I just finished reading Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They do What They Do, edited by Meredith Maran, whom I met this fall at MacDowell. She was witty and charming and beautiful and tanned and thin and smart and a Democrat. Also, talented. What stood out most, though, about Maran was her choice to write inside Bond Hall, the communal meeting place for MacDowell artists-in-residence. That's where the phone was, and the pool table, and the ping-pong table. It's where artists presented their work each night after supper. Maran had a studio reserved for her, Wood, but she chose not to use it. I heard something about there not being enough sun around her studio; I heard something about needing to be where the people were.
What I remember most about Maran, however, was overhearing her talking to the chef in the kitchen one night, about how much love was obviously put into the food. It doesn't have to be this good, you know, she said, but it is. It is this good because it's made with love. Thank you, thank you.
I liked that about her, that she took the time to say that.
And it's true, about love being in that food. I have never eaten so consistently well, never been so gloriously fed. Before leaving the colony, I hitched a ride into town with a glorious soul named Risa Mickenberg. a funny writer-singer lady from Manhattan. We stopped to buy bottled soda and a pack of cigarettes, then we walked across the street to Peterborough Basket Co., a metal building that smelled of bug spray and microwave popcorn. There, I bought a facsimile of the basket my lunches came in each day around noon at the colony, thinking that its presence back in Kansas City would serve as a wonderful reminder of my twenty-four MacDowell lunches; instead, I look at it every day and feel sadness that I am eating a grilled cheese prepared with store-bought bread and processed American cheese slices. My soup here at home comes out of a can.
While at MacDowell, I read Maran's first novel, A Theory of Small Earthquakes, which I liked well enough. It is about a lesbian couple who have a baby together during the time California is being rocked with earthquakes. Although I never grew to like the main character, Maran's writing was good and had a clean, nonfiction feel to it, so I persevered and made it to the final page. Before I could talk to Maran about the ending, which bothered me only a small bit, she had left the colony.
But that's MacDowell. Artists come and go on a regular basis. You have breakfast with Playwright A and Novelist H and Composer D and Filmmaker M and before you know it, those folks are gone and Playwright B and Novelist T are sitting across from you sipping their coffee. One of my favorite people there, a writer named Steve, said at dinner one evening that it was like a series of small deaths, watching people you've become friends with all of a sudden disappear. I agreed.
Sometimes I wish, truly wish, that I could read a book like a normal person (i.e. not a writer), and not have to write notes in the margins and highlight passages and circle certain words or phrases. For this reason, I can never get library books. Maran's Why We Write came to my doorstep in an Amazon box on Wednesday (sometimes I hate myself for ordering from Amazon), and by Friday, around noon, I had finished reading it. That's how I know I really like a book, when I read it fast, sometimes all at once, because I can't put it down. If it had not been for an intermittent raging headache and having to go to work, Why We Write would have been read in about ninety minutes.
You should see my copy. It is yellow highlighted and underlined in blue Sharpie and annotated in pink ink. There is a small hole on page 73 from where I got a bit too enthusiastic with the Sharpie. This is what I underlined: "Writing is a lonely job. You have to be willing to work for months and months without anyone saying, 'You're doing well; keep going.' You have to be willing to live in a constant state of uncertainty. Not very many personalities are well suited for it. Fortunately, mine is."
Fortunately for me, Maran's newest book, which hit bookstores last week, has enough advice and good-will commiseration to keep me at the keyboard for a while.