On Living the Writing Life
An angel saved me at the coffee shop the other day. Not physically—not with wings, harp strings, or a tunnel of light. No.
It started with a rude barista. I’d been talking with people, signing books after a reading. I knew it was near closing time but had lost sight of the clock. Seemingly out of nowhere, a young woman burst into our little corner, exclaiming, “It’s really exciting and all that you have a book, but we closed ten minutes ago and WE want to go home!”
Stunned by the sudden scolding, we filed out onto the winter sidewalk while the barista and her friends remained inside, chatting.
The audacity! I was probably old enough to be her mother, and, you know, this reading brought plenty of business to the shop. And her condescending tone toward the book? What had she published lately?
Then an angel descended, held me close in spirals of butter, sugar, and glaze—saved me from scowling, huffing, and giving the barista a piece of my mind.
Raymond Carver’s ending image in his short story, “A Small, Good, Thing,” has guarded me many times over. In the story, a young mother orders a cake for her son’s birthday. The son gets hit by a car, and in the ensuing hospital vigils and eventual mourning, the cake, of course, is forgotten. Assuming he has been stiffed, the baker calls the couple’s house repeatedly, harassing them for their negligence. Finally, the couple confronts the baker, and what begins as an angry exchange transforms into a night of human connection as he serves them roll after roll fresh from his oven.
Since reading that story years ago, I have visualized the rolls when encountering tension with a stranger. The baker had no idea what the family had been through; likewise, what had the barista gone through that day? Was her mother just diagnosed with cancer? Was she anticipating a hard conversation with her estranged boyfriend that night? Was she failing calculus?
How to Be a Famous Author
Other images have gotten me through different challenges. As a poet, I sometimes find myself pitying my state of obscurity as an artist. Will my work last? Will anyone read me? Does it matter? Then I think of the images from Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “Famous”:
The river is famous to the fish.
The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.
The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.
The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.
The idea you carry close your bosom
is famous to your bosom.
The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.
The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and is not at all famous to the one who is pictured.
I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.
Images of boots and buttonholes have saved me many times, from dwelling on fame and success. I am already famous. I am famous to my husband, my children, my best friend. When I begin to compare myself to other writers, the angel swoops—no, squeaks and turns—into my consciousness like a pulley. Lonely? I am visited by the geese from Mary Oliver’s poems. Scared? The splinter lovingly removed by a father in Li-Young Lee’s “The Gift.” Filled with malaise? Hopkins’ brindled cows and shook foil.
I write these kinds of powerful poem and story quotes down. I keep them, draw them, put them with photos on Pinterest. Angels abound.
Buy a year of Every Day Poems, just $5.99— Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In March we’re exploring the theme Angels.