The Real Cal recommended that I take a break from novel-writing to hone my writing skills with diligent practice. Just like a martial art or any sport, writing is an activity that can be trained through repetition and targeted exercise. He asked me if I was writing anything besides The Total Manageability of Everything and when I told him "no," he recommended I pick up a copy of Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones.
I was living in New York at the time, so I took Metro North into Manhattan and went to the Barnes and Noble on 5th Ave. I was still new to the city, so there were only a couple of places I knew I enjoyed, where I could feel comfortable taking a seat on a bench with a coffee, reading a book. One such place was Bryant Park.
I opened the book to see what I could learn.
Goldberg swears by the timed writing exercise. It's simple, set a timer for an interval, she recommends starting with ten minutes, and then write until the timer goes off. She advocates writing first drafts by hand and keeping the hand moving, no matter what, until the timer goes off.
This was harder than it sounded for me, at the beginning. I wanted to pretend I was Flaubert, agonizing dramatically over every adjective and simile. Goldberg didn't even propose a topic, she just said to start with whatever was in front of me. So right there, in Bryant park, I set a timer for ten minutes and opened my notebook.
I started writing about what I saw, and ideas those sensations aroused in me. There was a strange five-year stint where I didn't carry a regular notebook, so I still have no idea where those original words are. I know I wrote them in ink, but it's possible I just used some scratch paper or a notebook that has since been lost.
It felt forced, at the beginning, to robotically describe my surroundings, but as I kept my pen moving, other perceptions started to slip out onto the page. Chronologically, this took place before I had identified my depression and sought treatment for it, so my description of the park is melancholy and pessimistic, in keeping with my worldview at the time.
Fri, 23 Aug 2013
Bryant Park is one of my favorite places in New York City. I don't feel like I have to limit my claim specifically to Manhattan, but I know my New York friends would appreciate that level of specificity. "The notion of New York City belongs to people who don't live here," they say. Or so they would say, if I had any friends in New York. But I don't, I sit here alone.
New York is a great place to be alone, and Bryant Park is one of my favorite places in it. It sits in the shadow of the main branch of the New York Public Library, a destination in itself with sprawling marble staircases and pillars that take themselves too seriously. My understanding is that this branch is not a lending library, it is simply a historical artifact that may have some ancient volumes valuable for purely sentimental purposes. When entering and exiting, you must present your bag to a security guard to ensure you take nothing other than you brought. One would think a simple anti-theft tagging device would suffice to thwart theft, but I am not a New Yorker. They think differently, there is a different kind if risk assessment that presents itself to their minds. I should say their mind, for New York is a hive, full of pack animals that move in large, orchestrated groups amongst cars and buildings, a new ecosystem between man and machine and architecture.
But I digress. Back to Bryant Park. Bryant Park sits in the shadow of the main branch of the New York Public Library. It represents an empty grass field bordered by uniform small green tables and folding chairs. I'm struck by how well-lit but unpopulated the field is here in the center. There's more than enough space for ultimate frisbee or a game of soccer or at least one dog. But it's empty. The people flock instead to the tiny café tables at the edges. Maybe dogs aren't allowed at Bryant Park. I'm not sure if there are formal rules posted anywhere, but I'm certain I wouldn't see them if there were. My nose tells me equally that cigarettes are allowed and alcohol is not. I hate to admit it, but I do have a much keener sense of smell now that I've given up smoking, but that's a topic for another day.
I don't see any dogs at all right now, but the character of this park changes every day. Last night when I came there was standing room only, the green was covered by picnic blankets and camp chairs, the far end outfitted with a gigantic screen in preparation for a presentation of ET: The Extraterrestrial, a fact I learned from an unseen announcer when he proclaimed that, starting at seven, the southeast restroom would become "ladies only" for the remainder of the night. I did not stay for the movie.
I've also visited Bryant Park in the winter, and then the grassy field was covered with a thick disc of ice where several hundred individuals skated in circles. The surrounding area before the outlying café tables resembled a beachside boardwalk with several small huts peddling trinkets and carnival food. I would not have been surprised to find a carousel, but there was none, much to my disappointment at the time. I love carousels. Instead, I was there to meet a friend of mine, and I passed the time instead by simply watching the slow rotation of skaters around the axis.
The grassy field is rectangular now, and while its edges contain a loose scattering of little green tables and folding chairs, there is a defined border. A short stone wall with short round pillars encompasses the perimeter and marks the boundary between open plain and carefully cultivated courtyard. The stone walkway that rigidly winds its way around this wall extends to meet large square plots of garden where ivy, wildflowers and trees may be found. Set within these little gardens are bird baths far enough removed from the edges to allow the little birds to bathe in peace without fear of being encroached upon by humans, but this is where this idyllic rustic dream breaks down. I know the birds of this city, and none would have made it past the city limits for any amount of time if they had any reservations whatsoever about interacting with man.
Even now, a little finch or sparrow (I'm no good with birds) dances about my feet like a child playing before a hearth, in hopes that I will drop some morsel of food, even though I am eating nothing. I don't eat often as it is. The birdbath remains vacant, and the tiny birds bathe instead in the puddle of runoff between 42nd St. and the sidewalk drain. If I drew closer to it, I doubt I would even find water in its basin. This does not distract from its appropriateness here, however, and this brings me around to what it is I truly love about Bryant Park.
Bryant Park represents the intersection of all these different facets of New York life. It represents the heritage and legacy of New York with its archaic library, the incessant opportunism of capitalism, the desperate attempt to preserve some memory of open spaces and the ultimate failure of this pursuit in the service of making efficient, productive use of what space is available. Finally, though these tiny gardens are littered with such artificial elements as these abandoned bird baths, Bryant Park represents a desire to keep some aspect of nature a part of everyday life and everyday scenery.