No writer sits down without some darling in mind, whether that darling is a reasonable payday, fame, or a glimpse behind truth’s brocaded curtain. Sometimes the writer doesn’t know at the beginning of their current project what the darling is. They just feel compelled to reenter the swamp—hip deep with words and ideas—and trust that something worth their love and attention arises from the murk.
Then it does.
Whether you rescue your darling from a crocodile’s gnarled teeth or the soul-sucking mud of despair, the writer wades in and declares, “This darling is mine!” Then you fight to the death. Everything else you have written—all those flat sentences and chapters that advanced something like the plot—must go.
Keep your eyes fixed on your darling; that’s why you write, not to serve some “should”—even if it is a self-inflicted “ought.” Save that old draft (it may surprise you later), but carry on in the service of love. Be a hero. Save your darlings.
I began the day in a foul mood. That’s not true. I shook the snooze on my phone enough times to drift back in and out of a dream I was having, gathered the cats’ feeding mice (they retrieve their food from a set of “mice” that I secret throughout my apartment twice a day), and poured a small cup of coffee. Traffic was inordinately painless. Then there was a line outside my first Sunday stop, a French bakery off Logan Circle in DC. People bundled in the late March chill. Flurries on the 27th? So be it.
Then the first blow, no almond croissants. Routine is terrible; I accept the necessity and know that I must make adjustments—perpetually. I arrive by ten to ensure my weekly extravagance of three almond croissants, which I portion out across the awful early days of the workweek. So be it. The friendly counter assistant offered almond croissants with chocolate, but I prefer not to mix my pleasures. “I’ll have three pistachio croissants.” There were, fortunately, plenty. “I’ll suffer,” I told her as the owner of the bakery looked on, noting my disappointment and smiling nonetheless.
And then the descent. As I left the shop, a young man burst through the open door and into the crowded shop. A wiry blonde fellow carrying a blue paperback textbook. Physics or economics—it hardly matters. He charged in without acknowledging his rudeness—one other person was waiting to exit. Unlike Ishmael, my first impulse was not to knock his hat off; he wore no hat. I wanted to deck him. “There’s more room out there,” slipped from my mouth, and then, “Dumb ass.”
In his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace warned against such flares of anger. He suggests “that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.” I get it. That young man might have had some life-saving advice to give to the people he was meeting at the bakery. Or he may have been on the spectrum and not in control of his social cues. I have many more moments when I can find the deeper solidarity of human experience, but I am keenly aware of my disdain for what? the failure of something like social grace.
The next twenty minutes of my morning descended in a spiral of disgust and disdain. Bad drivers multiplied like fleas and ticks on a lost dog. The sensor in my car alerted me that the air pressure in a reasonably new tire was low. The news and Joe Biden’s slip of passion—too much like my own. The world.
Except there are always bad drivers and people who back up without looking on crowded sidewalks or couples who stand conversing in entryways as if no one else wants to enter or exit. There are also kind shop owners, docents who recognize you and wave at you over the heads of a crowd, women who pet dogs, and dog owners who say, “Yes, she loves people.” Part of my Sunday ritual casts me pointedly and intentionally into the sea of museum-goers. The way people gaze at art—their comments and commiserations—delight me. We are at a concert, dancing and singing along with the masters of the world.
No wonder I write surrounded by all this—and all of them.
So, why such hypos today?
I just killed one of the characters in my novel. Yes, of course, someone else in the book killed him; I didn’t do it. But I did it. I knew I would do it and try as I may—and did—to distract myself from this inevitable passing, it had to happen. And today’s writing would carry me into the aftermath of that realization. I would have to begin the slow work of grief with the characters who remain. Writing has consequences, and no number of almond, or pistachio, croissants will salve the emotions that the work stirs. Yes, other characters have died in other works, but this was the first time a central character died because of another character’s cruelty. He will haunt the rest of the novel and haunt the characters who loved him.
I used to tell students in my college classes that they could miss a week of classes and needed to provide no excuses. “You’re adults,” I told them, “Life happens.” I also said, “Do not invent excuses. Do not claim sickness or death that did not happen—no, ‘I had to attend my great aunt’s funeral.’ Words have consequences. They are magic and can change the world.” I still believe this.
So today, on a perfectly ordinary day in a perfectly ordinary world, my brain hunkered down in advance of the pages that waited. Huzzah for belated self-awareness. I haven’t broken anything yet. Lesson: writing will shape your world, even if you aren’t aware of the shaping, even if it doesn’t change the rest of the world. Get to work at your own risk. Risk it all.
As a coda, there is a painting by Gilbert Stuart—he of the famous portrait of Washington—of a skater (called, The Skater). The man is utterly self-possessed. Unflappable. And yet, he is inscribing perfect circles on the ice. He has a nice hat. I don’t want to knock it off. I see him and think, “abstemious” (Either that or he just came from a long ocean voyage). Just as Prospero advised Miranda and Ferdinand, “Be more abstemious.” Advice well given. Back to work.
“I saw Ms. X___, and she said, ‘That’s what it must be like to be in one of his classes!’”
“That part was written for you!”
Yes, there were compliments, for which I am grateful, and all of which I could better hear after setting aside my natural predilection for self deprecation—why is it that I will always be more aware of my mistakes than my successes? I found some easy connections with Fagin: “What happens when I’m seventy?”; my current novel is about a gang of thieves; like Fagin, I am a teacher. However, I am not the outsider he has no choice to be; if I am, I choose that route. After the play, I washed off the make up, hung up the pants with gaping holes at the knees, and when Monday came, I put my pressed blue shirt with metal stays in the collar when I returned to classes. A costume is a costume
Still, some of the compliments rankled. That’s hard to admit, because it feels as ungracious to write as it must sound. I was delighted by the kindnesses that came my way. But no dear reader, I am not Fagin. Neither was Clive Revill, Ron Moody, Jonathan Pryce, or Rowan Atkinson, though all did excellent work in the role. Hear me out.
Once upon a time, a friend assessed another friend’s new book without reading it. The new book centered on a novice (an aspiring nun) who had stigmata (wounds that mirrored those suffered by Jesus on the cross). Previous efforts by this same writer included westerns and a book of short stories that had been described as “hardware store prose”—so, maybe a novel about a nun was unexpected. The pre-baked critique was along the lines of “What does he know about women?” As it turns out, the book fully understood the struggles of its protagonist and included passages of luminous, protean prose. It was just plain—and absolutely not plain—good.
Writers wander into new territory warily. Those who have long and successful careers tend to work the same plot of land—even if that plot covers ten thousand acres. Dickens stands out as the exemplar—popular beyond imagination and perpetually revisiting themes and character types—all those damned orphans, all those criminal step-fathers. But think of Austen, James, King, Grisham, Tyler, Hoffman, Rice. A writer like Virginia Woolf whose vision may be singular, but whose books vary in structure and approach, is rare. Joyce? Calvino? “Calvin-who?” you ask. Exactly.
And it isn’t just writers. I had a minister who sermonized that “The one thing was figuring out the One Thing.” Most of us spend years figuring out who we are and then hew tightly to that semi-self-defined course. In the public sphere, politicians who change their minds are lambasted by their critics. Over the course of the recent pandemic changing guidelines and responses drew salvos from all quarters. People want One Thing; anything more draws complaint and criticism.
Fuck it. We change. Life changes. Only an idiot sails into a hurricane (I’m thinking of you, dad) because that was the course he set months in advance. Granted, change is not easy, except when we are young and change is a daily and inevitable event—the voice, the hair, the height, the hormones. What’s the line from “Bittersweet Symphony”—“I’m a million different people from one day to the next?” A million may be too much, but just when you think, “Finally, the One Thing!” along comes life. Maybe we should take a lesson from all those years of change. Maybe.
At the end of the play, Fagin sings, “Can somebody change? It’s possible. Maybe it’s strange, but it’s possible.” Okay, I’ll own that connection. But really, possible? I can’t help but think that it would be horrible to be one person all one’s life. I clamor for the fourth and fifth act—or the 1001 Nights. I splash in Heraclitus’s river, changed and changed and changed again.
Why else write? Even these pieces are meant to dip into the river. Even when I visit and revisit a work of art, my parents, love, teaching, or writing—they are all stops at some bend, newly dug by the course of time. The writing barely binds them together.
“But they’re all about you.” As if. They’re just stories, ramblings and meditations on this strange journey. And really, they are all for you—the same as when I sang as Fagin. I’m singing to you, kid. Always.
So, I posted my workout on Facebook, and one of my friends replied, “sounds like a good swimming workout to me!” Another responded, “Or something rather naughty.” A few weeks later, the woman I was married to threw a log onto whatever fire we were in the middle of and said she was ashamed by what I had posted. Her response did not rise to the level of high dudgeon: “How could you!” Instead, “You’re an embarrassing idiot.” Later in life, one of my blog posts earned a chilly, “Why are you sharing your emotions? It’s just like Taylor Swift.” I should be so lucky to have Taylor Swift’s “readership.” I lay myself bare here—joys and struggles—to let my tiny audience know that they are not alone. I have been in the hole, and I found a way out.
Some of this I learned from other writers. Over two thousand years ago, Aristotle wrote that effective speakers (and writers should think of themselves as speakers) needed to be aware of their own character, the demands of the audience, and, finally, the logic or quality of their arguments. I will not investigate or interrogate your character, and, honestly, character seems less and less an issue these days. Or, just as troublesome, the only issue. I have read excellent work by writers of execrable demeanor, and awful work written by saints. I don’t need my favorite writers to join me for dinner or win my vote in the next election. One hopes for excellence on the page, in public, and in private, but it doesn’t always work that way. Writers, like readers, are human.
As far as the quality of your work, if you have read any of what I have written before, you know that I believe the more you write, the more likely you are to improve. Grit out an hour, two, or six a day and fill the buckets. Murky water will become clear, and with a bit of luck and a ton of persistence, it will transform into decent ale, wine, or smoky whiskey. Are there savants who miraculously produce exceptional work as if their quills were wetted in holy ink? Maybe. While I am sure that lightning strikes, most writers have written gobs before their first miraculous effort arrives on the page. Dickens, Twain, and Marquez wrote for newspapers under deadlines. Virginia Woolf kept dense journals.
And here’s the second (the first was process) thing: when you write, you don’t write for yourself. Of course, you write for yourself, to answer some deep-seated god-only-knows-why-I’m-doing-this compunction, but the whole point is to tell. Your words seek another’s ear. Yes, yes, delight yourself and unburden yourself (or profoundly burden yourself) by what you do, but never forget that your words seek an audience. The reclusive Emily Dickinson wrote for God—at once the most daunting and forgiving audience. Joyce wrote the nearly impossible Finnegan’s Wake for a tiny audience—one that was brazen enough, curious enough, playful enough, and willing enough—but the effort was not solipsistic. His claim that if it took seventeen years to write, it should take seventeen years to read is as ponderous a gauntlet to throw down to the reader as any writer should manage. Easy messages (those that surprise but stay within narrower, almost expected bounds) get bigger audiences, but even Dubliners’ original print run was for only 1250 copies. It did better, but he fought hard for that initial print run. You will fight too.
So, write with an audience in mind, and know your audience. Your audience is not everyone (even if it could be anyone), and it is certainly not someone who willfully (and vindictively) misconstrues your meaning. Some people are beyond convincing It could be because of something their parent said, or where they were born, or the weather in Tasmania. If you chase that rabid white rabbit, you will get bitten. You have no control over how the reader feels when they read. With any luck, you will cheer those in need and charm those ready to be diverted and enchanted. Every reader carries baggage to your work, and not all of it will get in the way. Some readers are packed for whatever journey you take them on. Be ready for them. Seriously, they will expect your best work—meet their expectations.
Besides, writers come with our own freightload of luggage; it’s okay. The best you can do is enter into an unspoken contract with your readers to provide something clear and engaging (and in the broadest and most profound sense, entertaining) to read; they will enter into a similar contract to read as generously as they are able.
Not all readers will. Not all readers can. Some are just curmudgeons. Some will comment and criticize for their own delight. I once had a classmate add an illustration of eyes in flight to the margins of one of my fledgling efforts. He said he wanted to remind me that “eyes cannot fly around a room.” The eyes were artfully crafted but perhaps beside the point. Maybe you like that kind of attention. There is something enthralling about gobs of feedback, even down to the level of “Use curly, not straight quotation marks.” Or the other way around. A writer can become mesmerized by confirmation that readers have given their fullest attention even if the attention is toxic.
Let me remind you that some readers refuse to read anything out of their comfort zones, refusing to read a book about football, or only wanting to read books about football. They remind me of my daughter, who always wanted mac n’ cheese no matter where we ate. Some people don’t want a salad with goat cheese, a veggie burger, pasta primavera, or grilled fish. Some people turn their noses up at pecan pie. They aren’t wrong; they just aren’t right for you.
And there is a side to people we must admit. Let me share stories that will put this in sharper relief. On a zoom meeting with fellow faculty (weather kept us home), a number of us displayed our pets. One faculty member chimed in, “I can feel my allergies getting ready to kick in.” Delight, delight, delight, and fuck you. Or, while I sang the praises of hot and sour soup with duck from a Chinese restaurant, one person volunteers, “I don’t like spicy food.” It could have been “I don’t like duck.” Leaving a movie with friends, I shared that I was going home to enjoy a small glass of Lagavulin 16 year old Scotch. “If you like drinking a campfire,” one acquaintance replied. Witty, but really? Humans have a predilection for negativity, and on the other side, we drag negative comments behind us like a chain of money boxes. Oh, the humanity. This negative penchant can be fatal for writers struggling to break the shell between themselves and the world made of words—the world they can and should make.
You are going to need a thick skin. More importantly, you will need a clear vision of the star you hitched your wagon to (some readers will complain about what I just did).
In Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction, Seymour advises his brother Buddy about writing: “[Y]ou’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer… ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world [you] would most want to read… The next step is terrible, but so simple… You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself.” Remember what delighted you, what amazed you, what made you turn page after page, or read and reread over and over again. What book do you thrust at friends and strangers, exclaiming, “You’ve got to read this!”? Of course, some will complain that they cannot keep all the Aurelianos straight in One Hundred Years of Solitude—you don’t have to be friends with them anymore; it’s okay to make that judgment. I jest. No, I don’t. Yes, I do.
No, I don’t.
Yes, you are the writer, but you are also your first audience. Have you written something that delights, amazes, frightens, shocks, excites, encourages, and engages you? If you have, it stands a chance to do the same for someone else. You might wonder if anyone will publish—or buy—what you write? Keep this in mind: shelves (actual and virtual) are full of product (yes, product) with a range of quality. Write well and let the market settle its own problems.
Be ready. Your audience will want you to guide them, to tickle them, and torment (for the right reasons) them. They will adjust their schedules and expectations when you surprise them. Surprise them!Write for that audience, delight and amaze them. And disregard all others. I think I may have drifted too far into a warning about that other audience, so let me insist that some people will cheer you on—as you work and for your finished work. One of my teachers would always comment “Keep writing!” on my stories whether he liked what I wrote or not. He wouldn’t invite me into the weeds of precisely what he thought I should fix or revise, even if his overall comment was “No,” he still cheered, “Keep writing!”
And so, keep writing. Find your audience. Be more patient with yourself and them. They will come around. So will you.
On Sundays, I wander. Truth is, I wander most days. My colleagues and students see me in the halls, going no place in particular. When I attend baseball games in the spring, I do not take a seat in the stands, but pace, eyes focused on some part of the game, feet constantly moving. And yet, I have read 600-page novels in a sitting and watched Lawrence of Arabia in the theater, begrudging the roadshow intermission—and delighting in Maurice Jarre’s intermezzo.
I wander because my mind wanders. A problematic admission for a novelist. Yes, there are touchpoints in each of my Sunday rambles. Monet’s Houses of Parliament, Sunset, the Calder Room in the East Building of the National Gallery, Dosso Dossi’s Circe and her Lovers in a Landscape, all the Dewing at the Freer, all the Sargent everywhere, when the space is open at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Butterfield’s Monekana, Thayer’s Stevenson Memorial. But my attention is drawn elsewhere. A piece of blue tape on the bottom of the pedestal supporting Houdon’s Diana. All the other Dianas. Ingres’s Madame Moitessier. A man sporting a yellow “YINZ” emblazoned on a black t-shirt (Okay, “gold”). An older man walks gingerly with a cane—his halting, carousel-like step revealing that one leg is three inches shorter than the other. A woman who is too beautiful for her date. Wait, am I her date? Is it today?
Wait. It’s not her date; he’s her husband, and they hold hands as they walk through the galleries. Definitely not me. And definitely today. Again.
As I make my way to the stairs that rise in the National Gallery’s East Building tower, I note that Edward Hopper’s Ground Swell is lovely, but who sails parallel to the swell? We sail through or across, never with. Pattern eclipses subject. Same with Ingres’s Madame Moitessier. She stands in front of a wall adorned with patterned red wallpaper. It turns her into part of the pattern. Compare this with Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Madame d’Aguesseau de Fresnes hanging in the same room. Madame d’Aguesseau de Fresnes is the subject and the background Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun gave her is tantamount to a brown tarp. What matters to the artist is the woman, her dress, and her hat. Of course, these, too, are part of a pattern. What isn’t? But Ingres makes it obvious: there is no escape from pattern.
My Sundays—all my days—have a pattern. On Sundays: Coffee, almond croissant, Freer/Sackler, National Gallery, lunch, Smithsonian American, and then home. Some days I add the Hirshhorn. Within each museum, I have a particular path. But I diverge. Today I skipped the Flemish paintings and headed downstairs to walk past Louis Maurice Boutet de Monvel’sJoan of Arc series. Just a glimpse. I recalled when I walked through the galleries almost too distracted to pay attention to Daumier’s heads. Almost.
And even if I did take the exact same route, the people around me would be different. Today, a man broke into impromptu yoga in front of Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/ Cock. On the cement. In the Courtyard Café, a woman at a neighboring table talked about workers complaining about having to go back to the office. “With teachers back in classrooms, it’s hard to argue,” she said. “But teachers knew what they were getting into.” People change everything.
The secret is that even if I took precisely the same route—if the coffee was just as hot, if the croissant was just as flaky, and if the day were as perfect for jeans and a flannel shirt as today was, all the guards standing in the same places—it would still be different because I am different. Whatever has happened during the week, whoever I met, whatever words I put on the page, all these things and more changed me.
Twenty years ago, I stood up in Quaker Meeting at the opening meeting of my old school and praised the opportunity for change. In my hubris—I was 40, I thought I knew better—I called it “the blessing of change.” I had moved to Baltimore and started a career that would sustain me for 20 years. And then a series of unwelcome changes began: my mother got cancer; my relationship ended; my father died. The annus horribilis. Oh, so you like change? Here it comes.
Maybe because my life has taken enough (one can be enough, but who keeps track?) turns (expected, unexpected, this makes no difference), I feel ready to make a few proclamations. At the very least, I proclaim for me, but like Whitman (“And what I assume you shall assume,/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”), I proclaim for you.
I recognize that in our self-driven culture, we value inward focus. I had a minister who emphasized, ala Jack Palance in City Slickers, “one thing.” On a more profound level, this impulse is driven by thinkers like Buddha or Henry David Thoreau. As for the Buddha, I have (not authoritatively) commented on suffering. Here in the United States, we celebrate Thoreau without knowing him. We acknowledge and follow his desire “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” But we forget that he “left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves .” Two years is enough. More lives wait.
Pattern and habit are as intractable as gravity, and this is not always a bad thing. If I was ever put in charge of a Creative Writing curriculum, I would insist on teaching the creation and maintenance of habit. What about artistic standards? Figure out what you need to do in any circumstance—in every place and weather—to keep a daily writing habit, and then worry about quality. Develop a practice that will survive against the “slings and arrows”; they are coming. The routine will help you improve. Words (writing and reading and listening) beget better words. Repetition begets mastery.
Except when it doesn’t. The rest of the time, habits get in the way. Habits become ruts. While a good groove can speed one on their way, how many times does expedience swallow excellence? Other than races, speed is overrated. And yes, this is the novelist talking. Endurance counts. There will be sprints along the way, but this is an ultra-ultra marathon.
Let me extend the sports metaphor one step further. We do not improve based on our intuition; we need a coach to help us succeed. Once upon a time, I was a recently separated father, and I researched how other recently split families managed the transition. I bought books. A friend teased me, “Don’t be silly. You know what to do.” Except, I didn’t. I did not know a thing about managing a split household—let alone a married household, but that’s another story.
In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert concludes that our lives are not all that unique; no matter how much we protest, “No one knows how I feel!” If you want to know whether something will make you happy—divorce or infertility regimens, for instance—ask someone else who has done it. “How did you feel when you divorced your spouse? How did your kids feel?” “How did it feel going through infertility treatments for a year?” Nobody has lived your exact life, but experiences start with incredibly similar foundations.
Intuition is an illusion. We do what we did yesterday, and we do it for a reason. “Wash, rinse, repeat” isn’t just a cheeky mantra. The brain loves to predict and then demands that we adhere tightly to its predictions. When we don’t, the brain sends error messages to our bodies, triggering all sorts of responses, most of which are angled to get us back on track—back into the predictable rut. We only learn when we err. Modern psychobiology is for the feint of head.
Wandering helps trick the brain. Surprises, collisions, and near misses open gaps in the “I-already-know-that” mental processes that keep us on course. “I-did-not-know-that” is the gold. Even if you look inward, if you want to learn yourself, then you will need to make yourself strange and surprising. You will need to interrupt the predicting mechanisms that perpetuate a kind of mental and emotional homeostasis.
Let me revise. I wander because my mind does not wander enough. The brain cannot; that is not how it evolved, not how it works. I seek out error messages—“This is not what I predicted”—lots of little ones to jostle the mechanism as gently as possible. Gently does not always do the trick—at least not if I am going to write.
Look, most people do not write. Why would they? It is hard work and requires tenacity and wildness—two qualities that do not play well together. A writer must be able to apply ass to chair (the commonplace starting point) and want to destroy—and re-create!—every chair that every ass occupies everywhere. I wander and re-create the world with every step, or I do when I finally stop and write. And then, and this is the big secret, let your writing wander. Find the thing that breaks all predictions and deal with it.
Do you want to write? Sit down and wander. Or wander, then sit down. Either way. Wander.
When I was 17, I read Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Not on my own—it was for an Ethics class in high school. We also read Plato, Aristotle, Bentham, Mill, Kant, Golding, Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment over Winter Break!), Mishima, and Descartes. And when I wrote “Not on my own,” I lied. I chose the class, and I gobbled down everything Fritz Marks put in front of us. I still refer to Hobbes (40+ years later). I expanded on my understanding of the rationale behind Descartes in grad school, when I pulled apart the “cogito ergo sum” as it applied to ideas in William Blake’s prophetic poems. We are never done.
Hobbes’s vision of mankind, based so much on what was observable—limited, one might say—was grim—is grim—and foreboding. The social contract—or some kind of explicit and implicit agreement—was all that stood between us and the enduring war of all against all. Kant threw us a life preserver—the notion of the sunnum bonnum—but tell me when in history that any group of people could agree on a greatest good for more than 26 minutes. Hobbes hangs around the same way that Thrasymachus is craftily ushered out of Plato’s Republic. We may move on from the dark vision, but it’s hard to wash that blood off your hands.
This essay will head in two directions, and I’ll get the weighty one off first. I’m not sure how you feel about the social contract. We give it more than a little bit of lip service—some implicit set of agreements that keeps us from (figuratively and literally) eating each other. I once pointed out the difficulty of claiming a moral high ground because of the numerous daily petit disruptions to the explicit contracts. In a sermon, I pointed out speed limits as an indication of a rule that was almost designed to be broken—and was taken to task for asserting that people knowingly violated laws. But what high moral ground can we claim? I lived in West Philadelphia when the mayor allowed the police to drop an incendiary device—a bomb—on a row home; the resulting fire consumed 61 homes and killed eleven. In the final days of the US evacuation from Afghanistan, a drone strike killed 10 Afghan citizens, in what the US military admitted was a “fatal mistake.” Yesterday, 2000 people died of COVID in the United States, and we will never know how many of those were infected by people who refused vaccines or masks. We are always living in the fog of the war. Is it the war of all against all? I don’t know, but I know that despite best intentions or assertions of individual freedoms, someone, somewhere, is getting served. Again.
The will to power, in whatever form it takes, is hard to set aside. Jack Merridew (from Golding’s Lord of the Flies) stands as a perpetual caution. We want meat (metaphorical and actual), and we have Roger to keep the boys in order. I know that some point to the schoolboys who disproved Golding’s fictional account of our race to destruction. I will point to the differences: the Tongan schoolboys were not British schoolboys; the boys were friends and not assembled hodgepodge to avoid an oncoming nuclear war; there were only 5 boys joined in a common purpose as opposed to the 20-50 in Golding’s novel. And one is true, and the other rings true. So yes, given the circumstances, we can avoid eating each other. If we are those boys. An obvious common purpose wrapped in the warm cloth of friendship creates the conditions for a reasonable implicit contract.
In the end, I suspect that the social contract is a useful fiction, but I also acknowledge the power of story in our lives. We need good stories. Linda Cron says that we are “Wired for Story,” and I show my students clips of Marlon Brando weaving the story of Caesar’s assassination. Do you want to win the argument? Tell a better story. A bloodied body helps. Of course, Brando has the advantage of Shakespeare, but who hasn’t been swayed by rhetoric as sharp and story-bound? The line will be short.
One story is that we are brutish, that we are only a few thousand years removed from a more animal existence, and we must acknowledge that former life and behave accordingly. Our inherent biology drives us to fuck and fight and eat (Paleo!). This kind of biological absolutism ignores that whatever we evolved from, we did evolve (if in fits and starts) and continue to evolve. We are, always, changing—from our guts to our brains. One startling aspect of Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary is how it posits an almost lightning-like speed of change.
Another story is that we are imbued with goodness or holiness. Or that at least a few of us have been chosen for such rewards. Can I not unpack the problems of us/them either/or here or the tribalism that religious fervor unleashes? The moment any group names itself “Select,” all those who do not face immediate peril. When a supreme being is the source of authority and man (any man) wields the will of God (any God), then disagreement and diversity become less than second thoughts. Or, to quote Hume, “[O]ne party by tracing up government to the DEITY, endeavor to render it so sacred and inviolate that it must be little less than sacrilege, however tyrannical it may become, to touch or invade it in the smallest article.” What you call Sharia, I call Texas.
It may seem as if misanthropy is the only safe harbor once one heaves the contract away. Still, this afternoon, I joked with complete strangers about the title of Tiepolo’s Wealth and Benefits of the Spanish Monarchy under Charles III. Beautiful painting. Hilarious title. I asked a guard about the signs surrounding parts of Sarah Cain’s installation. Huge single-colored circular inserts into stone benches have signs exhorting, “Please do not sit or stand on the colored circles.” As if. The guard laughed about the kids who could not help themselves. My daughter gets embarrassed by my exchanges, but they keep me sane. Without an esprit de corps, life becomes too ponderous. We are all in this together.
We all know this, especially after the past year. The virus ignored all divisions: class, race, gender, religion. The virus—as viruses always have—leaped across boundaries as nimbly as a 9-year-old leaping over hopscotch squares. COVID could have (should have?) been an occasion for recognizing our togetherness. After all, viruses have happened before and will happen again. Calling it a name or blaming someone (an animal, a person, a city, a nation) ignores history and biology. Viruses don’t mean to do anything; they have neither will nor strategy. Like the lilies of the field, they neither reap nor toil. You cannot go to war with a virus. We tried. And on a war footing, we—and this “we” is a particularly American “we”— got angry—and not at life in general or some god, but at each other. Perhaps, in our relatively comfortable lives, we forget that life is hard, that living in the world requires work and alteration.
A friend texted me Sunday morning with news of his family’s encounter with COVID. His daughter’s classmate brought the virus to school from her infected parents, and you can guess the rest. My initial response was anger, disgust, relief, and commiseration. I am a parent, and I teach.
I understand why we want our kids in school. Students do better when energized by each other and by teachers. Teachers also get more from the verbal and nonverbal give and take of the classroom. But schools, private schools too, are confluences of race, class, gender, religion, and now, attitude. We now claim attitude (I don’t like masks. What?) as a fundamental right, which strains even the fictional social contract. The virus has no attitude and no philosophy. Take a lesson.
I began this essay by explaining my first encounter with Hobbes. One of the initial contracts I entered into was a student. Throughout my life, I was an enthusiastic student, save for a few unfortunate cases. I never took to Mr. Ewell in chemistry, and as much as astronomy holds a charm for me today, I failed Wulff Henitz’s class at Swarthmore. Otherwise, I chased rabbits down the deepest holes, and learning never felt like a chore. Call me crazy (or seriously misguided), but I expected my students to feel the same way. I quickly recognized that I would need to persuade many of my students to my way of thinking, and I did. I cajoled. I amused. I swam across desks to demonstrate the power of metaphor. I taught for 25 years at various levels and enjoyed much of the task. This past year, when the pandemic tore the school year to shreds and sent us to zoom screens, I felt as if the implicit contract between my students and me—in fact, most of the unspoken agreements between administrators and teachers and parents—got tossed in the shredder. Contract, my foot.
Teaching English has always been a matter of teaching about humans. Writers may care about structure and grammar, but what matters most is the human condition. As a writer, the only thing that matters is getting a fully human experience onto the page. When I write “fully human experience,” I mean one that grapples with our brightest gifts and most dreadful failings. We live our lives veering from one to the other in some vast internal and external landscape. Mountain ranges and inward seas. Admirable struggles await.
Several years ago, I worked as a principal at an Orthodox Jewish Boys’ School, a Yeshiva. One of the Rabbis called me “The Warden,” and at that moment, I knew my time at that helm was short. I do not blindly accept authority, even my own, and I know there is so much that I do not know, and this goads me on to learn more, think harder, and dig deeper into this loamy life. The Cuban writer Virgilio Piñera has a story about a man who devours a mountain. If I am going to do the impossible, I will need to focus my efforts. This work will not devour itself.
I have chosen my mountain, and my ocean, my desert, and my city. I will write about what I find there, but I am no longer interested in standing at some imaginary gate telling students they didn’t qualify—either for entrance or escape. Not to put too fine a point on it, I am absolutely not interested in being the warden. I will wrestle with existential “no’s” in my work—and the existential “yes’s.” Always the Yes! I choose to cheer in my life among the young. They have hills enough to chew (read the Piñera). That is my contract. For now.
People at the National Gallery walk past Waterloo Bridge, Gray Day, and stop in front of The Houses of Parliament, Sunset, or The Seine at Giverny. I get it; those paintings are suffused with light—even the sun setting in the West behind the shadowy edifice of the Houses of Parliament gives the evening painting an elegant aura. The sun is barely present in Waterloo Bridge, Gray Day, which should not be a surprise in smoke throttled London. But there is no shine—instead of the billows of white smoke in a train yard, or the reflected sun in a lily pond, this is just gray. Another typical London afternoon.
The painting bears all the hallmarks of Impressionism: surfaces broken into brushstrokes, a scene captured with immediacy and revealing a moment. If it were not flanked by brighter canvases, would you stop? Who knows? This painting is gray—the day was gray—and Monet mutes his palette. People move on.
We are drawn to light. In a wood-paneled room of Rembrandts (Gallery 51), the glints and swaths of light in the dark paintings stand out. There may be details in those dour portraits; still, our gaze focuses on those bright patches. Rembrandt uses light to command our eyes toward the centers of the works—or in the case of Philemon and Baucis, to the right side of the painting, where a nimbus flares up behind Philemon—as it should, she received Zeus and Hermes when other, wealthier neighbors turned the gods away. Rembrandt does not play with light like De La Tour (The Repentant Magdalen, with the skull—a memento mori—only seen reflected in a mirror, shows off his use of light). He lights what matters most—this is key lighting, not bravura technique. But this is how we see, and this is what he (or his patrons) wants you to see. He knows that our gaze is like a moth, drawn inexorably to the flame.
In Gallery 69, Whistler’s Symphony in White uses the bright cuff of Joanna Hiffernan’s dress not to focus the viewer but to prevent our look from settling here or there. Even the wolf rug’s gaping mouth—in and of itself a supreme irony—does not fix us. We can apply some meaning, but the painting fights against allegory and symbolism. It’s white, only white. Across the room, Sargent uses a flash of white to guide our gaze from the transfixing stare of Margaret Stuyvesant Rutherford White to a point just at her left hip. Sargent’s portait has other work to do. The flash of white is a sleight of hand—and it is Mrs. White’s left hand, in the shadow formed by the folds of her dress, that holds a small bottle. We cannot smell her perfume—it’s a painting, just a painting—but Whistler lets us know that she is not above such enticement. She is not a painting or symphony or play of light.
I tease my students while making a point. I wave my fingers in the air up and to my right, “Bright and shiny! Bright and shiny!” We are eminently distractible—they are; I am. A short woman in a pink shirt and a mask fashioned from a blue bandanna puts her hand on the shoulder of the short man with whom she walks through the museum, stopping for a moment in front of the sunset in one of Monet’s paintings. One part of my mind leaves the gallery room with them. A family—two boys and a dad trailing behind mom, who pauses in front of Redon’s Pandora—enters. I don’t know whether they are from out of town and making the fleeting pilgrimage or revisiting. They leave too quickly for me to ask. Instead, I talk to the couple on the bench beside me, and a woman confesses that she fell in love with Monet’s The Artist’s Garden at Vétheuil when she was 8. “It was everything,” she says. She paints.
I am jealous of painters and their use of color and light to direct the audience’s gaze around their work. Like a symphony, they speed our eyes and slow them down, distract us with flourishes, and satisfy us with thematic or chromatic resonances and unities. Yes, we will “read” the subject, but the paintings open in a dozen other ways, all at once, convincing us and vexing our expectations. I seek to do as much. The galleries inspire me.