H, my oldest, gave me a pen for Christmas. One of my favorite gifts ever, for how beautifully it writes, and even more for the beauty in his consideration of this particular gift, for me.
I’ve been using it to write my morning pages in my journal. Usually by page three, my hand gets tired and I have to give it a little shake. One morning, pen down, hand shaking, I noticed something interesting. The writing callous on my middle finger is coming back.
I hadn’t even noticed it was gone.
We all had them as kids, back in the ’70s and ’80s when I grew up. Of course we did–except for the occasional typed paper for class, we wrote everything by hand. Assignments and notes for class, notes passed to each other in class. Letters to penpals found in the backs of magazines. And later, love letters, of which I have a box full, yes I do, Jeff Tweedy.
When did my writing callous disappear? Some time in the late ’90s, early 2000s, I suppose, when more and more of my writing turned to tapping on keys. I mean, I had a journal then, but I was writing there less often. And less often. And less often.
The new callous delights me. It’s like an old friend.
* * *
I got a free year of Apple TV with my phone and I’ve been watching the series Dickinson. I’m not sure what Emily Dickinson scholars would say about the anachronism of the show–the contemporary language, the twerking, a rapper showing up as Death–though one scholar writes that despite obvious historical inaccuracies, the show gets the spirit of Dickinson’s poetry right.
Anyway, the gorgeous scenery and my newfound desire for a flowing white nightgown aside, what really drew me in was the first scene of the first episode. Middle of the night, Emily–played by Hailee Steinfeld–gets out of bed, and goes to her desk. Lights a candle and pulls out a scrap of paper, a pencil. Writes, breathing hard. We get a shot from behind, Emily seeming to gaze out the window into darkness. Then her hands start doing weird things. Flicking at the air, like fireworks. Fluttering near her mouth, like she’s trying to pull forth words. Then back to her paper scrap. Then more fireworks, more words.
It’s just a ten-second sequence, but I couldn’t stop thinking about those hands.
* * *
A few days later, another streaming service, Disney login from one of the kids–so many options these days–I’m watching the new Taylor Swift documentary Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions. (I know, I know, Taylor Swift again! Third time in three blog posts! I swear, I didn’t know any of her music until Folklore, but somehow that album has found its way into the space between my ears.) Anyway, I’m sitting on my couch, watching her on a couch as she performs her songs in that stripped-down setting, and at some point, on some song, she stops playing guitar. One of her hands starts doing this thing. Moving up and down, back and forth, like it’s helping her find her words.
* * *
The next time happens five days after that. And I know you saw this one. Amanda Gorman on Inauguration Day, in daffodil yellow, unmissable, reeling off her words.
The new dawn blooms as we free it.
Her hands illuminating what she says, hummingbirds flashing metallic in the sun.
* * *
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
* * *
For the past seven months I’ve had the unfathomable thrill of being part of a cohort of writers working with Megan Stielstra in her Essay Collection in a Year class at StoryStudio Chicago. Usually this class happens in Chicago, but there are upsides to a pandemic: this year the class is online. In addition to our monthly meetings, we each get an opportunity to share 100 pages of our manuscripts with Megan. Usually Megan meets for these manuscript reviews in person, in some Chicago cafe, but that’s not happening this year. Except! Another pandemic upside: Megan happens to be living for a few months in Oakland, so for two hours one recent Sunday morning, we met in my backyard to chat about my memoir-in-progress.
Maybe you already know how much Megan’s work means to me. If you don’t, start here and you’ll understand. Which is to say, having her sitting across my picnic table in a black t-shirt and jeans, discussing my chapters was a delight, an impossible delight.
At one point, talking agents, Megan said they’ll want to know about my next book. My next book? I’ve been writing this one, either in my head or in actuality, in one way or another since we made the decision to homeschool almost 25 years ago. It has taken, is taking, a long time to write this book.
My next book? I didn’t think. Words flew out of my mouth. And I know what I said because I recorded our meeting.
“I’m 55. I kind of gave up some of the best professional years of my life (to homeschool.) I could have been doing something else but I did this. So the question I’m exploring in this memoir isn’t was it worth it? because I know it was worth it. My question is, what did it do? For the kids? For me?
I’ve waited a very long time to have this part of my professional life happen. I think that’s going to be part of my story: what happens when some things in life happen late for you?”
I’m sure I was talking with my hands when I said this. Because I do that.
And Megan said, “Let me be clear. The best professional years of your life are right fucking now. Until the day you die.”
I love her so much.
We laughed and recited one of her oft-repeated lines in stereo, “You get to be a writer forever.”
* * *
I’ve learned so much about images from my other beloved writing teacher, Kate Moses. “Images carry within them unconscious, subjective meanings that move readers forward through a story, scene or poem,” she told us at our first retreat.
Those hands. Those young women pulling forth their art. I was their age when I started trying to write myself, before kids. I wrote so much I had a callous on my finger.
Still at it.
* * *
P.S. Those are my hands in that photo. My girl is always taking photos of my hands; I’m always deleting them. I deleted this one. Who wants to see my old, veiny hands? But I needed an image for this post so I texted and asked if she still had a copy.
more inspiration from february:
–Speaking of hands, I took this Creative Live class on using cameras in manual mode, and it was so helpful! I’ve kept my camera stuck in automatic mode for years. While I understand the basics of shutter, aperture, ISO, I still could never quite grasp how to make them come together without the camera doing the work for me. Khara Plicanic explains so well, and makes it easy. I’ve been having a blast with my camera ever since.
–RIP Christopher Plummer. As a girl, I had such a crush on him in The Sound of Music. His name came up in a Zoom meeting, and I recommended Beginners and sent a link to the trailer, which made me watch the trailer, which made watch the movie again, and then I watched it again, taking notes. The way director and writer Mike Mills uses memory in this film is helping me unlock an essay, one I keep rewriting. *sigh* I love Mills’ films so much. Twentieth Century Women is up next for a rewatch. His films are, apparently, quite autobiographical–these two about, respectively, his father and his mother–which is probably why they speak to me as someone who keeps writing and rewriting about my life.
–George Saunders is a gem. A writing friend recommended his newest book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading and Life, which is also George Saunders giving a master class on writing, reading, and life. His advice on finding your writing voice, and how that happens in revision sort of blew my mind and sent me off on a tangent of listening to every interview with him I could find. This one on Otherppl is a good place to start. Saunders is a fan of kindness, and that comes across in everything he does. I’m also listening to the audio version of Lincoln in the Bardo and it’s amazing. 166 readers in the cast! David Sedaris, the best.
Whew–I (barely) got in a February post! Hope to see you again in March. If you don’t already subscribe to updates via email, I hope you’ll consider it! You can do that right here.