Things have been tense, and when they’re tense I’m drawn inward, away from the stress and complexity of other people.
I feel like every where I turn I am hearing someone talk about writing – friends are turning towards writing books, I’m picking up books published by friends, a quick trip in my car gives me an opportunity to hear an NPR interview where a writer discusses the transformative value of fiction in our troubled world, a man pays to translate an Israeli autobiography into Arabic to honor his son, mistakenly killed in the conflict. Everywhere I turn, it seems, there is a theme of writing, of transformation. Writing underscores our common humanity by letting us into each other’s minds and hearts.
Yet I’ve resisted the aloneness that writing requires, and I’m not sure if it is for me. I did have a chance to be a more solitary scholar after my dissertation, and I found it too solitary and too abstract.
With this spinning in my mind, I attended a recent reading by Jeffrey Eugenides in Detroit. He’s a creative writing professor at Princeton University, my alma mater, and the local alumni organization invited him to speak. He read a few passages from Middlesex and told a colorful story of the diversity of disciplines housed at the Princeton University Lewis Center for the Arts, including creative writing, dancer, visual art, and theater.
His story was vivid and wry, and the playful contrast he drew between the writers (whose work was dragging them more deeply into their interiors and removing their social graces) and the dancers (whose work was making them even more beautiful than they already were, bringing a flush to their cheeks) only reinforced that impression.
In the question and answer period, when asked about his writing process, Eugenides said that he was not particularly talented (tho I might disagree) but he was stubborn. He said that the only thing a writer needed was sitzfleisch, the skin you keep next to the chair to keep writing. Of course, the dancers have their version of sitzfleisch, it just doesn’t keep them attached to a chair. He said writing teachers know which of their students has talent, but not which will succeed, because success takes (superhuman, in my opinion) persistence.
All (all!) it takes is the capacity to sit and stare at the computer screen, or typewriter, or legal pad, and tell the story. Middlesex took nine years.