APPLICATION FOR WRITING COURSES IN ENGLISH
COURSE: AT HOME IN AMERICA
August 18, 2012, ~10:30 AM
We’re up here in beautiful Lake Placid, home of high peaks and miracles on ice, and our lives are being lived. In Adirondack chairs and on Adirondack slopes, we are living. As a matter of fact, we are on vacation. Vacation: a chance to do the living unvacated life doesn’t allow. A chance to go—gasp—out of doors. Out of state. Out of control. “Vacation” entered the English language when William the Conqueror entered England from France; he told the courts to shut down in the summer so all the yammering barristers could help out with the grape harvest, i.e. so everyone could go get good and drunk. It is fortunate, I think, that some noble post-Willy vacationers decided to keep the drinking, and left the harvest to the professionals.
I’m of the camp that thinks vacation is also a chance to read (drinking optional), and up here in Lake Placid I’m trying to catch up on some books and such. “Pleasure reading,” this, not to be confused with the serious stuff from school. And yet, when I look at my little stack, I can’t help but start to imagine—worse, to compose—a syllabus.
As for the camp that thinks vacation is a chance to write, I’m on the fence. I’m keeping watch, in fact, from up here on this thing, and every few minutes taking an uneasy look over my shoulder—the inside of this camp seems just as dangerous as the out-. Vacation, as we’ve established, is a chance to live, and I badly want to believe that writing is living: a necessary piece to the puzzle and a force of good, even a locus, a place, of pleasure. I want to believe—really, I do. But this vacation is testing my faith.
This morning, as I stare out across the blue Placid expanse, computer on my lap, I have the insatiable feeling that life up here is to be lived out, loved hard, drunk in and sucked dry atop mountains and in lakes. (A book can come on the boat or down the trail.) If Whitman were here, he wouldn’t be spending a single minute inside a building; if Wordsworth were here, he would be out collecting his powerful feelings, leaving the recollecting in tranquillity for another day, another zip code. But if Walden was a vacation for Thoreau, it was a labor- and harvest-intensive kind, and he still only wrote Walden when he got back. Slaved over it, in fact, for ten years. What’s the lesson here? If you’re going to write while furrowing or frolicking in a field, generally getting away from the world, the thing to write is poetry? Well, see, I need to write an essay. A piece of non-fiction. A writing sample.
Why must I write a writing sample?
Strictly speaking, I don’t have to, and most in my place wouldn’t (as you, my only reader, know). I could send you something I’ve already written, something I wrote while in an anxious, writerly state of non-vacation. And it needn’t, strictly speaking, be an essay, or even non-fiction. It could be fiction or poetry (but not really). It could be fodder for a year-old issue of Publication X or for the hypothetical memoir that I mostly have not yet lived. But I only have two pieces that I think are really appropriate for you and your class, and I sent you one of them last year without much (any) success. (It was also about Lake Placid, and my late aunt. Maybe you remember it.) The other one is about having kept a daily journal for many years, and it’s good (I think); it’s appropriate (I think) for an application to your class in that it’s about writing’s participation in life and vice versa. But it is only about “place” in the most metaphysical sense, and anyways, physically and metaphysically, I’m in a different place now than I was when I wrote it, and I think this little exercise will give you a better idea of me, writer and liver, today, two weeks and not two years before I might enter your classroom. I also think this might, one way or another, get me down off the high proverbial camp fence. I’m working through my questions: “Is writing about life living? How? How does it help? Perhaps most important, why would you ever want to do it while on vacation in a beautiful place?” With the other essays, you could maybe have seen if I was right for your class. With this one, maybe I can see if I am, too.
Disclosure: it has begun to rain, and rain cripples Lake Placid. The trails go muddy and the views disappear; squalls and chills plague the waterways. We are in the far north of this country, after all, in territory whose wilderness refuses to be all gone. So the vacationers vacate the scenery and turn in, withdrawing to hotel-room claustrophobia, bickering with relatives purely out of boredom (or, in certain cases, boredom plus decades of barely suppressed hatred). They wander down Main Street, desperate to go somewhere, anywhere; they throw money at bullshit tchatchkes and overpriced, overdone steaks; they return to the room piled high with pine-scented pillows, maple-glazed candies, and great masses of weatherized gear from EMS. (Anoraks on their shoulders and pup tents by their beds, they hope, will trick their minds into memory of an actual mountain under their feet.) Meanwhile, I sit at my computer. It rains, and writing becomes a vacation unto itself.
But I can only write so much. My grandfather (currently sitting in a very American position of utter lackadaisical bliss—on the toilet, bathroom TV blaring) has helpfully shouted along to us the Weather Channel’s opinion, that the sun is just biding its time. To the woods (and the essential facts of life) I will surely soon be asked to return, and I’ll want to, essay be damned. I don’t know if it’s consolation or insult-to-injury that, even if I had all the time in the world, I would still have a page limit.
Statisticians beware the small sample. They decry the use of one to decide anything; a decision based solely on a small sample of data, they say, is hardly well informed. But among the writers—the romantics and the poets and the denizens of the old ivory towers —the small sample is hailed as a celebration of powerful human intuition: the sage writer-teacher, from a mere few paragraphs, can ascertain a talent or lack thereof, deduce a past, augur a future, plumb the depths of a very soul. “I’ll be able to get a sense for who you are as a writer,” they say (emphasis mine, though maybe not entirely). “I just want to hear your voice.”
The trouble is that I, like most everyone, write in many voices, and I’ve had trouble knowing which one might suit each discerning reader’s ear and disposition. Sometimes I sing; sometimes I kvetch; sometimes I whisper. Sometimes my throat is sore. And so I’ve decided to write a sample that “knows” it’s a sample, not a piece cut or adapted from an indifferent source.
I fear that in this decision, and in the subsequent act, I am violating the unspoken rules of the sample-based application process; I fear that this essay will be understood as gaming the system, or masking a weak and unworthy body of work, or else, worst of all, whining. Maybe you think I’m trying to guilt you into appraising my application more carefully than you otherwise would—into devoting more time to it than most just because I seem to have devoted more time to it than most. Maybe you think I’m trying to erect a false, flattering façade, to show off the one version of me, writer, that might fit your fancy. Maybe you think I’m like the scheming restaurateur who has learned what the Times critic looks like, and what name she uses to make reservations; who, now that she’s booked a table, has seen to it that her experience at his place will go worlds beyond that of any other patron past or future, be they movie stars, Obamas, whoever. Or maybe, you just think I’m disrespecting your judgment: discrediting your Good-Writer/Good-Teacher power to perceive, through no matter which written window, the profoundest pith of my scribbler’s spirit.
All I can say, in response to these flimsy straw mockups of what your actual objections might be, is that I’m trying to enlarge the small sample, in what meager ways I know how: the folding of reflexive layers; a terse referentiality; the buddy-cop team of Candid and Frank. Duplicity may equal dishonesty, but here, through multiplicity, I’m trying to be as honest as I can. I’ve decided to write about my writing and my living, so that, even if you still can only hear one of my voices, you can at least hear about a few others. And as for restaurateurs, I know only what all us hopefuls know, that you’ll be coming around, any day now, to sample our creations—linger here as long or as briefly as you like. If I’ve tried to surmise a bit about your tastes, I imagine I’m not alone, and I think I can be forgiven. If I’ve surmised poorly, of course, I’ll freely take the consequences and the blame.
My grandfather was right: the sun did come out, and so we went out after it, up Baker Mountain. Baker is a peewee peak eight miles from Lake Placid, domesticated right down to its workmanlike name by its next-door neighbors, the people of the town of Saranac Lake. It doesn’t take much more than half an hour to climb, but from the top you can see far enough that the farther horizons shimmer in a blue haze, as if dutifully copied from a Renaissance masterpiece. This view, you can’t help but think, is why we’re here.
I’ve returned to my open document, and I’ve just reread the paragraph a couple back, “All I can say in response…” It occurs to me now to add another evidence of my pure and guileless motives to the list: I’ve loved writing this. It has been a thrilling, liberating joy to write undirected—not on assignment, as they say, but on spec. I’m happy to have done this, and I’m happy to feel that, so far, I’ve lived it. The camp of the vacation writers suddenly looks less like a hovel of ink-stained wretches, and more like a place to settle down and make a home.
To write, then—maybe—is why I’m here, too. How large a place “here” refers to, I suppose, depends on your interpretation, and my ego, and your interpretation of my ego. But, honest, by “here” I only mean on vacation, in Lake Placid. And, to tell you the truth, I now have qualms about writing anywhere else: how will I bring the looseness, the pleasure, the free-flowing energy of this experiment back with me to the “real world”? How will I transpose the tranquillity of writing in a field, as it were, onto the rigors of writing in the field?
At the high school I went to in Boston, which is ancient (for America) and puritanical (even for New England), the eminences of the English department fight the good fight against this fanged and newfangled century, and still throw a good deal of Robert Frost at the boys. (Beacon of hardy Northeastern wisdom he, and all that.) A number of his lines, and some whole poems, have stuck with me, but I return most often to the end of “Two Tramps In Mudtime.” Frost tells a very Frosty little story about traveling lumberjacks, and eventually gets around to a point:
But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.
Frost was worried about vocation and avocation; I’m worried about vocation and vacation. But the idea is the same: we both want what we do, the work that occupies and sustains our lives, to be what we love. And we don’t want the higher, bigger stakes to kill the joy—we don’t want the need to kill the love. I love Frost’s language (what better definition of a good life’s work than “play for mortal stakes”?), but it kills me that the guy doesn’t actually figure anything out in the end: he lets the underfed lumberjacks do his beloved woodchopping for him. He says love and need should be one, but yields to their separation.
I’m no Frost, and poetry this ain’t, but I’ve gone away again, and I think—I hope—Lake Placid has brought me closer to solving his wee conundrum.
We had about 45 minutes left before our dinner reservation at The Cottage (a homey Lake Placid mainstay run by big, warm, ruddy women who call everyone “dear” and “hon” regardless of age and gender). What with the puniness of Baker—not to mention the writing, the computer, the guilt—I wanted to get some more fresh air and exercise. Running was out—too vigorous, too sweaty. Walking too—not vigorous enough. The lake, this late, was unbearably chilly. So I hopped on my bike and tore off, in search of a compact adventure.
On the spur of the moment, just as I was about to reach the prettified, Alpine Candyland section of Main Street, I hung a clumsy right onto Route 86 to Saranac and then a clumsier left across traffic, onto a road I’d never seen before. It was set well back from the waterfront hotels and eateries, out of view of the mountains; it was, against all odds, an entirely unremarkable residential street, reminiscent only of a thousand elsewheres. The houses that lined it were straight Central Casting—the kind of house for which the word “nice,” sans hyperbole or distortion, is intended. They were perfectly nice, nothing more. But you know what? Everything I laid eyes on was beautiful to me. I passed a dilapidated playground where two teenagers, a girl on a boy’s lap, were kissing in an offhand way, and sharing a cigarette. The guy gave me a look of total, uncomprehending disgust, and was probably confused by the smile I couldn’t help but send back in return. I passed a toddler screaming for Mom from a kiddie pool in an unkempt yard, and found myself moved—moved!—by the sheer smallness of his cares, the blessed ignorance of early life. His predicament was a John Prine song made literal: “It’s a half an inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown.” I passed a man kneeling on his front porch, polishing skis, and I thought of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.
Only just now, with the fatty remains of the Shrimp à la Cottage churning pleasantly in my stomach, have I realized what came over me on my ride. As I cruised down mundane Hillcrest Avenue, Lake Placid became something I had never before known it to be: a place where people live live. A place people call home. A place some people have never thought to leave.
Lest I be accused of some kind of entitled, touristy idiocy: of course I’ve known that people live in Lake Placid, many year-round, and not just hotel staffers who aim to please and waiters who wait. On my bike this evening, though, something new clicked: it hit me hard, on a visceral, sensory plane of consciousness, that this fantastical place, for me long a place of marvel and escape, is someone else’s constant, humdrum reality.
What follows from that revelation is clearer to me now than it was then. All of a sudden now, I’m thinking of Baker’s summit, of the view that extends into Vermont, into the past, into the future, all just a mile from the tawdry, literal present at the town center of Saranac Lake. I’m thinking: if Lake Placid can be a vacation destination and an unvacated workplace and home, a place for life ordinary and extraordinary, a place where nature is tamed and yet runs free, then the world I enter when I write—maybe, possibly—can be such a place for me.
I don’t know if I’ve figured anything out here, anything major. And I don’t know if I’ve shown off any morsel of quality or promise. But life, in any case, will keep coursing through Lake Placid, New York, and my many restless voices will keep working their way to paper.
Alec Joyner’s voices are still restless and his throat is currently sore. He hopes that somewhere in the High Peaks, the man with the skis is skiing. Send Alec an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.