While sitting with a guest for tea at the retirement center, a gentleman, to whom I’d never spoken, paused by our table. “You’re the writer, aren’t you?” As I strive to be one, I nodded.
“ Well, I wanted to tell you about the greatest opening to a novel I’ve ever read.”
Singled out, I’d hoped the opening was from one of my works. It wasn’t. The words belonged to someone else.
I thanked the man for sharing his thoughts then laughed at my vanity as he walked away. No. I hadn’t written words to light a fire. Perhaps I never would. Equally sad, the author with talent would never meet his admirer.
To move someone with airy words is no small feat. I’m guessing we humans fail to communicate much of the time, because we aren’t great listeners.
That’s why, when I read, I give an author my full attention. I presume he or she has something to say. Otherwise, an artist might as well take up cloud gazing.
Recently, I sat down to peruse a memoir printed in Harper’s. I continue to struggle with my work, so I’m happy to sit at the feet of someone published in an august journal. The author’s recollection was from her childhood. While in school, she’d cherished a fountain pen which, one day, was stolen. She suspected a girl in her class, someone who’d twice been held back in the same grade. As she was taller than her peers, she’d grown into a bully. Worse, she disliked the author, which made her prime suspect in the case of the lost pen.
From there the story branched into two different directions. One recalled the author’s relationship with her teacher and the school principal, two women who would eventually decide to live together. The other branch explored a family history about her great-grandmother who lived in Vienna. Quixotic by nature, this relative exhibited inexplicable mood swings toward her son. Sometimes her love for him moved her to tears. Sometimes she subjected the child to physical abuse.
The memoir ends when the author, now an adult, sends her first published novel to her teacher. The teacher never replies.
How these branches fed into a single idea, I never fathomed. Perhaps the narrative was about our failure to connect with others or to hold on to the few connections we make. I don’t know. I could spend a lifetime guessing, but, as a reader, my job isn’t to fill gaps left on the page.
No doubt, I am wrong in my opinion that the work is a cheat. The editor who chose that piece selected it from the hundreds of submissions. I can only say the mermaids* did not sing to me. Call it my foolishness, but I always thought art should light a fire instead of put one out.
*reference to The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot.