Archives for category: reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That story became the story of the Djinn.

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

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

Today is my New Years Day. Today school meetings begin in earnest; students return and classes resume next week. What that means in practical terms is that I was up while the clock had a “6” to start the time, and at work while it showed a “7.”

The time doesn’t really matter. As long as something like 8 hours of sleep happened before I wake, time is just a way to organize the day, so that people can make arrangements. During the school year, the events of the day begin at 8 AM, and I like to be present and pleasantly caffeinated well before then. I plan accordingly.

Nonetheless, it is a new year, with all the attendant joy that comes with beginning. This year, I begin in strangely excellent physical condition. I can swim five miles without stopping (a task I once reserved as a test before heading out on the ocean). I can lift more weight than I have in thirty years. And I weigh as much as I did when I was fit and in college. These are all old markers, but remind me that even though years may pass, I can still fight myself back into shape.

I have also finished a draft of a novel, and have started working on revision. These are new thresholds, and mark a significant change in my daily life. Writing every day has been a revelation. I did not plan far ahead, but trusted—blindly, confidently—that there would be wells along the way. I know that the way ahead is—as it is in my favorite Kafka short story (“My Destination”)—“fortunately, a truly immense journey.” I cannot carry enough water to get me where I am going; there must be wells ahead.

I do not know where that journey will lead. I do not know what the next books will be about, but I can feel the impulse to write, to imagine and . All that matters is the writing and allowing for the discovery—the thrill of the new and of exploration of a subject, characters, places, and ideas. I know that there will be a physical analog to that journey, but that it will be bound to psychological, artistic, and spiritual travel as well. All must happen, and will happen.

Once upon a time I wrote a poem about baseball (and not at all about baseball) that ends: “Each day the day begins again.” And so it does, except I am more aware of my old self, and of carrying him—that old hulk, but also that bright star—into this year. So I go, crafting a way forward, learning, reclaiming, and working.

This is the single greatest attraction beginning a new school year—as it has been since I was much younger. There is something new to learn, some new idea, some new book, some new inner and outer experience on the horizon. Even though I am now a teacher, I plunge ahead, building on what I know, and striving for something I do not know, and prepared to discover. Away we go.

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.

Since the 1987, I have started at least five novels. Some I carried with me for a few months—the story of a wedding, unfolding like the petals of a rose. Others lingered over decades—the story of a woman who stole paintings. None of them lasted beyond seventy or eighty pages, or in the case of the long project, fifteen or twenty starts at initial chapters. I had notebooks full of scenes, outlines, character sketches, dialogue, and thematic connections. All the while I wrote other things. Shorter pieces, poems, prose poems, essays, sermons, children’s stories. Or I wrote nothing at all and suffered in silence. I believe that I was unbearable in those times.

What cracks the shell, and let’s the story run out?

I do not know.

I do know that I burned the first one. It had stuck with me for a couple of years, and was the piece I was working on when I went to the MA program at Binghamton. I put the pages on the little hibachi I owned, and watched it burn. I kept the ashes in a brown paper bag on the desk in my office at grad school for as long as I was there. Some of my friends found it morbid. I found it freeing. Move on.

Over the years it has been less easy to move on. I became more anxious. Would this happen? Had I somehow failed? I had other successes as a writer along the way. Why not switch course? Why not give up and go in another direction? There are many ways to write.

Even as a high school English teacher, novels called to me in ways that poems and shorter pieces did not—as exhilarating as a poem or short story can be. There is something satisfying about the duration of a novel. There was also, like it or not, the commercial aspect of novels—they are designed to draw everyday readers. I loved that about them. 300-500 page pop songs.

Perhaps I was too enchanted by the high art novels that I read in my graduate classes, and in the critical approaches we used to pull them and the ideas that surrounded them apart. I forgot about the old thrill of reading for pleasure—which is why novels exist. Art is fine, better than fine. Criticism is a world unto itself. But writing for an audience, for a world of unmet readers, that is everything.

And so, this time, I am following Seymour Glass’s advice to his brother Bruno, and I am writing the book I want to read. I am my own unmet reader. And will hope, against hope, to find many others.

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.

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.

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.”

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