The Way Back to Writing

Today, teaching Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, I asked my students about the little ways that they organize their worlds (the book’s narrator has autism, and has strategies to do exactly this). This is one of those “connect to the text” questions that teachers love to ask, and often, promptly regret asking. The regret can have two sources: information given that is wildly inappropriate, or worse, that flattened response of sheer disinterest. Fortunately, today’s foray was fruitful.

In the process, I thought about what I did—especially how I trigger my writing. And as soon as my classes ended, I played a song that opens the magic doors (a symphonic version of Led Zeppelin’s “All My Love”), and have been hitting the keys since.

I have fought so long to give myself proper and indelible roads back to my work—unencumbered by other concerns or commitments. This has been a challenge, because my magpie brain connects everything. There are few things—song, food, image, street sign, building, landscape, plate of food—that do not immediately trigger a dense and specific memory. The chance that something, anything, has latched itself to just the dream of writing, has been less than slim.

I do not know why, finally, after decades of struggle, the bonds of memory have taken looser hold of my consciousness and my writing process. Perhaps, as much as I needed to remember, to hold onto some past fiction of myself, I also needed to forget, to release that great anchor and drift.

The poet Antonio Machado wrote,

Mankind owns four things

that are no good at sea:

rudder, anchor, oars,

and the fear of going down.

Here, on the ocean of my dream, deep into the sea of fiction, I find my way back to the sea roads, and let the current take me.

Manqué—a Writer’s Predicament

Almost thirty years ago, I was eating dinner at a little restaurant on the edges of Johnson City and Binghamton, New York. My mentor and her husband had invited me along. These were heady occasions, full of discussions about writing and literature, and the program in which we all worked. I was a student, but I still worked. On this particular occasion, they started talking about writers manqué—although I heard it as writer manqués. It was a new word for me. Manqué: having failed to become what one might have become; unfulfilled. They started listing writers who had been in the program, writers who had published and stopped, and writers who were currently in the program. It was sharp and cruel, and the sobriquet stood out as one to be avoided at all costs. These may not have been eternal footmen, but there was snickering enough to go around.

The muse is a durable construct for the writer, because the muse can go away. Most writers I know have experienced life-crushing bouts of silence. It is the single worst event in the life of a writer: when the inward eye stares and stares and sees nothing, and all the inward voice can do is wait, or write, less vividly, about less, or about the nothing. Think of Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Snowman,” and the listener, who “listens in the snow,/ And, nothing himself, beholds/ Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”  A writer who has faced silence has faced the absolute nothing. It makes the writer question her or his ability to evoke a world, to create, to even be. Stevens turns it into a gift—the ability to not see anything but what is, to inhabit a “mind of winter” without preconceptions or preconditions.

The writer carries a slew of preconceptions and preconditions. While most can leave their jobs and go home to become a mother or a husband or something, the writer, like a soldier, is on duty all day. Unlike a soldier, who can remove the uniform, and briefly be, what? human? the writer never becomes anything else. Her or his humanity is bound into this one peculiar characteristic: they make worlds with words. I’m sure this is true of artists of all sorts. A friend recounted an interview with a composer who told how each time when she wrote and felt that the work was wonderful and that she was flying, when she started the next day, she had to learn to fly all over again, that she was rooted to the ground. Success is no bulwark against the feeling of starting all over each and every day.

And so, locating that characteristic in a muse—and those old Greek muses were incredibly flighty—was, is, a safe way to inoculate oneself against the silent times.  It isn’t me! It’s that damn fickle muse!

Some writers simply prescribe habit to overcome the silent times. Stephen King wrote the commonplace advice: “Writing equals ass in chair,” which is a grittier take on Mary Heaton Vorse’s “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” Getting used to daily practice removes the onus of waiting for the muse. Sit down and write. Repeat. Of course King provides an example of a diligent sitter in The Shining, when Jack Torrance produced reams of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” A little more than sitting can be a help.

Nonetheless, the fear of being unfulfilled lurks. In a prose poem called “Ants,” I render it as a mass of ants that eat the speaker, even while success beckons. Having come to writing in stages, and later than many, I was thrilled by the force of words as they seemed to tumble forth. I was also a little suspicious. Was this really what I could do forever? What about money? or success? Hearing my mentor denigrate those poor “manqués”—I imagined little monkey of Isak Dinesen’s tale “The Monkey.” How horrible to lose oneself to that invidious transformation.

Like any great and terrible idea, this one lurked. Even when I was writing every day, and earning the admiration of friends and mentors for my creative and scholarly work, I worried. Perhaps that is because I came late to the craft, that coming so late, I did not have a firm belief either in it or myself. There are half a dozen other reasons, all of them lying in wait. Monkey. Like the law-seeker in Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law,” I was ready to be stopped at the wall, and wait. I knew better—I even knew the antidote! I did!—but the idea of “manqué,” so formidable, grew out of proportion to all reason.

When the silence came, I was unprepared, or, rather, I was over-prepared. Too ready. I sought and found success outside of my work, and followed those paths for years. However, the muse—or the mind—did not forget. It simmered there, stoking my peripheral vision for years. Characters and stories inhabited the edges of my consciousness, darting away when I turned my inward eye upon them. Chiding me—don’t you know how to see us? I did not. It hurt. I carried half a heart in my chest, wearing an inner funeral black no matter what flags of color banded my body.

And I had success. But what is success to a writer, to an artist, but the work? Teacher, husband, father, religious leader. I had to tear my life apart, reorganize it.

Kafka has another short story, “My Destination” (“Das Ziel”), in which the traveler declares “I need [no provisions], the journey is so long that I must die of hunger if I don’t get anything on the way. No provisions can save me. For it is, fortunately, a truly immense journey.” I knew this long ago, and sang it out to any who asked, but could not hear it, not truly, myself. Physician, heal thyself. I could not. And a silent wound festers until it explodes. Or until the call is heard. Again.

And, as if by magic (and not magic at all, old artificer), seeing that I had given myself back to the craft, that I was writing every day—these blog posts included—the vision began to hold. I wrote, I changed my life, and continue to write, out a sense of surprise and without expectation. I write without a plan—and that is my secret. Without a goal, other than writing, there is no question of staring straight at something, or letting the peripheral vision take precedence. I can move forward by sidelong glances. Into the unknown, ignorant of my former limits—and not, stupid memory—and finding the old useful joy and craft.

Calling the Muse

Sing in me muse, and through me tell the story…

So began the first translation, by Robert Fitzgerald, of The Odyssey that I read. Later, I taught another translation, by Robert Fagles, that began:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns…

More recently, Emily Wilson offered this:

Tell me about a complicated man,/ Muse…

No matter the translation or framing of the tale and Odysseus, the poet turns to the muse to provide the story and the song. It seems like a quaint notion. These days we mine our lives for the sources of stories.

Even Gabriel Garcia Marquez, perhaps somewhat disingenuously, claimed that all the impossible elements of One Hundred Years of Solitude were true. His memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, reads like a revelation, and it makes all that seemed strange in his novel strangely normal—at least for that time and place. Of course, Marquez famously recounts the genesis of that novel—he was headed away on vacation with his family when he realized that the voice of the book was the voice of his grandmother telling incredible stories in the most matter-of-fact voice. He turned the car around and started the work that would define him as a writer. His grandmother was, in a way, his muse.

Why do writers have muses—things, people, animals—outside of themselves to give their work a nearly mystical, almost divine impetus? The writer faces inward and outward tidal forces. A writer works the tension between the inner voice—the thing that writes—and the outer world—what she or he writes about. Writers attempt to portray the outer world, even if it is a fantastic and impossible world, truthfully, crafting a vivid continuous dream in words, crafting it with the inner voice.

Of course, what a writer makes is not the world: it is an approximation, a copy, a simulacrum, an aspiring reality that with a combination of skill and luck convinces the reader. Or hoodwinks. I can never tell. Perhaps enchants. The writer makes a world, or something like a world, and populates it with minds and bodies, cities and mountains, oceans and sea monsters. Even if all these elements resemble something found in the real world—the world of the reader—each part comes from within the writer.

This act of creation is nearly divine. The writer is the maker of worlds. Even when Dickens charts London’s streets—we can locate Scrooge’s counting house and guess, fairly accurately, where his lonely lodgings were—they are shoved two inches to the left of the world we know. This London is not London. By creating a new world, the writer seeks to emulate the world that is, but also to replace it. For the time the reader enters the dream, it is a world that could be, not a world that is, and the dream reveals something particular, something full of twists and turns and complications.

While the writer uncovers the words that capture this world, she or he enters the world, and if the writer believes the words—and she must! he must!—then the inner world threatens to obliterate the outer one. After all, there is something about that outer world that the writer seeks to correct. The ghosts visit and Scrooge reforms—is literally made into someone new. This is the world that should be—where a miserly and selfish investor can become “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.”

The writer sees what could be, like Cassandra, the unheeded prophet of myth. Some writers simply disgorge the terrible truth of what is, like an oracle who disdains both irony and hope. There is no redemption, just inexorable weight—think of the novels of Stephen Crane, or Gustave Flaubert. Their worlds may be imagined, but the imagined reality is cautionary: there is no escaping this gravity. Let me pause to say that dystopian fiction while cautionary, by making the possible reality so obviously awful, opens a kind of door to redemption: all this could be avoided. The realist, on the other hand, sees no way around the unbearable truth.

Either writer—redemptive or admonishing—seeks some anchor outside the work. By locating the inner voice in some external force, a muse, whether divine or closer at hand, the writer can dissociate from that other world. It isn’t in me! It comes from Erato, or my lover, or my cat, or the messages on the television. The muse is a hedge against being swallowed by that inner world. Madness is a double edged sword, and there is divine madness in writing. “Much madness is divinest Sense,” Emily Dickinson begins her poem. The muse keeps the madness at a distance.

I am not suggesting that writers are mad—that trope has little interest or value to me. Writers bear the weight of vision, and seek ways to allay that weight. Some retreat from the —the noisiness of life interrupts the vision that animates their existence. Some bound into the world—seeking febrile connections to the world, and allowing all those connections to illuminate their visions. Some stop writing, and I believe that even then they suffer. I know so. Vision is persistent and obstinate.

Sing, sing, or tell. We seek a trick, a magic act, inspiration to crack through the hard shell, and once again, create and fly. A muse, or otherwise, a simple spell of words to open the way.

Heeding the Call

Some of my students are aghast at the idea of reading a book a second time, let alone a third or forth, or fifteenth time. The life of a teacher means revisiting books again and again. They become habits. The past dozen years brought steady stops in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Homer’s Odyssey, and maybe Shakespeare’s Macbeth. All became exceedingly familiar territory—terra too cognito—and I welcomed the changes that a change of job and change of curriculum brought this year. I taught half a dozen book I had not read in years. The freshness helped revive my vision.

Of course, repetition is the backbone of study. There isn’t a piece, whether film, book, or painting, that I have not poured over. And over. Some works hold up to repeated visits—this is especially of true of paintings and sculptures. I have sat in front of some paintings for hours, and then gone back a year later to do more. The ability to give concentrated attention to something is a rare quality. And yet, I find myself loosing the fire for return visits and viewings, even for old favorites. How many times can I return to Hamlet, or It’s a Wonderful Life, or Wings of Desire? I know there are things I have not seen, and they call to me.

With spring, my attention is pulled back to baseball, and a group of friends with whom I have played rotisserie baseball for nearly thirty years. I have risen at odd hours when the season began in Japan, as it did again this season. I did not wake to watch early in the morning, but acknowledged the game at arm’s length. I almost did not play our little game this season, almost tired of keeping track of scores and statistics. 162 games and fifteen teams works out to nearly 2500 events to be aware of in some nagging fashion. Enough already.

How much has repetition and routine play a part in life? Too much. At times it seemed that I flew on autopilot, barely aware of the ground beneath me or the time that slipped past, never to return. Sometimes the routine is good—I don’t give more than passing thought to breakfast and lunch when I am busy. I eat the same thing, more or less, day after day. Perhaps my life would be better if I added variations here, but I have had other pressing concerns, like a Stephen Greenblatt essay about Hamlet. There are ways to keep the standards fresh. Still, there must be more.

I changed large parts of my life this past year—there were many reasons, but one was to interrupt the flow that had become too familiar, too easy. I wanted to drive up to a different door—my door. It did not have to be more beautiful—and it wasn’t—it just had to be different. My work as a teacher, although familiar enough, had to take me to different books an different students. And I needed to extricate myself from a years long creative drought. I needed to write to be alive.

This past December, I traveled to a new place, London, to which I had meant to travel almost thirty years ago. I traveled after I did a series of new things, each one satisfying, but each fueling a desire for more. Almost everything that has been part of the solid ritual of my daily routine tastes bland. I don’t hanker for extremes—a solo sailing venture around the world, or an ascent up some foreboding mountain, or a year in a seraglio—I yearn to encounter something as if for the first time. I wish to be a beginner again, with a clean slate ahead of me.

It will not be. There is much that I cannot jettison (Overboard! Overboard!), and some of which has been central to my life. But to bring my daughter along for the ride. To carry my brave and loving heart into boundless possibility. To write without care for sharp tongued critique. To go, and keep going.

I recognize that when I felt at my best, I was a student, learning, reading, discovering with a vigor that few matched. Right now my writing carries me vigorously to some new place—an undiscovered country that is beyond death—the little death of stagnation and routine, the larger death of a withered soul. I need to find a way to return this more adventurous, more daring, more profound sense of discovery to the rest of my life, to every aspect of my life. To become a masterful student again. Even while I wear the mantle of expert, I am an expert explorer. It is time to honor that. And go.

Perhaps my writing will be enough to answer that call during the long school year. My work feels, for the first time in longer than I care to admit, durable and ecstatic. However, I cannot let anything—or anyone, even myself—keep me from discovery. There must be time for new thoughts, new places, and a new world that will animate my work and revive my old heart. Here—there, and everywhere—I go.

The Weight of Words

The thing about writing that some people will never understand is that for the writer, it is not cerebral. Writing is physical. I feel exhausted, physically spent, after writing. Not exactly the same as after a work out, or after a night of intimacy, but I will push myself until my body shakes. I stop when I am done, when I have hit a physical limit. I do not believe that people who do not write, seriously write, understand this.

I’m not speaking out of my hat on this. I know about physical limits and I have tested mine. When I was younger, I swam seven hours a day (over three separate workouts). When I was older, I took the helm and held it until for days until storms had passed, even when I was seasick and retching over the stern, even when I had a broken rib. I am aware of myself as a physical being. I know where my limits are, and how to push up to and extend them.

Part of the physicality of writing comes from the sound. When I write, each word resonates. It is like being inside a drum, or suspended in the bell of a trombone. My mind is noisy when I write—not scattered, but genuinely full of noise. And like a conductor, my arms are keeping all the sounds organized, on time, in concert.

Writing calls a world into being. There are no phantoms, no shadows. Each image, every idea, is made real, is pulled from some grey other world into this one. Some ideas and images do not come easily, but must be coaxed, yanked, or held gently—each needs to be evoked and tended in its own particular way—the same way each child needs just this much attention, just this much encouragement. But when they come, what joy.

Sometimes, I have to stop, slow my heart, and wait. I can feel the words begin to come along the inside of my arms, deep in my thighs, in my chest. They shorten my breath and turn my feet unusually cold, almost the only time I feel an actual chill—I am a warm man.

And, well do I know how I become a better writer when I move—when I take long walks, or spend a few thousand yards in the pool, or push my heart rate above 180 beats per minute. Because the writing is physical, and the words have a weight, beyond the blinking cursor on the screen.

Back to the Forge: Learning from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I revisit texts—novels, stories, plays, and poems—with joy. They stand as mileposts, as reminders of the paths I have walked. I have not always enjoyed this journey, but it has been my journey. No one else has walked this path. I have never wanted it to end, even when the trails of my imagination have become untended and overrun with weeds, when it seemed too difficult a task to return to those paths, to follow where they led, to cut new ways into the wilderness.

The mileposts that speak loudest to me are those that recall not simply the distance but the method of travel. How many times have I dipped into Whitman to find a way I thought I had lost? Perhaps not enough. Or the more diminutive Dickinson, who reminds me of the power of possibility? I re-encounter Prospero every few years, not yet ready to cast my books of power into watery graves.

The first time I read Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I was 20, a junior in college. I read it in one furious sitting, rushing as was the case in undergraduate school. The book shot through me—the sermons in the third chapter frightened me, and the ending befuddled me.  I had not written since the rhyming verse I attempted in high school. It would be a year before I started to cobble together my own stories.

I encountered it again when I was 28, and in my first year of graduate school. I wrote every day and was just learning to read by making connections—or rather, by freeing my mind to read as expansively as possible. I did not see a mirror in Stephen Dedalus, not yet, but I saw how Joyce was beginning to challenge the reader, and followed his challenge into Ulysses, and peered obliquely at Finnegan’s Wake. Reading Joyce intoxicated me—all the word play, all the allusions, all the swirl of events. This is how my brain worked, and I felt a kindred spirit at play in Joyce. Perhaps this was too great a burden to lift as a young writer—to think like Joyce, to aspire to something like his work, but I saw the path, at least one path. There were others, and I tested many.

The next time I was 41, and in my first high school teaching job. For whatever reason, my writing had slowed. The difficulties I encountered in my work made me doubt every word I wrote—and even every word I read—which made reading more distant and difficult. I could read a novel as a collection of themes and ideas, which made for fine if programmatic teaching, but the hearts of the works did not beat with the same sense of connection. I felt hollow. I read Portrait as a kind of roadmap for one man’s feelings about Ireland, faith, men, and women. I nodded toward his art but felt closed off from that part of Stephen’s story. I knew it was there—I sensed it—which made the experience strangely worse. This is what you should be doing, the book chided.

I spent several years away from my life’s work. I wrote here and there—stories for kids, sermons, and—in fits and starts—this blog. I suffered for it, as, I am sure, did those around me. I am not a man who can be what he is not and put on the trappings of happiness. “Fake it until you make it,” may work for some, but I need connection—not simply interpersonal or romantic connection, but to the universe, to some deep unconscious thrum that turns words into flesh and flesh into a play of bright and dark and dense presence. While I started to craft a life that combined the spiritual threads I would need to reconnect me to that seen and unseen world, it wasn’t until I started writing daily that my words found the old (new) purpose. Over the past year, I have kept a daily writing practice that, with very few exceptions, has brought me back.

Now I am 58. I am not young. I have long past the point where Stephen stepped into his work, but my heart bursts, as if newly forged—reforged by my years long effort. I read the book again, and this time I hear the singing—it is for me, and for my students too. I orchestrate a class that includes Portrait, weaving together strands from universes that while shadowy—more to my students than me—move with playful grace. The book sings to me, calls to me, demands my attention, my thought, and my response. Not simply in class, but in my work.  Not just these words, but other words.

I no longer feel called to write like Joyce, or Dickens, or Marquez, or Woolf, or Calvino (though, wouldn’t that be nice). Or, or, or. All the words—from every page, from the labels of soap, from the scraps of memes, to the shifting exchanges of my students call, all the words—insist “forge.” And so, I will, I must. Old father, old mother, old artificers, all of you, “stand me now and ever in good stead.”

The Books

Almost fifteen years ago, I put my books in the attic. They were out, in shelves, but tucked beneath a sloping ceiling and packed behind all manner of family detritus. When my ex-wife and I separated, I moved them into my main living space, where they sang back to me after their—or my—sojourn.  My books matter to me, and I felt their absence. Getting them back onto tall shelves, walking past them every day, reminded me of what I had done, what I had learned, and what I wanted to do with my life and mind.

I have books about writing, books about religion, books about education, history books, philosophy (what we called theory in graduate school), fiction, poetry, books full of art and art history, and even books about sports—mainly baseball. I have a hard cover edition of Dickens published by Chapman and Hall with pages that requires a pocket knife to cut open.  I own a set of Andrew Lang’s color-coded Fairy Tale books.

The books reflect my preoccupations over the past thirty years.  Much of what is on my shelves I first read while I was in graduate school. Some I acquired afterward to keep me in touch with what I spent six years studying. Some comes from undergraduate college—books about gothic art and architecture, an old edition of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. There are some newer books that reflect my current interests: a collection of Sumerian mythology, a book about Djinn.

As much as I love my books, as much as they tell a story of my past, as much as they feel like an external manifestation of my mind, I think it may be time to lose them.

How long can one hold onto the past—a past that weighs an actual ton—without moving into the future? Yes, there are some things that I would keep, and this is true of more than my books, but they possess so much gravity. What is the past to me? Of course it is, was, everything. However, the future beckons, and requires a kind of lightness to which things do not lend themselves. Even memorable things.

There are other presences in my life—deep and profound connections. This time last year, I started unraveling the two jobs I had in Norfolk, Virginia. I moved away from those jobs and in the process also moved away from my daughters, who continue to live with their mother in Norfolk. Of course, I separated from and divorced their mother. It may seem inconsequential, but over 30 years ago, I picked a cat off the street, and have had cats ever since. I have never been more than three weeks away from them. This year I considered giving up a long standing fantasy baseball game that I have played for nearly 30 years with friends.

I wonder about what I have given up, but also what I have stayed with over the years. I have been a teacher for over 20 years—including my work as a TA in graduate school, over 25 years. What would it be like to not teach? I wrote for years, and then, if I didn’t stop, I slowed considerably—at what hazard, I cannot guess. I am writing again now, and have been, but can’t help wonder why my work slowed to a trickle.

I wonder would it would be like to be free of obligation and free of the gravity of myself—that ton of books, the closet full of clothes, my job, my family, my cats, even my friends. I wonder what my life would have been like if I had just chased words—the stories that I had declared as my purpose when I went away to and then stayed in graduate school. When I went away to graduate school, I traveled in a single car, with a mattress tied to the roof, and a single cat riding in the passenger seats. What would it be like to travel to what’s next with even less?

I do not regret the life I led, nor the life I lead; regret possesses a gravity greater than all the books own own, and I have no time for that. Not now. Nonetheless, I am aware of another life that exists, not over the horizon, not over the rainbow, but buried deep within me. I don’t know how I have kept it buried for so long, or at what cost—or even at what gain. Still. It is there.

I wonder, and wonder hard, and the wondering stirs something in me, something alive and insistent. What will I carry into the future? What must I carry? And what must I leave?