The Art of Disappearing
It’s the rare writer or artist who’s not trying to figure out how to disappear. Even the ones who seem to spend a lot of time in the public sphere, reading from their work, or speaking , or doing the hustle: they still know that their best work depends on disappearing.
In a conversation with writer Sejal Shah recently I was reminded of a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, “The Art of Disappearing,” in which the speaker enumerates the things one must remember when invited to appear in public—for a party for example, where there will be “greasy sausage balls on a paper plate”—so that you won’t forget what it’s really like, and what you’re really trying to do with yourself and your time.
This question proves especially worth contemplating during critical stages of larger writing projects like the one I’m gestating this week at the Millay Colony for the Arts in Austerlitz, New York. Here’s my favorite passage from Shihab Nye’s poem:
If they say We should get together
It’s not that you don’t love them anymore.
You’re trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.
(See the whole poem here.)
I’m glad to read this poem again. I received the book in which it appears after spending a summer interning as an editorial assistant at the feminist publisher, Eighth Mountain Press, in Portland, Oregon during college. I think I was 22 and this experience afforded me the opportunity to learn more about literary publishing, to foray into the role of editor, and to read a lot of work by authors like Alice Walker, long before it became public, and while it was still taking shape. Manuscripts need editors! Even the pros need help along the way. I tell this to the writers I mentor in my manuscript incubator, A Body of Work, because it’s reassuring to know that no one completes a book alone. There’s usually a team of professionals involved along the way, helping to bring it into the world in the best possible form.
The landscape out my window here at Millay includes the striking Taconic Hills where Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) lived with her husband during her later years, writing, gardening, swimming in her below-ground pool, and entertaining lovers. Walking around the grounds and peeking in the windows of her small, rustic writing cabin revives my appreciation for her work, her rebellious spirit, and hardy perseverance at a time when few women had come to prominence in the field. She eventually won a Pulitzer—the third woman ever—and so she lives on, in the work that artists and writers do at the colony each year.
Here’s a favorite poem, “Assault,” which I learned by heart one fall while hiking the trails around Good Harbor, on the Leelanau Peninsula of Michigan, when I still lived near there:
I had forgotten how the frogs must sound
After a year of silence, else I think
I should not so have ventured forth alone
At dusk upon this unfrequented road.
I am waylaid by Beauty. Who will walk
Between me and the crying of the frogs?
Oh, savage Beauty, suffer me to pass,
That am a timid woman, on her way
From one house to another!
Apart from this post, and a late, quick check of my inbox last night, I’m trying to stay offline this week in order to focus on something that requires sustained attention and more than my usual amount of silence. I’m trying to disappear.
But . . .
This Saturday, I’ll offer a half-day workshop at IS 183: Art School of the Berkshires, called “Evocative Nature: Creative Writing in Connection to Wilderness.” This is a generative writing opportunity for anyone who yearns to connect their appreciation of wild(er)ness with a concrete writing practice. We’ll read Hirshfield, Oliver, Basho, Hass and Niedecker, and explore a range of ways to begin writing with nature as our inspiration. You’ll leave with at least four starts for new poems or lyric essays. Full details and registrations details, on the IS183 site.