I’ve been reading “Insomniac City” by Bill Hayes, whose blog I regularly follow. It’s lovely—his blog posts are few and far between, and this book is a collection of stories and notes, indulgences lined up one after the other. He writes about his encounters with strangers in the city.
Tonight he came to Berkeley to give a book reading. I arrived late—ran from class to my bike, biked up and down the wrong hill, tracking to Ms. Dalloway’s Bookstore by memory in gridding the real world from Google maps. I quietly made my way forward and put my backpack on the ground. I was offered a chair by a staff member, and settled in.
His voice was higher than I imagined. He was smaller too—compact, muscular, filled his suit out well. From my vantage point, I could watch how he leaned on the podium, switching one leg to swing behind him, switching over. He was an experienced reader; read the book differently that the voice in my head. He was slower about it. More dynamic. The funny parts stood out more, as did the sweeter parts. I could see how the book was his voice.
He answered questions, making sure to repeat them for the audience. He said he’d written this book in six weeks, and that he felt like he was channeling the joy that his late partner, Oliver Sacks, had had in writing, in a way that he’d never experienced before. He was easy with the audience. He changed questions to make them interesting, or changed questions when he had an answer to a similar one. I could hear him repeat himself, from what was written in his work. Sometimes the same words, sometimes just the same frameworks in interpretation.
He did book signings, afterwards. I walked up, took out my bookmark— I’d made it almost a third-way through, in illicit binges between reading science articles.
“Hey, I wanted to ask you two quick questions,” I say, when I make it to his podium.
“Sure,” he says, smiling easily, taking my book and flipping it to the title page.
“Do you end up talking with strangers every time you go out? Like, the subway?”
He glances up, considering, then down again, takes out his pen. “Yeah, almost every time. I’m pretty fearless with strangers. Less with people that I know, actually. Should I sign this to you?”
“Yes, thank you! It’s ‘Monica’. And my second question—you write about this appreciation and beauty in strangers, and I think this is your only book quite like that—your blog posts are all like this.”
“Thank you,” he says as I pause, still trying to wrangle the thought.
“I was wondering if you knew any other authors like this?”
He’s silent longer that time, squinting his eyes, even with the long line behind me. “No,” he declares at last, and I draw back, laughing.
“So you’re unique, then.” I grin. He’s smiling too, and I take my book. “Thank you.”
I walk back to stand by my backpack, quiet in the warm light of the bookshop. I’ve always like bookshops—they’re very safe spaces, for me. There’s a babble of voices around me, but I’m wanting to stay, reflect on that interaction, get something more, more answers. I pick up a book of poems a friend recommended, leaf through it, am not immediately drawn. I look around for the woman who offered me a chair, and find her.
“Hello. I was wondering—he writes about appreciation and beauty in strangers. Do you know anyone else who writes like this?”
She’s staff, but not working the counter right now—she has the time to stand with me. She thinks. “Oh! Who’s coming to mind is Studs Terkel. He wrote—’Hard Times’, and ‘Working’…”
She tells me more, leads me around the counter, sees if she has any books by him on the computer. I write his name down on a post it. I ask her for any other authors, and when she’s silent, I try prompting her.
“Like, Humans of New York?”
“Oh—those are images though? But they get to submit stories… now that you mention it, I can see what you mean. It’s not a common niche, though!”
I think to myself: how funny! “Humans of New York” is the immediate response I hear from all of my friends whenever I mention the gist of Bill Hayes’s writing. But “Humans of New York” is a Facebook-based collection of stories. Most of the people in the audience were older—a generational gap.
I tell her that I’d like to do the sort of thing Bill Hayes does. She brightens, says that all I’d need to do is become good at focused listening, be gregarious with strangers, be also a thinker and a writer. I write a blog, I tell her. She tells me she’ll look it up, and gives me her business card.
I’m biking back to campus and mulling this over. Bill Hayes meets strangers, talks to them—”it’s how I collect stories,” he says. I mentioned that I was going to a book signing to a friend, and she asked me what I like about him. “He has this appreciation of people that I identify with, and I want to write like him.”
I do. I was asking him about other authors in this area, because he’s by far the closest to how I see myself writing, and I stumbled upon him by accident. I’ve read Oliver Sacks, and when Dr. Sacks died I learned he’d had a partner, and since then Bill Hayes’s blog is the only one I’ve ever subscribed to.
I worry about where this blog will go, where I want it to go. It feels immature, in its current form—like something necessary for me to sort my thoughts out, a sounding board. But I keep on meeting people who want to read it. I’ve started to discover the astonishing joy of introducing myself, interacting with people, and them wanting to read what I’ve written.
I want to write what I like to read. I don’t feel like that blog is quite there yet—it’s why I appreciate so much and am always so curious about what others see in it, because I want to bring that forward until I can see the value that they are seeing. I see huge value in writing this blog for myself, but I think there are occasionally flashes of art in it. Flashes only, though, and I’m never sure where or what they are.
If my form of writing could be anything, though, it could be short narratives about conversations I’ve had, where I’m the first-person narrator, where I’m describing something beautiful or interesting in another person. Unlike writing fiction, telling those sorts of stories have never felt forced to me. Fascination and caring about other people does not feel forced to me. I’ve enjoyed talking to strangers for a long time, and trying to get the feel of different groups. I like people. I like thinking about people. I like writing about them.
As I’ve been reading Bill Hayes’s book, he gives us insight into Dr. Sacks—how his mind is brilliant and whimsical at rest and in relaxation, just as I see the thoughts in his academic writing. That is surprising to me—somehow I’ve always felt that Dr. Sacks’s work was just that, work, and that he must relax at home, lose the clear, poignant wanderings so clear in his writing. It makes me think that maybe our work, or at least our writing, isn’t necessarily as distant as our natural ways of thought.
And if that is the case—that what will emerge in our writing is a clearer, more edited, but still a narrowing of our normal selves—then I am even more grateful to Bill Hayes’s work, because his is a model that so perfectly encapsulates my own. I feel like I’d be happy to go out with a camera and capture people in a city, go talk to people and glance at snippets of their lives. There are limitations—I’m a young woman, and that limits what situations I can get into, and much more deeply, how people interact with me. I also have a primary job and life pursuit, and venturing out to talk with people would be alongside in parallel, as writing is for me now. Still, there isn’t necessarily a mandate that I talk with strangers across all walks of life—the strangers and people I interact with now are also varied and fascinating, and as the bookshop woman told me, there is still much I can do.
It’s just so freeing, I feel, to read his writing, because every time he describes some situation as beautiful, the imperfections of people as beautiful, the joy of meeting and connecting with someone, the intricacies of conversation—I feel that, and that thought keeps on echoing in me—I feel that. I feel that, and I could do that, I could see myself doing that, I could see myself writing that, that is what I do already, this is already who I am, I have those skills, I have those inclinations, in my best moments, this is how I see the world.
It makes me want to live in the city, makes me want to get on the keyboard, makes me want to reach out to more people, makes me feel validated that I am. I’m obviously not as skilled as he is, but in a sense that doesn’t matter. Someone to emulate, aspire to, a model– that’s just as or more valuable to me than having those skills already. It was a joy to meet you and you writing and your thoughts, Mr. Hayes: thank you.