceptions of Belize are indistinguishable from colonialist fantasy. The vocabularies of Belize being both “more real” and also “like living inside a dream.” Living in a postcolonial world is not something I can help, but I can control how responsibly I act within that reality while still honoring my vocation as an artist. That’s a question I’ll just have to continue to live.
Last week I was at my friend Orlando’s house for homemade Northeastern Thai food. (He knows what he’s doing. I am a very fortunate woman.) He knew I was working on the ending of my next play, Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo, going up at Manbites Dog in May. He asked me what my creative process is like—whether I hear my characters’ voices in my head. And I do. I write good dialogue between interesting characters because, in life, I have good conversations with interesting people.
But sometimes I have to get all Montessori. Like, as in the picture above, when I had to use my blocks to figure out a scene about polyamorous pairings.
Sometimes it’s like balancing and rebalancing a chemical equation. Add this at the end? OK, I have to go back and set it up at the beginning. Which creates metabolic intermediates I have to deal with in the middle. Et cetera.
Sometimes what I’ve written is too boring and so I go looking for an unusual ingredient, like the one weird spice that perfects the soup. I look through my Moleskine and review all my fragments. That genetic misfire of a dog. How do we view God? Sideways, crabwise. A man in a holiday turtleneck, wielding a sword.
And sometimes, when I know I just have to do the work of imagining something ex nihilo, there’s nothing else to do but sit at my desk, bow my head, press the heels of my hands into my eyes, and watch the blackness. I fill the blackness or the blackness fills itself. And then I write down what I see.
In my mind, I keep returning to the vestibule of Trinity College Chapel in Cambridge.
The walls are white marble, and around the perimeter are white marble statues of famous alumni, including Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. While I was waiting to get in to the Christmas concert, I stepped up to each of the statues and tried to summon the sense of awe that the sculptors must have wanted me to feel.
But I didn’t. I just felt really angry. In my mind I just told them over and over, “This has to stop. This has to stop. This has to stop. How many others had to subjugate their genius so that yours could thrive? When will you help us?”
Two days later, in Oxford, I’d barely put down my luggage before I looked up The Eagle and Child. It’s where J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and the Inklings, a writing group dedicated to fantasy, met to read passages of their works-in-progress. I don’t often talk about Tolkien or Lewis (or “John and Jack”) because they’re so fundamental to my imagination that it’s hard to express what they mean to me. I grew up reading (and rereading) them; I had elaborate rituals around the reading of them; The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia became my holy scripture. I don’t mean that facetiously; I mean it quite plainly.
Of course, they are also white men.
The Eagle and Child is still a popular pub. It’s childish, but I’d dreamed all my life of visiting it, and I really, really, really wanted to sit in the “Rabbit Room,” the exact corner where the Inklings used to meet. I’d researched it.
When I got there, the Rabbit Room was packed with beefy loud lads in tartan sweaters. Okay. So I took another seat in another corner, perfectly lovely, perfectly atmospheric, but not The Right One. I wrote for awhile. I kept glancing back at the Rabbit Room to see if there were any vacancies. I fantasized about pushing right through the crowd and claiming a spot at the table and flipping open my diary and starting to write as if it were the most natural thing in the world. But I was scared. And I was angry that I was scared. But a lifetime of snide misogynistic comments will do that.
I went up to the bar and ordered another glass of mulled wine, and watched the lads, and said to John and Jack in my head, “I wish they would all just go away.”
At that moment, as one, as if they were a herd of bison making a group decision, they all put down their beers and turned and filed out.
I couldn’t believe it.
I put my mulled wine on a table in the Rabbit Room that still had a dozen empty beer glasses on it. And then I dragged over my coat and bag and diary and pen. I pushed the beer glasses to the other end. I claimed the space. I took pictures. I looked at all the memorabilia. I read the plaques, like this one.
And then I wrote for a long time. Mostly addressed to Jack and John.
What I wrote will remain secret for now, of course. But suffice to say that I’ve always wanted to create my own world, my own Narnia or Middle Earth, and that I’ve always been afraid that it was somehow beyond my capability, that I could never hope to make their equal. But here I was in the Rabbit Room, in this space they occupied as human beings, a human like myself, just flesh, reading aloud the stuff they wrote alone in their studies. They’re no different from me.
As Jack might say, the Rabbit Room is bigger on the inside than on the outside.
Travel-time is different from home-time. It’s ruled by spontaneity and serendipity. Last night I was wandering in Cambridge, and I passed a liquor store that was selling cups of mulled wine, so I bought one, and then went back into the cold and drizzle, even happier. I decided to take a back road I hadn’t been down before, even though it looked unpromising—just a narrow sidewalk between a high stone wall and a traffic jam.
Earlier this week, I was in London to meet the ineffable Antonia Hodgson and the team at Little, Brown, who’s publishing The Girl in the Road as an e-book and (this just in!) a print edition, too, after strong early feedback from the field. Over tea and biscuits, we got to talking about books and writers and rules of writing. Antonia mentioned that Marilynne Robinson, a writer I adore, sometimes goes for years between publishing books because sometimes she just doesn’t feel she has anything new to say. Which is so interesting to me. I work in a different way: since I consider writing my job, part of that is to keep the well full, to keep having new experiences and traveling new places and meeting new people, so that I keep having new things to say.
I imagine, in the coming months, I’ll be getting the question “What is your advice for beginning writers?” a lot. My answer’s always been simple: (1) read every day and (2) write every day (I write morning pages even when I’m not working on a creative project). I’ve been trying to formulate a third rule, but can’t simplify it enough: “Leave home”? “Be interesting to yourself”? But I think of exceptions immediately (e.g. Faulkner and mansplainers, respectively).
The back road I was taking eventually led me to an open gate. Past it, I could see just enough to make out a double row of trees against the sky, black against blue. I stepped out of the street lamps and into the darkness. I felt so happy. Like I was at the beginning of a new story. Words started bubbling up in my mind. I repeated them to myself so that I’d remember them later and write them down. I walked up the path. I passed through a stone wall into a courtyard where a queue had formed, and I joined it, not knowing what it was for; it turned out to be the Christmas concert for a local private school, and I didn’t have a ticket but they let me in anyway, into the chapel lit by a double bank of candles, where I took a seat on the red velvet cushions next to the parents and grandparents and sisters and brothers, and listened as a soprano’s voice rose like a cold spring.