I may drool over a great dress as much as the next woman, but I’m no fashion maven. Last night, on the recommendation of a couple of friends, I watched “The September Issue” and found myself moved by this world I know nothing about, and especially by the stunning photo shoots hatched by Vogue’s creative director Grace Coddington. If I wasn’t already cozy in bed, I would have rushed to the newsstand to buy the latest issue to catch up on what I’ve been missing for the last twenty years.

Ms. Coddington is a creative genius who, at one point in the film, is driving through Paris in preparation for a shoot. With the streets of Paris streaming past her window, she says how in her early days photographer Norman Parkinson told her, Always keep your eyes open, never go to sleep in the car, keep watching, because whatever you see  out the window or wherever, it can inspire you.


To be a writer is to contend with rejection. If you’re brave enough to stick your neck out, that is. That’s why I love this story: The day after novelist Laila Lalami posted the rejection letter she received from the MacDowell Colony, adding that it seemed she was receiving many rejections of late, it was announced that her book Secret Son had been longlisted for the Orange Prize.

In The Resilient Writer, a collection of interviews with 23 writers talking about the experience of rejection—and moving beyond it—the late novelist Frederick Busch is asked, “Besides rejection, what are some of your biggest challenges as a writer?” He says, “Demanding of myself that I show up for work every day and write the best I can; not giving in to sorrow or eagerness or haste or fear, not being afraid of the subject matter or the linguistic effort or the structure I’m trying to arrive at; and writing the book I want to write—not the book I think a book club or a movie director will want.”

It’s good to know I’m not alone.

It all started with Agnes Varda, who was the first and only female French New Wave director, and who, at the age of 80, wrote and directed The Beaches of Agnes—a whimsical portrait of a life lived on the highwire of creativity. Nothing stopped this woman from making movies and taking on the joy of being human—not raising children, not the whims of critics, not the slow dying of her husband, not the decrepitude of the aging human body. “At one screening [of The Beaches of Agnes],” Varda said, “there was a young man, maybe 22 years old, who said about the film, ‘It gives you the desire to grow old.’” That’s exactly how I felt.

Cinema Guild/The New York Times

Since then, I’ve heard and read about other women in their 80s and 90s who continue to make art, some of whom have only recently achieved recognition. There’s 94-year-old Carmen Herrera, who—though she’s been painting all her life—had her first sale five years ago, at 89—and is now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Modern, among others. Though she’s stuck in a wheelchair, she still has her daily cocktail, and continues to draw or paint.

And there’s 81-year-old MacArthur grant winner Ida Applebroog, who, when she was almost 40 and unknown, escaped the demands of her four children and her own lack of confidence by shutting herself in the bathroom. There, she began sketching her naked body—including her vulva. She never intended to show these sketches, even thought they were lost. Then last year, she found them, scanned them into a computer, and transformed them into translucent panels of a makeshift house. They’re being shown at the new Upper East Side outpost of the gallery Hauser & Wirth.

The merest thought of these women and I am giddy. They make the unfathomable fathomable. My stomach lurches, knowing what’s possible.

Have a down-and-dirty talk with most writers—even very successful ones—and it’s likely they’ll confess to hating writing. “I hate writing; I love having written,” said Dorothy Parker. “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people,” said Thomas Mann. A writing professor of mine used to so detest having to sit still in a chair to write that she told herself she wasn’t allowed to shower until she put in her time.

Sitting to write is like sitting for meditation. It takes practice. There are times I’m in the zone, and writing is the most pleasurable experience in the world. Other times, it’s like water drops on my forehead, one after the other, day after day after day. Moaning, I go from my bed to a desk to a café back to my bed, unable to find a space that allows for something inspired. Or I take the lazy-man’s route and get an easy fix of the Internet. At that point, all is screwed.

I have spent many years living in the company of thoughts that insist writing is hard, I can’t do this, it’ll never be any good. And yet, despite these protests, I keep returning to the page, some strange thread of determination pulling me along like a kid with a red wagon. And lately I’ve been creating the habit of ignoring the messy, unhelpful thoughts. I’ve been reminding myself that writing a novel is like training for a marathon. And that it takes showing up, no matter what. And I’ve been reminding myself that in order to get what we want, we first have to be the person we want to be.

Like I am a novelist, and this is what novelists do: Write novels. That’s how we get there.

Being the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors has meant that, despite my best intentions, those years loom over my writing. The stories I grew up with inform who I am, and how I see the world. Never forget was an injunction my grandparents took very seriously.

So I get inappropriately excited when other writers and artists take on this subject matter and shoot new light through it.

You can imagine my private thrill this morning as I read about French painter Linda Ellia in The New Yorker’s book blog. Hugely disturbed when her daughter turned up with a found copy of Mein Kampf, Ellia struggled for three months to find an appropriate, just response to this book. She eventually decided to leave her mark directly on the pages themselves, with poems, paintings, wire, a gold tooth. Then she encouraged her daughter to create her own response directly on a page. (Note: This act inspired her daughter, who had never before created art, to become an artist.) Next, Ellia reached out to her sons, other people, including Holocaust survivor Simone Veil, and then strangers she encountered in cafes and on the streets, inviting them to add themselves to the conversation. The result looks remarkable. I hope they publish it here.

(Artist: Philippe Marchand;  Photograph courtesy of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 2007.)

Ellia’s favorite page? The last, which features a picture of an angel, with the word aile (French for wing) written vertically. For her, it represents resilience and the opposite of passivity. Only afterward Ellia realized that aile is her last name spelled backwards.

See the artist talk about her process and the work itself here, and check out more images here.

When I was twenty-one, I moved to Manhattan, not knowing a soul, not knowing what had drawn me here—apart from the fact that it was the hub for book publishing and the place to be a writer. I came from a small town where people warned me not to go above 90th street or take the subway after seven at night. I promptly did both and fell instantly in love.

Back then, I was writing poetry. I applied to a workshop with Cynthia Zarin at the 92nd Street Y, and was elated when my work was accepted—and that I would be the youngest student in there. Until the first workshop, where my first submission was eviscerated by the instructor. I never went back (which I’ve always regretted), though I’ve taken many workshops since. First rule of being a writer: Be willing and able to accept rejection. Or else, as one of my instructors at the City College graduate writing program said years later, “Go be an accountant.”

During that first year in New York, when I wasn’t writing or avoiding writing, I swerved through the streets in a daze, dumbstruck by the people, the skyscrapers, the bookstores on almost every corner. My favorite phrase was Have I mentioned how much I love New York City?

Leave it to a Belarusian poet to capture the city’s pulse, the city one sees from the sidewalks looking up.

New York
by Valzhyna Mort

 new york, madame,

                                    is a monument to a city

it is
a gigantic pike
whose scales
bristled up stunned

and what used to be just smoke
found a fire that gave it birth

champagne foam
melted into metal
glass rivers
flowing upwards
and things you won’t tell to a priest
you reveal to a cabdriver

even time is sold out
when to the public’s “wow” and “shhh”
out of a black top hat
a tailed magician
is pulling new york
out of the ears of skyscrapers

And check out this short video Poets & Writers did on Valzhyna Mort. You’ll get to see pierogies being made.

*I didn’t know poets had agents too. Except now they’re apparently billed as literary speakers.

That’s where I’ve been living for the last decade or so. Wanting to finish a book, but not doing it. Sometimes writing pages and pages and pages, then long stretches of writing nothing at all. Not exactly getting where I’m trying to go. But I’ve recently learned that trying is the stupidest word in the English language. There is no trying. You either do it—or you don’t. So now I’m doing it. Putting myself out there. Long before I feel ready to be out there.

Today I read this old Paris Review interview with the newly deceased writer Barry Hannah, and was reminded that at the gawky age of thirteen I played flute in the school marching band. On one unseasonably hot afternoon, I marched up and down an empty street in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in a poor-fitting powder blue polyester suit, commemorating some veteran-type holiday. Unlike Barry Hannah, I wasn’t any good at my instrument of choice. And I certainly didn’t enjoy it.

Welcome to the first day of my own personal marching band. I’m determined to be first chair—because this time, it’s my own private orchestra, my one and only life. And I’m going to practice practice practice. And I’m going to play my heart out.

That means I’m renouncing my citizenship to Procrastination Nation. For good.

The name of this blog, by the way, comes from a fantastic poem by Gerald Stern of the same name, which involves a ham sandwich, a hungry cat, an affair in Rome, and a memory of happiness.