I'm still wrapping my head around it all. And I hope to do that in part by writing about it here. But first, I need to get down in words a different story that has run alongside the writing I've been doing for many years.
When I was an intern at a magazine in D.C., the summer before I started my last year of college, a fairly prominent photographer, but not one I'd ever heard of, gave a talk during lunch. He was about sixty at the time, married without children. He spoke about his work, which took him around the world, but more importantly, he spoke about how he came to it from a childhood in rural Ohio and described the family he grew up with there. While he didn't say this explicitly, I saw how their stories were entwined with his and, as a result, were knitted into the photos and writing he crafted long after he'd moved away, like fiber wicking ink.
Under his words whispered a stranger language that my ear didn't understand but some other part of me did. I wouldn't have called it a soul at the time, but I will now. It sat up and took notice, recognizing, though we'd never spoken directly, writing-kin. I was only beginning to learn, in crafting narrative essays, what he seemed to be demonstrating in his photos: the act of examining one's life by looking at and documenting, counterintuitively, the lives of others we encounter. And I wanted to say, yes -- yes! This is what my work is for me too, and thank him for revealing this to me, even as more questions about that impulse threatened to overtake the thought before it was fully formed.
He invited the interns in attendance to contact him at any time after his talk if we had questions or were interested in chatting more, so I sent him a note toward the end of the summer. Coffee, I suggested. Dinner, he replied, his treat. And so, at a tiny Japanese restaurant, with a chef who would introduce me to my first taste of sushi, we talked in the way an intern and a mentor might about writing and life -- or were they, in some breaths, the same? -- until the lights were bright on the sidewalk and the heat of the city had gone.
We didn't speak again for years. I graduated, began teaching, got engaged, took a different job that leached what soul I did know I had from me, planned a wedding, and neglected my writing throughout it all. Then came grad school and commuting, not a year after D and I were married. I had no reason to go to D.C., and certainly nothing I felt compelled to share with this man who had encouraged me in his own way to pursue what mattered to me. The challenge of the commute overshadowed my work at Little U., and it made me doubt my drive to write. I stared at white space without excitement or joy or even curiosity about what might appear.
But I remembered what the photographer had said in his talk, so many years ago, about his own challenges before a near-empty page. "Never stop in a tidy place," he said. "Leave a sentence unfinished, an idea only halfway developed, a paragraph mid-stride, as it were. That way, when you come back, you will be able to pick up and re-engage."
So as I did begin to put one word in front of another in this last year, I followed his advice. And the work that has emerged is in some ways the result.
Once I knew I'd be going to D.C. for my conference, I wanted to find the photographer to return, at the very least, the kindness of the meal he'd treated me to. I found his name in a posting for a photography class several months old, but fresh enough that the media contact might still know how to reach him. I wrote to her, telling her in brief this story.
Two days later, the photographer wrote me back. "I remember you well and have often wondered where you were and what [you] have been doing," he said. He'd moved away from D.C. but still visited the city from time to time to meet with his editor. "So please tell me when you will be there. Perhaps your visit will coincide with one of my trips. I hope so."
On Monday, we met for lunch. I was early and tried in vain not to be nervous; he was late and put me completely at ease. From the moment we saw each other, it was as if we were simply picking up the conversation we'd suspended. And so we talked about writing and life, just as before, but this time as friends.
I remembered then what it was to love what I do but even more so how much a connection to other writers is essential to me in sustaining such a solitary art. So I am glad for this dialogue we've restarted, one that promises to continue for a long time. As it turns out, the photographer visits Seattle once a year, so we have an informal standing get-together for the foreseeable future.
As for that strange language I first heard during his talk, I was surrounded by it all week, even in the moments when I was overwhelmed by all there was to take in. So I think it's safe to say I was doing what I needed to for a long-forgotten part of me, and I won't question that further. Or at least, not as much -- as long as this language is mine to hear.