I am a sucker for independent bookstores. The kind of place tucked in an urban neighborhood with a used section in the basement, a wide section of popular and edgy fiction, interesting memoirs and non-fiction offerings, and a potpourri of book clubs where people who actually read books come excited to discuss them. For me it’s Left Bank Books, and I’ve been shopping there since I was thirteen, where I acquired one copy of Wuthering Heights.
By any definition, I am well read. I downplay how much I read, because my tongue got a little bloody after one too many run-ins with those people who say: “I love to read, but I’m so busy. How do you have time?” Reading is not something I like to do; it’s something I have to do. Like air, water, food, and shelter, books fall at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I live with my books, carrying them with me from room to room, to work, to the barn, to dinner. I write, underline, and star. I fold pages; write poems on the frontispiece; notes in the margins; questions on the tops of pages.
I also return to my books. That copy of Hemingway short stories from 11th grade lives in my bedroom, and when I want to think about how to say more with a story, I pull it open and start flipping through two decades of notes. Three Virginia Woolf collections scattered around the house, when I need bravery and inner monologue. That copy of Goldfinch on my fridge is my third, because I keep loaning it out, and then need to find it, and read Boris. The poets – Eliot, Cummings, Neruda, Parker, Dickinson, Ginsberg, Whitman – and on and on are in my living room, where I sit at midnight or dawn and write words.
For years, I referred to my writing as “secret w.” My process was monastic in comparison to the deeply collaborative writing I did as a lawyer, where almost every memo, opinion letter, brief, motion, and article, was reviewed, edited, discussed, debated, and revised with my boss. He saw things I didn’t, read sentences in ways I did not intend, saw flaws in the structure, or wheat hiding in the chaff. My legal writing got strong, while my poetry and prose stagnated. It needed air and light.
What I love about independent book stores is how often they foster local writers. I walked in one day for a young adult book group and heard a few acquaintances talk about writing. Fresh off a failed novel, a failed marriage, in some ways a failed life, I screwed my courage to the wall, and asked if they were writers and knew of a local group, and I met Anna, who introduced me to an online writing community.
I read and commented a few hours a day, somehow finding time to add these stories, memoirs, essays, poems, and blog posts into my daily reading routine, accepting this reading time the way I accept my book reading. Finally one day, I opened a text box, wrote a poem and clicked post. I did it the next day, and the next. Until I was posting my writing six or seven days a week for months, while reading and commenting on other writers, bit by bit, building a community of writers who read and commented on my poems and prose, creating a writers workshop for peer critique, nourishing my with fresh blood.
All those conversations I had in the pages of my books came flooding forward. Debating narrative styles, bickering about showing and telling, I remembered Woolf. If wanted to write a piece that began and lived in the thoughts that pass like clouds across my mind, I would read Mrs. Dalloway. To that I received a quick reply from the friend who took my hand and helped me walk into the process of a poem: Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers. I discovered two things: first, how I would approach writing memoirs and memoir-style fiction, and second, I was not alone in my conversations with other novelists and poets. This conversation didn’t just go in vertical directions, but horizontal ones as well. But my fellow writers didn’t let me off easily, challenging me to say more with less, to cut the extraneous, to write like an assassin. I revised stories, Hemingway and my friends in my ear as I wrote.
My truly collaborative writing began with Edith Wharton, when C, a fellow writer and I circled each other, considering friendship, and she asked: “What is your favorite Edith Wharton novel?” The question alone excited me. House of Mirth and Summer, I answered, although I love all of them. Are you more Lily Bart or Countess Olenska? That day, many months ago, C became Countess.
We went back to Emily Bronte, talking about our destructive first loves, our Heathcliffs, until I realized I wanted to explore pieces who I am, not just who he was. But I froze, the topic too vast, until Carole called with the first piece of our “Pieces of Me” series and I responded. We decided to write about ourselves in each color of the rainbow, and now we are pulling out chunks of our soul to describe sensory reactions to summer, and not a day passes when we don’t plot and plan games with words. Her Heathcliff essays drug out old stories, until I began to write things I hadn’t tried in years. Fairy tale drabbles to concentrate my voice; dialogue only stories; games, games, endless word games. A conversation that started by Bronte, inspired by Countess, organized by me, and read by my writing community, and it helped me find, at last, sweetness in my writing that felt true, a sweetness that balanced out the raw and the dark and rounded out my voice.
What began in a bookstore at thirteen with Emily Bronte became something I cannot live without. This practice of reading, digesting, discussing, and writing in response is as elemental as reading itself. Far from the solitary activity it was for a decade, I have a space and a group of people to whom I belong, and with whom I share my most solemn wishes. Now I come knocking on your door, looking for a new community, new mentors, new writers, new books, and new blood for my words. I’m ready for new conversations.