WHAT TO WRITE

Last week, in honor of the Brooklyn Book Festival, the author, essayist and journalist, Jill Dearman, re-published some of her interviews with Brooklyn authors from recent years. The funny thing about this was that in the very same week, I’d crossed paths with Jill after quite a few years, through our kids’ school and I’d said, “We used to know each other through our writing, perhaps the Brooklyn Writer’s Space, somewhere…..” In our early morning bus-stop encounter, neither one of us remembered this author interview we’d had about eight years earlier, before these bus-riders were even born.

Well, I really enjoyed reading these Brooklyn author interviews of Jill’s, and re-reading my own. One thing that jumped out at me, that I hadn’t remembered discussing with Jill, was that the author, Jeanette Winterson, is a writer who I consider an influence. Winterson is a diverse novelist, but what runs across all her fiction is surrealist poetic prose. I admire her literary acrobatics, her voice, and her skill. I also admire her subject choices. Every time a writer sets out to start a new long piece of fiction, there’s an infinite amount of possibilities akin to sky-diving at a frenetic speed, and trying to choose your next perch, a safe-landing, while your body whizzes past possibility after possibility. Before I jump, I have many conflicting thoughts, such as, I’m gonna choose something really commercial this time, I’m gonna do that young adult sci-fi idea, I’m gonna write that historical fiction book that requires five years of research, I’m gonna write a chapbook of poems about youth.

I harbor a secret belief that there’s a Jeanette Winterson novel in me that I haven’t had the courage to write. My apparent commitment to realism is overpowering for one thing. A lack of imagination, and my fear that I might have the imagination to start it, but how could I possibly sustain that level of imagination to finish it, is another obstacle. The reason I keep thinking about writing a surreal novel, in the style of a fairytale or allegory, aka a Jeanette Winterson novel, is that they are so divine to read. Her writing instigates my own imagination. She baffles and tosses around her reader into make-believe worlds that are fierce rivals of the real world I always depict in my own writing.

Lately, I have an urge to write in new genres. I’d like to work on poems, fairytales, short stories and this blog on the side of my latest novel endeavor. Maybe my Jeanette Winterson homage can get a little foothold on the page in one of these shorter forms, while I still grow the courage to make that big landing of a novel in a new and stranger voice.

The books of friends

My favorite thing to read is a novel. And my favorite thing in the world is being lost in a novel, pining for the story during the day while I work, eager to get in bed at night with the book or have half an hour alone on the subway with it. Reading a story that I get lost in is a very specific and palpable experience for me. The novel can eclipse the world. My husband has said that I look most at peace when I’m sitting, reading a novel. For every birthday and holiday, he gives me several novels, and I read them within a month. When I’ve finished a great novel and haven’t yet picked up another, there’s a limbo period that can actually get disturbing. Sometimes, I don’t find the right next book easily, and I’m stuck reading a novel I can’t get lost in, or I just read old New Yorkers on the subway for a month straight and don’t get the escape I crave. Well, I’m in one of those limbos right now. A few weeks ago I finished Barkskins, Annie Proulx’s latest novel, about the deforestation of the world, spanning 400 years and about 15 generations of “barkskins,” men and women who stripped the worlds’ forests of their trees. This book enveloped me and took me into its far-flung worlds, and since I put it down I’ve been re-reading Flannery O’Connor short stories and New Yorker articles. Then it struck me this week. I have three friends whose recently published books I haven’t read yet; Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, Joseph Boyden, and Leland Cheuk. Confession: two of these books, I never got around to purchasing. I’ve now rectified that. The books are on their way in the mail, and the plan is to read three friends, back to back. As friends often do- they’ve got my back. I’ve been excited to read these books for a long time, and I would have thought I’d have read them by now, read them as soon as they were available. I’m wondering if the reason I haven’t is that it’s a bit harder to get lost in a book written by someone I know. I might get distracted thinking, ah I know where Miranda got this idea, or did something like this really happen to Joseph, or is this how Leland really feels? I’ll read them and I’ll let you know. But I already know I won’t be disappointed. I’m excited and proud of these talented writer friends as I contemplate diving into their ideas, their words, their books.

Inspiration

My office building is directly to the north of the World Trade Center site and my windows look down on what for many years was “the pit,” and what gradually emerged as the memorial fountains, the completed Freedom Tower, and the breathtaking Oculus that just opened a few weeks ago. For the past ten years I’ve had a bird’s eye view of this urban transformation, this physical manifestation of renewal. I cannot be cynical about how New York rebuilt these six acres after the Twin Towers were attacked and felled. I don’t judge the impulse or the need, I share it. No matter the complexity and myriad circumstances that led to that horrible day, when two buildings fall down, you re-build them. When thousands of people die, you make a memorial. If you can do these things, you do them. So I was not one of the people who questioned the building of the Freedom Tower, nor did I scoff at the incredibly laborious process of selecting an architect, nor did I grow impatient as the building took an entire decade to construct.

What I did was watch it, one day at a time. I took my lunch hour outside, year-round for many years, with the thousands of construction workers that are still here in the neighborhood, doing the job. About five years ago, I stumbled onto the lunch-spot where the foremen and supervisors eat. My entire life, I’ve had deep-seated admiration for doctors, especially surgeons. I’ve thought that medical doctors possess magical knowledge; they can open people up and cure them, sometimes. I’ve always envied the magical knowledge they possess. Spending so many days and lunch hours watching the Freedom Tower construction workers, I developed the same admiration of them. How did these people know how to make a skyscraper? How do the engineers acquire this magical knowledge? Their work must be absolutely perfect; there can’t be mistakes.

During my lunch, I often eavesdropped on the supervisor’s conversation or phone calls. They were engineers, no doubt. They were skyscraper surgeons. They wore dirty pants, steel-toe shoes and hard-hats, and they were magicians of skyscraper construction. I would listen to them placing orders for materials, or describing fine points of the work, and I grew more and more admiring and even envious of what I could never know or begin to understand. And then I fell in love with skyscrapers too. I began studying them, reading about all of New York’s, looking at them with my head bent way back as I walked around the neighborhood, the oldest neighborhood in New York City, which contains over twenty buildings that were the tallest building in the world, the day they were completed.

This new hobby of mine inspired the novel I’m currently working on. My main character is an engineer. His passion and obsession with skyscrapers is lifelong, and he builds them for a living. He believes in the perfection of skyscrapers and he has faith in perfection in general. Which does not serve him well as he and his wife discover that their daughter has many disabilities and special needs. My engineer will have to figure out a lot of things as he goes. He cannot re-draw the plans, or fix miscalculations with his child. And maybe he cannot hold faith with perfection as a model for anything.

Three years ago, I stood with my co-workers on the 13th floor and we watched the spire of the Freedom Tower being raised from the ground by a crane and installed onto the top of the completed tower. The spire itself is a gorgeous piece of steel construction, a mini- Eiffel Tower and its 408 feet tall alone. I don’t know if every square inch of that building is perfect and mistake free, but I’d have to guess it is pretty damn close to stand there, immoveable and imposing as it does. But it’s not the perfection of the tower that inspires me, it’s the brilliant and fallible minds of the workers who built it that does.

MORNING COMMUTE

FREEDOM TOWERA few minutes after I sat down on a crowded 3 train, the man next to me asked if I had enough room. I smiled at him and said yes. He could have been complaining that he in fact did not, but I didn’t think he was.

“Do you have enough room?” I asked back.

“Yes.”

I began reading the Sunday Styles section of the weekend paper.

He leaned close in and said, “You gonna read all that- all those words?” He chuckled.

I chuckled back, “Yeah, I am.”

When I rearranged the paper five minutes later to get to the bottom half, he again, interrupted me, “You read it all! You finished all that. I’m just kiddin you- you know I’m just kiddin you, right?”

Each time he turned to me, the brim of his baseball hat actually touched my head. We we’re that close. But strangely, I didn’t mind any of it.

As we stopped at the first stop in downtown Manhattan, Wall Street, he asked, “Were you here that day?”

I knew what he was talking about. “In New York?” I asked.

“Yeah, were you here?”

“Yes, I was here.”

“Were you in that tower?”

“No, I wasn’t.”

“I was in Tower 7,” he told me. Again our heads were touching and I smelled a faint whiff of alcohol. He was a little cross-eyed and wearing black jeans and a black baseball cap and had the friendliest smile, and I liked the guy. “I ran! I ran so fast, I ran right out of there.”

“You still work there?”

No, he didn’t. He told me his new address, very nearby. I told him I worked right there now, right next door to the new tower. He said, “Yeah,” like he knew that or expected it. Now we were one stop from my work and I was actually disappointed.

“Sister. We’re all sisters and brothers you know?”

I nodded. I knew.

“I got out of there and got me a forty and ran right to the train, I got the last subway to 125th street. They said, ‘This is the last stop.’ and I said, Fine- this is far enough.”

We both laughed happily.

I looked around for a second and saw two women observing my new friend and me, starting to smile.

“This is my stop. Take care!”

“Take care, Sister.”

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

wedding

You may have noticed a change in the header of this blog. It might seem like I recently married. In reality, for some people it takes precisely five years to settle into a new name. Five years ago last month, I got married. I gave only a little thought to going to a social security office in Brooklyn and changing my name from Rachel Stolzman to Rachel Stolzman Gullo. I was six months pregnant on our wedding day, and I know my decision to change my name was largely fueled by the baby on the way. It seemed like a good thing to board future airplanes with a baby and eventually kid that shared the same name as me. I vaguely imagined him going to school and wanting the school to see my name and his name as the same. I wanted the kid to have one last name not two. But, I was also forty and had been a Stolzman for forty years and I was a published novelist with my name. Somewhere in my head was the thought, “I won’t use it.” It was for documents, planes and schools, bank records, passports, it was my official name. And in fact I did not use it. I didn’t introduce myself as Gullo, or submit short stories or articles with Gullo, and so on. But pretty fast there were some credit cards, some bills, some mail and even my pay checks (!) where Gullo was popping up. I kind of looked away, confused. Neither name felt like me anymore. I thought about more important issues and let it go.

When my son was about two, I got in a car accident that was my fault. When the cops arrived they asked for my name. For the first time, without hesitation I blurted out, Rachel Gullo! Her. Not me. More years went by, still no name that felt very true anymore. I didn’t give it much thought, except when I’d call the cable company or check-in at a hotel and I’d have no idea what name I’d given. I debated what I’d use for publishing, and didn’t really decide. It didn’t matter, my novel wasn’t ready. Well recently, our five year anniversary came. And I think it’s significant that my husband and I have been paying more attention to our union lately, not just what to call ourselves, but our connection and commitment; I’m quite sure that has been part of settling into my name. Secondly, our boy talks now. Some of the things he says include, “We’re the Gullo family.” He knows me as Rachel Gullo, just as he knows himself as Enrico Gullo.

Recently several poems I wrote were accepted for publication in a journal called Sixfold. I had submitted them under the name Rachel Stolzman Gullo. When they asked for final proofs, I made a few edits to the poems and also asked that they please publish them under the name Rachel Stolzman. And finally, enough psychic and pragmatic lasers crossed in my brain and I was abruptly able to see the name that felt like me, it wasn’t Stolzman or Gullo, but both. I’d made that decision five years ago, but never actually took it in, felt it. Until now. I imagined a book arriving later this summer with my poems inside, and my name on the page header. I imagined showing Enrico, “Hey look, I wrote some poems and they’re in this book.” I imagined him saying, “Why doesn’t it say Gullo?” It’s a small thing in the scope of the universe and even in my own concerns and life, but as I changed my name on social media and on this blog header, and when I rushed to contact Sixfold before it was too late to say, I figured it out- my name is Rachel Stolzman Gullo, it felt really settled-in and nice.

WHITE PRIVILEGE

I think about my white privilege often. I think about it when I intentionally run a red light, when I ride my bike on the sidewalk or the wrong way down a one-way street, when I drink alcohol in Prospect Park on my picnic blanket, and when I self-serve myself coffee at my local Pret and decide I’ll “pay later” because there’s twenty people in line.

Alongside the deep horror and painful grief of the endless events of racist police brutality and murders, I am gladdened and also surprised by, taking note of the proliferating media coverage and political commentary on racist police brutality and racist mass incarceration. Racism in policing and in the criminal justice system is nothing new. All the attention on it is not a constant, to say the least.

In my twenty-plus years working in public health, in the HIV and AIDS field, it is a constant that we discuss racial disparities and inequalities, health and wealth disparities. There are wildly different stats in this country for premature birth, infant mortality, disease acquisition and life expectancy between black and white people. This can be attributed largely to poverty (racist economics) and the everyday stress of racism.

I attended a panel discussion not long ago about AIDS amongst gay black men, and yes, even as we discuss the end of the epidemic every single day at my office, it is gay black men who continue to have new infections of HIV and will bear the brunt of the epidemic as it winds down in America. This panel of gay, black professors, academics and physicians, referred regularly to white supremacy in their talk. I was startled by the phrase. It was used in place of where I would have expected “institutionalized racism” to appear.

But I liked them describing the bias in our American society as white supremacy. I live in a land where I can steal coffee, drink wine in public, and break traffic laws in front of the police, and not only am I not arrested and assaulted and accused of assaulting an officer, I don’t even suffer the heart palpitations and chemical reactions to stress of fearing these things.

Here’s one small example of how institutionalized racism or white supremacy has been established in our land. When FDR initiated Social Security for senior citizens in 1935, it excluded two groups of workers, domestic workers and agricultural workers. 95% of black Americans held one of those two jobs in 1935. This created a legacy of poverty where poverty was already abundant. Black senior citizens could not support themselves when they stopped working. Their middle-aged children could not acquire wealth so easily because they financially supported their parents. Without a single word about race in the Social Security bill, a huge system of government entitlements institutionalized the racism that prevailed throughout the country. It’s one small example of so many.

I’m convinced that part of ensuring an avalanche of attention on racist police brutality and racist mass incarceration- and hopefully a societal shift in attitudes and policies- is that we white people recognize our white privilege. Noticing how we “benefit” by being dominant can create a cosmic adjustment. There are so many out there that deny racism even exists anymore. I think most people do not deny it, but I think most people have a ways to go in seeing how racism has not hurt them, and what the cost of that has been.

A WRITING DAY

danny-shanahan-i-try-to-write-a-little-bit-every-day-new-yorker-cartoon

Tomorrow, a Wednesday in late July will be my first day of writing, an entire day for writing, in…..an immeasurable time. I used to write on Wednesdays and Saturdays as a regular schedule, and often micro sessions in between, before having a kid. Last year, I wrote on Wednesdays (my day off from my Department of Health job) until 2:30 when it was time to pick up my son, and often his friends, from pre-k. One unintended outcome of summer camp, is that my boy’s day goes until 4pm, and hour and a half that feels like a whole other day when you’re counting writing time.

For the last ten months I’ve been revising my second novel. The way I’ve come to sum up this revision is that I re-wrote the beginning, adding a new plot-line and substantially upping the stakes of the novel. Then I combed forward the revision, including the new story-line and revising what was already on the page to fold into the new story. Eventually, I hit a wall where the end needed to be re-written, and I’ve pushed through that wall recently. The very end of the novel holds up, but I think there will be about ten new pages blended in to make it more of a ….hugely-satisfying-culmination-like-feeling of- I’m so glad I read this totally original and illuminating book! Or something like that. I am now on page 219 of what I think will be a 235 page book. For me, that fact is breath-taking.

So, a full day of writing feels not only important and necessary (writing a book requires writing) but it also feels kind of revelatory, a gift, a reward, a huge symbol of good fortune. I guess I’m really happy I have a writing day tomorrow.