On a Saturday in early May, as my husband and I were driving to the Mass Poetry Festival, my right eye suddenly started to do things it never had before. A large gray floater drifted with metronomic precision across my field of vision and, in the peripheral edges, I saw what looked like lightning flashes. It was an overcast day, not really sunny, but what the Scots sometimes call bright. At first, I thought my eyes were simply adjusting from indoor light, but the symptoms persisted, and as they did, panic mounted. I knew that one or both of these —a sudden increase in floaters, flashes of light— could be signs of a retinal tear. Worse, the onset of retinal detachment. I spent the day listening to poetry, while trying not to be distracted by the eye or catastrophic thinking. Was I going to be vision-impaired? How would that fit into my reading-and-writing life? The floater and flashes, it turns out, while persistent and annoying, are just part of the normal aging process. My symptoms are the result of the vitreous humor, which is normally Jell-O-like, shrinking and liquifying. My retina is fine, but it took a few visits to specialists, and some fairly aggressive eye exams, to reach that conclusion. It was in the waiting room of one of those specialists that I found a philosophy.
Three and a half weeks after the initial onset, I met with a doctor specializing in diseases of the retina and vitreous. Her waiting room, which was shared by several offices, was a sea of mahogany chairs with maroon leather. The appointment lasted many, many hours, most of which I sat out with other patients, each of us waiting to be called in for one exam or another then sent back. I seemed to be on the same cycle as an elderly man and his wife, both of whom must have been in their eighties, but looked younger. He was loud and lumbering. When his wife was out of the room, he told me how many years they had been married, and that he first dated her sister. Each time she spoke to him he croaked, What…? He was gruff, impatient, but on one occasion he whispered something tender about a vacation. He had the attention-seeking behavior of people who don’t understand boundaries in public spaces. I would have buried my face in a magazine, but the multiple dilating drops had kicked in and I was semi-blind. I moved to a bank of windows and stared out at the street, trying to ignore him, but each time his wife was called away, he engaged me in conversation. I responded with a polite terseness that I hoped he would read as discouragement. He didn’t. On one occasion, when it was just the two of us and he was sitting half a room away, he said, “Do you know what the three keys to a successful marriage are?” I looked his way, and before I could say anything, he held up three sausage-y fingers.
“Number one: Gut communication,” he said, gripping his stomach. He folded his index finger down.
“Two: A sense of humor.” Only the ring finger was left.
“Three: Non-sexual touch. A pat, a hug, a squeeze. The human species —and we’re all members of the species— the human species needs affectionate touch.” It didn’t escape me that when he said the word “pat,” he caressed the air the way some men stroke their wives’ bottoms.
I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t disagree. And then I thought that if I had to distill the secrets of a successful marriage down to three aphorisms, I might choose something very close to this loud and lumbering philosopher’s. He was called away, I was marooned in the sea of chairs, and it suddenly occurred to me that his philosophy could be grafted onto writing, and if I did that, it might look like this.
One: Write from the gut, write authentically. “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” Elmore Leonard proclaimed.
Two: Don’t take yourself, your words, too seriously. “When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone,” Stephen King has said. “Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt…but it must be done.”
Three: Touch the reader, her soul, in some way. “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me,” Emily Dickinson declared, “I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
It’s not a perfect fit, this “found” writing philosophy. The grafting might not yield hearty, new growth, but it has a ring of truth, some value. The floaters still annoy me most days, still temporarily gray my vision and, when I’m tired, light sparks in my periphery. But my vision is somehow sharper. People, like writing, can be a process of discovery and surprise. And the next time I’m in a waiting room, I may not engage with the strangers around me, but I won’t assume they don’t have something valuable to offer.
—Jane Poirier Hart, WROB Poetry Fellow