This summer, I didn't mind not having a yacht or a second home in the French Riviera.
I got to stay home and dance the Anniversary waltz: with the brave people, who 40 years ago fought back against the cops in the Stonewall Riots, the members of my generation lucky (or crazy enough) to be at Woodstock, the astronauts who walked on the moon–and Ernest Hemingway. (Over the summer, Scribner released "A Moveable Feast: The Restored Version" and new editions of Hemingway's other works. "A Moveable Feast" was first published posthumously, 45 years ago in 1964.)
Sure, this anniversary business can be overdone. I got to the point where I felt I'd scream if I read one more commemorative piece on Woodstock or the moon landing, and what more, I wondered, is there to say about Hemingway?
But, this (constant) remembering of things past wasn't just an empty exercise (or exorcism) of nostalgia. For me, the events and people commemorated not only forged our cultural (and my self) consciousness, but ignited the sparks that jumpstart my writing.
I wasn't at Stonewall or Woodstock, I've never strolled along the Seine, and, (act surprised), I didn't walk on the moon. My poetry isn't strewn with lunar rocks, Jimi Hendrix guitar licks or gay protest riots, and I'm just as happy that I never had the chance to have a glass of champagne at the Ritz with Hemingway. Yet, this potpourri of images, sounds and literary life is part of my DNA. It's the "write stuff" that my muse feasts on.
Write what you know, Hemingway said.
"You don't need to go to Woodstock," my father told me when I lamented that I couldn't join the teeming (tired, huddled, peaceful, if dirty) masses there, "You're a writer. You can write about whatever you want from where ever you are."
Of course, you might take Hemingway's advice and write about what you know, my Dad added, "if you write about the moon, you might want to hear what the astronauts say about it, before you begin." Taking a drag on his cigarette, he said, "you're a poet, and you guys can write about anything–using your imagination–no matter how nutty it is."
I've since come to know that I'm often not sure of what I know. But I do know this:
The story of Stonewall has given me courage (or a modicum of mojo) to go through the litmus tests that writers and poets must go through. Sometimes, I've had to fight against the sexism that still lingers in the writing world. Last year, I was the only woman in a poetry workshop (taught by a man) at a conference. I love people with testosterone; really, some of my BFFs are on your team. Yet, in 2008 more than four decades since the publication of "The Feminine Mystique," I found it nearly impossible to get a word in edgewise among the chatter (and penis jokes) of my male colleagues.
At other times, the ways in which I've had to show my writing moxie have been comical. Years ago, I worked as a publications writer for a nonprofit group in the Midwest. Because of my vision impairment, I asked the state rehabilitation agency to provide me with equipment that would enlarge the screen on my computer. I thought that I'd be asked to prove my journalistic bona fides by furnishing examples of my reporting.
Instead, I was asked to demonstrate that I could cook a meatloaf. So there I was one wintry day, nervously mixing hamburger meat and oatmeal, while a counselor stood by noting my every move on a clipboard. To make the occasion more fun for me, several of my colleagues, wanting an escape from the winter doldrums, came by to watch my culinary feat. "I really care more about writing than I do cooking," I told the social worker. "Well, here," the counselor replied, "we care about preparing meals first."
Trying desperately not to spill ingredients all over the counter while the clock ticked, I felt like Lucy Ricardo in the chocolate factory. Fortunately, the counselor had a sense of humor. After I promised never to reveal her name, she agreed to provide me with the needed equipment. But, if the worker hadn't relented, armed with my Stonewall memories, I'd have fought the unjust Meatloaf Rule.
The legacy of Woodstock has given me a sense of idealism and of irony. The memory of all those (half a million strong) gentle, but filthy people smoking dope, tuning in to rock and scrounging for food in '69, infuses my writing life with hope. If the Woodstock people made it through the crowds and the mud for a weekend without violence, I can risk trying to pen a sestina or a sonnet. If there's ever another Woodstock, I might even go for a series of crowned sonnets.
Yet, Woodstock was so silly! What were they thinking? Hanging out with strangers with no food, barely able to understand the words of the music–sitting in traffic jams for hours on the way there and back? No matter how hard I try to become a better poet, I'll never take myself or my writing too seriously. My muse eats too much Cherry Garcia ice cream for that.
The memory of the moon walk has infused me with a sense of wonder. Yes, the lunar surface isn't reality like the moonlight of romantic poetry, and if it were possible, I wouldn't pay to travel there. Yet, a man walked on the moon! How cool was that? Though I'm plenty jaded, a kernel of wonder, like the Cracker Jack prize of yesteryear, is always at the center of my writing. A small kernel, mind you. I'm into "Mad Men," not "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm."
In the mid 1970's, I was kicked-out of a feminist consciousness group. My crime? Saying that Hemingway was among the writers whose work I admired.
Papa was troubled in his personal life. OK, he was probably a jerk. Yet, his best works ("A Sun Also Rises," "A Farewell To Arms," "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "A Moveable Feast"), were masterful. Through his "declarative sentences," Hemingway not only changed how people wrote and talked, but demystified the process of writing.
There are other writers (including E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf) who I love to read and whose character I admire more than Hemingway. But Hemingway more than any other writer has influenced how I write–from reporting news stories to penning essays. (I'm not alone in this. Hemingway's influence can be seen in great contemporary writers like Joan Didion). His sentences show, rather than tell, his prose pulses with understatement and he teaches us how to use our past when we write.
"Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan. I did not know it was too early for that because I did not know Paris well enough," Hemingway wrote in "A Moveable Feast," "But that was how it worked out eventually."
Hunger is good discipline, Hemingway said. So is remembering. I'm glad we had the Summer of Things Past.