I ask Susan a version of “are you a writer and what’s that about” that I asked DeWitt.
She thought, and then said, “I feel like a writer if either a) I am writing something every day or b) I know someone, even just one person, is reading my work and taking it seriously. It’s easy to feel like a writer when you’re in an MFA program, because both of those things are true, in a big way. The sad part is—when you get out your work is better but fewer people might be reading it for a while and you might struggle to do the same amount of writing, because you’re not being asked to do it regularly for a class while being given a graduate stipend. Having to work at a job-job cuts into writing time, which is why I’m trying to work part-time.
There are times when I’m unable to write, because there’s too much to do outside of that. I think that’s painful for me, not only because I’m not getting closer to my goal of publishing, but because I feel good when I’m writing. Even if everything else seems wrong, my writing can be there for me, kind of like exercise, and some of it can seem kind of cool sometimes, which I think is a normal writer feeling. Writing is kind of like dreaming, and dreaming makes me feel good—even if I have a bad dream, it’s kind of like an exorcism of feelings I was having trouble with. Through writing or dreaming I recover from a fear or deal with the fact that I have that fear. It’s an efforts toward problem solving, no matter how you’re doing it. Also, writing lets me travel, and travel feels healing to me.”
I liked Susan’s answer, so I brought in a bunch of dirt and made a path to the rug where we all are sitting. Susan is sitting on a purple velvet chaise lounge and I pulled up a cool footrest made from the trunk of a tree for her.
There is the conception of a writer. The fancy one someone archetyped before people paid for their espresso with an iphone. It’s not appealing except for those who ignore the horrifying effects of syphilis untreated.
This concept tainted the word for me, because most of those people rarely produce anything more interesting than a bad credit rating.
Writing feels really good when it’s good and terrible when it’s not working. It makes it stressful to sit down and try. But if you’re always thinking; if your strategy is to find something interesting and recreate it within the constraints of language; if you masturbate in the bathroom at work a few too many times; if you want to see things differently; if you consider the semicolons: you’re probably are a writer.
Better than that, you’re alive. The need for writers is debatable. Everyone needs to be alive.”
Then I wanted to be sure and keep everyone grounded so I spray painted this on the side of my brain.
Then I bought a lot of half-price holiday white lights and made fake tree branches inside the Salon.
Welcome to the Beached Whale Salon aka the inside of my head/the living room in my mind. Picture the inside of a parade float in the shape of a whale–it’s about 10 feet high and 6 feet wide. At this point, memory of Chewbacchus’ whale float weakens, and I use my imagination to decorate the interior of my salon for my friends. I am scrambling around, trying to get ready for their visit. Susan and DeWitt are coming! I’m all aflutter with excitement. I double-check my stock of fancy whisky and white wine. I verify that the onions are sequestered to the back of the fridge, far away from cheeses and pancakes and poboys and the makings for pizza. All of the stuff my friends like–you have to know these things before a salon.
We are in my head, a.k.a. the Beached Whale. There is really no room for anything superfluous; and so I start by downsizing my books. I’m the sort of person who holds onto everything, in the hopes (or fears?) that everything will one day come “in handy” again. And so I save prescription medicines from over a decade ago, bags of make up I’ll never wear, postcards and holiday cards and old address books and yellowing teacher planners, half filled. Oh, mostly-burnt candles, business cards from once-glistening avenues of friendship and more. I shake open a few trash bags. If the inside of my head is to host two witty friends with discriminating tastes, I must be ruthless in my quest to make the inside of my head habitable, hospitable, & hairball-less.
The Beached Whale Salon can’t tolerate all that hanger-onner stuff. The space is tight. I want to make sure my friends are comfortable, so I take a hard look at all the baggage I cart around with me–and today I see my possessions with new scrutiny. A travel guide to Los Angeles from 2001? Lesser-loved novels by writers I generally adore? Photography books pushed on me by well-meaning friends 12+ years ago, yet to be read by me? Page turners that would delight new eyes, but won’t be cracked again by these hands? I found around 100 books to donate today. I loaded them into bags in the backseat of my Honda, and drove them to local little libraries posted in front of people’s homes across the city.There is something satisfying about parting with books that have eyed me from bookshelves, collecting dust for years. I noticed I have more of a relationship with the color and design of their spines at this point than I do with their contents. Having Black on White: Black writers on what it means to be white and Bisexuality Reader meant I was a certain type of person. By lining them up on my shelves and nodding at their titles every day or so, I had credit in my interesting person account. I pay money and spend time moving these books from city to city, never to share new experiences with them. Well, you know what? Aime Cesaire and Franz Fanon and This Bridge Called My Back. If I no longer own those books, do I lose points in my Aware and Interesting Person account? When I get rid of The Bisexual Reader, does bisexuality cease to exist? Does Ruth Ozeki’s plot structure stop amazing me if I put A Tale for the Time Being in the donation bag? The book on how to draw like Picasso, inscribed by an ex-boyfriend, along with that women’s self-help guide gifted by a mother of a California middle school student I had around the time of 9/11… they all perch hopefully in miniature libraries across New Orleans now.
“To Alison on her 13th birthday. Love, Mari.” is inscribed in a large hardcover copy of The Ghost Stories of M.R. James. Now someone else can be edified by all of these interesting voices.
Who are we when the stuff we’ve collected to bolster us is gone? Guess I’ll find out. There’s no way Susan and DeWitt could sit down in here with all this crap taking up the floor space. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that friends are what keep our brains working and hearts pumping, not stuff.
Almost ready to host my friends. Just need to clean up the big pile of Legos in the floor. I will unroll a nice big rug so my friends can take their shoes off if they like. And I will move the solid pine coffee tables into the Beached Whale so people can put their drinks and snacks on something stable. After that I will find them each a special chair.
Susan Kirby-Smith is also joining us at February’s salon. Susan can simultaneously entertain and fascinate with her wry humor and skillful text message-sized nuggets of wisdom and sharp observation. She is the only person I know who could, if prompted, connect the scented candle trend with modern-day feminism thoughtfully. And she also makes funny possible. I trust her.
Susan Kirby-Smith is primarily a fiction writer and editor. Her fiction has appeared in Kill Author and The Wordstock Ten. She has served on the editorial staffs of The Southern Review, LSU Press, Carolina Wren Press, and Cave Wall. She currently edits the student blog of an intensive English school and directs a writing center at the school. She also critiques manuscripts of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry for the North Carolina Writers’ Network and privately. She has been at work on one novel or another for more than ten years, and before that, it was plays. Since her undergraduate degree in English focused on dramatic literature, that makes sense. She also writes stories and occasionally a poem.
She holds an M.A. in Renaissance literature. Her parents, partner, and almost all her close friends are poets. They’re all constantly taking her on luxurious vacations and buying her expensive presents with all their poetry money. Susan’s favorite things are: novels with good dialogue, old buildings, coffee, cheese and wine, absurdist theater, trains, animals, etymology, hotels, tropical plants, large bodies of water.