Lessons and carols.


Travel-time is different from home-time. It’s ruled by spontaneity and serendipity. Last night I was wandering in Cambridge, and I passed a liquor store that was selling cups of mulled wine, so I bought one, and then went back into the cold and drizzle, even happier. I decided to take a back road I hadn’t been down before, even though it looked unpromising—just a narrow sidewalk between a high stone wall and a traffic jam.

Earlier this week, I was in London to meet the ineffable Antonia Hodgson and the team at Little, Brown, who’s publishing The Girl in the Road as an e-book and (this just in!) a print edition, too, after strong early feedback from the field. Over tea and biscuits, we got to talking about books and writers and rules of writing. Antonia mentioned that Marilynne Robinson, a writer I adore, sometimes goes for years between publishing books because sometimes she just doesn’t feel she has anything new to say. Which is so interesting to me. I work in a different way: since I consider writing my job, part of that is to keep the well full, to keep having new experiences and traveling new places and meeting new people, so that I keep having new things to say.

I imagine, in the coming months, I’ll be getting the question “What is your advice for beginning writers?” a lot. My answer’s always been simple: (1) read every day and (2) write every day (I write morning pages even when I’m not working on a creative project). I’ve been trying to formulate a third rule, but can’t simplify it enough: “Leave home”? “Be interesting to yourself”? But I think of exceptions immediately (e.g. Faulkner and mansplainers, respectively).

The back road I was taking eventually led me to an open gate. Past it, I could see just enough to make out a double row of trees against the sky, black against blue. I stepped out of the street lamps and into the darkness. I felt so happy. Like I was at the beginning of a new story. Words started bubbling up in my mind. I repeated them to myself so that I’d remember them later and write them down. I walked up the path. I passed through a stone wall into a courtyard where a queue had formed, and I joined it, not knowing what it was for; it turned out to be the Christmas concert for a local private school, and I didn’t have a ticket but they let me in anyway, into the chapel lit by a double bank of candles, where I took a seat on the red velvet cushions next to the parents and grandparents and sisters and brothers, and listened as a soprano’s voice rose like a cold spring.

4 Comments on “Lessons and carols.”

  1. Tim says:

    “Keep the well full” might be the best way to sum up your third rule. It certainly resonates with me!

    • I’d say that too, Tim, but it seems like writers like Marilynne Robinson just work differently…and I don’t want to invalidate them. Ya know? I wonder if she reads and writes every day…

  2. Robert says:

    Maybe “Be novel”? Or is that too punny? “Seek serendipity”?

    It seems to me that the emphasis should be to expand one’s notion of “interesting”, by trying something a little outside the zone.

    So marvelous to come across a hidden treasure!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s