I’m back on this blog. Been way too nervous to show any of my writing from the past year.
In June, I returned to my job in New York City, at a non-profit that works with the adolescent inmates on Rikers Island. The job has little to do with my academic interests, which scares me because my academic interests seemed to encompass my whole life at Bard. Bard College, for all its intensity and isolation, was sort of like a sanatorium or tuberculosis ward. It was quiet, detached, and surprisingly old-fashioned, situated on a picturesque hill that had fresh thin breezes that I imagined were maybe salubrious, I don’t know (I’m writing this in the midst of a Henry James kick– but I did like to imagine I was in a tuberculosis ward). While I was there, working too hard and arguing too excitedly and arrogantly about texts with no modern import, I often felt a bit like someone suffering from a debilitating illness. All my classes were like that line from Pnin, “a college seminar is twenty blockheads and two cocky neurotics talking over each other.” I did, and do, fancy that I’m one of those cocky neurotics.
Much of my writing in this blog will have to do with my employer, Friends of Island Academy. Here is an article by Adam Gopnik for the New Yorker on what the organization looked like in the late 90’s/early aughts, and what we all wish it still looked like now. Since the year that article was written we lost almost all our funding. There’s a lot of inefficiency and frustration. Either way, I try to help wherever I can, and desperately try not to look too much like I’m just working there so that I can write about it later. I am in fact not there to write about it: my fiction tends to follow my own class or even, I think, the very wealthy (I have been married to Henry James for half a year now, which may explain some of this).
One major reason this job works perfectly for me is that, after college, as someone with lofty and very silly literary ambitions (I will definitely devote a post or two to the insanity of claiming I want to write fiction, at the age of 22, with no stories anywhere close to ready for submission to any publication), I really just need a place that can occupy some of my time without demanding every single moment.
[Optional paragraph / digression:
My focus in college had been—well, academic, literary, but never specific enough to make the word “focus” really accurate. I was a Classics major, and wrote a project on Plutarch that failed miserably. Really, though, I never studied with enough specificity to call myself something less vague than a Lit major. I can’t even say I was an English major. I scattered my electives around creative writing, art history, medieval ancient and contemporary literature of all languages, and Russian language classes. I worked hard, but only excelled at writing papers when I had been thinking about something long before reading whatever text we were studying, and could somehow mold and bend that separate idea into a faux- textual interpretation.]
The job at Friends started three years ago, the summer after my sophomore year, when I was mostly occupied with drinking too much and binge-watching sitcoms. My mom offered me an unpaid internship editing a magazine compiled of court-involved adolescents’ poetry and prose. (Both my parents were deeply involved in the criminal justice system, but they never spoke about it and I never learned much about what they did till this past year). I spent two months hovering over Microsoft Publisher at Friends of Island Academy’s old office in midtown, and endlessly re-reading a folder full of tragic and illiterate stories.
One of the essays I read is indelible in my mind: written in blue ink on widely-spaced notepaper, with a thick hand and over-sized letters. I typed it up and emailed it to myself. I’ll close out this first blog post with that paragraph. In the midst of all the books I loved in college, this one piece stands out still. I know it almost by heart:
My homie frost die coming off the bus from a game with the homies and
everybody want different ways the they shot were fired at him and he
had dead young that was rite hand man’s about anything. My homie goon
got shot by some bloods on the ave on eglinton I was in Brooklyn when
it had happed, my sons called me and told me that I was crying and I
was like damn when I left the hood when they told me that. My homie
dips dead in girl that was in Love with him I was there for that.
That had made me think about Life.
I must have read these sentences a hundred times before the end of that summer. At the end of the internship, we printed the magazine (the above piece was not included), and I left before any of the copies came out. The only reference I saw to the magazine came two years later in a grant application, which referred to it as “an initiative by a social work intern who saw the penchant among our students for freestyle rap, and channeled their energies toward creative fiction and poetry.” This entire process was a lesson in my own inadequacy: a whole summer’s unpaid work produced, for the company, the platform for an exaggeration meant to get $20,000 from a foundation. We missed the deadline for submission.