I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.
November 1, 2018: Leslie Lawrence
In July, as I was skimming an email from AWP, my finger poised over the delete button, I spied this headline, Harder, Better: Debuting Late in Life. I clicked over and ran into this first paragraph.
I was in my mid-twenties when I began writing in earnest; by the time I had a book accepted for publication, I was on Medicare. I’d wanted a book for so long, and come close so many times—not just with this memoir but with three previous manuscripts—well, some serious whooping and sobbing were in order, and I indulged freely. Yet, right from the start, the chasm between my antiquated fantasies and current realities revealed itself.
Leslie goes on to share her publication process from acceptance to published book and how different it was from how she’d always imagined it would be. She mentions that, late to a session at AWP, she was struck by the question on the screen–What do you most want from this book?
Writers want books. Did I ever even ask myself why—what it was I really wanted?
By the end of her book launch, after the last party and reading, she writes,
I’m thinking of Bach’s Goldberg Variations—the way the spare opening aria returns after 32 complex variations. The notes in the aria are exactly the same as they were less than an hour before—and they are often played in the very same manner—but all that has transpired since then makes them so much more plangent.
Change and continuity: the ingredients of a fine work of art—as well as a rich, coherent life. Writing, publishing, promoting—headaches and breakdowns aside—they all allowed me to consider what I left behind and what I carried with me as I forged a life that felt like my own.
This same chasm between expectation and reality is the clear theme in Leslie’s book of essays, The Death of Fred Astaire, published in 2016 by the State University of New York Press. Like so many of us, she had imagined Prince Charming and Happily Ever After. She had imagined “without question” that she would one day be a mother.
The heterosexual relationship I had at twenty-nine was the most passionate I had had to date–more secrets revealed, more tears and raging fights, more and better lovemaking. When it ended, I felt shaken but also more optimistic about men than I had since college. Perhaps the trend would have continued if my next lover had been a man, but she wasn’t.
This next passage from “Fits and Starts” plants a stake in the ground, pauses for a moment with the past, and then glides us forward into the future. It takes us from writing into life.
My interest in writing arose from the desire to slow down time and explore what is fleeting. I’ve always been interested in moments that pierce the skin of the day and allow us to glimpse underneath. I’ve always been greedy for more than my one little life–and so the drive to invent, recollect, and reinvent. But I was a girl–a small cute Jewish one raised before the second wave of feminism; a girl who embraced that “male style of discourse” for fear of being dismissed as flighty, irrational, or unseemly; and I can see now how my journey to become a writer is bound up with my search for a version of womanhood I could live with.
In the following passage from “On the Mowing,” as in the previous passage, again I felt the movement from the first sentence to the last. And notice all the personal details that contribute to this description–growing up in Queens, that Leslie had a long drive, that she doesn’t have the acreage sense, and that she couldn’t see the field all at one go. Notice the verbs–sprawling, climbing, dipping, swaying. Notice the power of the generic word big because of what precedes and follows it. And only in the last sentence do we find one abstraction that has already been made visual, that visual then reinforced by the final, lyric details of the tall swaying grass and the bluesy spring wind.
There, sprawling in front of us was what I, raised in Queens, probably would have called a field. And a field, let’s face it–even a small, flat, shorn one–is a good thing any old place or time but especially after a long, dark drive. And this one–five acres, ten? I don’t have the acreage sense, but it was big. A whole world. Irregularly shaped, climbing and dipping and climbing again, you couldn’t take it all in at one glance or guess how far it went. All you knew was the glory of so much tall grass doing what it does best–swaying in the bluesy spring wind.
Every time I turned the page to a new essay in the collection, it was like reaching into a grab bag for a surprise. From an adventure in cross-dressing to picnic lunches at camp, from the Goldberg Variations to Provincetown breakfasts, from yard sales fo Fez, from the death of Leslie’s wife to dancing outside the lines.
Leslie has received fellowships from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as Boston University’s Sproat Award for Excellence in Teaching. She has taught at Grub Street and currently holds writing workshops in her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she also practices a dance form called contact improvisation.
Come back on NOVEMBER 1st to read how LESLIE LAWRENCE spends her days.