Insistence of Memory

I got chickenpox, mumps, and measles. I had my tonsils out—an operation that required an overnight stay –when I was in 3rd grade because they had been the source of repeated infections. I bounced through cases of flu and other passing illnesses. Years later, I had mononucleosis during the first semester of college. Nothing keeps us from bumping into some microscopic problem. And forget about the web of mysteriously genetic and environmental causes that lead to Parkinson’s Disease or Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma—the two illnesses that plagued my parents—but that was on the distant horizon.

I read Alistair MacLean’s novel The Satan Bug—in which a mutant virus threatens to wipe out humanity—in the 7th grade. In a world that lived under the menace of nuclear war, a biological threat was quieter and almost less tangible, and therefore more insidious. I traced these threats through films and books like The Andromeda Strain, Pursuit, and Rage. Even Close Encounters of the Third Kind used the possibility of a gas or disease outbreak to move the plot along. The insidious unseen nature of these gaseous or microscopic adversaries held my interest.

In my 20s, the HIV-AIDS epidemic galvanized my attention. How could it not? The emergence of a disease that would kill you after sexual intimacy staggered all of us who enjoyed the freedom afforded by birth control and an unshackled moral climate. We felt screwed (and not).

Whether fear or mordant curiosity drove me, I began to study viruses and epidemics with fury. The sudden spread of hemorrhagic fevers that Richard Preston (The Hot Zone) and Laurie Garrett (The Coming Plague) wrote about exacerbated my concern. It was impossible to moralize about what was coming—this wasn’t about sex. Deadly diseases lurked. Diseases have always been half a hair away. In Norfolk, a small park memorializes those who died during an outbreak of Yellow Fever in 1855. I lived a block away.

Still, in my 30s, I read Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera.  And then, almost by accident, stumbled on reports of the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918. I read Alfred W. Crosby’s America’s Forgotten Pandemic at some point in the late ’90s and then John Barry’s The Great Influenza when it came out in 2004. How could it be that we all knew about the Great War, but not the pandemic that occurred at the same time? We know about this now; Barry’s book made it to the bestseller list in 2020, but the memory of the pandemic faded in popular culture. I was surprised this past year when I realized that Mr. Gower’s son dies of influenza in It’s a Wonderful Life; it was the Spanish Flu. Where else was the pandemic?

So when COVID emerged in the winter of 2020, I was not surprised. After all, SARS and MERS had already flourished in their own specific ways. When it became clear that this would be more serious, I bought masks as soon as possible, kept my distance, washed my hands even more assiduously than usual, and settled in for the count. History provided stern warnings; I knew that a count—of cases and deaths—was coming.

We like to predict what will happen, and strangely enough, we tend to think that the future is unwritten. It is, and yet, for a good indication, look to the past. This is true whether you want to know what the weather will be like on May 14th or if there will be traffic on I-95 tomorrow morning. Yes, there are exceptions and random occurrences that will skew the numbers, but the past is all too reliable a guide. Fifty Million people have not died from COVID as died in the last great pandemic, nor have half a billion people contracted the disease. But our imagination does not need to stretch far to encompass those numbers. 675,000 United States citizens died in the influenza pandemic; that number is all too close to where we are headed this year. Yes, the population was smaller in 1918-19, but did anyone expect this to happen?

Over the past year, I gobbled down the numbers. I felt a strange intoxication with having a sense of where things were headed and seeing them move, painfully, sadly in that direction. Anthony Fauci, and most of the medical community, played Cassandra to a population that wished for another outcome. As if wishing could make it so. But what good did it do to know? What effect did my knowing have on anyone other than me? The numbers were a despairing gruel that neither nourished nor encouraged me. I had to wait them out. Eventually, I stopped reloading the numbers every hour and settled on the grim results that appeared each morning in the New York Times.

So what’s the point? Partly this: when you see it coming, get ready: hurricane, pandemic, or whatever is on the horizon of time and place. Get ready before you see it. You have been sick before; people have been sick around you. We should have known better, and our ignorance cost lives. The obvious is always right there. Yes, while knowledge can be overwhelming, there must be a sweet spot: enough information to teach us and lead us into productive discomfort without flooding us into anxious inaction The only way we learn is by exposure.

But there’s something more.

There must be a reason that the pandemic of 1918-19 disappeared from memory. Why and what do we forget? We forget, or remember selectively, and not just about events like pandemics. I’m not aiming at what we don’t retain. As a teacher, I am too aware that students do not retain everything. I wonder why do we forget some things and not others? This is not a reflection just on this pandemic or the last or the run of diseases.  What else have I forgotten? I scramble to instill new habits and new awarenesses or avoid falling down the well of past practices. To borrow from Robert Creely, “[w]hat am I to myself that must be remembered, insisted upon so often”? But more, what have I failed to remember and insist upon?

We resume the remembered rhythms of our lives and return to our old habits and anxieties as if they were never interrupted. Repetition has essential gravity and draws us back. Except sometimes some things should interrupt us. The persistent nudge of discomfort—that we do have something new to learn and some new way to behave—should goad us onto a new course. Except, we stay the course and return to the known, even if it is a life half-lived.

I can (and I suspect that I will) point to the world and shout, “J’accuse! You forgot!” I shout at myself. I must insist that I remember—or that I remember to insist. I write in the face of forgetting, in the face, to borrow once more from Creely, of “the tiredness, the fatuousness, [and] the semi-lust of intentional indifference.” I must return to the hard work of insistence.

The pandemic passes, the lessons must not.

Uncertainty

“You are in transition,” she said.

I had changed my life, leaving a world in which I was relatively secure and not writing. I had made walls for myself to hang paintings and prints, in which friends could visit, and my daughter could stay three nights a week. Like the song says, this was not my beautiful house, this was not my beautiful life. There are a thousand, no a million people who would have doggedly pursued the life they made, the life I created. I was a principal, a teacher, a program director at my church. And I felt profoundly unsatisfied.

Just recently, I finished teaching Joyce’s “The Dead.” Again. I pointed out to my students that the whole point of literature is to learn about life. In “The Dead,” Gabriel Conroy is an English teacher; he has, for all his life, read and learned about life. And yet, when life comes at him, he fails. He is stuck—beautifully stuck if we believe that the story’s closing coda is his thought. Yet stuck he is, like the “never-to-be-forgotten Johnny” going round and round the monument of King Billy. And if the beloved Gabriel, the angel of the Annunciation, the deliverer of the good news, is stuck, what hope have we?

I was stuck.

I had set out on a course years before and had finally begun my way back. I had started writing—nonfiction, but words are words—and I began to reapportion my responsibilities. I left my jobs and my home.

“You are in transition,” she said; it was not a compliment.

When I think about literature, which I often do, most of the lessons are about managing change or how to change well. The ponderous chain that Scrooge girded on with his own two hands represents one form of paralysis: bondage of the heart and soul. Odysseus stuck on Calypso’s Island is a variation; the prison of our hopes and dreams can be ecstatically pleasant. In her book of poems Dream Work, Mary Oliver acknowledges the pain and weight of abuse and her need to live on despite that weight. Either we recognize “What good does it do to lie all day in the sun loving what is easy?” or we simply resort to the easy. Sometimes the weight is what is easy. Habit is like that.

Writers must have habits. In the end, no matter what we write, we must write—every day. But we must also write outside the narrow band of habit, beyond the immediate limit of what we already know. This—pushing the limits—is not true of all writers. Some work the known to great effect and profit. While I recognize the value of profit (Mr. Dickens tilled his well-worn field to fame, as have most successful authors), I come to writing as a way of discovering

I have discovered this: I must mine uncertainty. I have friends who claim that when they begin a novel, they know the last line and write toward that goal. I tried that, and it did not work for me. I tried and tried and mapped and mapped and was stymied. I lost faith and put my efforts into other work, into another life. The work was good and meaningful, as was the life. Still, I felt unfulfilled; a promise went unmet. Maybe I needed to suffer that loss (maybe) to find the spring. What good would regret do now?

Gabriel regrets. Marley regrets. Peter Walsh regrets. I had tried that too easy suit as well. I took it off.

I began without even so much as a first line. I charged in and kept going. I churned through a hundred thousand words. Not a day passed when I knew where I was going. I trusted the process. “I learned,” as Roethke wrote, “by going where I had to go.” And that’s the point—I had to go.  While I fill my life with routines, as long as I conserve enough energy and joy for the project at hand, the writing surprises me. That is how I must proceed. Surprise is met on uncertain ground, and there it is I must go.

“You are in transition,” she said, and yes, I am. I must make peace with that—that my method needs me to be ever in the air, landing where I need to be for a year or a minute, long enough to write for a day and a month and the rest of my life, and then, always, casting my lot with chance and discovery. The old song commends “to turn, turn will be our delight/‘Till by turning, turning we come round right,” and, yes, this is the simple lesson I have learned—and which I have fought against too often in the past.

There are risks to this: to be always turning. But holding tightly to the chains also presents a risk—and a certain one. Back into the maelstrom I must go. Time to turn.

Will this work for you? Will change and uncertainty produce a sudden outpouring of words? I do not know. I do know that surprise is what brought me to literature in the first place. Writing that made the world bigger than it was before I started reading kept me reading. Is that true for you as well? Perhaps you seek confirmation and affirmation. I understand the gravity of both, and that may well be what you need. Or, you may already know what makes the world larger. Maybe you are sure about that. Then perhaps we are different kinds of writers and this advice is lost on you.

If not, in spite of yourself, in spite of your routines, charge into the unknown. Embrace uncertainty. And write.

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.

Shoulders And Work

Several months ago, my right shoulder started to hurt—not the dull pain of repeated effort, but a sharp bite. The trainer at my club diagnosed it as a rotator cuff injury. I was not surprised. Years ago, I tore at my shoulders when I swam miles and miles every day. Another trainer put a finer point on my struggles, telling me that backstroke (which had been a staple of my midlife training regimen) often drove swimmers out of the pool. And so, I tended my form, keeping my hands and grips in neutral positions while I pushed and pulled weight. Then I gave up the weights for a couple of months and added exercises to strengthen my rotator cuffs. Time has taught me to listen to my body more carefully. And taught me that old wounds can return decades later.

This past month, stuck inside during the pandemic, I started lifting again and welcomed the natural hurts that result from earnest work. It feels good to work and to bear with the pain. The endorphins from extended workouts help carry me through the barrage of news, which, much to my chagrin, I cannot ignore. Lift this. Watch the heart rate settle into the 170s. At least it makes sleep come more easily.

Not everything true for the body is true for the mind. Or the heart.
I also wrapped up a more extensive revision of one book while stewing over the next. The most recent update of Grammarly highlighted the more prolix passages of the old work, so even though images and scenes in the new book pile up, I felt the call to rewrite. Rewriting leads to re-visioning. The question, “How did I leave that out?” occurred more than I liked, and so I added connective tissue. I edited my more complicated impulses into simpler—and more direct?—chunks.

And revision, though inspired by some strange angels, does not require the same fiery vision as the initial draft. Without rooms of art to goad me (the DC museums have been closed since early March), it was easier to return to the old work. “Easier” is hardly the right word. The same way that I had to restart lifting below the peaks I had reached in December, I came back to the book with a diminished sense of it. In that diminishment, I found a new way in. I was no longer in love with the characters, or with myself as their creator. I was able to question my motives and choices in ways that I was unable six months ago when I made my first rattling revision.

Still, as much as I rediscovered and redirected in this recent edit, I felt as if I was betraying my new work. I have begun to dream about those characters. While others around me are infected with fever driven dreams of the pandemic, I have felt pulled to another vision—the anxiety churns a different sea. Just as I lift barbells in an otherwise empty gym—counting my reps out loud while Arthur Morey narrates Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct—this new work pushes me. It is familiar and different.

The ache in my shoulder is familiar and different. I know what to avoid and how to strengthen the weak places. The old wounds and old ways remind me of a past that I have lived, but there are new steps to take. My narrator welcomes me into her thoughts and reflections and challenges me to get out of my own way. A whole world opens ahead of me, dream-laden, and no longer bound to anything I have worked on before. There will be work.

Little Women and the Writing Life

Watching Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women for the second time (I suspect that I will see it again), I cannot help but see it as a writer’s movie—a movie about a writer and her craft. Jo March wants to write a good story (or novel). She succeeds by writing commercially viable stories the contain murder, betrayal, and scandal; they are “short and spicy.” However, when she faces the impending tragedy of Beth’s death, she begins something new: a story about domestic struggles and joys.

All romance aside, writing is a domestic struggle and joy.

Jo’s life as a writer defines how she lives her domestic life. At first, her writing helps support her family. It gives her independence from the economic reality that women face, and the film paints a clear picture of those economics. Amy’s assertion of what she would give up—property, children—if she married is bracing, as it should be. There is an economic reality to writing as well, and one of the joys of the film is watching Jo negotiate with her publisher. In a triumph, she decides to hold on to the copyright of her novel, instead of taking an upfront payment in exchange for those rights.

Here is one of the significant places that the film takes liberties with the source material. Gerwig knows the story of the novel’s author, Louisa May Alcott—a woman who never married. Gerwig turns Jo into a version of Alcott and allows Jo to understand the bargain Alcott will make—forgoing married life for a writing life. Jo relents only when she feels the pangs of loneliness and allows her family to goad her into chasing her Professor. When Jo chooses Professor Bhaer, the film cuts between Jo’s discussion with her publisher (who insists, “If you decide to end your delightful book with your heroine a spinster, no one will buy it. It won’t be worth printing.”), and Jo’s consummation with Bhaer.

Gerwig has things both ways when this occurs. The film flows out in two directions afterward—one with Jo and her family opening the Plumfield School, and the other with editions of Little Women coming off the press with Jo’s name, not Alcott’s on the cover. It gives us two happy endings, one in which Jo is married and living an honorable and acceptable purpose, and another where she is a successful author.

Do I believe that the endings are exclusive of each other? They were exclusive of each other in Alcott’s life—for whatever reason. For the rest of us, I am not so sure.

I am sure that it takes a crisis to force the writer to come to compel the writer to mine—and compulsively mine—the deep sources of the story they will tell. John Gardner recommends, “[a] psychological wound is helpful, if it can be kept in partial control, to keep the novelist driven.” Jo’s grappling with Beth’s death, and the outpouring of work that follows seems true enough. She props up her notebook, open to one story, “For Beth,” and it opens her up to her novel. It pours out across her attic floor.

How long a wound can fester before it scars over and prevents the writing is another question entirely. How many wounds, how many crises can the nascent writer face before the fountain cracks, and the story dribbles away in dust?  But that is not the story of Gerwig’s Little Women; it is gloriously hopeful and shows the way ahead.

 

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.

 

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.

img_0009
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.

In Praise of Outcomes

I was listening to a presentation on meditation; the speaker explained how we are not our thoughts. It’s a tenet of Buddhism—you don’t get attached to your thoughts or your feelings, but acknowledge them as passing events. You can—and do—hold them, but only as you choose to do so. Or, rather, you are meant to make a choice. We are not always the best choosers of our thoughts or feelings.

As a person who relies on thought (and there is no thought that is unaccompanied by a feeling) to do my work, and as a person who casts his mind into the ocean of inspiration and lets it carry him as it will, I am sensitive to both seeking a direction and to changing course when needed.  I do not hold with Shelley, who wrote: “Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness…” Fuck that. I will make a world of words, and when I feel more powerful, I believe that I can change the world with my words. They are magical, wish-fulfilling words.

Because I have a wish. I have a thousand wishes: one for every unfulfilled night of dreams, and another for each daylight hour I have spent do anything but this.

In the end, for all the talk about process and not paying attention to outcomes, I want an outcome. I want the damn thing to be good. I want people to turn their eyes back to the page and keep reading. I am motivated by the sheer selfish desire for fame—the kind of fame Beowulf seeks and gains—nothing fleeting, nothing easy. I will meet the monster on his terms and I will match him hand-hold for hand-hold. I will wrench the fucker’s arm off and I will wave it over my head and I will howl in glory.

And so, I choose. And choose again—thoughts and feelings that may be fleeting billow like a sand column in the desert, stirred into shapes that defy sensible reckoning. I am at work — full of will and intention. For better or for worse.

500 pages

I graduated from SUNY-Binghamton with a Ph.D. in English Literature/Creative Writing in 1994. Before I went to graduate school, I did not know what I wanted to be. I had written a little earlier in life, and had taken a fiction workshop while I was an undergraduate, but my sense of myself as a writer was hazy at best. Still, I had done some work and I applied to writing programs in the spring of 1988. I was accepted at Binghamton.

While I was in graduate school, I wrote stories, a novel that I shelved, some poetry, and essays. I also wrote a slew of academic papers. Mostly, I read furiously and widely, delving into a world of literature and philosophy that had not existed for me before I began this turn in my life. I still have many of the books that I read in those six years and they are either a bulwark or an anchor. Now, they seem more like part of a wall that divided my life into the time when I did not write, the time I discovered writing, and the time I stopped writing.

That time ended in 2018 when I considered moving away from family and the jobs I held in Norfolk. I had been separated and divorced for four years. Calamity at one of my jobs resonated in my life. I was at sea. I needed to find a ground that was not defined by the needs and desires of other people. I needed, frankly, to be selfish and directed. I do not believe that it is a surprise (to me at least) that my colleagues sent me packing with the book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck when I left in August of 2018. Message received.

Because I did give a fuck — too many fucks — not just in my professional work and personal life, but in my writing. Unlike some of my one time classmates, I felt called to writing not so much because I had a need to express myself, but almost in spite of any need to exclaim, “Here I am!” I was obsessed with getting at some ineffable and intractable truth that existed outside my narrow sense of self. I wrote with an evangelical zeal. Can I say that art motivated by such a keening has little easy air to breathe? It does not. My stories, even when they were fantastic, needed to tread more often on the ground.

When I started writing this blog in 2014, I was in China to adopt my daughter. I started to write about simple human truths that were grounded in my simple human experiences. I hoped that my observations would have some resonance with others, but I wrote without too much of a concern for an audience. The work proceeded in fits and starts after that initial push. And then it flared into this—a daily practice of reflection and direction. That fire lit the flame of the novel I finished in August and has carried me into a second.

My writing projects since May of 2018 have produced over 500 pages of words. Some are good. Some are better. My nonfiction has been largely about my writing and writing in general. My fiction has just been a story about a Djinn, almost a retelling of an older—much older—story, with some of my preoccupations thrown in for good measure.

Writing (fiction and nonfiction) has felt revivifying. I have enjoyed the deeper reflection and playful invention. The writing has come more easily and far more consistently than anything else and at any time I have ever written. Ever. I have looked forward to the task and have left it—whether I write for an hour or the better part of a day—feeling replenished. More will—and does—come.

When I shared this insight—500 pages! More is coming!—with a friend, I did so with the proviso: “in spite of the past year.” She corrected me: “Because of it.” Perhaps so. Perhaps I spent the past year and a half knocking myself off my moorings just so that I could get this work done, just so that I could reclaim all that I had feared was lost.

I told another friend that I felt a kind of urgency to write. She worried that I was ill or distressed. Yes, I have been distressed. Old wounds have haunted me and focused my attention. I have allowed them the space to heal. And have used the writing to help me heal.

While the writing has helped me gird myself against that distress, it has also allowed me to wrap myself in joy. I feel that joy more profoundly now than when I was starting out some thirty years ago. The old uncertainties have fallen away. I do not ask, “Is it good enough? Will there be another? Do I have the right?” Instead, I take solace in a more durable method that suits my heart and mind. I go this way.

What’s next…

I am in between.

Leaving the world of one book for another—even though I was only in that other world for just over ten months—is a discomforting experience. I feel as if I have broken up with my old book. I have put away the music I listened to while I was at work on that book. No more symphonic Led Zepplin. No more Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. I wonder about the habits of place and duration that propelled the writing of that novel. Can I still go to my Sunday retreats? My place in the library? I’m not married—a blessing and a curse—but I can see how putting one book down would have seismic effects in my personal life. Fortunately—and unfortunately—those changes were already built into this project.

Hahn/Cock by Katharina Fritsch

I spent an hour or so in front of the blue chicken in the tower display of the National Gallery of Art’s East Building going through songs to build a playlist of new music. I have resorted to familiar places—they are still full of energies that may urge this new project on. But “Monekana” by Deborah Butterfield will not call to me, reminding me what constitutes my magical horse, Bellapari. I will miss Bellapari.

Monekana by Deborah Butterfield

What I take forward is a method—because although Butterfield’s sculpture will no longer sing its mythic song full of infinite purpose, something else will open doors to vision that I have not yet seen. I recall that even the Gorecki that drove two months of writing came only after I heard a snippet of it in an episode of Legion. Gifts come from everywhere. Even my Emira untethered herself from her initial source. All that remained constant was my presence at a keyboard, and my presence will be what carries me.

I messaged a friend as I headed into the last chapters “How did it take so long?” That is a long story, and it feels sadder and more pointless on reflection than it was while I went through it. Maybe the years away will end up having whet the creative blades to such a point that I will cut through the next and the next and the next book with the same—if not ease, then precise and playful resolve.

I have loaded the playlist, and gone to visit the angels. Bring on the thieves.

Stevenson Memorial by Abbott Handerson Thayer