Skulky, but with an exhibitionist tendency

[We briefly interrupt this birding missive to say I have a short story in this week’s New Yorker; please check it out! Now back to the regular programming . . . ]

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Connecticut warblers are rare in Brooklyn and are usually quite skulky. This one, however, was making sorties into the open on Saturday in Green-Wood Cemetery. When I got home, the memory card in my camera malfunctioned when I plugged it into my laptop, and three and a quarter hours of birding were deleted. The next day, however, after three more hours of googling and hacking, I was able to claw most of the images back from the void.

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The Connecticut was almost upstaged by tanagers, orioles, and vireos gorging themselves on the fruit of a nearby kousa dogwood.

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Green-wood Cemeter, 17 September 2022

A new short story, and some remarks

[This post is also available as an issue of my newsletter.]

I’ve been flushed out of my habitual cover by a couple of recent items of personal news. First, last week, at n+1’s annual fundraiser, I was given the Anthony Veasna So Fiction Prize, and was asked to give a very short speech. (A light-hearted report of the evening appeared in The Fine Print [subscription required].) I’ll reproduce my speech just below, for the curious.

Second, though I’ve written nonfiction for The New Yorker since 2005, this week, in its Sept. 26 issue, the magazine is publishing a short story by me for the first time. The story is called “Easter.” Please check it out! It’s my voice on the audio, by the way, if you were wondering what I sound like (I haven’t listened yet).

Remarks for n+1

N+1 has long been generous to me. Its first editors—Keith Gessen, Mark Greif, Chad Harbach, Benjamin Kunkel, Allison Lorentzen, and Marco Roth—published my first serious fiction. At Penguin and then Viking, Allison took the further step of publishing two novels by me. Charles Petersen not only posted my film criticism on the website, but I had the honor of going into battle at his side against a plan that would have compromised and probably bankrupted the New York Public Library. (We won.) In the past few years, a new generation, including Sarah Resnick, Mark Krotov, and Dayna Tortorici, have shepherded into print my forays into speculative fiction. And tonight I am grateful for this award in honor of the bold spirit of Anthony Veasna So. Since my relationship with n+1 spans my whole career, I would also like to thank my agents, Sarah Chalfant and Jackie Ko, for their canny, insightful support. And the members of my writing group, Ben Nugent, Andrew Martin, Christine Smallwood, Greg Jackson, and Gemma Sieff, for their honesty and kindness. And I thank my husband, Peter Terzian, my first and my essential reader, to whom I am hopelessly devoted and who makes it possible for me, every day, to take the risks that have led me here.

But enough about gratitude. I’m a writer, after all. Now I want to talk about my mixed feelings.

Is it really necessary to show other people one’s writing? In his last years, Thoreau wrote mostly for his journal. After John Clare was forgotten, the verse he kept writing survived only because the doctor at his asylum collected the scraps of paper. Writing feels most necessary to me when I’m working through something personal—exhuming feelings too hastily buried, turning over a puzzle in my life. Neither motive requires an audience. In fact, an audience, since it implies a marketplace, may be at odds with revelation or understanding. “I am in danger of cheapening myself,” Thoreau worried, after his most austere lecture, “Life without Principle,” became a hit. If, like me and, very likely, Thoreau, a writer is gay and grew up before acceptance became widespread, he will probably always think of what is closest to himself as both a shame he had better keep quiet and a secret he is desperate to reveal. Boys on the hunt for bird eggs imagine that the skylark makes its nest up high, Clare wrote, because that’s what boys would do if they could fly. But the skylark, Clare insists, “nests upon the ground, where anything / May come at to destroy.” Hiding can be as life-giving as flying.

I had a dream recently: I was naked, and as I was heading in through a revolving door, you came toward me, heading out, which made me aware of being two people, one who formed intentions, and had come up with the idea of going naked, and one who registered impressions, and was experiencing, for the sake of remembering it later, what it felt like to be exposed—humiliation, panic. Why do I keep doing this? I asked myself. (I could ask myself the same question right now.) Is the writer the one who decides to go naked or the one who remembers what it’s like? Can I be one but not the other? Is it possible to be honest without being exposed?

For years, I had it both ways: I was ambitious, and it seemed unlikely anyone was going to read my fiction, which left me perfectly free. It wasn’t until 2008, when I was forty, that n+1 published a novella of mine. Without that vote of confidence, I probably wouldn’t have written the two novels that followed. But it took my cloak of invisibility away.

A writer writes alone, and a reader usually reads that way, but the communication between them seems to have to be public. Maybe a writer has to believe he can make a living at it, or at least have the fantasy. Thoreau’s and Clare’s late writings for no audience took place after their understanding of themselves as writers had crystallized. Maybe an audience is only necessary in early stages, as a precipitant. The matter of literary ambition is as strange as its kind. Feelings and perceptions as much as words make up the raw material, but feelings alone would only amount to entertainment, and perceptions, to a sort of flimsy journalism. And no one cares about just words. The ambition has to be to change what fiction is—to make the interaction of its elements richer or simpler, subtler or louder, than other people have realized it could be. So here the writer is, naked in his ambition at last: it’s impossible to change other people’s minds about literary form without other people.

I hate this, frankly. I just want to do my thing—and have all of you read it. (“I am the least difficult of men,” as Frank O’Hara put it. “All I want is boundless love.”) I want to make novels out of a sensibility that’s gay, and maybe a little too vigilantly conscious of its own workings, and in which the felt awareness lags behind perception with a rhythm almost of syncopation. Lately I’ve been trying to accept that I can’t do even this little as peacefully as I’d like to. I have to leave edges ragged, some of the seams unsewn. I have to let my writing more openly have the condition of art, in the sense of being a series of experiments, many of which will fail. If, in the first part of my life, the challenge was to come out, now the challenge is to stay out, in the open, which may be even more unsettling. I may never come to terms with it. But I have to come to terms with not being able to come to terms. “People wish to be settled,” Emerson warned; but “only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”