Earlier in the week my daughter, Emily, sends me a text message. I’m in the zone, sitting in the studio here at Amherst, listening to Patti Smith and writing a new chapter. What she has written stops me in my tracks. We’re all safe. Don’t worry. I immediately worry, checking the wires for news from back home in Israel.
There have been three knifing attacks in Israel, one in Jaffa, an area I know well and where I recently took an Arabic course. I watch a video online, freshly posted and unedited, of a man running along a street, close to a fish restaurant I’ve eaten at a number of times with my three kids. A man’s voice yells out: “Give it to him! Give it to him!”
There have been three knifing attacks back in Israel, one in Jaffa, an area I know well and where I recently took an Arabic course.
I learn later that the 22-year-old Palestinian attacker was bludgeoned with a metal rod and then shot dead. I’m out here in my little writing bubble, disconnected and distant, writing about the past but also about the present I share with others, both Palestinians and Israelis.
Part of the goodness in being at this residency is the sharing that goes on between artists, musicians and writers. Patricia Aaron, whose studio is just below mine, paints in layers of wax and paint, fusing each layer with heat before adding another color over it.
After the layers have set, she takes a ceramic tool, or even a fork, and digs down deep below the surface, without knowing exactly what hue or tone will emerge. This is what I’m doing here at Amherst with words, layering the story of my life and of others, allowing the sentences to settle.
This is what I’m doing here at Amherst with words, layering the story of my life and of others, allowing the sentences to settle.
Afterward, I go back into those sentences and dig into them, deeply. I often don’t know what will be revealed. Being so far away from home has enabled me to look at my life more closely, to see things I couldn’t see before, like stepping back a couple of paces in order to move forward.
Ree Davis, a writer in the adjoining studio, gives me a great piece of advice. “Write forward,” she says, and I’ve taken these words to heart. This is what I’m doing here.
The work is slow and painful. Years of working in foreign journalism has conditioned me to quick publication times, words that are here today and gone tomorrow. This is different. I want these words to last and to resonate. I’ve stopped obsessing over word count and instead am editing, which often feels like I’m taking an axe and chopping off chunks of words. There are questions to be answered. The poet C D Wright once said that good writing has a hand, a breath and a lexicon that resonates for the reader. Will the reader sense these in my work, my hand as it hesitates over the keyboard, the sharp intake of breath as I retell my brother’s death, the words unsaid?
Patricia told me that the layered work of her paintings is subtractive, not additive. It’s a paring down, a distilling of color and tone so that only the essential is visible to the eye. So I choose my words carefully, I hold them up to the light.
I do the same when texting my children and husband. I tell them I miss them, and I mean it. My hands are accustomed to baking cakes, peeling vegetables for soup, packing little cookies into boxes for my son to take back to his boarding school. My hands are accustomed to holding other hands but right now I reach them out towards the screen while we are Skyping, I let my fingers form heart shapes and hugs, I put an ink-stained finger to my lips and blow a kiss to my daughters and to my son.
I sleep in the studio again.
I dream it’s dawn, but instead of the sun rising there are birds flying across the window of my studio, moving slowly by my window so that I can see the outline of their bodies, the soft curve of their wings through the mist. I look for the sun, but, in fact, it’s not the sun that rises but the faces of people I’m writing about. The work continues.
In NOTES FROM AFAR, writer Joanna Chen sends us weekly dispatches from Amherst, Virginia during her six-week residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. In Notes, Chen explores challenges and advantages particular to women writers, the allure and the reality of leaving her partner and children to write and the importance of personal space as she charts her own creative process in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains far away from her home in Israel’s Ella Valley.
NOTES FROM AFAR is the first in a pilot series focusing on women in the arts and one that we hope will become a regular feature.
Joanna Chen has written for Newsweek, The Daily Beast and The BBC World Service, among others. Her lyric essays have been published most recently in Guernica, Narratively and The Los Angeles Review of Books, where she writes a column.