Joy Farm, poet e.e. cummings’ New Hampshire Summer retreat, is full of mysteries and treasures, winding trails that lead to burnt-out ruins, and a growing collection of literary memorabilia. We are staying at Steep Acres, a three-season cottage on the property. My convives are a small, merry band of fellow Spalding MFA grads (and a professor or two we may have writer-napped). We’ve gathered for at least the purpose of writing, wine, and chatter. We yawn our minds wide and embrace whatever ghost or good vibe or energy floats close by.
It’s just before dinner. I’m alone for a bit. So, I, the moth, climb wide wooden steps to the literary flame to an upper room in the original house. It is an unheated attic room constructed with rough-hewn, aged timbers from floor to ceiling. The owners have cast about countless literary gems, including a September 1, 1952, issue of Life magazine. On the cover, Ernest Hemingway assumes a look so smoldering it could melt pencil and paper from any writer’s grip. The pages unfurl a first read of his novella, “The Old Man in the Sea,” a story he’d had in his head for years and wrote to prove he wasn’t washed up. Or, so it goes. A thrill runs through me.
Just to the right of the display case and hanging from a post floats a life-size, photographic cut-out of the poet-owner sporting a vintage fur ensemble worthy of a brisk New Englander hike. Every eave of the room keeps watch over literary trinkets, art, handmade furniture, and books…oh, the stories each do tell!
An early October sun leaks through the bottom of the double row, paned windows running the length of the room with a wide-angle view of Mount Chocorua. A movement, and I startle. The light from my cellphone bounces off several mirrors. I realize the movement is me. The poet’s swaying cut-out is silhouetted in the background. I peer at my reflection for a long moment; it is my other self. In late day light, my face has a look of…how I feel…inside. I’ve never seen it before: confident, secretive, mixed with a little bravado, a little surprise, and yet, still curious.
All my life, I have been a woman on the hunt for her writer self. I’ve looked in stacks of notes, in the sturdy feedback of writers I respect, in diplomas and sashes, and the remembrances of a young girl’s starry wishes…and, here she is staring back at me in this inky room. Simple as that.
I’m looking for the “I” in my own “Borges and I,” (he more adept at writerly self-discovery). I hear her in my head when I read her prose and stories and unfinished novels and when she loses herself in conversation about writing and Story with a student — but, maybe not, with her peers (that’s Karen most times). I’m looking for the sanguine, the hidden one who should be out and about slaying the lazy dragons of my daydreams, of my stalling.
In the space between us, I’ve encouraged and bolstered her, paid for her MFA sash, and nudged her up in front of the world to read or sing a few of her lines. And, maybe, she’s shown up in the soulflesh from time to time, but I’ve never looked upon her face until this night, in this room. For the first time, we’ve both been caught staring.
I urge her to stay, or, at least, to take me back to wherever she goes.
She is non-committal, as usual…sly, even, but agrees to one picture — as long as I don’t call it a “selfie.” She likes the way of the masters, so we call our collaboration “our selves-portrait.”
Read “Jorge and I” here:
Self-Portrait Writing Exercise: Writing a “self-portrait” by reading “Jorge and I” by Argentinian writer giant Jorge Borges is one of my most popular exercises. It’s such a freeing exercise of confession, introspection, and self-humor. Read “Jorge and I.” In your writing journal, title this “[Your-first-name] and I.” Set a timer for 10 minutes and write from your other self’s point of view. Try to add a tongue-in-cheek twist at the end…who is really writing this self-portrait? Are you ready to admit—and distinguish—between both of your real selves. Maybe there are more than two? If you need more than 10 minutes, repeat your timer. Don’t quit on this one. It’s a little more complicated to get through. And, it’s perfect if it’s complicated and twisty and shadowed! You may find this goes very long. In that case, once you’ve revised and polished the long version, try to write a pithy, one-paragraph “self-portrait.”
Tip: Sometimes it helps to look in the mirror and try to lose that “look.” You know the one where you compose your face. This time, let the veil drop and watch yourself think and feel.
Showing: Afterward, if you’re feeling full of courage, share your one paragraph version in the Comments section below. These are a delight to read!