Haunts

All my life, I’ve been addicted to coffee houses.

The other afternoon I snuck out of Dobie House to go get a piece of cranberry bread at a place called J.P.’s, When I came in I saw a young woman hunched over a laptop in the corner. She looked a lot like one of my former students and I would have sworn it was she, except for the fact that she kept glowering at the computer screen, making no effort to meet my gaze.

I wove my way through the closely-packed tables. When I spoke her name, she looked up, befogged. It took her a second to refocus, but then, there it was, the old familiar smile. We talked a bit about this and that and when I asked her what she was working on, she gave the computer screen a contemptuous wave.

“Oh, just something,” she said. It seemed clear she didn’t want to discuss it.

When I left J.P.’s twenty minutes later, I ran into her again, standing under a spindly tree, waiting for her ride. It was June, ninety-five degrees and steamy; it was not a time to be waiting anywhere for long. After we spoke again for a couple of minutes, she confessed that what she’d been working on was her novel—the first version of which she’d written for her MFA thesis seven years ago.

“I didn’t want to say anything,” she said. “It’s just seemed so embarrassing.”

“Embarrassing?” I said. “Why should it be embarrassing?”

“I don’t know. It’s just that when I re-read it, after all these years . . . .” She rolled her eyes, making a joke out of it. Two doors down, a quartet of fraternity boys lugged a couch towards a U-Haul trailer, heading off for the summer.

I’ve been thinking about that encounter for the last month. My ex-student had no reason to be embarrassed. The draft of the novel she’d turned in had been a draft, but one with memorable characters and a fresh take on the world. There had been a lot good to say about it. Since she finished the program, she’s had an admirable career as a journalist and arts reviewer.

What she’d found embarrassing, I’d found heartening: the fact that she’d gone back. After running the Michener Center for a decade, I feel as if I’m turning into Gene Hackman in Hoosiers. I’ve lost whatever cynical edge I ever had: I’ve become a pure rooter.

Again and again, I’ve been struck by how writing finally becomes a matter of brute willfulness, the refusal to concede, Jacob wrestling with the angel, demanding to be blessed. I remember Larry Kasdan saying on a visit here several years ago, “The only ones in the business are the ones who didn’t quit.”

Thirty years ago I used to eat breakfast every morning at the Hungarian Pastry Shop on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. One of the other regulars was a kind-looking woman who was always writing in the corner, under a cheerful and rather slapdash painting done by the owner. She and I would nod hello but not really speak. Some mornings she had her five-year-old son with her.

Several years later I ran into her on West End Avenue. On impulse I introduced myself. I said I remembered her writing at the Pastry Shop and, because I was a writer myself, I’d always been curious about what she’d been working on.

It turned out that she was a poet and had just had her first book accepted that week. The title was Satan Says and she was Sharon Olds, though Sharon Olds before she became Sharon Olds.

I bought the book when it came out. I found the poems heart-breaking and fierce, and I remember feeling that I hadn’t encountered anything quite like them in a long time. What made it all so much more mysterious was that it was impossible for me to connect this dark, haunting work with the pleasant woman sitting at the corner table, under the dashed-off painting. But there was a lesson in it, too—a really simple one. If you want to create a great thing, the first requirement is that you show up, one morning after another.