“One among the many”

We are not a family of joiners, but we joined a pool in preparation for our move here and we always have library cards. Recently we have been making fortnightly trips to the library, which is surprisingly well-supplied; Persepolis can be found in YA, in adult non-fiction and in DVD; they had Gary Younge’s Stranger in a Strange Land.

From Jefferson Market Library, where I learned to sign my name for my first card and read my way through all of the one-of-a-kind family books, Louise Fitzhugh, Madeleine L’Engle, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Vonnegut; to the little library in New Jersey, where my father read to me from Gulliver’s Travels; to the vast reading room of the NYPL Main Branch, where I researched my historical novel-in-the-drawer; to each branch across the London Boroughs of Camden and Westminster, libraries have always offered a sense of possibility. You discover an author, doors open, doors open into other doors, a connection leads somewhere else and the path you’re on seems both inevitable and infinite, a connection of ideas and minds.

The other weekend a book caught my eye, Writing New York, an anthology edited by Phillip Lopate, a former professor of mine, whose advice on writing I have heeded, or at least attempted to heed–both his penciled remarks in the margins of the unwritable college novel I attempted while in his class, a verbal admonition to not overwrite descriptions, and his essays on the craft of writing in general.

I have dipped in and out of the book over the last two weeks and it is slated to be returned today. He has included one of my all time favorite pieces of writing about New York City by William Dean Howells, from A Hazard of New Fortunes, which I had read while researching my historical novel, about a couple from Boston apartment-hunting in NYC. As it was in the 1880s, so it was in the 1980s and so it is today. The real estate code for small, dark, overpriced, the trade-offs one would have to make and the gradual loss of expectations.

I also encountered Vivian Gornick, whose observations of the city reminded me of how electrifying and rich it can be to walk down the streets listening to dialogue, how funny and interconnected New York can be in way that I missed in London, where that kind of random interjection was more an intrusion than the glue that bound us together if only for an instant of mutual appreciation.

My ability and desire to write withered in London, my historical novel and my other novel sputtered, I got a kill fee for a magazine story, and then, with the distractions of work and family, it was a pointless self-indulgence. So I stopped.

A year or two later a colleague at the school where I worked launched a visiting fellow program to bring a writer in to teach for a week. He had pursued the first fellow after a reading in New York and persuaded him to come. I would help with the arrangements, the publicity and write about it for the school magazine.

This first fellow was Phillip Lopate, which was both very cool and somewhat embarrassing for me, having abandoned the craft and become just another appreciative member of the reading public. I suspected he might have been very slightly put out in the way that although a confessional essayist a private person does not like to be caught off-guard by people from one category of one’s life crossing into another sphere, though we greeted each other happily and he said that he remembered me from school.

“Phillip Lopate,” I thought to myself in the stacks of my local library, “What’s he doing here?” I felt again as if I had intruded on his privacy by finding the book here, and wondered too, as I often do about our librarian, why he or she had thought the branch needed two copies of an anthology of writing about New York. Did Lopate know he had fans, even former students, down here?

Vivian Gornick nailed a certain anxiety I feel for myself in this observation she makes of someone she mistakes for someone she knows. Contemplating the woman’s  formerly expensive boots and three years out of fashion cape, the quality of her hair, the shape of her life, Gornick writes:

In the South, Barbara L. had seemed odd, an embarrassing exotic, and then as she got older just embarrassing. It was the isolation that had done her in, I could see that now. One among the many, she could survive in the South but not flourish. On the way to interesting she had stopped at eccentric. To blossom just “anywhere” one must be either distinguished enough to create one’s own environment or humble enough to merge with the one at hand. If one is neither, a critical mass of like-minded spirits is required. It’s like the difference between ordinary plants put down in a suburban lawn (one dumb-looking bush here, forlorn flowerbed there) and those in a richly planted garden whose massed profusion makes the same homely bushes and flowers glow with “element.” Here on Eighth Avenue what this woman knew made her exciting. Put her down in a southern college town and she’d quickly become forlorn.

Discuss. Heed. Appreciate. It was a blogable moment.


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