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Q&A | May 20, 2013 0 comments
Describe your latest work. When I started working on Plant-Thinking in 2008, I had no idea that the project would turn out to be as broad as it did.... Continue »
Intrepidby Kelly McMasters
I first saw the USS Intrepid in 1999, not as part of a historical tour of the city, but as the venue for a party being thrown on its top deck. It was summer, and as I clambered up the aircraft carrier's skinny metal stairs in my heels, I wondered how I'd be able to navigate these steps on my way back down at the end of the night; the invitation had promised an open bar. I'd moved to the city just over a year before and had been working at a law firm down on Wall Street as a legal assistant. The inhuman hours we kept often working between 80 and 90 hours a week meant that we became one another's best friends and often more, and this night just about the whole bullpen was in attendance. We danced and drank and let the wind much more forceful three stories up on top of the ship kick up our skirts and ruffle our hair.
Despite the drinks and party lights, I couldn't quite push away a certain melancholic gloom that night. Most of our group of assistants had been at the law firm for a year, and a division had become apparent those who had decided to apply to law school, and those who had not. I was in the latter camp.
I'd taken the job directly after college, assuming I would continue on to law school after a year or so. Growing up in the blue-collar town of Shirley on the east end of Long Island, a simplistic mathematical equation was engraved early on in my child's heart. Job + Suit = Success. Always interested in words, I thought the law seemed a natural fit, and I imagined it would satisfy the writer side of me as well as offer financial security. But after working there only a few months, I'd been tapped for a case involving a group of Holocaust survivors who'd petitioned to recover valuables and cash that had been stolen by the Nazis during the war and secreted away in Swiss banks. The only problem: my law firm was representing the Swiss banks. I couldn't accept the offer, no matter how plum.
Shortly afterward, I was asked to go to Tokyo for a different case. Our client was again a bank, and the firm was working to secure them a $445.5 million loan. After flying over in business class with my suitcase full of what else? suits, and getting comfortable in my fancy hotel, I learned that the loan was to fund the construction of a dam and a power plant in the Philippines, a project that would displace thousands of villagers whose families had lived there for centuries. Don't worry, we're paying for them to learn new trades, the bankers assured me. Like basket-weaving. Two months later, I left Tokyo feeling depressed and duped. I worried that I'd keep winding up on the wrong side of things if I continued on this track. By the time the Intrepid party came along, I knew I did not want to go to law school.
I decided to quit that night on the boat.
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I'd planned on being a lawyer for so long that once I made my decision I was lost. Although I'd always written for school literary magazines and for myself, writing had never fit neatly into my equation for success and security, so I had never before considered it. Now, unanchored and grasping, I plucked the very important lesson I'd learned at the firm any jerk can put on a suit and changed course, edging closer to writing through a series of editorial jobs.
By November of 2006, I'd gone to graduate school for an MFA in nonfiction, met and married my husband, begun teaching at Columbia University, and started to write my book. Looking back, it was my time at the law firm that now seemed aberrant rather than the writing, but news of the Intrepid brought those days rushing back.
In a much-needed attempt at an overhaul of the ancient battleship, plans had been made to move the Intrepid from its dock at Pier 83, where it had been since 1982, to Bayonne, NJ, on the other side of the Hudson River. My husband and I sat glued to NY1, watching a fleet of tugboats churn the murky waters as the Intrepid shoved off from the shore for the first time in 24 years. Cheers and hoots from the crowd that had gathered quickly changed to silence as the 36,000-ton aircraft carrier wobbled and stuck, the tugboats grinding uselessly in the river, a pack of small dogs yanking futilely on their leashes.
I knew this feeling well. I'd been working on my book, an environmental memoir about my hometown, for almost two years. I'd recently received a contract for the project, and ever since the idea for the book had changed into a reality, I felt very much like that big old ship stuck in the mud. I couldn't get going. I wrote the book's introduction over and over and over again, showing up each week to my workshop with a different version as I watched my writer friends' foreheads crease with worry. "Forget about the introduction," they wisely counseled. "Just get going on the rest of the book." I'd written three chapters for the proposal, but the other nine loomed on the horizon, ghost ships that I scrambled after, only to turn around and find myself lost in the middle of what felt like a very large sea. Staying docked seemed a much safer option.
After a month of dredging the river floor and sending scuba divers down into the wintry water to free the stuck propellers, the tugboats hooked onto the ship for a second time. A crowd had again come to give the Intrepid a hearty send-off. And they again fell silent when the tugboats jolted to a halt after moving the giant ship only 15 feet away from the shore. Men ran along the deck and shouted things into the wind. The tugboats screeched and squealed, refusing to give up, and finally the old battleship groaned and pushed forward toward the middle of the river. The Intrepid was free.
My release happened a few weeks later. My workshop staged an intervention of sorts, telling me kindly but sternly that they wouldn't be looking at any more introductions. I had wasted half of the time allotted by my publisher and now had less than a year to complete my book. Once classes finished for the semester and my teaching duties ended, I sequestered myself in the old farmhouse that my husband and I had recently bought and were renovating. I sat in one of the bedrooms for the entire winter break, coming out only for food and sleep.
For the first few days I stared out the window into a stand of ash trees. Then I mapped out the chapters across the wall of the room with index cards. I replayed the same eight songs over and over again on iTunes. And one day, when the fear finally subsided, sliding from me for just a moment like vines releasing my wrists, I sat down and began to write.
I finished a full chapter during that winter break. And I continued to work consistently from then on out. By the following summer I'd finished my manuscript, on time. And I felt relieved to cut it loose from the shore, to shove it off toward my editor, patiently waiting on the other side of the river to start the overhaul. But it was also sad to watch this bundle of pages float away, unmoored and alone.
Pier 83 stands empty now, and has for almost two years. I think I've looked at the sign announcing the date for the ship's return more times than I have the actual rig. In a few months, there will be a party, and the refurbished Intrepid will glide into its pier. I don't think I'll visit the ship. It won't be the same. Just as I can't ever call my pages back to shore, that old Intrepid, where I made my decision to change course, is no longer. I can't ever return to the experience of writing my first book, the combination of muck and release, even as I start work on the next. I already miss those days, staring into the trees and typing until the pads of my fingers stung, scared out of my mind. And I'm preparing myself to miss that sign announcing Intrepid Museum returning Fall 2008, and the time when the ship was not safely docked.
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Kelly McMasters is the author of Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town, published by PublicAffairs. Her essays and articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post magazine, Newsday, Elle Decor, Metropolis, and Time Out New York, among others. She teaches writing at Columbia University and through mediabistro.com and is the codirector of the KGB Nonfiction Reading Series in the East Village. She lives in Manhattan and northeast Pennsylvania with her husband, the painter Mark Milroy.