Horses: Memory and Inspiration

This past fall, I went horse riding for the first time since I rode at a neighbor’s farm when I was 6 or 7. I rode on a horse named “Old General,” a sleepy footed follower of faster horses, but a step up from a rocking chair. Or so I was told. At one point in the ride, our trail guide asked if we wanted to run. It was actually the second time she had asked us; the first time I had gotten my sense of it. The second time, I was ready. Old General and I dashed, finding speed where it had not been before, and we covered the field ahead of my riding companions. Yes, I am competitive. It was one of the best days I had had in a long time.

Deborah Butterfield, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Deborah Butterfield, Smithsonian American Art Museum

The horse made it into the book. Lots of horses made it into the book. I find inspiration where I can, and the museums in Washington DC (the National Gallery of Art and The Smithsonian American Art Museum) include sculptures that snuck into my work. At the very least they gave me ideas that acted as guideposts for the work.

I’m sure that there is some significant invention in this book. I am also certain that I used as much as was provided, whether it was experience or image from the world around me. As far as invention, I recall someone making the claim that all we experience in the first years of life is enough to fill several novels. Perhaps all invention is simply reforging those first few years—shifted through fractured memory.Alexander Calder, National Gallery of Art

Alexander Calder, National Gallery of Art

And, perhaps, there are deeper memories, deep from within our genes, stored among things like eye color and height. I know the Celts came from Central Europe and further South in Asia Minor. I wonder what they brought along in their genes, in their deep memories. I wonder if these stories are just what were, once, somewhere. For now, here is the horse, and a ride I will not forget.

“The horses flew through the forests without urging. With no path to follow, they crashed through low hanging limbs of trees, over bushes filled with thorns, and in and out of muddy streams. Their riders crouched low in their saddles, reins held close to the great sweating necks of the stallions. They rode like that, blurs against the dappled light, until the sun had set, and the sliver of the moon had risen, and the lead horse had slowed, finally, to a mere gallop. What pace they had been keeping has no name.

“Behind the other two riders, Thomas rode on the balls of his feet, crouching forward as his companions had done, but lifting himself out of the saddle by inches. The black horse beneath him felt him there, out of the saddle, and remembered a journey made by such a one as this, when she had run eastward toward the sun, when the sun would not rise. Then the rider had guided her to the edge of the world, and with a rope made of salamander skin, impervious to fire, had pulled the sun into the sky, and started the day. After that, it always rose, bright and warm in the east. When Thomas reached down to stroke the neck of the speeding mare, the touch of his hand confirmed the horse’s memory. ‘He has returned.'”

Libraries

I attended an event at the Meridian International Center last week. One of the rooms at the Meridian House is a library. There is a strange surprise about a library in a foundation. The odd assembly of books—all the Russian history (because the foreign service world centered on Russia for decades), a case of biographies of men and women important in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, and then the random exception, a book by Carly Fiorina (published as she was making a run at the Republican presidential nomination), and then a shelf that jumps from A Woman in Egypt to Lee’s Lieutenants to The Great Influenza. Organization sometimes struggles when books are added.

I notice, besides John Barry’s book about the pandemic of 1920, there is also a copy of Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club; both these books are on my shelves at home. I will guess that if I looked more meticulously that I would find other overlaps in our collections. I wonder about the constellation of editions that connect library after library, and how I have felt a kinship with those who share editions with me. This person, this place, is not so strange.

I have written about my books before, both about the joy of having—and unpacking them—them and the burden that they signify. My books are a kind of roadmap, both the orange Home Depot Home Improvement 1-2-3 and Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millenium. Some books I have not opened in years, others I revisit with uncanny frequency. They all point to something, somewhere.

Writing: Sludge and Frustration

I spent the past 24 hours writing in what I described as “sludge”–not exactly “ten million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey,” but close. It happens. I admitted this to a friend, who asked, “You’re not feeling frustrated?” I answered, “Frustration is part of writing. One cannot write without it.” Let me explain.

First, as you will recognize from previous posts, I used to sail on the ocean, heading back and forth from the Chesapeake Bay to Bermuda with my father. Setting aside the variability of the weather (from windless and flat to howling and mountainous), I was sick nearly every time I took the trip: 24-36 hours of plain and pronounced discomfort. I eventually discovered that a vertigo medicine helped settle the sea for me, but up to then I kept at it, and accepted the retching as payment for the joy. So, I have that experience to draw on.

Second, I was a swimmer, and while I was not an Olympian, I practiced hard. Improvement came with pain, and I learned to adapt to the persistent ache in my shoulders, arms, and legs. During practices, the immediate feedback for how fast I was going came through either the proximity I had to faster swimmers, or, when I was one of the faster swimmers, from how much pain I felt. Pain—of a certain kind—equaled speed. There are, of course, other kinds of pain, such that denote injury and not improvement, and I was fortunate to avoid these until later in life.

Some days writing is just going to be like a bad day on the ocean, or a crap day in the pool. Some days my brain just does not connect to anything brilliant, or worse I think it’s brilliant, but I have done none of the necessary work of getting my characters in and out of rooms. I have left out simple gestures, and replaced action with explication.

Sometimes when sludge is all there is, I scrap large chunks. Sometimes it just takes connective tissue—so that the ideas get bound to motion. Sometimes, it is a signal that I am not being wild enough. Once I was told that a character was boring. Tough criticism, but, a sludge encrusted character needs to be set free—or buried.

So, frustration will happen. So will boredom, says the man who puts in 26-32 minutes on the elliptical six days a week. Raucous music keeps the heart rate over 160 bpm, and sometimes works for writing. And metaphoric raucous music too—add a crazy scene as needed. Even Dickens used spontaneous combustion to advance the plot.

But the frustration also comes when we get close to the sludge, and the sludge covers what we don’t want to engage. Sometimes we need to treat ourselves roughly when we write, and work what makes us, not just uncomfortable, but downright upset. The sludge can be like a makeshift bandage, covering some old hurt. Hey, you don’t have to own the hurt, but see it, and work it. Pain can clarify and properly unsettle the writer—and enliven the writing.

So, here’s to frustration. And writing through it.

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 grain of sand—intention and writing

While explaining a quandary I was having as I waded into one of the more difficult portions of my novel, a friend asked, “You’re the writer. Can’t you just make them (your characters) do what you want?” And that, dear reader, is always the rub. Of course, I could, but, even when writing about magical characters (djinn and such), there is no magic wand. Everything must seem real, and if not real, plausible, and if not plausible—if wild and genuinely surprising—then I have to prove it.

The writer doesn’t have to avoid those deus ex machina moments, so much as show them in their complete and total glory. You place a grain of sand on the battle field, and then the whole balance is shifted—but you do not, never, ever, forget the grain of sand. You carry it in from some desert or beach (preferably one from which the ocean has retreated and left barren), and you drop it under a horse’s hoof, or into the eye of the hero (or worse, the eye of his lieutenant), and let it have its way.

So much of writing is about discovering the grains of sand. The larger narrative components are there: beginnings, middles, and ends. What holds them together are small moments. Images, lines of dialogue, secondary characters who stumble into a scene. You don’t know that they will be there when you begin, but you find them—or they find you.

And yes, they come from you—unintentionally, more often than not. They sneak in from your childhood, or something you just saw on the news, from a museum display, or from a clutch of conversation overheard while in line at Shake Shack. Your brain files all these away, and then, at the right moment (or the wrong one—but only if you’re lucky) drops them back in on you. “Thought you were done with that, eh?” your writing brain asks, while you have sent a character through a hole in time to receive a secret from his future self, and suddenly you are reliving a kiss, a gesture, from 25 years ago—or last year. Can you even keep track anymore?

No, but once you start writing it, everything floods back, and you are reliving and living and inventing and discovering something you never knew before. But there you are, and everything you write surprises you, and the ending for which you thought you were aiming changes. Because of a grain of sand that you have been carrying with you for 55 years. Here comes the sandstorm.

The Writer’s Character (and work)

I began graduate school in the fall of 1988. Writing was still new to me. I had written in high school then in college, but the daily life of writing was only a shadowy presence. I had begun a novel, and tended it during the free time of my six day weeks managing a small Italian restaurant in the Manayunk neighborhood of Philadelphia. Which is to say, that I had written enough to gain admission to a program, but not enough in any real kind of way.

Graduate school was a relief and a release—it was the thing all my friends and customers were hinting at when they asked, “What are you going to do?”—recognizing long before I did that there was something specific that I was going to do.

I had drifted after college. It was as if I wore an anti-gravity suit that kept me from becoming grounded. There were reasons. I had encountered “purpose” as a rationale for selfishness and intentional moral blindness. The latter I found incredibly troubling. I believed in an inherent goodness—found in man or god—in spite of my experiences in the world. And when I wrote, I explored that possibility.

When I arrived at Binghamton, I poured myself into the work, writing with avaricious fervor, and studying gleefully. I learned quickly that a “B” was an “F,” and after one failing grade on an essay, turned to successful outcomes. I earned a scholarship after my first year, and with it, the right to teach, which I welcomed with the zeal of the recently converted. I was hooked.

One of the hooks at Binghamton was the presence of John Gardner, the author of The Art of Fiction and several novels I had not yet read. I had read Grendel when I was much younger, drawn by the monster after my mother had read us some version of Beowulf as our bedtime entertainment. What attracted us, some of us at least, was the myth of John—driven, irascible, generous, and demanding. As often as not, when describing ourselves as writers, we focused on our characters-not the characters in what we wrote, but out own personal strengths and foibles, and how we matched up against this fabled presence. He had been dead for 6 years, but he hung around the program (his ex-wife became my dissertation director).

One of my teachers, I think it was Liz Rosenberg, introduced me to On Becoming a Novelist, in which Gardner laid out some characteristics of the novelist:

Like other kinds of intelligence, the storyteller’s is partly natural, partly trained. It is composed of several qualities, most of which, in normal people, are signs of either immaturity or incivility: wit (a tendency to make irreverent connections); obstinacy and a tendency towards churlishness (a refusal to believe what all sensible people know is true); childishness (an apparent lack of mental focus and serious life purpose, a fondness for daydreaming and telling pointless lies, a lack of proper respect, mischievousness, an unseemly propensity for crying over nothing); a marked tendency toward oral or anal fixation or both (the oral manifested by excessive eating, drinking, smoking, and chattering; the anal by nervous cleanliness and neatness coupled with a weird fascination with dirty jokes); remarkable powers of eidetic recall, or visual memory (a usual feature of early adolescence and mental retardation); a strange admixture of shameless playfulness and embarrassing earnestness, the latter often heightened by irrationally intense feelings for or against religion; patience like a cat’s; a criminal streak of cunning; psychological instability; recklessness, impulsiveness, and improvidence; and finally an inexplicable and incurable addiction to stories, written or oral, bad or good. Not all writers have exactly the same virtues, of course. Occasionally one finds someone who is not abnormally improvident.

We looked inside ourselves to see whether we met the unholy criteria that John threw down—gauntlet-like—for us to match. It became a weird check list. There were dozens of weird checklists that we tested ourselves against: pre-work habits and rituals, kinds of writing implements, time that we wrote. I think that many of us were hoping to awaken a writing practice that could sustain us, and so looked for that one thing, the one trick that would allow the words to tumble out as effortlessly as possible.

Of course, we focused on how damnably hard writing was—and is. The metaphors we used to describe writing—like Virgilio Pinera’s man who decides to eat a mountain, one rocky mouthful after another—emphasized the difficulty, futility, and irreverent commitment. Perhaps the real solution was a correction to our character—some unbridling of our sinful writer manqué natures, and a resurrection into some more saintly (or demonic) deranger of the senses. If only we could rid ourselves of our flaws, and get to work.

I came to grad school, and to writing, after years of 60+ hour weeks. I rose early enough to get to the pool and down 3000 meters, then head across town to the restaurant. When I arrived in grad school, I found a job, and worked 3-4 nights a week in a high end restaurant. After I started teaching, I took a job in a bookstore ran by the husband of my mentor (he had been a student of Gardner’s as well). I swam, and then started running several days a week (I could listen to music while I ran!). Some of my classmates complained about the workload. I did not. Work was in me. Writing was not.

But it was. I wrote some inspired pieces, and won praise from mentors and classmates for my work. I didn’t know what to do with it—I had some things published, but what do a few stories and prose poems amount to in a world driven by novels? Besides, I confused inspiration with work. Work, that simple, boring, daily activity, with simple, boring, daily and measurable rewards. I was seeking star fire, supernovae, and earth-shaking prose. In order to do that I had to remake myself in the image of whom? John Gardner? Stephen King? Virginia Woolf? Some Norse God?

And what is the measure of good (let alone brilliant) writing? A great sentence doesn’t blaze as distinctly as the time on the clock when you touch the wall after one of ten 200 yard swims (That’s good; keep going). You write without a clear standard, and a novelist bangs out 60,000 to 100,000 words into the blind space of “who knows what will happen to all this?”.

So we focused on character, the one thing we could control or change. This, of course, is poppycock. There are good and bad people who write. Character is no Holy Grail, and no simple gateway or guarantee to writing. Work is. I wish we had simply talked more about work and habit and word count in grad school. How do you sneak in an extra 200 words? Have you done your work for today? Do you need a new pen? God only knows, make it work, let it be work, and demystify the process. It’s just work. It’s not about whether the muse is singing to you, or the dread siren, or anything or anyone. It’s just work, a job, a practice, and all you need to do, is to do it.

In the long run, Gardner’s description of the writer, and, once again, that sense that a purpose that led to blindness to everything other than IT, drove me away. After all, what was the lesson of nearly every novel, short story, or poem we read? Connect. Connect. And for the sake of everything that’s holy, or valuable, or worth saving: connect. The pursuit of art never matched the message. Picasso was a sonofabitch, but Guernica. Dickens philandered. Woolf suffered from limiting snobbery and mental illness. Joyce? Don’t even. Our contemporaries wandered into the forest of “immaturity and incivility” with a stridency that was matched only by ignorant blowhards and professional athletes.

I recognize that now, all of it, as a kind of armor. I know what it allowed, and what costs they incurred for strapping it on with such easy regularity. I saw it for a kind of blindness, and doubted. And in that doubt, returned to the anti-gravity armor that had supported me years before.

I turned, for years, to teaching and a kind of preaching. I tried to reach out, to convert the sensible—and others—to deeper understanding (reading) and brighter thought (writing). These are not fool’s errands, to be sure. But once you have tasted brilliance—and writing done well is brilliance—every other work other than the work that is the most brilliant, makes your tongue recoil. Even your dog would turn away from that feast. Not me. Not for years. And though I still fight with gravity, I feel the pull, and this is what binds us together—separate planets careening into each other with cataclysmic potential. I tried to resist, but, really, why?

So I’m left with these questions: How does one balance the work and the meaning of the work? How does one have purpose and character? Ah, as always, the trick of balance, and not in Gardner’s list of a writer’s characteristics. We will have to figure this out ourselves.

Of course, equanimity (balance) is not Gardner’s list, but the safety net is the work—stupid, dull-witted, and quotidian. Be an angel or a devil, but get to work. It comes back, and, if done well, connects us, once more, to the world, to each other, and to the gravity that holds us all.

Risking it all

It is difficult to explain the existential risk that the writer—at least this writer—undertakes when working. It is tantamount to this:

One time we (my father, two crewmates, and I) sailed out of the Chesapeake Bay onto the ocean in a gale. A gale is wind at 40 knots. Already in the bay itself there was 6-8 foot chop, and on this trip, one of the four sailors (a first-time sailor) had slipped into his bunk clutching his life jacket, stricken with an indomitable case of seasickness. We were sailing short-handed into stupid weather.

For the next four days we sailed in 30-50 knot winds, in a sea that was more like a protracted set of sand dunes, the water whipped by the wind into twelve-foot peaks that barely seemed to move. They were moving though, faster than we were in our 36-foot sailboat. The ship sailed up and down these wet rolling hills, making ragged progress toward our goal: Bermuda.

Sensible men would have waited, but for all my father’s strengths (long-range planning, and in the moment decisiveness among them), he had a stubbornness that did not waver. Once he had a plan, he stuck to it. Later in life, this supported him as he battled with Parkinson’s Disease. He suffered with the adaptations the illness forced on him, but refused to be stopped. In the end this led to his death. On this trip, his drive took us into an ocean that would challenge us.

I should also note that when I point to a crewmate who became seasick, I do not cast aspersions. I get seasick, and had each time I had sailed on the ocean before this. It always struck me when I took my first late watch, when the horizon was shrouded in black, and my eyes and inner ear could not properly make sense of the several directions that my body was moving. It is an ugly sickness, driving the guts empty in rebellion until there is nothing left but bile. I never missed my turns at the helm because of it. The nausea would strike, and I would turn my head, and do what I needed. I did not eat or drink while it was on me, and it passed, for me it did, and after 36 hours.

On this trip, in this ocean, I was entirely spared. All my other crewmates, even my father, were struck. In retrospect perhaps the swell of the sea was so distinct and regular, that the three-way (pitch, yaw, and roll) motion did not take grip of me. Or perhaps the danger created a necessary clarity. As with all retrospect, I cannot be sure.

After four days, we finally passed into the fringe of whatever had driven the gale. In a matter of hours, the wind created new swell patterns. Around midnight, the sea that had been a reasonable set of rolling hills, turned, and became more like waves breaking over an invisible reef or sand bar. 18-20 foot waves rose and broke, all headed in one direction. They are called following seas, which means the breakers were rising behind us, and rolling toward us. They were moving faster than we were and lifted our boat to each peak, at which point our boat would slide down the front of the breaker like a sailboard.

That sounds easy enough, but as the boat fell down the surface of each wave, it carved a path driven by gravity and the force of the wave it was riding. Its path down the wave became, temporarily and repeatedly, unmanageable. Pushed by wind, pushed by water, pulled by gravity, the rudder merely suggested a direction. And yet, when at the helm, every suggestion made a difference. Caught at the top of a breaker, the boat could easily go sideways and roll over. Sliding down the side of the breakers, it could turn too sharply and roll over.

A sailboat is not a surfboard.

My father and I took the helm when the sea turned. We held it in half-hour turns, and it was exhausting work that required dense and specific attention. And, we were exhausted after the previous days of sail. Usually, in harsh conditions, one man took the wheel, and the other took refuge propped against the cabin in the leeward side of the cockpit, using the cabin as a wall against the constant water that broke over the windward gunwale. In this case, as we planed down the sides of the swells, the leeward gunwale cut into the water, and the water rushed into the cockpit. This added a new threat. The boat could be capsized, swamped with water if the helmsmen was not attentive. And, because no attention was enough, at the very least, we were soaked, the water pooling in our yellow foul weather gear, which was not designed for repeated submersion.

At 4 in the morning my father looked at me and said, “I can’t do it anymore. I’m going to send another crew member up, but you cannot let him take the helm until the sea settles down. You have to sail until then. The boat is yours.”

I brought a waterproof Walkman on these trips. While I took the helm that night, I listened to an array of the loudest songs I had: Dinosaur Jr’s “I Know You’re Out There,” Medicine’s “One More,” and Sonic Youth’s “Sugar Kane.” Nothing was loud enough. Nothing matched the ocean or my attention. Nothing matched my awareness of what might happen, or when my father relented, what had happened.

I sailed. Every time I turned the wheel, I felt like I was making a decision that could imperil the lives of all of us. We would go down fast, without time to throw the life raft overboard. It would happen in an instant. We were at sea—tempest-tossed as Shakespeare wrote. The end would come quickly. Each time I turned the wheel, each millimeter I moved it to port or starboard, I felt as if I was making a decision for speed and forward motion. It felt, again, as the bard wrote, giddy. Not happy, and not drunk—although I felt as drunk as I could be—drunk with sailing, with water, and with wind—but transported out of my mind, beyond all thought, and into every thought possible. I sailed as I never had before, as I would always want to sail afterward.

Friends ask me if I have been sailing in the years since my father’s death. I have not. But even before he died, I knew that I would not—not because of fear or seasickness (an anti-vertigo drug helped allay that)—but because I had done something then that I would never replicate. Not on the ocean. I have sought it ever since.

I do not know what has ever led me back to safety. I know that what calls me is not simply mastery (I have a Ph.D. in English, I have some level of mastery there), but the exhilaration of being over the edge of control and into the realm of the impossible. To be the captain, which I became that night. Sometimes, too often, I have exercised the caution I faulted my father for lacking. I have stayed controlled, almost too calm. In some measure, this is because I feel a lack of control and a lack of mastery around me. Even the experts profess a quietness or steadfastness, when sometimes what is needed is to go out of one’s mind. To forgo safety. To risk. But also to carry the responsibility for the lives on board. We are, truly, in this together, and must all go out of our minds, together.

I have over-prepared, or tried to know, to tame the ideas in my head, worried that they were unintelligible, or that they were somehow too strange. I feel myself now, at the top of the breaking wave again. And look down into the night sea. This way. Now. Down. For life.

Trusting imagination

I have carved a method out over the several months. I am writing smaller chapters, and it seems to suit the task. Someone may correct this later, make a suggestion to combine and reorder, but for now, my brain jumps from scene to scene, from image to image, from scrap of dialogue, well you get the idea. But I have no plan, no worksheets containing outlines hung on the walls. No maps with pins tracking destinations tacked to a slanted ceiling. No scribbled notes in the margins of a dozen or two books. I have done all of those things over the past twenty years. And not written. I am working without a plan.

This method requires trust. First, and foremost, that I will continue every day, no matter what. I have done plenty of things every day over the past twenty years, but never my work, always someone else’s work, and often done with their idea of what I should be doing. How much does “should” become a cage, and I paced like Rilke’s Panther. I had to change my life.

Second, I have to trust the story as I write it. While I know where it will end up (provisionally), the work opens before me. The writing unlocks images and settings. As I wrote before, surprise is the generative heart of this work. But I have learned that the simple act of writing is like scraping away at the rust and dirt that covers something beautiful. All I need to do is scrape. I find this amazing.

Third, and this is related to the previous one, I have to trust my imagination. This is what I am uncovering. This is what had grown rusty. What I have uncovered isn’t exactly waiting for me, already made, it is the thing that does the making.What I am scraping away at is me, my hands, my mind, my heart, my imagination. Mostly my imagination.

And my imagination includes, as the dictum goes, everything. I went horse riding in the fall, and now there are horses, and one fabulous horse, in the book. I saw the Assyrian Lion Hunt reliefs at the British Museum, and the lions are there. A friend went to Kathmandu and heard an American band playing reggae at a bar called “Purple Haze”; that’s in there too. Patagonia? In the book. Another friend pointed out that what one of my characters was doing was a metaphor for how I felt about making up for lost time. Yes, that’s in there too.

The imagination eats all of the world and transforms it into some odd new thing. I trusted my imagination before, making up shorter pieces. But not like this. And so I scrape away, and find it, as vital as it was when I was a child and fell in love with Sinbad and the genie, which I learned was a story from Scheherazade and the Djinn. It all comes back.

Piece by piece, and like Scheherazade, I know I must keep telling this stories, and trust to make it through another day. The alternative is most unfortunate, but even that will be a surprise.

Losing the Path—How a writer can get lost

Along the way, I lost the true path. So many of these past posts have been about finding my way back to the right road—to my purpose, to writing, and to love. Like the Italian poet, I am perhaps a little attuned to an inspiring force—a Beatrice, if you will—and so as writing has come back into my life, I have found inspiration as well. But the path is writing, and I blundered off.

Dante begins The Inferno:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself

In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell

About those woods is hard–so tangled and rough

And savage that thinking of it now, I feel

The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.

And yet, to treat the good I found there as well

I’ll tell what I saw, though how I came to enter

I cannot well say, being so full of sleep

Whatever moment it was I began to blunder

Off the true path.

Of course we ask, “Why? How?” For each of us who blundered off, the cause of our blundering was specific. Perhaps there are similarities. Here are mine.

Some of my challenge is surely due to some odd predisposition against the kind of selfish drive that must accompany the purposeful and durable impulse to write—or do anything. I recall when I was twelve or thirteen and we were electing pack leaders in my Boy Scout troop. I was nominated, and I did not vote for myself. I did not do that because I had been taught, always and hard, to think of others first, to not be selfish. I had two younger brothers—and not just younger, smaller—and was expected to make way for them, to not impose myself. Whether the overall message came from my parents, from teachers, or from some other source, I cannot say. When the time came for me to vote for a pack leader, part of being a leader, so I thought, was making the generous and considerate move. It was an early lesson.

My life in the world has set me against those who are primarily selfish. I see selfishness everywhere—the thousand daily infractions of an overarching ethical code. Be strong. Do more than your share. Tell the truth. Be kind. I do not understand behaviors that subvert those rules, and when I have broken them, or come close to breaking them, I have borne that certain weight. At some point on a dating site, there was a question, “Do you know the worst thing you have ever done?” I know the ten worst things. One was yelling at a boy with a physical disability to not block the stairs going into school. It is far from the worst. I work to balance the ledger.

I have framed the writing life, my writing life, as a calling. While that is a powerful vision of writing, a calling has its drawbacks, even dangers (see “The Dangers of a Calling“). It means that our work is not about or for us, but for something outside us, and this can lead those who live within this frame, to sacrifice, even sacrificing what is at the heart of that calling. Somewhere along the line, we must learn to be ferocious, obsessive even, about our purposes. This, and nothing else. No matter what.

Beyond that, there are many other roads, especially when one is in the dark—whether suffering through a bout of creative disconnection (no stories!), or suffering through the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (the daily bits of life and love)—and a wrong road can seem very much like a right road. There are so many opportunities for success, and routes that promise fulfillment. The greatest dangers to purpose are not dissolution and waste; they are “almost purposeful” fulfillment. How hard to turn away from success (or the road to success) as a leader, as a teacher, as a father, as a spouse. Who would not want all these successes in his life? I am writing about me, so the male pronoun is appropriate here; I imagine that a “she” or a “they” would have the same kind of struggle.

One of the attractions of success across a broad range of fields is the push to be well-rounded. How many times was passion curtailed because it was deemed too obsessional, too blinding to a balanced life. From early on in my life, I was strongly encouraged to be conversant in several fields of study. To understand science, math, history, and, English. To be a scholar athlete. To be well-informed about the news of the day (not just local, parochial news, but in the world as well, and not just news about proto-historical events, but arts, sports, business, everything). To play a number of sports. Always more. The monomania to do the 10,000 hours of practice was seen as ungentlemanly. Me, the last amateur, breezily succeeding, breezily failing, breezily letting life slide past.

Purpose was nearly antithetical to my life. And I have paid for that. Midway on our life’s journey, I reclaim the right road. I leave these markers for you, and for me. Follow.

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.