“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.
I was in my classroom one morning in April of 2021, but later in the month, so no fooling. and Mike Hughes, the director of my school’s theater program, stopped by. “I have an idea,” he said and asked whether I had been on the stage or sang. “We’re putting on Oliver! next spring, and I think you would be a good fit for Fagin.”
Here’s the skinny: I had a small part in a school play in the 6th grade and again in the 8th grade (King Ferdinand in a historical pageant). My mother made my costume—a cape—by ironing brown stripes onto a cheap yellow beach towel. In high school, I sang in the choir—we sang four days a week, and I could read the music for about a year. There was a play in Philadelphia—an avant-garde piece about the French Revolution; I was recruited by regular customers at my restaurant in Manayunk for this strange one-night venture. The congregation I served might remember me singing “Jingle Bells” during a holiday service and when a minister asked me to mime a juggler while she read Robert Fulghum’s “The Juggler.” Another holiday performance. That’s my resume.
Maybe you’ll argue that teachers are always on stage, and up to a point, that’s true. But one of the reasons we teach is to have our own meager fiefdom to direct what we will. Whether you do it, either as a sage on the stage or facilitator par excellence, your class is your own. Every class reflects its teacher, and even Bibliographic Methods could have been a lively and engaging experience (it wasn’t). Putting yourself in the hands of a director and in service to someone else’s vision—all those words, all that music—requires an entirely different discipline.
The closest I ever came was reading my work in front of a live audience. I recall the first time at a Friday night graduate school event. I was anxious, and the poet Ruth Stone told me that anxiety was an appropriate emotion any time you do something meaningful. Later, when I read for a panel of judges, I admitted my nerves—I am always too honest about such things—and was counseled by them to treat them like my students. I was a young teacher at the time but already a classroom performer. I once swam across a run of tables to demonstrate the difference between simile and metaphor. Either one does, or one does not do—there is no “like.”
However, a teacher’s job is to get out of the way and let our students succeed or fail on their own terms. When I mentioned that I had been “recruited” to take part in the school musical, someone I had just met suggested that I should let a student take the part. Even if I had been invited, even if I knew that my school was currently short on depth, was I extinguishing a nascent flame? Nonetheless, I asked my colleagues, and they trusted that the request came from a place of need and respect.
But, what was I thinking? How much I can possibly suck crosses my mind at every rehearsal. If I haven’t performed, I have watched my share of excellent and delightful performances. And star turns that should have been eclipsed. We all have. This is not simply “imposter syndrome” run wild. I have done nothing like this before.
Daring and humility are uncommon psychic partners, and I am often genuinely ambivalent. People who almost know me make the mistake of either seeing my geysers of chutzpah or my lakes of self-doubt. In “The Waking,” Roethke writes, “This shaking keeps me steady”; my two minds do that dance. If only there were just two. In the second of his thirteen ways, Wallace Stevens offers this:
I was of three minds
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
A writer must learn to inhabit at least two minds—the writer’s mind and the reader’s mind. A fiction writer is even more fractured. We are, as often as possible, out of our minds. I was going to write, “Perhaps I embraced this too late in life, but better late than, well, you know.” I spent years in the maelstrom of one, then the other, then the other. And then, and then, and then. I have learned how to push the storm forward or in some direction. I won’t get stuck swirling on one spot, a dervish without purpose.
What does this have to do with playing Fagin? Taking a risk and facing doubt expands the mind. And learning to do something new—working at it and, possibly, finding success—opens the world. I could claim that I took on the part of Fagin—leader of a band of thieves—because he has something to do with the characters I am writing about (thieves). While this is true, doing something I had never done before—committing to a process and seeing it through to its end—drove my choice.
A writer must explore possibilities—this is the heart of Socrates’s dictum about the unexamined life. Too often, people quote “the unexamined life is not worth living” to justify the attitude that life is like a buffet and every morsel must be piled onto one’s plate. “I tried it” is not the same as “I examined it.”
And so, I played. I will continue to play. As should you, dear reader—and dear writer. There are worlds to examine and lives to live.
My friends ask what I have planned for the weekend; it’s part of the Friday small talk. “Oh, you know,” I answer, and they do. Every Sunday, I go to museums in Washington DC. They comment, “How nice,” or “How peaceful,” or “How beautiful.” I think they believe that I am some kind of sybarite, grabbing my croissant, then luxuriating in the presence of beautiful things. Maybe there’s a bit of that. Maybe.
It’s not just the company of beautiful things; I could just as easily take a walk in the woods—on occasion I do—or on the beach. With all its complexity and contradiction, nature puts me back in my place in the world; these britches won’t get too big. I’m only one part of the play. As far as it goes, I’m reminded of the Bible passages about the birds of the air that neither reap nor sow—nature strikes me that way. Yes, of course, great energies are expended—the gazelle dashing away from the lion’s maw; the salmon casting itself against the rapids; the seedling bursting through fire-charred earth—but reaping and sowing implies a plan. Nature happens without a plan, gods aside. It just does, even if it finds a way.
Yes, there are accidents in museums—unplanned gestures captured in stone or on canvas. Pollock surely didn’t know where those drips would land, and when they landed, I suspect that he did not know precisely what shape they would take. But he knew they would land. Art is an intention, even when the artist trusts the random and accidental events surrounding their art. Some artists play with that idea.
An active line on a walk, moving freely, without goal. A walk for a walk’s sake. The mobility agent is a point, shifting its position forward.
The line may not have a goal—the curve of the jib, the abrupt stop at the end of a nose, a bare limb of a tree in winter—but the artist does. Draw. Write. Make something.
We keep making things. Their history is the history of intention.
A friend once commented that I never listened to the news, that I always had music playing in the car. I wish. I think I have paid inordinate attention to the news. In the morning, the first thing I do is rummage through the New York Times, as attentive as the man Thoreau criticizes for waking up after a half hour nap to exclaim, “What’s the news?” My rest is longer; my curiosity is commensurate with my rest. “History’s first draft” is a bleak reminder of how rarely intentions meet their desired ends in the world. It is a record of the misguided and misconstrued: proving how poorly we make decisions, how willing we are to follow some unexamined narrative. Music is another made-thing—Bach or Joni Mitchell, Radiohead or Michael Nyman—and stands in counterpoint to the news.
You may argue that some art is misguided and driven by poor decisions. I have friends who railed against Laurie Anderson, Morris Louis, and the Pixies on those grounds. Answers directed by personal preference (But I wanted Donald Trump to win re-election; But the CDC changed its guidelines; But I don’t like how beets look) can lead to all sorts of misguided conclusions. The repercussions vary from the grave (insurrection) to the frivolous (missing out on Chez Panisse’s borscht). Once you get over those prejudices, you see the pattern, and if you are of the mind to, you see your place in that pattern.
My weekly wanders are not just a journey through a forest of intentions—I walk through orchards of fulfilled intentions. Oh, you did it this way. Butterfield, Monet, or some unnamed ironworker in China. Thousands of made things—intricately intended things made by human hands—each blaze like a beacon: “Here, find me here.” I learn by going where I have to go.
When Dickens introduces Fagin, he is called “a very old shrivelled Jew.” Dickens names him as “the Jew” over 100 times in the text of Oliver Twist, calling him “Fagin” nearly 300 times. It is an antisemitic portrayal. George Cruikshank’s illustrations make this characterization resoundingly clear. Yes, Dickens savages the officious Beadle, Mr. Bumble, the weedling undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry, and almost everyone else. Only Mr. Brownlow and the almost angelic Oliver avoid the jaundiced teeth with which Dickens bites into the world of workhouses, thieves, prostitutes, official disdain, privileged arrogance and ignorance, and moral corruption. Nonetheless, the portrayal of Fagin stands out.
Of course, Fagin is a criminal. He corrupts the orphans he gathers from the streets and turns them into a gang of thieves, prostitutes, and murderers. He takes as much as he can and relinquishes as little as possible to keep the gang assembled. But compare how Oliver is fed at the workhouse (“three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll of Sundays”) and how Fagin greets him: sausages. While his love for his “dears” may be tainted with ill-intentions, it is genuine and genuinely creepy. How can he not love the boys and girls who bring him loot?
You may scoff at the idea of Fagin as benefactor and provider, but that is precisely what Dickens is after. If privileged Londoners don’t take generous responsibility, Fagin will father the youth. Dickens does not confuse right and wrong; Fagin is streaked with evil, and the London Constabulary captures and executes him. Dickens may have been a reform-minded writer, but he was no anarchist. But the reformer looms when on the morning of his death, Dickens shows: “A great multitude had already assembled; the windows were filled with people, smoking and playing cards to beguile the time; the crowd were pushing, quarrelling, joking. Everything told of life and animation, but one dark cluster of objects in the centre of all—the black stage, the cross-beam, the rope, and all the hideous apparatus of death.” There is no love for this crowd. No golden justice is meted out by a “hideous apparatus.” This is the bad punishing the bad.
I am thinking about Fagin because I am playing him in the musical, Oliver!. Lionel Bart reframes Fagin almost as comic relief, making him far less dark than in the novel. Fagin is still a thief, still a corrupter, but absolute villainy resides in Bill Sikes alone. One unrepentant, irredeemable “bad ‘un” is enough for a musical. Indeed, Fagin escapes at the end, leaving behind “friends and treasures” and contemplating change. It’s possible.
Portrayals of Fagin have emphasized his Jewish-ness, and not for the better. A hundred years after George Cruikshank’s illustrations, the Anti-Defamation League protested Alec Guinness’s portrayal in David Lean’s 1948 adaptation of the novel. The film did not open in the United States until over ten minutes of Guinness’s scenes as Fagin was cut. Ron Moody was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Carol Reed’s 1967 film version, and the portrayal has not aged well. While faithful to the source, the source is problematic. Rowan Atkinson took part in the 2009 London revival, and he plays Rowan Atkinson playing Fagin, which considerably softened the antisemitic aspect of the role.
Dickens is not flawless, but he grew as a writer. His later characterization of villains focused more firmly on the actual villains of this novel—those who failed to honor their official responsibility. While Dickens always relied on quickly recognizable characters, he expanded beyond stereotypes and countermanded readers’ expectations. In Our Mutual Friend, Riah is Jewish and saintly—in James Mardock’s words an “anti-Shylock” and not just an anti-Fagin.
So, I will approach Fagin as a man who has carved out a niche in a broken society. While he advises Nancy that gin is dangerous to a “pure young girl,” he also knows that life is dangerous for everyone who lives outside the warm glow of privilege. Whether by choice, inclination, calling, or nature, if you live outside expected societal norms, you live at risk. I suspect that Dickens knew that Fagin’s Jewishness marked him as an outsider, and even though the portrayal is antisemitic, there is also sympathy. Dickens almost always stood on the side of the outsider. I will stand with that and see where it takes me.
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.
Every so often, Facebook reminds me of where I have been. I posted this a dozen years ago. I was still swimming, and this was the template for the 2500 meter swim I did that day. Not the most exciting workout, but after two or three hundred meters of warmup, I held hundreds at 1:15. Pretty fair for a non-competing 49-year-old swimmer. The swimmers out there will recognize that I was breathing bilaterally (on both sides) every five strokes; they will also acknowledge that I was taking 15 strokes each length. Again, pardon me for saying this, but that wasn’t bad for a 49-year-old. I trained myself to breathe bilaterally after I left college because my stroke had a hitch that breathing to each side helped eradicate. My right shoulder was happier.
A few things to note. First, I am virulently attentive to and oriented to process. Swimming was never a “zen” activity for me in which I transcended the effort to reach some peaceful state of mind. Instead, the effort focused me on the effort itself. I paid attention to where my hands entered the water, how they caught the water, how my body moved over my hands, and where my hands exited the water. I was aware of the position of my arms as they flew forward to grab the water again. And again. And again. In this case, I remember thinking, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5 (breathe)”—taking three breaths each length. Focusing on what I was doing helped fend off the building exhaustion.
I grew up swimming when there were no devices to pump music into wet ears to help keep the beat while you worked out. I developed an inner hortator who drummed out a rhythm to keep me on pace. It was similar to the inner voice that kept step following steps when I hiked 500 miles as a 12-year-old, but now more driven and more ecstatic.
“Ecstatic”? You might ask. Through my four years of high school, as I improved from a middling age group swimmer to what I eventually became, it seemed that every swim (in practices and meets) was faster than the last. Every set provided an opportunity for improvement. I may not have gone to the Olympic trials, but I swam faster, following the beat that my cruel inner taskmaster laid down. Swimming fast exhilarated me. The effort I made showed an immediate result. The sweeping second hand of the poolside clock never lied, never expressed an opinion. And I swam in the company of some of the fastest young men on the East Coast. Keeping up meant something. I never again swam without that goad in mind.
Throughout my life, swimming offered the solace of process, repetition, and speed. Tired and overworked? I swam. Heartbroken or happy, I swam. Sick? I swam. No matter the tumble of work and life, swimming was one thing I could control. It was years before I connected the bones of that daily practice with writing, drawing lines from “this” to “that.” While some people had told me that swimming and writing were twinned activities, I felt that writing required another kind of effort. I believed that creativity was antithetical to the dull repetition of physical exertion. Writing required audacious leaps. Even when I began to write, words ran like a flood, flowing from inspirations as varied as my life to what I read. And then, they didn’t.
When I lost the thread for writing, I poured my effort into teaching and, later, churchwork. I wrote everything an English teacher writes—class notes, assignments, student evaluations—and then curricula for Sunday school classes, children’s stories for worship services, and little else. I had a book in mind but no room in my day or brain. Work and family occupied my day—as they should. After years of being too busy to thrash about in the pool, as I approached 50, I answered the old call for 30-45 minutes in the pool. Everywhere else, I felt at someone else’s call.
So, I started swimming, and little by little started writing too. This post, with its repetition, was modeled on a kind of prose poem—a metapoetic “word word word word word punctuation ad infinitum.” I’m not claiming that it was a perfect prose poem. I have changed my mind about the value of writing when inspired. I have sung the praises of word counts in some of my blog posts. An accumulation of words will create its own gravity until it catches fire—almost the way the sun catches fire over and over again. Trust the process and write word after word after word. Don’t wait for inspiration—write yourself there.
My swimming post pointed me in a direction, and eventually, the fire took hold.
I look at Hokusai’s screen that encompasses the twelve months and recall a writing task—a prose poem a day—that I imagined and attempted when I was in my early thirties. It was another opportunity to write; I had just finished Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen and felt inspired to follow his example. I wrote a bunch of prose poems centered around Philadelphia, and when I showed them to a teacher, he dismissed them as being too much alike—“in one voice,” he said.
I took the criticism to heart, added some comedic pieces, and stopped. I never felt an urge to get back into it. Or I always felt the urge to get back into it. Writing can be like that. Merwin wrote, “my words are the garment of what I shall never be/Like the tucked sleeve of a one-armed boy.” In a world that values completion, so many stray projects end up feeling unfilled. Here is the life you laid out clothes for last night, and nothing fits in the morning. When you get to work, you notice that everyone else is walking around in well-tailored suits. Your jacket has four arms as if made for a horse or a dog. We won’t talk about your pants.
I attended a graduate writing program that required a full slate of academic courses, which meant that I read Shakespeare and Bussy D’Amboise, Woolf and Dickens, Heidegger and Gallop, Baudelaire and Blake. And I taught. And, oh yes, I wrote. I read work by classmates and writers who my classmates and professors recommended. “You should read—.” There was also a fair amount of “You should write—.” Both “shoulds” implied something about what was good for me and what I would be good for—as if there was a menswear shop that had something in just my style. If only I could figure out my style. With so much swirling around me—and not just “so much” but so much that was exciting and excellent—it was easy to lose track of what I wanted. Other people claimed greater knowledge. Two of my classmates thought I should wear leather pants—that’s how they saw me. Another friend insisted that I put on sweats and play in the Sunday morning touch football game. Later, the same friend castigated me for having a hard time with the “O” word. Obey. Good luck. The only call I had to obey was write. And read. And teach.
Of course, I was disobedient—even to my own calling because I did not know where I wanted to go or what I wanted to write. In the garden of earthly delights, who could choose one pleasure? I was complimented that I could learn from anyone, and this is true. Whether a professor or poet, a work of fiction or philosophy, every teacher had something valuable to add to my world. Even my worst teachers, whose habit ranged into anger and vindictiveness, displayed some small nugget of positive enthusiasm, even if the display was unwitting. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake wrote, “Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius.” I read that during my first semester of college in 1978. It’s a damnably enticing bit of advice. Who wouldn’t aspire to genius?
But crooked roads don’t conform, and like it or not, conformity is a more guaranteed path. Improve! Improve! In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert wrote that the secret to uncovering happiness is following in others’ footsteps. If you want to know whether or not somewhere or something will make you happy, ask someone who has been there and done that. Obey the wisdom of the crowd—even if the crowd is relatively small and odd, as crowds of writers and artists tend to be. Or choose the Blake way and talk to imaginary friends. In the world of writers, there are iconoclasts—many who have disappeared from view, but a few who still hold our attention.
But. I cautiously add this proviso. Most iconoclasts we acknowledge as geniuses found a reasonably straight path, even if they wrote about the value of the crooked way. They dug trenches that ran long and deep. Many dug at their own peril. Some—a fortunate few—found acknowledgment early in their endeavors. Others—an even smaller few—were favored by enough fortune and privilege to sally forth in strange directions without fear. Many suffered. If you choose the crooked path, prepare for the worst and delight when the better comes.
I have a hard time advising blinders, but unless you have turned distraction to your advantage, avoid it. Figure out your ditch and get digging. I have repeatedly sung the praises of distraction in this blog, but I am also keenly aware of the price I paid for following a crooked path. Maybe you can do both. Maybe work (a job!), a relationship (spouse, partner, kids), and years of peripatetic exploration will not prevent you from piling up words. If you have succeeded, I venture that your work, partner(s), and exploration support your writing. Writing requires support. Virginia Woolf was right when she proclaimed that she—and any woman—needed a room of her own (and three guineas) to mine the creative ore. This is true of either gender. Time, space, and money must be managed. Mr. Micawber put it this way: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” If a writer does not build time and space for writing into that calculation: misery.
So, you can’t do everything. But you can write, which, if done well, will connect you to more of the world and to the essential everything you require. If the path is crooked, don’t worry, and take in the view. You are laying up treasures where it counts.
Hokusai: Mad about Painting at the National Museum of Asian Art closes on January 9, 2022, so noting a few final thoughts on the exhibit seems fair. On Sundays, I pass these two paintings:
This comparison is all but impossible—the two works connected by nothing other than personal preference—but let’s start easy. They are both paintings. They both have fairly restrained palettes, and each artist pays attention to line. After that, all bets are off.
These two works have more in common, although Corot’s Forest of Founatinebleau (1834) was painted within a dozen years of Hokusai’s Fisherman. Pollock’s Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist) culminates a move in western art toward a kind of purity of effort. The subject is the painting itself—not the woman reading ensconced in nature—or even nature itself. No “meaning” interposes between the viewer and the image. Or any (and every) meaning is available; whatever you bring, the painting will match. “Take that!” it declares and sticks a finger in your eye. Corot’s painting also fills the frame, and we can decide whether the young woman reading by the brook is ignoring the world or opening a world. Either way, Corot, like Pollock, presents a world.
Hokusai’s painting does not. There is more unpainted area than painted. I run screaming from declarations of “negative capability,” or the value of stillness in Japanese art. I appreciate that the Hokusai show features paintings not by Hokusai to show what set him apart. The other works are busier, neither empty nor still. Besides, not all of Hokusai’s paintings are as open as The Fisherman (the fully inked prints from the One Hundred Poets series surge with color). However, as a rule, Hokusai leaves us some space.
Sometimes that space echoes with the noise of a crowd.
Another time that space is ready to be filled with storm.
Writers play with time and space too. The easy examples are Hamlet, when Shakespeare skirts away months in the course of the play’s running, or Macbeth, when the vast awfulness of Macbeth’s reign of terror happens in some interstitial realm. And nothing, when it happens in Beckett, is the point, and it is a crushing kind of nothingness.
What Hokusai manages is different. In part, it’s because he is a draftsman and a painter, and his work feels drawn as much as painted. But that’s not all. Often the main subjects of his painting occupy only a part of the field of the picture—the Thunder God hovers high, a wave, as water must, is bound to the bottom of the frame.
Nonetheless, Hokusai allows an image to float on its own. I find that when I look at something—a tree or a bird—and decide to photograph it, the photo is a poor representation of what I thought I saw. The tree is diminished in a landscape, and the bird disappears in a sea of grass. Hokusai’s paintings are like the kind of selective vision we have when we look at the world. We focus on one thing and dismiss—visually tuning out—what does not catch our attention. The photograph gives the lie to our selective vision; Hokusai lets us focus.
When he portrays a man gazing at a pot of peonies, he includes the man, the .pot of peonies, and the bit of earth on which the pot rests. Was the rest of the world there? Yes, of course, it was. In the same way that his screened mural of the two parties—one raucous, one contemplative—shows how we want to focus and cannot, his paintings are an exercise in focusing on what we might miss. Unlike a still life by Cezanne or Van Gogh, Hokusai directs us to look at the man who looks at the flowers—and the flowers. The Fisherman looks out at the ocean. The girl holds a letter behind her back and looks away from the evidence of what? We don’t know.
Hokusai shows us how we look. We might categorize what he does as minimalist, but I think that is a missed assessment. He focuses on what he sees, and he engages us to help us focus.
When we write—and this was bound to get around to writing—we write in the tradition of Corot, building a world, and the reader (the subject of Corot’s painting) is often dwarfed by that world. The world can do that. Hokusai shows us the value of focus. Choose the detail, the significant relationship, the single gesture. We have enough to distract us already. Focus.
You’ll notice the range here—about 1500 years between the gold breastplate fragment and the bronze plate. Winged guardian spirits persisted in Mesopotamia all the way into earliest Islam. Where did they come from? We don’t know, the same way we don’t know where Jinn originated—or Angels. We only know our domesticated, religion-ified versions. Islam did the Jinn no kindnesses—our vision of them as evil or demonic spirits postdates and is influenced by the Quran, delivered not so long ago. The gold breast piece is twice as old as the Quran.
When I write that we don’t know the origins of myths, I don’t mean that they once existed (either the myths or the creatures from the myths) and have disappeared. I only point to our genuine ignorance. Our past is not like science. New devices like those that have allowed the first crude forays into the brain’s working will not uncover why Inanna is the god of love and the god of war (who thought of that combination?) or why winged lions guarded the throne room of Ashurnasirpal II. Lions in Iraq? Winged lions? They persist—becoming a symbol of Mark the Evangelist and the emblem of NATO. How and why the image began is less interesting (if only because it is entirely unanswerable) than how and why they persist and change over our brief human history.
One of the changes is a distillation of mythological figures into either good or evil characters. The Jinn suffered this transformation into demonic beings—evil and then even more evil beings (avoid ‘Ifrit and Marid at all costs, even if you are Aladdin, even if they do sound like Robin Williams). In Greek and Roman myth, the gods of love are less complicated than Inanna, as are the gods of war (and, perhaps not surprisingly, the gods of love and war have an affair and are caught in a golden web). Athena, especially the Athena of Homer’s Odyssey, is tricky—the Ur-trickster, if you will—but even she pales compared to the brief glimpses we get of Inanna.
There was a wildness in our early stories and beliefs. We lost much of that wonder and made it make more sense, conforming to ideas of should and could. We read in amazement until the story wraps itself into a moral. Our relationship with God is all but legalistic, and He doesn’t even have to swear on the Stygian marshes to bind him to a promise; we have it in writing. The Torah, the Bible, and the Quran are one part history, one (big) part contract.
And for those who insist that our current beliefs are too unbelievable, it’s not because these neo-heretics are demanding something wilder but seek a more logical and ordered universe. It’s as if we believe that it should be possible to predict the weather right down to the last degree as we leave our homes for another day of work. I remember listening to the automated voice deliver the weather forecast while sailing on the ocean: wind speed, wave height. And then, I got to the business of the waves and wind along my route. The windy, watery world was enduringly unpredictable.
If I was a deist, I would shudder to think that a contract written 1500-5000 years ago had any hold on a being I acknowledged as omnipotent. Like Oliver Twist, I would hold my empty bowl and beseech, “Please, sir, I want some more.” The “more” is more gruel. Somedays, the wild is as unpalatable as gruel, but more often, it is ambrosial in its unpredictability.
We strip the winged lion of its essential weirdness and wildness and turn it into an emblem—an organizational standard bereft of history and wonder. The weirdness and wonder persist too, and they rattle outside the self-imposed cages of our lives. Even when as small and inconsequential as a virus, we logical, rational humans capitulate to what we cannot control. We fail in the face of the wild.
The commonplace is a story about removing and re-inserting a comma, and I’ve seen it attributed to Flaubert, Wilde, and even Galway Kinnell. It’s a story that circulated in my creative writing program and served to reinforce a notion of meticulous effort. Every word, every punctuation mark, and even every margin mattered. Teachers handed back drafts of stories (I suspect the same for poems, but I was primarily a fiction writer) swathed in red. Students exchanged workshop drafts with equal editorial fervor. I recall a doodle in the margin explaining why “his eyes darted around the room” was wrong (the eyes had sprouted wings and flew).
In retrospect, how did we write anything?
Writing can be a solipsistic venture that verges on the masturbatory. This kills me because the whole point of writing is to write to someone else. We don’t tell stories to the wind—it may feel like that, but the goal is to engage and entertain. Art aspires to enrapture the reader’s heart and mind. I want to hear laughter or tearfall—for my reader to swoon into deep and long-lasting arousal. The worst critique is not “I don’t like it”; it’s “I’m bored.” Spending years with readers who explained exactly what it is they didn’t like did not help me. A simple exclamation of “Yes!” or yawning, “Nope” (politely put) would have helped. We all chase “Yes!” We should be unabashed and single-minded about that pursuit.
I may not know the right way to teach Creative Writing, but I think we got it wrong. The focus on “getting it right” bores down to a molecular level that obscures the grander design. And, too often, it misses the need to simply find a better way to get into it, stay in it, and get back to it. “It,” of course, is writing. While Twain is correct: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ‘Tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning”; I would argue that unless you learn to write every day, surrounded by bugs and in every sort of weather, lightning will not strike. The friction of the daily grind creates fiction; we live by sparks. The more you grind, the greater the spark—and the chance of producing good writing.
I had acquaintances (primarily students in Binghamton’s Medieval Studies program) who insisted that creative writing could not be taught, and since it couldn’t, shouldn’t be taught in graduate school. I disagree with both assessments; however, I take the point. Some people believe that raw artistic talents are strictly innate, like eye color or height. You can’t teach someone to have green eyes or to be 6’10”. Talent—creative ability— is more fungible. No fairy arrives crib-side to bless some and cast the rest into outer darkness. If she does, gifts are no guarantee of accomplishment. It’s not enough to trust that divine inspiration combined with considerable application of ass to chair will produce work.
To the question of should, I am amazed that those scholars familiar with the scholastic tradition did not appreciate the value of the joint venture. We gather together—even when we are introverts—because, as the monks patiently scribing out holy manuscripts understood, company helps. The world with its incessant demands is not favorable to writers. Lesson one for any writer is that time is the most precious commodity in their day. Money—always money—helps, but money does not put words on the page. And, if you have the drive to be a writer, that drive can be too easily misplaced and reapplied to almost any other worthwhile task. Lesson two for any writer is that drive matters more than talent. Surrounding oneself with people who understand these two immutable truths will help keep the writer on track. One reenters the world, understanding that in both well-meaning and insidious ways, the world will seek to redirect your time and drive is vital.
A note and an aside. Perhaps you like the idea of being a writer more than the actual writing. The world celebrates the idea too, and maybe that is what attracted you in the first place. I have bad news: the reality does not match the idea. Good news! If you are driven to write, the truth, the obstinate durable daily habit of writing, is unmatched. You will begin the day either not knowing or with only the vaguest sense of where you are headed and then discover the Northwest Passage. Or Zanzibar. Or Ur. Or Eden. Writing opens the world.
So, the first things I would start with are how to manage time and how to direct the drive. Writers need to learn that the grind is not their enemy (we live for the struggle!) and that their time is precious. And then I would ask, what is your lightning? What is your spark? And start them working in that direction. And then I would point them to the world that waits.