Archives for category: purpose

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 crew mates, and I) sailed out of the Chesapeake Bay onto the ocean in a gale. Already in the bay itself there was 6-8 foot chop, and on this trip, one of the four sailors (a first timer 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 crew mate 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 strikes me when I take my first late watch, when the horizon is shrouded in black, and my eyes and inner ear cannot properly make sense of the several directions that my body is 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 watcher 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 crew mates, 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. And can admit that for the times 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 afterwards.

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)—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 PhD 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 ones mind. To forgo safety. To risk. But also to carry the responsibility for the lives on board. We are, truly, in this together, an 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.

Once a week I take my tablet and head someplace at least anhour away from home to write. I will find a strange coffeehouse, or a park, or a museum. I will write at a table, on a bench, or sitting on the floor or ground. No matter how far I go, I try to write at least 1000 words, letting wherever I am seep into what I am writing—that café au lait, those trees, this painting.

Two Monets the National Gallery of Art

My students obsess over the idea of writer’s block, and having been away from my writing for years at a time, I can understand why. They see their relationship with their writer as a relationship between themselves and the void—the blank page or blank screen, waiting to be filled. And to be sure, there is a void. Before one writes it, nothing of what the writer sets down exists, not in that exact form. That is, of course, part of the thrill of writing. While there may well be a void, the writer fills it—as much as she or he can.

I disarm the fear in a number of ways. I write every day, whether I feel inspired or not. It is like sailing on the ocean: gale, steady wind, or little or no wind; the sails go up and progress is made. Some days are tedious, at least to begin; fortunately, I find that the act of writing can ignite vision. A friend of mine posted about “Static Writing”—how the grind of daily writing can feel stagnant and stagnating. I get that, and yet, I feel that in the creative endeavor, having a “static” process, one that is not bound by outcomes, but by the power of filling the void (It can never be filled! Keep going!), will lead the writer to their best work.

I also acknowledge that writing is a physical as well as psychic act. Sometimes pushing a pen or pencil over paper can help remind the writer of this, or by the way one pounds out letters on a keyboard (old manual typewriters made this experience easier to understand). Directing the passage of the words from an abstract (thought) into a concrete medium (onto the page/screen) requires physical effort.

In addition, I am aware of my surroundings when I write, and when I write, am aware that the transition into my writing time and space. I often play a specific song to help usher in that time. But I learned not to bind myself to a specific place.

A few weeks ago I attended the DC Authors conference, and someone asked the first book writers (a novelist and a historian), where they wrote, whether they had a special set up for their writing space. I can remember those kind of “what’s your ritual” questions from grad school. Writers would concern themselves with pencil or pen (and what kind of pen), or how much cleaning to do beforehand, or what was in the candy bowl next to where they wrote. I can understand why this is a preoccupation with writers; writing is hard. Writers risk their very sense of self when they make the effort to create a world out of the void. If they fail, not only does the world threaten to spin into unmatched threads, but their hands threaten to unravel as well. Ritual can be a talisman against disaster.

And yet. Writing is movement. While it may be a move toward a center, some still, quiet, and contemplative space (or raucous, ecstatic, unrestrained dance), it is a movement. A writer who can tap into this seems less likely to be caught when his or her ritual is interrupted. “Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving,” writes the old poet. We leave this world and enter the void, and make what? Some strange caravan.

So, I go, physically, and in the going drop the pretense of metaphoric movement, embracing actual movement. I allow myself all the charms and dangers of distraction, but I know, all too well, that giving myself this time and this freedom of space will reinvigorate my work, that if some of thethreads which I am spinning together have become hackneyed or too full of my will, I can energize and brighten them. A bite of this slice of cake. The sound of that woman exhorting her child in Arabic, the presence of this sculpture of the Buddha.

And so now, cloistered in a room of students taking exams, I can write. Again, and always.

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.

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.

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.

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 world, the noisiness of life interrupts the vision that animates their existence. Some bound into it, seeking febrile connections to the world, and allow 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.

Is it any surprise that repetition plays a significant role in my life? I came of age as an athlete knocking out sets of 30 200 yard freestyle swims. They were yardage eaters—a quick and dirty way to lay in 6000 yards of workout and buy time for rest of the yards that the coach had in mind. We finished them at intervals of 2:30, 2:20, and 2:10, which left 50 minutes for the rest of the practice—an easy pace for the two to four thousand yards to come. Pushing off the wall every two minutes and thirty seconds, there was time for conversation between swims. Leaving at every two minutes and ten seconds put a crimp on anything other than brief exchanges: “This sucks,” “Stop hitting my feet,” “I’m hungry.”

We did this day after day.

With my head down in the water, my eyes trained on the feet of the swimmer who left 5 seconds before me—chasing, always chasing. In high school I was far from the fastest swimmer on the team. I made myself a better swimmer. One summer I traveled to Iowa and a training regimen that increased the junior varsity’s load of 3500 yards in an afternoon’s hour long practice, to 22,000-28,000 yards spread over three practices every day. I lost whatever baby fat—and whatever other fat—that my 15 year old frame carried, crashed my immune system—catching a nasty staph infection that laid me up for days after I returned home—and sliced ten seconds off my hundred breaststroke time. No mean feat. I made the varsity team. Repetition was the way.

Years later, when I was a graduate student in English, I read books two and three times. I would attack most of the books for my classes in two weeks before the beginning of the semester, then again as we read them as a class. The initial reading with facile, getting the joys and traps of plot out of the way, allowing the words—and all the ideas in the words—to come to the fore when I read along with the class. If I wrote about a particular book, I read it again, and some passages, dozens of times.

Since I was in school to write, I wrote and rewrote some stories six or seven times. My classmates, colleagues, cow-writers, and teachers, shared the demanding mantra: “All writing is rewriting.” And we practiced what we preached.

As a teacher, I sometimes warn my students that this—and the years to come in college—are the best years, because of the preponderance of the new. Almost everything they learn is, will be, new. Each encounter with something new gives a new opportunity for mastery—another shot at sudden improvement and the giddy transformative moment of adding some unknown idea to the swirl of self.

I warn them because at some point there lives will bend toward repetition. Yes, the repetition may lead to a finer, hard-earned mastery. I think of all the miles that I put into the pool, and how it shaped and shapes my body (still). I think of the ways that great works give up new meanings after repeated shared readings, and how I became a more aware reader. And while I may not rewrite as much as I once did—obsessively, compulsively, debilitatingly—I know that writing begets writing—good, bad, or otherwise. The thing is to write, over and over, every day, without fear, even without hope. The words will bear you up. Push off. Go again.

Well do I know that repetition can suck the joy from the flower of life—making no honey, leaving all empty, colorless, scentless. I do not how how I managed all those laps in the pool, with nothing but the dull roar of water passing my ears, the steady ache and agony of my muscles, and the songs that played in my mind, setting an unimaginable pace. There was joy at the end of each 200 yards—“Good time!”—and these little victories provided enough of a goad to return to repeat success. Who determined what was a “good” time? I did, in concert with the clock—the cold but consistent arbiter of performance. Time, as opposed to opinion, never wavered. The clock was not making a comment because it had a good or a bad day. Go again.

I hope that my students will discover some place where they can demonstrate mastery, and change the long monotonous drone of repetition into a glorious repeated success. That they will find a way to insist, “Again, again,” holding on to that inner childlike joy. That in spite of how hard their task may be, that their arbiters are, if not cold, consistent and consistently challenging. I hope all this for myself as well.

The sweeping red hand of the clock on the wall flies past the black hashmarks: two minutes and one second; two minutes and two seconds, two minutes and three seconds. I breathe deep, and get ready. Here I go. Again.

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