Writers on Writing #94: Marilyn Abildskov
I published my first book when I was 42 years old. I'd just moved from Iowa City to Berkeley, California, for a full-time teaching job when the book came out. It was November and I was too busy to fret about things first-book writers tended to fret about: reviews, sales, whether my slim hardback would stay in print or ever go into paperback.
But I was not too busy for a steady stream of self-consciousness. My book was slender (not even 200 pages) and my imprint small and even though I was grateful to my publisher--an intelligent and incredibly supportive press--I also felt embarrassed about readings, asking people to look at me, to listen to me, to buy my very personal book.
Out of a sense of duty, I agreed to more than a dozen readings. For each reading, I wrote out notes, which began with things like, "I want to thank you all for coming tonight," because my nerves meant I couldn't trust myself to do anything--even a simple thank you to an audience in San Francisco or Portland or Chicago--off the cuff.
People had warned me that no one came to readings anymore so be prepared to talk to a room of one. An audience of one? I was fine with that. I attended many readings myself and loved the intimacy of a small audience, loved listening to writers' voices, getting glimpses into their lives. Writing had seemed glamorous before I started doing it, then difficult when I was committed full-force, yes, but also romantic. In the years I spent writing my book, which I did not know at the time would become a book, I used to walk down the streets of my town, which smelled of honeysuckle in the spring and oats in the winter, thinking my skin must shimmer with all my bodily happiness. I was writing. Full-on. Every day. It seemed incredible, the best relationship of my life.
But all things related to public speaking scared the devil out of me and seemed contrary to what the pleasures of writing were all about: solitude; quiet; the company of the words in your head. My friend Jo Ann had introduced to me some years before to The Little Blue Pill--propranalol (not to be confused with Michael Jackson's propofol)--which allowed me to endure the hour of the reading without my voice shaking or my hands shaking or my body sweating. But nothing could help me in the days leading up to a reading, as I went over and over my notes and practiced out loud, and nothing could save me from the anxiety that spilled out in the days afterward, when I replayed questions and realized what I should have said.
There should be, I reasoned, a Morning After the Reading Pill.
There is, of course. It's called vodka.
Once, before reading at Cody's Books, my friend Wesley accompanied me to the store, three hours early on a very rainy night. If I didn't arrive early, my panic rose to unspeakable heights.
"I can't do it," I said. We were sitting in my car, the rain hitting the windshield in wild streaks. Wesley listened. He didn't remind me that Cody's was a famous bookstore that had championed small presses and unknown writers, a bookstore I had loved and admired from afar for years. None of that matters when someone's scared.
"What should I do?"
Wesley, who suffers from anxiety too, said I didn't have to read. He would tell the bookstore I couldn't make it. I could go straight home.
Which was the exact right thing to say: to give me that out.
Of course I read. Of course I survived. Of course it was fine. Books were signed and sold and finally, I could go out for a drink with Wesley and then go home, collapsing in relief, moving soon to the next stage of anxiety, not about what I would say when I was standing at the podium but about what I had said and couldn't take back.
I lived alone at the time. And I was reading from a book that was about moving to Japan at thirty because I was alone and didn't want to be, and how I met someone (three someones, in fact) and got into some trouble with these men and then came home. Alone. Again.
"Your subject," a writer friend once told me, "is solitude." As soon as the words were out of her mouth, I wanted her to take them back. If there was a theme I did not want, that was it. Solitude. But she was right.
After each reading, I thought, well, at least there's that: I am alone but now I am alone and I have a book.
Then, right before the last of my twelve readings, spread out over the course of eight months, squeezed in between classes and other responsibilities, I met someone. Online. In that ocean of words. Someone dark-haired. A Californian. A reader. We talked about Joseph Brodsky and Alice Munro and he told me stories of what he'd found when he was young in bookstores like Green Apple and I told him about my life in Iowa City and going to readings at Prairie Lights.
We drank coffee at Peets and he made me carnitas, which I ate sitting cross-legged in his Napa living room. He didn't read my book right away. He said he wanted to get to know the woman first, before the writer. I could not argue with that. I was afraid my little book about men and messed-up relationships would scare him off, particularly the scenes of me standing in front of my Japanese man's house, frantic, watching for him, some sign of him, wanting him to come out and take me back. (He didn't.)
But Matt didn't scare so easily. When he read it--about six months in--he told me how much he liked it. He called it serious. And when I laughed and said, it's a book in which I collapse at one point, drunk on a Japanese bench, with sadness, he said, yes. She's in trouble for sure. Who doesn't get in trouble?
I was very quiet when he said that.
Is this why I did not worry when the terror of my readings ended and the adventure of publishing came to a close? Because I was newly in love and caught up in that? We used to walk to Naan and Curry and eat tikka chicken and browse in Cody's afterward. Once, we walked back to my apartment from lunch and Matt stopped outside the building and reached high into the tree to pull down three lemons, all miraculously within reach. Then we spent the afternoon drinking ice water with slices of lemon in our glasses, talking first on my red couch, then later on the edge of the bed. Outside there was a steady sound of a hammer, someone at work, building a bookshelf or a desk or maybe repairing a roof.
"You have the face of a Russian novel," he said.
A woman who lived across the street for me in that apartment told me once a few weeks before my book was to come out, "Most books are small stones that sink into the ocean." I think she believed she was warning me not to expect fame. (I did not.) Her warning, of course, has context: books that start out small, then make it big are not the norm. The stories of breakout hits--the 60 agents who pass on a novel before one takes it and the novel makes the bestseller list and gets turned into a Hollywood hit--these are legendary. My neighbor knew them. I knew them too: how Michael Cunningham, for example, was advised against publishing
(three depressed women? seriously?) but does it anyway and again, voila, Hollywood steps in.
But what of the rest of us? We who start out small and remain so? Do we take comfort in what William James said, that he was "against bigness and greatness in all their forms"? Is comfort required?
Most books sink like small stones in the ocean.
I repeated this to myself a few months ago when I had dinner with a friend whose fine first novel was not earning back its huge, seemingly lucky, advance. I repeated it out loud to another writer friend, someone who writes exquisitely and has yet to be published and wants it so much, I could tell, the wanting hurt.
I wanted to encourage her. To remind her, as I remind myself, to keep on keeping on.
I love stones, I said. I love the ocean. I love falling into the sea of words on an ocean of possibilities and so do you.
But later I thought of how dangerous sinking can be and how there is also that in the writing life too. How you immerse yourself and there is the danger of going under, of losing track of all else: the pleasure of luxurious tea in the morning, the need to water the basil on the patio, the sound of the someone's voice, leaving a phone message. You do not stop. You do not call back. There are prices to ignoring all that.
I wished I had thought to tell her that I recognize that.
And that there is something else: that sometimes it isn't a matter of sinking, perhaps, but of reaching. For a word, an idea, a wholeness.
Sometimes there are three lemons right there, falling into our hands.
The other day a box arrived with a return address from Chicago that I didn't recognize. Inside, there were copies of my book--ten years after its initial publication--now in paperback. Acid free paper and in paperback! my partner, Matt said. We both sang "Paperback Writer" on and off all day and fingered the new books as we went about our ordinary business of paying bills, of making dinner, of doing the laundry, of washing the dishes.
Late that night, with the black water of the bay invisible from my window, I got back to work.
Marilyn Abildskov is the author of The Men In My Country, a memoir set in Japan. Recent essays and short stories have appeared in The Pinch, The Sun, AGNI, and The Laurel Review. A recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writers' Award, she lives in the Bay Area and teaches creative nonfiction in the MFA Program at Saint Mary’s College of California.