Little Women and the Writing Life

Watching Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women for the second time (I suspect that I will see it again), I cannot help but see it as a writer’s movie—a movie about a writer and her craft. Jo March wants to write a good story (or novel). She succeeds by writing commercially viable stories the contain murder, betrayal, and scandal; they are “short and spicy.” However, when she faces the impending tragedy of Beth’s death, she begins something new: a story about domestic struggles and joys.

All romance aside, writing is a domestic struggle and joy.

Jo’s life as a writer defines how she lives her domestic life. At first, her writing helps support her family. It gives her independence from the economic reality that women face, and the film paints a clear picture of those economics. Amy’s assertion of what she would give up—property, children—if she married is bracing, as it should be. There is an economic reality to writing as well, and one of the joys of the film is watching Jo negotiate with her publisher. In a triumph, she decides to hold on to the copyright of her novel, instead of taking an upfront payment in exchange for those rights.

Here is one of the significant places that the film takes liberties with the source material. Gerwig knows the story of the novel’s author, Louisa May Alcott—a woman who never married. Gerwig turns Jo into a version of Alcott and allows Jo to understand the bargain Alcott will make—forgoing married life for a writing life. Jo relents only when she feels the pangs of loneliness and allows her family to goad her into chasing her Professor. When Jo chooses Professor Bhaer, the film cuts between Jo’s discussion with her publisher (who insists, “If you decide to end your delightful book with your heroine a spinster, no one will buy it. It won’t be worth printing.”), and Jo’s consummation with Bhaer.

Gerwig has things both ways when this occurs. The film flows out in two directions afterward—one with Jo and her family opening the Plumfield School, and the other with editions of Little Women coming off the press with Jo’s name, not Alcott’s on the cover. It gives us two happy endings, one in which Jo is married and living an honorable and acceptable purpose, and another where she is a successful author.

Do I believe that the endings are exclusive of each other? They were exclusive of each other in Alcott’s life—for whatever reason. For the rest of us, I am not so sure.

I am sure that it takes a crisis to force the writer to come to compel the writer to mine—and compulsively mine—the deep sources of the story they will tell. John Gardner recommends, “[a] psychological wound is helpful, if it can be kept in partial control, to keep the novelist driven.” Jo’s grappling with Beth’s death, and the outpouring of work that follows seems true enough. She props up her notebook, open to one story, “For Beth,” and it opens her up to her novel. It pours out across her attic floor.

How long a wound can fester before it scars over and prevents the writing is another question entirely. How many wounds, how many crises can the nascent writer face before the fountain cracks, and the story dribbles away in dust?  But that is not the story of Gerwig’s Little Women; it is gloriously hopeful and shows the way ahead.

 

The Promise of London: A Writer's Promise

A year ago I was in London. My first night there, it was cold and rainy—the worst weather of my short trip. In spite of that, there was a walk to take—a walking tour of locations connected to Dickens and A Christmas Carol. Only a handful (6? 8 at the most) came out for that walk. At some point in the night, I was recruited to help read from The Pickwick Papers. The walk ended at The George with mulled wine, and guests out of doors in the cold singing.

The memory is happy and sad. I had traveled to London with a woman whom I deeply loved. I had traveled with some amount of trepidation; I knew she had other stars in her eyes, or, at the very least, that she doubted that I was star enough for her eyes. However, London was a promise I had made to myself long ago, and I was fulfilling that promise, or, again, at the very least, making the first steps toward that promise. The trip was a dream and reminded me of why I made that promise years ago.

One part of the promise involved travel. When I was a graduate student, I had been accepted to travel to London to help with a program at my school. I did not go. I had met a woman and thought we were going to be married, so I reneged on my duties and planned a wedding and a life. The marriage did not happen. I stayed in Binghamton for the spring instead of traveling. I promised myself that I would go, and go beyond.

The other part of the promise was to write.

I had gone to Binghamton to be a writer. I began grad school at 28 with only a thin idea of what I wanted to write. To be honest, my idea of myself as a writer was entirely romantic—in that way Shelley’s idea of the poet from In Defense of Poetry is romantic. Such an idea, without a steadily glowing ember of practice, is not sustainable. My writing, though full of hopeful ideas, had not taken proper root. I was a dilettante—determined, but without that obsessive drive that propels most writers. While I was in grad school, I delved into the academic side of my studies—the ideas were thrilling, and it was easier to make headway there.

My first writing workshop focused on short fiction. Although I had written a couple of short stories and read some, especially when I was younger and gobbled up anthologies of supernatural stories, I came to writing because of novels, especially the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mark Helprin. I wanted big strange things to happen in my work, and for my work to reflect a world in which the impossible was ever-present—if stalwartly and stupidly ignored. I wanted to shine a light on that world. Did I know that then? I do not think that I could have made a clear statement of exactly what I wanted, besides to “be a writer.” That is hardly enough.

I struggled with short work. I wish I could say that I had ten dozen ideas waiting to spring Athena-like from my forehead. I did not. After two years, I somehow cobbled together enough work for a Master’s Thesis, but the work relied too much on retelling stories from my life. I invented nothing. It wasn’t until my third year that I began to find my footing, and then only in the shortest of pieces, prose poems.

While academic writing can flourish jumping from George Chapman to Virginia Woolf to Charles Dickens, from Michel Foucault to Alice Jardine to Judith Butler, creative writing needs a steady—almost boring—focus. You have to sit at the grindstone. You have to want to sit at the grindstone, putting the millstone around your neck the way someone else might blithely doff a silk cravat, tied while running toward a morning meeting, or an afternoon assignation. It’s a damned heavy tie. And there must be something magical and transformative. The words must have the power to change the world.

And here’s the thing—as I have written in some of these posts, obsessive drive was antithetical to my idea of how I wanted to live. I had seen too much obsessive drive and distrusted it. Where some saw vision, I saw blindness. I felt it in myself, especially when I was “in love.” I distrusted the way I experienced romantic love and doubted whether I would be able to love anyone. At 28. I may not have had a clear idea about my writing, but I did have a clear—if wrong-headed—idea about my heart. I had much to learn. Now, I feel called to write every day, and if I do not, I feel the bite of old dogs. If days go by, the dogs grow younger and hungry.

And, I had given up on magic. Are the two things, love and writing, all that separate? Sadly, or happily, for me, they are not.

What happened? Well, this, for one. In January of 2018, I started reflecting on lost bits of my life. I had something to reclaim. It started with reflections on love and what I learned from a selection of movies—some obscure, some well known. Then I started musing on happiness and moving and beginnings and, of course, writing. I had something to reclaim. I explained to a friend that my newfound sense of urgency was the result of losses around me and my own gnawing loss of self. I felt my life slipping away.

What am I to myself

that must be remembered,

insisted upon

so often?

Robert Creeley

One of the early writing lessons was that one had to fight against insistence on anything other than the artistic integrity of the work. Art was all that mattered. Everything else was selfish preoccupation. There is a nascent Buddhism in this practice. Writers must not crave; they must simply let the perfect “be” and then get the hell out of the way. Great writing was, at some level, an act of self-erasure—the presence of absence. Especially when I was a young romantic writer-to-be, this appealed to my innate perfectionism and idealism. In a world full of corrupted motivation and suspect morality, attempting to make something beautiful was honorable. This is part of the elusive call of writing, and of all art. Everyone else must live reined in by the art of the possible: politics and compromise. Writers and artists strive for the unobtainable. Even when we engage the flaws in our work, as often as not we are performing some subtle—or not so subtle—sleight of hand. We are like the carpet weaver adding the imperfection because the perfect is reserved for God alone. Or for Shakespeare.

Which brings me back to London, a city in which Shakespeare’s famous theatre was rebuilt through the efforts of an American actor. When I went to London, I was a month and a half into a novel, and I knew that it would be a novel. I had imagined other work as long as novels before, but this was different. I had never felt drawn into the writing as I had with my book about the djinn. I knew it was going somewhere, and I did not know how it would get there. I was not simply writing about characters who were magical and from the world of enchantment; I was enchanted by the work. I researched djinn as I wrote, and would go back and revise whole sections to suit what I learned while I wrote. I let myself be out of control and let the book go out of my control.

The closest comparisons I can make to this were the feelings I had when I was at the crest of a wave—either on my father’s boat on the Atlantic Ocean or when I was body-surfing off the coast of California. In both cases, I was out of control and exhilarated. I felt the same way in London—that the waves of history, of literature, of streets, of unknown alleyways, and yes, of love could all come crashing down. They could, and some did, and I had to go ahead and throw myself into the waves anyway.

I wonder how this last novel came about so easily, but, really, it did not come easily. It began ages ago and I did not know it. I made a promise. As I gear up for the next, I am surprised that I am finding enchantment. Again. I am also pleasantly surprised that I know, a little, how to uncover enchantment when I need it. I have not needed to travel back to London. And yet, on this day—and if I am honest, every day—I feel the call. I have promises to keep. And miles to go…

In Praise of Outcomes

I was listening to a presentation on meditation; the speaker explained how we are not our thoughts. It’s a tenet of Buddhism—you don’t get attached to your thoughts or your feelings, but acknowledge them as passing events. You can—and do—hold them, but only as you choose to do so. Or, rather, you are meant to make a choice. We are not always the best choosers of our thoughts or feelings.

As a person who relies on thought (and there is no thought that is unaccompanied by a feeling) to do my work, and as a person who casts his mind into the ocean of inspiration and lets it carry him as it will, I am sensitive to both seeking a direction and to changing course when needed.  I do not hold with Shelley, who wrote: “Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness…” Fuck that. I will make a world of words, and when I feel more powerful, I believe that I can change the world with my words. They are magical, wish-fulfilling words.

Because I have a wish. I have a thousand wishes: one for every unfulfilled night of dreams, and another for each daylight hour I have spent do anything but this.

In the end, for all the talk about process and not paying attention to outcomes, I want an outcome. I want the damn thing to be good. I want people to turn their eyes back to the page and keep reading. I am motivated by the sheer selfish desire for fame—the kind of fame Beowulf seeks and gains—nothing fleeting, nothing easy. I will meet the monster on his terms and I will match him hand-hold for hand-hold. I will wrench the fucker’s arm off and I will wave it over my head and I will howl in glory.

And so, I choose. And choose again—thoughts and feelings that may be fleeting billow like a sand column in the desert, stirred into shapes that defy sensible reckoning. I am at work — full of will and intention. For better or for worse.

500 pages

I graduated from SUNY-Binghamton with a Ph.D. in English Literature/Creative Writing in 1994. Before I went to graduate school, I did not know what I wanted to be. I had written a little earlier in life, and had taken a fiction workshop while I was an undergraduate, but my sense of myself as a writer was hazy at best. Still, I had done some work and I applied to writing programs in the spring of 1988. I was accepted at Binghamton.

While I was in graduate school, I wrote stories, a novel that I shelved, some poetry, and essays. I also wrote a slew of academic papers. Mostly, I read furiously and widely, delving into a world of literature and philosophy that had not existed for me before I began this turn in my life. I still have many of the books that I read in those six years and they are either a bulwark or an anchor. Now, they seem more like part of a wall that divided my life into the time when I did not write, the time I discovered writing, and the time I stopped writing.

That time ended in 2018 when I considered moving away from family and the jobs I held in Norfolk. I had been separated and divorced for four years. Calamity at one of my jobs resonated in my life. I was at sea. I needed to find a ground that was not defined by the needs and desires of other people. I needed, frankly, to be selfish and directed. I do not believe that it is a surprise (to me at least) that my colleagues sent me packing with the book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck when I left in August of 2018. Message received.

Because I did give a fuck — too many fucks — not just in my professional work and personal life, but in my writing. Unlike some of my one time classmates, I felt called to writing not so much because I had a need to express myself, but almost in spite of any need to exclaim, “Here I am!” I was obsessed with getting at some ineffable and intractable truth that existed outside my narrow sense of self. I wrote with an evangelical zeal. Can I say that art motivated by such a keening has little easy air to breathe? It does not. My stories, even when they were fantastic, needed to tread more often on the ground.

When I started writing this blog in 2014, I was in China to adopt my daughter. I started to write about simple human truths that were grounded in my simple human experiences. I hoped that my observations would have some resonance with others, but I wrote without too much of a concern for an audience. The work proceeded in fits and starts after that initial push. And then it flared into this—a daily practice of reflection and direction. That fire lit the flame of the novel I finished in August and has carried me into a second.

My writing projects since May of 2018 have produced over 500 pages of words. Some are good. Some are better. My nonfiction has been largely about my writing and writing in general. My fiction has just been a story about a Djinn, almost a retelling of an older—much older—story, with some of my preoccupations thrown in for good measure.

Writing (fiction and nonfiction) has felt revivifying. I have enjoyed the deeper reflection and playful invention. The writing has come more easily and far more consistently than anything else and at any time I have ever written. Ever. I have looked forward to the task and have left it—whether I write for an hour or the better part of a day—feeling replenished. More will—and does—come.

When I shared this insight—500 pages! More is coming!—with a friend, I did so with the proviso: “in spite of the past year.” She corrected me: “Because of it.” Perhaps so. Perhaps I spent the past year and a half knocking myself off my moorings just so that I could get this work done, just so that I could reclaim all that I had feared was lost.

I told another friend that I felt a kind of urgency to write. She worried that I was ill or distressed. Yes, I have been distressed. Old wounds have haunted me and focused my attention. I have allowed them the space to heal. And have used the writing to help me heal.

While the writing has helped me gird myself against that distress, it has also allowed me to wrap myself in joy. I feel that joy more profoundly now than when I was starting out some thirty years ago. The old uncertainties have fallen away. I do not ask, “Is it good enough? Will there be another? Do I have the right?” Instead, I take solace in a more durable method that suits my heart and mind. I go this way.

What’s next…

I am in between.

Leaving the world of one book for another—even though I was only in that other world for just over ten months—is a discomforting experience. I feel as if I have broken up with my old book. I have put away the music I listened to while I was at work on that book. No more symphonic Led Zepplin. No more Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. I wonder about the habits of place and duration that propelled the writing of that novel. Can I still go to my Sunday retreats? My place in the library? I’m not married—a blessing and a curse—but I can see how putting one book down would have seismic effects in my personal life. Fortunately—and unfortunately—those changes were already built into this project.

Hahn/Cock by Katharina Fritsch

I spent an hour or so in front of the blue chicken in the tower display of the National Gallery of Art’s East Building going through songs to build a playlist of new music. I have resorted to familiar places—they are still full of energies that may urge this new project on. But “Monekana” by Deborah Butterfield will not call to me, reminding me what constitutes my magical horse, Bellapari. I will miss Bellapari.

Monekana by Deborah Butterfield

What I take forward is a method—because although Butterfield’s sculpture will no longer sing its mythic song full of infinite purpose, something else will open doors to vision that I have not yet seen. I recall that even the Gorecki that drove two months of writing came only after I heard a snippet of it in an episode of Legion. Gifts come from everywhere. Even my Emira untethered herself from her initial source. All that remained constant was my presence at a keyboard, and my presence will be what carries me.

I messaged a friend as I headed into the last chapters “How did it take so long?” That is a long story, and it feels sadder and more pointless on reflection than it was while I went through it. Maybe the years away will end up having whet the creative blades to such a point that I will cut through the next and the next and the next book with the same—if not ease, then precise and playful resolve.

I have loaded the playlist, and gone to visit the angels. Bring on the thieves.

Stevenson Memorial by Abbott Handerson Thayer

Writing the Dream

It is different for each of us, but being a fiction writer means living a large part of one’s life in the realm of make-believe. Wait, that’s not quite right. It means that we build something new—over and over again—in the land of make-believe. Fiction writers are artists of the possible. Sometimes the possible looks an awful lot like the everyday, and sometimes it does not. Sometimes the possible is just as sad or happy as the everyday, and sometimes it is happier or sadder. We decide what it will look like and how it will feel, and then use our prose to create a circumstance in which those visions and feelings come to life. In the most prosaic terms, we make the hammer that the protagonist drops on his bare foot, breaking his toe, and sending him into howls of hurt and anger. The hammer, the hurt, the anger, the foot—and the rest of the protagonist—come from the writer.

One of the joyful challenges of writing is not simply making a world that does what I want, but in making a world in which what I want makes sense. There is a difference. I am certain that all writers struggle with the switch from a world in which they create everything—and in which most of it works—to the world in which they do not—in which the deft use of language has absolutely no impact on reality, or worse, in which their singular ability to shape the world is denigrated, or produces an opposite effect than intended.

John Gardner said the goal of fiction is a “vivid continuous dream.” That’s a damn good metaphor for how fiction should work. The whole piece needs to bind together with the logical and artistic consistency of a dream—nothing that wakes the reader from that dream can be included. But a dream—with all its truth and disjunction—is hard to create intentionally. We’ve all seen—or read—dream sequences that were stupidly obvious. A great dream draws us in, surprises us, and finally wakes us from slumber wondering, “What the hell was that?”—and maybe, if we are lucky, driving us back into sleep for the chance to retrace our steps back to that magical lost garden. There is a reason that we pour over books of dream interpretation to discover the real meaning of the nightly synchronized swimming show our brains orchestrates for our (dis)pleasure.

The odd thing is that the real world sometimes feels more like a poorly written dream than my fiction does. People behave in random—seemingly so—ways. We are subject to momentary desires, and desires that have little to do with our present circumstances. No amount of professional therapy will ever translate a deep understanding of our pasts into a reasonable pattern of behavior in our present. Knowing why we are who we are does not give us the sudden ability to act other than we have been. If characters in fiction acted the way people do in life, we would all throw the books out the nearest windows.

When we write the dream, we must select and we must focus. The genuinely random bits of life must be jettisoned for a kind of “unity of effect” (that’s a term that Poe uses in the “Philosophy of Composition”) Hence writers fall back on routine while they write—trying to evoke this unity by listening to the same music (if they do) while they write, or writing in the same space, at the same time of day, using the same pen or pencil or computer, and the same kind of paper—or typing in the same font. The tricks are endless. The goal is the vivid continuous dream.

And yet, we are like the actors in Shakespeare’s time: we get our roles—just our lines—and little else. We must pull our parts together based on the parts we have already played—young lover, perfidious King, lascivious barmaid, starry-eyed daughter. Or so I imagine. Somehow, perhaps, we craft a starry-eyed King, or perfidious daughter. Shakespeare did.

When I was a child, we had a favorite book in the house. It had split pages and you could make new animals by combining the top of this animal, the middle of some other, and the bottom of that one. Some of the combinations were absurd—and that was the point. So, we experiment and put our stories together.

As for what to do with real life, I do not have an easy, or a happy answer. It will not be shaped. I write this even though I work as a teacher, a so-called shaper of young minds. Too much has happened in my life that has defied shaping. Like a fairly conscious dreamer, I have learned to act on the stage of the unconscious—which happens in the waking life just as much as the sleeping—and to fly into the tornado that devastates the landscape. I avoid destruction. I cannot stop the tornado though.

And here’s the secret: when I write, I pray for the tornado. Everything else is wind too calm. I need a wind wild enough to carry me. And it does.

Why the Djinn?

A friend asked where I got the idea for the Djinn. Here is the long story.

I wrote poems when I was in ninth and tenth grade. They were lengthy works with regular rhythm and rhyme. They told stories. When I asked my school to allow me to do an independent study in poetry writing, I was turned down, but one of my teachers suggested working with him to write sonnets and other formal verse. Stung by early rejection, I refused his offer.

I started writing fiction in college, and was accepted into a workshop in my senior year. After graduation, I started writing an espionage novel that had something to do with Monet’s Haystack paintings in the Hermitage, in St, Petersburg. I started work on a story about a baseball player. I started something about two friends who decided to go to college and pretended that they were ten years younger than they were.

I had a sense of the novel, and novel length stories, but at this point in my life, I had only read a few hundred novels—and many fewer short stories. Even though I started writing with poetry—blame A.A. Milne and Dr. Seuss for the sounds in my head—I had been enchanted by folk tales, fairy tales, and mythology at an early age. I took out book after book of myths (Greek, American—Native American and regional folk tales, Indian, Chinese—I was only limited by the selection on the shelves) from my the local and then elementary school library. My other interests in the library were the Rod Serling or Alfred Hitchcock anthologies of horror stories, atlases and encyclopedias.

I did not start reading adult novels until I was in 7th grade and a friend lent me his copy of The Guns of Navarone, after which I read everything that Alastair MacLean wrote. I made a mad dash through Kurt Vonnegut in 8th grade. I read all of Ursula K. LeGuin’s books before 9th grade. All this is a fairly slim bit of literature. My parents were not big readers—we had collections of Reader’s Digest Condensed Novels on our few bookshelves. My mother did read to us, sharing Beowulf and Poe stories. But we were not a bookish family. My brothers and I found what we looked for with relatively little guidance.

I was an able enough reader in high school, but short of Billy Budd, little of what I read stuck with me. On my own, I read all of Neil Simon’s plays, and other plays, and took up with science fiction and fantasy (Asimov, Tolkien, and a little known writer named Zenna Henderson). I read and reread Robin Graham’s account of his trip around the world, Dove. Mostly, I spent long hours listening to progressive rock, watching old movies, swimming, and driving the family car as far and as fast as I could.

In college, I discovered William Blake, James Joyce, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and Gustave Flaubert. It was also when I read all of John Le Carre’s spy novels, The Joy of Sex, and the only Daniell Steel novel that ever passed my way—The Promise. The main focus of English Literature courses was exposure to more—and I share the story of having a short novel assigned between a Tuesday and Thursday class with my students now. I read widely and gleaned what I could as quickly as I could. In my junior year, I switched focus to Art History (same deal: memorize as many works of art—in order and with an understanding of importance—as fast as possible), which, fortunately included a Cinema class that greatly expanded my limited knowledge of film.

So, what does any of this have to do with Djinn? I suspect that strains of all this—and of all the events of my life to date—appear in this work. Mainly, there is the myth, the early fascination with and appreciation of the fantastic as a genre, and the long interest in things that were away from here.

I encountered the djinn—as genies—in Sinbad and the Tales of the 1001 Nights. This book re-entered my life while I was in graduate school, in large part because of John Barth’s insistence on non-western sources of and for stories. But also because, once I encountered the djinn (or jinn), I was impressed by their wiliness and cruelty. I wondered—right or wrong—whether they had been mis-portrayed by the writer of the 1001 Nights. Why would such power need to be cruel? To refer back to Blake—“…what shoulder & what art,/ Could twist the sinews of thy heart?” I wondered. But I did not pursue the djinn, not yet.

I wrote in other ways. Although I have a set of prose poems set in Philadelphia that delve into the fantastic, I followed the realist tropes of my time. Perhaps this is what kept me from finishing—I was writing away from the story in my heart. Last year, when I dropped everything to take on new responsibilities—to myself and my work—I set aside the piece I had feverishly labored over for over ten years. During that ten years, I had written down a brief thought about a character who was keeping a secret (secrets will be something I grapple with forever). Five years ago, I was waiting for friends in a Mexican restaurant, and dashed out to buy a composition book, wrote a couple of pages before they arrived , and promptly forgot the book at the restaurant.

That story became the story of the Djinn.

I was dating a woman who shared my appreciation for the 1001 Nights—you have a copy too?—and that was enough of a spark to light the fire in this book, because the kindling, and the logs, had been waiting all these many years. Suddenly, I had a character whose secret was so closely held that he did not even know he was keeping it. He had forgotten that he was a Djinn.

There are other connections to other parts of my life and my studies that fueled this fire. Some of those will remain secret. Others are perhaps too obvious for me to mention here. For those of you who wonder how novels—or anything—gets written—by others or by your own hand—the short answer is that we tell the stories that enchant us. The shorter answer is that we sit down and write every day. No matter what. Perhaps because we are enchanted and under some infernal command—I wish that you write a novel, Djinn. So be it.