“O taste and see that the Lord is good”, said the framed print on Emilia’s green kitchen wall, the words of the psalm encircling images of fruits and vegetables.
These are words that welcome, an invitation. To me, they have come to encompass more than Emilia’s excellent cooking; they signify also the opportunity I have found as a lodger in her house: the opportunity to write without impediment, to enjoy, in right measure, the human and creature comforts that create a physical and emotional context for writing. To Emilia and for her house I am grateful.
Writing boils down--always--however long the writer’s money, to a room, sometimes just a table and chair. To earn one’s seat as a writer, one first must sit, easier said than done.
Happy is the writer who can say to herself, “I have everything I need.” These needs are, in reality, quite slender: materially speaking, unlike other arts, writing comes cheap.
Perhaps I am partial, but in New York City every writer is incalculably rich in experience and place. There may be tumult outside the door, or even surrounding one’s seat, but if one just straps in, pen and mind in hand, writing will happen. My first experience of really concerted writing came at the kitchen table of a women’s shelter in East Harlem. There, in the place of dispossession, I discovered the power of writing to summon and crystallize memory rather than simply propagate information and interpretation.
To be a writer involves, not comfort, but the meaningful loss of it, the falling away of all that is not writing. Henry James wrote, “It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature,” a pronouncement I read to include our individual histories.
I hold that life’s losses, of emotional and material attachments, and even of other talents, transform writing from avocation to necessity. Pleasures lost--provided one has tasted them completely--are the ingredients of language. The writer learns to translate rather than possess, to cook rather than consume.
Even if she has lost nothing, let alone everything, the writer must sit amidst luxury as an ascetic, abandoning possessions, transforming into words the people and things she desired or, indeed, still loves. I am not speaking of renunciation, but of suspending instinct and its imperatives, distilling from experience, good and bad, its good. Through writing, one finds what the poet Rumi called, “the pearl... in sorrow’s hand”.
Pleasure may upend the writer; but for a writer the memory of it is mandatory, the more remote the memory, the easier. The paradox and mystery of every writer’s life is the necessity of misadventure and the brinksmanship required for its final translation into words, into, one hopes, what Henry James called literature.
Distractions to the writer are fatal, their tentacles uprooting the hardiest talent, unless, later, they are put to use, comprising a thesaurus of people, places, things, loves, one delves into again and again, finding the right word--even just the right punctuation mark--to render their juice for the reader.
“Take, eat, this is my work.” One wants only at last to be able to say these words when an essay or memoir or novel reaches the finish line of the slow, always interrupted race of its writing.