Writing, the pandemic, and distraction

Writing during the pandemic has been difficult. Each day I felt the tap-tap-tap of news on my shoulder. The muse grew silent and was replaced by an incessant whisper about infection rates, intubations, and death tolls. Sometimes the whisper roared into a press briefing, and I listened, wanting to know, firsthand, not trusting the arbiters of history to tell me what was what.

To be fair, since AIDS swept over the landscape, I have been virus-obsessed. I read about pandemics in the 80s and 90s. Diseases are one of the secret threads that weave in and out of history. When COVID-19 struck, I felt enmeshed in an account that I already knew, but that did not make me any less interested. I watched and listened as the tale unfolded, aware of the habits that surround such events. None of the rhetoric or the inaction surprised me, which is not to say that I hoped for better or despaired when the all too predictable happened. I take solace in the knowledge that it was not as bad as it might have been.

Still, it was a distraction. Add in the other distractions in my life, and writing has been difficult.

I have written about distraction before here, and about listening to the muse. Until the pandemic, I spent a day each week writing in noisier spaces—surrounded by art and people. Throughout my writing life, I have gotten much when surrounded by others. The presence of human voices and human effort inspires me. When I write, I am conscious of the conversation that surrounds my words, and I add my words to that conversation. Sometimes the conversation is less grand than a response to the announcement of Ashurnarsirpal II of his greatness. It may be a polite transactional response to the sale of a napoleon and coffee—the man at the counter has them waiting for me before I reach the front of the line—at the Courtyard Café in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Words—even these—are little more than transactions. We like to romanticize the expressive characteristics of language—the eternal “I am here!” Yet, even that is meant to turn a head or stop a step. Even the king, especially the king, wants to be noticed. Otherwise, why speak? The transaction here is less quantifiable. A friend once asked, “What do you see your work leading to?” It was a marketing question, and it’s a fair question. As a budding novelist, I am aware that at their hearts, novels are a commercial form—a grand transaction requiring the enduring attention of a reader. The request each word makes is: “Keep reading.”

Each word also requests, “Keep writing.” In this way, words are kind of tricky, and, if you will, like a virus, creating the conditions for their replication and spread. I’m not sure what the words actually spread (more words?)—the ideas and quality of the writing do not seem to matter so much (a terrifying thought to a writer who attempts something more). Of course, lousy writing will fail (mostly), and like a virus that cannot find a host, it disappears. I will not extend the metaphor; I have viruses on my mind.

Perhaps what writing creates is attention: the attention of the writer who creates it and the reader who what? interprets it? Consumes it? Well, let’s settle on: reads it. During the pandemic, other viruses have taken possession of my attention. Enough. It’s time to give into my original illness.

Sailing Over the Horizon

I don’t know how long I have been preparing for my mother’s death. It has been for some time. The first inklings came by way of my father.

My father had suffered—“struggled” is too valiant a word; he suffered from the diminution of his physical abilities, of a stutter, and drugs that knocked him out—with Parkinson’s Disease over the last ten years of his life. He insisted on driving, even when the autonomous reflexes that make safe navigation of country roads at high speeds had abandoned him. We—his family—worried that his end (and someone else’s end) would come on the road. It did not.

Before the disease, my father sailed. He began when I was 11, and I took lessons with him. He sailed on the Chesapeake Bay, spending weekends looking for wind. When he retired from full-time work, he began to sail on the ocean.

Everyone who has sailed on the ocean has a story of a near-miss. Some idiots sailed onto a reef, and lost their two million dollar boat. Cargo containers, my father’s persistent concern, floated like metal icebergs and ripped through the fiberglass hull of a ship. There was a boat whose hull breached when it was nudged by a whale—“Once the water got into the cabin, the keel pointed it to the bottom. Like an arrow.” Any number of unforeseen accidents could turn a gentlemanly jaunt across the waves into a disaster. Even without the gales and following seas, sailing, for all its trappings, is a dare.

When I sailed with my father, I was folded into the fraternity of casual, privileged risk. It is a different bargain than that made by those who forswear safety for a higher cause. Only a fool invites disaster, tempts it, for what? A dare? An assertion of meaning and purpose? A sunny destination? All those and more. We may have been foolish, but we prepared for the worst.

He was prepared too. He confessed that his trips on the ocean might have to end. He told me that he was contemplating selling his sailboat and buying a motorboat to “gunkhole” around in the Chesapeake Bay. A signal of its own.

And then in 2002, cancer—non-Hodgkins Lymphoma—struck my mother. She was not pleased, just as she had not been pleased with my father’s illness. Disruptions were anathema to my mother. However, her illness stunned my father. Whatever else in his life was uncertain, my mother’s tenacity was inflexible. I drove from Baltimore to the Philadelphia area to take her to chemotherapy sessions, sparing him as much as comforting her. After a few months, her doctor thought she had gone into remission, but then a second wave collapsed on her. Her liver swelled to the size of a football, and her blood became the consistency of maple syrup. We girded ourselves for the worst. And then it passed.

Six months later, my father slipped on a wet dock, fell into the water, and drowned.

Because of this, for the past 18 years, death has been a sometime presence in my relationship with my mother. My mother was nearly 72 years old when her husband died. He was diseased and at risk; the reef was hidden under the waves. We knew the odds.

My mother was halfway through her 88th year when she died. Otherwise, she was not a halfway kind of person. She was a pistol—full of energy and ready to go off in an instant.  She was fiercely independent—a characteristic that could make her difficult, but which also fired her painting. She started making art in her forties. Painting was a source of independence, stability, and consistency in the second half of her life.

While others made paintings that were representational and, well, let’s be honest, commercial, she stuck to abstraction. A quick word about abstraction: while some might imagine that abstraction is easy—just smear some paint on canvas—my mother found a challenge in getting a gesture onto the surface, and then a further challenge in adding a color, a second gesture, then another color. She labored over maintaining control of her gestures and palette and took solace in the layering of decisions that created a finished work.

If you had ever seen our house and its spare, precise decor, you could have seen how she battled chaos. Add to your imagination the rambunctiousness of her three sons, and the knowledge that we were forbidden from several rooms of the house until we were older and more settled. Her artistic life stood against the (self-invited, self-created) disorder of the outside world. She did not take to sailing—to the unpredictability of wind. She would retreat to the cabin when the boat heeled on a beat. She poured a glass of scotch, finding ballast and balance where none existed.

When I visited her with my family in 2014, a copy of Derek Humphry’s Final Exit ( a handbook for assisted suicide) was on one of the side tables. She was 82 and fully in remission, but arthritis made walking painful. She was sending up a flare of dissatisfaction. She had watched her mother linger and die in a nursing home. If my mother was a pistol, her mother was a blunderbuss, sour with nostalgia for a time before her marriage—the good old days. My mother did not want the end she had witnessed there. She put the book out to warn us: I am unhappy, and will not fade out of control.

The intervening years have unfolded with a number of slaps—like a cat playing with a mouse. Small strokes and other ignominies took small but noticeable bites out of my mother. When she gave up her studio—located in a community art building about 20 miles from her home—it was a keen signal.

 The past year she has navigated toward an ending, and I have been, as I often was with my father, a helping hand on the helm. It has been a strange duty. I encouraged her to work because I knew and shared the value of daily work with her. But I also listened to her dissatisfaction. “When I go to the studio, all I do is nap,” she told me. She told me more and told others more as well. She did not withhold complaints.

Last year as my mother began to make this final journey, I had started to date a woman. I told her about where my mother was, and what she asked of me. Rightly or wrongly, this woman noted the possibility of “unhealthy” and retreated. I cannot disagree or blame. I took the helm for my mother the same way I did for my father when he—foolishly, dangerously—kept to a schedule despite the weather. If, in telling the story of my mother’s death, I have returned to my father and his end, it is because they are intertwined—bookends spaced twenty years apart.

I ended my brief graveside eulogy for my mother, “She leaves us with this legacy, and with a vision of how to thrive in the garden of challenges that faces us all. Even this challenge. We go on, making our marks, as she taught us.” While many of my posts have been about my father, my mother was also my teacher. The lessons—both fortunate and unfortunate—that I took from them shaped me and prepared me. For what? For his death? Hers? My father once asked me if I could bring the boat home without him. He was prepared for disaster. I answered, as I must, as was true, “Yes.” These are the sailing lessons.

Brokeworld

In 2016 HBO aired a radical revisioning of Michael Crichton’s clunky trash science fiction thriller, Westworld. The old movie issued a direct threat and moral: technology combined with profit motives is bad. Nothing new here, just a variation on the muck-racking novels of late 19th century America or a schlockier version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The series that launched in 2016 delved into deeper issues: consciousness formation, the nature of humanity, and, yes, the moral bankruptcy of late capitalist culture.  There was more if you wanted to find it, all wrapped up in a glossy, sexy, and violent package. Quintessential HBO.

The drive for climactic set-pieces led to a gruesome and fairly well-earned massacre at the end of the first season. However, gruesome massacres are not easy to build on. The second season stumbled through the aftermath of all that death—even if many of the dead were robots. The rest of the dead were the rich—or servants of the rich—and, as such, were easy prey. The third season addressed the “real world” (such as it was portrayed in the show) consequences of those deaths and added human characters whose lives were made robotic by, yes, you guessed it, the rich.

I teach creative writing. When I started teaching, I forbade my students from killing characters in their stories. Yes, the presence of death galvanizes fiction, bestowing instant importance on what might otherwise be a mundane series of events. When I think of some of my favorite short pieces, death abounds. Think of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” or J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bannafish.” At least the threat of death—real complete annihilation—hovers around the characters. However, when it does, it has weight. Great—and most good—writers acknowledge mortality as a meaningful limit.

The first season of Westworld used cavalier attitudes about murder and violence to make a point—all the while delighting viewers with plenty of simulated death (the show walked on a sneaky edge) The point was that the cavalier attitude about death and violence revealed a moral failing in the characters. Even when the violence was simulated. That edge has become more and more blunted with each new season, finally becoming little more than a heavy and dumbly wielded club.

Halfway through the third season, the main antagonist, Serac, reveals that he and his brother built the monstrous AI, Rehoboam, after witnessing the nuclear bombing of Paris. The bombing is not explained. It exists only to justify Serac’s desire to prevent either another such event or series of such events. Boom! goes Paris. And Boom! Westworld tottered off into the realm of irretrievably bad writing.

I teach my students that anything can happen in their fiction. I try not to put false limits on their work (no fantasy, no science fiction, no romance). I only ask that whatever they do, they must avoid cliché, which is hard for young writers because everything seems so new to them. And this is hard for older writers too, because everything seems to have been done. How many ways can two people arrive at “I love you”?  Or “I hate you” for that matter? And everything in between. Make it your own, and find the surprise.

Also, I advise that they treat their fiction as if it is true, that they should consider themselves magicians of a sort, wielding magic words to create reality.  They must be responsible for the world they create, not just for the beetles that scurry across the floors of the houses they build with words, but for the vision of the world they invent. If someone falls in love in one of their stories, then they are nothing less than Eros, conferring love on the world. If someone dies in one of their stories, then they wear the grim reaper’s long black robes. No, not all writing is made with such high purpose. Plenty of successful prose falls back on sheer entertainment. Love and death are little more than emotional levers that the writer pushes and pulls to keep the reader reading. So does plenty of literary fiction—thank goodness.

Sometimes writers break the compact with the reader. They pull the levers without any concern for what they have made. A friend once asked whether I could just do what I wanted in my work. I can, of course, I can, but I must grapple with the repercussions of what I write. Does what I want to happen fit the world which I have created? Not just, “Does it make sense?” but does that sense bear up to moral, emotional, and intellectual scrutiny? Not only must there be a feeling of necessity in the work, but that necessity must be guided by an inner logic that binds all the images, all the ideas, all the characters, and all the vision. That is no easy objective.

One way to guarantee that a work will miss that mark is to play fast and loose with life, to use death as a plot enhancement. By its own logic—by the claims it made in its first season—Westworld has fallen off the horse. Yes, the show remains pretty (sexy and gruesome) picture, but the writing no longer cares to do anything but sling gore and blow up cities. Nothing matters. Time to move on.

 

London, Flying, Writing

It has been a year and a few months since I was in London. I’m thinking about London while I sit and study Monet’s “Houses of Parliament, Sunset” at the National Gallery of Art. The memory of looking across the Thames at that building, with Big Ben swathed in the latticework of repair, has faded only a little. The memories of walking the streets of the original square mile and beyond remain startlingly vivid. I used them to paint scenes when the characters in my novel walked through London. The memories of the places and the memories of the feelings.

When I was there, I had just begun what would become my first completed novel. I had changed my life, but was only taking the first steps out of the extended shadow under which I had lived my life for much too long. I had been grounded—too grounded.

This morning I woke from a dream of flight. I had to deliver a package, and the way to the place I had to deliver it to was blocked. The streets were closed—barricades blocked alleys and police redirected traffic. I picked up the box—a box of books, perhaps? In a previous job, I often carried boxes of books and was required, on occasion, to pick up from warehouses and deliver them. I carried the box through city streets, all the while receiving instructions about exactly where I was and exactly where I should go. Except, I knew where I was, and knew where I had to go. The instructions were extraneous, the kind of litany of “You are… You should…” that have too long tethered me. And so I did the only thing left to me. I flew. I flew in between the buildings in the city, sometimes following the spaces above the streets, sometimes flying over the buildings—skyscrapers. I flew past a circus parade, as performers prepared to enter their theater. I flew and wondered where I should ply my flying trade—the circus came to mind, naturally, but so did the military (I was a secret weapon). I scooped up a bully who was tormenting a younger child and instructed, “Superheroes live, and we are watching,” before setting him back on the ground, edified.

img_2173When I was last in London, I was taking steps into a world where I knew I could live, where I had longed to live. Just like in the dream, writing—flight—was not foreign to me, but something I had traded in for a more certain, more directed existence. While “You are…You should” can feel like shackles, flying—writing—is formless and uncertain. Anywhere is possible. Everywhere is almost a mandate. Just like in the dream, I had written before—had flown—and had lived closer to the limits of my existence. But I had to leave my self-imposed limits. I had to accept that I might fall—and fail—but just as I accepted that in my dream—soaring up the side of a steel and glass edifice, wondering, “What if I forget? What if I fall?—I thought, even as the thrill of fear invigorated me, “You are flying now. Even if you fall, you will remember as you fall, and fly again. Keep flying.”

img_2761Two women look at the Monet—taking seat in the National Gallery beside me. They think it is beautiful, but claim, “It doesn’t look like that.” Of course, the Houses of Parliament look like that, as does the river Thames, as does the sunset. “We didn’t see it,” they claim, “We were tourists, doing touristy things, like thinking about where to have dinner.” I did not think about dinner when I was in London. As much as I love dinner, even food became a secondary thought while I was in London. Even the pubs and ales became little more than way-stations along the bigger task—the journey, the seeing, the walking, and the flying. And the writing.

At some point, you leave behind what holds you back, and you push off the ground and make your first tentative moves into the air. At first, it feels more like swimming than flying. Wait. That will change. Once you have flown, you do not lose the gift of flight. You may set it aside, for whatever reason (You are…You should), but when you—finally—return to it, the inspiration, the ecstasy, and the certainty will return as well. You will accept the fear and even turned it to your use—flying and writing into places that scare you, outpacing your fear and using it as a goad—higher, faster, stranger, more beautiful, and then more.

I want to say that you do not have to wait until you are 58 years old to rediscover flight. But even at 58, then 59, you can recapture that rapturous joy of flight—and writing. While, in the dream, I was younger than I am now, and yet I could remember all of my current life. Maybe that was what I carried in my box: life. My life.

When I made my way to the circus—because, of course, the circus calls for a flier—an older man (I recognized him as the father of a former girlfriend, although I never met him in real life) warned me against the life I desired, not merely the circus, but flight in general. He did not say, “You are, you should,” but as his daughter had inveighed, he advised, “You are not… You should not.” He was an old musician, and soured by his work in the circus band. Another older man joined us and said, “Let him fly.” But he was dotty, had tufts of white hair on his fingers, and was probably drunk. Looking at these two, I thought, perhaps, that the circus is not for me. There are other places to fly—not into the dark above the audience’s —but into the light. I thought that while I dreamt.

I think about all this while I dream. And when I walk. And when I see. And when I write. And when I wake up.

I write this to you now because you may be 59. Or 29. However, you stopped flying—or writing. You stopped something. Or maybe you never started. I wrote in 9th and 10th grades. Again as a senior in college. Then I started working on a novel when I was 21. Again when I was 24. Again when I was 26. In grad school, I wrote 20 stories, a short book of prose poems, and two starts at novels. Then nothing that endured for years. A few poems, some prose (sermons and stories and articles), the start and start and start and start of a novel. Whatever I was doing felt like silence. You may be facing a silence of your own. I write to you.

Barricades may block the road ahead of you. You may need to get out of your dream car and carry that box (what is in your box?) through the city on foot. You know the way. Plus—and this is your secret—you know how to fly.

There is another world. It doesn’t feel like there is. I remember that feeling, and the horrible weight of “should and should not,” “are and are not.” Part of the way back to this world is the repeated practice of returning to it—fingers to keyboard, pen to paper. Revel in the count of words, in the hours in the air. Try to think of the inches, then yards, then miles you have traveled, and enjoy the journey.

Plenty of people will remind you of what you lack, will cast blank aspersions on the life you have lived, will denigrate what you have done to get where you are, and will sow doubt in the field where you play. They are not your friends, and you can do without them. Do not try to solve the problems they foist on you, or—worse—take them on as your own. The work, even when you fly, is hard enough without taking on unnecessary freight. There is weight enough in this work.

And there is lightness ahead. And light. You can soar as you wish. I wait, standing on the ground, or suspended in the air among clouds and antennae, and wait to cheer you. Fly! Wake up and fly again.

Intention

IMG_3667

“A Swarm of Bi

Thousands of jade bi (pronounced bee) have been unearthed in elite Liangzhu culture burial sites, varying in size, quality of stone, level of workmanship, and finish. Yet the meaning, purpose, and ritual significance of bi remain unknown.”—from display text at the Freer Gallery of Art

 

The bi in the Smithsonian National Museum of Asia Art (The Freer/Sackler Galleries) are 4000-4500 years old. Some of the other jades are a thousand years older. I like that bi are so old, and among the earliest pieces of art in all the museums in Washington DC. I also like that we do not know the significance of the bi—that over 4000 years, their meanings have gone missing. They had a significance; we just don’t know what it was.

What matters is what we leave behind.

IMG_3336In the other corner of the Freer Gallery, an exhibit of Hokusai’s paintings and illustrations includes quotations from the artist about what he intended—not just in the specific works, but as an artist. He wrote about discovering himself as an artist late in life. He was already an artist, but he claims to come into his own in his 50s and thought that he might attain his most complete vision if he lived to 110. He died at 90. His work is sweeping and intimate—monumental nature and quiet personal moments—fantastic and humorous—heroes wrestling demons and uproarious coworkers. Whatever else he meant to last in his work—why that hero wrestled that demon (as if one could easily answer such a question)?—he meant it to last. He aspired to capture a vision that would last long after he died.

 

What matters is what we leave behind.

 

My students struggle with knowing what writers meant when they wrote a particular poem or piece of fiction. I try to help them understand that the question is nearly impossible to answer, that the writer’s intention is a mystery even to him or her self. There’s a parcel of psychology served with that lesson—the ineffable subconscious meets the unruly and unpredictable conscious mind. They get confused when I make assertions about what is in James Joyce’s fiction—and, honestly, I have no idea what the human being writing his stories intended, but I can perform some intertextual acrobatics that will catch many of the ideas that spin through his work—thinking that I am implying that Joyce intended one thing or another. I’m just making connections informed by study and a willingness to play with and without a net.

 

What matters is what we leave behind.

https://archive.asia.si.edu/publications/jades/object.php?q=F1917.79#scroll-down
Bi, ca. 3300-2250 BCE

 

Of course, I tell my young writers to align their intentions with what is on the page. It is nearly impossible to write without a sense of the outcome. We, quite naturally, want our ideas and images to catch fire in the mind of our readers. I cannot help but think of the artist who chiseled an image into the side of a bi. The images are so faint that one can easily overlook them. Were they only meant for decoration? Someone, sometime knew. We can only guess. What excites me is that someone did know, once, 5300-4250 years ago. Imagine making a mark and that it lasts long enough to cause some stranger to wonder thousands of years in the future.

What matters is what we leave behind.

When I write about the djinn, I am aware that I do not know how or why they were called into being. What made us need or want an order of magical creatures separate from gods and angels? I am aware that our perception of the djinn changed over time, in some part, due to the influence of Islam. But Islam—as a formal religion—is only 1400 years old. Only. Djinn and gods existed in Mesopotamia for thousands of years before Islam gripped the region—and a quarter of the world. But, for the most part, they are a mystery—as are the gods and goddesses I call into my fiction. While there are fragments of stories, the past has swallowed them.

What matters is what we leave behind.

I wonder, if in 5000 years, whether I will be a mystery. A friend commented that writing and reading are escapes, and I disagree. I read to reclaim the past and reframe the present. Knowledge of the past makes our understanding of the present more complex, more nuanced, and more true. I write to give life more weight, more depth, more of what the past holds, and what the present should hold. After all, that is what makes a good story a good story—a vision that makes us stop and take account of our present moment and our lives. If I have any intention that lasts past the next three months, let alone 300 years, or 5000 (5000 years?), that is it.

What matters is what we leave behind.

 

Distractions

The past week I have been distracted by the possibility that my country would once again go to war in the Middle East/Central Asia—in Persia. The thought transfixed me and kept me up at night. I have no control over the policy of my country—besides the meager franchise I exercise. Who, after all, is going to listen to a 59 year old English teacher? That said, I have little doubt that policy, even policy set by people with greater expertise than I possess, has been ramshackle and reactive over the past 50 years. Longer. Without a clear and positive vision of what we support—say, the spread of human rights—my country ends up defining its mission in terms of what it does not want—not communism, not Islamic Fundamentalism, not terrorism. When a positive goal is enunciated—we want the free flow of oil—that goal tends to be acted on only in a self-serving and too often militaristic fashion.

Too often this misses the point. Those with the oil want to sell the oil. Naturally, they also wanted to possess the oil first, and then, of course, to sell it.

But this is true of any commodity, or anything one has that is valuable, whether that is a resource found under the ground or made by the work of hands. And even if one does not wish to sell—to escape the cycle of commodification—one wishes control over that which one possesses or makes.

I am sitting in a museum while I write this. I am surrounded by works of Alexander Calder. They are gifts, but he also sold them. There is a fabulous photograph of his workshop in this gallery.

I wonder what distracted him, if he was distracted by the world around him?

When I look at any of the works of art at the National Gallery, I do not immediately think of the dates and the events that were taking place in the world at any given time. Art is timeless in a way. And it is not. I am reminded that horror in the world was never limited to acts of overt war, but that it proceeded—and proceeds—in an endless stream of cruelty and misfortune. And yet, in all times, there has been art.

Maybe we keep art in a box—even when it responds directly to the events of any given era (as contemporary art more pointedly and more often) does. Artists (and writers) also have something which they make. Maybe they need to stay in a box, to ignore the world and engage in the process. This seems like a fairly effete vision of art. While there is something self-serving about making art (my vision!), art only lives when it enters the world, partakes of the world, and reflects the world in all its grizzly terrible presence. The horrible beautiful world.

So, I am reminded while I am distracted, to include the world in my work, even as a reflection in some fragmented shards of a broken mirror. This too.

Reclaiming Enchantment

SAAM-1929.6.127_1It happens to us once or twice in a lifetime to be drunk with some book which probably has some extraordinary relative power to intoxicate us and none other; and having exhausted that cup of enchantment we go groping in libraries all our years afterwards in the hope of being in Paradise again.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Why did I think I would have to live without enchantment?

Maybe, because enchantment—sheer magic—seemed all but impossible. Or if not impossible, somehow immature. Children believe in magic, not rational, brilliant adults, and I am both reasonably rational and brilliant within reason. Still, I fell in love with reading by pulling every book from the shelf about myths from all over the world. Later, I would come to appreciate the ache of Hardy and James. I discovered that after reading James, I could write like him, plumbing the mind with prolix sentences. But I wasn’t enchanted, either by the reading or by what I was writing. These sentences were not mine, even if the ideas came from my heart. I found truth, and truth would have to do in a world that had banished magic.

And then…

“Many years later as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

I had written some before I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Year of Solitude. There was a story about a disaster in a mine that I cribbed from Conrad—or it felt cribbed—it had the same sense of urgency and dread that Jim felt before the explosion in the ship. But it wasn’t until every impossible thing happened in One Hundred Year of Solitude, combined with the steady implacable voice of that novel, that a work of literature echoed the voice in my head.

While growing up, I had read some fantasy and horror—Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea Trilogy delighted my adolescent heart, and Stephen King was good for an easy shock—but for the most part that kind of writing calls too much attention to itself. The tone does not so much enchant as cudgel. And yes, I understand, some people like to be cudgeled. Marquez’s tone created a silkier enchantment—so much so that some of the sentences forgot that they had ended. It was all spell, but a spell told at the dinner table.

Art is enchantment and artists have the right of spells.  Jeanette Winterson

During the in-between years, I also read Mark Helprin’s novel, Winter’s Tale, which begins: “There was a white horse, on a quiet winter morning when snow covered the streets gently and was not deep, and the sky was swept with vibrant stars, except in the east, where dawn was beginning in a light blue flood.” The novel careens into twists and turns of incredulity—what the hell is that ship?—however, the horse that began the novel enchanted me as it ran over the streets of New York City, and became, years later, my horse, although of a different shade.

A friend gave me a copy of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, which blends science with whimsy. Two stories, “The Distance of the Moon” and “Dinosaurs,” are touchstones of longing—a sure sign of enchantment. Calvino’s Invisible Cities remains unteachable for me because I cannot help but fall into its spell each time I read it.

If I am not enchanted, what is the point?

I tried to write impossible stories when I began writing, and instead, returned over and over to stories from my life. The examples of writers who had preceded me on that path were innumerable—and many of those writers are among my favorites: Joyce, Woolf, Dickens. Even Marquez, it turns out, was mining his past—a magical realist past, but a past that existed nonetheless. Reading his memoir, Living to Tell the Tale was surprising. Perhaps impossible things can really happen.

Magic is hard to write. Too often magic feels like a trick, some cheap deus ex machina to shorten the distance between here and there. I tried. I had struggled with a story about a father who became the Cat in the Cat in the Hat (a great absent father story), and that became another story, of all things, about a man driven by love to masquerade as a Russian carpenter.

I wrote prose poems about my city of origin, Philadelphia. Philadelphia, as much as any city, rises from contradiction after contradiction. I had lived in West Philly when the MOVE fire took place. I had worked in an Italian restaurant with dubious connections. I had done other things. Philadelphia seemed impossible enough. I wrote stories and poems in which the sun failed to rise or a girl shot the moon out of the sky or angels gathered after the end of the world or a man gave away parts of himself as he walked through the city one morning. One of my mentors chased me away, asserting that I was singing in one key. I was still young enough, and tender enough (my great flaw) to step back.

After all, it was simpler to write about disenchantment. It felt more realistic, more, what? truthful. Disenchantment and disillusionment are the foundations of so much literary work. Even One Hundred Year of Solitude ends on a thudding note of despair.

 Like all dreamers, I mistook disenchantment for truth.  Jean-Paul Sartre

I took many steps back. I grounded myself, got a series of real jobs, and lost my sense of magic. No, of course, I did not lose it. I put it away. I attempted to replace it with something like a reasonable substitute—an honorable and valiant substitute. A wiser soul would insist that there is no substitute, no more valiant way forward. They would not have been fooled by my efforts at sublimation. I tried to fool myself, and threw myself into work and life, and lost sight of myself.

How did that work out?

There are times when we can feel destiny close around us like a fist around a doorknob. Sure, we can resist. But a knob that won’t turn, a door that sticks and never budges, is a nuisance to the gods. The gods may kick in the jamb. Worse, they may walk away in disgust, leaving us to hang dumbly from our tight hinges, deprived of any other chance in life to swing open into unnecessary risk and thus into enchantment.

 Tom Robbins

This time last year I was a mere 30 pages into a new work. It did not have a shape, and I did not know how it would end. I hoped that it would end with a love that persisted over thousands of years, but what did I know? There were some 270 pages ahead. All I did know was that I had allowed myself to become entirely enchanted by what I was writing. Was it good?  Was it bad? What did I know? I kept writing.

I began writing and trusting in enchantment—rough magic to be sure—because I changed my life to reclaim enchantment. I set aside a life I had lived. I left two jobs—and a career of sorts—that had made the distance between my heart and hands more pronounced and distinct. And I began calling enchantment back into my life.

There must be people, writers, whose lives and work can take separate but equal tracks. I cannot. One part of me still feels that is a failure. As a mature adult, I should be able to compartmentalize the various parts of my life and live with the contradictions between what I dreamed of in my fiction and what I did at work and how I lived as a father and husband.

One of the great attractions of writing is that one is in complete charge of what one does. And what one does is, in the end, something like the most profound and energetic kind of play possible. The only rule of this game is: play more. Play more precisely. Play more wildly. Play more passionately. Play more broadly, quickly, intensely, blithely. Play into and out of contradictions. Play. More.

Try and lead the rest of life with that dictum in mind. Especially when one is a principal of an Orthodox Jewish boys school, or the director of religious education for a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Or as a husband. Or as a father. It all worked fine while I played in graduate school and wrote essays about William Blake or Virginia Woolf or Charles Dickens or George Chapman. Or dropped everything and sailed for a month. Or ran through streets at midnight. Or. Or. Or. The ability to take play in many different places became a strength. It even was a strength while I tried to write fiction and explore where my craft would take me—and the field seemed open and endless. It was also a field without guarantee, which can be daunting, even to a 34-year-old newly minted Ph.D. I had to learn to make peace with unnecessary risk and enchantment. It took a while.

I am in the middle of it: chaos and poetry; poetry and love and again, complete chaos. Pain, disorder, occasional clarity; and at the bottom of it all: only love; poetry. Sheer enchantment, fear, humiliation. It all comes with love.

Anna Akhmatova

Allowing myself to be enchanted again meant allowing myself, for the first time in a long time, to fall inescapably in love. I do not know if other writers struggle with this. If they are like the rest of humanity, they all come to their work from different places and with different impediments. I came freighted with years away from writing, years of attempting to lead a life that was a little more guaranteed—a life that would make sense to others. I let much of that go and, without ballast, took flight. For me, that meant opening myself up to love. I realize that you, dear reader and (possibly) fellow writer may have been able to balance life—your craft—and love more successfully. In order for me to fall back into writing’s long dark spell, I had to give in to the complete chaos of love. All of it. I had to be vulnerable to unnecessary risks. I had to risk everything—it was the only way that I could reconnect with the bright source of possibility that inspires my work.

Enchantment had to be unreasonable and total. I could not corral it into one part of my life. Or I could, and did. And I could not, not this time, not with everything waiting ahead of me in the gloaming.

I once argued with a friend that the whole point of writing (I was talking about critical essays at the time) was to praise. I know that many writers would strenuously disagree. They leverage opposition to create—resorting to a kind of perpetual Hegelian dialectic. My best work simply praised. Why note failure, when some more glorious success awaits? It is so much easier to look back in anger—or disgust or disdain. Looking forward means looking into something that does not yet exist. When I praised writers in my essays, I praised them for their forward-looking vision.  I praised the chances they took. I have been singing to the risk-takers for a long time.

How did it take me so long to hear my own old song?

At the outset, it is only liking, not understanding, that matters. Gaps in understanding … are not only important, they are perhaps even welcome, like clearings in the woods, the better to allow the heart’s rays to stream out without obstacle. The unlit shadows should remain obscure, which is the very condition of enchantment.

Andre Breton

I am in the shadowlands. Looking back will not get me where I am going. Asking the questions only serves to remind me that although I lost my way, I also found my way. There are some parts of this journey that are beyond my comprehension. Part of me hates that. I am a bright man and should be able to make sense of what happened and what changed. I have written these short posts as a way of reminding myself—and with any luck you—that the way ahead is not limited to the past. We can—and do—move in and out of understanding. But we move guided by our deeper inclination—what Breton calls “liking.” Let me suggest “loving,” which seems more committed, and therefore, riskier. I learn to live with the obscurity, even to court it, at my own peril, and for my own reward.

Writing must take us toward some inexplicable place. We read to be surprised and delighted by what we did not know when we began. Affirmation is fine. Discovery is essential. And when we write, we seek that same experience again—something like paradise. And again. And again. And this is how to live.

 

Writing is a fountain of youth

I was asked, “Do you feel old?” It was a question and an accusation.

I have reasons to be aware of my age. Over ten years ago, I had knee surgery as a result of years of overuse in swimming. My right shoulder has a tender rotator cuff; like my knees, my shoulder woes began when I was 17 and had a hitch in my freestyle stroke that put stress on the joint. Injuries never exactly go away as I am painfully reminded each time I lift weights with my hands out of a neutral position.

When I trim my beard, the hair falls from the electric razor like snow. The tide of my hairline has ebbed far enough to reveal another furrow on my brow. There are feathery lines that betray my transit. I do not always recognize the face that stares back at me, but I never truly recognized it. I have been surprising myself since before I can remember. Is that me? It is. It still is.

I know more than I did when I was 20, 30, or even 55. The accumulation of knowledge never stops. Each new day brings new articles of knowledge. I learn new ways of seeing the world or thinking about what I do. I gravitate toward books and lessons that show me something I did not know before I began. I am a specialist in my own ignorance. Every few years I feel a desire to overturn my life—uncomfortable in anything that feels like mastery, or rather, what might be mistaken for mastery. Yes, there is a value in going deep into a subject—in tunneling to the heart of a matter. But, to extend the metaphor, does the heart matter if one does not connect it to the bones and nerves and skin? What does the heart matter if it does not move out into the world and connect not just to the other 8 billion human hearts, but to everything living heart, and every other thing that does not have a heart? The more I learn, the more the connections pull at me.

I write—the single consistent strand of the past thirty-five years—because writing is not bound to any single subject. I write about movies, families, love, death, writing, baseball, anatomy, and art. I write about poems I love, and people who anger me to the point of distraction. I write about them to quell the dull ache of calcification and the even duller sense of disappointment with a world that replaces genuine surprise with momentary thrills. I write fiction and poetry to reach into the world and to describe a world that is thrilling—momentarily and for so much longer—but also deeply mysterious.

Writing is a time machine. It returns me to the giddy, carefree, and fearless time of youth. When I was ten, a flood brought the creek water a dozen feet higher than usual. The water rose above the bridge on the road below our house—a house on a hill. I went to the bridge and marveled at the swift brown water that reached the rails that spanned each side of the bridge. I waded into the water and held onto the rails. My feet lifted from the road and trailed behind me as I went hand over hand across the bridge. And once I crossed, I came back the same way.

Later in life, I did similar things, but the feeling then—water rushing past me, my feet straight out behind me, the weight of my body held by my extended arms—only fully returns when I write. And writing lets me shake off the years, not just mine, but all the years. I travel to any time I wish, unstuck from this moment, unlocked from expectation. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald writes about romping in the mind of God. Writing is like that. It can be. It must be.

Do I feel old? Positively. I am ancient because my writing carries me to that world—to every world. And I am young, still. Always.

Dumping Heroes: Gatsby, Manhattan, and coming to terms with it all

After watching Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby, and his introduction of Gatsby to Rhapsody in Blue, and reading Fitzgerald’s description of New York as Nick and Gatsby cross into the city:

Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world…

 “Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” I thought; “anything at all. . . . ”

Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder.

I cannot help but recall Woody Allen’s opening of Manhattan. Manhattan elates and saddens me.

I first saw Manhattan in 1979, when I was 19 and thought myself precocious. I was a sophomore at Swarthmore College, a school full of young people who rebelled in their precociousness. Tracy’s relationship with Isaac simply echoed my sense of myself. Who among my friends would have put a limit on the seventeen-year-old Tracy? We were only steps away from that age; we were not intimidated by 42-year olds. What did we know about power dynamics or anything more than our own blossoming worth in the world? Blossoming? Fuck that—we were valuable and powerful as we were.

If anything, we looked at the adults: Isaac, Yale, and Mary, as failures. They were warnings against what adulthood held for us. How many of those warnings were broadcast directly to us—adults, even bright, hyper-intellectual, and connected adults, failed miserably at the single focus of life: true and abiding love. (Is that the focus of life? Should it be?) They were even willing to ensnare us in their tangled ruin. And yet we were becoming those adults.

I still hear Rhapsody in Blue as flirtatious, triumphant and orgasmic—just as Allen used it to begin his movie. It starts with the clarinet ensorcelling the listener, almost drunk, almost like the opening of “West End Blues.” Then it is answered by the horns—overwhelming in their insistence, and unable to be subdued even by the speedy-fingered piano that interrupts the answer. There will be horns. There will be crescendo and climax. Yes, there is more. It is hard not to feel movement through that city when hearing this music, but that city is full of sexual vibrancy, and sexual competency. We do it, and we do it right.

The sadness with Manhattan comes, of course, with the knowledge of what happened to Allen-—that youth and vigor swept him away. That romanticization won out over, what? Adulthood? And couldn’t we see in Manhattan all the signs of that? Where was there a space to be an adult in his work? Who knows what Tracy was going to come back to the city as—still full of possibility? or wrought into something, somehow less?

And here’s the thing—we are all going to be wrought by life, by struggle, by disappointment. It’s what we do after the first act that determines who we will be. Or the second act. Or the third.

Life contains an element of the bipolar—there will be elation and sadness. I embrace both. I struggle with both—or I try to. I tell myself to get ready for the fourth act; Agincourt, after all, takes place in Act IV. Still, the bitterness of disappointment is hard to set aside. And there have been so many disappointments, so many sadnesses, so many disenchantments. Heroes fall. I fail. What was once sweet on the tongue no longer pleases. My knees hurt. “I ache in the places where I used to play,” sings Cohen, and he sings in spite of his indelible croak. “Born with the gift of a golden voice,” indeed.

Manhattan elates and saddens me because it lays bare all the trouble to come and makes a statement about the seductive power of the city—a power I felt every time I visited it, every time I visit any great city. Life—like the city, the film about the city, and the novel by Fitzgerald—is rich and dense and confusing—and infuriating. I wish it was not so, and yet, it must be.

Breaking Up with a Novel, Falling in Love with the Next One

So, your brain works like this when you begin a relationship: a steady stream of oxytocin lasts about two years and gets you through the infatuation stage. During that time, you are giddily in love, and you do the due diligence (or you don’t) that gets you to something more lasting, something, possibly, permanent.

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Oxytocin

Here’s the trick. If you are still working on a novel after two years, it is time to throw it overboard. No, seriously. Part of what gets a reader to pass into the dream you wrote is a similar flood of hormones. Reading requires infatuation. Yes, you can pack a novel with drama and with exotic wildness, but somehow, somewhere the depth of infatuation a writer feels for his or her work will emanate from the page and enchant the reader. Or it will not–keep in mind that each reader will be enchanted with something different. But we tend to fall in love with willing partners. Enchantment breeds enchantment.

Novelists are oxytocin junkies. We fall in love—or we fall in love enough—to write and write against all expectation of a result, daftly believing in what we are doing in spite of no promise of permanence. And then, when we finish, we move on—or try to. Some novelists visit and revisit characters, unable to move on. There are a number of reasons: security (this stuff was published once, so why not try again?); habit (I already know these characters, this time and place); anxiety (how will I find another novel to write? I’ll just do this again—sort of).

Great novelists work the same material over and over. Think of all the orphans in Dickens, or all of his switched and hidden identities. Or all the women negotiating lives surrounded by powerful if vision-impaired men in Woolf. Faulkner built Yoknapatawpha County and then inhabited and re-inhabited it again and again. Maybe J.K. Rowling knew that she was beginning a 7 volume world at the start, but how could commercial success not have impacted that world? I could go on.

I could just as easily line up novelists who produced one, maybe two books and then stopped. Might I suggest that they were not prepared for the jarring and harrowing experience of finishing a book—of feeling bereft, broken up with? Their lives were intertwined with that book. It had been the one (as it should be, as it must be!). Yet, once the flow of oxytocin stopped, that’s where they were. Done. And done.

Would falling in love with the process be a solution? You get the oxytocin for two years, it doesn’t matter what—or who—you fall in love with. After the infatuation, you have to learn another way to love. Something more indelible. Love your process like that. I have been writing every day for years—fits and starts, fiction and nonfiction. I used it as a base on which I found a more fiery, single love (that book). After finishing it, I crashed hard, but I also had the writing, some kind of writing, to propel me forward.

I will find another, brighter love as I go forward. Another novel beckons. Before I berate myself too much for the difficulty of beginning the next, I must acknowledge that I am still haunted by the ghost of the last. My brain misses the rush of turning to those words, those characters, those places. So to will your brain. Be ready. It’s just the oxytocin. Just.

And so, I revisit places—the Calders at the National Gallery of Art remind me of the value of clean lines, whimsy, and balance (always balance!). In spite of the heartache, there is beauty—beauty made by hands, not simply discovered in nature. Although that beauty too—the changing fall colors, the scent of the season even as I walk on the National Mall—fills my sails with new wind.

I take my iPad to bed and write as I imagine Proust did, propped up among the pillows. If only the cats would bring me coffee. I have a table in a library on which I arrange my materials, and where I make progress. I wait for the next rush of crust-breaking hormones, chipping away with sad hands until that day arrives—when the glimmer becomes a fire again. I am ready.