Wednesday, October 24, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 8 - Clothed and Naked

The phone rang again and again in this new happy, busy, non-writing time, and though I screened I almost always picked up. But I never answered when I heard it was Myra Mindell, former school teacher and not so confident editor at this young adult oriented publishing house for which I’d been doing small hack-tinted bread-and-butter books for nearly 20 years. Books with low but steady royalties that sold mainly to school libraries and were easy to do and took up very little of my time. These were sometimes books on countries I’d known well – Indonesia, Jordan – but they were in the catalog side by side with other books on countries written by members of American government or corporate world families that are housed in gated compounds and so know almost nothing of the foreign places they are in. And my next to last little book for this publisher had been one in a bigger format with photographs which was about modern China.

And, to my horror, not long before I’d begun screening out the school library publisher, that China book had sat for several weeks in an outdoor display window of the Donnell Library – you could not miss it when you crossed 53rd Street from the Museum of Modern Art – and to my shame my name was on it in big letters, the pretentious three-name author name I had used a decade back on the published novel that was supposed to change my life forever – and I had not confessed to the low-advance-paying bread-and-butter publisher that in my last go-round in Asia I still had not gotten into China – and still worse, I wasn’t sure it would matter to them that a book on modern China was by someone who had never seen it – who wrote it because he had the contract from before he went abroad this last time and because he was in financial trouble and needed the second half of the small advance money.

The phone was still ringing and I was still ignoring Myra Mindell. It was as if those calls were meant in some petty way to pull me back from all the richness of the life I was in. So I had not answered any questions that appeared on my machine about my recent manuscript for that publisher, which was a little historical book about John Cabot and the northern route to the New World, which made me yawn. And I had not answered any of her written questions either, and then I had not responded to Myra Mindell's silly little editorial changes, and after that I had not responded when they had sent me the manuscript after it had gone through a copy editor and was ready for production.

And my sorry, faking-it China book had been in the Donnell Library window when I crossed from the Modern Art Museum.

Though now – months that felt like decades later – there was something parallel going on up on 57th Street.

As I crossed 57th Street from near Carnegie Hall I saw in a display case on the fa├žade of the Art Students League’s wonderful old French Renaissance building two pastel paintings of mine – two portraits, faces of alive women, actual women I had just drawn and painted from life. Women I had actually seen.

And I had found while drawing and painting them that, as opposed to China, the fact that they had been there right in front of me posing without clothes on was my only hope of getting their faces right.

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