TEACHING AND GIVING A READING AT THE NEW YORK SOCIETY WORKSHOP IN NEW YORK, OCTOBER 11-13
Years ago when I was living in Manhattan with three small sons, desperately trying to continue the writing to which I’ve devoted my life, I stumbled on a hidden jewel: The New York Society Library, on 79th Street just off Madison.
Here was a space of quiet, for me, a temple of solitude and possibility. When I only had a few minutes between school pick-ups and other appointments, especially if it was one of those damp, chilly, rainy days , I would go up to the library’s second floor reading room where comfortable sofas and armchairs, a fireplace, and cabinets of china lent the air of someone’s living room, but a living room where there was no one to greet except the silent presences of other members, reading the magazines and newspapers that covered a large table. The diluted light of those rainy mornings flowed through tall windows, illuminating all of us, blessing us with tranquility and that sense of belonging so rare in a great booming, bustling, self-important city.
Later, when my sons were older and spending longer days at school, I would sign up for the privilege of using one of the top floor hideaways where I could write longhand, as I usually did, or bang away on my typewriter—this was before the advent of computers.
There would be other writers there, bathed in the same gray city light, but we respected each other’s need for silence and the hard focus fine writing requires; glancing around the attic room, I would sometimes recognize faces, but there was no need to be polite, to speak, nod, smile—we were all immersed in what we needed, so desperately, to do: complete a short story, rewrite a novel, shape an essay.
Now that attic has been completely refurbished; it is brighter, more comfortable—but none of that matters as much, to me, as the sheer possibility the spaces represent. Whatever else we may be, at other times, here we are writers and respected as such.
So it was a particular pleasure to be asked, again, to teach two morning workshops at the library, one on Katherine Mansfield’s “Miss Brill”, the second on Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady and the Dog”.
I knew I could count on the participants to read both stories carefully, quietly and slowly (as one student described it) and to bring their deep backgrounds as readers and writers to our discussion, those backgrounds, increasingly rare, that are thick with decades of serious regard for serious literature. I do not find these audiences in the rest of the country. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that there are no e-books here.
I read paragraphs from “Miss Brill” and we discussed Mansfield’s carefully chosen words, avoiding almost entirely attempts to link this work of fiction to the facts of her life—another hazard difficult to avoid outside of the city. I told my students that the story was my introduction to my vocation as a writer; reading it, when I was seventeen, in my high school textbook, I realized for the first time that a writer could inhabit a character, could bring the reader to tears of empathy for a little old woman who, in the eyes of the world, didn’t matter. Raised on the great nineteenth century British novels (with the glaring exception of someone called George Eliot, whom I would only encounter years later), I had long since recognized the glory of great literature but had always felt myself a humble practioner, creating from the outside heroic male characters—or ghosts!—I could never hope to inhabit. I did not know reading could create empathy for characters we might flee in the so-called real world.
Last night, at the library, I read a story from my new collection, “Mending”, after listening with great admiration to Yiyun Lee reading the title story from her first collection, “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl”. (We had laughed together over a mistake in the Chinese translation that had made it, “GOAT Boy, Emerald Girl.”) Yiyun has a whole culture at her fingertips, its sadness, its inevitable betrayal of those most loyal to it—the old women. Without a whiff of sentimentality, she creates the empathy in her readers that Katherine Mansfield created a century ago.
I chose to read the most “New York” of all my stories: “Seagull”—which I might also have titled, “The Ask”—the first of my new stories about money in all its permutations. I’ve noticed that this is a topic we fiction writers seem to avoid. Its complexities, guilts, and mysteries seem too much for us; many who cannot hope to live off their writing have no way to handle the resulting confusions. How do we manage? How does the world that runs on money manage? This will be my meat, and the first course is “Seagull,” its protagonist a desperate black playwright in the big city, turning to a stranger for help with his next production, shaming himself—but, because of who Helen is, not shaming her.
The silence of attentiveness, the alert faces of strangers and friends, gleaming now and then with humor, created the other part of this place I call home: the company of kindred souls. The concept is as archaic as it sounds, but now, in a world that seems increasingly soulless, this company, gathered in this ancient building—the oldest library in New York—seems blessed, and blessing.
May we always go on together. Tomorrow, we tackle the Chekhov.