Last weekend I went to see one of my oldest friends, Claire, who recently had her first baby. I developed a bad head cold just before I left on my trip, and though it was a drag to be snuffling and coughing, and I wasn’t as helpful with the baby as I wanted to be, the trip was lovely. Claire and I talked and talked and talked, the way you talk when you’re reunited with a long-distance friend. On the phone we give updates, cover the big stuff, but we miss out on all the little details of each other’s lives. So it was a treat to immerse ourselves in each other’s stories, in the little things.
It was also a lovely trip for the writer part of me. I had grown dull, had let the stresses of life press on me so much that it had become difficult to see. And seeing, for a writer, is key, isn’t it?
As I waited for the train into the city, and people began filling in the space around me on the platform, I thought, Oh my God, all these people and their stories are right here, in front of me. I stared at the security guard who leaned against the window in the stairwell across the platform, and I was struck by the sadness and boredom in his eyes. I stared at him, and all of the sudden, a short-story unfolded in my mind. I pulled out my teensy weensy notebook and scribbled it down on those tiny pages. I noted the slope of the woman’s shoulders next to me, the way she kept tucking her brittle hair behind her ear.
There is something about riding public transportation and being in the same space with so many people from so many different backgrounds that jump-starts my senses.
Natalie Goldberg has the short chapter in Writing Down the Bones about being a tourist in your own town. She describes the need for a writer to look at her life and everything in it with fresh eyes, the eyes of a tourist. But between dropping the kids at daycare and the school bus, making grocery lists, constantly picking up of toys, trying to fit work into the two hours Stella is at school or Zoë is napping, making dinner, and paying bills, this is challenging. And do I even want to look at my day-to-day life with fresh eyes? What would I see that I hadn’t already seen?
Sometimes I actually need to be a tourist in someone else’s town in order to see again. And I did see, took in everything—the people, the noise, the way the pigeons on the roof of the building next to Claire’s pecked at the dirty puddles, groomed themselves on a bag of abandoned garbage.
And in the mornings, before Claire and baby Agatha were awake (they slept incredibly late), I made coffee and snuggled into my bed, reading over the first hundred pages of my manuscript. Reading in the morning in bed! It was heavenly. I mentioned to Claire how decadent it felt, and she said, “It’s like your own version of Yaddo.”
I can’t ever imagine applying for a residency that would mean a month away from my kids. Even a weekend away from them was hard. (All weekend I kept thinking, oh Stella would love this! Or when I saw a toddler who walked or laughed like Zoë, I missed them both desperately.)
So I’ll take a few mornings in bed in a different city, reading and editing. The real Yaddo couldn’t have been better.