The Promise of London: A Writer's Promise

A year ago I was in London. My first night there, it was cold and rainy—the worst weather of my short trip. In spite of that, there was a walk to take—a walking tour of locations connected to Dickens and A Christmas Carol. Only a handful (6? 8 at the most) came out for that walk. At some point in the night, I was recruited to help read from The Pickwick Papers. The walk ended at The George with mulled wine, and guests out of doors in the cold singing.

The memory is happy and sad. I had traveled to London with a woman whom I deeply loved. I had traveled with some amount of trepidation; I knew she had other stars in her eyes, or, at the very least, that she doubted that I was star enough for her eyes. However, London was a promise I had made to myself long ago, and I was fulfilling that promise, or, again, at the very least, making the first steps toward that promise. The trip was a dream and reminded me of why I made that promise years ago.

One part of the promise involved travel. When I was a graduate student, I had been accepted to travel to London to help with a program at my school. I did not go. I had met a woman and thought we were going to be married, so I reneged on my duties and planned a wedding and a life. The marriage did not happen. I stayed in Binghamton for the spring instead of traveling. I promised myself that I would go, and go beyond.

The other part of the promise was to write.

I had gone to Binghamton to be a writer. I began grad school at 28 with only a thin idea of what I wanted to write. To be honest, my idea of myself as a writer was entirely romantic—in that way Shelley’s idea of the poet from In Defense of Poetry is romantic. Such an idea, without a steadily glowing ember of practice, is not sustainable. My writing, though full of hopeful ideas, had not taken proper root. I was a dilettante—determined, but without that obsessive drive that propels most writers. While I was in grad school, I delved into the academic side of my studies—the ideas were thrilling, and it was easier to make headway there.

My first writing workshop focused on short fiction. Although I had written a couple of short stories and read some, especially when I was younger and gobbled up anthologies of supernatural stories, I came to writing because of novels, especially the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mark Helprin. I wanted big strange things to happen in my work, and for my work to reflect a world in which the impossible was ever-present—if stalwartly and stupidly ignored. I wanted to shine a light on that world. Did I know that then? I do not think that I could have made a clear statement of exactly what I wanted, besides to “be a writer.” That is hardly enough.

I struggled with short work. I wish I could say that I had ten dozen ideas waiting to spring Athena-like from my forehead. I did not. After two years, I somehow cobbled together enough work for a Master’s Thesis, but the work relied too much on retelling stories from my life. I invented nothing. It wasn’t until my third year that I began to find my footing, and then only in the shortest of pieces, prose poems.

While academic writing can flourish jumping from George Chapman to Virginia Woolf to Charles Dickens, from Michel Foucault to Alice Jardine to Judith Butler, creative writing needs a steady—almost boring—focus. You have to sit at the grindstone. You have to want to sit at the grindstone, putting the millstone around your neck the way someone else might blithely doff a silk cravat, tied while running toward a morning meeting, or an afternoon assignation. It’s a damned heavy tie. And there must be something magical and transformative. The words must have the power to change the world.

And here’s the thing—as I have written in some of these posts, obsessive drive was antithetical to my idea of how I wanted to live. I had seen too much obsessive drive and distrusted it. Where some saw vision, I saw blindness. I felt it in myself, especially when I was “in love.” I distrusted the way I experienced romantic love and doubted whether I would be able to love anyone. At 28. I may not have had a clear idea about my writing, but I did have a clear—if wrong-headed—idea about my heart. I had much to learn. Now, I feel called to write every day, and if I do not, I feel the bite of old dogs. If days go by, the dogs grow younger and hungry.

And, I had given up on magic. Are the two things, love and writing, all that separate? Sadly, or happily, for me, they are not.

What happened? Well, this, for one. In January of 2018, I started reflecting on lost bits of my life. I had something to reclaim. It started with reflections on love and what I learned from a selection of movies—some obscure, some well known. Then I started musing on happiness and moving and beginnings and, of course, writing. I had something to reclaim. I explained to a friend that my newfound sense of urgency was the result of losses around me and my own gnawing loss of self. I felt my life slipping away.

What am I to myself

that must be remembered,

insisted upon

so often?

Robert Creeley

One of the early writing lessons was that one had to fight against insistence on anything other than the artistic integrity of the work. Art was all that mattered. Everything else was selfish preoccupation. There is a nascent Buddhism in this practice. Writers must not crave; they must simply let the perfect “be” and then get the hell out of the way. Great writing was, at some level, an act of self-erasure—the presence of absence. Especially when I was a young romantic writer-to-be, this appealed to my innate perfectionism and idealism. In a world full of corrupted motivation and suspect morality, attempting to make something beautiful was honorable. This is part of the elusive call of writing, and of all art. Everyone else must live reined in by the art of the possible: politics and compromise. Writers and artists strive for the unobtainable. Even when we engage the flaws in our work, as often as not we are performing some subtle—or not so subtle—sleight of hand. We are like the carpet weaver adding the imperfection because the perfect is reserved for God alone. Or for Shakespeare.

Which brings me back to London, a city in which Shakespeare’s famous theatre was rebuilt through the efforts of an American actor. When I went to London, I was a month and a half into a novel, and I knew that it would be a novel. I had imagined other work as long as novels before, but this was different. I had never felt drawn into the writing as I had with my book about the djinn. I knew it was going somewhere, and I did not know how it would get there. I was not simply writing about characters who were magical and from the world of enchantment; I was enchanted by the work. I researched djinn as I wrote, and would go back and revise whole sections to suit what I learned while I wrote. I let myself be out of control and let the book go out of my control.

The closest comparisons I can make to this were the feelings I had when I was at the crest of a wave—either on my father’s boat on the Atlantic Ocean or when I was body-surfing off the coast of California. In both cases, I was out of control and exhilarated. I felt the same way in London—that the waves of history, of literature, of streets, of unknown alleyways, and yes, of love could all come crashing down. They could, and some did, and I had to go ahead and throw myself into the waves anyway.

I wonder how this last novel came about so easily, but, really, it did not come easily. It began ages ago and I did not know it. I made a promise. As I gear up for the next, I am surprised that I am finding enchantment. Again. I am also pleasantly surprised that I know, a little, how to uncover enchantment when I need it. I have not needed to travel back to London. And yet, on this day—and if I am honest, every day—I feel the call. I have promises to keep. And miles to go…

Why the Djinn?

A friend asked where I got the idea for the Djinn. Here is the long story.

I wrote poems when I was in ninth and tenth grade. They were lengthy works with regular rhythm and rhyme. They told stories. When I asked my school to allow me to do an independent study in poetry writing, I was turned down, but one of my teachers suggested working with him to write sonnets and other formal verse. Stung by early rejection, I refused his offer.

I started writing fiction in college, and was accepted into a workshop in my senior year. After graduation, I started writing an espionage novel that had something to do with Monet’s Haystack paintings in the Hermitage, in St, Petersburg. I started work on a story about a baseball player. I started something about two friends who decided to go to college and pretended that they were ten years younger than they were.

I had a sense of the novel, and novel length stories, but at this point in my life, I had only read a few hundred novels—and many fewer short stories. Even though I started writing with poetry—blame A.A. Milne and Dr. Seuss for the sounds in my head—I had been enchanted by folk tales, fairy tales, and mythology at an early age. I took out book after book of myths (Greek, American—Native American and regional folk tales, Indian, Chinese—I was only limited by the selection on the shelves) from my the local and then elementary school library. My other interests in the library were the Rod Serling or Alfred Hitchcock anthologies of horror stories, atlases and encyclopedias.

I did not start reading adult novels until I was in 7th grade and a friend lent me his copy of The Guns of Navarone, after which I read everything that Alastair MacLean wrote. I made a mad dash through Kurt Vonnegut in 8th grade. I read all of Ursula K. LeGuin’s books before 9th grade. All this is a fairly slim bit of literature. My parents were not big readers—we had collections of Reader’s Digest Condensed Novels on our few bookshelves. My mother did read to us, sharing Beowulf and Poe stories. But we were not a bookish family. My brothers and I found what we looked for with relatively little guidance.

I was an able enough reader in high school, but short of Billy Budd, little of what I read stuck with me. On my own, I read all of Neil Simon’s plays, and other plays, and took up with science fiction and fantasy (Asimov, Tolkien, and a little known writer named Zenna Henderson). I read and reread Robin Graham’s account of his trip around the world, Dove. Mostly, I spent long hours listening to progressive rock, watching old movies, swimming, and driving the family car as far and as fast as I could.

In college, I discovered William Blake, James Joyce, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and Gustave Flaubert. It was also when I read all of John Le Carre’s spy novels, The Joy of Sex, and the only Daniell Steel novel that ever passed my way—The Promise. The main focus of English Literature courses was exposure to more—and I share the story of having a short novel assigned between a Tuesday and Thursday class with my students now. I read widely and gleaned what I could as quickly as I could. In my junior year, I switched focus to Art History (same deal: memorize as many works of art—in order and with an understanding of importance—as fast as possible), which, fortunately included a Cinema class that greatly expanded my limited knowledge of film.

So, what does any of this have to do with Djinn? I suspect that strains of all this—and of all the events of my life to date—appear in this work. Mainly, there is the myth, the early fascination with and appreciation of the fantastic as a genre, and the long interest in things that were away from here.

I encountered the djinn—as genies—in Sinbad and the Tales of the 1001 Nights. This book re-entered my life while I was in graduate school, in large part because of John Barth’s insistence on non-western sources of and for stories. But also because, once I encountered the djinn (or jinn), I was impressed by their wiliness and cruelty. I wondered—right or wrong—whether they had been mis-portrayed by the writer of the 1001 Nights. Why would such power need to be cruel? To refer back to Blake—“…what shoulder & what art,/ Could twist the sinews of thy heart?” I wondered. But I did not pursue the djinn, not yet.

I wrote in other ways. Although I have a set of prose poems set in Philadelphia that delve into the fantastic, I followed the realist tropes of my time. Perhaps this is what kept me from finishing—I was writing away from the story in my heart. Last year, when I dropped everything to take on new responsibilities—to myself and my work—I set aside the piece I had feverishly labored over for over ten years. During that ten years, I had written down a brief thought about a character who was keeping a secret (secrets will be something I grapple with forever). Five years ago, I was waiting for friends in a Mexican restaurant, and dashed out to buy a composition book, wrote a couple of pages before they arrived , and promptly forgot the book at the restaurant.

That story became the story of the Djinn.

I was dating a woman who shared my appreciation for the 1001 Nights—you have a copy too?—and that was enough of a spark to light the fire in this book, because the kindling, and the logs, had been waiting all these many years. Suddenly, I had a character whose secret was so closely held that he did not even know he was keeping it. He had forgotten that he was a Djinn.

There are other connections to other parts of my life and my studies that fueled this fire. Some of those will remain secret. Others are perhaps too obvious for me to mention here. For those of you who wonder how novels—or anything—gets written—by others or by your own hand—the short answer is that we tell the stories that enchant us. The shorter answer is that we sit down and write every day. No matter what. Perhaps because we are enchanted and under some infernal command—I wish that you write a novel, Djinn. So be it.

Inspiration on the way to sleep

When you write every day, images, scenes, bits of dialogue, everything really, come more easily. Writing becomes more like the air one breathes. The random bit of inspiration that seems so important—you sneak off from dinner with a friend to scribble something down in the restroom—becomes less so. Bits and pieces that have purchase assert themselves beyond any given moment.

I often get ideas as I pass from waking to slumber—in liminal moments. Liminal moments are times when one passes from one state to another, when change occurs, is about to occur, or has just occurred. One of the reasons I walk around while I write, and why I spent the summer writing in a school library, is to facilitate those liminal moments—to give myself actual doorways through which I could walk. A small amount of distraction (people walking in and out of the library while I am writing) gives me just enough of a shove from one state of mind to another to open the brighter doors of imagination. I interpret Roethke’s line from “The Waking”—“this shaking keeps me steady”—as a nod toward the role of liminal passages, of actual movement and transition, in the creative process.

Last night as I was drifting off, an idea—the image of a brick (a character perceives people as bricks, and suspects that there might be something entirely un-bricklike contained within those bricks in spite of his perception). I did not write it down, but let it play in my mind as I dropped quickly to sleep. I felt less a need to get up and write the image and bit of internal dialogue, but I repeated it as I dropped off. Later, I dreamed that I wrote it down, and the dream was so deep that I thought I was actually awake when I did it.

In the morning it was gone, until I was on my way to school, looking at the sky, and thinking about sending a text to a friend. I wanted to write something about how the cloud cover looked like batting spilled from inside couch pillows. I thought that it did not look like cotton, but that calling it “polyester batting” would have sour implications. And as I was thinking about that, the brick came back, pleasantly insistent, as did the dream, and the character.

I wondered where I would put this odd reflection. It really isn’t that odd. In the mythology I am using in my book, humans are made from clay, and so a reflection that people seem like bricks is not that unusual for a character to think. Except he is human too, or mostly human, and he wonders why he sees people the way he does, and whether he has become too bricklike. Then he has other thoughts—about fire and the beings made from fire. There is a reason for him to think about this too.

And there was a reason for me to remember, and remember the way I did.

What all this is about is this: inspiration comes, and persists. Go ahead and dash off to the kitchen when company is over, and keep your notebook or writing device of choice handy. However, if you are writing every day—every single day—you may find that you will not feel the same urgency when inspiration comes. It will stick around and wait for the time you assiduously set aside to get to the work. And if it slips away, something else may bring it back as you are in the middle of another thought, looking at the sky while you are driving to work.

Running in the Rain

A fragment #thirdwishnovel

As they walked, it began to rain. Small creeks formed where the land dipped, and the water flowed south, away from the mountains in the north. Tammuz took a long stride across one of the sudden streams, and turned to help Shalti across. She had already leapt, dry rise to dry rise, and laughed as he turned to make his chivalrous gesture.

“I’m over here!” she shouted in the rain, and ran ahead across familiar ground.

He watched his steps, and watched the woman move across the landscape ahead of him. She barely let her feet touch the ground before she stepped again, moving as if suspended by wings or wires. He stopped as he watched her, letting the rain soak him. She wore black boots and danced from one dry spot to the next. He had no idea where she was going, and she did not look back. If he stood there too long, he was sure that she would disappear.

He started to run too. Unlike her, his footfalls found water, and he splashed ahead straight after her, mud splattering up his pant legs. He did not care. He did not catch her, but she did not outpace him either. They ran in clumsy unison a hundred yards, more or less, apart. The rain kept falling, and they ran away from the shelter of her home to where? He did not know. Perhaps she did. He was not sure how quickly she ran, but felt no strain in his legs or lungs as he followed her. The pace came naturally, easily to him, in spite of the way he charged through the water and the mud.

A stone structure appeared as first she, then he crested a small hill. It looked as if it were made a simple monolithic slabs of rock, lifted and deposited to form a rough hovel. She ran there and waited for him under the thick roof of stone.

“You are soaked,” she declared, when he arrived. “It feels good to run, doesn’t it?”

“You have a strange idea of fun,” he answered. “Why aren’t you wet?”

“I know not to run into the raindrops, or the streams.” She pointed to his pants, which were coated with wet earth.

“I do not know the land or the sky as well as you, not here,” he said.

“Don’t make me laugh, strange man. You would get wet wherever you were. I can tell that about you.” She laughed at him, and he joined in with her. “You can run a little though, so perhaps,” she paused and poked him in the chest with the outstretched fingers of her right hand, “Perhaps there is hope for you.”

Discovery

So much of this project (#thirdwishnovel) has been centered on twin acts of discovery. First, I have been overjoyed to discover this story, and the way that it has unfolded itself to me in the past several months. Each time I faced a quandary (What should this character do? How will “this”—whatever this is—happen? Why does this world behave the way it does?), the universe opened up and provided some essential part of the story.

I have written about this part of the process in bits and pieces in this blog. I have never been the welcome recipient of so many gifts. There were lions from Assyria, streets in London, a silver tree in Washington DC, heartbreak (yes, even this was a gift), and, of course, love. Each of these, and so many others, found their way into the book.

I cannot tell you, dear reader, how this process of discovery has sustained me. One of my friends asked that since I was the writer, couldn’t I just make up what I wanted? Another chided that since I was a creative writer (with a degree to prove it), couldn’t I just make what I wrote funny (or sad)? Couldn’t I just determine the mood of what I wrote?

The joy of discovery comes in not willing the outcome. I have learned to trust what comes. In addition to the gifts from without, there are also those from within. For instance, I was struggling with some action in the story, a movement that would precipitate a series of events. I found the movement—and an actual movement, an action—through reflection about the characters and reflection about physical exertion. And then, suddenly there was physical labor in the book: two characters moving large stones. Had I moved things? Oh yes. Had I taken some strange joy in physical labor? Oh yes. Were the actions of my characters simple mirrors of myself? No. However, the actions also suited them, and the tenor of what I was writing. They fit.

At the beginning of the school year one of my students interviewed me, and asked about writer’s block. I told her that I did not believe in writer’s block. I do not. I had been writing this blog consistently for almost a year, and felt that the images and ideas that were bubbling up were coming from a (finally) durable source. I talked (a little) with my student about searching for the source. That has been the second discovery.

All my life I have struggled with the twin poles of being in and of the world and also being me. I have had a hard time feeling at home in a world that felt selfish, and that valued self-obsession. Yes, there are some truly altruistic souls, but that drive—or simply drive itself—always seemed suspect to me. It created, more often than naught, a narrowing of vision. And anything that narrowed the world gave me a pain.

Remaining open to connection is a tricky business. It can create a kind of ant-gravity shell around a person, because any ground, any focus, limits the openness to connection. Fortunately, I do not approach my romantic relationships with the same predisposition (or do I? Damn!). But without focus, what will one achieve, except by accident? Accidents do happen—fortunate falls are around most corners. But as a plan, relying on accidents is a hazard best avoided, unless one wants to plan on injury and decides to play in traffic.

But for life—and writing a novel is like life—one needs a more directed plan, more than let’s play in traffic, or let’s dodge life’s slings and arrows. And committing to the living—and to the writing—has made the difference. It took a rearrangement of my life, a reprioritization of what I did, and a willingness to risk. Writing for months on end without the promise of brilliance (let alone publication) is not for those who seek guarantees. The only guarantee is the doing. I have been satisfied with the doing, with the daily writing, in ways that I have never felt satisfied before.

This is because I can no longer wait for the happy accidents. I have asked for them, engineered them, gone where I could be in their presence, and taken a hand in making them happen. While I have been happy to have some advice as I have written, mainly, I have trusted my own ability—and this has been exhilarating.

I have made the turn for home in this current project, and I have no idea how it will end up. Where I do know that I will end up, is with another project, another set of discoveries. Just as this one started almost on a whim—a glimpse—that changed and changed and changed again as I wrote, somehow watching how this has proceeded has helped me discover myself and my purpose. And that purpose is discovery in all its glory.

The deer

There was a show in the summer of 2019 at the National Gallery of Art, called “The Life of Animals in Japanese Art.” There were several deer, and one of them—not this particular deer—snuck into my work. Whether it stays or not, who knows? For now, here:

As he thought about truth—perhaps the most slippery but indelible of ideas—he became aware of a murmur from among the host of the gathered djinn. He, the dark djinn, and Jabari turned to locate the cause and center of this gentle disruption.

A blue deer walked through the assembled djinn. From its sides and back rose thick shards of white crystal. It could have been quartz or moonstone. Perhaps salt. Its paws pressed deep prints into the earth, revealing the weight of the animal was. As it neared, the gold djinn could tell that it was made of lapis lazuli. And yet it walked. It was tall, almost as large as a horse, and around its legs two cloud colored foxes romped and played. The stone and crystal deer was walking through the crowd and toward them. It was regal.

When it reached them, it lowered its head, and gently—but coldly, since it was stone—nuzzled the dark djinn and gold djinn in turn. It was strangely soft, belying its nature—it was cold stone—but remaining true to its essential nature—it was a deer. The foxes moved around Jabari, who stumbled over them, thrown off by their play. They were like smoke but firm, and this unnerved the ‘Ifrit. They were unnatural.

All the djinn had turned their attention to the scene: the blue and white deer, tame and regal, and the two cloud foxes, playful and disruptive. The three djinn at the center were not aware of the attention given to them, because the animals before them had entranced them. Blue, and white, and silver smoke.

A crack began to form along the deer’s supple neck, and another at its hind quarter. Then a dozen others, opening its body and dividing the crystals ridged along its back. Bits of crystal fell to the ground. Blue stone chipped away from its body. Then it collapsed into rubble, beautiful rubble, but no longer alive. The foxes dissipated.

The djinn were struck silent. The deer had been beautiful and impossible. It had come through them and to them. It was a message and a messenger. Quietly, each member of the throng walked to the pile of stone and crystal and each took a piece of what had been sublime. There was enough for each of the assembled djinn—no more and no less. The remaining wisps of fox-smoke drifted over their heads.

“What was it?” Jabari broke the silence when the taking had finished.

The white haired goddess stood with them. “It was him.”