Saturday, February 6, 2016


I was born in 1964. The Cold War was going strong. A new band called the Beatles had been invited to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show, and a kid named Bob Dylan released The Times They Are a-Changin'. Philip Larkin published The Whitsun Weddings, and Saul Bellow published Herzog. Rachel Carson and Flannery O'Connor died. Jean-Paul Sartre refused to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature. Barry Goldwater ran for president, Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston, Malcolm X was suspended from the Nation of Islam, and the Italian government announced that the Leaning Tower of Pisa was likely to topple. Richard Burton and Liz Taylor married for the first time.

I lay in my crib and watched the shadows on the ceiling.

* * *

I'm not sure why I've been moved to write the self-examinations that have appeared here over the course of the past week or so. I suspect the impulse may be related to my feelings about the various interviews I've undergone in recent months--situations in which I never quite feel as if I am answering the questions, never quite feel as if I know what is being asked. I wonder what a stranger might want to figure out about me, what I might want to figure out about myself, what questions exist that no one has asked.

Lately I've been rereading the early chapters of Hilary Spurling's biography of the novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett, and I've been thinking about the childhoods of artists. One constant characteristic seems to be an awareness of isolation, of difference, of not fitting into or understanding the workings of the social stream. Yet is this really an artistic commonality? I suspect that most people, artists or not, share a sense of difference, of loneliness, which they have have learned to conceal or nurture, or simply continue to stumble over, throughout the course of their lives. The legacy of individualism manipulates us all.

I grew up with loving but socially paranoid parents, who valued the trappings of intellect--books, music, art--though they had not grown up with those trappings themselves. I had one younger sister, very close in age, who quickly became taller and stronger and more athletic, and who also assumed, in many ways, the functions of the stereotypical elder sibling. She was practical, driven, organized, responsible. I, while bossy about certain things (for instance, I always controlled the games we invented), was messy, lazy, dreamy, and distracted. And yet I was the eldest child, the one who had to cross all of the exterior boundaries first. Always, I struggled with a conviction of error: I was badly dressed and physically awkward, I loved Dickens instead of Kiss, I didn't practice the violin enough, I was afraid to tell the truth.

Perhaps it's the details of a child's loneliness that predict her future. A childhood defined by books and loneliness may lead to art. A childhood defined by chaos and loneliness may lead to disaster. The operative word is may. Childhood is not, on the whole, a time for learning to do the work of art. Work is an adult skill, whereas a child is a sponge, a dabbler, a watcher. She is not aware of controlling much, if anything, in her life. She lives within the walls that others have built. She experiments with the materials around her--materials of class, of geography, of race, of temperament--but she doesn't yet choose her own materials. She doesn't know what she will need. She doesn't know what she must jettison.

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