In my life I have learned to rock-climb, ski, speak French (all badly). I was deputy press secretary for New York State in Dukakis’ bid for the presidency in 1988, a job I got through volunteering in hopes of meeting a nice single guy. I worked at The New York Times back when the presses were still in the basement of the building on 43rd Street, was fired from six ad agencies and spent two years at People Magazine. I went to horse camp, worked on advertising shoots so I know what gaffers and sparks do, how difficult casting is to get right, and how boring most of the time on set is.
I went fox hunting once and jumped a five bar fence. Terrified. With my eyes closed.
I didn’t meet my husband till I was 32 so I know lots about wild disastrous relationships (most of which I couldn’t possibly discuss in public).
I spent a decade racing 30-foot sailboats and flying in tiny Cessna planes with my best friend’s rich husband. I was never much of a sailor, but I could take orders fairly well. OK, slightly-below-average well.
I’ve crossed the Canadian Rockies in a helicopter, paddled a kayak next to a giant sea lion in Desolation Bay, picked oysters and mussels and clams out of the sea and eaten them that day (on an advertising shoot). I’ve been to book festivals in China, New Zealand, Germany, France, Italy, Armenia, Scotland, Wales and Texas.
I survived 18 hours of childbirth and conversations about drugs and sex and body image with my teenager.
I had breast cancer, chemotherapy and radiation, lost all my hair and didn’t know if I was going to die. I wrote most of a book that year. I inherited the family depression gene.
I’ve ridden a horse through the Black Mountains in Wales, seen a moose a few feet away, nearly passed out drunk at a Harvard “final club”, sang Monteverdi in Chartres Cathedral and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy with the Boston Symphony.
I saw Talking Heads and Elvis Costello and the Clash in tiny clubs in NY and London. I played bass guitar at CBGBs in NY and miniature golf with David Letterman in his office.
I met with a Hungarian policeman at 10pm in his tiny bleak office while two teenagers explained in Hungarian that I couldn’t afford the bribe he required.
I watched a black foal born to a pure white horse at the Lipizzaner stud in Szilvásvárad, Hungary. I took up riding again at age 50. Since then, I’ve had five concussions and no longer jump.
I studied steel sculpture with Anthony Caro, but didn’t understand a word he said for the entire time I was on the course. It discouraged me from ever taking art seriously as a profession, which was no bad thing.
I learned to play the piano, badly.
I could go on, but you get the idea.
I’m not very good at most of the things I’ve done in my life. Except for writing. I’m a fairly good writer. I wrote my first book when I was 46.
All my life I despaired at being a jack-of-all-trades and master of none, but guess what? Everything I’d ever done proved fantastically useful when I started writing.
Which is by way of saying that when I tell my students not be in a hurry, I mean it. Because the more you live, the more you’ll know — in your head and in your heart. And the more you know, the more your book will come from a deep place of real resonance — in other words, not Wikipedia.
It’s also nice to have a life to look back on, just in case the book doesn’t work out.
Do you find yourself rushing to write? If you do, what helps you to slow down, to see the living as fuel?