Yesterday was my birthday and when I looked in the mirror, I realized I had Lady Hair. It’s not quite “the helmet.” I don’t set it in rollers or cover it in hairspray (does anyone do that anymore?) but it’s definitely short in the “this is all the hair you get” way rather than the “this flatters my face” way. Last fall I walked into the salon and told my stylist, “Let’s just end this.” “This” being the ends that would never re-ravel and grow healthy, but would always remain split, and broken, until I cut them off.
This is a metaphor, you see.
This week the weather began to flirt with spring and one morning I decided that I could resume the ritual of my morning walk. My morning walk means I forego the subway and walk about a mile and a half to catch a bus which will take me over the Queensboro Bridge and drop me off a mere block from my office. While walking through Astoria’s still (but threatened) pleasantly residential streets, I listen to podcasts. Monday, I started with This American Life (“TAL”).
And it was devastating.
This week’s episode explored some happy-clappy initiative a decade back where extremely poor high school students in the South Bronx were paired up with pen pals at an elite ($43,000 a year in tuition. For high school.) Westchester private school. One day there was a field trip. The Bronx students piled into a bus and were released three miles later (the episode is called “Three Miles”) onto a verdant, hilly campus with a pool, a dance studio, and a freestanding library.
And one Bronx student, Melanie, had a meltdown.
She realized at that moment, she told the TAL reporter who tracked her down with no little difficulty ten years later, that the game was rigged. Potential was a lie. The elite students would be doctors, lawyers, professionals, while she and her classmates would grow up to mop their floors and hold their doors. Melanie was bright and driven. She had been outraged at her surroundings on her first day of high school, a day she had happily anticipated all her life. She knew she deserved better. Her high school had no library, no gym, no cafeteria, no playground, and she appears to have achieved her education mostly on her own. She earned a spot to complete for one of the scholarship granted by The Posse Foundation (the process, however well-intended, comes off as a bit callous and dismissive). She made it to the final round for a full ride to Middlebury College. And then she was rejected.
“Devastated” is an overused word, but here are the actions taken by the 17 year old Melanie after she was rejected by the Posse Foundation. She didn’t apply to any other college. She didn’t apply to a state college, where she might have thrived among more similar students. She didn’t apply to a city college, or one of the borough community colleges. She was a loser, in her own eyes. Worthless. She hated herself for not getting into Middlebury. Her sense of failure and shame became her Scarlet Letter. She took her GED exam, left high school before her classmates graduated, and vanished from the lives of everyone who cared about her. It took the TAL reporter serious legwork to track Melanie down. Melanie now works in a grocery store on Sixth Avenue. She has a boyfriend, she takes the occasional college course, but she has words for the guidance counselors and careworn teachers of her high school, who had been startled out of their besiegement by her “potential”: “Be fuckin’ realistic. Don’t tell me I can ‘achieve anything.’ Don’t tell me I can go to Harvard. Be fuckin’ realistic.”
Having been held up as a beacon of what is possible was too much of a burden, particularly when there was no one to share that burden, no role models, no educated parents, no community support. (TAL went on to explore Posse Foundation students who did make it to college, only to flounder there as strangers in a strange land, too ashamed of their poverty, their lack of resources, and their “otherness” to even ask for help.)
Which brings me back to me. What is possible, with what is left? I started library school with the idea that it would open up for me a whole new world. And now I believe it can only enhance the world I have. Not a small thing, but a different thing. I’m not going to switch careers, most likely, in the late innings of my working life. Unless my circumstances change by a choice not made by me, I’m staying put, and getting better at what I do where I do it. My classmates, mainly debt-soaked, idealistic, magical-thinking twenty-somethings (“Oh, I know I’ll never pay off my loans!”), chatter happily about “user experience” and “information architecture,” and while I grumpily acknowledge that while these are good things to learn, I know that given the choice between a newly-minted MLIS graduate who grew up coding and whose work experience consists of unpaid internships, and a newly-minted MLIS graduate with twenty-five years of experience (and who remembers DOS) in the well-compensated corporate world, who wouldn’t choose the newer, cheaper model?
This degree is a walking stick, not a stepping stone.
Be fuckin’ realistic.
I have been struggling this semester because I have been trying to secure representation for a novel while writing another novel. I am also enrolled in two classes, one of them with an aloof hipster tech-snob professor (who has little interest in teaching, let alone teaching middle-aged students who ask questions), all while working more than 40 hours a week at a major international law firm, where I perform work I take pleasure in doing well.
Work, school, writing. In order of importance according to passion: writing, work, school. In order of importance according to being fuckin’ realistic: writing, work, school.
Soooooo . . . not so good at school as I’d have liked to be. Not so much a literary genius in the marketplace at writing as I had hoped when I set out. Strangely contented in my work life, which is down I suppose to my being fuckin’ realistic. This is all the hair I get.
Last night I went to the 92nd St. Y to see Hilary Mantel with Jeremy Herrin, who is the director of the upcoming Broadway production of Wolf Hall, in a conversation moderated by Candice Bergen, who wore bright red laces in her high-top sneakers. I was invited by my friend Leslie, who has invited me to at least a dozen things this quarter (she is quite the culture vulture) but due to my schedule of day job as a researcher, writing and grad school, I have always said no. Hilary Mantel was too good to pass up, however. And she did not disappoint.
I hadn’t planned to take notes, but she kept saying such interesting things. As a historical novelist myself (and yes, I realize what that sounds like, putting myself in the same paragraph with Dame Mantel), I have had a recent problem with two of my characters, Nick and Daisy, frisking around in the attic of my brain when I am meant to be doing homework. Where were they during winter break? (To be fair, during winter break, I was polishing the novel I am now trying to sell, Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me, and the characters barging into grad school studying are the fresher (in the sense that I haven’t been writing them for SEVEN YEARS), fiestier characters from Untitled Berlin Love Story.
“I had wanted to write about Thomas Cromwell for more than thirty years,” Dame Mantel said, which made me feel slightly better about my seven, and also prompted me to reach into my bag for a notebook and pen. We must remember when writing historical fiction, she said, that we are writing “characters who are ignorant of their own fate . . . [unaware that their choices] have cascades of consequences that go down through generations. They’re not people in history. They’re people in their lives.”
As a researcher, I was gratified to hear Dame Mantel state that the does her own research and has no assistants. “How do you know what you need to know until you come across it?” she asked, adding that research is “a devious process. I don’t see how you can delegate it. The research is just as creative as the writing itself.”
As for how she does what she does: “A novel is an inherently unpredictable thing.” and “I write in scenes and I put it together like a collage.” (She is currently writing the third volume in the Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light.) When questioned about her “routine,” she said “I don’t really understand writing routines. I am writing 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Nobody gives you a holiday. You take your sensibility with you everywhere.”
This was gratifying as well, since I remain bruised from an interrogation a couple of years back by a leader of a short-term workshop I was in, who demanded that I explain my “practice.” What room did I write in, did I write first thing in the morning, did I set aside a time every day? This same woman was initially delighted that I was going to start graduate school, but then horrified to learn that I did not intend to quit my job to do so. “When will you have time to write? You’re a WRITER!” How, um, I asked her, did she think I was going to pay for grad school without a job? “Can’t you get a grant? You’re a WRITER!”
She is a child of the 60’s but even so. In the 60’s, was there an abundance of grants which provided housing, food, medical insurance to women of an age more likely to have children in grad school than to be in grad school? But then, we were obviously of different mindsets. For one thing, the workshop was in “flash fiction,” which I don’t read, don’t understand and, as it became apparent, can’t write. For another, I don’t “practice” writing, as it is not law, medicine, or religion. I write novels. I take my sensibility with me everywhere.
And a novel is an inherently unpredictable thing.