I recently read two books written by people I know. (It’s cool. I’m fine! I love the choices I’ve made and that I expend my creative energy tweeting on behalf of a corporation.)
The first, a collection of essays, was by a friend with whom I share not one but two alma maters: our performing arts high school in Las Vegas and Vassar College, three thousand miles away in upstate New York. During the year we overlapped at Vassar — my final year; his first — we acted and danced together in several productions and squealed occasionally over gossip about our Vegas mutuals, but never got to know each other well beyond that. The second was by a colleague who sat down the hall from me in our bleak Tysons Corner office tower. We didn’t interact much; I only learned about his novel when I stumbled across a glowing review in the Sunday Times and recognized his name.
I look at writers as another species. I write, but I’ve never been able to imagine myself as a writer. I just started Leslie Jamison’s “The Recovering” — in which she interrogates her own alcoholism and that of other Iowa-trained writers — and it reminded me that the whole idea of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop makes my skin crawl. (What self-respecting hermit wants anything but comments on a Google Doc? I took an Iowa-style creative writing course at Vassar and stewed so much about having to sit there while a bunch of hipsters lobbed their showiest criticism at me that I hardly had the energy to write my essay in the first place. Even now, whenever a colleague proposes we “live-edit” a document together, I have to decide whether I rank far enough above them to demand comments instead.) Nor can I envision myself wading into “Book Twitter” or keeping up on all of the online literary magazines. It seems that becoming a writer requires submitting to at least one of these indignities and so instead I scroll through @ mentions about Pizzagate all day (I dunno, it’s starting to seem pretty legit!).
Both of these books I just read are about place. Matt’s memoir travels alongside him from the Philippines to Las Vegas to Poughkeepsie to New York, and Kawai’s novel takes place mostly in Hawai’i, with detours to the mainland. I marveled at how differently Matt and I experienced teen and young adult years that we spent in mostly the same places doing mostly the same things (ballet class; drinking; embarrassing ourselves in front of boys). I read an interview where Kawai shared that he had been working on his book for a decade, and was struck to realize that as he was sitting down the hall from me in Tysons, doing whatever a software engineer does (reads xkcd and button-mashes?), he was simultaneously crafting a book that’s both fantastical and deeply rooted in its environment.
We three were all on the same mortal plane, yet they’ve transcended it. I, meanwhile, have dissociated from it.
I was fascinated by the idea of “place” when I was studying English at Vassar. I was surprised by how much I missed Las Vegas when I left, and by realizing how much of my identity was rooted in coming of age in a simulacrum surrounded by mountains in an inhospitable desert. (And I loved the double take when I told people where I grew up.)
The other week I finally read Jenny Odell’s “How to Do Nothing,” which is not actually about how to do nothing (much to the chagrin of many Goodreads reviewers!) but rather about how to live properly in the world. It’s a wide-ranging book that imparts several lessons. My favorite, put briefly, is this: You can’t responsibly detach from the world to avoid it, nor must you to change it. (In layman’s terms: You can have a Facebook account without being a zombie. You can speak to your Republican cousin without going home and flagellating yourself to make up for it.) She grounds this argument in an exhortation to reconnect with the physical environments we inhabit and to understand how we have reshaped them, mostly for the worse, over time.
This argument lingered in the back of my mind while I read my former colleague Kawai’s novel. He invokes ancient myths to tell the story of characters who find salvation in a landscape that is still a modern one, with cell phones and airplanes and binge-drinking. It’s not explicitly environmentalist, but it underscores Jenny Odell’s argument for rerooting yourself on the mortal plane to find greater meaning in the astral one. (The subtweet is “Shut down DAPL!”)
I’ve been working halfheartedly on a novel set in Las Vegas for almost as long as I’ve been away. In the intervening years I’ve lived in five cities in three countries and visited many more. It’s been a nice way to avoid picking a more permanent home, but — and? — I find myself feeling as rootless as I ever did as a college freshman. I love public transit and hate migraines too much to return to Las Vegas, but it feels high time to find a place that I know intimately enough to want to write something that depends on it.
It feels high time, too, to figure out how to become a writer. I thought I would resent my friends’ success, but in reading their books that are redolent of their lives and experiences, I find myself taking heart in seeing how lives that ran briefly along my path diverge from mine. I’ve never been one to take the obvious route (see above in re: I was a Las Vegan at Vassar and now I am a Vassar graduate in Silicon Valley, and also I’m afraid of flying but I live on the wrong side of the Atlantic Ocean). I don’t think I need to worry that I’m going to end up critiquing poetry in an Iowa bar. I think maybe I just need to finish my book.