My first literary effort was a song. “Ice skating is nice skating except where the ice is thin,” I sang into my uncle’s tape recorder. Next, I wrote a poem in which I worried that spring fever would send me sick to bed and another where I feared that Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity had been precipitated by an injury from the apple that fell on his head. A child with so precocious a preoccupation with the perils of exploration was likely to become a psychoanalyst. What I wanted, however, was to be a writer. Also a ballerina and an astronaut, but even as a child I knew those aspirations to be pipe-dreams. My body was not made to take flight. Accepting the reality that my feet would never turn out in fifth position, I still believed I might craft a well-turned phrase, or even write a sentence whose opening moved deftly towards its end.
In my early twenties, just as I might have begun a career as a writer, I stopped writing. While always shy about my writing, as I entered adulthood my shyness became paralyzing. I could not show my writing to myself. My enervation was so complete when I began analysis that I did not consider my wish to be a writer a topic worthy of exploration. I had put away childish things. My wish to write had become like a soiled tissue pocketed deep inside the recesses of my being. Rediscovered, it would remind me of my failed talent or nerve.
Instead of writing, I studied several foreign languages, none of which I truly mastered. I became a psychoanalyst. I delivered papers, stuck more in a drawer, and focused my literary energies as an enthusiastic if occasionally overbearing editor of other people’s writing.
In my late fifties, returning to visit my analyst after my mother died, I told her my dream about a magical blue and turreted city. I had climbed a long way; the city beckoned me from a distance. My analyst noted that I had not yet arrived at my destination and then asked about my writing. I gave her my standard answer: I was too busy editing to write. The dominoes of prohibition and evasion were still falling in line within me. Sometime later, I surprised myself by writing a poem, my first in forty years. It’s called “Swing Dance on Frenchman Street.”
I wish I were Fred Astaire.
Not Cyd Charisse.
Not Ginger Rogers.
I can make you daube de boeuf
Chicken with vinegar
Arrange fruit in a bowl.
I wish I were
Swing dancing on Frenchman Street.
The man with
All the moves
Keds are the best shoes For swing dancing.
At first I thought the poem was just a song, a ditty about a Sunday afternoon spent on Frenchman Street in New Orleans. Now I see it is about impasse, about how I allow myself to do certain things but not others and can keep my dissatisfaction with myself close at hand. In the service of not writing, I can always stir the soup, walk the dog, floss my teeth, wash my hair, buy new shoes and then a new lipstick. I can get a pedicure, straighten a drawer, then a shelf, then a closet, maybe, if I’m ambitious, the entire house. I can check my email, then the stock market and then, to give myself a treat, the cost of real estate in the Vaucluse. I can fret over Republicans, a patient, or my aging skin. If truly desperate, I can lose something in order to find it. I can pick a fight or read The New Yorker; yes, even read The New Yorker.
There is much I don’t understand about why I stopped writing and how I again began to write. Writing sometimes still seems like an unattainable city on a hill, not a destination I can reach by putting one foot in front of another if I remember to wear my Keds. On the other hand, I could rearrange my list of evasions into a poem: “Annette Leavy’s Recipe for Impasse,” or perhaps “Stirring the Soup.”