For Me, With Love and Squalor

After publishing her first book, Lauren Markham begins the long search for what she truly wanted after writing it.

Lauren Markham | Longreads | June 2018 | 23 minutes (5,790 words)

One recent day, when it was raining and I was feeling particularly blue, I decided to visit my local bookstore. Though bookstores were once among my favorite places to spend time, ever since my own book was published eight months ago, trips into bookstores have mutated into sordid affairs. I’ll walk in the door, feign cool, casual, just your average browser, then drift over to the shelves in the way someone might sidle up to the bar with a good-looking mark in sight. I’m not really browsing, not just refilling my drink — I’m searching, quite shamefully, for my own book on the shelves.

When it’s there, with its beaming burnt-orange cover jammed somewhere near Norman Mailer, Stephane Mallarme, Katherine Mansfield, Javier Marías, I feel a blush of glee. But more often than not, it’s not on the shelves at all.

It turns out that just because you wrote a book doesn’t mean the bookstores will sell it. No matter what accolades my book has received, each visit to the bookstore feels a new test of my book’s worth — and my own.

That rainy day, I was sure that finding my book on the shelves would release me from my blueness. On the other hand, in the likely event that my book wasn’t there, I would have permission to sink lower, reclining into the indigo bleak. I stepped inside the store, delivering flecks of rain onto the floor. As I suspected — as I feared — my book was nowhere to be found.

I decided that this time I would double down. I would ask the cashier about it.

“We had two,” he reported as he searched his computer screen, but they’d sold.

“I could special order it for you?” he offered. I admitted that it was my book — that I had written it. Did they have any plans, I asked, to order more in the future?

He clicked a few more times. “No.”

“Ever?” I asked. He shrugged.

“I don’t mean to pester you,” I said. “But it’s not like I self-published it or something.” I lamely named one of my recent accolades, then immediately apologized for having done so. “I’m just sad to not see it on the shelves,” I said. This was my favorite bookstore. “That’s all.”

“I understand,” he said, with some semblance of actually understanding and a good dose of pity. He scribbled a note on a Post-it, and, before sticking it to the edge of the computer screen, flashed it my way as if to offer relief. lauren markham Book, it read. I thanked him and bolted back out into the rain.

***

There’s a particular, throbbing delight in quietly scanning the shelves of a bookstore, coming upon old favorites — that familiar stab of desire, like running into a former lover on the street — and encountering new possibilities, those unfamiliar spines that claw with the promise of companionship, maybe temporary, maybe forever. Browsing is the reader’s act of optimism and longing: There is something on this shelf that will help me remember magic; some act of grace will deliver it into my hands, and I will be permanently, quietly changed.

But here comes the craven author, belonging to a profession that’s one part thrill and many parts heartbreak, marching into the bookstore: Where is my name, where is my name, where is my name? I’m not alone; every new author I know admits to this urge.

And what act, energetically speaking, could be more opposite to the compulsion to write in the first place: to scratch away, alone in the blissful, seething dark, and make something?

***

Speaking of shame: I’m ashamed to admit that this pointed searching for a particular name on the shelf was a habit not new to me. For years, I was enmeshed in a secret, twisted hunt — long before I ever thought myself capable of writing a book, long before impostor syndrome had set in, before I even felt worthy of being an impostor. I was searching for the name of a man.

I’d met him at a writers’ conference when I was practically just a kid — 22, young, and know-nothing, on a scholarship from my college. He was in his late 30s and had published two books. I’d never heard of him; I was more interested in his travel experiences and his sense of humor than his accolades. They meant nothing to me at the time, because I didn’t yet understand what they meant to others. We flirted for a few days, then, one night at 2 a.m., we found ourselves rolling over one another on a gravel parking lot next to my parents’ borrowed SUV.

“You aren’t married, are you?” I joked from beneath him. Many married people at the conference took up with others. It was a bad joke, but, it turned out, a good question. He rolled off of me and rested his head on the gravel. Yes, he was married.

In spite of his accolades, he remained largely unknown outside the literary world; he was a cult favorite, an MFA all-star, toiling in his own blue-black. He was brilliant in his own eyes and eventually also in mine. But few bookstores, I’d learn in the years to come, carried his books.

Here comes the craven author, belonging to a profession that’s one part thrill and many parts heartbreak, marching into the bookstore: Where is my name?

Over the next few days, we continued with our affair, then stopped, then began again. He sometimes complained about the more popular writers at the conference, whose books had already sold out at the conference bookstore. “Buy my book, people,” he’d mutter so only I could hear. “Buy it in hardback, you fuckers.” I laughed in his face at this, and he laughed back. And for years, anytime I went into a bookstore I would, first by compulsion, then out of curiosity, then eventually out of force of habit, look for his name. This was such a frequent act that I’d even memorized the names between which he tended to belong on the shelves. If those two writers had touching spines, I knew his book wasn’t there. I experienced a pang of thrill and annoyance when his books were there on the shelf and an inverse pang when they were not.

Perhaps this is where I first learned the dark art of spinning a tapestry of failure out of the miraculous fortune of modest success.

***

I spent a lot of time collecting advice about writing over the years; it hadn’t occurred to me that after my book was published — that impossible accomplishment — I’d feel even more adrift and more in need of counsel than ever before.

It used to be that I was content to write in obscurity. The payoff of the work was the work itself. But there I was desperately, sadly searching for my own spine on the shelf — an apt metaphor, my own deboning.

“I just want to make things,” the poet Matthew Dickman said in a recent talk at Vermont College of Fine Arts. He spoke about the publication of his first book, when he was working in the cheese department at Whole Foods. “I had published a book of poetry, The New Yorker had written a profile about me and my brother, and there I was, behind the counter, cutting into a wheel of gouda.” Once you start publishing things, you can easily become what Dickman called a “secretary to the poetry,” attending to the business of writing and the hunt for accolades rather than to the actual work of creation. The perverse thing is, the more you focus on the work, the more prone you are to accolades. Dickman published a poem in a recent issue of The New Yorker: “that’s what the pink is doing / splashing all over us, / lucky without god, / animals under the bright pink / idea of earth.” That’s where I’d like to spend more time, in that pink, splashing, feeling and making things.

As a brooding 16-year-old, I used to read and write every day; filling blank pages of a notebook turned the violent darkness into a luminous bloom. The assembled, reflected, made-sense-of world in my little book was more alive than the one in which I found myself. No one but a snoop would ever see it, which was fine by me.

“Well, you’re only a writer if you publish writing for others to read,” a fancy editor at the writers’ conference corrected me, just a day or two after my late-night parking lot tussle. Young and a know-nothing, I nodded. What did I like reading, he asked me, what did I like to write, what were my hopes for publishing?

“I’m only twenty-two,” I said. I really wasn’t sure that what I wanted to make would be of interest to anyone but me.

During that time at the writers’ conference, I often took to saying “I’m only twenty-two” as a kind of mantra, a self-effacing strategy and defensive insistence on my know-nothingness.  “Well, I’m only twenty-two,” or “As a twenty-two-year-old with absolutely no experience …” I was trying to be humble, though I now see that this tactic was grating at best. So young and knowing nothing, I didn’t understand that repeatedly asserting one’s youth could sound like a boast. For how could my inexperience, my notebooks full of stuff only for myself, be anything but a substantial deficiency?

Later, looking for advice, I told the married man from the parking lot that I was feeling forlorn about my writing. Did I, or was I just playing dress-up? Feeling forlorn about one’s writing seemed the way that real, adult writers spent their time.

We continued our secret tryst — in the woods, in his room, furtive glances across the dining hall. But, also like playing dress-up, I feigned that though I was despairing about my identity as a writer, I was relaxed about the affair — young, footloose, only 22, after all. This kept him at ease, and his ease was nice for both of us.

As to my concerns about writing, he said, “Oh, don’t worry about your writing.” I sighed. “Just keep doing it, and keep reading. Keep at it, and your writing will get better.” Then he pulled me back into bed.

This is some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten about writing. Keep at it. Don’t worry about it. You can worry something to death. But I’ve since learned that the very young are better at casting their worries into the wind.

***

“Don’t worry if your book doesn’t get any reviews,” one of my oldest friends, a writer and a book editor, told me as I nearly fell into her front door with my suitcase. I always pack too much, especially for trips to New York, never sure what the weather will be, or what I’ll want to wear, or what I should wear to balance style and professionalism while also feeling like myself.

“It’s so hard to get reviews these days,” she explained. She meant that other people’s opinions about the book were not what mattered. She was trying to prepare me for the greedy world of publishing, but I misunderstood her to mean that I probably wouldn’t get a review, and it stung.

My publishers decided not to book me for an event in New York. “Too much competition,” my publicist said. As in: Why would anyone choose you? This worried me. “Don’t worry,” said my friend.

In September, my book received a stunning review in The New York Times. I was proud beyond measure, but it was so good it was almost embarrassing. Humility is a quality I cherish (nothing worse than a cocky writer, and lord are there many), but at the same time, bucking impostor syndrome — if not just for me, on behalf of youngish women — feels like a vital undertaking.

Despite the excellent review, the book still didn’t sell, the bookstores didn’t seem much to care, and I felt more adrift than ever.

I recently became friends with one of my longtime magazine editors. I worked with him on one of my first assigned feature stories ever, the one that eventually lead to my book. I was so scared of failing on the assignment that I began to have terrible stress dreams about him, despite having never met him in person. Years later, he moved to Oakland, we began hanging out, and he and his girlfriend invited me over. It was a few weeks before my book came out, and I was a bit of a wreck. I drank too much, the dog ate a whole packet of hotdog buns while we weren’t looking, my editor-friend drank too much, then we began shouting at one another for reasons we can’t quite recall.

“But am I a good writer?” I asked him suddenly, desperately, in the middle of our fight. He laughed in my face. “Please tell me you think I’m a good writer?” I pleaded.

“I’m not going to tell you that,” he said.

“Fuck you,” I said. Why wouldn’t he just do me this kindness? But this was an act of generosity that I was just too wrecked to see. Find your own damn value. Buck the fuck up.

***

I can see now that, for the man at the conference, my purpose as the young, bright-eyed, adoring know-nothing was to help him feel his own worth.

“I won’t bother you,” he said when I dropped him off curbside at the airport. “I know,” I said. I’d borrowed his toothbrush at a gas station on the way, my teeth filmed with last night’s party. He had offered. He kissed me goodbye in broad daylight. That was Saturday. Monday afternoon in Oakland, as I boarded the elevator for my first day at the first 9-to-5, non-summer job of my life, there he was on my voicemail, bothering me.

I was falling in love with someone else, but still enamored with the guy from the conference. When I reunited with the person I was in love with, bright-eyed and 22 like me, I stopped picking up the married man’s calls. The first act of restraint happened inside a bookstore, where I had already checked for his books on the shelves. I let the phone ring and ring. To actively resist being pulled into the man’s reckless orbit was an act of remarkable strength about which I felt and still feel proud.

But am I a good writer? I asked my editor suddenly, desperately, in the middle of our fight. He laughed in my face. Please tell me you think I’m a good writer? I pleaded.

This resistance, though, sent me into hiding. I hid from other writers, hid from people I knew he knew, people he might know. I avoided attending literary events and conferences lest he — or worse, he and his wife — be in attendance. I began to think of graduate school. There were schools to which I knew I couldn’t apply — schools where he worked, or had gone, or had close people. Similarly, there were people who I wanted to be a part of my literary community but who, because of him, I had to avoid — his friends, his colleagues, his students, who, in aggregate, seemed sometimes to be damn near everyone.

He kept calling. On my voicemail he asked if I’d teach him Spanish, if I’d help him with a translation project, if I’d like a copy of his new book. “I’d be happy to write you a recommendation anytime,” he’d told me more than once in person, and there it was again on my voicemail.

Do you think I’m a good writer? How could he possibly know? Though I know better than to think that “making it” as a writer can be insulated from one’s connections (to say nothing of race or class), in this case, I wanted to earn it all clean and sex-free.

For many years I had a rancid taste in my mouth about the affair; I felt like I deserved to go into hiding. But just like I didn’t understand then that talking about one’s youth can sound like a boast, I couldn’t see that it’s not the young woman having an affair with the accomplished married man who is sad. Rather, it’s the accomplished married man who is, in fact, the sad one. He should have known that my modest aspirations could do without a masculine shadow.

***

“What are your hopes for this book?” another friend asked me this past summer, while we smoked pot by a lake, during one of the few extended breaks I’d taken in the years since I started writing it. I’d kept my job working at a public school for immigrant youth, reporting and writing the book while balancing that work and also writing several other feature stories. Nearly all the work I did — at the school, on the page, out reporting — entailed delving deep into human suffering. I’d developed chronic migraines, had begun grinding my teeth at night so badly that I’d wake up Ben, my boyfriend (the bright eyed 22-year-old, now a man, and a spectacular poet who finds the publishing hustle absurd). My head would feel on the verge of rending open for days.

Unraveling my stress and fears about the book was almost a full-bodied struggle, so my friend’s lakeside question was a welcome one, as was the quiet lull of the lake and the pot. So caught up in the hustle, this fundamental question hadn’t occurred to me. I thought for a moment. Taking a moment to think was nice. I told him that on a practical level, I hoped that my book was fair and factually correct (one of my biggest fears, as an untrained journalist, was inadvertently getting something wrong), but that most of all I hoped that the people I admired found something in the book to love.

I really believe that those were my hopes for the book, and they have all come true to a degree that is astonishing. So why hasn’t that been enough?

“Believe me,” my book editor said over lunch, when I inquired about why my book wasn’t really selling, “I’ve seen worse.” She took a bite from her bento box.

My book was published in September 2017. Three months later, NPR published the best 350 books of 2017; it didn’t include mine. People I met at writers’ conferences and book festivals dismissed me like I was still a kid, rather than an adult with a book. I got rejected from a fellowship. My publishers stopped investing as much in publicity; other people’s books sold like wildfire, but my book wasn’t selling, and there were so many bookstores where my book didn’t even exist. It was longlisted, but then not shortlisted, for an award. Good things happened, but I wasn’t as focused on those. The closer one comes to something being in reach, the further the horizon recedes; it’s like trying to swim toward the setting sun. But what was that something I was swimming toward, anyway? All my dreams had come true, but they had made a monster of me.

“This isn’t you!” my best friend told me. Oh, to be not like the swimmer, but like that lake: deep and impervious and with room for us all.

But the notion of being in a club is alluring, particularly when its membership is amorphous and when the boundaries of the club are both a fiction and mutable, like those mobile electric fences used for livestock: today it’s here; the next day, it’s over there; the next, it’s there. Feeling unseen can seem like another version of “You’re only a writer if …” But you’re only a writer if you sit your ass down and write.

“You can’t win everything,” Ben would say. While I fretted, he worked on his poems. 

Don’t worry about your writing. And I’m not going to tell you that. After all: I’m the one who keeps moving the electric fence around the yard, I’m the one with a sudden hard-on for the horizon.

***

Perhaps my next book would sell. But what would that next book be?

I had gotten the idea for my first book at a 10-day silent meditation retreat that Ben encouraged me to attend. I threw a temper tantrum on the way there, sat for 10 days with my body screaming, waiting for lunch, then for dinner, sneaking to my room sometimes when I knew my roommate wouldn’t be there so I could write. You’re not supposed to write at these meditation retreats, but I cheated. We were in the desert near a road, with a looping walking path populated by cacti who had spouted impossible, bright blooms more fragile than butterfly wings. On one side of the meditation center stretched the deafening desert, on the other side, an east-west highway where big rigs thundered by. This place is part paradise, I wrote in my notebook, part truck stop. Isn’t that what life is, one part paradise, one part truck stop? Lucky without God. I walked in figure eights and wrote in secret and tried to sit still without howling.

The closer one comes to something being in reach, the further the horizon recedes. All my dreams had come true, but they had made a monster of me.

These days, I only write when there are deadlines involved. Publishing seems to have taken away the impossible bloom of making things. What about the deadline of my own beating heart? To be 22 again.

At the meditation retreat, entombed in silence, I was thrust into that space of the outcome not mattering. Ego, struggle as I might to clutch it close, faded from time to time. And there, clear as day, was the idea for my book.

After it was all over, I told Ben about it.

“See?” he said, and smiled.

***

Surely, if I had another book to write, my anxiety about my first book would fade away. I began to clamor for a new idea (had I learned nothing in the desert?) like the hungry ghost in that Miyazaki film, half transparent, hands overflowing with fake coins to lure people in. Later, an artist friend would note the icky privilege of bopping around from topic to topic. A book should come from a place of urgency and responsibility, not a place of searching, of greed, of colonizing pain and making it into material for the sake of having something to say. Nevertheless, last fall, I scrounged some half-baked pitches and shared them with my editor over lunch in Midtown Manhattan. My editor was generous and gentle — but none of these ideas, we both knew, were books. We said goodbye.

After the failed lunch, I ambled aimlessly south, thinking I might just walk to my next meeting with a magazine editor all the way downtown. It began to rain, and all of a sudden, since I never know where I am in New York, I found myself in Times Square, where the lights and the crowds and the street performers carried out their wicked, dripping assault. I called Ben; I was working on no sleep, dwindling confidence, New York my third state in four days, having stayed up late to finish an article long past due that I worried my editor, with whom I was about to meet, would hate. I burst into tears like a child.

“Are you proud of your book?” he said.

Like the question at the lake, it was one I’d neglected to consider.

“I am so proud of my book.”

“Then,” he said. “That’s all that matters.” See?

He told me to walk five blocks in any direction, any direction at all, and get the hell out of Times Square, escape the lights and the clamor. This felt like the best possible advice for that moment, and also a dazzlingly perfect metaphor for everything else.

***

About nine months before my book was to be released, and just a few weeks before I had to deliver the manuscript in full to my editor, I got an email from my old flame from the writers’ conference. He would be in town for a book reading. Might I like to come?

That sounded like a good way, over a decade later, to rewrite the narrative: There was no potential patronage system, no more romantic feelings, no sexual desire, no chance. Wouldn’t that be nice?

It was another day of terrible rain. I was soaked by the time I arrived at the bookstore. I’d known exactly what to wear, but the minute I stepped across the threshold, I transformed into a simpering hologram of myself, as though a spell had been cast. Who was this person, jittery among the stacks of books drenched in rain in her rust-red raincoat — the same color of an old, open-back dress that he had once said bedeviled him?

A book should come from a place of urgency and responsibility, not a place of searching, of greed, of colonizing pain and making it into material for the sake of having something to say.

The audience sat down for a conversation between the writer and his friend, another writer, who was famous and brilliant. They ping-ponged back and forth about some of their favorite writers, favorite books, the stories that meant something to them. I shifted in my seat and shifted again, certain I was disrupting everyone with my shifting. When I could listen to what they were saying it was a delight, but I felt the boundaries of the electric fence being transferred once again to a field out yonder.

Then they began to talk about J.D. Salinger’s short story “To Esme, With Love and Squalor.”

“There’s this American soldier in England during the war,” the old flame explained. “He meets and develops a strange relationship with a young woman in a café, and they begin a correspondence.”

“Well,” I interrupted from my place in the small audience, loudly, and unexpectedly. I couldn’t help it. “She wasn’t exactly a young woman,” I corrected him. “She was just a kid.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” he agreed. “She was a kid.” He kept on with whatever he’d wanted to say about Esme.

At the end of the evening, I picked up the other writer’s book and brought it to the register. The woman who ran the bookstore, whom I’d contact a year later to sell my books at an event of my own, said to me, “You know, his book is really good,” referring, of course, to my old flame. “You should buy that, too.”

“No, thanks,” I said, and handed over my credit card. I was taking some kind of quiet stand. I waved goodbye to the guy and hustled to my car. Immediately, refusing to buy his book, an act that had felt in the moment like solidarity with my real, true self — not this tremulous creature who had claimed possession of me in the bookstore — felt instead like the petulant act of a child. She was just a kid. I couldn’t win.

***

I reread “For Esme, With Love and Squalor.” I had forgotten it entirely; the only reason I’d even remembered that the Esme character was just a girl and not, as he had tried to claim at the bookstore, “a young woman” is that there had recently been a New Yorker article about J.D. Salinger and the failed attempt, long ago, to turn the story into a film. I don’t like people who claim to know things about books because they read what someone else had to say about them. Can’t we stand on our own two feet regarding what we feel about the world and all its creations? Had I become the sort of person who talked knowingly about a work of literature based on some essay about it I’d read in The New Yorker?

The story is breathtaking. The protagonist, a soldier in England during World War II, takes a walk on a horrendously rainy day and encounters a children’s choir practice, where he first sees Esme. Later, along with her little brother and governess, Esme walks into the tea room where the soldier has taken refuge from the rain. Noticing that he looks lonely, Esme sidles up to his table and strikes up a conversation. He tells her that he’s a writer; she asks him to write her a story. She prefers, she says, for stories not to be childish or silly, but instead to contain a bit of squalor. “Are you at all acquainted with squalor?” she asks. As a war orphan, she is, though she wears squalor primly, aristocratically, operating as if from a contained but constitutional hunger. In the second half of the story, the soldier-writer has left Esme’s town, gone to the front and suffered a nervous breakdown. His squalor is an unraveling. The story he has promised to Esme is the story we’re reading in the book. He’s writing it for her, but also for himself. Aren’t all stories like that — for ourselves and for others?

Bringing a book into the world made me forget myself and what I was doing it all for anyway. I’m no kid, but it might be nice to channel some of Esme’s wide-eyed open-heartedness, just looking for stories to read and write that are important and that will move her.

After my book was published, I heard from the guy again. He told me he thought my title was beautiful. A few months later, I published an op-ed in the New York Times about the president’s most recent reckless, heartless decision. “Really great piece in the Times,” he wrote, just hours after it was published. I received the email while at the college I had attended, where I was working a visiting professor, all just a few miles from where we’d met over a dozen years before. “So beautifully said, and so needed …” I admit that his recognition meant something to me, and it felt like his old advice, too: Don’t worry.

“Isn’t it a pity that we didn’t meet under less extenuating circumstances?” Esme says to the soldier, before stepping back out into the rain.

***

Being back at college as a professor offered some reflection on the stage and experience of being a luminous know-nothing. My students radiated conviction, promise, determination and Esme-like hunger — and also unsteadiness. Magnificent as they were, they were also like newborn deer, slick with brilliance but wobbly, not yet confident on their own feet. I recognized them, I loved them, I wanted them all to shine like that forever.

I hung out with some old professors. There’s such a fine line between the ones who supposedly know things and the ones who don’t. I struggled to not swear in class. I struggled to dress professorially. The struggle was really about whether I should struggle at all. Who cares? Dressing for book events has also vexed me. “You don’t wear jeans to an event at the New York Public Library,” my friend told me. She was trying to help me. I wore a dress. It was the right choice, but the two men participating in the event wore jeans. A profile written about the other writer mentioned the panel and gave accolades to the moderator. But I — the only other author on the two-author panel — wasn’t mentioned at all, as if I’d been invisible up on that stage. Perhaps I should have worn jeans. I was quietly outraged at the article’s erasure of me, then I was outraged at myself for giving a damn. This isn’t you. Was I more like my students, or more like my professors? Every day I felt a different way.

The story he has promised to Esme is the story we’re reading in the book. He’s writing it for her, but also for himself. Aren’t all stories like that — for ourselves and for others?

“When you’re not in the mood to be charmed,” one professor told my class years ago, “you’re certainly not going to charm yourself.” I’d written that advice down. I thought of that, years later in the rain, as I pathetically searched the shelves of my favorite bookstore for my own name.

That same professor had once assigned us a story. It was xeroxed a little off-kilter, and was, as far as I could remember, by Chekov. The story was about a young woman and a young man who go sledding, and as they rush down the hill, him holding her tightly around the waist, he whispers into her ear, I love you. Or does she imagine it? She can’t be sure if she heard it right, or if she heard it at all. They sled and sled all day, and again and again he either whispers I love you or she imagines that he does. She never knows. The professor read the story aloud to us, and it transfixed me.

I tried to find that story for years but I had forgotten what it was called. It wasn’t in any Chekhov collections I could get my hands on. Perhaps it had been by Babel, or Gogol, or someone who wasn’t even Russian? Back when I was younger and my ambitions more vague and rosy, not really ambitions at all but mere flutters of the heart, I would search the shelves — of all the same bookstores I would search for my old flame’s name and where I now searched for my own — for that story, determined to find it. I never found it.

Now back at the college, I joined that old professor of mine for some beers. I inquired about the story and confessed my years-long search. Had I been misremembering the story all along?

“I love that story,” he said. He still taught it. It was by Chekhov. He told me its name.

I instantly wished I hadn’t asked. The quest to find it had been stirring and devotional and personal; the mystery was now deflated. Knowing felt like the deadened hollow of having grown up. But no matter, it turned out, because, two beers later, I stepped out into the frigid January night, the whole world black and frozen crystalline around me, and I had forgotten the story’s name.

This means I can keep looking.

Who knows what my next book will be, or if I’ll make another book at all. What I’m working on now is a revival, and on following some advice of my own: I’ll go back to the bookstores, willing myself not to search for my book on the shelves, just like I used to will myself not to pick up the older, married man’s calls. I’ll search the Chekhov collections for the one about the boy who maybe whispers to the girl on the sled and how she spends her whole life wondering if she imagined it. It was what he had or hadn’t said to her that stayed with her, not so much the glistening day, the feeling of careening forward, the ice tearing beneath her, the wind.

Let me remember the ice, the glisten, the dazzling speed of life, that blue rainy day, the books I’ve loved, the feeling of my own book in my hands, the way that Russian story moved me.

***

Lauren Markham is the author of The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life.