The writer’s life: on Regina Spektor, travel and change

Taken at the Vermont Studio Center open studio evening. I confess, I don't remember whose studio.

Taken at the Vermont Studio Center open studio evening. I confess, I don’t remember whose studio.

I have tried to write a blog post about my travel experiences for days now, but all my words seem trite and obvious. That’s what travel does, I think. It removes the body from one’s own context, and in doing so, separates the mind from them, as well. My body has been in so many places, during these last few months. Vermont for my MFA graduation, Las Vegas to cover the CES trade show, Vermont again for a writer’s residency at the Vermont Studio Center, Boston for the AWP writers’ conference, and back to Buffalo. I returned to work on Tuesday and scrolled through emails, the dates at their feet the only indication that any time had passed. The sensation of movement, of having left, of having returned, was as fleeting as breathing, and gone as quickly as my breaths evaporated into the familiar air.

What I mean to say is that my time away has changed me so much and so subversively that I can’t find the words to explain. It comes back to a conversation I had with a fellow writer in Boston, I think. We lay on a friend’s couch in Hyde Park, stroking Jack the tabby cat as we talked about writing and life as a writer, in a world that, by and large, does not consider art a profession as much as a hobby.

“I don’t think I’m cut out for real life,” she said. “I don’t have any marketable skills. Or I don’t want to have them.”

We talked about writing as a lifestyle and I thought about the first time I knew I was going to be a writer. It was at church, and the sticky, blonde wood pews were at eye level. I was three or four years old, and telling myself a story. The hymnal was full of music notes on staffs, words on lines, bolds, italics and fonts that all blended together into a mosaic of unintelligible lines. Those pages told me that a goose and a frog were going on a journey, and my little lips mumbled the tale to myself as the priest intoned other words I didn’t yet try to understand. I remember my mother shushing me over strumming guitars and chanted prayers in words that weren’t my own. As children, all we have is what is given to us, and words were the currency I gleaned from those offerings. As adults, I wonder how much of that has changed.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized writing could be a profession, and it was years after that first realization that I decided to make it mine. So many people approach life like the board game. Roll the dice. Move the car the specified number of spaces. Submit to chance. Submit to the will of a higher power holding the pieces. Life is easier if you think you have no power.

“It wasn’t my fault,” the victim whimpers. Without power, she assumes no responsibility. There’s freedom in that, but there’s also risk.

A line in a Regina Spektor song has haunted me since I first heard it, driving across New England from Burlington, VT to Hyde Park, MA. About art languishing in galleries.

It’s their own fault for being timeless. There’s a price to pay and a consequence.

There are consequences, prices to pay, for taking responsibility for one’s own life. That’s what I’ve been thinking about these past few weeks. That’s the fear that has stifled me, as I struggle to speak about the experience of traveling, of returning. Of returning, most of all. Writing is, by definition, a timeless pursuit. My father’s friend worked for the FBI before he retired, a solid man with piercing eyes and at least six languages.

“No matter how carefully you erase what you write on a computer,” he said, those ice-blue pupils boring into my own, “We can recover it. Nothing is ever, ever deleted permanently.”

There’s a price to pay and a consequence for undertaking a permanent pursuit. There’s an associated cost for pursuing something that, as my friend pointed out, is so outside the mainstream.

“You can pass as a functioning adult,” she told me, grinning at my business card holder full of pieces of paper with my name and “reporter.” An email address, a phone management system with “Inc” after it. And I wonder about passing, too. This friend, with her undercut haircut, tulle tutu and notebook full of words that writhe and steam, lives her craft unabashedly. I walk a different path, one strewn with press passes, source quotes and midnight lamp oil smudging my forehead as I scribble my own words into the night after deadline has buried my days. I wonder at the ease with which I reentered that context and how it relates to the writers’ retreat, the vagabond lifestyle that stood in such direct, nurturing contrast to the life I left it to pursue. And came back to, as easily as falling asleep.

There is another line in that song that makes me think, as well.

All the galleries, the museums, Here’s your ticket, welcome to the tombs. They’re just public mausoleums. The living dead fill every room.

I wonder if, by writing personal essay, I bronze my former self. If the ghost of my evolving present steps out from those pages, unnoticed and invisible, as I leave my own living dead in the tombs of memory. Abandoned by the flesh and blood context that saves me from stagnating in periodic obsolescence.

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