When the best must be said

Thursday May 3, 2012

Last summer, Ninke Dorhout opened a book of Japanese poetry to show me a haiku written in the back, in pencil. The handwriting is Edith Wharton's. We were standing in Wharton's libary, where she must have read these poems and flipped to a blank page to write a few words.

She wrote:

Friendship: The silence

of midnight, a dying fire

and the best unsaid.

Susan Wissler and Ninke and I were talking about what the poem meant, and how it would feel to sit in this arm chair on a cool evening with your feet to the fire, writing a letter to Henry James about Walt Whitman.

And I thought, I can't believe I get paid to do this.

I'm the editor of Berkshires Week, so I put together an arts community section every week in the Berkshire Eagle.

That means I can write about anything I want to, and people will read it. Sometimes after they read it, they'll even get out of their armchairs at the end of a long day and go see something I wrote about -- so I know what I'm writing makes a difference.

That's an exciting feeling, and journaism is the only kind of writing I do that gives this feeling this clearly. We all write all the time -- emails and texts and tweets and posts and facebook updates -- but how often to we think that what we write will really make a difference to someone else?

When someone tells me they had a full house at their event, and they think a story that ran in Berkshires Week had to do with it, then I have to realize it. What I write, and how I write it, can get people out of their houses, and it can help places like the Mount. And the more people get together, and walk through Edith Wharton's gardens, the more likely they are to meet each other, to have ideas and to start new projects. So I have a resonsability too.

When I'm writing fiction or poetry, I want to be able to do the same thing. People do read novels or poems and go out and do new things because of them. People read novels Edith Wharton wrote 100 years ago, and they make choices because of them -- they make academy-awardwinning films. This year, 500 people came to the Mount on her birthday, because they care that much. And today's contest winners wrote stories and poems,. You thought about her, and what she thought about.

A good novel makes you feel alive when you read it, because the writer felt alive when she wrote it. When Wharton started writing novels, it changed her life. She wrote and translated poetry as a teenager, and she saved scraps of wrapping paper to write on when her parents wouldn't let her have paper -- but when she was a young woman, she held back from writing because it was something women "did not do."

She may have been afraid. Writing a novel is writing a whole world, and its huge. I remember the writing workshop where I first admitted that I was writing a novel. For a year it had been "this thing I'm writing that's longer than a short story." Then in my first graduate school class, my professor asked me what point of view I was writing from, and he gave me an essay by Richard Russo about omniscient third person. That means the writer can be anywhere at once; it's Edith Wharton's perspective in Age of Innocence. And suddenly I was trying to write the thoughts of five people, and the old mill house where they lived, and the farm garden full of ripe tomatoes across the river -- and my ideas about college kids and town government and falling in love. I'm supposed to tell you how I think the world works? I'm supposed to show a character acting like a selfish idiot that he's going to hurt people -- and get him to show some guts? I'm supposed to write about what hurts? I'm in charge of the whole thing? When I finally said yeah, I am, it gave me a sense of power and scared me breathless. You have to open yourself to write a book.

When Edith Wharton started writing novels, she made friends. She had long talks on the terrace. She began to think and feel and explore more freely. I can see her saying what Espy Thompson said, in one of her winning poems: "I want to breathe ... I want to stretch ... I want to see ... I want to smile ..."

Edith Wharton didn't only sit in bed writing novels. She wasn't shy. She was out walking through the markets in Tunis. She crossed the desert in Morocco, and she talked her way to within a mile of the front lines in France in the first world war. The goverment kept reporters away, but she got in to the towns that had been shelled and torn up, and I'm told everyone thinks she got closer to the fighting than that.

She went looking for stories. She had an incredible eye for detail, and she understood people. She also had guts. I think there's a lot of overlap between being a novelist and being a journalist, and I think she was both.

Because you know the best part about being a journalist?

I can call anyone and ask if they'll talk to me, and they almost always will.

It still surprises me.

When the Mount had its first Wordfest, the novelist Frank Delaney was coming to lead a panel. I went to the library looking for his books and checked out one of his internationally best-selling novels. It's called "Shannon;" it's about a soldier who comes back from the first world war with shell shock, and I still remember the people he talked to, and the smell and feel of a brick of peat he held in his hands. Then I looked up Frank Delaney online -- and found out he has covered northern Ireland for the BBC -- and he has interviewed more than 3,500 writers for them.

And I thought, I can't believe he's going to talk with me.

But people are often very generous, if you ask them to talk about something they care about, especially if you care about it too.

And I'm glad, because I think this is what newspapers are still here for. Blogs and Facebook and Twitter all do good work, and Berkshires Week has them too, but with all the volumes of information on the internet now, why should people read my magazine? We have standards for accuracy; that's one reason. We check our facts, and we tell you exactly where we got them. But I think we stay valuable as long as we have information no one else has, and we get it because we ask questions.

People read Berkshires Week because we talk to people.

This seems very clear to me. Isn't this what journalists are supposed to do -- walk around with notebooks and pencils and microphones? But more and more often, people seem surprised when I say it. And this scares me.

I know the internet has an incredible reach. When the Kenyan writer Sailja Patel comes to speak at Williams College, I can read her website, I can watch a Youtube film of her reading her poetry, I can find some of her articles on political economy, and I can get reviews of all three. On the one hand, I can learn about a brilliant poet I would never have known how to reach even five years ago. And I can find Kenyan bloggers who can tell me what people in Nairobi think of her poetry.

On the other hand, I can write a story about Shailja Patel in good English, in detail, without ever talking to her -- and this worries me. It worries me because the story could be all wrong. I can't fact-check it. If I talk with her, then she is my source. She gives my story authority: I can tell the people reading it that this is true because she said so. I've learned the hard way just how awful it feels to publish a story and then have someone provide me with plain, hard facts I hadn't found that prove me wrong.

It also worries me because the story could be slanted. I could have misunderstood something or taken something out of context, or I could have gotten my information from a source with a bias I didn't see. A friend of mine once wrote an open letter to Afro Pop, a radio program he usually admires, after they ran a show about an African country he knows well. He knows the place, and so he knew parts of the story the reporter didn't know, or wasn't telling.

When I'm talking with people, I find out my own mistakes. It happens all the time: I'll read through a website or a bio and come away thinking I understand something about the person I'm going to interview, and I'll leave the interview feeling and thinking differently.

Can you talk to people online? Yes, but not in the same way. I've given an interview by email -- to the director of the Oxford Botanical Garden, because I couldn't make an international phone call from the Eagle. But we couldn't respond to each other. I couldn't hear his voice. A good interview in person takes an hour. A good interview by phone usually takes 15 to 20 minutes. A good interview by email gives you one-sentence answers to half a dozen questions. And often you can't respond to the answers. If you had the guy in the room, you could clarify something, you could argue, you could hear in his voice whether he had more to say -- whether he loved that question or thought it missed the point. You can give each other energy.

And if you're talking with someone, she may relax, because you're the one doing the writing. If someone has to email me answers, then I'm making her work. If I'm asking questions, she can be more spontaneous. She can feel for an answer. You can get to places you'll never reach with a screen between you. You have to get people to relax before they will open up and tell you about themselves.

Talking to people is a skill. Once I was walking around Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with a friend, and he noticed that the clapboards of the old colonial houses get closer together near the ground, so that the walls look as though they're folding in on themselves. He asked a man walking by why that is. The man turned out to be a carpenter restoring his Colonial house, and he took us on a tour all through it. He showed us the newel posts he had carved by hand, and he told us about the tools and the kinds of wood he used. That kind of interaction is a skill -- and a it's key to journalism. Whether it happens face to face or on Twitter, the ability to ask the first question, to make the connection, is a powerful tool.

Guiding a conversation is also a skill. Helping the person you're talking to, who has knowledge you don't but may never have put into words what he knows, is a skill. You need it to understand the practical side of the story -- why do those clapboards look as though they're sliding into each other? It's actually to stand up to the weight of heavy snow. Why are they made of blue spruce? Because it won't rot easily if it gets wet in a drippy New England spring.

You also need this skill to get from the practical story to the human story. Why are you rebuilding this house? Why are you using the same kinds of wood and the same tools the original builder used? Why are preserving old buildings, learning historic techniques and working at a pace that allows this kind of craftsmanship important to you? And -- maybe this is the hardest kind of question to ask -- what does it mean, that you have the kind of time this work takes? What role does this work play in your life: is it a comfort, a fascination, a way of building friendships, a solace for loneliness?

You're thinking, but I write fiction. I write poetry. We don't have to do that.

Talking to people is important for fiction and poetry too, and you can see why. You learn what people are thinking and feeling. You learn concrete details that will make your story feel real. Say I want to write a scene in a novel about teaching a first-grade class, or leaving the navy, or developing film in a darkroom, or buying lemon mint sorbet at a Farmers Market in San Fransisco. I haven't done these things myself. I've never been in a darkroom with the light off, so I don't know how it feels to fumble around in the dark with a slippery exposed film, trying to get it into the right tub by feel. I'll need to ask someone about it.

You can learn about what people do -- and you learn how they face pain, and how they heal.

An editor at the Womens' Times once assigned me to write about an emergency room nurse in Pittsield who is a political refugee from El Salvador. I handed in the story, and then Rachel read it and told me to write it all over again. I've been thankful for that story and that lesson for years. It took some stubbornness for me, at 23, to sit on the couch with a woman who still wore the scars of the handcuffs from her political prison, and I'm still amazed that she would talk with me. It didn't take talent on my part. She knew how to tell the whole story, and she had decided to tell it. All I had to do was to sit there and listen. And be open.

Now I almost always get to write about people who are making things. Arts feature stories are less controversial most of the time, but they're just as human. When I interview people for the newspaper, I want to find out three things: what they're doing, why they're doing it, and why they love it.

When an interview goes right, it's a natural high. And that's what I want to tell you about. When I listen to farmers and Chinese dancers and activist film-makers, I can get from a good interview the same kind of joy I can get playing music at a cider festival, or sitting under maple trees watching fire spinners before a hurricane. I want to teach all the writers who write for me how to find it.

Maybe they'll talk with Shakespeare actors backstage, who know how to talk and can keep a conversation going endlessly. The writer still has to listen. Feel the emotion in the play. Think about what the actors are making. If you get Tybalt and Mercutio to remember the blood in a playground fight and the kids standing around, cheering it on ... then you've got a story.

Writing fiction has taught me that all stories have plots, and it's as true for magazine stories as for novels. Journalism has taught me that I can be interested in any story if I find the human who's making something or fighting something at the center of it. They've both taught me that I'm not doing my job if I'm not writing about the hard stuff.

So I think when you're writing a story or a poem, the best has to be said.

When we read Edith Wharton's haiku in the library, Ninke and I wondered why the best was left unsaid. Was it because there were things she did not say even to her closest friends?

Was she giving what Espy Thompson calls "a painted picture of inadequate order?" That's a wonderfully Whartonian phrase.

And I can imagine her feeling what Teddy Nappo's main character says, in his winning story: "Nobody laughs at my jokes and touches my hand when they laugh."

I think Wharton would have felt the power of that small gesture.

Maybe she wanted the best unsaid was because, like Nappo's two main characters, Wharton and her closest friends understood each other -- they didn't need to talk. They could sit and be silent together.

Or was it because the best was something she felt, and it didn't come in words?

Maybe it's all these things. But one thing's true for all of them. In order to be the kinds of friends who can sit quietly together -- in order to sit by the fire and feel that open -- you have to have already done a lot of talking.

Wharton knows what people lose when they don't.

Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska learn it in Age of Innocence. When he tells her he loves her, he is engaged, and she is married. He has just come from his fiancee -- he tells Ellen, "We had a frank talk -- almost the first."

It's true for Newland and Ellen too. They are more open with each other in this time and place, and more alive, than they are with anyone else. But they have to choose between each other and their families. It would take faith, for them to give up everything familiar to them and build a new life around each other, and they don't know each other well enough to try.

Imagine what could have happened, if they had.

You have to write the hard stuff. And to get to the hard stuff, you have to listen.


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