No writer sits down without some darling in mind, whether that darling is a reasonable payday, fame, or a glimpse behind truth’s brocaded curtain. Sometimes the writer doesn’t know at the beginning of their current project what the darling is. They just feel compelled to reenter the swamp—hip deep with words and ideas—and trust that something worth their love and attention arises from the murk.
Then it does.
Whether you rescue your darling from a crocodile’s gnarled teeth or the soul-sucking mud of despair, the writer wades in and declares, “This darling is mine!” Then you fight to the death. Everything else you have written—all those flat sentences and chapters that advanced something like the plot—must go.
Keep your eyes fixed on your darling; that’s why you write, not to serve some “should”—even if it is a self-inflicted “ought.” Save that old draft (it may surprise you later), but carry on in the service of love. Be a hero. Save your darlings.
I pulled the paddle into my lap and raised my gaze from the bow of the canoe to the sky. Insects thrummed from both banks of the river. Over my head, the telltale wings of raptors drifted. The smaller sets of wings belonged to hawks, the larger to the few eagles that patrolled the river. One began to circle—head down, eyes scanning the water, wings in a sturdy glide—one loop then another, as it made its way upriver, as slowly as my canoe drifted downriver. “Does it see me?” I wondered. “Does it care?”
I hadn’t looked up much. I paddled alone; that’s not true. I paddled in a group of sixteen students and five adults. A momentary miscalculation and late invitation made our group oddly numbered, which does not suit traveling in canoes. Yes, of course, one canoe could have set off with three. Still, three in a canoe with a river running low after a summer of less rain (I opened an umbrella once or twice and almost always—and only—during summer afternoon downpours) leads to too much scraping through what would have been more boisterous water. As our party assembled, I suggested that I would paddle solo. There was one slightly smaller canoe. Advice was offered. Off we went.
A very long time ago—almost fifty years now—I was required to solo to pass a course. I remember being in some quiet part of Pickering Creek and rocking the canoe from side to side to watch the ripples cascade against the shore. The instructor chastised me and threatened to withhold certification. What fourteen-year-old boy does not revel in the movement of water, whether caused by throwing rocks as heavy as he could muster from whatever height was possible or watching a leaf float down a dreary current in August? YMCA instructors advocate safety and not exuberance. I passed.
So as I took my seat—the molded plastic bow seat now used as a midstern soloists bench—I began simple “J” strokes, gauging how much my pull would shift the canoe on either side. One of the joys of canoeing with a partner is that you can take full strokes. While it’s not like lifting weights, catching the water and pulling the canoe forward with the strength of one’s arms, shoulders, back, and hips is gratifying. Exertion that has an immediate result is a pleasure. With a partner in the canoe, finding a rhythm and effort that matches and propels the boat forward in a resolutely straight line is like singing in an improvised harmony. Get it right, and it’s beautiful and swift.
I realized quickly that I was slower than the other canoes in the flotilla; I paddled with half the horsepower of the other boats. If the day before my partner and I had led us at a crisp, easy pace, today I would be challenged to keep up with eighteen-year-olds who were quick to fire. If the young like ripples, speed—whether running, swimming, paddling, or (prepare for this) driving—is an intoxication. Fortunately, after the first flurry, effort abates. I played the part of the tortoise and kept at it.
However, when soloing, each stroke contains a moment of counterpoise. Paddle too strongly, and the canoe will veer hard to the right or left, depending on which side of the boat you paddle. Fast in the wrong direction will not do. And so each stroke ends with a curl—the bottom of the “J”—that corrects direction but slows the boat. You are constantly foiling your effort to proceed forward. Think of it as “Yippee! Damn! Yippee! Damn!” I learned quickly that my right-armed strokes were too strong; they needed more “J” and, therefore, more slowing than my left-armed strokes. I am, after all, right-handed—naturally unbalanced.
The whole reason we were on the river was to forge bonds going into senior year. My school gathers the seniors for an overnight trip during which they hike and canoe together. Paddling alone ran counter to the purpose of our journey. Yet, there I was as they pushed ahead. I caught them when they rested, proceeded onward while they snacked, and then greeted them again as they passed me. Again. And again.
I scanned the water ahead and planned and planned and planned, reading and, almost as often, misreading the lay of the river. Paddling alone, I stayed focused on the water because the water was low, and I needed to find a way forward. Too often, I lacked the speed to catch the right course through the rocks that rested just below the surface and scraped to a halt, losing all the advantage of the river’s brief flurry of forward momentum.
However, keeping my eyes at river level meant that I witnessed turtles sunning themselves on rocks, a family of brown feathered ducks tucked in against the river bank, and once, when I was well ahead, a doe and fawn swimming across the river. At first, it looked like one small brown lump—I thought some small river mammal. I had never seen a deer in the water; the closest thing was a painting by Winslow Homer, The Hound and the Hunter. The deer I saw transforming from a brown lump to a full-bodied animal had no horns. She slowly emerged, an entire brown body of deer, picking its way across the rocks and onto the ledge at the river’s edge. Then the second body, still adorned with a fawn’s spotted coat, followed its mother. They stood by the water, then proceeded through the weeds covering the bank—eschewing a man-made stairway that led from a shed to the water—and into the woods. I was aware that they were aware and that if I had been surrounded by my group, their passage would have been quicker, affording a glimpse at best. Alone, I had moments with them.
Later, when I joined the crowd for lunch, one of the grown-ups recounted all the raptors they had seen along the way. I left the lunchers for a final three miles and put my paddle down, this time looking up. I had not looked up, my attention so much on the water and the passage.
On the final stretch, the wind picked up, and because canoes are keel-less, it pulled arrow-like into the wind, pulling me off the straight line of the river. However, if I paddled on my left side, I discovered that I could lay into my strokes more aggressively. The wind corrected my course without the impediment of the “J.” I began, over otherwise flat water, to make speed. I watch the blade of my paddle cut whirlpools that trailed deep. I watched my arm and hand as they worked lightly with effort. I may be sixty-two, and my knees ache, but movement delights me. I was delighted. Then the wind slackened, and my course went cattywampus. Everything is adjustment.
I arrived at our pick-up spot minutes before the students and teachers arrived. I pulled my canoe onto shore, tipped it over to expel the little water that had trickled into it while I shifted my paddle from side to side, and waited. Not long. One of my fellow grown-ups said, “You’ll sleep well tonight.” Little did he know that what would blanket me wasn’t lingering exhaustion but abundant happiness.
As I write, I realize that I have so much out; brief conversations as students and colleagues paddled around, then by me; a turtle that fell from a branch of a fallen tree; the angle of the sun. More. There is always more. And I acknowledge that there are several metaphors and lessons just below the water, and for once, I will ask you to avoid them as best you can. You won’t miss them all, just as I did not miss all the rock ledges that cut along the bottom of the south fork of the Shenandoah River. This is just about canoeing solo and together and the three and a half hours it took to go from Point A to Point B. Of course, it’s not, but put the paddle in and see where you go.
Okay, I don’t know if this scene will stay or not, but while drafting (and until someone snatches it out of my hands, it is all drafting), I wrote this:
We walked into the sunlight outside. The sidewalk was empty; Willi and Benjamin had already turned at the corner and another corner. Cars crept slowly down the one-way street, pausing at the stop sign and squeezing into city traffic. The waft of a pizza oven turned my nose in another direction, away from lunch with these men.
“Are you ever not paying attention?” Carlo asked. “It’s like you are everywhere else before you realize exactly where you are.”
“Isn’t that how everyone is? You pay attention—”
“Not like you,” he answered. He strode forward quickly. “If we don’t hurry, Benjamin will clean them out.”
Aletheia and the Thieves
My hero, Aletheia, has just managed a draw in a chess match with her mentor, Carlo. They are walking to lunch at the Reading Terminal Market, where they will join their friends. I had just finished writing the scene of the match and was getting them out the door and onto what was next, but I had an appointment to keep and didn’t want to leave the project on a closed note (the match was finished). I like to stop, when I stop, midair. Sometimes I stop mid-scene. Sometimes I stop mid-sentence.
When I want to move on with intent (write this tomorrow), I will end a writing session with a “tell” (as opposed to a “show”). I know the “tell” is not doing the work, and telling invites immediate revision. I set it down even if I have a glimmer of what the “show” will be. Tomorrow calls. Of course, as we know all too well, tomorrow is never guaranteed, but this novel writer must wrap himself in a heavy blanket of hope. More words will come.
This was not always the way.
In his column “The Greatest Life Hacks (For Now),” David Brooks included “The biggest lie we tell ourselves is, “I don’t need to write this down because I will remember it.” As much as we value multi-tasking, our brains don’t hold onto the gems. We think they will, but they don’t. We are eminently distractible. Something bright and shiny (or dark and jagged) will capture our attention, and flashes of brilliance dull quickly as we fall back into the morass of the already known and easily predictable. Surprise is the enemy of the homeostatic mind.
I carried a journal (hard cover, unlined) with me for years, taking notes about everything: movies, meals, architectural details, people. I accrued notes on pages of yellow, narrow-lined legal pads. Years of art history classes taught me to write quickly and legibly in the dark. I could (years of typing has muddled my handwriting) watch and listen and take notes simultaneously. I wrote everything down.
Yet, for all my writing, I did not have a daily specific writing practice. Even in graduate school, working toward a Ph.D. in Creative Writing (yes, that’s a thing), I wrote to meet deadlines. One short (1500-2000 word) and one long (6000 word) essay in each Literature class. Weekly seminar essays. Scrambling toward workshop slots (sure, I’ll have a story next week). I did not have a body of work to mine for revision. No particular point of view, no overarching theoretical approach, no “story of my life” that I wanted to unfold, refracted in fiction and poetry. I had come from a restaurant job where I worked 60-80 hours a week and had squeezed out enough chapters of a novel to get me into school, but once there, I was on terra incognito.
So I wrote everything down. Most of my work came about because I discovered new ways of writing each time I read something new. And everything was new. I wrote in response to—response through,really—the fiction, poetry, and philosophy I encountered in classes and on my own. I read constantly. My program’s joy (and hazard) was that the writing program was ensconced within an academic department. The creative writers met the exact requirements of our academic classmates: area distribution, exams, translation, and dissertation. In the course of my study, I didn’t just write. I learned about writers and writing, about processes and the vast array of forces that influence process. I took volumes of notes, repeatedly surprised by ideas and approaches, by the workings of minds so different and similar to my own.
Even though a biography of Dickens, Woolf, or Joyce will point out the peccadillos and triumphs, one thing rarely mentioned is the hours at work. Dickens could write in the company of friends as they gathered before a night out. Later, his study was off-limits to his family; he was not to be disturbed. Woolf wrote fiction in the morning, then focused on essays (or the other way around) after lunch. Yes, there were interruptions. Of course, there were interruptions, but writing became a habit. Are there writers for whom habit is anathema, who wait in a field with their pen held high, waiting for the jagged lightning of inspiration? Sure.
When you establish the habit of writing every day—and putting yourself to work for several hours every day—you never actually stop writing. You may not be typing. You may not be scribbling in your favorite notebook. However, your mind simmers. If you commit to 1500 words a day and stop after two or three or five or six hours, your mind will continue to work. You will not passively wait for pearls (or bakelite beads), so you will not be surprised when they come.
And you will not need to scurry to the pad when lightning strikes. You will be the blaze. Back to work.
We walked into the sunlight outside. The sidewalk was empty; Willi and Benjamin had already turned at the corner and then another corner. Cars drove slowly down the one-way street, pausing at the stop sign and squeezing into city traffic. The waft of a pizza oven turned my nose in another direction, away from lunch with my friends. My head turned toward the smell.
“Who’s driving the green sedan?” Carlo asked.
“A woman,” I shot back. “Was she wearing jewelry?”
“Jewelry. Was she wearing jewelry?”
“Earrings. Something dangling. Not hoops. I think.”
“No, you don’t ‘think.’ You know. What were they?”
“Fish,” I answered, recalling the glint beneath the voluminous red hair pulled back in an unkempt ponytail. “Gold fish hanging head to tail. Probably real gold. The sedan was a Mercedes 300.”
“Good.” Carlo hadn’t stopped walking. He hadn’t even turned toward me while he questioned me.
“Did you see her?” I asked. “No,” he answered. “Why would I? We’re walking to the Market, and I was thinking about the crowds.” He turned his head and glanced at me. “Besides, I knew you would.”
“Is that good?” I slowed down, and Carlo stayed on pace. I caught up to him at the corner. “Should I not pay attention?” The light for the cross traffic turned from green to yellow. I shifted my weight, ready for the walk sign. Carlo raised his arm to stop me when the white “WALK” sign lit up.
“Why are you stopping me?” He nudged me back from the curb and tilted his head to a space beneath a shop awning that was out of the flow of foot traffic.
“Do you want to pay attention?” he asked in front of a store that promised fast copies, faxes, and passport photos.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you look up and down the street and think about what you notice? Do you want to pay attention, or is it just what you do?”
“It just happens.”
“All the time,” he stated without a hint of a question.
“All the time.” A car horn barked at a man who had stepped into the intersection too late. A woman with red fingernails smoothed the back of her dress as she walked past. The man at the fax machine looked up at Carlo and me, and when I met his gaze, he looked away.
“Let’s walk.” Carlo reached out and guided me by the elbow. I felt adrift, like I would collide with everyone else on the sidewalk as he pushed me forward.
“Stop,” I insisted when we were less than halfway down the block. The city—all of it—seemed foreign, as if I had ever been here before. I felt out of breath.
When I was in grad school, one of my teachers told me that swimming (I was doing 3000-4000 yards, 3 times a week) benefited my writing. I understood why. Putting one’s head down and churning away for an hour compares well with writing. You pile up the painful laps the same way you pile up the words, and there is no immediate end. You just have to do it every (other) day.
Sometime in my thirties, I decided that I had worked out enough for the rest of my life, that all those miles had inoculated me against the exigencies of time. After all, I was averaging 24,000 meters a day at my peak. You might wonder, “What is 24,000 meters, really?” The fastest runner ran a mile in a bit under four minutes, and the fastest swimmer swam four hundred meters in just under four minutes, so 24,000 meters in the pool is a rough equivalent of sixty miles. 6-0. Six days a week. Even the piddling 3000-4000 yard workouts I managed later in life amounted to five to eight mile runs. All those miles earned me something besides shoulder and knee injuries. Whether this is what I learned from swimming or if something already inside me made all those laps possible, I cannot be sure. All I know was that afterward, I knuckled down to a world of tasks, whether unpacking a truckload of books, driving all night to a funeral in Maine, or doing the daily work of marriage.
But no matter how hard I worked, no matter how much thinking or interacting I did, eventually, my body let me know that the actual workouts had to start again. By my middle forties, I was back in the pool, gobbling down yards. After one knee surgery, another looming on the horizon, and rotator cuffs that kept me up at night, I decided to stick to dry land training (weights, elliptical). I’m still at it.
Maybe it’s no surprise that I struggled with writing when I stopped working out. There were a dozen other reasons for my hiatus, but the lack of steady physical movement played a part. When I furiously wrote and read in grad school, I swam, then ran, and always took long walks in the middle of the night. I never taught sitting at a desk but prowled in the classroom, even, at one point, doing the backstroke across the length of several tables to demonstrate the power of metaphor.
Writing requires resilience. You have to be able to face down the blank page and the open ended-ness of your project. Most of us do not write with a guarantee of publication (or adoration). We write, compelled to add word to word, stringing together sentences, scenes, and scraps of dialogue, until something like a novel accrues. Some writers don’t need the physical analog to bear them forward in their pursuit of words on the page. Their minds take flight and find their ways through the canyons of words without having to ride the rapids through them.
We think of the imagination as free of physical constraint, even when we write scenes replete with physical—sensed—detail. It’s pretty to think that this works. I can write a depiction of flight even if I can’t fly because I can imagine it. My mind is not bound by what I cannot do.
I am reminded of a movie I saw ages ago. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda castigates Luke about the force. He grabs Luke’s arm with his claw-like hand and insists, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” And that’s the whole point: what’s inside you matters. Of course, this appealed to me when I was a sophomore in college. What does imagination—the expression of the soul—have to do with “crude matter”?
My belief in an inner self separate from bodily suffering—or ecstasy—was fundamental to my worldview. I wasn’t alone. Whether in theology or philosophy, the notion of something like a soul runs deep. Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (the first principle of his philosophy) locates being in the process of thinking—rigorous and effortful thinking, but thinking and certainly not feeling, and definitely not tasting, seeing, smelling, hearing, or touching. There is a longstanding division between the spiritual (the imagination included) and the physical. The mind is that “luminous being” within or around us. I learned to ignore the crude matter while I swam—playing songs in my mind while lactic acid built up in my muscles and my body cried out for oxygen. I was happy to engage in the separation of body and mind.
Except they are not separated.
While neurobiologists distinguish between the brain—a profoundly physical, almost mechanical thing—and the mind, which arises (or descends) from the machinery, they see the connections between the brain/body and the mind. Caroline Williams’ recent book Move tracks current science about movement—whether dancing or walking or crawling about—and how it impacts our mind. Reading her book alongside Anil Seth’s Being You, Mark Solms’The Hidden Spring, and Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary, I find it hard not to see our minds as a product of evolution—much in the same way that our brains and bodies evolved. We got opposable thumbs, eyes, and consciousness. Our thoughts—even the most abstract thoughts—are grounded in the dynamic range of physical existence. This thing we imagine as a brain-based entity is formed in concert with sensory signals from our bodies. We are made up of our smell, sight, taste, touch, and hearing. Our minds did not blossom while we sat at a desk and contemplated, but as we moved through and sensed the world.
Whatever else we are, we are sensory data collectors. Maybe the dog does a better job of sniffing or the bat of hearing. Our brains are tuned to the sensual world—it seeks and expects constant sensory stimuli. Mark Solms argues that our consciousness results from the perpetual influx of information coming into the brain. Our consciousness checks that flood of information against our brains’ equally endless sets of predictions. Whether we are regulating the temperature of our bodies or the emotional tenor of our workplaces, our brains and minds (I am using “mind” almost interchangeably with “consciousness”) govern unconscious and unspoken expectations. Stimuli that occur outside the narrow predictions trigger error messages, and our minds leap into action—defending the status quo with alacrity.
However, what happens when our minds expect smells, sounds, and sights (and the occasional taste and touch), and there are none? What happens when we remove the wealth of stimulation? I hypothesize that the lack of signals about the world creates an error message in our brains akin to the kinds of error messages about our temperature. Our body-brain-mind system adjusts for too much heat or too much cold, but it adjusts because it constantly surveying for information; the system expects information. Without that information, it must (I surmise) recalibrate the sensory array and how the information is processed. Our brains don’t atrophy—that’s what you would guess, yes?—but reach out in new overexaggerated ways.
However, I do not suggest stimulating children in expanded versions of Skinner boxes. Our body-brain-mind systems develop through self-directed use. We are designed to move through a world of sensation—to process on the fly and on foot. We learn to think, read, and imagine—we write—by moving through the world. Williams cites the work of Kyung Hee Kim on the value of movement. Kim states that “[c]reative thinking is stimulated by physical activity, whether walking, running or active playing”—all of which run counter to the dictum of “writing=ass in chair.”
And creative thinking does not contribute to just writing or sculpting; it’s a matter of finding solutions that don’t plop themselves down in front of your nose. Or just behind your nose in your prefrontal cortex—although this too is vital. Creative thinking must veer from the straight-ahead planning that our prefrontal cortices make so fabulously possible. Planning in a straight line—our preferred method—bound by the powerful predicting mechanisms in our minds does not always lead to the best outcomes. We discover solutions by getting lost, encountering (and embracing) the unexpected, then adapting. We have to trigger error messages in our brains and become comfortable with the inevitable mistakes. I think of my students who more and more routinely fight against reading because they “do not relate” to a particular text. What is “do not relate” other than a self-reflective (“It’s not me”; “It’s not something I already know”; “It’s not something I can easily predict”) error message?
Every Sunday, I rely on long walks through museums to help reset and reinvigorate my mind. I walk through space (about five miles) and time. I proceed on a well-worn route: garden to museum to garden to museum to lunch to museum, and within the museums, I travel from Neolithic China to Philadelphia in 1984. In one display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art, objects displaying nearly identical winged protectors encompass fifteen hundred years. It’s a visual echo that resonates over millennia.
More than that—if that wasn’t enough—the walk takes me gradations of the unknown. We don’t know why the jade bi were sliced from jade. I return every week to them to revel in not-knowing—not ignorance per se, but engaged wonder. The bi remind me that some wonderful human-made things have no explanation. We can guess—we should guess—but our guesses should always be acknowledged as such. Precise and well-informed whenever possible. However, we must never let our desire to know ONE answer outstrip our willingness to learn as we go. Remember that you don’t know. I sit in front of a row of paintings by Monet, and I listen as someone explains how he had cataracts, which was why he painted like that. I do my best not to correct or alter the assumption, but it’s hard. Borofsky put the number “3277542 ” on his Man with Briefcase, and I may know how he numbered his work and why he said that he counted into the millions (these are documented facts), but as far as what motivated the artist, well, that’s an educated guess.
I constantly compile lists of things I know. People congregate in doorways. The left lane holds an uncanny attraction for slower drivers. Most people have not noticed that in Gallery 81 of the National Gallery of Art, the figures in the three paintings on the westward wall mirror those in the painting on the eastern wall. Children sometimes fall asleep in their parent’s laps. A man will ask, “Are you writing the great American novel?” (Answer, yes.) Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler sometimes looks strident, sometimes annoyed, but rarely befuddled. People take photographs of themselves that feature Mercury’s bottom, and I am sure that often this is an oversight. The people who work at the Courtyard Cafe will put aside the last napoleon for you. After that, mystery is certain. And necessary.
To return to movement: swimming was always a venture into the known—the well-loved, effortful known. I swam with my head down and eyes focused on the line on the bottom of the lane, chasing yards and time, sure that neither would fundamentally change. Fifty yards is always fifty yards, and a minute is always a minute. Yes, I filled those minutes with more yards (or spent fewer minutes swimming more yards), And, most of all, pain is always pain. Variations in the depth and texture of pain were a cause for concern (the knees, the shoulders), but pain was always a given.
While writing requires sustained effort, one must also embrace the unknown. Moving helps.
I became a better reader (which helped me become a better writer) by moving between tables in various restaurant jobs. I wasn’t a bad reader in college, but that was because I could do the determined slog of three hundred pages between a Tuesday and Thursday class. I read with my committed swimmer’s mind. Whatever brilliance I glimpsed only came into full view after turning my head in seventeen directions and delivering service, hot food, and cold drinks, all in the proper order. And because I moved in a dozen other, unexpected ways. Words on the page became easier and more ecstatic. And no, I don’t think one needs to wait on tables to be a better reader (or thinker). However, learning to think on my feet and realizing that the persistent thrum of “I, me, mine” became more powerful when it moved through the music of “him, her, them,” helped me become a better reader and writer.
“I, me, mine” are necessary, especially when writing. You cannot hope to enchant some unknown “them” until you find a way to please yourself as you slog away hour after hour. And then you may fall into a rut. That’s not always the worst thing. There are plenty of creative and successful people who hew to the ditch they dig. Their neural pathways run straight and certain down deep gulleys. Helpful habits will keep you returning, chairbound, to the work.
And yet, stuck happens, and sometimes banging our heads in the mud only makes it worse. Seat of pants dully applied to seat of chair risks stagnation. And no amount of instruction (this is the structure of plot; this is the value of metaphor) and mental exercise (write a paragraph in another character’s voice; write a story about an animal) will return you to the light. Go for a walk, breathing through your nose so you can smell the world. Take out your headphones and listen to the world as you pass through it. Dance in a crowd. Break a sweat, and forget your brilliant, luminous mind. You don’t have to go to the woods, the mountains, or the ocean. You are a wild animal wherever you are if you just remember to be one.
There is a wildness to writing, and not just a wildness of mind, although, please, a wildness of mind. But our minds, we forget, are grounded in the crude animal matter of our bodies. The glorious, perfectly imperfect body will help us move the words, ounce by ounce, page by page, and pound by pound into the world. What happens next is a mystery, but by moving my body and mind, I have learned the value of mystery. It’s what comes next.
I began the day in a foul mood. That’s not true. I shook the snooze on my phone enough times to drift back in and out of a dream I was having, gathered the cats’ feeding mice (they retrieve their food from a set of “mice” that I secret throughout my apartment twice a day), and poured a small cup of coffee. Traffic was inordinately painless. Then there was a line outside my first Sunday stop, a French bakery off Logan Circle in DC. People bundled in the late March chill. Flurries on the 27th? So be it.
Then the first blow, no almond croissants. Routine is terrible; I accept the necessity and know that I must make adjustments—perpetually. I arrive by ten to ensure my weekly extravagance of three almond croissants, which I portion out across the awful early days of the workweek. So be it. The friendly counter assistant offered almond croissants with chocolate, but I prefer not to mix my pleasures. “I’ll have three pistachio croissants.” There were, fortunately, plenty. “I’ll suffer,” I told her as the owner of the bakery looked on, noting my disappointment and smiling nonetheless.
And then the descent. As I left the shop, a young man burst through the open door and into the crowded shop. A wiry blonde fellow carrying a blue paperback textbook. Physics or economics—it hardly matters. He charged in without acknowledging his rudeness—one other person was waiting to exit. Unlike Ishmael, my first impulse was not to knock his hat off; he wore no hat. I wanted to deck him. “There’s more room out there,” slipped from my mouth, and then, “Dumb ass.”
In his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace warned against such flares of anger. He suggests “that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.” I get it. That young man might have had some life-saving advice to give to the people he was meeting at the bakery. Or he may have been on the spectrum and not in control of his social cues. I have many more moments when I can find the deeper solidarity of human experience, but I am keenly aware of my disdain for what? the failure of something like social grace.
The next twenty minutes of my morning descended in a spiral of disgust and disdain. Bad drivers multiplied like fleas and ticks on a lost dog. The sensor in my car alerted me that the air pressure in a reasonably new tire was low. The news and Joe Biden’s slip of passion—too much like my own. The world.
Except there are always bad drivers and people who back up without looking on crowded sidewalks or couples who stand conversing in entryways as if no one else wants to enter or exit. There are also kind shop owners, docents who recognize you and wave at you over the heads of a crowd, women who pet dogs, and dog owners who say, “Yes, she loves people.” Part of my Sunday ritual casts me pointedly and intentionally into the sea of museum-goers. The way people gaze at art—their comments and commiserations—delight me. We are at a concert, dancing and singing along with the masters of the world.
No wonder I write surrounded by all this—and all of them.
So, why such hypos today?
I just killed one of the characters in my novel. Yes, of course, someone else in the book killed him; I didn’t do it. But I did it. I knew I would do it and try as I may—and did—to distract myself from this inevitable passing, it had to happen. And today’s writing would carry me into the aftermath of that realization. I would have to begin the slow work of grief with the characters who remain. Writing has consequences, and no number of almond, or pistachio, croissants will salve the emotions that the work stirs. Yes, other characters have died in other works, but this was the first time a central character died because of another character’s cruelty. He will haunt the rest of the novel and haunt the characters who loved him.
I used to tell students in my college classes that they could miss a week of classes and needed to provide no excuses. “You’re adults,” I told them, “Life happens.” I also said, “Do not invent excuses. Do not claim sickness or death that did not happen—no, ‘I had to attend my great aunt’s funeral.’ Words have consequences. They are magic and can change the world.” I still believe this.
So today, on a perfectly ordinary day in a perfectly ordinary world, my brain hunkered down in advance of the pages that waited. Huzzah for belated self-awareness. I haven’t broken anything yet. Lesson: writing will shape your world, even if you aren’t aware of the shaping, even if it doesn’t change the rest of the world. Get to work at your own risk. Risk it all.
As a coda, there is a painting by Gilbert Stuart—he of the famous portrait of Washington—of a skater (called, The Skater). The man is utterly self-possessed. Unflappable. And yet, he is inscribing perfect circles on the ice. He has a nice hat. I don’t want to knock it off. I see him and think, “abstemious” (Either that or he just came from a long ocean voyage). Just as Prospero advised Miranda and Ferdinand, “Be more abstemious.” Advice well given. Back to work.
“I saw Ms. X___, and she said, ‘That’s what it must be like to be in one of his classes!’”
“That part was written for you!”
Yes, there were compliments, for which I am grateful, and all of which I could better hear after setting aside my natural predilection for self deprecation—why is it that I will always be more aware of my mistakes than my successes? I found some easy connections with Fagin: “What happens when I’m seventy?”; my current novel is about a gang of thieves; like Fagin, I am a teacher. However, I am not the outsider he has no choice to be; if I am, I choose that route. After the play, I washed off the make up, hung up the pants with gaping holes at the knees, and when Monday came, I put my pressed blue shirt with metal stays in the collar when I returned to classes. A costume is a costume
Still, some of the compliments rankled. That’s hard to admit, because it feels as ungracious to write as it must sound. I was delighted by the kindnesses that came my way. But no dear reader, I am not Fagin. Neither was Clive Revill, Ron Moody, Jonathan Pryce, or Rowan Atkinson, though all did excellent work in the role. Hear me out.
Once upon a time, a friend assessed another friend’s new book without reading it. The new book centered on a novice (an aspiring nun) who had stigmata (wounds that mirrored those suffered by Jesus on the cross). Previous efforts by this same writer included westerns and a book of short stories that had been described as “hardware store prose”—so, maybe a novel about a nun was unexpected. The pre-baked critique was along the lines of “What does he know about women?” As it turns out, the book fully understood the struggles of its protagonist and included passages of luminous, protean prose. It was just plain—and absolutely not plain—good.
Writers wander into new territory warily. Those who have long and successful careers tend to work the same plot of land—even if that plot covers ten thousand acres. Dickens stands out as the exemplar—popular beyond imagination and perpetually revisiting themes and character types—all those damned orphans, all those criminal step-fathers. But think of Austen, James, King, Grisham, Tyler, Hoffman, Rice. A writer like Virginia Woolf whose vision may be singular, but whose books vary in structure and approach, is rare. Joyce? Calvino? “Calvin-who?” you ask. Exactly.
And it isn’t just writers. I had a minister who sermonized that “The one thing was figuring out the One Thing.” Most of us spend years figuring out who we are and then hew tightly to that semi-self-defined course. In the public sphere, politicians who change their minds are lambasted by their critics. Over the course of the recent pandemic changing guidelines and responses drew salvos from all quarters. People want One Thing; anything more draws complaint and criticism.
Fuck it. We change. Life changes. Only an idiot sails into a hurricane (I’m thinking of you, dad) because that was the course he set months in advance. Granted, change is not easy, except when we are young and change is a daily and inevitable event—the voice, the hair, the height, the hormones. What’s the line from “Bittersweet Symphony”—“I’m a million different people from one day to the next?” A million may be too much, but just when you think, “Finally, the One Thing!” along comes life. Maybe we should take a lesson from all those years of change. Maybe.
At the end of the play, Fagin sings, “Can somebody change? It’s possible. Maybe it’s strange, but it’s possible.” Okay, I’ll own that connection. But really, possible? I can’t help but think that it would be horrible to be one person all one’s life. I clamor for the fourth and fifth act—or the 1001 Nights. I splash in Heraclitus’s river, changed and changed and changed again.
Why else write? Even these pieces are meant to dip into the river. Even when I visit and revisit a work of art, my parents, love, teaching, or writing—they are all stops at some bend, newly dug by the course of time. The writing barely binds them together.
“But they’re all about you.” As if. They’re just stories, ramblings and meditations on this strange journey. And really, they are all for you—the same as when I sang as Fagin. I’m singing to you, kid. Always.
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.
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.
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.