That New Book Feeling
December 6, 2011 § 3 Comments
I thought I’d put up this picture of me happy, since I’ve written so many posts about depression. Last weekend, I went out with friends, including my darling friend Janet Kaplan, who published my chapbook, for a celebratory dinner and then a drink at the BAM cafe, where this was taken. We had a very good time.
That new book feeling. I first experienced it in August, 1988, when my publisher/editor Juris brought a box of copies of my first novel Men to my apartment. He wanted to see my face when I opened the box. At that point in my life, I was shy about showing strong emotion and it was hard to look at those beautiful hardcovers in the presence of someone I liked enormously but who was not yet the dear friend he has become. Still…that ocean blue…the mysterious face (not mine; mine was on the back)…the slick, heavy jackets. The plenitude of copies. It wasn’t a feeling of accomplishment. It wasn’t getting a fabulous present, or an engagement ring. It was like having one foot in another dimension, the one I found in books when I was young, but with full consciousness—exquisite self-consciousness. Self-consciousness experienced entirely as pleasure, and yet strange: the story complete and good but unknown.
I was distracted by Juris standing there with a grin on his face, effortlessly summoning up my father. My father worked in publishing, and twice a year, he brought home the season’s children’s titles from Scribners and then Putnam. The books were for all of us kids, but I was the only one who thought of those nights as extra Christmases. My father rarely bothered to try to please, but he was tickled by how much I adored the books, all unknown to me. It must be gratifying to have a child who thinks what you do at work is best thing a father could possibly do. So that’s who Juris was at that moment, and yet not—also himself, editor of my first book—and I was confused by the crisscrossing emotions. I worried that I wasn’t exhibiting adequate excitement.
How could I tell him why? He probably had some idea—he’d told me that when he entered publishing, my father, recently deceased, was still a legend. And he’d been an editor for quite a while. But he couldn’t know the particular power of that evocation, the vivid memory of running outside barefoot and coatless in the cold to get the books out of my father’s car; lugging the heavy box; my father’s laughter that I couldn’t wait until he had a drink and a smoke and would bring them in himself. My father’s pride at my book-greediness like a fire I couldn’t get too close to, but never wanted to be too far away from. But that’s my childhood. I wrote a book about it: The Boy on the Green Bicycle. You can buy it discounted on amazon.com.
Still, I had it that afternoon, the new book feeling. The first book feeling. I can see us standing there on either side of the opened box, me hesitating to disturb the books, Juris having to tell me to take them out. I wasn’t really sure they were mine.
I never thought I’d experience anything like it again. So while I was looking forward to receiving my copies of the chapbook, I thought it best not to expect too much. My depression is like a bad parent, telling me that nothing will help, I’ll never amount to anything. And, in fact, the intense joy was fleeting: that surprise opening of the heart, that wonder like looking on the face of a newborn. Here and gone. The armor rematerialized. But it was enough to remember.
I cracked the book and read and Ethan teased me—I can’t remember exactly what he said—but I replied, “They look different in print.” What was especially pleasing was that they seemed better in print. I didn’t feel that with my novels. I was too anxious, too ashamed about my subject matter—what will always be my subject matter: love, sex, grief. (Not to the exclusion of all else, but that’s the heart of my literary territory.) The poetry manages to skirt that fear, though it touches on it now and then. Poems stand alone. I feel complicit with my novels.
The original version of Men had a lot more sex in it than the published book, and when Juris asked me to rewrite some parts, I ended up taking stuff out that he hadn’t objected to. I finally got it that strangers, friends, family and acquaintances would be reading it. That what seemed fine in the privacy of my study was something else when I imagined it read by anyone other than my close circle and a number of anonymous agents and editors. I can’t remember the excised parts so I have no idea whether they would have enhanced the book. But I’ve spent most of my life watching other writers become famous for ‘shocking’ or simply unusual new material not very different from what I’d wanted to write, but thought was just too…Margaret…to be publishable.
I’m grateful for the teachers I had, both in person and on the page, who said over and over: you have to write what scares you, what you’re afraid no one will like or understand. That this terror of the monstrous self and of invading the privacy of others happens to every writer and you embrace the former and negotiate the latter. There’s no way around it. Nobody can tell you whether you’ve gone too far or not far enough, though everyone will have an opinion.
I haven’t followed that advice very well, but I’ve never questioned it. I’ve benefited too much from other writers’ courage, even or especially the ones who’ve staked out what I think of as my territory. Historic territory now. There’s a time for certain stories and if you wait too long, someone else or several someones will tell the stories well enough that the public is satisfied, and will snap in annoyance at a late offering.
Janet has reminded me how precious it is, a book of one’s own. I don’t care that she only printed 100 copies. Every day on Facebook I read about this or that writer winning a prize, and I know if I won something, it would feel glorious, but at this point I’m back to where I was in the beginning of my career, when to be published, to be read, is a great gift. And, you know, that doesn’t feel like a bad thing. On the contrary. It’s fun to be a beginner not as frightened and naïve as the first time. Here’s a poem for you.
(Look at previous post for the chapbook price and buying instructions, as well as another poem.)
My father in his 45th year
gave into an embarrassing hunger
not to be, and so be loved.
He envied the dead boy, my brother,
for whom the women wept.
And didn’t I?
The fleeing man
bequeathed me his desire
like a black handkerchief tucked into my bosom.
I didn’t have a bosom.
I pinned it to my flat chest.
My bosom grew up around it
full and springy, naïve
as the silk sunk in, whispering.
What does the silk know?
It doesn’t have to know. It has me.
When I ignore it, my inordinate
which is only desire under pressure—
it knots me up,
veins and guts, while I sleep.
I wake in pieces, longing to be great.
Envying the dead boy, he took himself off
without much ado
in a car that didn’t move
to where the martinis are mixed
by angels spritzed with ‘50’s
bohemian girl perfume.
More life. More life.
That’s what you wanted, Father, didn’t you?
Or not. I inquire into a voyage
by means of small boat
among leaf mulch, rocks and spiders.
The cold black water’s far down
and whirlpools are spaced
like the muscles of the throat
the boat spins away —
I merely inquire.
Collect travelers’ maps.
Here you are. Might be. As if
it were not enough for any of us
to say: was here.
I remember the fishwife in the tale
magicked to queen, then empress
of the world, demanding
to be made God, and why?
Is there no roof above me?
Only the embroidery of the stars
like a piece of stuff someone left fall
when she stepped out the door
into the garden where the man laughed
the children were at play
and the dusk
quickly blurred them all.