Sunday, June 26, 2011

me, as me

When good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not by any known or accustomed way; you shall not discern the foot-prints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall not hear any name;—— the way, the thought, the good, shall be wholly strange and new. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Can you remember a moment in your life when you had life in yourself and it was wholly strange and new? Can you remember the moment when you stopped walking a path of someone else, and started cutting your own?
Write about that moment.

(Author: Bridget Pilloud)

It was a summer sunday afternoon just like this one when i hugged my kids goodbye at camp and instead of driving south, toward home, i headed north. i had never been on this particular road right by myself — had actually never been alone on a trip in fact — and with each mile marker i passed, i knew i was plotting new ground.
a few weeks before, a plain brown box had arrived at my door with books inside. books with my name in 64-point type stretched across the cover. books that as i cracked open the spine, for the first time in my life i knew the plot, the sentence structure, almost by heart.

and on this particular sunday, i was headed out on my very first book tour. first stop, richmond and a radio interview. r-a-d-i-o? with my squeaky voice? (let me say to any of the book writing folks out there: choose radio over the talking heads of tv.)  the pr flack i share bed space with had spent months with me it seemed, rehearsing talking points about the regional history i had put to paper — the people and the houses that had shaped the beach i had loved my whole life. how was it, that i, an outsider to this provincial world had been the one to capture it? or that the 12-year-old girl inside me who had always dreamed of writing had actually gotten an advance check (however small, it was the largest one-time paycheck i had ever gotten... a record that still stands.) that my publisher actually expected to see 7,000 books. Seven t-h-o-u-s-a-n-d! dear lord. a third of those in hard cover.

yet i had already sold some. many to the very people i wrote about. had a book signing party in an old cottage on the oceanfront on a glorious blue-sky day. and now i was going all over the place, it seemed, all by my little pea-picking self, to talk to strangers about why they should buy it, too.

at the time, it felt as if my whole life's work had come to this moment, me rambling down the highway to THE FUTURE. all those poorly constructed sentences in third grade, all the dangling phrases in 9th, the misspelled words that first year out of journalism school... in time my grammatical ineptitude shape-shifted into something real enough to be clipped and posted to refrigerators in homes of people (not just my mother) i didn't even know. how had that happened?

but seven t-h-o-u-s-a-n-d books? i had never sold so much as a stadium seat cushion sporting my high school mascot without apology. 

and yet i would not apologize for this book. not the three years it took me to write it or the year it took for me to convince the publisher that my vision was right. (oh well, i would apologize about the cover, just a little because i had no control and i didn't like it at first. but it has grown on me.) and i did apologize to my pr flack for the money we spent just trying to realize my vision. (i do think we have realized about a nickle profit.)

but on that Sunday afternoon, i was thinking about none of that. just that in the back of the car i had a box of books and they were m-i-n-e. my own creation (with the help of many, many others and of course G-O-D) but my words. at least those that lay outside the margins of quotation marks.

on that drive north (well, richmond is not too north) i thought about the summer morning three years before when i sat in the parking lot of the episcopal church across the street and looked at the grand old ladies i was writing about, thinking: what do they look like to me? just to me? and came up with it, right there (G-O-D loves and helps people, even if all they do is sit in church parking lots) staring at the ladies' wide porches and how they are just like wide-brimmed summer hats. they surely surely are, their propped shutters like eyelids, looking out toward the open sea.

that, come to think of it, is just like me. or where i will be in a couple of weeks, celebrating the 10th anniversary of this remarkable experience, remarkable if only that i wrote the damn book and sold those seven t-h-o-u-s-a-n-d books (and then some). funny that my publisher didn't think of putting out a 10th anniversary edition. but still.

after richmond i drove to norfolk (arriving two hours early for a tv interview. the tv part of this story is a whole nother story...), then back to north carolina through the great dismal swamp with the windows rolled down — a swamp that on that day was not dismal but promising, for some strange reason. it reminded me of a high school girl a few years before that on her first solo drive to and from that marvelous beach in an un-air-conditioned light blue ford maverick, driving down a country highway all by herself but not afraid of anything. oh, how i wish i could connect with that girl again, out on a straight stretch of road, windows open, headed to what yet awaits.