by | Mar 14, 2016

I’m still thinking about a day last January when, at the request of my publisherI spent the morning at a recording studio in downtown Minneapolis. There, I read my entire second book aloud as we taped what would become an audiobook version of The Alphabet Not Unlike the World.

I’d never felt at home with Alphabet in quite the way I do with my first book Atlas. Which is weird, because I was far better supported during the writing of Alphabet. I worked on it with an editor at Milkweed, and was part of a writing community. ButAlphabet was written under a great deal of pressure. Pressure to follow what had been a surprisingly successful first book. Pressure to finish and get the book taken by a publisher in time to apply for a job that was opening at the college four blocks from my house. Pressure over whether Milkweed would truly give me a contract when our work together was done. Plus, Alphabet had been written in mounting private despair. At home, my husband and I were trying to start a family, and instead of getting pregnant, I racked up a series of miscarriages. Suddenly I was in my late thirties, and the future looked very different at that decade’s end than it had at its beginning.

Practicing reading Alphabet at home made me feel as if I were being punished for something. It was the emotional equivalent of writing on a blackboard “I will not — I will not —.” Every time I started to practice, I felt sick. When I came down with a horrific cold one day before we were scheduled to record, I was both relieved and worried I was faking.

This is the part of the story where I’m supposed to say I had some sort of wise epiphany. It was only sort of like that. I did what I always do: I think about writers I admire, and what they would do. I mean the ones who are great artists and great people, writers who are true to their work and themselves. Like Jake Adam York, who had written me a kind note about Alphabet two days before he unexpectedly died of a stroke at the age of 40. If Jake were here, I thought, he would tell me to be proud of the book (he would most likely tell me I should be glad to be here at all). He would say to record it and go on working on my new project. So that’s what I did. I was still troubled by the violence and despair that permeates Alphabet, but, as Phil Levine once shrugged, “I write what’s given me to write.” In those five years of my life, I wrote about what I had been given to write.

Really, the taping session was great. The engineer was just out of college, and reminded me of someone I used to know. The Milkweed intern hailed from the deep south, a former student of an author we both admire, and I loved hearing her take on Minnesota winter. I’d done my usual — over-practice — and the taping wrapped up in a mere 2-1/2 hours, not the 4-6 hours Milkweed had reserved. The sound booth felt weirdly like a confessional. I learned so much about the arc of that book I was so done with (literally, emotionally) that I think I should forevermore read aloud entire manuscripts in one sitting.

I did keep trying to make small edits in the poems as I read. I admire the way that Patricia Smith freely edits as she performs, so her poems continue to evolve. But the engineer kept breaking in through the headphones to say things like “I noticed you said ‘their’ but in the text it’s ‘the.’ Could you read that again?” His job was to create an accurate transcription. I thought about telling him about Patricia Smith. Then I thought, Just read what’s on the page and go on.

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