Four years ago I wrote an essay here about a smallish southern city where I used to write for the newspaper by day and work on my fiction at night. It was, and is, a pleasant place for a writer to live and work, a city with a rich literary tradition but none of the self-importance of Iowa City or Brooklyn, a place content to operate under the radar and leave its writers in peace. Randall Jarrell, who taught at the state university’s local campus for many years, referred to the place as “Sleeping Beauty.” In a letter to his friend Robert Lowell, Jarrell wrote, “Greensboro leaves one alone just wonderfully.”
I mentioned many local writers in that essay about Greensboro, NC, from native son O. Henry right up to the biggest contemporary brand name, Orson Scott Card. Among those many writers was Lee Zacharias, who has just come out with a collection of essays, her first, called The Only Sounds We Make.
Zacharias, who had previously published a collection of short stories and two novels, brings a pair of vital skills to the enterprise of essay writing: she notices, and she remembers. These skills are invaluable to any writer, but especially so to the creator of the kind of deeply personal essays Zacharias has produced in this collection. When noticing and remembering are fused, as they are here, they can breathe life into anything, from the most intimate moments to the most cosmic subjects – the nature of light, writers’ workplaces, a father’s suicide, the visible and invisible lessons of the Grand Canyon, even the surprising allure of buzzards.
One of the most poignant passages in the book comes midway through an essay called “Morning Light,” which is ostensibly about photography. Making photographs, as Zacharias discovers, requires more than an understanding of f-stops and depth of field. “To make a photograph,” she writes, “you must learn how to read light. You must develop a feel for its chemistry, its texture and color; its purity must become palpable to you. But to read light is to experience ephemerality, to know your own mortality, the fleeting nature of all things.” This effortless veering from the practical to the philosophical continues with this explanation of Zacharias’s motives for taking up photography:
I learned to read light because there was a time when I needed to be without language, when I needed to travel back to that place where nothing is named and we dream in pure light and color. When I failed to publish my second novel, I believed that words had failed me, and I didn’t want to write another just because I was expected to. If I was to write again, it would be because I needed words, not because I was a writer.
She stopped writing for two years, then wrote another novel, which also failed to sell. “How, without whining, is one to describe the way her world dims?” she asks. “It’s as if she’s been a member of a club; then one day she tries the clubhouse door to find the lock has been changed.” She continues:
And so I taught myself to speak another tongue. For a decade marked by the faltering of my career, my father’s suicide, my son’s troubled adolescence, the decline of our remaining parents, and the sudden irreversibility of aging, I made photographs.
Zacharias, who taught in the creative writing program at UNC-Greensboro for many years and edited The Greensboro Review literary journal, eventually came back to writing. But 32 years would pass between the publication of her second book and her third, a novel called At Random. Now, a mere year later, comes The Only Sounds We Make. Zacharias tells me she has finished another novel and is at work on a new one set in western Michigan during the Depression. It appears she has relocated the key to the clubhouse door.
Zacharias’s writing about her childhood and her difficult parents is some of her best. In the essay “Mud Pies” she tells about her early years on the South Side of Chicago and her family’s eventual flight to a raw new suburban development in Hammond, Indiana. Zacharias’s writing is supple but never flashy, and she is typically clear-eyed about how this massive social convulsion touched her life: “I would not pretend that I actively miss Chicago lest I be accused of sentimentality – I was not yet five years old when I left – yet I do feel nostalgia, the kind Pete Hamill speaks of in his book about Lower Manhattan, Downtown. Sentimentality is about lies, he says, nostalgia about ‘real things gone,’ not so much about what we remember, but itself ‘an almost fatalistic acceptance of the permanence of loss.’ The body cannot remember a lie.” The essay ends on this grace note:
I used to believe that my nostalgia was so intense because I felt I had lost something I never possessed. But the truth is that we do not possess our lives. As true exiles know, we stand too easily to lose them, and in the end we are all just passing through. It is what we remember of the journey that we possess. I own a little girl sitting on a curb in Chicago in the barefoot sandals her mother always made her wear with socks, and in the curious stillness of that moment when she looks up from her mud pie and cocks her head in wait, I know that what she is waiting for is something to remember.
Zacharias’s parents, who eventually divorced, were a couple of tough customers. Her mother was “manipulative,” “overbearing,” and “exhausting,” and yet “no mother’s love could have been more unconditional.” Her father was a misogynist, a tightwad with no close friends who, to top it off, was ashamed of his daughter’s vocation. “He was ashamed not just of the writing itself but of the fact that I wrote,” Zacharias says. “He didn’t see the point. He kept a log of his gas mileage, but he never kept a journal…He had beautiful handwriting, but no use for words.” Hard to believe that such a couple’s daughter would become an accomplished writer, but Zacharias’s life is a reminder that there is no template, no blueprint for making writers. They come from anywhere and nowhere and everywhere in between. After her father fired a .357-caliber bullet from a Bulldog revolver into his own head, Zacharias was able to write words that seem nearly heroic, yet she makes them sound simple, even humble, possibly inevitable: “My father was who he was. He died how he died. But because he was my father I loved him.”
There is levity in these pages, too, most notably on the day of Zacharias’s second wedding, when she and the groom stood in their living room with a minister who was an old friend. The only witnesses were their dogs, one of whom spent the ceremony vigorously humping the minister’s leg. The minister kept shaking his leg, trying to soldier on. “His voice quavered with the effort,” the bride reports, “and every word he read sounded like a sob.”
The dozen essays in this collection appeared in a variety of journals, including Antaeus, Southern Quarterly, Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, and Southern Humanities Review. My favorite, “Buzzards,” was reprinted in The Best American Essays 2008. It is an astonishment, with glints of etymology, zoology, mythology, photography, family dynamics, and the various roles buzzards have played in the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, Federico Garcia Lorca, Darwin, Hemingway, Faulkner, and the Bible. Despite her wide reading on these mysterious unloved birds, Zacharias fails to mention the timeless opening of Jim Harrison’s novella, Revenge, so I’ll quote it here:
You could not tell if you were a bird descending (and there was a bird descending, a vulture) if the naked man was dead or alive. The man didn’t know himself and the bird was tentative when he reached the ground and made a croaking sideward approach, askance and looking off down the chaparral in the arroyo as if expecting company from the coyotes. Carrion was shared not by the sharer’s design but by a pattern set before anyone knew there were patterns.
Zacharias’s sin of omission is forgiven because she knows all about the ancient patterns. And because she can write lines like these: “What I discovered when I took a close look at the hidden world all around me is that each of its creatures is as serious about its life as I am about mine.” And these: “I do not dream of vultures. I have never dreamed of flying, though as a child, lying in the dark, awake, voiceless, listening to my parents fight, I used to dream of escape. Perhaps that’s why I grew up to be a writer.”
Perhaps. Probably. In the end, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Lee Zacharias is back inside the clubhouse. She has published a splendid book of essays and she has more books in her. And that’s very good news for us all.