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Choose Your Idols Carefully

October 30, 2009

Maeve Brennan

Last Saturday was grey and cool. This, plus leaves on the ground, tree trunks soaked by Friday night’s rain, and the necessity for a sweater (but only a light one), built the perfect fall day. And so, I got up, got dressed, got out the door, market list in my pocket and satchel (big enough for beets, squash and probably a whole chicken) slung over my shoulder.

The only thing better than a good farmers market is a good farmers market with a good bookstore nearby. Tempted by the window display, the first item into my bag wasn’t cheese, pumpkin or cured meat, but a collection of stories by Maeve Brennan. I knew neither the lady nor her work, but the cover charmed me in a flash: a black-and-white photograph of the author, hair drawn into a severe yet fancy knot, trying on an awfully ugly pair of glasses and admiring herself in a mirror.

The back-cover bio glossed over Maeve’s life: her ascent from staff writer to regular columnist at the New Yorker,  deceased in her mid-seventies with two anthologies released during her lifetime, and one posthumous work released so far. Looking at photographs online, I envied her elegant, writerly life: fine clothes, prim smile, pithy tone, distracted yet controlled manner.

Her essays are dithery accounts of ordinary days, slightly out of step with the decades she chronicled. A man she passes on Forty-sixth Street makes an impression by the way he carries his hat; repetitive dinners at a local steakhouse double as chances to eavesdrop on diners seated nearby. Her stories evoke bygone lounges and social scenes, and the publication dates tacked at the end of each essay are startling, seem too recent. Her impressions of 1968 are more like a world through which my great-grandmother traveled than five years before I was born.

I like the way she seems driven by her own tastes, refusing to adopt a modern lingo that would have sounded absurd on her tongue. Her grace, spare words and weird observations at first made me think how wonderful it would be to live Maeve’s kicky life, but I retracted my envy after discovering her more detailed history. Eccentricities growing less adorable, colleagues freaked out by her weirdness and alientated by her drunken sloppiness. Her decline through the 1970s led to sleeping in the ladies’ room at the New Yorker offices, then passing from flop house to flop house until being admitted to care in the 1980s. There she remained until her death in the early 1990s, crazy and lonely,  reputation more than mildly spoiled. And so it goes, the lady in the ugly glasses and gorgeous hairdo, estranged from all acquaintances, alcoholic, divorced, sleeping in the toilets at her place of employment, and dying at a public hospital.

Her stories appeal to me because of their tendency to worry curious details like a bone, the sort of observations that either escape other people, or upon which they feel no compulsion to comment. A few years ago, I enrolled in a writing workshop, and was offended when the instructor suggested my stories focused on the wrong stuff; I wrote well but didn’t talk about things my readers wanted to hear. Take, for instance, my piece about the imaginary life I created for the occupant one floor above me in a hotel. Why not talk about my own experience staying in the hotel, the things I was thinking and doing, and how I spent my days and nights? Well, I explained, that isn’t the story, for one thing. And, inventing that guy’s life is how I spent my time. No good, the instructor insisted, I was missing the point, avoiding the “real story” I was simply too frightened to probe.

I disagreed, eventually growing so frustrated with her critiques, and so confident that it was she and not I who was missing the point, that I withdrew from the programme. Reading The Long-Winded Lady, I feel an affinity with Maeve Brennan’s approach, the things she decided were the most important bits to recount. The manner in which they suggest she navigated New York City. While I can now concede that my workshop instructor had some helpful things to say, I still write stories that “miss the point”, skipping over the major accident that drew everyone’s attention at an intersection, and instead describing the onlooker whose laugh made me angry. I work as a genealogist, and instead of drawing inspiration from the family histories I piece together, I write about my colleague who wears three fanny-packs at once and favours a brown one-piece jumpsuit I call the “uniboob-itard”. That outfit bisects her ample figure into the worst possible planes, and in my opinion, is at least as interesting as the family wiped out by three wars.

I’m not sure how to reconcile my affection for The Long-Winded Lady with the author’s craziness, her sadness, her tragedy. The fact that I instantly envied her existence and share much of her worldview. What does this say about my own tendency to be obsessive, to remember nothing short-term or practical, while having total recall of the minutiae of my past? What are the chances that my own demure yet saucy secretary outfits, short stories about nothing, essays about office ladies and retention of all the wrong details are red flags, forecasting a ladies’ room-sleeping, booze-guzzling, reputation-wrecking decline?

Maeve’s essays recount a trip to the veterinary clinic with a little cat who needed medical attention, an awful lot of solitary dinners at fine restaurants, a book in her handbag which she carries just in case: “because it diverts me when there is nothing to listen to and camouflages my eavesdropping when there is something to listen to.” I, too, am sure to never leave my apartment without a book in my purse, pass mostly solitary Sundays and often cook dinner in slippers while my cat looks on. 

Does her work appeal because I’m headed for crazy, too, or because I recognise something in her work that is gorgeous when kept in check but dangerous when given free rein? And what about my own work? Was my  instructor right when she advised me to think more critically about the stories I choose to tell, and pick more universally intriguing topics?

Rumour has it Maeve Brennan was the inspiration for Capote’s Holly Golightly, another character I envied before I finished the novel and duly noted her dark side. Criticizing my choice of subject matter wasn’t the only way my writing instructor shook her finger at me. When I suggested her class was perhaps not the right place for me and my stories, she poo-pooed this conceit. All writers, she said, think they’re special because they don’t fit in, when really, we are not special at all. If nothing else, she says, we share this conceit with one another, which makes us less outsider than we wish we were.

And so, is my instant connection with Maeve Brennan precisely what my instructor cautioned against indulging? The conceit of the romantic writer: distracted, obsessive, alone or smothered by the wrong kind of companionship, adrift or stagnating, the interplay of these factors, tossing you like a sea. Or, am I overthinking things, like I often do, weighing my affection for a lady’s outfits and stories and coming up with something far heavier than it really is?

 

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 31, 2009 3:14 pm

    What a great post. Like double-digging a garden.

  2. Patrick permalink
    November 2, 2009 1:59 pm

    The decline made me think, also, of Dorothy Parker.

    • welltailored permalink*
      November 2, 2009 2:01 pm

      Indeed! It would appear that, in the event that I do decline to the state of martini breakfasts, curious chapeaux and freakin’ out my friends and colleagues, I will at least be in stylish and revered company!

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