Wednesday, March 1, 2017
In the course of one week, I've been miraculously uplifted by two writers of annealing generosity and talent. There was Dana Spiotta at Bryn Mawr College last week. There was Paul Lisicky at my own University of Pennsylvania yesterday.
Glimmer. Gleam. Resurgence.
Paul came to speak with our students about his gorgeous memoir The Narrow Door. For more than two hours in the afternoon he stood at that lectern at the Kelly Writers House cafe and answered questions from those (Julia Bloch's students, my students) who had carefully read and wholly embraced his work. He spoke of emotional time, which trumps, in literature, chronology. He suggested the power of staring directly at that thing that you must see...and then turning away, to breathe. He spoke of writing until patterns reveal themselves, about inquiry nudging plot, about learning to work with uncertainty—about learning, indeed, that uncertainty does not necessarily diminish a coherent world view. He spoke of scenes bound together by images, of the responsibility not to replicate memories but to be active with them, to unspool the question; What does that memory have to teach me? Asked about the management and selection of detail, Paul spoke of reverberations, of the need for any chosen detail to deliver far more than the facts.
The Narrow Door, Paul said, is his archive of ongoingness. Writing the book forced him to be attentive at a time of dissolution and personal loss. It was, Paul said, a bit like falling in love again. "It kept me awake and alive at a time when I felt logy."
"You can't expose other people without opening up about yourself," Paul said. "You need self-implication, confrontation, inquiry. You need to ask questions about your own complicity in the story, in the scenes." Readers, Paul reminded us, can only participate in a story if there is no distance, if one has written toward the emotional heat of an experience.
Later, as a warm rain fell on a darkening campus, Paul returned to that lectern and read from The Narrow Door, and there it was again: his inarguable talent, his way of seeing, his ushering of us into his spell. Raw and real. That's what it was. That's where beauty and humanity live.
Greatness is community, it is a web. Julia Bloch, who directs our Creative Writing program at Penn so immaculately, said yes at once when I asked if Paul might come to visit us at Penn. Our students invested in his story. Our Penn people (and a dear friend of mine) made the evening come alive by what? By being there. The Kelly Writers House was, as it always is, a gracious host.
My students will soon be off for their spring break. They are driving across the country, singing in Florida, spending a few days in LA, going and being and doing—and thinking about, perhaps even writing some lines of, their own memoirs. Be safe, I say. Pay attention. Expectations and subversions. The world is open to you.
Paul's public reading was recorded. That link is live.