One Long Breath
Once I did a small lit festival, maybe four or five years ago, back when we were rich in literary festivals, and on the panel was a man who had written a book, his first, and he was very excited to be there, and very dramatic about it, and he did not really know what the fuck he was talking about but we (three women) all let him speak, everyone let everyone speak, because that is what you do on these panels. In an ideal world you have a moderator who politely cuts a person off, but often that is not the case (no offense, moderators, I have been one myself and it is not an easy job), and so sometimes (although not all the time) you just sit and let this person (usually a man) talk.
This is a familiar story to many, of course.
After the panel a friend of mine who was in the audience said to me, “He would not let you have the last word.” I hadn’t even noticed he was doing it, targeting me specifically, because he was so repetitive about his subject matter when he was talking, I had quickly zoned out on most of what he was actually saying after his first few answers. It didn’t matter to me. It was just a panel. It wasn’t my job to worry about it unless he was saying something terrible or offensive or completely wrong that needed to be corrected in some way lest the audience take home bad information or feel violated in some way. It’s not my job to pay attention to someone who is simply full of self-promotional shit.
Early in my career, I used to be outraged when people hijacked a panel because every public appearance felt so urgent and new. But as I got older, wrote more books, and did many more festivals, I realized this kind of bad behavior didn’t matter as much to me personally. Which is what I said to my friend at the time, who was a little annoyed by this man. “It doesn’t matter that he did that because I will always have the last word…because I will always write another book.”
Listening to this man on that panel at the time I was not convinced he was destined to a prolific existence. If this were his shining moment, let him have it. I could no longer be concerned about these trivialities because I had other work to do. I would speak for five minutes or ten minutes or whatever was allowed to me, and then I would sign a few books and meet some nice people, maybe have a glass of wine with a peer, return to my hotel room and eventually my home and then I would continue on with the work of my life.
To me, the last word is the last sentence of a book or an essay or a poem, and also whatever we say right before we die. The one thing I know is that we are all dying every second of our life, inching our way toward the end, hopefully, but dying nonetheless, so we better use our time well while we’re here, because this is it, this is the only time we’ve got.
Argue with the man on the panel or do not argue with the man on the panel. (Or on twitter, or via email, or text, or zoom, or wherever you are arguing these days.) There is no wrong move here. Just do not let it get in the way of the real project at hand, which is your work, your body of work, and all the things you plan to do with your life.
I was in New York last week, and I stayed in the city, instead of Brooklyn, where I usually stay, because I have some good friends there. But I wanted to wake up and roll out of bed and be able to wander around the streets of Manhattan and see what it was like there now and look at all the beautiful objects in the stores and have coffee at Caffe Reggio and walk to a museum in the sunshine, all of which I did.
A true and memorable highlight: I saw the Faith Ringgold show at the New Museum, which represented more than fifty years of her work, a real, physically impressive body of work: three floors of paintings and sculptures and quilts and fliers and radical writings. Her work was so outward-facing, full of messages, full of desire to be heard. Her work absolutely commanded you to listen to her. It was so textured and thorough and alive and inspiring, and I highly recommend it if you are in New York or if you have a way to get there from somewhere else in the country/world and can take the time to get there.
I read about how hard she fought to get a seat at the table, to be taken seriously as a Black woman in the American art world, and I feel certain she would have claimed her time on any panel she was on. But that body of work did not come out of nowhere. She must have known what was worth her time to worry about and what was merely a distraction, I thought. Three floors of Faith. All that work, the vision, the crafting, the claiming and reclaiming of narratives, the gazing at both the past and the future, this fully encompassing sensibility even as her work was so focused on the personal. Phew! It was real good.
I left wondering when she could finally pause and say, “Now I’m getting somewhere.” Was it two floors worth of work? Was it one? Was it finishing one quilt? Was it at the end of any day she knew she tried her hardest?
When do any of us get to feel like we’ve made some progress? When do we get to pause and take a breath and look around and see that we’ve gotten somewhere new, that we’ve built something real with our lives? I have worried often that it’s never but now I think: three floors.
Another thing I did while I was in New York was attend the Poets & Writers gala. Sally Kim, who edited my first book, Instant Love, and probably a lot of your favorite contemporary novels, was being honored as Editor of the Year, and that was my reason for flying in to the city in the first place. She was the first person to believe in me nearly twenty years ago, she was a kind and generous editor, she has triumphed in a difficult industry, and she has published incredible writers. I wanted to applaud her alongside everyone else. She gave a great speech and got a standing ovation and everyone was so happy for her, and I thought, look at all she has done, give her all the honors. And she’s only getting started.
In the gift bag they handed us on the way out there were several books, including the collected poems of Sonia Sanchez, forty year’s worth of work, and I opened it this morning and read the following:
life is one
out of tune.
But let’s never stop trying to tune it.
I am doing a panel tomorrow on Overcoming Rejection for Writers which you can sign up for here. It is hosted by Electric Literature and features Tommy Pico (!!!) and Deesha Philyaw (!!!) and is hosted by Denne Michele Norris (!!!). Are you kidding me. It will be great.
You are reading Craft Talk, the home of #1000wordsofsummer and also a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). This week’s donation once again went to Krewe of Red Beans.