The clay pot from Syria and the stone head from Egypt. “Syria and Egypt are not so far apart,” you think. Shapes, after all, are shapes. I get a sense that Charles Freer would like this thought. He assembled his collection to bridge differences of time and space, to find unities and common threads. And yet, nearly three thousand years separate these objects.
In the National Gallery, a few steps will take you a hundred years from Raphael to El Greco, and nobody’s confused by the differences between them. Gallery after gallery is organized by time, place, and artist. On one wall, Eakins, on another Whistler, and then two of Sargent. A row of Monet’s, each featuring a reflection in a body of water. We recognize the separate hands. We differentiate—pointedly so—Cassatt from Manet. We recognize that an early Pollock gets tossed upstairs in the glass cases of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Benton gets a wall in a room, and Lavender Mist has a bench in front of it at the National Gallery so you can sit and think about it.
Walking the galleries can be a jolting experience. It should be a jolting experience. Even in the galleries designated “Arts of the Islamic World,” the shifts from one work to the next makes me question what any of the artists thought, and even more so, what any of the viewers thought. There is no monolith here—or there is, and it constantly fractures and fragments. Yes, of course, Islam, but also them, and me.
Some of my friends comment, “What a nice Sunday ritual you have,” hinting that the museums are peaceful places of reflection. I walk past two sets of angels (Mohammed and Mary, each surrounded by beings of glorious verve and color) listening to The Rolling Stones singing “Can You Hear Me Knocking.” Yeah, peace is my goal. I spend time every Sunday in the company of Monet and Calder—quieter voices after a fashion—at least they aren’t dissonant. The day is dissonant.
The vase from Syria and the head from Egypt. 1100 kilometers between them–roughly the distance from Washington DC to Alabama, Illinois, or Maine. So yes, I can see the confusion. Add 3000 years. 3000 years ago, Greece was beginning to lose Mycenaen writing. The New Kingdom in Egypt was collapsing. Babylon was in decline. Celts had started migrating from central Europe—Ireland was still in the future. Turn your head and watch the world change.
Perhaps we think that it changes more slowly now. The leaps from Stone Age to Bronze to Iron seem so slow and so enormous. Now we are cocooned in steel and silicon. Everything is instantaneous and, almost by magic, eternal. Time has stopped. Travel and commerce brought every place within our grasp. Disney helped us imagine a small world, but how quickly it fragmented over my lifetime. Maybe the differences were always there.
Even walking through the Art of the Islamic World at the Freer, there is an early 15th Century folio from al-Qazvini’s Wonders of Creation. From 100 years earlier, a page of the Shahnameh includes an illustration of Gushtasp slaying a dragon. I don’t know how these stories were received.
It is a commonplace to claim that people have universally enjoyed, even hungered for, stories. I don’t know how each of these audiences spread over 100 years, a thousand years, longer, came to story or to art. I cannot simply state that what I feel, they must have felt. I walk the galleries and try to imagine across time and space how those who came before felt.
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.
A year ago I was in London. My first night there, it was cold and rainy—the worst weather of my short trip. In spite of that, there was a walk to take—a walking tour of locations connected to Dickens and A Christmas Carol. Only a handful (6? 8 at the most) came out for that walk. At some point in the night, I was recruited to help read from The Pickwick Papers. The walk ended at The George with mulled wine, and guests out of doors in the cold singing.
The memory is happy and sad. I had traveled to London with a woman whom I deeply loved. I had traveled with some amount of trepidation; I knew she had other stars in her eyes, or, at the very least, that she doubted that I was star enough for her eyes. However, London was a promise I had made to myself long ago, and I was fulfilling that promise, or, again, at the very least, making the first steps toward that promise. The trip was a dream and reminded me of why I made that promise years ago.
One part of the promise involved travel. When I was a graduate student, I had been accepted to travel to London to help with a program at my school. I did not go. I had met a woman and thought we were going to be married, so I reneged on my duties and planned a wedding and a life. The marriage did not happen. I stayed in Binghamton for the spring instead of traveling. I promised myself that I would go, and go beyond.
The other part of the promise was to write.
I had gone to Binghamton to be a writer. I began grad school at 28 with only a thin idea of what I wanted to write. To be honest, my idea of myself as a writer was entirely romantic—in that way Shelley’s idea of the poet from In Defense of Poetry is romantic. Such an idea, without a steadily glowing ember of practice, is not sustainable. My writing, though full of hopeful ideas, had not taken proper root. I was a dilettante—determined, but without that obsessive drive that propels most writers. While I was in grad school, I delved into the academic side of my studies—the ideas were thrilling, and it was easier to make headway there.
My first writing workshop focused on short fiction. Although I had written a couple of short stories and read some, especially when I was younger and gobbled up anthologies of supernatural stories, I came to writing because of novels, especially the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mark Helprin. I wanted big strange things to happen in my work, and for my work to reflect a world in which the impossible was ever-present—if stalwartly and stupidly ignored. I wanted to shine a light on that world. Did I know that then? I do not think that I could have made a clear statement of exactly what I wanted, besides to “be a writer.” That is hardly enough.
I struggled with short work. I wish I could say that I had ten dozen ideas waiting to spring Athena-like from my forehead. I did not. After two years, I somehow cobbled together enough work for a Master’s Thesis, but the work relied too much on retelling stories from my life. I invented nothing. It wasn’t until my third year that I began to find my footing, and then only in the shortest of pieces, prose poems.
While academic writing can flourish jumping from George Chapman to Virginia Woolf to Charles Dickens, from Michel Foucault to Alice Jardine to Judith Butler, creative writing needs a steady—almost boring—focus. You have to sit at the grindstone. You have to want to sit at the grindstone, putting the millstone around your neck the way someone else might blithely doff a silk cravat, tied while running toward a morning meeting, or an afternoon assignation. It’s a damned heavy tie. And there must be something magical and transformative. The words must have the power to change the world.
And here’s the thing—as I have written in some of these posts, obsessive drive was antithetical to my idea of how I wanted to live. I had seen too much obsessive drive and distrusted it. Where some saw vision, I saw blindness. I felt it in myself, especially when I was “in love.” I distrusted the way I experienced romantic love and doubted whether I would be able to love anyone. At 28. I may not have had a clear idea about my writing, but I did have a clear—if wrong-headed—idea about my heart. I had much to learn. Now, I feel called to write every day, and if I do not, I feel the bite of old dogs. If days go by, the dogs grow younger and hungry.
And, I had given up on magic. Are the two things, love and writing, all that separate? Sadly, or happily, for me, they are not.
What happened? Well, this, for one. In January of 2018, I started reflecting on lost bits of my life. I had something to reclaim. It started with reflections on love and what I learned from a selection of movies—some obscure, some well known. Then I started musing on happiness and moving and beginnings and, of course, writing. I had something to reclaim. I explained to a friend that my newfound sense of urgency was the result of losses around me and my own gnawing loss of self. I felt my life slipping away.
What am I to myself
that must be remembered,
One of the early writing lessons was that one had to fight against insistence on anything other than the artistic integrity of the work. Art was all that mattered. Everything else was selfish preoccupation. There is a nascent Buddhism in this practice. Writers must not crave; they must simply let the perfect “be” and then get the hell out of the way. Great writing was, at some level, an act of self-erasure—the presence of absence. Especially when I was a young romantic writer-to-be, this appealed to my innate perfectionism and idealism. In a world full of corrupted motivation and suspect morality, attempting to make something beautiful was honorable. This is part of the elusive call of writing, and of all art. Everyone else must live reined in by the art of the possible: politics and compromise. Writers and artists strive for the unobtainable. Even when we engage the flaws in our work, as often as not we are performing some subtle—or not so subtle—sleight of hand. We are like the carpet weaver adding the imperfection because the perfect is reserved for God alone. Or for Shakespeare.
Which brings me back to London, a city in which Shakespeare’s famous theatre was rebuilt through the efforts of an American actor. When I went to London, I was a month and a half into a novel, and I knew that it would be a novel. I had imagined other work as long as novels before, but this was different. I had never felt drawn into the writing as I had with my book about the djinn. I knew it was going somewhere, and I did not know how it would get there. I was not simply writing about characters who were magical and from the world of enchantment; I was enchanted by the work. I researched djinn as I wrote, and would go back and revise whole sections to suit what I learned while I wrote. I let myself be out of control and let the book go out of my control.
The closest comparisons I can make to this were the feelings I had when I was at the crest of a wave—either on my father’s boat on the Atlantic Ocean or when I was body-surfing off the coast of California. In both cases, I was out of control and exhilarated. I felt the same way in London—that the waves of history, of literature, of streets, of unknown alleyways, and yes, of love could all come crashing down. They could, and some did, and I had to go ahead and throw myself into the waves anyway.
I wonder how this last novel came about so easily, but, really, it did not come easily. It began ages ago and I did not know it. I made a promise. As I gear up for the next, I am surprised that I am finding enchantment. Again. I am also pleasantly surprised that I know, a little, how to uncover enchantment when I need it. I have not needed to travel back to London. And yet, on this day—and if I am honest, every day—I feel the call. I have promises to keep. And miles to go…
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.
We gathered a twice a day to listen to the nautical forecast, usually in the cockpit, but when the weather was execrable, in the cabin. For days on the ocean it was the only external information we had, and the computerized voice that intoned the zones and conditions annoyed and entranced us. My father never explained which particular slice of the forecast we should heed. If there was one, it was his secret. We did get a general sense: the information could reveal a significant change from the forecast with which we headed onto the ocean. For the most part, the weather we encountered was weather we could see.
Besides, what did the weather matter? We were going into it one way or the other. If something sudden arose—and in a storm, wind and rain could change direction in a moment—we had one rule: change course. At 3 a.m. on a Monday morning, Saturday afternoon’s destination could wait. That lesson only took one stern delivery.
I think I became an atheist on the ocean, or at least a pragmatist. If there is a god, it answered my prayers for relief with a simple, “You put yourself out here, jackass. You are going to have to get through it on your own.” At the same time I learned to believe in and respect a power much larger than my desire. Only a fool raises a fist against the weather or the ocean and then dares an impossible course. We had our foolish moments. On particularly bad days, my father would simply decree, “This is shitty.” If it was, we sailed through it.
In this way, we learned a sensible passivity on the ocean. Our single dare was the initial impulse: sail. After that we trimmed sails, corrected course, vomited, slept poorly, ran the engine through flat days, cursed the diesel odor, and gloried. We were sailors.
Every so often, the moment called for essential courage: tying down loose sheets at the bow while the boat bucked through night storm. I could hold onto nothing while grabbing the clew of the working jib and the sheet (line) that whipped back and forth, having worked itself loose. “You get that,” my father said, in a tacit admission that his Parkinson’s Disease would prevent him from ever again wandering forward in less than pleasant conditions. “It’s shitty, but we have to get that.” He didn’t even need to add that proviso. I had hooked my tether to the line that ran from bow to stern and was scrambling ahead—cursing, as is one’s right, and scrambling.
One learns not to wish for courageous opportunities. Danger is not a reward, even if it frees the soul from, what? complacency? On the ocean, complacency is death.
I knew about my father’s illness because, on the ocean, every limit will be tested, but it is essential to acknowledge those limits. You do not ask a first time sailor to take the helm in a gale, nor do you ask uncertain hands to tie a bowline. Few are those who ask for something hot to eat and a place at the helm in any weather. And my father’s illness was a limit–he wanted, desperately, to be the one who managed every danger; after all, he was our father. When he could not, we had to know it, and keep him safe.
Even while waiting on the ocean, one never stops being on alert, ready to absorb the next challenge—and boredom (bored in a week? Bah!) must be one of those challenges. But, who gets bored between the sun, the sky, and the endless blue?
Still, I wonder about the lesson—prepare and wait. It is easy to forget that while I waited, I was on board a 36’ sailboat that made steady and infernal forward motion—through all kinds of placid and idiotic weather. Yes, wait, be patient, but for the love of all that’s right, keep going. Even if the pace is a mere 6 knots, keep going. Even if a storm causes a momentary reversal, there is a destination, perhaps on the other side of the world. Keep going. And be prepared for what comes. It is, it will.
Once a week I take my tablet and head someplace at least an hour 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.
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 the threads 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.
Some of my students are aghast at the idea of reading a book a second time, let alone a third or forth, or fifteenth time. The life of a teacher means revisiting books again and again. They become habits. The past dozen years brought steady stops in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Homer’s Odyssey, and maybe Shakespeare’s Macbeth. All became exceedingly familiar territory—terra too cognito—and I welcomed the changes that a change of job and change of curriculum brought this year. I taught half a dozen book I had not read in years. The freshness helped revive my vision.
Of course, repetition is the backbone of study. There isn’t a piece, whether film, book, or painting, that I have not poured over. And over. Some works hold up to repeated visits—this is especially of true of paintings and sculptures. I have sat in front of some paintings for hours, and then gone back a year later to do more. The ability to give concentrated attention to something is a rare quality. And yet, I find myself loosing the fire for return visits and viewings, even for old favorites. How many times can I return to Hamlet, or It’s a Wonderful Life, or Wings of Desire? I know there are things I have not seen, and they call to me.
With spring, my attention is pulled back to baseball, and a group of friends with whom I have played rotisserie baseball for nearly thirty years. I have risen at odd hours when the season began in Japan, as it did again this season. I did not wake to watch early in the morning, but acknowledged the game at arm’s length. I almost did not play our little game this season, almost tired of keeping track of scores and statistics. 162 games and fifteen teams works out to nearly 2500 events to be aware of in some nagging fashion. Enough already.
How much has repetition and routine play a part in life? Too much. At times it seemed that I flew on autopilot, barely aware of the ground beneath me or the time that slipped past, never to return. Sometimes the routine is good—I don’t give more than passing thought to breakfast and lunch when I am busy. I eat the same thing, more or less, day after day. Perhaps my life would be better if I added variations here, but I have had other pressing concerns, like a Stephen Greenblatt essay about Hamlet. There are ways to keep the standards fresh. Still, there must be more.
I changed large parts of my life this past year—there were many reasons, but one was to interrupt the flow that had become too familiar, too easy. I wanted to drive up to a different door—my door. It did not have to be more beautiful—and it wasn’t—it just had to be different. My work as a teacher, although familiar enough, had to take me to different books an different students. And I needed to extricate myself from a years long creative drought. I needed to write to be alive.
This past December, I traveled to a new place, London, to which I had meant to travel almost thirty years ago. I traveled after I did a series of new things, each one satisfying, but each fueling a desire for more. Almost everything that has been part of the solid ritual of my daily routine tastes bland. I don’t hanker for extremes—a solo sailing venture around the world, or an ascent up some foreboding mountain, or a year in a seraglio—I yearn to encounter something as if for the first time. I wish to be a beginner again, with a clean slate ahead of me.
It will not be. There is much that I cannot jettison (Overboard! Overboard!), and some of which has been central to my life. But to bring my daughter along for the ride. To carry my brave and loving heart into boundless possibility. To write without care for sharp tongued critique. To go, and keep going.
I recognize that when I felt at my best, I was a student, learning, reading, discovering with a vigor that few matched. Right now my writing carries me vigorously to some new place—an undiscovered country that is beyond death—the little death of stagnation and routine, the larger death of a withered soul. I need to find a way to return this more adventurous, more daring, more profound sense of discovery to the rest of my life, to every aspect of my life. To become a masterful student again. Even while I wear the mantle of expert, I am an expert explorer. It is time to honor that. And go.
Perhaps my writing will be enough to answer that call during the long school year. My work feels, for the first time in longer than I care to admit, durable and ecstatic. However, I cannot let anything—or anyone, even myself—keep me from discovery. There must be time for new thoughts, new places, and a new world that will animate my work and revive my old heart. Here—there, and everywhere—I go.
Almost fifteen years ago, I put my books in the attic. They were out, in shelves, but tucked beneath a sloping ceiling and packed behind all manner of family detritus. When my ex-wife and I separated, I moved them into my main living space, where they sang back to me after their—or my—sojourn. My books matter to me, and I felt their absence. Getting them back onto tall shelves, walking past them every day, reminded me of what I had done, what I had learned, and what I wanted to do with my life and mind.
I have books about writing, books about religion, books about education, history books, philosophy (what we called theory in graduate school), fiction, poetry, books full of art and art history, and even books about sports—mainly baseball. I have a hard cover edition of Dickens published by Chapman and Hall with pages that requires a pocket knife to cut open. I own a set of Andrew Lang’s color-coded Fairy Tale books.
The books reflect my preoccupations over the past thirty years. Much of what is on my shelves I first read while I was in graduate school. Some I acquired afterward to keep me in touch with what I spent six years studying. Some comes from undergraduate college—books about gothic art and architecture, an old edition of Joyce’sPortrait of the Artist as a Young Man. There are some newer books that reflect my current interests: a collection of Sumerian mythology, a book about Djinn.
As much as I love my books, as much as they tell a story of my past, as much as they feel like an external manifestation of my mind, I think it may be time to lose them.
How long can one hold onto the past—a past that weighs an actual ton—without moving into the future? Yes, there are some things that I would keep, and this is true of more than my books, but they possess so much gravity. What is the past to me? Of course it is, was, everything. However, the future beckons, and requires a kind of lightness to which things do not lend themselves. Even memorable things.
There are other presences in my life—deep and profound connections. This time last year, I started unraveling the two jobs I had in Norfolk, Virginia. I moved away from those jobs and in the process also moved away from my daughters, who continue to live with their mother in Norfolk. Of course, I separated from and divorced their mother. It may seem inconsequential, but over 30 years ago, I picked a cat off the street, and have had cats ever since. I have never been more than three weeks away from them. This year I considered giving up a long standing fantasy baseball game that I have played for nearly 30 years with friends.
I wonder about what I have given up, but also what I have stayed with over the years. I have been a teacher for over 20 years—including my work as a TA in graduate school, over 25 years. What would it be like to not teach? I wrote for years, and then, if I didn’t stop, I slowed considerably—at what hazard, I cannot guess. I am writing again now, and have been, but can’t help wonder why my work slowed to a trickle.
I wonder would it would be like to be free of obligation and free of the gravity of myself—that ton of books, the closet full of clothes, my job, my family, my cats, even my friends. I wonder what my life would have been like if I had just chased words—the stories that I had declared as my purpose when I went away to and then stayed in graduate school. When I went away to graduate school, I traveled in a single car, with a mattress tied to the roof, and a single cat riding in the passenger seats. What would it be like to travel to what’s next with even less?
I do not regret the life I led, nor the life I lead; regret possesses a gravity greater than all the books own own, and I have no time for that. Not now. Nonetheless, I am aware of another life that exists, not over the horizon, not over the rainbow, but buried deep within me. I don’t know how I have kept it buried for so long, or at what cost—or even at what gain. Still. It is there.
I wonder, and wonder hard, and the wondering stirs something in me, something alive and insistent. What will I carry into the future? What must I carry? And what must I leave?
There are imaginary places that call to us. Illyria. Macondo–though be careful of that one, friend. The Invisible Cities that Polo reports on to the Khan. And Cocaigne.
And so, at the end of the day, when I have spent the precious fortune of my wit and energy, spent it for what? Money? Success? Some recognizable residue that others may tout as virtue? I return to the nearest country I can find–the one adrift in the books on my shelves, or the sea of my imagination. Return traveler, with ships once more laden with waking dreams.
Until such time as I may board a ship, an airplane, or some contrivance to carry me into strange and wonderful streets, I have this. Baudelaire…
L’Invitation Au Voyage
There is a wonderful country, a country of Cocaigne, they say, that I dream of visiting with an old love. A strange country lost in the mists of the North and that might be called the East of the West, the China of Europe, so freely has a warm and capricious fancy been allowed to run riot there, illustrating it patiently and persistently with an artful and delicate vegetation.
A real country of Cocaigne where everything is beautiful, rich, honest and calm; where order is luxury’s mirror; where life is unctuous and sweet to breathe; where disorder, tumult, and the unexpected are shut out; where happiness is wedded to silence; where cooking is poetic, rich, and yet stimulating as well; where everything, dear love, resembles you.
You know that feverish sickness which comes over us in our cold despairs, that nostalgia for countries we have never known, that anguish of curiosity? There is a country that resembles you, where everything is beautiful, rich, honest and calm, where fancy has built an decorated an Occidental China, where life is sweet to breathe, where happiness is wedded to silence. It is there we must live, it is there we must die.
Yes, it is there we must go to breathe, to dream, and to prolong the hours in an infinity of sensations. A musician has written l’Invitation a la valse; who will write l’Invitation au voyage that may be offered to the beloved, to the chosen sister?
Yes, in such an atmosphere it would be good to live—where there are more thoughts in slower hours, where clocks strike happiness with a deeper, a more significant solemnity.
On shining panels or on a dark rich and gilded leathers, discreet paintings repose, as deep, calm and devout as the souls of the painters who depicted them. Sunsets throw their glowing colors on the walls of the dining-room and drawing-room, sifting softly through lovely hangings or intricate high windows with mullioned panes. All the furniture is immense, fantastic, strange, armed with locks and secrets like all civilized souls. Mirrors, metals, fabrics, pottery, and works of the goldsmith’s art play a mute mysterious symphony for the eye, and every corner, every crack, every drawer and curtain’s fold breathes forth a curious perfume, a perfume of Sumatra whispering come back, which is the soul of the abode.
A true country of Cocaigne, I assure you, where everything is rich, shining and clean like a good conscience or well-scoured kitchen pots, like chiseled gold or variegated gems! All the treasures of the world abound there, as in the house of a laborious man who has put the whole world in his debt. A singular country and superior to all others, as art is superior to Nature who is transformed by dream corrected, remodeled and adorned.
Let them seek and seek again, let them endlessly push back the limits of happiness, those horticultural Alchemists! Let them offer prizes of sixty, a hundred florins for the solution of their ambitious problems! As for me, I found found my black tulip, I have found my blue dahlia!
Incomparable flower, rediscovered tulip, allegorical dahlia, it is there, is it not, in that beautiful country, so calm, so full of dream, that you must live, that you must bloom? Would you not be framed within your own analogy, would you see yourself reflected in your own correspondence, as the mystics say?
Dreams! Always dreams! And the more ambitious and delicate the soul, all the more impossible the dreams. Every man possesses his own dose of natural opium, ceaselessly secreted and renewed, and from birth to death how many hours can we reckon of positive pleasure, of successful and decided action? Shall we ever live in, be a part of, that picture my imagination has painted, and that resembles you?
These treasures, these furnishings, this luxury, this order, these perfumes, and these miraculous flowers, they are you! And you are the great rivers too, and the calm canals. And those great ships that they bear along laden with riches and from which rise the sailors’ rhythmic chants, they are my thoughts that sleep or that rise with the swell of your breast. You lead them gently toward the sea which is the Infinite, as you mirror the sky’s depth in the crystalline purity of your soul;—and when, weary with the rolling waters and surfeited with the spoils of the Orient, they return to their port of call, still they are my thoughts coming back, enriched from the Infinite to you.
The sun rose at 8:04 am in London on the shortest day of the year. It set at 3:53 pm. A shorter day than Fort Fairfield in northern Maine. Add clouds and rain, and the day seems shorter. Is it any wonder that people on their ways home from work find their way into pubs lit with fireplaces? Our days in London were marginally longer, and after walking through the city each afternoon, we found our way to a pub. The Paternoster, The Old Red Lion, Punch and Judy’s, The Swan, Lady Abercorn’s, The George. Some of these were easy to find, others required a turn down a slender lane. Each was bustling.
The charm of London is found in its strange alleyways, endlessly curled streets, and tucked away history. If there is a grid, and in some way, there is, it is bent around the past and the ox bow turns of the Thames, and everything attached to it has been attached in a haphazard fashion. For instance, the coagulation of insurance buildings in central London: the gherkin, the cheese-grater, the scalpel, and the inside-out building; defy any sense of a rational aesthetic plan. Or the juxtaposition of the Tower on one side of the Thames and the glass pineapple of the City Hall just across the river.
I have wandered down the narrow canyons of New York City, through low slung neighborhoods in San Francisco, across broad avenues in Chicago, in and out of fish stalls in Seattle. Even my home city, Philadelphia, built as it once was, on squares, in spite of the Schuylkill river turning into the Delaware, and the oddly oblong expanse of Fairmount Park, makes easy sense. Get oriented and go. London seems to double back on itself, and in doing so, has folds and torn edges through which a body can slip out of any regular order.
And so London’s history is oddly folded into the cityscape as well. A tour through the city—you cannot tour the whole city, or tour it on a bus; you must walk it—folds two thousand years of history, creased around a Roman occupation, a French conquest in 1066, and a fire that destroyed 80% of the city in 1666. And the city is just the square mile that had been walled and gated, but is now open and underlaced with a rail system that carries you quickly to nearly every point beyond the old wall.
The people who live there are folded too. The streets are packed with diverse faces—a variety of eyes and ears and cheeks and chins that make them all different, and so different from the faces in American cities—and sounds. Their voices carry languages from Europe, Africa, and Asia—all of which are easy (and relatively cheap) to get to, even from this island nation. It is as if a map of the world has been folded and brought all these people here. Scarves are the only nearly universal banner, and men tie theirs tightly around their necks. Women walk down streets in shoes ill made for walking—but that is, sadly more universal than naught.
There is an orderliness to the whole affair. Announcements in the Underground direct people where to walk down hallways and on escalators. Advertisements along the walls of the stations counsel caution with wallets and and advise care with alcohol. “Mind the Gap” is stenciled on the ground where the trains stop, and cheeky announcers corral riders whose fancy Italian made shoes have strayed over the yellow safety line. Cross walks show a green walker when it’s time to cross—around Trafalgar Square the walkers take on a variety of LGBT friendly forms: couples and symbols. Just remember to cross when the green light comes!
In so many ways, walking through London was like walking through my mind–folded and full of associations and reveries. My fellow traveler asked what surprised me most, and I answered, nothing. Of course, the fact of a place like London is a surprise all by itself. Are there more surprises to come, more cities to inhabit, that will fill my mind with visions—or somehow, match my visions? Yes. And, yes.