. . .
When I was growing up, though I expected that one-day I would
marry and have children, those events were so far in the future
as to seem unreal. I worked
all during junior high school and high school, and saved my money
for college. My friend Frances and I imagined ourselves in the future
after college: we would each have an apartment in New York and would
meet for dinner. We never talked about husbands. Frances was a musician.
Her father had built a studio for her, stuck it onto their working-class
bungalow, put down pale blue wall-to-wall carpeting, and moved in
a baby grand piano—a virgin workroom. Frances would sneak out to
meet her boyfriends, to press her back against a wall while she
opened her mouth to their kisses.
I had my own secrets. I ate like a bad girl. I lusted for food.
I satisfied my lust with vanilla ice cream cones dipped in a pot
of hot swirling chocolate, which would harden around the cold white
sugar and cream. I'd break the crust and suck. I'd steal money for
food. I'd eat a whole package of Yankee Doodles, three chocolate
cupcakes with cream filling, so dense and wet they would stick to
the roof of my mouth. I loved gooey cherry pie heaped with chocolate
I ate like a pig and wore immaculate white bucks, starched
blouses, white socks, pleated skirts. In junior high I shaved my legs
and sheathed them in nylons. I wore "little heels." At dances
all the girls wore transparent blouses and taffeta skirts. The transparency
revealed slips, which covered the bulwark of bras and straps. We waited
for boys to ask us to dance. I lusted for Joe Malone, his pink and
white skin, his hazel eyes, his small mouth and long legs.
I write so that I can describe the pleasures of food and sex.
No, that's not the whole story. "Writing is melancholy
act," a writer friend told me. "Writing is longing,"
I answered. I thought of Walter Benjamin's analysis of the experience
of viewing art, which leaves the viewer unsatisfied. Longing. The
act of writing, as much as the finished piece, engenders longing.
The moment of fulfillment comes and goes. Thoreau in his loneliness
at Walden feels the very leaves swell in sympathy for him. The moment
changes. If it did not, he would not have gone on writing.
began as a poet and disclosed my own secrets; I tried to capture the
intimacy of what I called my night voice, the whispers in the dark.
When I wrote my memoir, Devotion,
I told my family's secrets—congenital syphilis, mental hospitals,
alcoholism. Just before Devotion came out, I became frightened
of losing my family's love. My fear surprised me. All during the writing
I had felt excitement and release. But as the book went to press,
I felt that I had betrayed them. I had dramatized their early poverty,
revealed their cruelty and their goodness, laughed at them in print—for
all the world to see. If all their friends in Passaic hadn't known
that I, their daughter, had had an illegal abortion, they would know
it now. Writing is betrayal. A writer tells. Yet on some level I believed
that, no matter what I said, my family would not abandon me. At the
same time, writing about my family was a way to consign them to the
past where I no longer needed them.
Before the book came out, I had given my mother some chapters
to read and she had liked them. But when she saw the book in print,
she said, "Now it's all out. I am Gert." I had used her
name. She didn't like the disclosure. When the book was praised and
she was interviewed by the local papers, she began to enjoy being
"Gert." She felt that I had exposed our family, yet given
them distinction. I had also freed her from the burden of keeping
secrets. Readers liked the Levines and the Jacobses. One woman, who
came from English stock, told me, "Reading your book made me
want to be a Jew!" Her laugh rang with irony and surprise, which
had as their basis the knowledge that Jews are despised. Family members
whose names I changed in the book made it a point at readings I gave
in New Jersey to identify themselves. "I'm Carmen in the book,"
my aunt announced to the people around her, as she pointed to her
chest with her long index finger, her chin tipped up, her mouth curled
in a proud smile. A cousin told me that he had seen Devotion
in a bookstore in Seattle, where the clerk had written an in-house
review praising the "depiction of family." "Our family,"
my cousin said, and I repeated the words. They and I now have the
double identity writing can give. Some family members made it a point
to tell me still more secrets. An aunt took me to dinner and recounted
her experiences in Cuba with her "fiancé." He had kept her
in high style and taken her to parties for Batista. An uncle of my
husband's, whose family I hadn't said much about, wrote me a sixteen-page
letter about his life. "Put it in a novel," he wrote. They
want to be remembered. Some want to be known, to be important.
When I first started publishing, I wanted to be famous. I don't
think much about that now. But I am still thrilled to have gotten
anything into print at all. I am thrilled to have my books in libraries,
to look up my titles in the catalogue, to be there for people to find
"me." In the little world I came from, owning one's own
house was a triumph—my parents always rented—and becoming a public
school teacher was the highest job to which a woman should aspire.
You could always go back to it after you had children. My high school
guidance counselor glared at me when I told her that I wanted to go
away to school. I was the only girl from my junior high class who
would live away at school. The ones who went to college at all went
to state teachers colleges. I still write and publish to laugh in
the face of that counselor.
But now the act of writing is sometimes blessed with self-forgetfulness.
I write to get it right. I put down one word after the other to find
out what I don't know and what I can imagine. I leave my desk and
take a walk through the garden and look into the dazzling white-domed
heart of a pumpkin blossom, the petals falling back on themselves.
I leave my desk when my neighbor calls to show me how a bee has made
a tunnel in the unpainted Adirondack chair. We stare at the pile of
sawdust on the porch. The black bee flies out. Joe tears the rotting
chair apart. The bee's tunnel splits open to show a moist deposit
of thick orange wax. I come back to my desk and write the blossom
in, write the bee in. Perhaps they will turn to metaphor. It's happened
in the past—only through words. Metaphor gives my life meaning. I
can also stuff myself with words and not get fat. Words are a pleasure
in the mouth. My mouth is moist when I write.
There's a clock on the
shelf above my computer. I look at it. It's eleven in the morning.
But time doesn't mean anything: I'm writing. I forget time, as I lose
my self-consciousness. This feeling sends me back to writing again
Writing itself is a metaphor—for living. Despite the sadness
that's been with me since childhood, I swing my legs out of bed and
try to face the day. I put one word down and then another. I feel
less isolated. I am talking to you.
Sometimes writing is not a metaphor for living. Writing is
the story we tell ourselves in order to fight boredom and to rewrite
and reimagine the boring sections of life. Think of all the boring
lectures and sermons you have heard. How would you change them? Think
of all the mediocre meals you have eaten. What would you cook for
"You live in books," my brother once accused me.
Yes, and searching for books takes me out into the world. For a novel,
set partially in the thirties, I need information. I don't use my
modem. I walk to Robbins Library and type in my subject. At the end
of the day I find out that Father Divine's full name is Reverend Major
Jealous Divine. During the depression, besides preaching to his following
of two million people, he put on huge feasts for the homeless and
hungry. He also trained domestics and renamed them. A woman writes
that she had hired one of Father Divine's students, Everlasting Life.
She called her "Ever." I drive to Concord Library where
I find a history of the Belmont Hill School. I uncover a tape of early
broadcasts of Amos 'n' Andy,
Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden, two white men talking and acting
"black"—sweating up their voices, shor'en-nuffing it, puffing
because they're so tired from doing nothing. I find an old guidebook
to Munich at the Boston Public Library. One thing leads to another.
Now I have Klaus Mann's memoir with a section on Munich. Even Thomas
Mann's children went barefoot during the depression. In the Paterson,
New Jersey, Public Library, an armed guard takes me down to the toilet,
unlocks the door, and waits outside for me to finish. "The addicts
try to get in," she tells me. The parking lot of the library
is surrounded by a chain link fence, fifteen feet high. The reading
room is quiet. The white marble gleams. Children read.
night I wandered around Harvard Square with my husband and a friend.
We drank coffee in Starbuck's and walked up Quincy Street and into
Harvard Yard, past the Henry Moore sculpture, which looks as if it
were just poured. Ahead of us was a new memorial to the Harvard dead.
The giant wooden triptych had two pairs of enormous suspended iron
pipes that serve as gongs. One after the other, each of us lifted
the mallet and rang the muted notes. The Yard was deserted. In the
dusk the grass seemed to foam, a gray green. A few quiet tourists
sat with guidebooks in their hands on the steps of Widener Library.
Some of the dorms were lit, but empty. We walked out into the busy
street and to Wordsworth bookstore in Brattle Square. I went into
the bright glare. The new books lay in stacks on the table near the
door. The glossy covers shone. The shelves were jammed. I took a book
out, put it back. A woman with black hair streaked with gray, stood
reading in the travel section. Her absorbed face looked swollen and
sleepy—as we all looked after three days of rain. I kept taking books
off the shelf and putting them back. I'd read one sentence and stop.
They seemed hateful, their slick covers, the photographs of the authors,
the piling up of words, one book next to the other—a promiscuous babble,
When I left the woman had memorized the facts she needed from
the travel book and was putting it back on the shelf. She and I left
empty-handed. "Did you find what you needed," my friend
asked me. "Yes, nothing."
This morning I pick
up my notebook. It's still raining. Classes are over. I'm home alone.
The phone is quiet. There's a window open upstairs, and a door. The
wind moves the door. The door is sucked against the doorframe, but
the wind isn't strong enough to slam it shut. A cardinal calls. A
car passes. I hear these sounds more acutely when I describe them.
Putting down one word after the other I find out what I don't know
and what I imagine. For a moment I know where I am.