What wouldn’t we do might be the more accurate inquiry . . .
The first frog appeared on the deck far above the lawn, a tiny green creature apparently lost. I relocated it to more hospitable turf.
The second turned up in the screen room, which had to have been a trick for the little fella, since the only way in was through a cat door. And no, the cat wasn’t responsible for its appearance; cats have no use for cold-blooded creatures.
The third frog was on a second story window, eye level in the upstairs hall. That’s a long way to climb, shingle by shingle. A delicate, nubby, grass-green creature, same as the rest, no bigger than the first joint of one’s thumb—a tree frog, no matter that they’ve never appeared in the twenty-five years I’ve lived at this address.
The fourth was on the bird feeder. The fifth, the one that broke the camel’s back so to speak, was in the house. There it sat, right next to my morning coffee, staring at me. That’s when I called my mother.
Stories of my marvelous mother could fill volumes: the spirits she summoned, the mind readers and psychics who were her dearest friends, the spoon-bender at the dinner table, the pair of crazy Russian ladies whose manuscripts on parapsychology we smuggled out of Russia, the same zaftig souls with whom we walked on fire years after. Of course, my mother, 87-years-old this week, would know the symbolism of the frogs.
What I wouldn’t do for my mother (nothing); what I would do in the name of love (everything). Including the writing of a novel. Never mind that I’m a confirmed nonfiction writer. Duty called and I sharpened my pencil.
The plan was to write the book that would set everything to right, that would redeem history and lay ghosts to rest, that would clear family names, unite the far flung culture, and establish once and for all a simple, powerful thing: the truth. Not for nothing was I educated as a lawyer, after all. The writing life came later, and was inevitable, though of course these things are only clear in hindsight.
That novel: a twenty-year saga, as it happened, with a decade off for various diversions and disasters. Throughout, I had written other things, published two books, nearly a dozen literary essays, a couple of short stories, and received two Pushcart Prize nominations and an honorary doctorate in letters, but down deep I had no idea what I was doing. Ever. That novel born of trial and error, was the project where, really, I learned to write.
Did I finish it? Of course. Many times. It was, by the end, a passionate work, a beautiful, rich, and fast moving tale. My mother named my heroine. My mother translated for me as well, when I went to see all my aunties, ate the sweets they served and drank innumerable cups of Turkish coffee while they told me how it was: the Old Country, the dangers, the murders, the elaborate escapes, the exile. My mother and I inverted our tiny cups and they read our fortunes. Prophecies told. Warnings bestowed. All the while, I took notes, made recordings, researched, outlined and wrote. Thousands of pages before I was done. First person. Third person. A brief flirtation with second person (okay for Jay McInerney, perhaps, but a bad idea for this). Then came omniscient, which was liberating, but too sprawling in the last analysis, so I went back to an intimate first person voice.
I wrote. And I wrote. Draft after draft tossed to the garbage pail, nothing saved, never quite measuring up to what I had in mind.
All the aunties died, one by one. Then the cousins, the older ones who still knew the history. The priests—gone. The archivists—gone. Anyone with direct knowledge of the survivors and who heard firsthand of the events that shaped my family’s history—gone. Only my mother remains.
“What’s taking so long?” my mother asked. And asked.
The paltry talent brought to the task, that’s what. The wood I couldn’t seem to get out of the dialogue. The plotting, the trajectory, the sustaining of tension. The proliferation of characters, the bit players squeezing into the limelight. The perfectionism, enemy of the good. The obsession, which by any measure surely tips into some form of insanity. The pressure to get it right, to redeem an entire culture’s history, to work into the tale everything that must be said and nothing extra. The insecurities of a self-taught writer.
From the start, it was complicated. The research turned up horrible things: loss, agony, deceits, and such terrible decisions required of such tender beings. Who would read a tale filled with such pain? I cast around for a narrative mechanism, a scaffolding on which to erect a story, a dressmaker’s dummy on which to pin the fabric, and at last hit a eureka moment. My big idea, the only really good one in the entire project, was this: put a beautiful face on it. Of course—why hadn’t I seen it before now? I would write a love story!
Everything fell into place after that.
“I love your sentences,” my agent said, and how I loved him for that. Fired him. Loved him. Parted again. Had a pick of suitors, rare in this business, all of whom professed undying devotion to my sentences. One died. One drank. One wore impeccable shirts with French cuffs and ran everything past his mother. The others? I don’t remember. Today, I am back with my original champion. “He’s the only one you ever made any money with,” my practical husband observes but he should know, he who knows me well, money had nothing to do with it. Had it been otherwise, I’d have written “The End” long ago.
This wasn’t for money, this was for messy, glorious love: of the written word, the writing process, of the pure joy of well-executed expression. And not just love of process but a love story, for goodness sake, a tale of tenderness, defiance, missed chances, unspoken declarations, and dreams left to molder like the bruise that defeats the peach—but wait. What kind of ending is that? Doesn’t love conquer all, trump evil? Yes and no. This was a big book, a lot hanging in the balance. This was mother and motherland, a culture near annihilated, and the burdens of a childhood taken up and never let go. This was art, in the words, in the story, and in the Oriental carpets that wove throughout the narrative. In short, this was one big fat story told with the spare hand and delicate sensibility of a poet. It was like trying to build a life-sized cathedral from toothpicks and Elmer’s.
The manuscript, once completed, made the rounds, through assistants and readers, young editors and their bosses, and then the boss’s boss, lunches, Chardonnay, consultations, at last rising to the tippy top of the publishing world just as it came crashing down, my manuscript with it, but I never felt it was good enough, so there’s that, too.
Which brings me to the frogs. I called my mother. Symbols of renewal, of prosperity and spiritual cleansing, she said.
“It’s a sign.” The spirits were trying to me tell me something.
“Tell me what?”
But I had my suspicions. Hop to it, writer? Let’s go, already? Nubby, green proof that the saga of this novel is not done yet, the ending not yet written?
Insanity! Utter folly to take it up again!
But what wouldn’t we do for love—you tell me that, reader. What wouldn’t we do to make something right with whatever humble tools we might possess? What crazy, absurd thing have you undertaken, or can’t let go, or obsess about when the moon is full, or on sleepless nights, or at traffic lights, or when you’re doing the dishes, or walking the dog, or supposed to be working? What insane thing resides within? Put it here—I invite you—and absolve yourself. Take as many words as you need. I’m here, listening. A kindred soul. Just that, no judgment.
And do it quickly, before the frogs appear.
P.S. The neurologist and author Oliver Sacks just passed away, 82 and far too soon for this devoted reader. If you don’t know his work, you ought to find it. Here’s a passage from the New York Times obituary that resonates:
“I am very tenacious, for better or worse,” he wrote in “A Leg to Stand On.” “If my attention is engaged, I cannot disengage it. This may be a great strength, or weakness. It makes me an investigator. It makes me an obsessional.”
See why I loved him?
Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons