Today’s post is a sneak peek of Writing Is My Drink: A Field Guide to Finding Your Own Voice. This unedited bit is from the chapter tentatively titled “Finding Your Tribe.”
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A bit from the middle of Chapter Nine: Finding Your Tribe
It was kind of like when I was in high school, and I felt this shiver of shame when a new friend would flip though my record collection—a 70’s rite of friendship, to be sure. There were cool-kid (read: cool boy) sanctioned albums that you were supposed to have—Led Zeppelin I,II, III and IV pop instantly to mind—and then there was my collection dating back to my first purchase (The Divine Miss M) to something more recent like the soundtrack to American Graffiti. I didn’t like Led Zeppelin or any of the other cool boy music. At all. Sure, I might have slowed danced in the basement of the United Church to “Stairway to Heaven” but that music never spoke to me. What was it about anyway? “There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold. And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.” Wha?? Even then—years before reading about what Gloria Steinem called “the click” you get when you realize something you’ve always taken for normal is, in fact, horrifically sexist, I felt a pre-feminist twinge whenever I heard Zeppelin. Maybe it had everything to do with my early and unrelenting distaste for the word lady.
So anyway there the new friend would be flipping past my safety albums kept at the front to keep up a veneer of cool: David Bowie’s Changes and Supertramp’s Crime of the Century. But it wouldn’t take long before you got into the really embarrassing stuff that I deeply and truly loved. We’re talking Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves, folks. The Supremes. Yes, bring it, Diana, bring it. We’re talking Al Stewart’s The Year of the Cat, an album I secretly memorized, that I swore held within it the secrets to all of adulthood. Joni Mitchell, absolutely. The Beach Boys: check. And yes, Billy Joel.
Basically, guys couldn’t come over to my house.
And this is not unlike how I felt about My Writers. I felt that my choices revealed my questionable taste, my rudimentary reading skills, my lack of intellect, my poor breeding, my ADD, my general lack of savoir faire, but whatever they might’ve showed about me that I feared, I also loved them dearly and hated to chance them coming under fire. If someone were to say something untoward about Nora Ephron, it would be like the family name was at stake. There was shame about my choices, yes, but a much stronger force than the shame was loyalty. These were the writers who were somehow allowing me to be myself. And however low my self-esteem might have been at times, there was always a part of me that always did quietly root for the triumph of my goofy spirit.
And that part of me was a reader. Before anyone becomes a writer, she is a reader. She may not have been what is called an avid reader, but she’s read some writers as if her life depended upon them. Because it has.
The writers who speak to us, who send out the siren call and lure us to bring pen to paper, are the ones who’ve revealed a view of the world that makes sense to us—and that view of the world is often very different than the dominant view among the people who surround us, the people who’ve taught us what life is and who we can be in the world. Sometimes, the examples are extreme.
A friend of mine, Carlene Cross, wrote a book called Fleeing Fundamentalism that chronicles her experience of falling into the world of Fundamentalism and for a young charismatic minister as a young woman and then crawling her way out of that world and that marriage when she found out about her husband’s dark secret life and realized that Fundamentalism was annihilating her spirit. After she visited my memoir class one quarter, a student in the class who’d grown up a Fundamentalist mailed the book to a woman in a similar situation. He described to me how much hope the book had given this woman, how she’d kept the book hidden and then read the book when no one was around, how the book felt like a lifeline out of a hopeless situation.
Sometimes it’s subtler, the need for the book seemingly less urgent; but the essence of the situation is the same—the book you are reading is somehow allowing you to believe that the way you see life is valuable and the way you want to express yourself is doable. The book is calling you to something.
Right before my 22nd birthday when I was waiting tables in Santa Fe—ostensibly a college dropout, although I wouldn’t admit that to myself—a friend who I’d met in that freshman creative writing class where I wrote cloaked stories of family strife came to visit. As she was leaving, she handed me a copy of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn. “You’re going to love this,” she said.
I spent the day with the book where love often lands us: in bed. I read all of Heartburn that day, pausing routinely to examine the cover, the author’s name—Nora Ephron, who was this woman?—and rotate the book in my hands as if looking at the front cover, the back cover and then very quickly the front cover again might give me further entrance into this first person world. What I didn’t know at the time was that this book was as close as I was going to get to reading a memoir for a while. Written as a novel, the book is basically a roman a clef, pretty much an exact account of Ephron’s divorce from Carl Bernstein of Woodward and Bernstein fame. The names and some details were changed. But the sense that you’re reading an account—a funny, heartsearing account—of the author’s own experience is visceral.
But it was more than that that won my heart. Because to be frank here, I’m not a huge fan of the strictly confessional; if a book is described as “heartfelt,” I tend to steer clear. The writers in my tribe—it took me that day and many years to learn—mix it up. They’re crazy with the form and they’re self-referential not only to their own lives but to the writing itself; there’s a metafictional quality, except if it’s fiction it is born out of lived out of experience. And in Ephron’s Heartburn, I divined that; I couldn’t name it yet. It was more like grunt me grunt like this. Me want to do this grunt. Now, I can pick up Heartburn (signed copy, but don’t break into my house to steal it) and locate what thrilled me then and thrills me now. First, the recipes. Hello, this is 1983, people. The word “foodie,” won’t make it into our vocabulary for decades. This is the John Updike and Raymond Carver years. Who drops recipes into fiction? Nora. Nora alone.
And speaking of Updike and Carver brings me to the other IT quality of Heartburn for me: the way Ephron is just turning right to us—she knows we’re there, she’s addressing us—and telling us about her life, her dad, her therapy, her broken heart, her cheating second husband, her neurotic first husband.
And that’s the thing—here’s the feminist moment. If that scares you, be scared or skip to the next chapter—the life she’s telling us about is a woman’s life. And if I follow the breadcrumbs of the voices that have spoken to me and especially those who spoke to me when I was young, it becomes clear that I was looking to find my own experience articulated in a culture in which female experience rarely made it into print, the small screen, or the big screen. I wanted to understand my own experience and I wanted to know that it was worthy of articulating, of literature, that my desires and fears could be the arc a story climbs and falls on. The breadcrumbs tell the story: Nora Ephron, Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, The Supremes, Mary Tyler Moore, Judy Blume, and Xaviera Hollander. Girls like me.