Through Some Distant Stirring

Unknown

 

Me and some Lone Justice
Dancing around alone
Through some distant stirring
Of long ago doors unlocked
Out of the bleak winter
Inside a gathering of shapes and angles
Bringing in with me some kind of tragedy
And seeing the unfamiliar face
Hearing that stranger’s voice
Hey where have you been? 
I’ve been looking for you
Pullling me in for a sway
This is for her
Not a love song
A moment so far from that
— a human kindness —
Hearing her voice again saying
I am afraid too
Me and some Lone Justice
Dancing
Through some distant
Stirring

(Lone Justice/Shelter/1986)

Working (addendum)

…and another thing.

Such is the life of a working writer. Just as you post something or send a piece of work out into the wide world, there’s more you want to say, or something you wished you’d said differently.
My recent post on writing being work failed to mention that the reason why a writer must compose or work at it every day is that because for every day you are away from your desk the worse it is to get back into it. The adage used to be, for every day you miss writing an hour of time is spent at your desk in an utter daze. So, away from your desk for, say, four days, expect four hours of painful hesitation and stagnation. For some, it’s not the rule, but for me it generally is.

Another thing about the work day for a writer, and by writer I mean someone who writes novels, or plays, or short stories or essays, not someone who writes for a newspaper or magazine or blogs. A writer of prose or poetry composes in a very idiosyncratic way and for a very specific amount of time. Most writers, the ones I’m familiar with, do not rise in the morning and write all day until it’s time to don the PJs — we all can’t be Nora Roberts (supposedly, she spends the entire day writing, which makes sense given she cranks out upwards of two or three books a year). Reasons for the length of time spent actually composing, not including revising or taking notes, or reading or staring off into space, is very individualized. But I like what T.S. Eliot has to say on the matter, his thinking reflecting much of my own. This was from his Paris Review interview:

Partly on the typewriter. A great deal of my new play, The Elder Statesman, was produced in pencil and paper, very roughly. Then I typed it myself first before my wife got to work on it. In typing myself I make alterations, very considerable ones. But whether I write or type, composition of any length, a play for example, means for me regular hours, say ten to one. I found that three hours a day is about all I can do of actual composing. I could do polishing perhaps later. I sometimes found at first that I wanted to go on longer, but when I looked at the stuff the next day, what I’d done after the three hours were up was never satisfactory. It’s much better to stop and think about something else quite different.

Working

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It’s taken me more time than I care to admit to, returning to working on my present project, a revision of a novel, one that I’ve promised my readers would be out this year. Well, maybe. We’ll see.

Practical and irrational reasons thwarted my attempts to get me behind my desk and at it. There were many days when I could not, and did not want to write. While writing can be quite a transformative experience for me, it’s mostly a work shift filled with a lot of angst and frustration.

For most writers, and I include myself, it is important that no matter how one feels, save an acute attack of the latest influenza or some such malady, a writer should be writing. Every day. Through the bad days and the good days. The highs and the lows. Even if it means writing little more than a sentence or two.

There’s an anecdote involving a famous writer who is said to have spent the day’s writing changing a comma to a period or some such thing only to change it back. That’s more or less the truth of it. It’s seldom a breeze, most often a struggle, getting it down right, and in some ways getting it down at all.

Paradoxically, the bad days don’t always produce bad writing, and vice versa. It’s a bit of mystery in that way. Writing comes from this highly idiosyncratic place from within, which appears to matter not the weather, or the writer’s emotional/physical state.

I was back at work today after two weeks of humming and hawing — albeit in concert with nursing my old Chihuahua through a scratched cornea — and got a few paragraphs down. One hundred words tops. Not much. The writing might not even be any good; that’s tomorrow’s assignment. For now, I got my work done. It was work.

And don’t let anyone tell you differently: Writing is work.

Again, blank discouragement. Have no heart to write any more

– George Gissing, writing in his journal. He wrote 19 novels

Lolo Gets Married

Sandra and Rowan Meadow Lolo

Sandra and Rowan Meadow Lolo

 

This poet wore her sleeves long
Talked about love the way most talk about God
Her heart, she said, was iambic seeking pentameter
Beating in a line filled with lacunae and noise
Sung her song anyway, damn sweet bird on a wire
Now I hear her voice
And I gladly roll down these leaves
My heart beating symphonic for this echoing cry
Her voice sings certainties
About what is right and just
That some things are true all along
Especially those that alight from sources deep
Inside a poet’s endless search for music in the arms of a beloved

(congratulations you two)

The 5, no 6, 7? Or Maybe 8 Ways to Happiness!

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Joseph Campbell is famous for saying, among other things, follow your bliss.

Great! Can you point the way?

Happiness is causal. Things happen and we’re impacted. The difficulty comes in trying to replicate what produced our euphoria, our flow or bliss. The conditions by which we obtain our happiness can be artificially constructed, but we all know that anything inorganic rarely produces anything near real happiness. And quite often all the things we need to make us happy can be present, and we’re still not in the realm of joy.

One of my favorite writers on the topic is Alain de Botton. He’s a philosopher who takes everyday problems—pain, frustration, or a broken heart—and applies the consolations of philosophy in their remedy.

In his book The Consolations of Philosophy de Botton uses Epicurus to talk about happiness. Epicurus says for happiness ones needs as a necessity:

Friends

Freedom

Thought

Food and shelter and clothes

Not necessary are things like a grand home, power and fame.

In fact de Botton goes on to quote Epicurus’ more or less equation for happiness:

  1. ID a project for happiness
  2. Imagine the project is false. Look for loopholes (could I be in possession of the IDed project and still be unhappy? Can I be happy with out it?)
  3. If an exception or loophole is found then the object/project is not required for your happiness.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi sees happiness in a little different way. “…the control of consciousness determines the quality of life,” he said in his book Flow. For an optimal experience (happiness) the psychologist found that:

  1. The situation must be such that attention can be fully invested—few distractions, no chance of harm
  2. The goals are within reach and identifiable.
  3. Time is of no consequence.
  4. The person becomes so absorbed in the activity, the self is lost in the activity itself.
  5. A level of proficiency in the activity is important.

“The best moments (in life) occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile,” he reports.

In essence, we make happiness happen.

Further along those lines, is Jon Mundy’s The Ten Laws of Happiness. He says that happiness is a result of a deep spiritual set of laws including trust, honesty, tolerance, patience and defenselessness, to name a few…there are, um, ten of them. Faithfulness, of course, is a main tenant.

But in the end, if comes down to purpose for me. Epicurus via de Botton is more about feeling happy and poor; Flow about the momentary; while Mundy’s is about a spiritual happiness that seems all too interior for me.

My favorite set of conditions for happiness comes from a Hindu teacher by the name of Eknath Easwaran, author of The End of Sorrow.

He came up with an seven-point plan for happiness that to me is not about immediate gratification but of long-term happiness. His plan includes:

  1. Meditation
  2. Mantram—or prayer
  3. Slowing down
  4. One-pointed attention
  5. Training the senses
  6. Spiritual companionship
  7. Reading the mystics

Given that I’m not Hindu I’ve customized the practice, but then that in and of itself is the process of obtaining happiness. Customize. Happiness is personal, causal. We know what works best. We know the way.

Dart to the Heart

courtesy Vanderbilt Universaity

courtesy Vanderbilt University

 

Every semester’s end, I hold my breath and wait. Another season of targets has ended with some bull’s eyes and some misses. At semester’s end I wait for the phone call to come, seeking answers. The questioner will be my supervisor, or a parent, or a student him or herself wondering about the grade I have assigned to indicate performance in one of my English classes. It seems no matter how much I prepare students for their final grades, some always profess shock at their allotted letter grade or at the fact that I have failed them.

The wording, “I have failed them,” is somewhat appropriate. Many students who fail my class assume little to no responsibility. Some will fight to have my decision reversed, always to no avail. In some ways, though, with some students I do feel I have failed them; I have failed to reach them, I have not been clear, I have not been a good teacher. Should I have said more to them during the semester? Were there warning signs I missed indicating a student was in trouble? My classes are not large by any means. Was I being prejudicial in any way? Had I not given them enough ammunition to succeed? Were my targets too high? All these things come into account the day I tally up the marks to discern the grade: over 90 gets an A; over 80, a B; and so on… 59 is a fail. I sweat the numerals; I inch students up who have made the effort and conversely fasten sloths to their anchor.

Every semester’s end finds me this way: full of second thoughts and doubt. I fear what could be confrontation, which could bring out my own insecurities on being a so-called expert. Mostly, it’s what happens afterwards, too. When I next see some of the students I have failed or have given a lower grade, which was expected or otherwise, there is a tendency on their part is to look away in shame. They lower their eyes and walk on by. It is like something ugly has transpired between us. It’s a painful dart to my heart knowing they feel this way. Walking by them I offer up little prayers that they see that they themselves are not failures—they simply missed the target.

Some eventually come back around and, even though they have their choice of professors, re-enroll in my class, which makes me care for them more than I should. But mostly to all those students who find at semester’s end their breath taken away by failure or lower than expected results, I want to say that I know how they feel — I failed a history of science class not once, but twice and finally asked for a “challenge exam” studied like crazy and managed a C.

I’ve gotten better over the years making sure students know what lies ahead, but some still engage in magical thinking that somehow missed assignments and poor quiz performance will somehow be expunged by me. They can’t be. I wouldn’t be doing my job nor would it be fair to those who did well.

I’d read recently that some find final grades “dehumanizing” for students, and I agree. It’s terrible to have to grade, to offer a letter in assessing mastery and effort. I wish some times I could simply write — well, you’re on your way or, okay, I think you need to spend a little more time on this before you move on. More civilized. Less heartache.

 

Move

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In the library of the university where I teach I sit between classes mouthing the word — move.

Sing the word “move” holding out the “ooo” sound as long as your breath allows. The word “move” provides the proper vowel sound and has meaning related to the Second Chakra. Think of moving onward and upward instead of being stuck in guilt and self-criticism anymore. As you hold out the “ooo” sound, bring your attention to your Second Chakra (two inches below your belly button along your spine) and try to feel it vibrating and glowing orange, sending life and health to your lower abdomen and all its vital organs.

For most of my life, my back has been an issue. Stubborn inflexibility, pain and unpredictability rule my spine like a sentence. I know most of the things that will trigger the pain or incapacitate me, but there still eludes me the complete inventory. Some things remain hidden.

So I mouth move. So I write ooo. 

So I read this guy Douglas Hofstadter.

The main thrust of his work is that meaningless symbols in a meaningful pattern create meaning; and depending on the system, be it mathematical, or sentinel, when the system the pattern produces perceives itself it becomes self aware.

In this way, a system “acquires a self.”

His book(s) are extended metaphors for —

how selfhood originates, a metaphor by which to begin to grab a hold of just what it is that makes an ‘I’ seem, at one and the same time, so terribly real and tangible to its own processor, and yet also so vague, so impenetrable, so deeply elusive.

So I mouth. So I write.


 

Some Hofstadter books:

Surfaces and Essences
I am A Strange Loop

Tolstoy and Supertramp

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Not entirely sure how the autobiography of a so-called super-tramp and the philosophy of Immanuel Kant go together, but somehow this morning they do. In The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp written by W.H. Davies he writes, “I have often heard salt water mariners sneer at these fresh water sailors, but, after crossing the Atlantic some eighteen times, and making several passages across the lakes, my opinion, is that the vast inland lakes are more dangerous to navigate, and far less safe than the open seas.”

This morning reading Leo Tolstoy’s A Calendar of Wisdom he quotes Kant as stipulating that, “… I can say God exists and that the self is immortal. This means that my faith in God is so closely with my nature that this faith cannot be seperated from me.”

Synthesized, I wonder if we spend our lives worrying about the vastness, the void open before us; the larger seemingly insurmountable things, all the while forgoing an investigation or worry over the smallest of realities in front of us, and in doing so, do ourselves the gravest of disservices. Are not the inland, the interior, bodies of our souls far deeper and dangerous to feign than the sizable wonders that strike us as the chief concern of our crossing.

The Writer and the Waltz

John H was right, of course.
The passing years have given that much to me.

“Show,” he said sitting down, passing me a pint of beer. John and I were in a pub, after school. He was my college creative writing instructor. He had a mess of black and grey hair. Permanent deep crevices either side of his mouth. His hands, thick fingered, always up at his chin as if in thought; his fingers and voice stained from his cigarette habit. He wore scarves, wrapped around his neck and blazers with jeans and desert boots. I adored him. He carried a rolled up copy of the latest New York Times Book Review in his pocket. John thought of writing as a trade much like masonry, a job that could put food on the table, and beer in the fridge wherever you lived. “Don’t tell.”

Show don’t tell, he said as every writing instructor has said since the dawn of time. “Is wrong,” he said sipping his beer. He flicked off his glasses with one hand the way he could and stuffed them inside his jacket pocket. “Well, mostly. Show, and tell, but probably show more.”

And he was right.

First what’s the difference you might ask?

All fiction, be it a short story or a novel, is about — among other things to be sure — pattern(s); and pattern is about time and space.

Think of it this way to begin: a story is not a plot. A story is the *sequence* as events happen; a plot is a version of the story not taken literally (there can be flashbacks for example, events are *packaged*). For example, I had pizza and beer for dinner (story), I had the excellent hamburger pizza and micro-brewed yeasty beer from the local saloon for dinner (plot).

Story has to, or should, begin at the beginning. Plot can begin somewhere else. Making this choice, plotting, begins the process of choosing pattern. By pattern I mean that in your prose there are repeated motifs or themes — an order ensues.

For example, there are central conflicts in novels that play out over and over again in smaller versions of this crucial issue. In short stories the complications leading to the climax are variants on the central theme from inciting incident to climax. This pattern, these spaces of attention for the reader, is the result of your timing as a writer. Traditionally, this is called scene (show) and narrative (tell).

Scenes show.
Narratives tell.

John H loved the blues. We’d hear some playing on stage at the pub, and he’d point and say, “Write like that.”

Over the music he said, “A scene is not narrative.” John H said, “A scene is action, a play between characters in dialogue and movement. Too much inside the head of any one character begins to read like narrative. Have them doing something. Not simply thinking.
Scenes are dramatized. Words spoken between characters. Actions and reactions. Objective descriptions of objects and settings that a reader would naturally see if the situation were, say, seeing it for themselves.  Everything else is narrative.”
I sipped my beer, and then asked a little too loudly as the music had dropped, “But when do I know?”
“It’s like a waltz, back and forth: Think about your reader.”
“Who gives a shit about the reader,” I replied.
He grinned, the lines in his cheeks near his mouth widened, deepened. “You should. Either you’re helping or you’re getting out of the way.”
I excused myself and went to the bathroom. I needed to face myself in the mirror. I sounded like a freaking idiot in front of my hero.
When I got back to the table, two women were chatting with John — Dominique and Maryanne, he said introducing them. I sat down.
“Imagine Dominique or Maryanne reading your story.”
I nodded.
“What do you want them to know by telling them, how much do you want to show them?”

We headed out in the cold winter night to stand by the pub door to have a smoke. “Which one do you like better? I could tell you, but isn’t it better that you should reach your own conclusion?” I had no idea what he was talking about.

We returned to the table. New drinks all around. The afternoon pub visit was leeching into nighttime. More blues. “This evening, last summer, we were coming back from Panama. The schooner was lifting in the surf…” John was telling a story. “The three of us.” He motioned with his hand in the form of a wave. Up and down. Up and down.
“Newport. Dominique had this great idea.”
“Kitty Wells,” she said, laughing. They were old friends, apparently. John gave me a smile again, his fingers up on his chin.
“We started dancing on the deck to Kitty. Dancing like fools.”
Maryanne sat forward to be heard over the music, “Custom guy says, ‘Hell you three have been at sea too long. Come on. Git. Go ashore and dance’.”
“So we did,” said John raising his glass to his two compadres. “We danced to Kitty Wells.”
“Good thing he didn’t think about moving any of our fish,” Dominique said.
“Why?” I asked foolishly.
“I was dancing with my darlin…” they began to sing.

John H was showing me the story of how they came back from Panama one summer night; and telling me a little bit too, but just enough. I could have seen all that he described — that’s “showing,” he said. But the “telling” part I knew what they wanted me to know and not know at the same time.

Later that week in class, John stood at the front of the classroom, behind a lectern, which seemed to be helping to keep him upright. He was bouncing around a little. “Information. How is the information presented?”
The room grew quiet.
“Can you see it yourself or is someone else — the author — telling you not to look at the fish.” I knew what he was saying, but my classmates maybe didn’t.
“Other than that. Well, if your story… novel shifts in time, you want to tell your reader about it. Get them situated, so to speak.” The characteristic grin.

Outside, after class, he leaned against the building and smoked a cigarette. He pointed at some clouds with a rolled up book review, and I glanced up at the sky. “What do you see?”
“A schooner,” I said, “lifting in the surf…”
“And?”
“Three souls dancing, dancing to the Tennessee Waltz.”
He stubbed out his cigarette and went back inside.

A few years later, sitting in a bar alone writing in my journal, I opened a letter that came that day from a friend I’d gone to college with saying John H had passed away.

I can still see his grin.
The passing years have given that much to me.

The Writer and The Train

PKgrrlcover

Writing a novel is much like getting on a train.

You board with a bunch of other people and are hurtled at great speed along thin rails in great hope and expectation nothing goes awry. There is a vague sense of destination and plenty of staggering, bad food choices, and body-giggling en route, but you eventually get there.

Fellow Passengers | Virginia Woolf said that no author is singularly responsible for bringing a book into the world; the work depends on the efforts of many. This is certainly true for me. My last book Pkgrrl would not be possible if it were not for the support and encouragement of my wife, Dyan. I am very fortunate to have her in my life. Additionally, every writer needs a support network, a team of fellow passengers — former students, former high school sweethearts and old graduate school buddies to help keep the thing on the rails by reading early drafts and making polite suggestions. I have mine, get you’re own.

All Aboard | The book began in the summer of 2010 as a bit of a lark. I had read Henry James’ nineteenth-century naturalist novel The Princess Casamassima and thought I could update it. Anyone who has read the novel, and granted that might be a scant few, will recognize its DNA in the opening chapters of Pkgrrl, but beyond that find James’ influence diminish with every subsequent chapter.

The Route | As any writer knows setting out to write a particular book is foolhardy; the book you end up writing is the one that wants to be told. In that way, I never intended to write PKgrrl — it came as a result of blind allegiance to this thing called writing, an often lonely and dispiriting adventure. It surprised me to no end. I recall one drowsy summer afternoon in the inebriated throes of the season’s crazies (this is when a grown man with a very expensive education wonders, sometimes aloud, what the hell he is doing in the middle of the afternoon staring off into the distance at nothing in particular, when he should rightly be out in the real world making a living) that the chief character would have some kind of supernatural capacity when it hit me: She can fly! I was so excited, but that lasted all of five seconds because it quickly came to mind that a family friend, Victoria Forester, had just had a New York Times bestselling YA book out called, you might have guessed it —The Girl Who Could Fly. So, no. Too me too. No the girl couldn’t fly, she couldn’t die I thought. That’s it!

Detours | No that’s crazy, but then I thought what about all that stuff that happens in the Bible, all the miracles, and viola! I went through the Bible and I found her. My girl came into view. From there I thought, well, she’s can’t fly, she can die, but… she can be brought back to life: resurrected. I hope St. Peter doesn’t think too lowly of this author when I arrive at the gates having done this… among other things, here in this book.

Destination | But what’s important here is to travel with others, ask them as you chug along if things will all work out in the end. And of course, offer them free pizza and beer.

(adapted from Pkgrrl “Author’s Note”)