Learning to Fail (Love Your Art, Poor as it May Be)

photo 1 (13)Sometimes I feel that if any real literature major sits me down for a cup of coffee, he or she will quickly discover that I am somewhat of a fraud. I have not read Moby Dick or Great Expectations (though I once wrote a paper about the latter after finding it unreadable in a college class and skimming!), nor can I whip through a novel in an afternoon, like Nick, who has read 3500 pages in the past month, nor am I always up to date on the latest New Yorker essay or school of literary criticism. And in a way, this does not trouble me. While at Hamilton, I drank in every bit of theory I could find, but my essays were always analyses of character, relating form and content back to the human essence of each story, again and again. One of my favorite books ever written is Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, a story of the building of Toronto, told through the voices of several emigrants. Somewhere in this beautiful, historic narrative is a line that has stuck with me in the six years since I first read it, with special resonance in the past year: “The first sentence of every novel should be: ‘Trust me, this will take time, but there is order here, very faint, very human.’ Meander if you want to get to town.”

Try as I might to spin my post-collegiate life into a story of self-discovery, replete with the broke glamor of a writer working in a restaurant, applying for jobs in cafes, and drinking whiskey lemonade on fire escapes, I must admit that I have spent much of the past year meandering. I have tried, in over one hundred and three applications, to get various full time jobs, to learn how to budget my weekly groceries, to keep an urban apartment clean and learn to bike across the Manhattan bridge. A great deal of what I have done in this past year has been the slow, tough act of growing up, learning to stand on my own, and, bleak as it may initially sound, learning to fail.

Say what you will about all-girls schools and small liberal arts colleges—I may have grown overly fond of wooded clearings and become slightly stunted in regards to the opposite sex, but for seventeen years of my life, I learned. I learned how to construct a five-paragraph essay and then disregard that entire format. I learned the difference between Neo-Classic and Romantic paintings, the fact that Charlemagne was born on Christmas day in the year 800, how to properly dig an archaeological trench. In the process, I learned to make friends, do the monkey bars and live in my own dorm room, and as elementary school progressed into academia, I grew up, sometimes painfully and with reluctance, sometimes in great leaps and bounds. I may not have gone to Eaton or Harvard, but I owe my education, and my parents for giving it to me, a great deal.

photo 2 (12)In seventeen years of education, however, I never learned to fail as I have in this past year. With a few exceptions, everything we did in school seemed to push us closer to graduation, fill our brains with knowledge, teach us how to make and keep friendships. There was always a sense of forward momentum, and much of our lives in the first years after college are spent trying to regain that sense of control, that seasonal rhythm, the feeling that we were moving steadily in one direction. There was a point in the past year where I declared to my closest friends that I felt as if I was drowning. What I wish I had known to say at the time was that I really felt as if I was treading water, standing in place while I waited for progress to take hold. Jobs and relationships do not come as readily as graduation day, and, as my friend Liz so wisely pointed out recently, real life moves a lot more slowly than we expect it to. This has been, without a doubt, one of the most difficult years of my life. But it has also been one of the most important, and the most wonderful.

This blog started as a way to keep in touch with our academic selves, to grasp and retain those intellectual and literary aspects that the nine-to-five grind was sure to take away from us. It started as a way to connect to one another and to the world of books, but what it has become is a far less erudite, far less directed way for Nora and me to give voice to our experiences, to speak to our beloved readers and each other, to meander on our way to town. It is also the way in which I have come to tell the world when something momentous or wonderful happens, which is part of my aim this week. But before doing so, let me finish my current train of thought.

I began this post two weeks ago, right after having been rejected from a newspaper that I felt was my dream employer. I began it intending to give a resigned but hopeful update on my still-stagnant career path, to urge myself and all of you to hold tight to the things you care about, to love your art, poor as it may be (a line, I must admit, I stole from Alan Alda, who took it from a Roman emperor). One day, I will be a writer, for a newspaper or a magazine, or perhaps an editor of books or journals who spends her spare hours composing narrative essays. I will get there, no matter how many years it takes, what I do during the day, whether or not I have to go to graduate school. Learning to fail has only strengthened my resolve, my determination to go on doing what I love, whether or not it is the profession on my business card.

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I made myself this promise, wrote most of this post, and then I went off on vacation to Cape Cod with my family,where, one day on the sand dunes of a beach in West Yarmouth, remarkably and without the stress and drama which every other interview seemed to entail, I got a phone call offering me a job. I am going to start work on Tuesday, as a grant-writer for an arts-education non-profit, a profession that would never have occurred to me even a month ago, but which, after a great deal of thought and advice from those I love, has become something very promising and exciting. Rather than write about art all day long, which is how I initially thought I would spend the next year, I will be organizing and composing persuasive proposals to bring non-traditional , arts-based teaching into the New York Public School system. I have never written a real grant in my life, so hopefully it will be something I can learn to do well! I am, to what was initially my own surprise, nothing short of thrilled. But I thought rather than title and begin this post with I GOT A JOB!!!!!!, which is how I was tempted to do it, I would give credence to my initial post, and try to work in my thoughts on failure with my more recent success, to tie together the good and the bad and thus try to illustrate the turbulence of the last year.

This is all to say, in a rather roundabout, verbose way (but lets be honest, what else have you come to expect from me?), that sometimes the road is winding and full of failure and and deeply wonderful. Sometimes we must resign ourselves to remain happy-free-confused-and-lonely-at-the-same-time, until life works itself out around us. I strive too hard for control, something which I am trying to teach myself to relinquish. Instead, I am deeply and inexpressibly grateful—to Sam for helping me to get this job, to my mother for listening to me moan and helping me to stand, to my dad for always believing I could get there, to Amanda for arepas and nail dates and being patient enough to live in a tiny square room with me for an entire year, to Nora for being my blog buddy, to Nick for too many things to list, and to countless others, including all of you.

So with this in mind, and new paths on the horizon, there isn’t much left to do now but keep meandering, this time with a little more direction, to hold tight to words and one another, and to allow ourselves that moment, at the end of a day when something has finally gone right, to feel an unbridled and unsought rush of pure joy.

Thank you all, as always, for sticking with us.

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Book Three, and Time to Mess Up the Pattern

First things first: I have finally finished Within a Budding Grove, and, leaving a lovestruck Marcel pining after Albertine in a cold Balbec hotel room, moved on to The Guermantes Way. We are still terribly behind, but this, my dear readers, is what you call progress (though I must say that Nora, who just got a full-time job and is being awesome and kick-ass round-the-clock, deserves a little more applause than does my reading of seventy pages!). We carry on, Marcel. Just you watch us.

This spring has been the coldest I can remember, including the four winters I spent in upstate New York. After a relatively mild winter, March came bearing down like the lion my mother always claimed it was, and we have had snow every few days for the last several weeks. The days are longer now, and I sometimes get out of bed at seven and pull up my blinds to the most dazzling shade of blue. It is sometimes so sunny that I forget it is still thirty-five degrees, and go outside to a bitter cold reminder.

DSC04497Today I decided to wear a dress. For the first time since October, I wanted to feel unconstrained by corduroys and zippers, and layered
thick tights and a thermal shirt under a blue cotton dress I inherited from Elizabeth, as I boarded the F train to Brooklyn. Nick and Sam and I went to see the El Anatsui retrospective, a show about a contemporary Ghanaian artist who makes shimmering, fluid, mosaic-like walls of rippling metal out of African liquor caps. After a stunning show at the Venice Biannale six years ago, he has been gaining popularity, and I went to write about the exhibit for Hyperallergic, an online magazine based in Brooklyn. We wandered from room to room and then out through Park Slope and across Prospect Park, where the trees were thinking about budding.

Five years ago, I wrote a letter to myself upon the occasion of my high school graduation. We were promised that these would be mailed to us the spring of our first year out of college—our five-year reunion. I have been thinking a lot about that letter lately, mostly pondering what could possibly be inside, as I have absolutely no memory of what I wrote. What could eighteen-year-old Maeve have to say? Did she wish me luck in college, tell me to be brave and take risks, urge me not to forget those wonderful and terrible years when she felt so lost and so loved? And what, more importantly (and more frightening),
would she think of me now, living in Manhattan (a city I never pondered moving to until the summer I lived here and fell in love on the second day), working as a hostess, applying to almost a hundred jobs from coffee-shop tables and library desks? Would she be shocked, that Maeve who had never been kissed, whose parents were married, who drove through the summer nights with her three best friends, blasting Brand New and soaking up the hot summer air and wondering what alcohol felt like when it touched your throat? Would she think I have grown up, become jaded, succeeded or failed?

522720_4598879213153_1931367867_nThis week I learned that I did not get what I thought might be my dream job, an intensive internship at a major newspaper, and for a good two hours, I stared at my computer screen and wondered how to do this thing that seems to want to evade me. I wondered, for the very first time in my life, if I am meant to be a writer, when no one but me seems to want to hire me to do so. And then I started to think about eighteen-year-old Maeve, who may have been naive and a little quixotic, but who had no doubt how hard this would be. And I thought of something Nick had said to me that morning, as I stressed about hearing from HR. “If anyone can do this, you can.”

So I got out my computer, and began to write. I googled small newspapers and New York Times articles. I went through the entire masthead of the Brooklyn Paper and wrote to every editor. I wrote to Frank Bruni, my favorite Times columnist, and asked him for advice. The next morning, he wrote me back, wishing me luck. I put on my purple button-down and went to the public library and printed out my clips and went into the offices of the Brooklyn Paper and told them I wanted to learn. I called different editorial departments and finally spoke to a man at a series of small neighborhood newspapers in downtown Manhattan. And as of Monday, April 1st, I will be interning there, fact-checking and copy-editing and doing all of the little gritty things that I need to learn. And, best news yet: they cannot pay me much (I will, in fact, have to get another part-time job), but they are going to let me write. I called my mom, and she told me I should do it.

580684_4598882573237_105522053_nI don’t know if it’s spring finally coming and the sunshine, or that red-headed stubbornness that I always seem to forget until I really
need it, or having the most wonderful people on Earth around me to support me in what is sometimes an impossible time, but I feel as
if things are changing. And as someone who does not do well at all with change, this is a remarkably wonderful thing. Liz texted me on Tuesday,  when I told her my new plan, “as a wise teacher once said, sometimes in order to wake up, you have to mess up the pattern.” So this is my attempt. It is not ideal; it will hardly be glamorous. But the thought of going in to a real newspaper office twice a week makes me smile. It will be a new experience, and I am very ready for that.

So there you have it, eighteen-year-old Maeve. Your life is still very much a work in progress. You have by no means figured it out, but
you are having a blast along the way. Some of your very best friends, you don’t even know yet. Some of your favorite places you haven’t even seen. But get excited, and be proud of what you will do, and don’t stop even when it gets really hard.

Oh, and one more thing. One day you are going to try to read a really really long book, and then regret it for a while and then plunge back in and then hate it again. But don’t give up.

 

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Art is Hard

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Avant-Garde Film

At Sea Peter HuttonMarcel has writer’s block. And so do I. Like I have stalled on my blogging, our protagonist is stymied in the progress of his “great work.” He has befriended Bergotte, the author whom he has long revered, and is finally a regular guest at the Swann’s home. Yet he laments that all this headway into the literary lifestyle has not actually been conducive to the creation of art:

Unfortunately the next day was not that vast, extraneous expanse of time to which I had feverishly looked forward… To my parents it seemed almost as though, idle as I was, I was leading, since it was spent in the same salon as a great writer, the life most favourable to the growth of talent. And yet the assumption that anyone can be dispensed from having to create that talent for himself, from within himself, and can acquire it from someone else, is erroneous…

In many ways I think that Marcel is correct. One doesn’t become a better artist by following other artists around. If art were easy, everyone would do it. And if reading Proust were easy, everyone would have done it already. But the world isn’t exactly full of people who have read all seven volumes, and sometimes I need a reminder of why hard art is, at the end of the day, the best kind of art.

My Proustian progress hasn’t exactly been breakneck. Within a Budding Grove, which I really am enjoying, sometimes feels too cumbersome for my morning subway commute or too intense to eat up my precious work-free hours. My life is busy, and Proust demands a pace to which I am sometimes unwilling to adapt. But there’s a reason we’re doing this, and a reason we will stick it out.

This evening I went with one of my friends to a screening of two silent films by Peter Hutton at Union Docs in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The filmmaker had been her professor, while I had seen (and loved) some of his films in a class I took at Hamilton with the remarkable Scott MacDonald. Mr. Hutton showed two of his films: Images of Asian Music and At Sea. The venue was small, the chairs were uncomfortable and the temperature continued to climb as the night went on, hour after hour. When it comes to avant-garde film, the physical experience of watching often seems to be as challenging as the subject material itself.

“It’s okay if you fall asleep,” Hutton said, before launching us into 90 minutes of silent cinematography. Life is stressful, he assured us, and if all his films did was give us a moment of peace, then they had done their job as far as he was concerned. Of course, the films far from put me to sleep. As I sat there, watching images of breaking waves and shipping yards, I found myself thinking back to this project.

Proust’s writing is avant-garde in much the same way Hutton’s films are. As Proust meanders through his prose and sensory language, Hutton’s films present portraits in single shots that refuse to adhere to a singular narrative, then scale to shots of the moving horizon or giant ships sitting like statues. His are not easy films to watch. But because they ask so much of you, they are able to provide that much more in return. In addition to meditation, his films are an interrogation of the experiences of traveling, aging, laughing, dying.

So, sweating in a dark room in Williamsburg, I thought about how film and literature are reflective surfaces in which we are forced to see truer projections of ourselves. As Maeve and I write about Proust, and our changing post-graduate lives, we are continuing to think in ways that, absent of Proust, we might forget to. I am happy to have Proust to remind me that the appearance of your life is not the actual measure of your success. We are all easy victims of superficiality, but as Marcel illuminates, pretending at art won’t make it come, and there is no permanence in a glamorous veneer. And while there are easier things to do than slog through thousands of pages, and quicker ways to make blog fit for mass-consumption, there is no substituting for art that truly makes you think. A silent film makes us more aware of the subtleties of sound and motion, and a novel about time and memory makes us study our own memories and impressions. What are the keys to my memory? How much do I base my reactions upon my expectations as opposed to the gravity of my own emotions?

Right now, for me, reading Proust isn’t about finding the answers. It’s about remembering to keep asking the questions–the hard questions–that only good art can bring to the surface.

A Love Affair with Art

As Nick recently pointed out to me, I have told a fair number of white lies this week (for very minor reasons, but still a bit shameful!), and so I will give my creative license a break here and not try and pretend to you, my faithful readers, that I am up-to-date with my required Proust reading. In fact, I am no fewer than 250 pages behind my goal for Sunday, and, unless I am hit by a sudden wave of efficiency, or find myself with an entire Saturday in which I can do nothing but sit in a café with a glass of wine and read (oh how I miss Paris sometimes!), I will continue to make my way to page 567 with halting grace. I assure you, I will get there. But for now, I am, so to speak, very much in search of lost time (it’s clever—don’t wince!).

In the meantime, I am deep enough into “Swann In Love” to be able to comment on what I see as one of the main elements of the story and, I believe, of the novel as a (massive) whole. Swann finds himself desperately and shyly in love with Odette, a woman whose family he charms through a series of cocktail parties and long, drawn-out evenings, who loves afternoon tea and flouncy silk Japanese cushions and to whom, it initially appears, he is no more attracted than to his own sister. He finds her cheekbones too hallow, her skin too blotchy, and, for the first few pages of the chapter, we have absolutely no idea what it is that actually attracts Swann to this woman. And then he goes to hear Vinteuil’s Sonata (see Nora’s most recent post) at Odette’s house, and is totally and completely lost to her.

But that night, at Mme Verdurin’s, scarcely had the young pianist begun to play than suddenly, after a high note sustained through two whole bars, Swann sensed its approach, stealing forth from beneath that long-drawn sonority, stretched like a curtain of sound to veil the mystery of its incubation, and recognised, secret, murmuring, detached, the airy and perfumed phrase that he had loved. And it was so peculiarly itself, it had so individual, so irreplaceable a charm, that Swann felt as though he had met, in a friend’s drawing room, a woman whom he had seen and admired in the street and had despaired of ever seeing again (298-299).

It is this ability to recapture and distill a revelation from his past, the immortality of the piece of music, with which Swann falls in love, and so he is able to transfer this ecstasy to his feelings for Odette, who becomes newly-embodied with the lustrous and eternal. She is no longer the slightly plain daughter of his family friend. She is shrouded in music and embodied by art. And Swann, at last, is entranced.

He envisions Odette in terms of an artistic aesthetic. Her face becomes one of Botticelli’s straw-haired girls, her blotchy skin the foggy sfumato of a Renaissance tableau. He is able, through this conflation of a live woman with a static medium, to see past her face and into a type, an artistic style, a beauty he knows is beyond her.

He stood gazing at her; traces of the old fresco were apparent on her face and her body, and these he tried incessantly to recapture thereafter, both when he was with Odette and when he was thinking of her (316).

Culturally, we have a fixation on the depiction and embodiment of romance. True love, it seems, is the ultimate achievement, the elusive and striven-for goal that infuses the everyday with wonder.  It is overblown and under-emphasized, both the obsession of our society and something we still cannot collectively understand. It is the closest to magic we can touch, and we grasp at it with fervency.

But sometimes, I would argue, it is art and not life with which we fall in love. It is the sunset over the Adriatic, the sweet falsetto of an opera singer, the perfume of white roses on a midsummer night. Too many Disney movies and Sinatra songs have conspired to make us long for a reality that is seldom like its portrayal. Swann is able, by likening Odette to a painting and allowing himself to be swept away in her sonata, to attain this fantasy while evading its embodiment. His affair, as it were, begins with Botticelli and not Odette. Whether it evolves to encompass the reality of her imperfections has yet to be seen. But for now, as we all have done at some point in our lives, he has become enamored with a vision, with an art, and through this finds his desire.

Having seen and known love so wonderful that it is able to banish my more bitter inclinations, I can attest to the fact that there is a reason for our cultural obsession, that the real thing is ten thousand times more wonderful than its portrayal. And that, I would suppose, is how we know love is real, and lasting—when it surpasses the art that strives so desperately to imortalize it.

For in the end, art and love accomplish the same ends; both prove to us “the presence of one of those invisible realities in which he had ceased to believe” (298).

Of Street Art and Office Cats

Monday was my first day of work, and, while I will save the details of my new job for the next post, suffice to say it was wonderful. I am working in an office where the walls are almost literally made of giant photography books, everyone dresses chic and laughs often, and cats (I kid you not!) roam between the stacks of magazines and boxes of letterhead. Apparently they once belonged to a former director, who left them here when he retired. I am certainly not complaining (they are adorable and fluffy), and though I am hardly a cat person, and have a lamentable tendency to poke and prod them until they hiss at me, I am learning, day by feline day, how to properly interact with my fuzzy new coworkers. The actual work I am doing (second in importance to office cats, of course!) is very interesting and, though we are currently in between issues of the magazine and there is not a ton for me to do, I am loving everything about working here. Stay tuned for more developments!

When I got off at 5:30 on Monday, I walked down the High Line (elevated train tracks on the west side of Manhattan that were converted a few years ago into a pedestrian park, and my favorite place in the city) and through Chelsea Market, where I bought cheap pink champagne and boarded a bus to Union Square. Nick, Sam, and I had a Whole Foods picnic dinner in the park; I told them all about work, my editor and office cats, and they responded with enthusiasm, and said I should probably refrain from poking the cats and taking the piles of beautifully designed stationary that I have been coveting since arriving! I complain sometimes that my friends chastise me like parents, but most often, I am in need of a little parenting (even if it most often comes from sassy boys!)

After dinner, we walked down to the Strand, the most wonderful bookstore in all of New York (seconded only by McNally Jackson in SoHo) and a shamefully recent discovery for me. We wandered between the towering shelves for what seemed like hours, and Sam took me upstairs to see the Art section, which was full of heavy, expensive monographs I lusted after, and smaller, more specialized studies. We found a $7 book on Christo, the land installation artist about whom I wrote my Art History thesis (he wraps monuments and natural structures in fabric, and is probably most famous for “The Gates,” 7,000 saffron arches he and his late wife Jeanne-Claude installed in Central Park in 2005). “These are great,” Sam said, “you should find some way to tear them out and frame them for your apartment.” I agreed—I adore Christo, and the walls of our apartment are tragically bare. But I did not plan to go back to IKEA for weeks, and picture frames from anywhere else are tragically beyond my current intern budget. I bought the book anyway, and we walked out of the door.

Not two doors away from the bookstore, we passed a pile of discarded bookshelves and other furniture, left out on the curb to be taken away. On top of the bookshelf, which was too rickety for me to take home, was a stack of slightly scuffed but otherwise intact wooden picture frames. It was fate! The boys urged me to get over my germaphobia and pick them up (“you’re poor! they’re free!”), and we loaded them into my tote bag and brought them home. Back at their apartment, we scrubbed the frames in windex, sized, cut, and inserted the prints, and then I had my first batch of dumpster-diving apartment art. I hung the prints up in my kitchen, bathroom, and across from my bed, and despite a few nicks and scratches here and there, I think they look pretty perfect. Everything, I am learning, is better when it’s free, and even more so if you discover it yourself.

At first I thought the connection to Proust was rather tenuous at best. Dumpster-diving for cheap art is hardly the past time of a nineteenth century artist or his readers, and honestly, my limited contact with Marcel leads me to believe he would probably have winced and scrubbed his hands at my behavior! But then I started thinking about art, and the fact that it is a constant presence in In Search of Lost Time, referenced directly and by name, painting the margins of the characters’ lives. And I figure somehow Proust would appreciate my homemade apartment art, compiled from pieces of a book, someone else’s refuse, and my best friends’ careful and considered effort. Art, after all, should always have a story. And I tend to think mine is a bit spicier than that of the $4000 prints hanging in the galleries below my office.

At least, until I can afford a real Christo, that is!