Guest Post: Sejal Shah

Sejal at the Blue Mountain Lake near the Blue Mountain Center.
Photo courtesy of Hillary White. 

The following is a blog post is by Sejal Shah, a local writer and Writers & Books instructor. This spring, she will be teaching a creative nonfiction/fiction course as well as co-teaching a writing & yoga workshop at the Gell Center (you can find more information about these courses and our other spring offerings here).

Over the last ten years, I have had the opportunity to spend time at a few different artist colonies including Blue Mountain Center (the Adirondacks), The Millay Colony (Hudson Valley area), Ragdale (Chicago area), and Sanskriti (New Delhi, India). Wherever you are geographically, a residency at an artist colony means the gift of time to read and write and create. This winter and spring in a self-styled residency at home (March is still winter in Rochester and is the perfect time to burrow in), I am undertaking dual reading: reading something new and re-reading something well-loved. Last week, I finished Sonja Livingston’s memoir, Ghostbread, and appreciated the poignant descriptions of growing up in Western New York. Her book allowed me to experience the area as though seeing it for the first time. I am also re-reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. When there is a certain kind of heavy winter snow, I always feel nostalgic for The Great Gatsby—especially the passage where Nick describes taking the train home from the East heading toward Chicago and the Midwest. It reminds me of the long drives and ride shares my brother and I would take from Boston when we were there for school back home to Rochester.

Last fall, my friend Cat suggested I undertake something she had read about another writer doing: retyping favorite or classic books. I loved the idea as a way of engaging more intimately with the text. In high school, I used to retype poems on our old electric typewriter as a way of memorizing Whitman’s and Eliot’s words and syntax. I am now re-typing the The Great Gatsby. Here is the passage I mentioned earlier:

One of my most vivid memories is of coming back West from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who went farther than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six o’clock of a December evening, with a few Chicago friends, already caught up into their own holiday gayeties, to bid them a hasty good-by. I remember the fur coats of the girls returning from Miss This-or-that’s and the chatter of frozen breath and the hands waving overhead as we caught sight of old acquaintances, and the matchings of invitations…and the long green tickets clasped tight in our gloved hands. When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour, before we melted indistinguishably into it again. 

There’s something about March in Rochester, where we are still in the trenches; for me, as for Alexa, it’s an introspective time. In that vein, I also plucked from my shelves a book the Seattle writer Wendy Call gave me a couple of years ago. It’s by another Fitzgerald and it’s called Slow Time: Recovering the Natural Rhythm of Life. Winter in Western New York is the ideal time to do just that.