Wednesday, July 20, 2011

From Paris to Oklahoma City

At The Red Earth MFA residency, I read from THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and taught a workshop on first person narration. The students seemed eager, enthusiastic, hopeful. I liked them a lot. I always love being around newish writers, who usually have a great contagious sense of possibility. I was reminded of my own MFA experience, when I was so green but hoping to 'become' a writer--or a 'real' writer--nervously participating in workshops, trying to chat up my advisors between classes, wondering if I would ever publish and when, feeling like everything was simultaneously inevitable and impossible, reveling in the mystery of it all.

At my night talk, I told the story of how I worked and sacrificed and struggled to become a published writer. Then I spoke about an experience Alicia and I had a few weeks earlier in Paris.

Strolling the Latin Quarter, Al saw a flyer advertising a candlelit piano concert to be held in a tiny old church: Eglise St-Ephrem. The pianist was going to play Schubert, Al's favorite. Needless to say we were going.

On the night of, we sat outside a cafe across the street from the church and watched a young well-dressed man pace the sidewalk. "That's the pianist," we both said. "How can we be sure?" Al asked raising her eyebrows. I said, "Because we pace like that before all our events too." We laughed.

Inside the church, we sat down on creaky chairs and read the program. The pianist was named Dimitri Papadopoulos. He had studied at the Premier Prix du Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique, which Al explained was a big deal.

As we waited for the concert to begin, Mr. Papadopoulos kept peeking out from behind a curtain, and I imagined he was looking to see how many people were there or whether someone he knew had shown up.

Each time I saw his head pop out, I could tell by the look in his eye that he cared about what was going to transpire.

When he came out to play, he didn't seem to notice the many empty seats. His face was transformed. He was composed, steady, professional. He sat down and played beautifully, making sounds most humans can only dream of producing. He was a gifted world-class musician. My pianist wife squeezed my hand and when I looked over at her she had tears in her eyes. We were in Paris! We were in an old church! We were listening to live piano music by candlelight! And Dimitri Papadopoulos was giving his all, making art, living fully in the moment. The small audience clapped enthusiastically at the end of the performance. A few shouted Bravo!

Afterward, outside, we saw the pianist greet a group of people--his friends, maybe fellow musicians, or family members.

He caught my eye. I thought I saw what others must see after my events. A great need for reassurance. I thought, How could this man who can play so well, possibly need reassurance from me? Am I imagining it?

I smiled at him and said, "Tres bien," because sadly that's all I could say in French. The smile he returned felt more like a wink. Which is when I remembered reading in the program that he was born in New Jersey, my home state, and most likely speaks the same brand of American English I do.

I was too embarrassed to say more. Al was too amazed to say anything. So we just kept walking without expressing the immense gratitude we felt, without conveying all of the swirling emotions that Mr. Papadopoulos's playing conjured within us.

But we talked about this pianist for days. How he was so accomplished and what a shame it was that only 22 people got to hear him play. How maybe he has the same artistic doubts as we do. Al and I recalled events in our careers when there were only small crowds--signings that failed to sell a single book, poorly attended readings, awkward conversations with people who told us what they didn't like about our work. Did the look we saw on Dimitri Papadopoulos's face mean that he understood such feelings even though he was so talented? We worried we were projecting our own fears and insecurities onto him; we hoped what we had seen of him off stage was real, human, and maybe even universal--that he was like us.

Over wine, sitting on our hotel room balcony that overlooked an old Parisian side street, I thought, This is the life of an artist: playing beautifully in a half-full church simply because you love to play. Doing your art no matter what, regardless of whether the world shrugs or not. Putting yourself through the pacing, the peeking out from behind curtains, and the standing alone on the stage, offering up your best to a world that is often indifferent, but connecting with others every so often in a way that makes people stop and reflect--a way that moves people and shakes them free of their everyday hum, even if they can only manage to say 'tres bien' in response.

Al says that Schubert was laughed at in his time because he used a new structure for the sonata. It was considered offensive by some. But he wrote his sonatas the way he wanted. The world waited until after his death to proclaim him a genius.

I went on to tell the MFAers that I thought I was working toward something great while earning my MFA degree, that I would fully arrive once I published, but the battle didn't change at all when I signed my first publishing contract. I still had to make art. I still had to get up in front of half-full auditoriums and prove I was serious about this writing business, whether the world appreciated that fact or not. The artist continues to make art no matter what herd is watching, no matter what good fortune comes or doesn't. We must believe there will be people out there who get that, if only a few, and then we need to find these people.

During my air-conditioned Oklahoma City talk, a thunderstorm had cleared out the 100+degree heat, so we went to a roof deck bar overlooking the city.

A few of the faculty members said nice things about my talk. It wasn't the compliments that I enjoyed so much as the feeling that they too had experienced similar moments in their careers--that I was drinking with people who understood.

One faculty member was rolling her own cigarettes. I said, "I only smoke in foreign countries since I quit long ago. That's the deal I have with my wife." Someone said, "Oklahoma City is definitely a foreign country. It doesn't get any more foreign." And with all the cowboy references and slow drawn-out accents, I really did feel like a foreigner there so I let her roll me one and it was divine.

The Red Earth MFA director drove me to my hotel later that night. En route, she suddenly proclaimed, "Wait! You must see The Memorial!" It took me a second to understand what she meant. But my thoughts sobered instantly when we arrived at The Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial a bit after midnight.

No one was there. So late at night in a strange city, the neighborhood looked questionable, but there wasn't a single gum wrapper on the ground nor an inch of graffiti. It felt like a holy place. Two huge rectangular towers loomed--one marked 9:01 and the other a football field away marked 9:03. There was a reflecting pool and a chair for each person killed--little chairs for the children who died in the attack. There were so many chairs. But the most haunting part was a chain-link fence nearby where people are still--some sixteen years later--attaching articles of clothing, pictures, letters, flowers.

I kept thinking, This is the writing life. Teaching. Smoking and drinking on a Tuesday night in Oklahoma City. Taking in a scene that will exist for a few short hours and then moving on. Going to the Memorial at midnight with a fellow writer who feels the world strongly. Being moved by a humane response to tragedy. Sensing how fragile everything is--how ephemeral. Writing about it. Documenting. Trying to make order from chaos. Doing it all for those whose routines prevent them from having such experiences--those who need to be reminded. Doing it for ourselves. Allowing art to matter and living life as though we really believe it does. Being conscious, aware, present, alive in the moment. And searching for people who are doing the same.

The time is now, I'm always reminding myself. The world is constantly reminding us too.

And so onward we go....


For your listening pleasure, here's the immensely talented Dimitri Papadopoulos playing Chopin Etude op. 10 No 1 (Check out his YouTube Channel too):


Alicia said...

After the concert, as Matt and I strolled around the Sorbonne, there was something I kept trying to put into words: An artist must carve out many moments that are solitary and insular -- moments devoted solely to the development and care of the self. Yet ultimately art is an attempt to communicate; to transmit ideas, emotions, and truths to others. Often I feel that I write or play music for myself. But I wouldn't write or play music at all if, at some level, I didn't crave human interconnectedness.

I think that's what this blog post is about in some ways: having the courage to allow yourself the indulgence, or the necessity, of self-belief, in order to go beyond the self.

On a side note, last night Matt and I saw the film Midnight In Paris, starring Owen Wilson as a writer infatuated with The City of Light in the 1920s, and all the creative people who hung out there. It's a good one, breezy and smart, and it captures all the romance of Paris. (What is it about that place?!) said...

I am so glad you're writing a blog. You may remember we spoke on the phone a couple of years ago because I worked with Dave T., and The Silver Linings Playbook had recently come out. I thank you for that conversation and for this blog, which I am eager to read more of. Since I had my daughter and quit full-time teaching, I have tried to devote myself to writing, first by starting a blog, and now, by working on a longer project. It's taken some time, but I've finally gotten past the idea that publishing is the thing that makes you a writer. It still haunts me some days, as does the imaginary conversation I keep having with Terry Gross, but for the most part, I am pushing past the ego and moving forward with the art. I relate so much to what you've said here, so thank you for putting it out there. The problem I'm finding with both writing and motherhood is that they are very isolating. We writers need to find each other, like you said, and stick together. But the finding is awfully tricky.

And Paris. Oh, how I love that place. If I could only ever travel to one place and it was Paris, I can't imagine finding any cause for complaint. I agree with you, Alicia--what is it about that place?

Scott Humfeld said...

Thank you for sharing these two wonderful, and touching, experiences and I applaud your (and Al's) ability to "see", as Carlos Castenada said. The life of an artist is not always easy, as you well know, but experiences such as you have described here, must make the tough parts more tolerable.
I have a dear friend from high school who is an artist and I remember her telling me about her wonderful experiences in Paris. An amazing city.

Congratulations to both you and Al for getting out of the herd and doing what you were meant to do.

PK said...

Putting the real you out into the world is leading you to all kinds of interesting places and meaningful experiences. As HST said, "Buy the ticket, take the ride." Way to drink it all in, and thanks for sharing with the rest of us. Amen to what Scott said.

Elise said...

Beautiful, beautiful post. I had a day yesterday where I got all tied up in everything that's not the art -- the neurosis of how will it do, what will it sell, and what's next-next-next (coming from the business angle, not the art angle). Then I had a beautiful evening with my daughter and husband, and everything settled back into its proper place.

I agree with what you and Alicia are both saying. It's about the art first and foremost -- about the story we have to get out. But it's also about sharing that story, reaching out to others with it.

Yes, I have big dreams for my work -- we all have big dreams for our work, I think -- but the truth is I've already been lucky enough to have that work viscerally reach other people (yourself, as an esteemed example), and that's the real measure of success.

kent said...

"The time is now, I'm always reminding myself. The world is constantly reminding us too.
And so onward we go...."
Nice! Can I get an Amen?

Scott Humfeld said...


Lowell Williams said...


This one strikes a nerve for me. When you're sitting around, worrying about money, as I am sitting here sending my play out to another theater, it is fantastic to read this. In the end, it's really about the work, or else why bother>?

Al said...

"I have never been able to analyze the qualities that the audience contributes to a performance. The most important, I think, are sympathy, open-mindedness, expectancy, faith, and a certain support to your effort. I know that my career could not have been what it is without all these things, which have come from many people. The knowledge of the feelings other people have expended on me has kept me going when times were hard. That knowledge has been a responsibility, a challenge, and an inspiration. It has been the path to development and growth. The faith and confidence of others in me have been like shining, guiding stars." - Marian Anderson

BD said...

This is one of my favorite posts, Q. I got goosebumps when I got to the last paragraph.

There are so many people out there who consume, consume, consume and move onto the next thrill with a reckless abandon. But the artist takes the time to digest. To find meaning in experience and "make order from chaos." This was a nice reminder that I want to be the later.

Paris is my favorite city in the world. I'm glad you and Al had a beautiful time there.

Donnelle McGee said...

Q . . . beautiful post. All peace. Onward we go as we let all the words flow . . .