NOTE: This essay introduced the 2013 Jack Straw Writers Anthology*, written in my role as program curator. For more information about Jack Straw, please visit their website: www.jackstraw.org
Several years ago, when I was working on my second novel, my younger son came up to my office, settled on my lap, put an arm around my shoulders, and asked, with great solemnity, “Mom, what do you do when you’re being a writer?”
Normally when my boys pay me an office visit, it is to ask questions like, What’s for dinner? Can I play computer? Mind if I watch TV? or, more recently, Can you give me a ride to the mall/Café Pho/Jimmy Johns/Five Guys? so I was thrilled by Sam’s sudden interest in the solitary life of his writer mom.
I don’t remember my exact response, but it was probably something like, “Well, I think about the characters in my book as if they’re real people. I try to imagine what clothes they wear, what foods they eat, what movies they watch…” In short, I tried to explain (in a way that a six-year-old boy might understand) that, on a 24/7 basis, novelists are essentially engaged in practicing a benign form of schizophrenia.
Very soon I realized the futility of this attempt and sputtered to a halt – noting that Sam’s eyes had glazed over and he was foraging around in my desk drawer, probably looking for the box of Peeps that the Easter Bunny had deposited on my desk a few days earlier.
“So,” I concluded, “that’s what I do…kind of…when I’m being a writer.”
“Oh,” Sam remarked. “Well…okay then.”
I retrieved the Peeps. “Would you like these, buddy? You can share them with Noah if you want.”
“Sure! Thanks! See you later!” Sam hot-footed it downstairs, having made the vital discovery that whatever his mother did when she was being a writer wasn’t nearly as exciting as crashing Hot Wheels cars with his brother or driving to Krispy Kreme with his dad.
I tell this story as a reminder that the writer’s life is characterized by an exotic – but terrifically unglamorous – solitude.
I’m always amused by attempts to portray writers on film. There’s not a lot of compelling narrative in the working life of authors. We sit. We stare. We putter. We pace. We pour coffee. We tweeze our chin whiskers. We examine ourselves in bathroom mirrors and contemplate the appropriateness of our wardrobe choices.
Eventually, we get down to business. We locate the glue that allows us to apply the seat of our pants to the seat of our chairs for an extended period of time. We begin moving our hands in the service of thought, in the blind hope of conjuring magic.
Writing is a discipline of faith. To paraphrase Stephen King, we have to trust that we’re doing good work, even when it often feels like all we’re doing is shoveling shit from a sitting position. Writing requires us to exile ourselves to the private islands of our imaginations and stay there until we have something of value, some treasure to ferry to the mainland: to you, our audience.
It is a tricky thing, balancing that necessary solitude with a sense of community and belonging. For writers desperately need the community of other writers; it is my firm belief that one cannot sustain a writing life without it.
On the one hand, as John Green says, “Writing is a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story but don’t want to make eye contact while doing it.” But on the other, writers must be in relationship with fellow island-dwellers, author with whom they can commiserate and grow, and to whom they can feel connected as they return, time and again, to their private islands.
This group of writers gathered for the first time on February 1st at a reception in the large recording studio. When the six o’clock start time arrived, I was still upstairs, finishing a meeting with Jack Straw staffers. Around 6:15, program coordinator Levi Fuller entered the room. He looked worried. “You’d better get down there,” he said, ominously. “They’re being awfully quiet.”
And indeed, in the studio was a group of people, obvious strangers, interspersed among the circle of folding chairs, avoiding eye contact, sipping cups of sparkling water and nibbling noiselessly on green grapes and string cheese. It was a little like walking into a Junior High School dance.
But as the evening wore on, and each writer read their work, shared themes and preoccupations began to emerge, tongues loosened, laughter burst forth, and by the end of the evening conversations were flowing freely: a community was born. Over the months, it has been a joy to watch that community grow and deepen, nurtured by monthly potlucks and group free-writes and performance opportunities.
There are many lenses through which one can view the work represented in this anthology. But I am struck by the many ways in which these authors are exploring the theme of isolation in its many forms. You will read of the loneliness of scientist fathers and new-minted mothers; of the preacher’s son, the theatre stage hand, the street musician. You will make a solitary pilgrimage up Manhattan Island with a nurse. You will stand in the shoes of people marginalized by poverty, race, sexual identity, grief and witness all the cunning, quirky, grave, and courageous ways they survive.
Welcome to the community of the 2103 Jack Straw Writers. It is my great pleasure to introduce you to these brave island-dwellers and the treasures they have harvested to share with you.
*The 2013 Jack Straw Writers:
Kate Carroll de Gutes
Jeannine Hall Gailey