Notebook Days

By Tess Taylor ’00

The snow was falling and Brooklyn was, at least for a moment, hushed. Inside the brownstones off 4th Avenue, lights flickered. Snow spun in and out of shadows. The air smelled like wet wool and cigarettes.

I had just moved into my first post-college apartment. For the last time that day I climbed the cracked wooden stairs to the floor-through I’d found with the friends of a childhood friend—20-somethings from Milwaukee, none of whom I knew yet. I was splurging on the big back bedroom, the one that came with a jauntily cockeyed armoire, a fire escape on which I could smoke, and a view of an empty lot and Brooklyn’s clock tower.

Illustration of writer with eyes, nose and mouth indicated by random letters

Illustration by Javier Jaén Benavides

I had no plans yet. I had not unpacked my printer. I had no résumé. My futon eyed me balefully from the floor. I was out of sync with my graduating class. I had taken a semester off and moved to Paris during my sophomore year, and now I was graduating late. In mid-January 2000, I was settling myself away from Amherst, my parents, my friends. I had a firm notion that I wanted to write but only the vaguest notion of how to support myself while I did.

I did have classic city determination—a crate of books, a few connections, a lead on a waitressing job in a converted funeral parlor a few blocks away. I had no sense of how to get published, how to find other writers, how to submit work. I did have an undergraduate thesis collection of poems that I’d written under the supervision of Glyn Maxwell and William Pritchard ’53. If I ate carefully, worked part-time and bought no new anything, I had perhaps three months of financial leeway to look for a job.

Here’s what I knew: Writers read and writers write, and so each day I tried to do these things. I memorized Elizabeth Bishop and W.H. Auden poems, and I bookmarked pages with my receipts for pho. I spent days at the New York Public Library. I read Seamus Heaney. I read Charles Dickens. I filled notebooks with what I was learning, what I saw, what I thought I might want to write about—a bird trapped on the subway, or Irma, the homeless woman who seemed to be     beloved in our neighborhood.

I was also panicking. It turned out that several of my friends who were going on in the arts had trust funds—not just short-term ones, but hefty sums. Other friends from college were studying for the LSAT or getting work as consultants. I was living off lentils and the staff meal at the funeral-parlor-turned-restaurant. My one nice pair of shoes was wearing out. When people asked me what I was doing I said, “Being a writer,” but I felt like a fake. My heart would race. I’d run to the restroom and wait for the panic to pass. For what claim did I have on this profession? I had the most excellent (and among the more expensive) educations the country could offer, yet here I was calculating the cost of lentils and calming myself by reciting “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” on subway platforms. I felt absurd.

I went to see a friend of a friend, an older Amherst alumnus, who worked at a fancy literary agency. He asked me what I wanted to write. “Poetry,” I said. He fixed me with a rather owlish stare. “Rather impecunious,” he said back. My heart dropped through the floor.

Blindly I kept reading, writing, making lists, making phone calls. That spring some ice cracked. A friend who worked at a website offered me a chance to write blurbs. I tracked down the friend of a high-school flame, now a magazine editor. I pitched her eight ideas she didn’t want, but she eventually began assigning me stories. I found a job in publishing, then more gigs. Eventually I found my way to journalism school. My notebook collection grew.

Somewhere between waitressing and writing blurbs I reassembled that senior thesis into a collection of poems that I entered into a competition sponsored by the Poetry Society of America. Miraculously, I won. That was a decade ago. There were still a lot of lentils and plenty of panic attacks after that. But now, with more than a decade of writing, teaching and publishing behind me, I  honor that roving, impecunious self.

Tess Taylor ’00

Tess Taylor ’00

These days I have what feels like a normal, even joyful life. I get up each morning and as soon as I can, I get to my desk—though that is harder now that I have a child who needs to eat breakfast and read a book about trains first. On my desk there is work to do: I write essays and correspond with writers and editors. I pitch stories. I apply for grants. I plan a class I’m going to teach. When I am lucky, I write a poem. When I am lucky, I get lost in a book. My work is work: If someone asks, I tell them, “I am a writer,” and I mean it.

Read Tess Taylor's poem, "Some Thoughts on the Bergen Street Renaissance," about her time in the Brooklyn apartment.

Taylor is the author of a new book of poems, The Forage House (Red Hen Press). She teaches writing at UC Berkeley and reviews poetry for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker and other publications.