But it seems to me that men, great or otherwise, have little to do with the topic of her memoir, which is, simply and complexly, how she became a writer.
Colette recalls “a little girl of eight years old who let her mother call her for a long while, far away in the park,” not because she didn’t want to be found but because “she already knew too much, as you can see, of the various terrible ways of giving oneself pleasure,” the pleasure she finally allowed herself when she flew into her mother’s arms.
Apprenticeships of any kind—even that sort involved in learning to sew on a button—depend on a bitter and prolonged deprivation of pleasure, a narrow and deep focus that will never allow for what we call a balanced life.
It is the only way to achieve the mastery that musicians know requires 10,000 hours of practice.
When I teach writing, I don’t have the courage to remind my eager and enthusiastic students that to master this skill will require them to change their lives, to devote, even in old age, the hours I devoted as a teenager to writing pages of something or other, my forearms sticking to the lined paper in the Kentucky heat, while my friends were playing tennis and swimming and dancing.
Of course I did some of that too, but never enough to become proficient, always nagged by the certainty that I should be doing something else.
There’s no shame in being an amateur of any skill, but it will not result in a manuscript that is worthy of being published and read, or in a violin solo that deserves ears.
I think Doris Duke, the subject of my biography, longed for mastery in several fields—too many fields: repairing ceramics, collecting Islamic art, swimming, diving and surfing, to name a few.
She could afford to hire the best coaches and teachers, and she did, but she never developed the narrow and deep focus that would have allowed her to achieve mastery.
She didn’t give herself time.
Every few weeks, or months, she would call to her maid, “Bring out the racks!” When they appeared, she would begin to pack for another trip, lasting weeks or months, to one of the twenty or so countries all over the world she visited.
Money made travel possible, but her restlessness made it inevitable. And her restlessness precluded, as it does for so many of us, the achievement of mastery.
After my three sons were born, my life as a writer no longer existed. I didn’t keep a notebook or a journal; I didn’t sketch out ideas for short stories because I had almost no ideas for short stories. The world didn’t care, nor did my closest people. I had written and published a novel and two collections of short stories many years earlier, and now I was raising sons. Wasn’t that the right, the useful, the appropriate progression?
But I remembered, painfully, the dedication of the teenager with her forearms stuck to the lined page, the intensity of the young married woman spending days at a time alone in a Boston apartment to write her first novel, the passion of the woman in labor, writing down the details between contractions.
That was who I was. That was the woman I had lost, or put aside.
That summer my sons were spending a month with their father, for the first time: an unplanned month, for me, a month of terrifying liberty. I was blessed to apply to, and be accepted at, the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where I was given a small white bedroom, three good meals a day (including lunch delivered in a picnic basket) and my own studio, deep in the woods.
Sitting at the broad wooden desk, I had nothing to write. Nothing to do. Lacking even the buzzing accompaniment of a computer, I faced a blank page.
I knew it was my last chance.
Goaded by restlessness, and a sort of primal fear of the blank, I went out and walked through the hot, insect-loud woods, passing other cabins where other workers were perhaps completely engaged (or smoking, or taking naps). I prowled along old tumbled stonewalls, emerged into overgrown pastures, sank knee deep in a sucking swamp. Eventually, I would have to go back. Eventually I would sit at the board wooden table again.
And I did. I had no alternative.
After hours, or days, I don’t remember, I began to put down words. I filled a page, and then another. I was exhausted, consumed by self-doubt. I didn’t dare to read the words again.
Slowly, as slow as the drip of half-dried concrete, the hours began to pass. The lunch basket came; that was a reprieve. I went to the bathroom and combed my hair. But then, again, as the afternoon settled into a deeper quietness, there was nothing to do but sit in front of that page.
By the end of the month, after working seven days a week, I had a short novel of no particular consequence. That didn’t matter. I had put the words on the page. I was again the older, sadder and perhaps wiser version of the girl with her forearms stuck to the lined page in the Kentucky heat.
That is what mastery requires. That is what Doris Duke never learned.
“It was there that I faced my new life, between my dog and my cat,” Colette writes at the end of My Apprenticeships. Letters arrive, entreating her to return, but “None of the letters ever asked me to retrace the steps that had taken me with my trunk and my dog and my cat from the Rue de Courcelles to the Rue de Villejust. And so, in the small ground floor flat, I grew accustomed to the thought that here the flavor of my life must change…”
It was not her first apprenticeship, nor would it be her last. Nor was my apprenticeship in the New Hampshire woods my first, or my last. I am starting on the next one today.