Since last Saturday I have had the music of Lin Manuel Miranda in my brain, dancing and thumping and feeling like a heartbeat, and as I search for a way to articulate the epic experience of Hamilton, I now sit and listen to this phenomenal parade of musical numbers blasting from my sound system … all so full of heart and humor and – yes – enormous intelligence. I want to learn to rap! I want to prance down the street singing a line or two of truth! Truth. What a great concept!
I am now plowing through my 240 page memoir in an effort to edit and re-tweak some parts to elicit more drama and texture, and I struggle … What with? Making it great, so great that people will sigh with pleasure when reading it, put their hands on their hearts, and feel tears fall from their eyes. All of us who give birth to something original, and that certainly includes Lin Manuel Miranda, want to offer the world the very, very best. So, I return to scour the pages for places where I have trailed off into discursive thought and led my reader away from immediate experience. I can still remember sitting in the theater last week and crying with joy at the exquisite immediacy of Miranda’s Hamilton. You could feel it in your bones, running through your body, the wildly varied music and dance driving it all the way. I want the prose on the pages of my story to vibrate with the same immediate truth, and tangible, palpable life.
This intimate story I tell of my life unfolds in the tradition of Henry James and other essay writers of the 19th century … writers who chronicled their experience with beautiful attention to detail and a reverence for ideas and the life of the mind. When I read the lines on the page I feel I am at times channeling the brainy Mr. James, and sometimes that pleases me. But then, but then, there’s the question of just who out there in the world cares about a solitary privileged white woman’s reflections on Italian food, elephant families in Africa, cremation of the dead in India, or Monet’s water lilies? The older I get the more I realize I’m becoming more isolated — part of a dwindling community of “elders” moving more slowly and deliberately, feeling more vulnerable, and more in love with the simple riches of a human life. So, the tale being told in Bowing to Elephants is one of a physical and intellectual coming of age, of growing up and learning about wisdom and letting go. It is told in the manner of an impressionist painting, with layers and layers of color being laid on one another in delicate strokes, these sometimes transparent layers emerging from a memory bank that struggles with recalling the concrete experiences of childhood and early adulthood.
The artist’s job as far as I can tell is to take a small seed of an image, thought, line, or dream, and build on this, following your own unique inspiration. Miranda did this using a rather epic “seed” – an 800 page tome about Hamilton’s life. We invent and we shape our work using our particular creative juices and connection to life, and we must trust those juices. What makes any play great is both heartbreaking truthfulness and inventive voice, and I think the same holds true of a story, whether it’s a novel or memoir. Truth must be present, and so must the beating individual heart of the writer.
In the beginning of my book, I am a very young girl with an urgent question for my mother: to know the truth about my family. I reveal myself as a seeker. At the outset of Hamilton, he says: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean, by providence, impoverished, in squalor, Grow up to be a hero and a scholar.” Here he shows us exactly who he is and what he wants of life. And the entire play is driven by the strength of this edgy character. My story is propelled, I believe, by an insatiable need to discover reality, my own and that of many other cultures, so I may hold my place in the world. The two stories are very, very different, they’re dressed in very different garb, but their significance as creative works may not be all that far from one another. They are both works in which a complicated and troubled soul becomes more and more revealed to us, and to him (her) self.
Well, I must say that when I began my reflection here I didn’t know I’d end up seeing any parallel between my work and the magnificent Broadway play … that goes to show you that the “creative process”takes us on a mysterious journey. We must give ourselves to it and have faith. We must hold this faith because without it we might never be able to offer our own creative gift to the world. And that, I think, is the job for all of us no matter where we live, how old we are, and what we look like …