January 2016

Sarah Van Arsdale


My Famous Friend

There was a time recently when I had come to dread hearing the name of one of my oldest friends. And I heard it with disquieting frequency. Or read it in print, in one prestigious publication or another, some of which are delivered directly to my door.

I heard her name, or saw it in print, in email messages from the Public Theater, or on NPR, or even, once, on the little TV in the elevator of the building where I teach. That was the time she was awarded a MacArthur "Genius Grant."

As she became more famous, every time I heard her name, I was pierced with envy, engulfed by a claustrophobic, panicked despair that I will never have the acclaim for my work that she does for hers. I hated that about myself: my hunger for recognition as a writer and artist. I knew that my envy only distanced me further from her, and yet I was helpless against it. No wonder I stopped listening to NPR.

Even saying "my work" makes me self-conscious, and a voice inside me scoffs, "Your work? What work is that?" My three published books of fiction, soon to be four. My charming little watercolors. The darling animated films I've made. It isn't that my work itself seemed puny and amateurish, but that the little corner of recognition I've claimed seemed dwarfed beside hers. Every time I heard a mention of her name, I'd hear a faint, unflattering echo of my own.

Every artist or writer feels a flicker of envy, disappointment, and even angst on hearing that a friend, no matter how talented and loved, has received the prize or publication we've been vying for. But this was different, and, at first, I wasn't sure why I felt so deeply envious.

Because I didn't feel so pierced by the success of my other friends who are writers and artists, I knew the answer lay in Alison's and my shared history. We first knew each other casually, in Northampton, Massachusetts, then the epicenter of the known lesbian world. The town was bustling with lesbians who were coming out, falling in love, playing softball for the Hot Flashes or the Resisters, organizing marches. Nobody even thought about gay marriage then: we were busy fighting the patriarchy and practicing our fastballs and sorting out our complicated, fraught relationships.

Alison and I didn't know each other well enough to have any complications; we were just two of the nerdier dykes in town. Both of us were known to frequent the lesbian bookstore, WomonFyre, playing softball for a season for Red Scare. And then she moved away, and started drawing a cartoon strip called Dykes to Watch Out For, which became quite popular; she was kind of famous, at least among a certain set of lesbians. Like the citizens of a town that produces a president or movie star, the lesbians back in Northampton took pride that she'd come from us.

A few years passed. I earned an MFA in poetry, without much of a backup plan. I fell devastatingly in love with B., and when she broke it off, I had what would have been called in earlier times a nervous breakdown. One afternoon, after seeing B. for the last time, I was in such pain that I thought the only way out was to kill myself. But then I thought, no, I'll write this as if it isn't happening to me, and I wrote what would become the first sentence of my first novel, though of course I didn't know that at the time. When my obsession and grief continued, the only other thing I could think of was to move somewhere remote, and cold: Grand Isle in Lake Champlain (population 5500), close to the Canadian border. And there I found a cottage for a cheap rent, though calling it a "cottage" makes it sound much more adorable and insulated than it was. But it looked onto the water through a scrim of crooked cedars, and it had a weak-kneed front porch where my big orange tabby, Fred, and I could sit in the evenings, watching for bats.

When I announced to my writing group that I was leaving, one woman said, "Hey, that's where Alison moved." She had moved from Minneapolis to pursue an (ill-advised) relationship with a woman who lived in a big old wreck of a farmhouse on the island.

She was getting recognition for Dykes to Watch Out For; by then, one of the larger of the small lesbian presses, Firebrand Books, had published several volumes of the strip, which was running monthly in newspapers across the country. She was shy about the attention she was getting, almost self-deprecating, saying only, "I have to go to New York this weekend," not mentioning she had to go in order to receive a Lambda Literary Award.

She was earning her living -- by no means lavish, but what did we know then of the expense of online ordering? -- from the strip. The sentence I'd written back in Northampton, which I thought of as my lifeline sentence, had inspired me to write what were either short vignettes or long prose poems about a character very much like me, but braver and more daring, whose heart had been broken, and who had moved to an island to induce amnesia in herself. I was still kind of a mess, eating the same meal every night (pasta, which I found I could cook, drain, return to the pot, and eat, with minimal effort), longing for B. and feeling sorry for myself. My indulgence in my heartache was counterbalanced with a different kind of misery: teaching comp at the community college on the mainland.

All that first summer, Alison and I saw each other daily. At some point after noon, I'd hear her shout from my yard, and we'd go out in her canoe while my Fred watched, alarmed, from the shore, or we'd sit on my rocky beach, or we'd bike around the looping island roads.

We talked about writing and art and recognition. We were both isolative -- look, we were living on an island. I showed her the vignettes, and she said they all sounded like one voice, that maybe they could be a novel. She said I was the real artist: I was writing poetry and these poetic vignettes. I said she was the one doing work that was changing the culture. "You're a fucking genius," we said to each other about an idea for a plot twist in her strip, or about a line of mine, or about some scheme one of us concocted.

By the early 1990s, I had stitched the vignettes together and was certain they were a novel. At that time, there was a lot of talk in lesbian and gay publishing about "crossover" books: books that had gay or lesbian protagonists and yet were being published by mainstream houses. There was a schism between lesbians who pursued mainstream publication and those who stayed with the smaller lesbian and women's presses, and Alison was staying with hers. She had little choice, given that there was nothing mainstream about her work; the title alone pretty much preempted her strip being picked up by something like Houghton Mifflin (and preempted easy airplane conversations with strangers).

But my book was different. Mine was elegant and spare, and didn't directly talk much about lesbians. It had more about mountain lions wandering around and goldeneye ducks coming in for a landing than it did about lesbians. I found an editor at Riverhead Books who loved the book enough to publish it.

I felt that I was betraying Alison and other lesbian writers I knew whose work took on lesbian life more directly. I was moving away from them, into the world of broader recognition.

Toward Amnesia sold 8,000 copies, then went to paperback. By the time I had another novel to sell, Blue, the publishing world had changed, and I went through several agents, none of whom could sell the book. Then it won the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel and was published by the University of Tennessee Press.

This story can't be told without acknowledging how the publishing world has turned upside down since the early '90s. When Toward Amnesia was taken, publishers weren't so afraid to publish a novel that might read more like a poem, though they were afraid to publish books about lesbians or by people of color. (And as we know, many still are reluctant to exceed their annual self-imposed quotas of books by these authors.) But back then, a book's success wasn't measured only in numbers of copies sold. The ground of the publishing world kept shifting: medium-sized houses being bought by huge companies, bookstores going out of business, marketing departments exerting much more influence on acquisitions. And then there was Barnes & Noble growing like a tumor. And then there was Amazon.

Publishers then were willing to take risks they aren't today. An editor may love a manuscript, but if she doesn't recognize the name, if the writer has published a few little books and no big blockbuster, that editor's neck is going to be on the chopping block when the book's sales aren't stratospheric. Many manuscripts, beautiful, poetic, with compelling plots, are languishing on the desks of writers who are just not going to be the next big thing; or, with luck, they're published by the brave and hardy souls running small presses.

By the mid-nineties, Alison and I had both left Grand Isle, but still lived near enough to each other that I'd hear her car pull into my driveway, hear her shout, and we'd go out in a canoe or up a mountain together. Now, I was living in a cottage that was more like a house, no longer on Grand Isle, and I'd taken to eating proper meals. My broken heart had mended.

One day, in the canoe, Fred again watching from the more comfortable, grassy shore, she said she wanted to write something about her father, but she had doubts about it. Over the years, in canoes and hiking up Camel's Hump, she'd told me about him, how he'd died in an accident when she was in college. She wasn't sure it was an accident, though; she thought maybe he'd been gay. Maybe he'd killed himself. Right after she came out. How could she write about these things if she wasn't sure? Did she have a right to write about them?

Yes, I told her. I'd learned by then that you need to write about what you most need to write about; that's the only rule that means anything.

But how would she live? Her only income was from the strip. There was no way she could start this project and still do Dykes. It was the dilemma faced by every artist: should she risk everything, somehow steal the time each day to work on both the memoir and the strip, and see if this crazy idea had anything to it?

While she continued to put out Dykes every other week and began work on the memoir, I was working on another novel, and teaching, and selling the cottage and moving to New York, and seeking love. I landed a contract for my third novel, Grand Isle, with SUNY Press, a small, nonprofit university press run by dedicated, underpaid people.

And Alison's book? She found a mainstream agent and it quickly sold to Houghton Mifflin. You may have heard of it. It's called Fun Home. When it came out, Alison was suddenly everywhere: in The New Yorker, reviewed full-page in the Sunday Times, interviewed on the radio. I couldn't even get into a downward dog in yoga class without hearing someone talking about it. It really is a terrific book, but it's partly gotten so much acclaim because of that aversion to risk on the part of the publishers and prize-givers. With the great reviews for Fun Home, Alison was fed into the monstrous fame machine, and once you've gone down the chute into the maw, you're pumped through the prizes and awards and invitations to speak to starry-eyed audiences.

The year that Fun Home came out, before the annual writers' conference I attend every year, which she's never attended, I saw her name as one of the headliners, and that's when I knew I would have to overcome my envy, somehow, because instead of feeling happy that I'd get to have a drink at the hotel bar with my old pal, my heart sank, with a little sister's pout: her again.

At that conference, an acquaintance approached me in the hallway, his eyes shining, and I was startled and pleased that he was so happy to see me, until he said, "Are you in touch with Alison? Could you give her my email?"

What makes this more complicated is that it isn't that I'm not happy for Alison; I am over-the-moon happy for her. And for all of us: she's won the game for the home team. Not just for lesbians, but for all the writers who risk everything to write the book they most need to write. A truly talented and dedicated writer has created a risky, meaningful book, and has received the acclaim she should.

What makes it more bearable is that Alison and I do talk about all this. When I talk to her, I feel as if she's still just my old pal, the one who would skid her bike onto the tiny lawn of that summer cottage, calling out my name; it makes me feel again that we are simply two creative people, engaged in the daily tug-of-war with the work, how it resists us, then gives.

And yet, these moments of people wanting to reach her through me, of seeing again the ad for the musical based on the book, of hearing another interview on the radio, still pierce me, as I imagine her, toting her suitcase around the globe, invited to give a talk, attend a gala, teach a class, receive this award or that honor, while I keep burrowing into my fiction, running my hands over the stories I hold, looking for the pulse point.

I've been tormented most by the question of why I haven't gotten anything near the recognition that Alison has: is it what I fear most, that my writing is simply not that good? Could it really just be the vagaries of the publishing world and the market, that Alison is easy to pigeonhole and, therefore, to market? Is it the luck of the draw? Is it, perhaps not without irony, that I eventually got involved with a man, and while I keep one foot firmly in the world of queer publishing, I just don't have a niche? Is it that she's not only doing great literary and artistic work, but also that it's of such cultural importance?

The bald, and somewhat shameful fact of it is that I wanted badly to be famous. I wanted people telling me I'm brilliant, publishers asking for a two-book deal. I wanted the world to look at me and see all my talent and hard work and wit and gifts and take me up in its arms and love me, love me, love me.

When Alison took me to see the musical Fun Home at the Public Theater, we talked about the trajectory of our friendship, and she drew a little graph on a napkin. Here, with Toward Amnesia, my career went up; here, with Fun Home, hers did. "But now, you're on a different graph altogether," I said. Honest, realistic, she nodded, a little sadly. "Yeah," she said.

When I could take my self out of the picture, when I could see this as simply something thrilling that was happening to my old friend, I was happy and proud. The pride comes about because I felt I had a part in it, that all that hiking up mountains and paddling in canoes as we talked about the work and our creative process was in part responsible for her completing Fun Home and then getting it out to the world.

It was when I allowed my thoughts to turn to my own life, my own work, that I shuddered with dread. My three books, even in multiple copies at the ready in case somebody wants one, don't take up much room on the shelf.

But then, when Alison got the MacArthur, something in me shifted. She'd finally gotten the biggest prize, the prize we'd joked about with each other.

And two things happened: I saw that what bothered me most wasn't anything to do with Alison, but was to do with me, with questioning how dedicated I've been to my own work. What have I been doing all this time, all the time Alison was doggedly practicing her drawing and her storytelling with Dykes to Watch Out For? I was moving from one coast to the other and back again, or getting into another ill-fated love affair, or writing poems, then a novel, then taking up watercolors. In my worst moments, I felt I'd been doing nothing but going to the grocery store and worrying about what to wear.

Alison's MacArthur forced me to settle my hash with what I've done so far, to take a step to the side of where I'd been standing and see all that I've done as being marvelously abundant -- not just the writing and art, but also the moving coast to coast, and loving and being loved, and teaching, and swimming laps. Burying Fred, and adopting a new cat. Even the worrying about what to wear.

The other thing her MacArthur gave me was that I saw that the famous Alison Bechdel is only possible because of me -- but I don't mean me, individually. I mean all of us. Without the second-place winners and the runners-up there would be no writers and artists who hit this crazy winner-take-all fame jackpot. And ultimately, we are all in it together, trying to find the time and concentration to work, whether the work is interrupted by being the speaker at a gala dinner or by correcting student papers. We're solitary, each of us working on a private, nascent idea, but we're also a part of each other's process: one artist drawing a picture of lemons somewhere in the world makes the room for another artist to paint a big splashy abstract. "It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil / crushed," as Gerard Manley Hopkins said.

My father's father was an illustrator, a contemporary of Norman Rockwell, in Connecticut. He did some oil paintings, and now I have several of them. They're very good, one in particular, a party scene around a dinner table. He wasn't ever famous, but he made a living illustrating, and he made the time, despite struggling to support his family, to paint. I think of that dinner party scene when I think of this: the party we're all at, while we're here, where we all sit at the table, and everyone is happy to see each other. Would you like red or white?

Alison's rise to fame has shown me that I'm part of a thrilling and unpredictable world, and it's shown me that all I can do is to continue to do the work. That's all any of us has, in the end. The little idea that crawls into your brain at night to fester there, urging you to just try this one sentence, or to make this one drawing. It begins in the smallest, most intimate and private way, and it's up to the artist to follow that barely visible line, knowing it may lead precisely nowhere at all.

When Fun Home was about to open on Broadway, I went for a hike with Alison, up good old Camel's Hump. She wasn't sure what to do about buying tickets for friends: there were only so many she could afford, and she didn't want to leave anyone out. And then there was her family. And the cast. I told her to throw a party at a bar near the theater and buy however many tickets she could, and not to worry about it. If you invite people you love to a party, and give them a free ticket to a show, everyone's happy.

And we were. My partner, the writer Peter Bricklebank, dressed up "like a dog's dinner," as he likes to say, and I wore a slinky black dress.

I didn't get to talk to Alison or her girlfriend, Holly, much, they were so swarmed by people. There were a couple of theater stars there, and of course the Fun Home cast, and, as one friend, the poet Elaine Sexton, put it, "power lesbians" from the world of entertainment and theater and politics. But I didn't care about that; I just wanted to watch the crowd and drink my vodka tonic and wonder that here I was, all these years later, watching Alison rise up, up, up, watching as she drew us up along with her.

After the party, we all walked over to the theater, Alison's arms full of bouquets. She clearly knew the way, weaving gracefully through the crowds of theatergoers. Once inside, she very sweetly asked someone to move forward a couple of rows, so she could sit beside me, and even though I couldn't pull my eyes from the stage once, I loved knowing she was there, right next to me, the real, solid, old-pal Alison.

Sitting next to her in the theater, watching the show -- her own childhood, the stories I'd been hearing from her for the past 30 years -- appear on the stage, I felt not one wisp of envy. That the show is remarkably well written, choreographed, and performed, that the musical score is terrific, and that the show says universal and deep things about the human condition, with charm and humor -- all in all a supremely entertaining musical -- made is even easier to love it. I felt proud, and moved, and glad to be living my life: a life that includes my friend, the genius.

The show is a marvelous breakthrough; it's indicative that all our protesting and lecturing and hectoring and persuading and voting did something to change the world. A Broadway musical based on a book about the complications of the out lesbian daughter of a closeted gay man: Stunning. And, well, still just a little bit piercing.