At the Stranger’s Gate

I feel like Adam Gopnik has taken all my despondency about the state of the world and of writing and perfectly articulated them in a way that simultaneously makes me more disillusioned and also offers some relief. We’re all in this together after all.

Although in At the Strangers’ Gate, Gopnik goes on and on about artists and quasi famous people I’ve never heard of (having not been born at the time of their prominence, and having studied journalism, not art, and having grown up in a house where folk-style birds stenciled on walls were as far as art went), nonetheless he carries some more relatable themes in several essays. Or some things that make me go “ah, yes, that’s how I felt and couldn’t quite manage to express.”

“And most forty years after our arrival in New York I look up and realize I have spent my entire adult life doing exactly what I wanted to do and it still feels as if I hadn’t done it,” he writes. “How this happens I’m not sure, expect that I am sure it is a universal emotion: accomplishing something longed for never feels like an accomplishment, only an accommodation, one that others have made for you and you have made for others …  Certainly the feelings that we anticipate will crowd around us once we’ve accomplished an ambition are never the feelings we get.”

Those moving goal posts ruin everything.

About writers writing—or trying to: “The voice we search for is the voice we have, but cannot hear for all those other voices in our heads.”

Working in marketing and mimicking the voice for a brand of pink razors targeted at women simultaneously kills your soul and your writerly voice. Double whammy. I used to come home from work and tell my husband I couldn’t hear myself over the idea of how marketing for a crappy real estate development is supposed to sound. Is it comforting? Peppy? How do you communicate sex appeal for laminate flooring?

On writing jacket copy for books that communicate the essentialness of reading the book: “You achieved this effect with a small roster of imperative sound adjectives: “urgent,” “taut,” “intense,” “unforgettable,” “delightful,” “galvanizing,” “important.” (Good writing is done with verbs and nouns; “copy”—advertising, of whatever kind—with adjectives alone.)”

I almost died laughing. I realized for the first time why my ‘good’ writing for real estate brochures was so unapologetically rejected for being accurate and clean. I should have made better use of galvanizing. I had a client once demand that I write (for a real estate brochure) that the bus stop was steps away from a new development, when in reality it was 15 minutes away. We didn’t get along.

On teaching writing classes — “(When I have “taught” them, my primitive bleats about form and structure and sentence shapes were drowned out by the intelligent and unconditional support each student gave to all the others—the point of taking a writing class, I had to learn, is to be in the writing class, to be lifted up by—or to—the common identity).”

Accurate. Heaven forbid you ever question someone’s choice of an Russian anthropomorphic cat as a main character. Smile, nod, uplift.

About having a good life: “It’s exactly because we recognize that talents are unfairly distributed that we want to be sure that the necessities of a good life are not.”

The above point is why I’ve always hated the triple threat: actor, singer, dancer, who also somehow cranks out a novel while I ponder the menial existence of an underemployed writer.

About shop talk (or, more freshly: buzz words): “It took capitalism to discover that teaching people a specialized professionalized vocabulary helps keep them from asking what the profession is for. The point of the talk is to keep you from thinking too much about the shop.”

That thought is depressing. I’ve sat in meetings where people threw out so much verbal garbage I left the meeting completely unsure of what I was supposed to be doing, but confident that it would be scalable, involve KPIs, big data and curation.

In read reading all my notes, careful photos of paragraphs from his, I’m inclined to call Gopnik a sort of genius, but writing, like beauty, is always in the eye of the beholder. If not the eye, then the heart.

Adam Gopnik was at Events 52 (Adam Gopnik in Conversation with Charles Foran), 64 (The Proper Study of Mankind) and 68 (Our Home and Adopted Land), at the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival.

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