Tuesday 9th August 2011

The Art of Lingering

I drop into a deli on Madison for water and salad for later. At the Centre I stop off on the second floor Reading Room for a quick peek at today’s New York Times. Big mistake!! Every literary journal and quarterly in North America is laid out on the mahogany table and display shelves. My greedy beady eyes scan them all – the New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, Glimmer Train, The Yale Review, the New England Review, The Southern Review, the latest New Yorker, and my first ever sighting of a hard copy of McSweeney’s. The London Review of Books and Granta too. And now, resting among the lot, is The Stinging Fly.

I take the NY Times and McSweeney’s to a table around the corner. On the table, by chance, sits a beautiful hardback book, entitled Writers. On the cover, a photograph of a young Saul Bellow. The book is a collection of photos of writers taken by Nancy Crampton. I read the intro by poet Mark Strand and turn the pages and am hooked.

Each writer’s photo is paired with a short paragraph on the writing life. I check my watch, it’s almost 11. I turn the pages: Updike, William Maxwell, Sam Shepherd, Heaney. The younger ones are here too—Franzen, Junot Diaz, David Foster Wallace—but it’s to the old and the dead I am drawn. I lose myself in the pages and go deeper into their faces and minds, and my own mind starts to swirl and I feel that delicious thrill one gets reading the interior thoughts and work habits of other writers. On the table beside me, untouched, McSweeney’s waits, and all around me shelves groan with books and journals that I covet. What great luck, I think, to have fallen on this book, left here randomly. I turn the pages slowly. There’s John Cheever sitting at the bottom of stone steps, looking pensive—no, desolate—while his dog looks down from a few steps above. I devour his words and my heart hops with the rightness of each one.

I glance at my watch, feel the compulsion to keep turning. One more page, I say, and I turn and there’s Philip Roth, and one more and it’s Alice Munro and the greedy eyes are triumphant and… one last turn… and it’s our own Edna, speaking directly to a heart and mind already in orbit… ‘Writing is an obsession … that derives from an intensity of feeling which normal life cannot accommodate…’ and I almost bow down to this most feeling of Irishwomen on the page before me.

Wednesday 10th Aug

Tiny Marks

I think I am becoming American—suddenly I cannot bear to waste a minute. An early rise at 6.30am (it is unthinkable—and impossible—to waste time sleeping in this city) then the NY 1 city news while I make coffee, Sunday’s newspaper with the toast, the morning bus ride to think, and then the short walk to 47th Street.

I set up the laptop and delve into the notebook—underlining words, asterisking sentences, drawing arrows across pages. I try to nudge my way into a new story. I have to think my way into characters and map them and their tiny marks on the human register. I circle the perimeter fence. The voice is not right. I am hesitant. I try to slide in sideways, grope my way in the darkness and, if I am lucky, fall down a rabbit hole.

I cannot start a story until I have a bank of notes accumulated. I ‘open’ a notebook as soon as an idea emerges and start to gather. By the time I sit to write I have enough images, snippets, even narrative, to trick my way in. The notes are crucial. (James Salter calls this his ‘ammo’… he likes to have plenty of ammo before he sits to write.)

I break for lunch and walk out into the Manhattan sun. I have a coffee and cigarette at the ‘wichcraft’ kiosk beside Bryant Park. I check my watch, edgy, then return to the Centre. Time flies. I wrestle words for two more hours, then head over to the NY Public Library, or MoMA or take a bus home through the late afternoon traffic to York Avenue. On good days, on lucky days, words come as I go. Because fiction seldom happens when or where it’s supposed to. So I open the notebook and catch the words wherever they fall.

I am a different person when I write. James Salter again: a character in one of his stories, a writer, is never helpless… ‘He lived one life and imagined ten others.’

Thursday 11th August 2011

An Unquiet Mind

I feel the others around me. I am acutely aware of the individual little routines and rituals we each practise before settling: setting the desk at a slightly different angle, repositioning the lamp or the water bottle, removing a watch, a ring, blowing dust particles from the surface—and am I imagining it or do we sniff the air a little too—in that urgent timorous search for perfection?

I nip down to the 2nd floor Reading Room for a quick peek at the NY Times. At the display table I check out the latest offerings and suddenly I am transported across the floor to a bookshelf where my hand, of its own volition, falls upon a name. J.M.Coetzee.

I will always find Coetzee. Or he will find me. This, a selection of essays on his work. I check the contents and turn the pages, and instantly I’m a goner. The book suffuses. The essays make me think. I want to log each thought. I want to write about Coetzee. I look up and out the window.

I took the train to Philly yesterday. I want to write about that, too, and other journeys and impressions that spill from each day, each moment. I wish for ten hands and ten minds. This mind flits from one thing to the next, feeling the force and pulse of the city, being swept away. Here, I see more. I see differently. I want to catch it all but my attention is fragmented. I jot notes constantly. I start a piece on the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Met which closed on Sunday. Then a Philip Roth essay on Kafka from 1972 that I found at the Strand bookshop scrolls into view.

The soul is stirred by everything. I have no firewall. The smallest detail inspires, elates, and one thought leads to a thousand, and the mind and the imagination are in a terrible state of chassis and the cup overfloweth. I think I have strayed into a field live with ADHD and any minute now my circuits will short and I’ll suffer an outage and I’ll sit gazing at the screen, not knowing my name, or the name of another soul in the city.

So I slow down. I cross the room to the Nancy Crampton book on the mahogany table and sit and calmly turn a page. Just one page. It is Isaac Bashevis Singer. He says we are all surrounded by mysterious powers which play a part in everything, in every human deed, in every love story… For thousands of years people used to wear woollen clothes and when they took them off at night they saw sparks. I wonder what these people thousands of years ago thought of these sparks they saw when they took off their woollen clothes. I am sure that they ignored them and the children asked ‘Mother, what are these sparks?’ And I am sure the mother said ‘You imagine them!’

I ride the elevator up to my 8th floor nest and open my file and crawl, mole-like, into my tiny universe. Around me the others sit. My character smiles. In Dublin my stories wait and I wait and with anxious hands I turn and tap my way towards a spark.