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.
There is a scroll of Hokusai’s paintings/drawings. The curator’s note suggests that Jurojin, the aged figure at the left of the scroll, might be a stand-in for Hokusai, who was 80 when he painted this. Jurojin, it should be noted, is a god of longevity. The scroll, like the scroll Jurojin unrolls, may be a teaching tool. Hokusai made many manuals for his students, capturing and encoding the wisdom he accrued over decades.
May I suggest that if Hokusai is taking the part of Jurojin, he is also, at the very least, also acting as the young student sprawled out in front of the deity? Or, he is just the student.
Hokusai declared that “[w]hat [he] painted before the age of seventy does not capture the truth of things.” He kept learning and kept striving for legendary status. Imagine having such a lofty aspiration.
When we are younger and naive, we allow ourselves big dreams. We can foresee heroic possibilities. Time softens those dreams. We take a bite of the realist’s apple and learn to accept humbler goals. We even herald the value of those quieter moments: a well-laid table, an easy transit across town, a perfect fall leaf. All those things matter, yes.
And yet, I think of Monet, late in life, building lily ponds at Giverny, painting them, then draining them and remaking them so that they would match his vision. This was an act that combined impetuousness with determination.
Or, I look at Hokusai and see his determination to keep pushing his art to encapsulate his goal.
Such ambition is, at heart, naive. We let athletes off the hook for greatness when they reach their thirties. What second or third act waits for them? We learn to put away childish things and think and act like adults.
What I love most about Monet is his adult awareness of what he wanted and his adult design to create the very thing he wanted to paint. Wiser critics than I would suggest that Monet’s art was the result of cataracts. But then why build, then drain, and then rebuild those lily ponds? Like a child building with blocks, knocking down, and constructing something similar but better.
We come to creation with hard earned wisdom. Part of that wisdom is the knowledge that creation is a kind of play—play at its most ambitious and visionary. We may start with a pattern, some model from which to work, but then we expand and sharpen. Unlike the baseball player who throws with elegant precision to the strike zone, we toss the ball into the air, seeking a curve and arc that only physics limits. We make our rules and play harder.
As wise as you may grow, we stand astounded before the task ahead. Our propensity for astonishment sets us apart and keeps us in good stead. Here is where we learn, here where we reach for legends.
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.
We all dream, and so the experience is not uncommon. We fly, we fuck, we fall. Jungians and archetypalists of all sorts would normalize and defragment the conspicuously bad writing in dreams to give them viable and understandable meaning. Last night—in the morning, really, when I cadged an extra hour of sleep after my alarm gently nudged me—I dreamed about lifting weights. The gym—a fancy place with magnetically attaching plates—did not have—or rather, did not seem to have—bars long enough for bench presses. I had to go outside—in the dark, behind what appeared to be a dock or loading bay—to find the six-foot-long, forty-five-pound bars. Then I put plates on the bar, started lifting, and the weights felt light. I told my friend, Brian (yes, I have a friend who shares my name), who was spotting me, to stop helping me. I was covered in sheets. The word that came to mind was “shroud,” and it was getting in the way. I needed to take it off. Then I woke up.
Yes, this dream is poorly written—a shroud? Really? Concelo ex machina. I remember thinking, “Get this fucking thing off me!” Yes, I curse as much in my dreams as in real life. Obvious, clunky, and weird.
I forgot to mention that the gym was in a hotel in Marseilles. My mind populated the rain-wet streets with a raft of people of different nationalities, all drawn to the port city—a city that is liminal in real life and not just my dreams. I heard them speaking French, Spanish, Arabic, and Farsi and knew that I could not communicate with them even as I heard them. They would not be able to tell me where to go—where the weights were—even if they knew.
There isn’t a book (or website, or Reddit thread) that will provide a definitive interpretation of a dream because there isn’t one. Even our own dreams unravel without narrative coherence or discernible significance. And they are our own dreams! Who better than the dreamer to make sense of the image soup that our brains simmer in the night? Besides, they almost always end with “And then I woke up.” So we rarely encounter a well-orchestrated climax and satisfying denouement.
Imagine, for a moment, treating what we read as if they were dreams. What if, instead of artistic unities, we sought to immerse ourselves the same way we are immersed in dreams. “Why not like life?” you ask. We exert—or attempt to exert—control over life. The homeostatic drive irons out all that is strange or random or, well, dream-like. In dreams, even for the lucid dreamer, there is an element of the unexpected. The joy (jouissance?) of dreams comes in their unpredictability. When else in life do we forsake prediction for sheer experience?
I struggled to teach my advanced students how to “read like a professor” because they sought to corral meaning. What they read needed to reflect their experiences or interests. But then, I also struggled with my professors and grad school colleagues, who also harnessed what they read to suit their beliefs. Few readers meet the work and let themselves alter when they alteration find. We have a terribly hard time meeting the wild with our own wildness. Besides, surprise, the harbinger of change, runs counter to how our brains process information. Brains—by design—seek to match what happens with deeply rooted predictions. We predict and demand that the world conforms to our predictions. I am drawing on the work of Mark Solms for this.
What if, instead, we read literature like reading a dream?
First, we must know the dreamer better—or, at the very least, recognize that the dream comes from a profoundly intimate and personal space that is entirely subjective and therefore unqualifiable compared to our lived experience. While there may be correspondences with our dreams, relying on what we know of ourselves will lead not so much to a misinterpretation as a “mis-experience” of the dream. While holding up a mirror to ourselves is absolutely enchanting (and even, at times, essential), it becomes a solipsistic activity when left unleavened by a deep understanding of the dreamer.
Second, just as dreams surprise us, we need to be astounded by what we read. Even if we are reading a novel in a class on post-colonialism, even if the novel makes straightforward claims about the post-colonial world, reading it only as an exemplar will circumscribe the work’s overall effect. It will remove the dreaminess of the work, and in that dream, there may be more (or less) about post-colonialism than we imagined at first. Pardon me while I carry this a step forward; we cannot colonize dreams with reason.
The same way that an out-of-place detail (that shroud!) opens up ways of understanding a dream, it is precisely literature’s ability to flash incongruous elements into being—not only as counterpoint but as mawing gaps in the well-knit Markov blankets of perception. We are lulled into a kind of affirmative satisfaction when pleasantly predictable patterns repeat. The surprises, the mistakes, and the interruptions all unravel the carefully constructed conceptions leaving what? A mad scramble to reweave—midnight (or midmorning) Penelopes trying to stay one step ahead of the rapacious reason-making suitors.
Dreams are strange, and most writing is not. Most writing belies its transactional origins. It keeps accounts, documents ownership, concretizes agreements, or dissolves partnerships. Most writing is officious and tedious. Dreams are not. Granted, we may feel that another person’s accounts of their nighttime rambles are inexplicable and therefore of little interest to us. Still, compared to a bill of sale or divorce decrees, they are candyfloss. The harder bone to chew is that we are primarily transactional beings. Writing reflects our need to organize and regiment experience to a suitable and predictable medium.
Dreams are a rebellion in our brains. While we spend our days demanding sense, dreams help settle a more extraordinary account—that of strangeness and unpredictability. Literature is a semi-intentional settling of accounts. It balances the need for predictable and measurable outcomes with the unsettled and unreliable aspects of existence. And if you make sense of last night’s dream, there is more confusion ahead. Why not court confusion and read to dissent with all common sense?
I go back to Mrs. Dalloway and how Septimus Smith’s death made Clarissa “feel the beauty; made her feel the fun.” Few moments feel as gloriously incongruous as that—as disruptive and necessarily reframing. You cannot read Mrs. Dalloway the same after that moment, and if you are a serious reader, you better start all over again. I will suggest that almost all works of literature have such moments—or several such moments—that just don’t fit. Or completely fit. Each one shatters the pattern and forces the reader to reconsider and reconceive.
There’s a reason that we do not experience reality the same way we experience dreams. It is impossible to have the world perpetually exploded and rearranged out of order. I may seem to critique how we live when I make claims about our essentially transactional natures; I am not. But I see the tension between the drive and indefatigable desire for predictable outcomes and the violently unpredictable nature of complex systems. Reading literature is not a way to practice making sense but of recognizing the failure of making sense. We must need to constantly reassess, and recognize that even in a world that we have (subconsciously) organized (that cleanly appointed gym in a hotel in Marseilles) that there are twists and turns ahead. We need to learn that the world is more unpredictable, more incongruous than we would like. As are we.
Every time I touched the wall, I looked up to check my time. The spinning red hand of the clock revealed how long it had taken since I began whatever swim I had started, however many seconds—or minutes—ago. We did two things at practice: we threw yards and meters at our bodies and practiced touching the wall. Whether it was a grueling set of 20×100 yard swims on a 65-second interval to wrap up a workout or the inane 3×1500 meter swims with 30 seconds between each as a warm-up (Imagine doing that at 6 o’clock in the morning on an already warm summer day, in a pool with only thin nylon ropes to separate the lanes), whenever you finished, you jammed into the wall. You lifted your head from the water to see the clock. How fast did I go? How much time until the next swim begins?
I was not a world-class swimmer. When I was little, I tended to sink rather than proceed at pace. I wore a Styrofoam bubble on my back. There were lessons. My parents took me to Red Cross run classes in a lake near our home in Paoli. I flailed, resisting the head turn required for a proper crawl. Still, I loved the water and turned blue when my parents took us to Jones Beach when we visited their parents. Who would want to leave the churn and rush of waves? We joined local pools and passed our deep-end tests, treading water for an absurd amount of time under the watchful eye of a lifeguard. Once passed, my mother would drop us off while she shopped or played tennis at the Great Valley Country Club. Swim teams only started when I was 11.
In my sophomore year of high school, I was a fair Junior Varsity swimmer. The Hill School had a nationally ranked independent school team, and I was far from fast enough for that. I was only 4 years removed from goggle-less practices in the insidiously warm indoor pool at the Phoenixville Y. I came home bleary-eyed and teary. As far as other sports, I had been an indifferent Little League baseball player—more interested in the planes in the sky than balls hit in my direction. Because I was tall early, my father—a scholarship athlete at Niagara in the 40s—signed me up for basketball. It did not take. I enjoyed gymnastics: the rings and parallel bars carried me a little out of gravity’s grasp. You had to play a sport each afternoon, fall, winter, and spring at my high school. In my first year, I opted for soccer, swimming, and golf.
The 3500 yards that the JV team swam between 3-4 in the afternoon were as many yards as I had ever swum. Fred Borger was the JV coach and threw easily attainable sets at us: ten 100s at 1:45, then 1:30 as we improved. I started off swimming the 500 yard freestyle at meets. My early times were over seven minutes. I ended my first season at 5:55. My 100 breaststroke was north of 1:20, which rarely merited placement in one of the three lanes for meets. During my second year, after spending the fall playing water polo (a ploy to get fall training in for the varsity), my 500 time dropped to 5:20, and my 100 breast hovered at 1:15. I knew if I wanted to improve, I would need to change something.
As a sidebar, I was not happy at my school, an all-boys bastion against, what? a fear of falling? I spent the spring of my sophomore year stoned and looking for a new school for the following year. I crept out after curfew and brought pizza for my dorm mates. I never studied—my memory for most things kept my grades well above water. This was the year that ditched my longstanding boyhood aspiration: to attend the Naval Academy. I wanted a more diverse, less dick-driven environment. After all, how could you read Catcher in the Rye and not feel as if you wanted to turn away?
A friend on the Varsity swim team shared a flier from a swim camp/AAU team in Iowa. Glen Patton was building the program at the University of Iowa and was contacting good young swimmers like my friend as a way of recruitment. I applied to Swimming School and was delighted to be accepted. If I wasn’t going to go anywhere else, at least I could be a better swimmer.
At Iowa, we had three practices a day, totaling as many as seven hours in the pool. I had never swum more than one hour on any day and rarely more than 4000 yards. We swam between 20,000 and 28,000 meters every day. The general philosophy was “Get in. Keep up. Move inward.” Slower swimmers—I was one of them—populated the outside lanes. You shifted from lanes one and ten to two and nine, then three and eight, and so forth. The fastest swimmers—and there were Olympians on that team—swam in the center of the pool: lanes four and five. In the two summers I swam there, I never nosed into the center (not 4 and 5, not even 3 and 6), but I could see them. I chased and swam faster.
When I swam in Iowa in 1976, we gathered in the evenings to watch the Montreal Olympics. The American men won every event except one (Britain’s David Wilkie took the 200 Breaststroke), and the men set world records in every event except the 100 Butterfly (Mark Spitz’s last record). The East German women had a similar performance, helped, as we know now, by PEDs. The revolution in training (all those miles) caused significant drops in times for those of us who did not use steroids. We were swimming fast, and we all could swim faster. We wore T-shirts emblazoned with the motto: SWIMMING IS MORE FUN WHEN YOU’RE IN SHAPE. And we got in shape by watching our times.
When I returned to my school, I leaped onto the varsity, still not the best, but game. I kept up in practice, By the fall, I was under five minutes in the 500, and my breaststroke time dropped over ten seconds. Raw and brutal repetition rewarded me. The two-hour practices we did at school were intense and competitive. If you weren’t the leader in your lane, you damn well chased the leader, and if you caught them, then you had to lead. Leading was a privilege, but your trailing feet became targets for the hungry swimmers behind you. We each had our strengths, each took the lead on various sets. I had a vicious breaststroke kick, which meniscus surgery 30 years later can attest to. I swam hard, and even later, when I swam just to stay fit, the habits continued. I checked my pulse. I looked at the clock.
During the 2021 Olympic swimming coverage, I saw the swimmers stare at the clock (digital, not analog) in the distance. I saw the looks of joy and disappointment driven not by winning or losing but by their times. Was that my best? Did I meet my goal? While the competition may drive many, after a while, the clock becomes the primary combatant. I may have been cognizant of where my teammates were in the pool (chase! chase!), but mostly I looked up and saw that red clock hand sweeping past a black hash mark. Watching the Olympics, if I yelled it once, I yelled it a dozen times, “Show the times!”
The next time you watch swimmers (or runners), notice where they look at the end of their races. If you want to know how they feel, know that they are keenly aware of the inexorable, implacable opponent of the clock. They have looked up thousands of times. And then they have put their heads back down. It is time to go again.
If you wait for inspiration, the right moment, the formulated phrase, then all you will do is wait.
Writing is like getting on the boat. No matter what the weather is when you leave the marina, you don’t know what you will encounter in three or four days. And so you get on the boat and sail. Something will happen, maybe something similar to what happened yesterday, or five years ago—an ocean rolled out flat as plate glass that reflects no clouds, only the hot yellow eye of the sun. You will sweat and pray for anything, any change. If you were lucky, you brought a book onboard, and you charge through half of The Pickwick Papers in an afternoon. You will read fast to make up for the blazingly windless day. Or, you will not—you don’t know. You will find out as you go.
You are on the boat, so you dream of dry land and a woman who writes you love letters. The scopolamine patch behind your left ear gives you visions that will haunt you into your sixties: a black-bearded fat man pretending to have a heart attack, but you have discovered his lie, and he winks at you, knowing, somehow, that you will keep his secret, and in doing so, will enter a world of lies. Of course, you didn’t ask for this vision; you didn’t know what was coming. You thought you were sailing to Bermuda—the island of The Tempest—and would find stories of Sycorax and Caliban (you will: she serves breakfast at a restaurant in Hamilton, and he rents mopeds that break down on the winding North Shore Road).
There are no visions if you do not get on the boat. There is no hard, stupid sea, no Bermuda, no gingerbread at a restaurant in Flatts. Your father does not tell you to take the helm and hold it until the mountainous sea subsides. “I can’t do it anymore,” he tells you. “I will send your brother up, but you have to hold the helm. He can’t sail in this.” So you become the necessary sailor.
Writing is not like getting on the boat. Writing is getting on the boat. As much as you prepared, you discover, adapt, and grow. You don’t become a better sailor by reading about sailing—although, of course, reading can help. But remember Antonio Machado’s advice: “Mankind owns for things that are no good at sea: rudder, anchor, oars, and the fear of going down.” What you read is the rudder—an idea of where you should (or could) go. The rest is sailing.
I spend my Sundays wandering through the galleries of Washington DC and writing while I wander. That’s not true. I spend my Sundays writing in the galleries of Washington DC, and when I pause, I wander. I spend 8-10 hours resetting my writing brain for the week and return each week to reset again. The shadows on the walls of the Calder room remind me that there is the thing—the made thing (art, literature, as you will)—and then the accident of the moment—the way the mobile turns above my head and the light casts its silhouette against the wall. I watch as people stand in front of his Birdsong, and the one photographs the sculpture and shadow while his companion kisses him on the cheek. A 10-year-old girl asks the docent, “Are we allowed to take pictures of the sculptures?” She walks around the room with a small camera, recording everything she wants to remember.
I sit beneath a wire armature horse and write.
I write in galleries because I am surrounded by finished work. The artists painted or sculpted every day. Monet? There are ten paintings by Monet in Gallery 80. 2500 works have been attributed to Monet. Alongside the Calder sculptures, there is a photograph of his studio. It is work to create works. They were all, always, on the boat.
I love to write surrounded by people in the galleries because of their response to the art. Yes, there are people on their phones. Some walk through the National Gallery and do not see that in Gallery 81, on the wall opposite Constant’s The Favorite of the Emir, the three Renoir paintings (Young Spanish Woman with a Guitar, Odalisque, and Bather Arranging her Hair) reflect the figures in the Constant: musician, dark-haired woman, red-haired woman. Accidents and intentions abound. Unless you go and pay attention, you do not see. Write and pay attention.
But write. Write every day. Find a space that energizes your writing. Annie Dillard claims that she needs a blank wall and no distractions. Who can argue? Know what works for you. But write. Write for hours every day.
When you sail, unless you are in one of the science fiction yachts of the America’s Cup, you cross the ocean at an absurd 5-7 knots. Except you proceed, like the tortoise, every hour of every day. You may read 400 pages of Dickens in an afternoon, but you cannot write 400 pages in an afternoon. Well, maybe Dickens could. Get used to the steady, inexorable pace of the work, knowing that the words and pages will pile up as you write. Don’t be afraid to count the miles, the hours, the days, or the words. If you set out each day, they will accumulate. Get on the boat and go.
You need to become the necessary writer. Do not wait for inspiration or rely on that inner voice that weaves stories and does not write (I know I have a novel in me if only I had time to write). You have the helm—on dreary, monotonous days when the Iron Genoa churns out diesel fumes and artificial speed and for the hours when your mastery balances your life on the crest of swells. You are the only one who can fulfill the wishes you make walking past fountains, rubbing strange lamps. You are the djinn, the captain, the writer. So get on the boat, and don’t look back.
On Sunday at the French Open, Novak Djokovic, the number one tennis player in the world, dropped the first two sets of the championship to a rising star. He had faced the same situation in the fourth round of the tournament, but this was the final, and his opponent, Stefanos Tsitsipas, was poised to win his first major championship.
Djokovic retreated to the locker room after the second set and had a conversation with himself. “There is always two voices inside: one is telling you that you cannot do it, that it is done, it is finished,” he admitted. “That voice was pretty strong after that second set.”
Wait. The best tennis player in the world, a champion who had won 18 major titles (and would win his 19th that day), has a voice that says he cannot succeed?
Sit with that for a moment.
Yes, he has another voice, and he described how he asserted that voice between the second and third set. “I felt that that was a time for me to actually vocalise the other voice and try to suppress the first one that was saying I cannot make it. I told myself I can do it and encouraged myself. I strongly started to repeat that inside of my mind, and tried to live it with my entire being.”
Success is not about living without doubt. Doubt exists, even in the mind of a champion. Success happens when that “other voice” contends with doubt. Djokovic, who has won 19 major tournaments, has also lost 10, and there was a time when his losses and wins (8 apiece) were equal. Even for the most successful, failure—and failure on a grand stage—still happens. We chose to contend.
I do not have the same record of success as a tennis champion, but, like him, I also have doubt. I have often chided myself for doubt, and this is a mistake. There are two voices: one that says, “Yes”; the other that says, “No.” I have learned—perhaps it took me too long—to listen to that “other voice,” and, when necessary, to give it a push. Vocalize it. Shout it.
Last winter, during the Australian Open, Djokovic was injured, and after leading Taylor Fritz 2-0, he dropped the following two sets. Djokovic has an imposing record after winning the first two sets of matches: 209-1, but injuries are a wildcard in sports. He prevailed, and the victory was especially sweet. “This is definitely one of the most special wins in my life,” Djokovic claimed. “It does not matter what round it is, against who it is. Under these kinds of circumstances, to pull this through is definitely something I will remember forever.”
His immediate response after winning was more revealing. He vocalized. “That’s why I play!”
Play? Novak declares that he loves tennis “with all my heart.” That is what it takes, no matter what, to do something with all my heart—with all your heart. I have no idea what else Novak Djokovic could have been. His parents ran several small businesses. Maybe that’s what he would have done had he not displayed a gift for tennis. Perhaps he would have become the best small business owner in Serbia; I do not know. He chose—as much as anyone chooses—to play.
Writing is play—at least it is a kind of play. We do not play against anyone, only with the reader. We entice and enchant them. Shock and soothe them. We afflict their doubts and shift their worlds. Maybe. And we face our own doubts—quietly and not so quietly. We enlist rituals and habits that either quiell those doubts or quash our urge to write. Which voice do we vocalize most?
Two voices? Like the two wolves from the story. Feeding the wolf? How about giving voice to the wolf? Howl louder. Jettison all the other voices that urge “No.” There will be enough of that—too much—within you. Listen to the voices that encourage, even demand, that you write. And then write more and love the writing with all your heart.
The year came and went. After having change imposed on me, all I could think of was, what could I change? What would match the upheavals of the past fifteen months? The pandemic, my mother’s death, the next round of the pandemic, my school’s response to the pandemic, the election, the pandemic, the insurrection. It felt as all I did amounted to little more than defensive maneuvers: wearing a mask, cleaning my mother’s house, writing words for her service, eating outside, voting, reading the news, and charting the waves, eating outside in cold weather, wearing two masks. All I could do was persist.
I hate “persist.” Fuck resilience.
And yet, I love to persist—to take the helm in a storm. But to go! To have a destination and a challenge in mind, and then to pursue it heroically. Listening to The Iliad (because what else does one do when one needs to be reminded of heroic persistence?), I am struck by the grinding effort of warfare, even heroic warfare. In among the shining moments of triumph, Ajax sweats. Idomeneus is wounded and then returns to battle. Achilles waits. Before we witness his mastery of battle, he is a master of brooding. A friend said, “But he’s a god.” He is the son of a god, but many sons of gods perish at Troy. War does not distinguish—or it did not.
Over the past two years, I have learned the value of persisting at my work. This does not mean learning to put up with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or the stupid requirements of the day—of all the other things I must do. This year, everything that took away from that work became anathema. Returning to the slog and joy of persistent daily writing has reminded me that anything else is not enough. While I am willing to work and commit to the project, I also need to throw overboard everything—and everyone—who does not contribute to my journey.
After all, writing is work. It isn’t something I do to make me feel better. I listened to a young man who said that his writing “picked up during the pandemic” that it helped bond him to his friends. These posts try to reveal some of the bones and muscles and nerves of the writing animal. And while I may feel connected to some of you when I write them, I am still at work. I may not sweat as much as Ajax, nonetheless I aspire.
One of the clichés about writing is that it comes from inspiration. We focus on art and the ineffable merits of vision. Yes, some writers are more talented than others and have a scope and art that exceeds all others. If you don’t have a list of 10, or 100, then you haven’t really thought about the problem and challenge of excellence. It’s a worthwhile list to make, so long as you don’t turn that list into a wall or a fortress. Walled cities do fall, but the casualties are as numerous as specks of dust in the air. You would die counting them.
What sets most writers apart isn’t vision. Writers write. Yes, Harper Lee goes silent after her one great book, and after a flurry, so does Salinger. Dickens, Woolf, Rushdie, Mahfouz, Kawabata, Austen, Eliot, Morrison. Or consider Rowling, King, Grisham, Steel, Gabaldon—writers whose books edge others off the shelves in bookstores. If there is inspiration, then it is the inspiration to sit down (or stand up) and write. Success—often determined in monetary terms—helps fan that inspiration (You like me! You really like me!), but chances are that those writers already established a habit, a ritual, or, more likely, a regimen. They worked, and the work was their inspiration.
I have the natural bent to slog but have lacked the discrimination to choose the slog that best suited me. It is so easy to fall into work that offers something like a reasonable remuneration. Except no amount—neither how little nor large—is enough to satisfy. I am reminded of the psychology experiment in which a rat is rewarded for performing a task—pressing a lever. The rat that received a reward each time it completed the task stopped; fat and happy rats will not work. The rat that received no reward gave up quickly. No shock there. However, the rat that received rare and random rewards pressed the lever feverishly. I have been that rat. Give me a task—any task—and watch me work for unpredictable and unsustainable reward.
When I began writing in earnest three years ago, after a hiatus driven by all manner of tasks (worthy, meaningful tasks, I should add)—I knew that I was fighting against the idiot rat. Or that I was in the wrong experiment. Because I do not expect the rewards to be anything other than rare and random: someone from Senegal read my blog post; an agent sent a complimentary rejection; the audience at a reading sat enraptured and gasped in unison at the right place. There are moments when, after putting words on the page that I raise my arms in triumph. I delight myself, which is, fortunately, neither a rare or random occurrence.
And I am not a rat. Neither am I an ape nor a proto-human. While those instincts and drives may be part of the first draft of my evolving consciousness, evolution has provided me with a brain that can reflect. My brain (and yours) produces an inner voice that can guide me out of danger or deep-seated dissatisfaction. So, back to resilience—while I can persist or, even better, thrive in less than ideal circumstances, I can see that if those circumstances can be changed, I can change them. I can rewrite the early draft of my life.
The challenge for the late writer is that unlike Dickens or Woolf or take your pick, I do not have habits so ingrained that an explosive event—or a persistent eroding series of nonproductive events—will not affect them. And so, I must make a way forward that limits time spent elsewhere. I have lessons—the Sailing Lessons included—for how to plot my course. I have completed my practice sails. It is time to go, leave this year behind, and count the words as they tumble down.
I got chickenpox, mumps, and measles. I had my tonsils out—an operation that required an overnight stay –when I was in 3rd grade because they had been the source of repeated infections. I bounced through cases of flu and other passing illnesses. Years later, I had mononucleosis during the first semester of college. Nothing keeps us from bumping into some microscopic problem. And forget about the web of mysteriously genetic and environmental causes that lead to Parkinson’s Disease or Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma—the two illnesses that plagued my parents—but that was on the distant horizon.
I read Alistair MacLean’s novel The Satan Bug—in which a mutant virus threatens to wipe out humanity—in the 7th grade. In a world that lived under the menace of nuclear war, a biological threat was quieter and almost less tangible, and therefore more insidious. I traced these threats through films and books like The Andromeda Strain,Pursuit, and Rage. Even Close Encounters of the Third Kind used the possibility of a gas or disease outbreak to move the plot along. The insidious unseen nature of these gaseous or microscopic adversaries held my interest.
In my 20s, the HIV-AIDS epidemic galvanized my attention. How could it not? The emergence of a disease that would kill you after sexual intimacy staggered all of us who enjoyed the freedom afforded by birth control and an unshackled moral climate. We felt screwed (and not).
Whether fear or mordant curiosity drove me, I began to study viruses and epidemics with fury. The sudden spread of hemorrhagic fevers that Richard Preston (The Hot Zone) and Laurie Garrett (The Coming Plague) wrote about exacerbated my concern. It was impossible to moralize about what was coming—this wasn’t about sex. Deadly diseases lurked. Diseases have always been half a hair away. In Norfolk, a small park memorializes those who died during an outbreak of Yellow Fever in 1855. I lived a block away.
Still, in my 30s, I read Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. And then, almost by accident, stumbled on reports of the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918. I read Alfred W. Crosby’s America’s Forgotten Pandemic at some point in the late ’90s and then John Barry’s The Great Influenza when it came out in 2004. How could it be that we all knew about the Great War, but not the pandemic that occurred at the same time? We know about this now; Barry’s book made it to the bestseller list in 2020, but the memory of the pandemic faded in popular culture. I was surprised this past year when I realized that Mr. Gower’s son dies of influenza in It’s a Wonderful Life; it was the Spanish Flu. Where else was the pandemic?
So when COVID emerged in the winter of 2020, I was not surprised. After all, SARS and MERS had already flourished in their own specific ways. When it became clear that this would be more serious, I bought masks as soon as possible, kept my distance, washed my hands even more assiduously than usual, and settled in for the count. History provided stern warnings; I knew that a count—of cases and deaths—was coming.
We like to predict what will happen, and strangely enough, we tend to think that the future is unwritten. It is, and yet, for a good indication, look to the past. This is true whether you want to know what the weather will be like on May 14th or if there will be traffic on I-95 tomorrow morning. Yes, there are exceptions and random occurrences that will skew the numbers, but the past is all too reliable a guide. Fifty Million people have not died from COVID as died in the last great pandemic, nor have half a billion people contracted the disease. But our imagination does not need to stretch far to encompass those numbers. 675,000 United States citizens died in the influenza pandemic; that number is all too close to where we are headed this year. Yes, the population was smaller in 1918-19, but did anyone expect this to happen?
Over the past year, I gobbled down the numbers. I felt a strange intoxication with having a sense of where things were headed and seeing them move, painfully, sadly in that direction. Anthony Fauci, and most of the medical community, played Cassandra to a population that wished for another outcome. As if wishing could make it so. But what good did it do to know? What effect did my knowing have on anyone other than me? The numbers were a despairing gruel that neither nourished nor encouraged me. I had to wait them out. Eventually, I stopped reloading the numbers every hour and settled on the grim results that appeared each morning in the New York Times.
So what’s the point? Partly this: when you see it coming, get ready: hurricane, pandemic, or whatever is on the horizon of time and place. Get ready before you see it. You have been sick before; people have been sick around you. We should have known better, and our ignorance cost lives. The obvious is always right there. Yes, while knowledge can be overwhelming, there must be a sweet spot: enough information to teach us and lead us into productive discomfort without flooding us into anxious inaction The only way we learn is by exposure.
But there’s something more.
There must be a reason that the pandemic of 1918-19 disappeared from memory. Why and what do we forget? We forget, or remember selectively, and not just about events like pandemics. I’m not aiming at what we don’t retain. As a teacher, I am too aware that students do not retain everything. I wonder why do we forget some things and not others? This is not a reflection just on this pandemic or the last or the run of diseases. What else have I forgotten? I scramble to instill new habits and new awarenesses or avoid falling down the well of past practices. To borrow from Robert Creely, “[w]hat am I to myself that must be remembered, insisted upon so often”? But more, what have I failed to remember and insist upon?
We resume the remembered rhythms of our lives and return to our old habits and anxieties as if they were never interrupted. Repetition has essential gravity and draws us back. Except sometimes some things should interrupt us. The persistent nudge of discomfort—that we do have something new to learn and some new way to behave—should goad us onto a new course. Except, we stay the course and return to the known, even if it is a life half-lived.
I can (and I suspect that I will) point to the world and shout, “J’accuse! You forgot!” I shout at myself. I must insist that I remember—or that I remember to insist. I write in the face of forgetting, in the face, to borrow once more from Creely, of “the tiredness, the fatuousness, [and] the semi-lust of intentional indifference.” I must return to the hard work of insistence.