The Writer’s Character (and work)

I began graduate school in the fall of 1988. Writing was still new to me. I had written in high school then in college, but the daily life of writing was only a shadowy presence. I had begun a novel, and tended it during the free time of my six day weeks managing a small Italian restaurant in the Manayunk neighborhood of Philadelphia. Which is to say, that I had written enough to gain admission to a program, but not enough in any real kind of way.

Graduate school was a relief and a release—it was the thing all my friends and customers were hinting at when they asked, “What are you going to do?”—recognizing long before I did that there was something specific that I was going to do.

I had drifted after college. It was as if I wore an anti-gravity suit that kept me from becoming grounded. There were reasons. I had encountered “purpose” as a rationale for selfishness and intentional moral blindness. The latter I found incredibly troubling. I believed in an inherent goodness—found in man or god—in spite of my experiences in the world. And when I wrote, I explored that possibility.

When I arrived at Binghamton, I poured myself into the work, writing with avaricious fervor, and studying gleefully. I learned quickly that a “B” was an “F,” and after one failing grade on an essay, turned to successful outcomes. I earned a scholarship after my first year, and with it, the right to teach, which I welcomed with the zeal of the recently converted. I was hooked.

One of the hooks at Binghamton was the presence of John Gardner, the author of The Art of Fiction and several novels I had not yet read. I had read Grendel when I was much younger, drawn by the monster after my mother had read us some version of Beowulf as our bedtime entertainment. What attracted us, some of us at least, was the myth of John—driven, irascible, generous, and demanding. As often as not, when describing ourselves as writers, we focused on our characters-not the characters in what we wrote, but out own personal strengths and foibles, and how we matched up against this fabled presence. He had been dead for 6 years, but he hung around the program (his ex-wife became my dissertation director).

One of my teachers, I think it was Liz Rosenberg, introduced me to On Becoming a Novelist, in which Gardner laid out some characteristics of the novelist:

Like other kinds of intelligence, the storyteller’s is partly natural, partly trained. It is composed of several qualities, most of which, in normal people, are signs of either immaturity or incivility: wit (a tendency to make irreverent connections); obstinacy and a tendency towards churlishness (a refusal to believe what all sensible people know is true); childishness (an apparent lack of mental focus and serious life purpose, a fondness for daydreaming and telling pointless lies, a lack of proper respect, mischievousness, an unseemly propensity for crying over nothing); a marked tendency toward oral or anal fixation or both (the oral manifested by excessive eating, drinking, smoking, and chattering; the anal by nervous cleanliness and neatness coupled with a weird fascination with dirty jokes); remarkable powers of eidetic recall, or visual memory (a usual feature of early adolescence and mental retardation); a strange admixture of shameless playfulness and embarrassing earnestness, the latter often heightened by irrationally intense feelings for or against religion; patience like a cat’s; a criminal streak of cunning; psychological instability; recklessness, impulsiveness, and improvidence; and finally an inexplicable and incurable addiction to stories, written or oral, bad or good. Not all writers have exactly the same virtues, of course. Occasionally one finds someone who is not abnormally improvident.

We looked inside ourselves to see whether we met the unholy criteria that John threw down—gauntlet-like—for us to match. It became a weird check list. There were dozens of weird checklists that we tested ourselves against: pre-work habits and rituals, kinds of writing implements, time that we wrote. I think that many of us were hoping to awaken a writing practice that could sustain us, and so looked for that one thing, the one trick that would allow the words to tumble out as effortlessly as possible.

Of course, we focused on how damnably hard writing was—and is. The metaphors we used to describe writing—like Virgilio Pinera’s man who decides to eat a mountain, one rocky mouthful after another—emphasized the difficulty, futility, and irreverent commitment. Perhaps the real solution was a correction to our character—some unbridling of our sinful writer manqué natures, and a resurrection into some more saintly (or demonic) deranger of the senses. If only we could rid ourselves of our flaws, and get to work.

I came to grad school, and to writing, after years of 60+ hour weeks. I rose early enough to get to the pool and down 3000 meters, then head across town to the restaurant. When I arrived in grad school, I found a job, and worked 3-4 nights a week in a high end restaurant. After I started teaching, I took a job in a bookstore ran by the husband of my mentor (he had been a student of Gardner’s as well). I swam, and then started running several days a week (I could listen to music while I ran!). Some of my classmates complained about the workload. I did not. Work was in me. Writing was not.

But it was. I wrote some inspired pieces, and won praise from mentors and classmates for my work. I didn’t know what to do with it—I had some things published, but what do a few stories and prose poems amount to in a world driven by novels? Besides, I confused inspiration with work. Work, that simple, boring, daily activity, with simple, boring, daily and measurable rewards. I was seeking star fire, supernovae, and earth-shaking prose. In order to do that I had to remake myself in the image of whom? John Gardner? Stephen King? Virginia Woolf? Some Norse God?

And what is the measure of good (let alone brilliant) writing? A great sentence doesn’t blaze as distinctly as the time on the clock when you touch the wall after one of ten 200 yard swims (That’s good; keep going). You write without a clear standard, and a novelist bangs out 60,000 to 100,000 words into the blind space of “who knows what will happen to all this?”.

So we focused on character, the one thing we could control or change. This, of course, is poppycock. There are good and bad people who write. Character is no Holy Grail, and no simple gateway or guarantee to writing. Work is. I wish we had simply talked more about work and habit and word count in grad school. How do you sneak in an extra 200 words? Have you done your work for today? Do you need a new pen? God only knows, make it work, let it be work, and demystify the process. It’s just work. It’s not about whether the muse is singing to you, or the dread siren, or anything or anyone. It’s just work, a job, a practice, and all you need to do, is to do it.

In the long run, Gardner’s description of the writer, and, once again, that sense that a purpose that led to blindness to everything other than IT, drove me away. After all, what was the lesson of nearly every novel, short story, or poem we read? Connect. Connect. And for the sake of everything that’s holy, or valuable, or worth saving: connect. The pursuit of art never matched the message. Picasso was a sonofabitch, but Guernica. Dickens philandered. Woolf suffered from limiting snobbery and mental illness. Joyce? Don’t even. Our contemporaries wandered into the forest of “immaturity and incivility” with a stridency that was matched only by ignorant blowhards and professional athletes.

I recognize that now, all of it, as a kind of armor. I know what it allowed, and what costs they incurred for strapping it on with such easy regularity. I saw it for a kind of blindness, and doubted. And in that doubt, returned to the anti-gravity armor that had supported me years before.

I turned, for years, to teaching and a kind of preaching. I tried to reach out, to convert the sensible—and others—to deeper understanding (reading) and brighter thought (writing). These are not fool’s errands, to be sure. But once you have tasted brilliance—and writing done well is brilliance—every other work other than the work that is the most brilliant, makes your tongue recoil. Even your dog would turn away from that feast. Not me. Not for years. And though I still fight with gravity, I feel the pull, and this is what binds us together—separate planets careening into each other with cataclysmic potential. I tried to resist, but, really, why?

So I’m left with these questions: How does one balance the work and the meaning of the work? How does one have purpose and character? Ah, as always, the trick of balance, and not in Gardner’s list of a writer’s characteristics. We will have to figure this out ourselves.

Of course, equanimity (balance) is not Gardner’s list, but the safety net is the work—stupid, dull-witted, and quotidian. Be an angel or a devil, but get to work. It comes back, and, if done well, connects us, once more, to the world, to each other, and to the gravity that holds us all.

The Unmet Reader—writing novels

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

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

I do not know.

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

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

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

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

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

Trusting imagination

I have carved a method out over the several months. I am writing smaller chapters, and it seems to suit the task. Someone may correct this later, make a suggestion to combine and reorder, but for now, my brain jumps from scene to scene, from image to image, from scrap of dialogue, well you get the idea. But I have no plan, no worksheets containing outlines hung on the walls. No maps with pins tracking destinations tacked to a slanted ceiling. No scribbled notes in the margins of a dozen or two books. I have done all of those things over the past twenty years. And not written. I am working without a plan.

This method requires trust. First, and foremost, that I will continue every day, no matter what. I have done plenty of things every day over the past twenty years, but never my work, always someone else’s work, and often done with their idea of what I should be doing. How much does “should” become a cage, and I paced like Rilke’s Panther. I had to change my life.

Second, I have to trust the story as I write it. While I know where it will end up (provisionally), the work opens before me. The writing unlocks images and settings. As I wrote before, surprise is the generative heart of this work. But I have learned that the simple act of writing is like scraping away at the rust and dirt that covers something beautiful. All I need to do is scrape. I find this amazing.

Third, and this is related to the previous one, I have to trust my imagination. This is what I am uncovering. This is what had grown rusty. What I have uncovered isn’t exactly waiting for me, already made, it is the thing that does the making.What I am scraping away at is me, my hands, my mind, my heart, my imagination. Mostly my imagination.

And my imagination includes, as the dictum goes, everything. I went horse riding in the fall, and now there are horses, and one fabulous horse, in the book. I saw the Assyrian Lion Hunt reliefs at the British Museum, and the lions are there. A friend went to Kathmandu and heard an American band playing reggae at a bar called “Purple Haze”; that’s in there too. Patagonia? In the book. Another friend pointed out that what one of my characters was doing was a metaphor for how I felt about making up for lost time. Yes, that’s in there too.

The imagination eats all of the world and transforms it into some odd new thing. I trusted my imagination before, making up shorter pieces. But not like this. And so I scrape away, and find it, as vital as it was when I was a child and fell in love with Sinbad and the genie, which I learned was a story from Scheherazade and the Djinn. It all comes back.

Piece by piece, and like Scheherazade, I know I must keep telling this stories, and trust to make it through another day. The alternative is most unfortunate, but even that will be a surprise.

Calling the Muse

Sing in me muse, and through me tell the story…

So began the first translation, by Robert Fitzgerald, of The Odyssey that I read. Later, I taught another translation, by Robert Fagles, that began:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns…

More recently, Emily Wilson offered this:

Tell me about a complicated man,/ Muse…

No matter the translation or framing of the tale and Odysseus, the poet turns to the muse to provide the story and the song. It seems like a quaint notion. These days we mine our lives for the sources of stories.

Even Gabriel Garcia Marquez, perhaps somewhat disingenuously, claimed that all the impossible elements of One Hundred Years of Solitude were true. His memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, reads like a revelation, and it makes all that seemed strange in his novel strangely normal—at least for that time and place. Of course, Marquez famously recounts the genesis of that novel—he was headed away on vacation with his family when he realized that the voice of the book was the voice of his grandmother telling incredible stories in the most matter-of-fact voice. He turned the car around and started the work that would define him as a writer. His grandmother was, in a way, his muse.

Why do writers have muses—things, people, animals—outside of themselves to give their work a nearly mystical, almost divine impetus? The writer faces inward and outward tidal forces. A writer works the tension between the inner voice—the thing that writes—and the outer world—what she or he writes about. Writers attempt to portray the outer world, even if it is a fantastic and impossible world, truthfully, crafting a vivid continuous dream in words, crafting it with the inner voice.

Of course, what a writer makes is not the world: it is an approximation, a copy, a simulacrum, an aspiring reality that with a combination of skill and luck convinces the reader. Or hoodwinks. I can never tell. Perhaps enchants. The writer makes a world, or something like a world, and populates it with minds and bodies, cities and mountains, oceans and sea monsters. Even if all these elements resemble something found in the real world—the world of the reader—each part comes from within the writer.

This act of creation is nearly divine. The writer is the maker of worlds. Even when Dickens charts London’s streets—we can locate Scrooge’s counting house and guess, fairly accurately, where his lonely lodgings were—they are shoved two inches to the left of the world we know. This London is not London. By creating a new world, the writer seeks to emulate the world that is, but also to replace it. For the time the reader enters the dream, it is a world that could be, not a world that is, and the dream reveals something particular, something full of twists and turns and complications.

While the writer uncovers the words that capture this world, she or he enters the world, and if the writer believes the words—and she must! he must!—then the inner world threatens to obliterate the outer one. After all, there is something about that outer world that the writer seeks to correct. The ghosts visit and Scrooge reforms—is literally made into someone new. This is the world that should be—where a miserly and selfish investor can become “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.”

The writer sees what could be, like Cassandra, the unheeded prophet of myth. Some writers simply disgorge the terrible truth of what is, like an oracle who disdains both irony and hope. There is no redemption, just inexorable weight—think of the novels of Stephen Crane, or Gustave Flaubert. Their worlds may be imagined, but the imagined reality is cautionary: there is no escaping this gravity. Let me pause to say that dystopian fiction while cautionary, by making the possible reality so obviously awful, opens a kind of door to redemption: all this could be avoided. The realist, on the other hand, sees no way around the unbearable truth.

Either writer—redemptive or admonishing—seeks some anchor outside the work. By locating the inner voice in some external force, a muse, whether divine or closer at hand, the writer can dissociate from that other world. It isn’t in me! It comes from Erato, or my lover, or my cat, or the messages on the television. The muse is a hedge against being swallowed by that inner world. Madness is a double edged sword, and there is divine madness in writing. “Much madness is divinest Sense,” Emily Dickinson begins her poem. The muse keeps the madness at a distance.

I am not suggesting that writers are mad—that trope has little interest or value to me. Writers bear the weight of vision, and seek ways to allay that weight. Some retreat from the world—the noisiness of life interrupts the vision that animates their existence. Some bound into the world—seeking febrile connections to the world, and allowing all those connections to illuminate their visions. Some stop writing, and I believe that even then they suffer. I know so. Vision is persistent and obstinate.

Sing, sing, or tell. We seek a trick, a magic act, inspiration to crack through the hard shell, and once again, create and fly. A muse, or otherwise, a simple spell of words to open the way.

Purpose

“What do I have to say?”

How I wish that more people asked this simple question before adding to the public discourse. Instead of wondering about their particular expertise, or wondering about how their experiences have shaped them, most people weigh in, almost automatically, on nearly any occasion. We have become a nation of opiners, flexing our incredible verbal muscles in a display that rivals any body-building competition.

And for what? What are the effect of our words? What spaces do they carve out in the public square? How do our voices land in the ears of those around us? How does what we say actually represent our thoughts and feelings, and how much is made to simply compete with what we hear—a kind of verbal pyrotechnics meant to outblast, if not outshine, the sound and fury of our neighbors?

It is enough to make one meek. Since everyone expresses opinions at a level of intensity that rivals Jonathan Edwards—dangling our audience over pits of damnation—a quiet measured voice is like a spring zephyr in February—lost in the midst of winter rain and sleet, unless one can open oneself for that fleeting moment that the season will change, and that the one breath of gentler warmth can ease its way into our winter layers. But who has enough patience to be that harbinger? To breathe softer words? To hint?

And who would listen?

I begin with no grand proclamation to shout. My students would laugh to hear me say that. I have shouted, exhorted, acted—overacted—and entertained in classes for years. Inevitably, I will announce “Dr. Brennan’s Rule for Life #7,362: Buy flowers,” and acknowledge that there are as many rules to the north and south of that number. However, my students are a captive audience—they have to at least pretend to listen to me. The same goes for my daughters, or even the members of the congregation I served for nearly a dozen years. Yet, I never take any listening for granted.

Maybe this is true of others as well, and maybe this is part of the reason that there is so much shouting in the square—as if volume could take the place of wisdom. Say something loud enough and someone will pay attention. Get enough people to pay attention, and some number will believe what you are saying. Get enough people to believe and rule the world—or some slice of it.

What if all you want to do is quietly share. I saw this… I heard this… I thought this… I felt this… What if you wanted to just add to the world and not bend it to your will? To inspire some stranger to go and see, or hear, or think, or feel? To suggest, perhaps to persuade, but not to cajole or chastise?

I do not know. I wonder if there is a wisdom or wisdoms that might be shared, if a thought precisely crafted and shared will find purchase. Is there a value in inspired rumination? My students read Walden and bristle at Thoreau’s adamantine vision. Who is he to insist on how we should live? Didn’t he die penniless? Where did he go to school? Why isn’t he as well organized as Emerson? I don’t think about my pants. The same holds true for Whitman’s kosmic voice, and for Dickinson’s route of evanescence. Writers who stake a claim turn readers away. If that selection seems too narrow, Ellison’s blindingly light filled room, Woolf’s roomier postulations, and Marquez’s endless Aurelianos also turn readers into pillars of salt.

But, declare I must, because silence is not a story, and words may find purchase, somewhere, somehow. Time to work.

Sleep

I packed my suitcase and drove out of Philadelphia. Whether that was yesterday or twenty-five years ago, I am not sure. There is so much to do, so many cities to visit, all those people waiting. I lose track of time. Before I have barely begun, I am completely exhausted. I have to stop. I ask the manager at the motor hotel for a quiet room, and flop into bed. I set the alarm clock for morning.

I must have made a mistake, because it goes off before I fall asleep. I turn it off and try again.

The phone on the bedside table rings. It’s still dark out.

“Get up!”

I mumble into the phone. I am still tired. Please, I am not ready to get up.

“No! you must get up now. There have been complaints. You are sleeping too long. Everyone is waiting. Get up!”

I put the phone down, letting the buzz of voice fill the space under the bed. I try to remember the name of the hotel, so I do not make the same mistake again, but I can’t even remember the name of the city in which I have stopped, and under the white ceiling of the hotel room I fall back to sleep once again.

A loud banging on the door wakes me. I wrap the thin hotel blanket around my shoulders and swing open the heavy grey metal door. The night manager, the one who gave me the room, and several other men stand in the dark hallway outside the door. Deep rings sag under their eyes, wrinkles bend the fabric of their suits.

“You must get up!” the manager implores. “These men are waiting.”

“Damn right!” a heavy man shouts. He wears what must have been, not so very long ago, a handsome blue suit. “Nothing is happening, and it’s all your fault. You can’t sleep forever! We’ve got things to do!”

The other men gather behind him, showing their support. They all look too tired to speak for themselves. The hotel manager stands on one side of the doorway, the businessmen on the other.

“Bother someone else’s dreams!” I try to shout, but all I do is yawn loudly. I wave them away, then close the door and chain it shut, and take sheets and pillows from the bed, making a small nest in the bathtub. I close the bathroom door and turn on the ventilation fan to drown out the noise of the pounding and shouting, and fall asleep between the pink tiles and mirror of the hotel bath.

When I finally wake, I am stiff, but rested. I brush my teeth and wash my face, and walk into the room to change. The manager sits in a folding chair. Firemen—thick booted and heavy coated—sit in the two chairs that came with the room, their heads back, but dreadfully awake. A policeman sits on the floor poking at the shine of his shoes. Men and women near him, almost asleep, curl up together in the unmistakable fashion of lovers, but dressed and chaste. The blue suited businessman lies alone on the bare bed; his head is propped up on a briefcase pillow.

“Are you up?” asks the manager.

I raise my arms to demonstrate the obvious.

“Thank God,” mutters the businessman, and he leads the others out of the room, past the door—separated from its hinges and propped up against the wall—and into the slowly lightening hallway. Outside I hear the sounds of engines starting, and a city whirring to life.

The sun rises above the trees while I change my clothes and repack my suitcase. The maid waves to me on my way out. She smiles. She looks rested too. In the car I open the road atlas and check my itinerary. For each city circled in red there are pages of names. I don’t think that I will finish today.

The Man in the Basement

Francis crept back into the basement. It was not his basement. It belonged to a woman he had courted in his youth, or in his middle age; he could not remember which. He had been creeping into the basement every night for as long as he could remember, but there must have been a time when he had not. He could not remember such a time.

The basement was simple and stark. He had entered through the steps that opened onto the driveway at the side of the house. In the far corner of the space a wooden staircase proceeded up into the house with a series of three short flights of steps, joined by right angles; his bed was under those stairs. It was a small bed, and the bedding was the brightly colored sheets of a child’s bed, but faded with time and use. He looked at the bed and tonight it seemed smaller than it ever had before. Had the bed been larger once, he thought? Had it occupied some other place in the basement? Perhaps, but he could not imagine that place.

As he got into the bed, he began to wonder what he was doing there. He did, after all, have his own home. His daughters had retired to their own beds. His pets: one large dog–a cross between an Irish Wolfhound and a Great Dane–and three small cats; would wait for him to return in the morning. His bed was made, and he dutifully washed the sheets every week, even though he had not slept there for longer than he could remember. “Shouldn’t I be at home?” He wondered. 

He tried to roll over in the small bed. Nothing he did seemed to make sense anymore. He thought of his daughters, at home alone. He knew there was a family living in the rooms above where he slept each night, but they were not his family, no matter what fantasy he had once had about them. Perhaps it had been more than a fantasy. Perhaps he had once imagined a place in that home with a bevy of beautiful daughters and handsome suitors, and a place permanently set for him at the head of the table. He tried to recall when he had started slinking into the basement late at night, and his memory was a wash of grays and browns. This, he thought, is not where I should be.

He got out of the bed and gathered his things. He tried to do it without switching on the light. He could not find his glasses. Maybe they had fallen between the mattress and the wall. He tried to make no noise, cognizant of the people who lived in the house above him. I must not disturb them, he thought.

Then a light flicked on, and one young woman bounded down the stairs. “I’m sorry if I disturbed you,” Francis offered.

“It’s okay,” answered the young woman, “we knew you were here.” 

“I hope I didn’t bother you,” said Francis.

“No. You’re fine,” answered the young woman, “just don’t try to get to mom.”

“No, of course not.” Francis held up his bag, “it’s time for me to go home.”

“Wait,” declared the young woman, who then ushered her sisters down the stairs. “He’s going,” she told them.

The basement now seemed full of beautiful young women. They were dressed in sweat pants and t-shirts, dressed for bed in the house above the basement. “Don’t leave yet,” one of them said, “we have something for you.”

They brought down large baking sheets covered with food. There were cookies and candied fruits. One of the younger women knew that Francis loved their candied strawberries, and offered them to him. “Take as much as you like,” she said.

One of the young women wept. He was going; he had been there so long.

As the women gathered, more lights were turned on in the basement, which no longer seemed as cramped and contained to Francis. Rooms upon rooms seemed to open up. There were men in brown tweed jackets and loafers, and the family he had imagined all these years teemed throughout the rooms. There were daughters and granddaughters, and young men for each as they were wished. Only one thing was missing, and he knew not to look for her.

Two floors above the gathering, the mother got out of her shower, toweled off, and clapped powder over her arms and legs. “Surely this must be over,” she thought. She listened to the quiet commotion, and grew mildly annoyed. But she was tired. She had, after all, raised her family and prepared them for what came next. She fell asleep. She dreamed of a house–some nights it was in the desert, some nights it was in the mountains, other nights it was on an island surrounded by the green northern sea. It was a house without a basement, into which men might come to fix the water heater or garbage disposal, and then leave. She dreamed on through the night and into morning, and when the sun rise and she woke, she stripped the little bed in the basement for the last time.