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Hi, loves. 🌿
New look, old me.
Well, hi! Hi. Really, it’s me, same old me. Just an easier interface that doesn’t send me to an early grave, I hope. This looks fancy but it’s still me sitting here, thinking of all of you as I write. Nothing much has changed.
So, almost three years in (!), welcome to the new tiny letter that’s not officially a Tiny Letter anymore but really is, still, tiny in my mind? As most of you know, this letter started way before the pandemic so if you want to live through Life Before as well as The Pandemic all over again (and who doesn’t?!), feel free.
So. Let’s take a deep breath together. Onward.
I’ve been thinking so much about process lately, about how we make things. Maybe it’s because I read Nicole Chung’s wonderful interview Lydia Kiesling. Maybe it’s because I am teaching so much and so many of our classroom discussions seem to inevitably cul-de-sac into questions of how: “But how do I do X?” [finish a piece/find the right voice/commit to writing/not lose hope/know if an idea has legs/know if you’re spinning your wheels/bring all those threads together/know this is the right way in]. Most of the answers I offer feel both true and untrue: When it comes to writing (or any other art form, I’d imagine), it often feels like the blind leading the blind. I can only do what works for me, and often I fail miserably at even that and need to try on something else, so why even bother listening to my advice?
For example: Yes, I do try to keep a writing schedule. Yes, I do count my words when I want some proof that I’m getting somewhere with a new big project. Yes, I do work even when I’m not “inspired.” Yes, I do write in tiny chunks and stop when the alarm goes off, even if I’m into it. Systems and deadlines are the only architecture holding any of this madness together.
And also those are all lies. This week I got no writing done, systems be damned.
I’ve developed a bizarre ritual of only working on this new bigger project in the car. Essays I can generally write wherever and whenever—in the bathroom, while my daughter talks to me, in small interrupted pockets, while blasting music—but book work (or “book” work, as it now feels) needs major guardrails to keep me from panic and distraction, to keep my mind inside this new, unformed world. Somehow this place has become…the car. (I am truly an Angeleno now.)
I drop my daughter at dance or tennis, return to the passenger seat on a quiet side street, and work for 45 minutes. No internet, no chores, no space (like, no literal space; we don’t have a big Subaru). The car acts as a kind of weird spaceship taking me to only one place. I need the confinement to keep my bravery and hope alive.
And yet, this week it failed utterly. I looked at the pages and saw only how awful they were. I looked at the clock every four minutes and willed the stupid dance class to be over so I could be freed. I (gasp) texted a friend to whine about how I don’t know what I’m doing (this is strictly verboten). I checked the news. That’s when you know you’re a goner.
I’ve been at this long enough to know that this is meaningless. It doesn’t spell the end of anything, or even that—especially that—what I have is bad. It just means that whatever initial spell I was under to start the thing—this is working! this is working! it’s going to work!—is wearing thin and I will soon be onto some other intense feeling about it. (In those moments I come back to Annie Dillard: “The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.”)
It also means, perhaps, that the rest of my life—of the world, really—feels overwhelming and awful, and that that oppressive feeling started bleeding into this space I wanted, I tried so desperately, to keep untouched. (See: car.)
Sometimes I think that in order to make anything new—a painting, a book, even a loaf of bread—we have to willingly ignore not only our own insecurities and fears but perhaps the truth about how hard what we are trying to attempt actually might be.
I thought about this so much over the weekend, in the wake of learning that Iwan Edwards had died. Mr. Edwards was a beloved choral conductor and music educator in Montreal for half a century. I first studied with him in elementary school, but he went on to become the choir conductor for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and of several children’s choirs, of which I was a member all through high school.
Mr. Edwards treated us like musicians, not children. His particular gift was to never let us know that the material he was asking us to sing might be quite difficult. On my first terrifying, exhilarating day of Treble Choir, as a 14-year-old, he handed out a complicated piece (Haydn? Liszt? Mozart? I can’t now remember) and expected us to sightread it perfectly in three parts on the spot—and we did. We had no idea that this was a big deal: he knew we could do it, so we did.
Obviously it was not this simple. We were well trained (thanks to our elementary school’s exceptional music program) and had been chosen for our voices and our ability to read music and sight sing in the first place. But he believed in us utterly, which allowed us to momentarily cast aside doubt (remember, we were adolescents; it really was temporary). He knew we could always sound better, clearer, so he worked us very hard—never once letting on that the music itself was hard, that this might be beyond us. If we listened and read the notes across the page and watched his arms moving through space in the fluid, velvety way they did, we could touch a heavenly sound. And what, he asked, could be more satisfying, more heart-stopping? (Nothing, we soon learned. Nothing at all.)
I was reminded of all this on Saturday when I listened to the recording of Carmina Burana we did with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in the late 1990s, and cried. I thought of how he taught us to follow Charles Dutoit’s upside down conducting on the enormous stage of Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier at Place des Arts. How, months later, when we recorded the album in a studio far outside the city limit, he told Dutoit we’d get our part done quickly, easily, and we did, singing like little angels, as he’d taught us to.
I never knew what a gift this was, to keep us in the dark. To throw hard things at us and say, just read the notes.
This is something I think we could all use in our lives, and especially in our creative lives. A little voice that says, just read the notes, of course you can, logic or fear be damned. A voice that, like Mr. Edwards, doesn’t say: this might be too hard, let’s forget it. A person who sees your hard-won skill—for one needs, above all, skill and hard work and dedication and stamina in spades; he taught us that talent was only the very beginning of a musical life—and says, what else can we do with that?
Iwan reached and reached beyond the obvious, and demanded that we come along for the ride, wild and bold as it was. With all those fundamentals in place, the question then became: How far out might he take us?
How far out might we take ourselves?
ALL THE THINGS
“Bunkered Down in Kyiv.” This image. “I’m Writing From a Bunker with President Zelensky Beside Me. We Will Fight to the Last Breath.” Comic relief? The Obama Foundation compiled a list of ways to help the Ukrainian people. I can’t wait to read Sarah Polley’s book (and loved this interview with my friend Lauren).I was so moved by this mini essay by Suleika Jaouad (and loved the prompt, so look out, writers!). I loved this close read of Auden’s poem, “Musée des Beaux Arts.”
Extra special thank you to Kathleen Dohanoe, who made me my new beautiful logo!