It seems impossible to me that when I finally see the cathedral at Rouen, I will already know the shadows of the late afternoon sun, and the way the morning light illuminates its porticos. How much of the world do I already know through the eyes of artists—the representations and words of painters and writers?
And not just buildings, but people as well. How have Uriah Heep, and Cassius, and Peter Walsh shaped my understanding of certain kinds of men? Or the countless representations of “The Man of Sorrows”?
If I have not traveled, I have imagined, and born witness to hundreds—no, thousands, more—of depictions of the world. I know that I have only traveled through the eyes and thoughts of others, but what others!
And yes, each place I have traveled enters my work, makes it larger, gives me insight to reveal some feeling in each of my characters. However, the travel out into the world is like practice for the travel I must do into the imaginary world I wish to create. I write, again and again, about the gifts that the universe provides, but, in the end, I must make something of them. I must use my imagination to recreate the world.
Which brings me back to the two views of the Rouen Cathedral by Monet at the National Gallery of Art—and all the other renditions I have seen in books and projected onto screens. I see these, and begin to build—in my mind, based on all the cathedrals I have seen in my travels, on all the slants of light, on all the play of clouds—a vision that will become my own. I look forward to seeing the actual building—soon! soon!—but I also know that it exists, somewhere, in my mind already.
This past fall, I went horse riding for the first time since I rode at a neighbor’s farm when I was 6 or 7. I rode on a horse named “Old General,” a sleepy footed follower of faster horses, but a step up from a rocking chair. Or so I was told. At one point in the ride, our trail guide asked if we wanted to run. It was actually the second time she had asked us; the first time I had gotten my sense of it. The second time, I was ready. Old General and I dashed, finding speed where it had not been before, and we covered the field ahead of my riding companions. Yes, I am competitive. It was one of the best days I had had in a long time.
The horse made it into the book. Lots of horses made it into the book. I find inspiration where I can, and the museums in Washington DC (the National Gallery of Art and The Smithsonian American Art Museum) include sculptures that snuck into my work. At the very least they gave me ideas that acted as guideposts for the work.
I’m sure that there is some significant invention in this book. I am also certain that I used as much as was provided, whether it was experience or image from the world around me. As far as invention, I recall someone making the claim that all we experience in the first years of life is enough to fill several novels. Perhaps all invention is simply reforging those first few years—shifted through fractured memory.
And, perhaps, there are deeper memories, deep from within our genes, stored among things like eye color and height. I know the Celts came from Central Europe and further South in Asia Minor. I wonder what they brought along in their genes, in their deep memories. I wonder if these stories are just what were, once, somewhere. For now, here is the horse, and a ride I will not forget.
“The horses flew through the forests without urging. With no path to follow, they crashed through low hanging limbs of trees, over bushes filled with thorns, and in and out of muddy streams. Their riders crouched low in their saddles, reins held close to the great sweating necks of the stallions. They rode like that, blurs against the dappled light, until the sun had set, and the sliver of the moon had risen, and the lead horse had slowed, finally, to a mere gallop. What pace they had been keeping has no name.
“Behind the other two riders, Thomas rode on the balls of his feet, crouching forward as his companions had done, but lifting himself out of the saddle by inches. The black horse beneath him felt him there, out of the saddle, and remembered a journey made by such a one as this, when she had run eastward toward the sun, when the sun would not rise. Then the rider had guided her to the edge of the world, and with a rope made of salamander skin, impervious to fire, had pulled the sun into the sky, and started the day. After that, it always rose, bright and warm in the east. When Thomas reached down to stroke the neck of the speeding mare, the touch of his hand confirmed the horse’s memory. ‘He has returned.'”
I attended an event at
the Meridian International Center last week. One of the rooms at the Meridian
House is a library. There is a strange surprise about a library in a
foundation. The odd assembly of books—all the Russian history (because the
foreign service world centered on Russia for decades), a case of biographies of
men and women important in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, and then the random
exception, a book by Carly Fiorina (published as she was making a run at the Republican
presidential nomination), and then a shelf that jumps from A Woman in Egypt to Lee’s Lieutenants to The Great Influenza. Organization sometimes struggles
when books are added.
I notice, besides John Barry’s book about the pandemic of 1920, there is also a copy of Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club; both these books are on my shelves at home. I will guess that if I looked more meticulously that I would find other overlaps in our collections. I wonder about the constellation of editions that connect library after library, and how I have felt a kinship with those who share editions with me. This person, this place, is not so strange.
I have written about my books before, both about the joy of having—and unpacking them—them and the burden that they signify. My books are a kind of roadmap, both the orange Home Depot Home Improvement 1-2-3 and Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millenium. Some books I have not opened in years, others I revisit with uncanny frequency. They all point to something, somewhere.
I am looking at a painting made by a French artist of a British building that hangs in an American museum. This seems at once perfectly natural—what else would I be doing? What else would a French artist paint (or an Italian, British, Russian, Afghan, or American)? And where else would a painting be? Of course, this seems only natural because it is what we have become accustomed to, since the time when Ennigaldi-Nanna opened the first museum.
If it is “only natural,” it is also a miracle. That Claude Monet painted? A miracle. That the Houses of Parliament were built along the Thames? A miracle. That the painting somehow came to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC? A miracle. And that I am here, somehow, seeing this and writing about it? A miracle as well.
We take the commonplace for common, and lose the ability to be a little amazed at what is all around us, and the wild series of coincidences that brings the present moment into bloom. On the flip side, we excuse the awful as “could be worse,” instead of insisting on the more miraculous possibilities that could be. I stand amazed at what is, and demand more. Why not? Why fall back into what is easy, what masquerades as wit, what only keeps us from feeling that we have more to do?
I am looking at a painting made by a French artist of a British building that hangs in an American museum. The gauntlet has been thrown down. This is only the beginning.
About a year ago, I wrote about the patterns that I had noticed in my life. I have tended to trust the signs that the universe provides for me—much of what I have written about my current book project attests to that. I can admit that there are times that I have misinterpreted the signs, or that the universe has played an awful game of three card Monte with me. And yet, what other choice do I have?
I walk the line between an abundant trust in my muse—or the universe—and a willfulness that is singular and purposeful. This comes with risks. There is a song by Coldplay, in which the singer challenges, “Go on and tear me apart.” It is a brave dare, and echoes a bit of Emerson that was shared with me recently: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” What if all I get is torn apart and unsettled? I have lived too long under that flag to feel continued comfort in the “torn apart” life.
As I approach the end of this book, all the patterns (all right, most of the patterns—I am writing about a part of the world that eschews ideas of perfect resolution for a reason) come together. As the revision process takes hold, I rejigger, rip out, and rewrite scenes and conversations so that the whole points, gently and not too obviously (I hope) to the overarching pattern. The book is, finally, about patterns (Is it? Really?).
But life is not a book. Life does not (really) contain messages and patterns that point us toward happiness and success (Are you so sure about that?). Yes, there are patterns, but there are also many, many random occurrences and, perhaps even more challenging, patterns that unsettle us in ways that are distractions, that may even be injurious. At the moment, I simply cannot accept the notion that absolutely everything helps us grow and thrive. Some stuff, as my father pointed out on a particularly egregious day on the ocean, is just shitty. I throw shitty books across the room—the shitty life cannot be so easily flung into some other corner.
So, why feel hopeful? Because I am balancing between an awareness—too keenly felt this past several months—of the capriciousness and, well, shittiness of the universe, and the other more generous and affirming aspects of the exact same universe. Balance is not a passive activity. It may become seemingly involuntary, the way that holding your head—or a glass—level on a churning sea becomes second nature (your muscles are working all the time). I do not veer from happy to sad, celebratory to angry; they are all there, all the time, and for now, that is good enough. Of course, I seek—and will continue to seek—to tilt the balance to the more favorable side of things—and I am (Shut up, Doc!)—and that is because I feel that my purpose is to add to the balance of light.
I spent the past 24 hours writing in what I described as “sludge”–not exactly “ten million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey,” but close. It happens. I admitted this to a friend, who asked, “You’re not feeling frustrated?” I answered, “Frustration is part of writing. One cannot write without it.” Let me explain.
First, as you will recognize from previous posts, I used to sail on the ocean, heading back and forth from the Chesapeake Bay to Bermuda with my father. Setting aside the variability of the weather (from windless and flat to howling and mountainous), I was sick nearly every time I took the trip: 24-36 hours of plain and pronounced discomfort. I eventually discovered that a vertigo medicine helped settle the sea for me, but up to then I kept at it, and accepted the retching as payment for the joy. So, I have that experience to draw on.
Second, I was a swimmer, and while I was not an Olympian, I practiced hard. Improvement came with pain, and I learned to adapt to the persistent ache in my shoulders, arms, and legs. During practices, the immediate feedback for how fast I was going came through either the proximity I had to faster swimmers, or, when I was one of the faster swimmers, from how much pain I felt. Pain—of a certain kind—equaled speed. There are, of course, other kinds of pain, such that denote injury and not improvement, and I was fortunate to avoid these until later in life.
Some days writing is just going to be like a bad day on the ocean, or a crap day in the pool. Some days my brain just does not connect to anything brilliant, or worse I think it’s brilliant, but I have done none of the necessary work of getting my characters in and out of rooms. I have left out simple gestures, and replaced action with explication.
Sometimes when sludge is all there is, I scrap large chunks. Sometimes it just takes connective tissue—so that the ideas get bound to motion. Sometimes, it is a signal that I am not being wild enough. Once I was told that a character was boring. Tough criticism, but, a sludge encrusted character needs to be set free—or buried.
So, frustration will happen. So will boredom, says the man who puts in 26-32 minutes on the elliptical six days a week. Raucous music keeps the heart rate over 160 bpm, and sometimes works for writing. And metaphoric raucous music too—add a crazy scene as needed. Even Dickens used spontaneous combustion to advance the plot.
But the frustration also comes when we get close to the sludge, and the sludge covers what we don’t want to engage. Sometimes we need to treat ourselves roughly when we write, and work what makes us, not just uncomfortable, but downright upset. The sludge can be like a makeshift bandage, covering some old hurt. Hey, you don’t have to own the hurt, but see it, and work it. Pain can clarify and properly unsettle the writer—and enliven the writing.
So, here’s to frustration. And writing through it.
I have been writing a novel (#thirdwishnovel) since November—fitting the work in between bouts of schoolwork, and all the other more (and less) joyful events of life. The writing has captivated me, because of the way that the writing has come to me. So often in the past, I felt that what I was working at was always just in my peripheral vision. I would get a brief glimpse, but when I turned my attention to whatever was there—perpendicular to my daily vision—it vanished, or, at the very least, turned into an unintelligible mess. I used shorter forms like prose poetry to capture these bursts of clarity (these blog posts began as another way of harnessing some of those fleeting glimpses), but trying to capture longer work—an extended vision—was like looking at sludge.
And now, out of nowhere, this has changed. Perhaps, because I have written almost every day for over a year, my vision has expanded—I now have eyes in the back of my head (do I?). I do not cagily shift my vision to capture something evanescent. Perhaps, because I removed large chunks of my life, and there is less that clamors for my immediate attention, my vision is not tired when the time to write comes. Perhaps, and this is not easy to admit, because I need the writing, and the need has allowed me to call forth the vision. For now, almost every time I wanted something or was preparing a transition, what I needed appeared directly in front of me. I did not have to look to the side or far ahead, or really ahead at all. Each image, action, or small exchange of dialogue stopped me and held my attention.
recall the Cat in the Hat, balancing on a ball with everything balanced for one
moment, proclaiming: “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me NOW!” While the Cat is
bound to fall—for now—I have not ignored the invitation. I have let the dream—the
vivid continuous dream—with all its amazingly balanced parts sweep me up. I am
I am fully aware that I have been inviting myself into the dream—that even though I may have been walking through the streets of London, reading text messages from Kathmandu, attending a Christmas Eve service in a strange church, listening to symphonic renditions of Led Zeppelin songs, or longing for deep personal connection with an elusive lover, the story making part of my brain that has been dormant, distracted, and (really?) depressed for too many years, finally—and for whatever reason—took hold of me and turned my waking life—any and every part of it—into the dream that I was writing. Like a dream, I can barely remember how it began, I can only remember putting my head down on the pillow. And once again— Even though I know where the dream is headed, I have no idea how it ends—isn’t the point that we wake up before the dream fully ends—it begins and ends in medias res, as it were?
The dream (and the vision) is no longer peripheral. No matter how it arrived, it is central and demanding. I enter and reenter the dream at will and discover. The dream provides a seemingly random, but profoundly interconnected tableau. I am enough of an active dreamer that I am aware when I am in a dream, and I can shape parts of what happen in the dream. However, I also know that the surprises that come in the dream world are just as important as the decisions I make in this dark realm. I have enjoyed the surprises that have come—they seem inexhaustible.
And so, as my current work turns toward an ending (gasp), I have to change the way that I approach my writing. No longer can I simply fall back into the dream, letting each image and action reframe what has come before (I have rewritten—redreamed—swaths of the novel to suit new discoveries several times). Now, I must let the end—what I write and what I dream—grow out of all that I have dreamed, and that means gazing backward and forward at the same time—I need the eyes in the back of my head!—and narrowing my vision toward climax and resolution. I must shape the dream consciously—as consciously as one can dream.
and let me be clear, I am not witnessing the Cat any more. I am the damned Cat.
I will fall. The rake will get bent. But, I have another thing or two left to
do. Here I go. Look at me.