I sat in on a colleague's Creative Nonfiction class today (a thing, incidentally, I wish I could do every day). She was hosting a visit by Maggie Nelson, recent MacArthur award winner, and an alumna of our school. [The alumni here are often a bit awe inspiring.]
I have never read any of her work, but the students had and they asked her good questions. She talked about how her work had never been driven by a desire to achieve certain hallmarks of literary success; in her twenties she hadn't yearned to be published in The New Yorker nor get a Simon and Schuster contract. Her much beloved book, Bluets, was rejected by every publisher, and was eventually produced by bookmakers she knew, bookmakers she knew would make it beautiful. It was passed around from one enchanted reader to another. Punk rock, do-it-yourself art. She said, of her recent award, "if I had been trying to get it, I never would have gotten it."
She read a bit from Bluets about the male bowerbird constructing a bower all in blue. She talked about grappling with the dignity of solitude. "Loneliness," she said, "is solitude with a problem." She read the last two pages of Red Parts, a book about her aunt's murder and the subsequent trial. She read of sitting with her mother on a screened porch in a thunderstorm, discussing autopsy photos, smoking in the dark. It made me cry more because it was beautiful than because it was sad.
Sitting there, overtired, deeply moved, I was startled to hear what sounded like a march on the street below. Lots of feet, lots of voices, a jumble of sound. I lost the thread of the author's conversation and began to identify the sounds outside. The voices were shrill. Loud, but not angry. Familiar. Not politicized marchers, after all, but a field trip from the preschool next door. Many very small citizens making their way down the block, no doubt with the buddy system firmly in place, as I have seen countless times before. The chanting, however, was unprecedented. What common purpose had united them? I strained to make out the words:
"Piz-ZAH! Piz-ZAH! Piz-ZAH!"
At last, a cause that could unify the nation.
I hope The Man met their demands.