Searching for the Writing Life


Searching for the Writing Life

by Sandi Sonnenfeld ’85

I was twenty-four years old and enrolled in my first year in the MFA Creative Writing program at the University of Washington when Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life first hit the bestseller list.  I devoured each page, my heart pounding as she spoke of words that hammered against the walls of one’s house, about how writing was the freest way to live. I gobbled up each of her delicate bon mots as if they were the finest Swiss bon-bons. I read and re-read passages until they flew off the page and entered my bloodstream by osmosis, her words reverberating off the soft spongy walls of my brain.  Apart from being a wonderful guide on what it means to write, Dillard’s book exhibited the best in what good writing should be: fresh, interesting metaphors, near perfect use of rhythm and repetition, and complex ideas presented in a strong narrative framework.

I was twenty-four and in love with the idea of success as much as I was in love with words, and as I read her book, I vowed that I would always live the writing life.  I would write brilliant novels with insightful characters that made readers laugh and cry at the same time. I would gather around me a group of writing friends, a modern-day salon where nearly every conversation would be about the meaning of art, the importance of literature, and the role that we as artists would play in the world.

Most of all, I would never, never hold down a nine to five job.  That was for conventional people, for lawyers and Boeing engineers, for telephone repairmen and marketing reps, not for “creative” people such as myself.  Besides if I worked a regular job, I would never have time to write.  So I would do as Dillard did.  As all my writing teachers at Mount Holyoke, my undergraduate institution, and the University of Washington did.  I would teach creative writing.  One or two classes a semester, filled with inspired, talented (though not more talented than me I hoped) students whom were also committed to the writing life. And of course, after the appropriate amount of rejection, I would win my first Pulitzer Prize, the acceptance speech for which I had already been writing in my head for at least a year.  Ladies and gentleman of Columbia University…

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Story: Mrs. Chandler Can Sing

Sandi Sonnenfeld ’85 is the founder and Managing Editor of The Lyon Review.  Her short stories, essays and journalism pieces have been published in more than 30 literary magazines, including Sojourner, Hayden’s Ferry Review, ACM: Another Chicago Magazine, Mr. Bellers’ Neighborhood, The Storyteller, and Perigee.  She is also the author of a memoir, This Is How I Speak, for which she was named a 2002 Celebration Author by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.  After graduating from MHC, Sandi received an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Washington, where she studied under National Book Award Winner Charles Johnson.

Mrs. Chandler drives her station wagon down the same street every day. It is a nice street, with wide, neatly marked lanes, and two straight rows of leafy trees that line either side. Mrs. Chandler notes how the branches of the trees bow towards each other like pairs of giant lovers joined together in a permanent embrace.

Mrs. Chandler thinks the trees remind her of Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn, which she read during her first and only year of college before Joey Chandler came home from Korea. They got married right away in a small Catholic church in Brooklyn, just a few blocks from where the two of them had gone to high school. Two years later, they moved to a three-bedroom home on the south shore of Long Island.

Now, Mrs. Chandler makes sure that her four children get safely on the school bus every morning. Then she goes to the supermarket to do the family shopping. She goes every day because her husband likes to have only the freshest vegetables in his nightly salad. Max, the grocery clerk, waves to Mrs. Chandler from among the radishes. He tells her that cantaloupes are on special today.

It’s early in the season and the melons are small. She holds the rinds up under her nose, smelling their flesh. Mrs. Chandler raises one to her ear and gives it a good thump. She listens to the sound it makes, checking for ripeness. Her husband is very proud of her ability to always pick the right melon.

Mrs. Chandler knows that her husband is very proud of her.

Three times a week in the afternoon, Mrs. Chandler teaches her children to play the piano. She starts with easy tunes, placing her fingers over the smaller ones of her children, showing them how to press down on the appropriate keys. She tells them that when she was a little girl, notes on a scale looked like little bugs trying to wriggle off the page. She asks them to wriggle their fingers as fast as they can, so they can keep up with all the bugs, especially the spiders, which are called sixteenth notes. Mrs. Chandler’s third child, Jenny, is afraid of bugs and starts to cry.

Jenny cries far too often, and Mrs. Chandler worries about her. She also worries about her eldest, her Danny, because at thirteen he disappears up into his bedroom for hours on end and when she walks by his door all she hears is silence.

The silence frightens her–when she was growing up, the kids played stickball and tag in the dirty Brooklyn streets. There were always shouts and mild oaths, the sounds of competition and loss and victory.

Here on Long Island, there are tree-lined avenues and well-kept lawns to play on. She often tries to make Danny go outside to play with some of the neighborhood kids, but he rarely does what she asks.

Danny says that the games are dumb.

Dumb is better than silent, Mrs. Chandler thinks, but does not say so out loud.

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