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.
When I was 17, I read Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Not on my own—it was for an Ethics class in high school. We also read Plato, Aristotle, Bentham, Mill, Kant, Golding, Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment over Winter Break!), Mishima, and Descartes. And when I wrote “Not on my own,” I lied. I chose the class, and I gobbled down everything Fritz Marks put in front of us. I still refer to Hobbes (40+ years later). I expanded on my understanding of the rationale behind Descartes in grad school, when I pulled apart the “cogito ergo sum” as it applied to ideas in William Blake’s prophetic poems. We are never done.
Hobbes’s vision of mankind, based so much on what was observable—limited, one might say—was grim—is grim—and foreboding. The social contract—or some kind of explicit and implicit agreement—was all that stood between us and the enduring war of all against all. Kant threw us a life preserver—the notion of the sunnum bonnum—but tell me when in history that any group of people could agree on a greatest good for more than 26 minutes. Hobbes hangs around the same way that Thrasymachus is craftily ushered out of Plato’s Republic. We may move on from the dark vision, but it’s hard to wash that blood off your hands.
This essay will head in two directions, and I’ll get the weighty one off first. I’m not sure how you feel about the social contract. We give it more than a little bit of lip service—some implicit set of agreements that keeps us from (figuratively and literally) eating each other. I once pointed out the difficulty of claiming a moral high ground because of the numerous daily petit disruptions to the explicit contracts. In a sermon, I pointed out speed limits as an indication of a rule that was almost designed to be broken—and was taken to task for asserting that people knowingly violated laws. But what high moral ground can we claim? I lived in West Philadelphia when the mayor allowed the police to drop an incendiary device—a bomb—on a row home; the resulting fire consumed 61 homes and killed eleven. In the final days of the US evacuation from Afghanistan, a drone strike killed 10 Afghan citizens, in what the US military admitted was a “fatal mistake.” Yesterday, 2000 people died of COVID in the United States, and we will never know how many of those were infected by people who refused vaccines or masks. We are always living in the fog of the war. Is it the war of all against all? I don’t know, but I know that despite best intentions or assertions of individual freedoms, someone, somewhere, is getting served. Again.
The will to power, in whatever form it takes, is hard to set aside. Jack Merridew (from Golding’s Lord of the Flies) stands as a perpetual caution. We want meat (metaphorical and actual), and we have Roger to keep the boys in order. I know that some point to the schoolboys who disproved Golding’s fictional account of our race to destruction. I will point to the differences: the Tongan schoolboys were not British schoolboys; the boys were friends and not assembled hodgepodge to avoid an oncoming nuclear war; there were only 5 boys joined in a common purpose as opposed to the 20-50 in Golding’s novel. And one is true, and the other rings true. So yes, given the circumstances, we can avoid eating each other. If we are those boys. An obvious common purpose wrapped in the warm cloth of friendship creates the conditions for a reasonable implicit contract.
In the end, I suspect that the social contract is a useful fiction, but I also acknowledge the power of story in our lives. We need good stories. Linda Cron says that we are “Wired for Story,” and I show my students clips of Marlon Brando weaving the story of Caesar’s assassination. Do you want to win the argument? Tell a better story. A bloodied body helps. Of course, Brando has the advantage of Shakespeare, but who hasn’t been swayed by rhetoric as sharp and story-bound? The line will be short.
One story is that we are brutish, that we are only a few thousand years removed from a more animal existence, and we must acknowledge that former life and behave accordingly. Our inherent biology drives us to fuck and fight and eat (Paleo!). This kind of biological absolutism ignores that whatever we evolved from, we did evolve (if in fits and starts) and continue to evolve. We are, always, changing—from our guts to our brains. One startling aspect of Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary is how it posits an almost lightning-like speed of change.
Another story is that we are imbued with goodness or holiness. Or that at least a few of us have been chosen for such rewards. Can I not unpack the problems of us/them either/or here or the tribalism that religious fervor unleashes? The moment any group names itself “Select,” all those who do not face immediate peril. When a supreme being is the source of authority and man (any man) wields the will of God (any God), then disagreement and diversity become less than second thoughts. Or, to quote Hume, “[O]ne party by tracing up government to the DEITY, endeavor to render it so sacred and inviolate that it must be little less than sacrilege, however tyrannical it may become, to touch or invade it in the smallest article.” What you call Sharia, I call Texas.
It may seem as if misanthropy is the only safe harbor once one heaves the contract away. Still, this afternoon, I joked with complete strangers about the title of Tiepolo’s Wealth and Benefits of the Spanish Monarchy under Charles III. Beautiful painting. Hilarious title. I asked a guard about the signs surrounding parts of Sarah Cain’s installation. Huge single-colored circular inserts into stone benches have signs exhorting, “Please do not sit or stand on the colored circles.” As if. The guard laughed about the kids who could not help themselves. My daughter gets embarrassed by my exchanges, but they keep me sane. Without an esprit de corps, life becomes too ponderous. We are all in this together.
We all know this, especially after the past year. The virus ignored all divisions: class, race, gender, religion. The virus—as viruses always have—leaped across boundaries as nimbly as a 9-year-old leaping over hopscotch squares. COVID could have (should have?) been an occasion for recognizing our togetherness. After all, viruses have happened before and will happen again. Calling it a name or blaming someone (an animal, a person, a city, a nation) ignores history and biology. Viruses don’t mean to do anything; they have neither will nor strategy. Like the lilies of the field, they neither reap nor toil. You cannot go to war with a virus. We tried. And on a war footing, we—and this “we” is a particularly American “we”— got angry—and not at life in general or some god, but at each other. Perhaps, in our relatively comfortable lives, we forget that life is hard, that living in the world requires work and alteration.
A friend texted me Sunday morning with news of his family’s encounter with COVID. His daughter’s classmate brought the virus to school from her infected parents, and you can guess the rest. My initial response was anger, disgust, relief, and commiseration. I am a parent, and I teach.
I understand why we want our kids in school. Students do better when energized by each other and by teachers. Teachers also get more from the verbal and nonverbal give and take of the classroom. But schools, private schools too, are confluences of race, class, gender, religion, and now, attitude. We now claim attitude (I don’t like masks. What?) as a fundamental right, which strains even the fictional social contract. The virus has no attitude and no philosophy. Take a lesson.
I began this essay by explaining my first encounter with Hobbes. One of the initial contracts I entered into was a student. Throughout my life, I was an enthusiastic student, save for a few unfortunate cases. I never took to Mr. Ewell in chemistry, and as much as astronomy holds a charm for me today, I failed Wulff Henitz’s class at Swarthmore. Otherwise, I chased rabbits down the deepest holes, and learning never felt like a chore. Call me crazy (or seriously misguided), but I expected my students to feel the same way. I quickly recognized that I would need to persuade many of my students to my way of thinking, and I did. I cajoled. I amused. I swam across desks to demonstrate the power of metaphor. I taught for 25 years at various levels and enjoyed much of the task. This past year, when the pandemic tore the school year to shreds and sent us to zoom screens, I felt as if the implicit contract between my students and me—in fact, most of the unspoken agreements between administrators and teachers and parents—got tossed in the shredder. Contract, my foot.
Teaching English has always been a matter of teaching about humans. Writers may care about structure and grammar, but what matters most is the human condition. As a writer, the only thing that matters is getting a fully human experience onto the page. When I write “fully human experience,” I mean one that grapples with our brightest gifts and most dreadful failings. We live our lives veering from one to the other in some vast internal and external landscape. Mountain ranges and inward seas. Admirable struggles await.
Several years ago, I worked as a principal at an Orthodox Jewish Boys’ School, a Yeshiva. One of the Rabbis called me “The Warden,” and at that moment, I knew my time at that helm was short. I do not blindly accept authority, even my own, and I know there is so much that I do not know, and this goads me on to learn more, think harder, and dig deeper into this loamy life. The Cuban writer Virgilio Piñera has a story about a man who devours a mountain. If I am going to do the impossible, I will need to focus my efforts. This work will not devour itself.
I have chosen my mountain, and my ocean, my desert, and my city. I will write about what I find there, but I am no longer interested in standing at some imaginary gate telling students they didn’t qualify—either for entrance or escape. Not to put too fine a point on it, I am absolutely not interested in being the warden. I will wrestle with existential “no’s” in my work—and the existential “yes’s.” Always the Yes! I choose to cheer in my life among the young. They have hills enough to chew (read the Piñera). That is my contract. For now.
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.
People at the National Gallery walk past Waterloo Bridge, Gray Day, and stop in front of The Houses of Parliament, Sunset, or The Seine at Giverny. I get it; those paintings are suffused with light—even the sun setting in the West behind the shadowy edifice of the Houses of Parliament gives the evening painting an elegant aura. The sun is barely present in Waterloo Bridge, Gray Day, which should not be a surprise in smoke throttled London. But there is no shine—instead of the billows of white smoke in a train yard, or the reflected sun in a lily pond, this is just gray. Another typical London afternoon.
The painting bears all the hallmarks of Impressionism: surfaces broken into brushstrokes, a scene captured with immediacy and revealing a moment. If it were not flanked by brighter canvases, would you stop? Who knows? This painting is gray—the day was gray—and Monet mutes his palette. People move on.
We are drawn to light. In a wood-paneled room of Rembrandts (Gallery 51), the glints and swaths of light in the dark paintings stand out. There may be details in those dour portraits; still, our gaze focuses on those bright patches. Rembrandt uses light to command our eyes toward the centers of the works—or in the case of Philemon and Baucis, to the right side of the painting, where a nimbus flares up behind Philemon—as it should, she received Zeus and Hermes when other, wealthier neighbors turned the gods away. Rembrandt does not play with light like De La Tour (The Repentant Magdalen, with the skull—a memento mori—only seen reflected in a mirror, shows off his use of light). He lights what matters most—this is key lighting, not bravura technique. But this is how we see, and this is what he (or his patrons) wants you to see. He knows that our gaze is like a moth, drawn inexorably to the flame.
In Gallery 69, Whistler’s Symphony in White uses the bright cuff of Joanna Hiffernan’s dress not to focus the viewer but to prevent our look from settling here or there. Even the wolf rug’s gaping mouth—in and of itself a supreme irony—does not fix us. We can apply some meaning, but the painting fights against allegory and symbolism. It’s white, only white. Across the room, Sargent uses a flash of white to guide our gaze from the transfixing stare of Margaret Stuyvesant Rutherford White to a point just at her left hip. Sargent’s portait has other work to do. The flash of white is a sleight of hand—and it is Mrs. White’s left hand, in the shadow formed by the folds of her dress, that holds a small bottle. We cannot smell her perfume—it’s a painting, just a painting—but Whistler lets us know that she is not above such enticement. She is not a painting or symphony or play of light.
I tease my students while making a point. I wave my fingers in the air up and to my right, “Bright and shiny! Bright and shiny!” We are eminently distractible—they are; I am. A short woman in a pink shirt and a mask fashioned from a blue bandanna puts her hand on the shoulder of the short man with whom she walks through the museum, stopping for a moment in front of the sunset in one of Monet’s paintings. One part of my mind leaves the gallery room with them. A family—two boys and a dad trailing behind mom, who pauses in front of Redon’s Pandora—enters. I don’t know whether they are from out of town and making the fleeting pilgrimage or revisiting. They leave too quickly for me to ask. Instead, I talk to the couple on the bench beside me, and a woman confesses that she fell in love with Monet’s The Artist’s Garden at Vétheuil when she was 8. “It was everything,” she says. She paints.
I am jealous of painters and their use of color and light to direct the audience’s gaze around their work. Like a symphony, they speed our eyes and slow them down, distract us with flourishes, and satisfy us with thematic or chromatic resonances and unities. Yes, we will “read” the subject, but the paintings open in a dozen other ways, all at once, convincing us and vexing our expectations. I seek to do as much. The galleries inspire me.
At some point, you are going down the tubes, over the edge, off the rails. You may have something to do with the inexorable demolition of your temporary hopes and dreams, or a house may fall on you from out of the sky, while you are in mid-sentence about to say the most profound thing anyone has ever heard. Or not. You may be doing nothing more than mowing the lawn and wondering why it has gotten so dark so suddenly.
What prepared me? Nothing. I led a life of easy glory. Success came without consequence, well other than the third grade geography teacher who told me that my coloring was atrocious, or awful, and I wondered how the other kids filled in the map without the striations of crayons. So what, I won the class spelling bee. I sang in the chorus and joined the math club. Years passed, achievements accumulated.
I sat in my car after the first night I played in our local poker game in Pittsburgh. My heart pounded wildly in my chest, and my hands shook too much to take the wheel. I had lost sixty dollars, which was, at the time, the most I had ever lost at cards. I had played in a casual game in graduate school, and rarely lost, and when I did, it was the cost of a couple of cups of coffee at the local diner. And my winnings were rarely more than a few plates of hotcakes. Sixty dollars hurt. When I returned the next week—it was an amiable bunch of guys, and I sought their company as much as the play of the game—I played to watch and learn. I did.
Over time, I earned back my initial loss, and rarely lost in that group of players. When I sat down to play, I sat down with a plan, and with the hard-honed anger that allowed me to focus on the task. One player’s wife remarked that I had more testosterone than anyone else at the table. It was a back-handed compliment. She was—still is—a feminist, and masculinity, even back in the nineties, was out of favor, especially among academics. Which we were. The game was made up of Ph.D. candidates and recently minted Doctors, along with a few locals (a movie reviewer for a local paper, a former Priest turned pharmacist, a former UPS worker, a purveyor of goods imported from South America and Southeast Asia). We played the gamut of Friday night neighborhood poker games—all sorts of strange and changing wildcards. Maybe that was why I lost the first time I played. Probably not. Later, when Texas Hold ‘Em became de rigueur, the table talk abated. Most games are quieter now. I miss the conversation—it took the edge of the testosterone. But I never forgot that first night.
We don’t learn from losses unless they hurt. A short sharp shock teaches better than a slow accumulation of pain. Maria Konnikova includes an early chapter on loss in her book about poker, The Biggest Bluff. She writes, “After all, losing is what brought me to the table in the first place. It makes sense that learning to lose in a game, to lose constructively and productively, would help me lose at life. Lose and come back. Lose and not see it as a personal failure… When it comes to learning, triumph is the real foe. It’s disaster that’s your teacher. It’s disaster that brings objectivity. It’s disaster that’s the antidote to that greatest of delusions: overconfidence.”
Later in the book, when she begins to recount the disaster that ended one particular tournament to her mentor, Eric Seidel, he tells her, “Stop… Look, every player is going to want to tell you about the time their aces got cracked. Don’t be that player. Bad beats are a really bad mental habit. You don’t want to ever dwell on them.” This may seem contradictory. Learn that losing is part of the game, but don’t talk about them. As long as you made good decisions, the outcome does not matter. Win or lose.
But, you say, don’t we play for an outcome? No. We play because we love the thrill of sustained focus. Making precise, intricate, and meaningful decisions allows us to shine. Define “shine” as you will. I recall Baudelaire’s poem, “Get Drunk”—“With wine, with poetry, with virtue, as you choose!” Choose where you will shine, and focus furiously. I stopped playing poker, saving my focus for what brings me back to the world. I write.
In my classroom, there are a series of posters proclaiming, “Think like a poet,” “Read like a poet,” “Write like a poet.” They were there when I arrived, and I left them up. The joy of writing (and yes, here’s where this comes back to writing), is the simplest of pleasures—making decisions, and learning as you go. You learn the process when you learn to read. (Or not.) You approach the text as a series of branches. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…” Why the tripled “tomorrow’s”? Why the “and’s”? What comes next? (Creeps…). If you learned to read like THAT, then you have practiced how to write.
And losing? What is the bad beat in writing? Rejection? Better writers than I save rejection letters; there are even books full of them. A book of bad beats. Why? Writer’s block caused by what? A lack of simply sitting and scratching out a few words on unproductive days? Hardly. Turn on the music and write about that. Watch the news and write about that. Talk to your friends and write about them. Walk and write about what you saw. Just write.
The bad beat is the loss of faith, in the belief that your vision is enough. I don’t know what caused it for you, or how to restore your loss. Follow me, let me be the Virgil to your Dante. Imagine that—me, Virgil. You will lose—midway on life’s journey, the right road lost. But there is a way. Follow.
Thousands of jade bi (pronounced bee) have been unearthed in elite Liangzhu culture burial sites, varying in size, quality of stone, level of workmanship, and finish. Yet the meaning, purpose, and ritual significance of bi remain unknown.”—from display text at the Freer Gallery of Art
The bi in the Smithsonian National Museum of Asia Art (The Freer/Sackler Galleries) are 4000-4500 years old. Some of the other jades are a thousand years older. I like that bi are so old, and among the earliest pieces of art in all the museums in Washington DC. I also like that we do not know the significance of the bi—that over 4000 years, their meanings have gone missing. They had a significance; we just don’t know what it was.
What matters is what we leave behind.
In the other corner of the Freer Gallery, an exhibit of Hokusai’s paintings and illustrations includes quotations from the artist about what he intended—not just in the specific works, but as an artist. He wrote about discovering himself as an artist late in life. He was already an artist, but he claims to come into his own in his 50s and thought that he might attain his most complete vision if he lived to 110. He died at 90. His work is sweeping and intimate—monumental nature and quiet personal moments—fantastic and humorous—heroes wrestling demons and uproarious coworkers. Whatever else he meant to last in his work—why that hero wrestled that demon (as if one could easily answer such a question)?—he meant it to last. He aspired to capture a vision that would last long after he died.
What matters is what we leave behind.
My students struggle with knowing what writers meant when they wrote a particular poem or piece of fiction. I try to help them understand that the question is nearly impossible to answer, that the writer’s intention is a mystery even to him or her self. There’s a parcel of psychology served with that lesson—the ineffable subconscious meets the unruly and unpredictable conscious mind. They get confused when I make assertions about what is in James Joyce’s fiction—and, honestly, I have no idea what the human being writing his stories intended, but I can perform some intertextual acrobatics that will catch many of the ideas that spin through his work—thinking that I am implying that Joyce intended one thing or another. I’m just making connections informed by study and a willingness to play with and without a net.
What matters is what we leave behind.
Of course, I tell my young writers to align their intentions with what is on the page. It is nearly impossible to write without a sense of the outcome. We, quite naturally, want our ideas and images to catch fire in the mind of our readers. I cannot help but think of the artist who chiseled an image into the side of a bi. The images are so faint that one can easily overlook them. Were they only meant for decoration? Someone, sometime knew. We can only guess. What excites me is that someone did know, once, 5300-4250 years ago. Imagine making a mark and that it lasts long enough to cause some stranger to wonder thousands of years in the future.
What matters is what we leave behind.
When I write about the djinn, I am aware that I do not know how or why they were called into being. What made us need or want an order of magical creatures separate from gods and angels? I am aware that our perception of the djinn changed over time, in some part, due to the influence of Islam. But Islam—as a formal religion—is only 1400 years old. Only. Djinn and gods existed in Mesopotamia for thousands of years before Islam gripped the region—and a quarter of the world. But, for the most part, they are a mystery—as are the gods and goddesses I call into my fiction. While there are fragments of stories, the past has swallowed them.
What matters is what we leave behind.
I wonder, if in 5000 years, whether I will be a mystery. A friend commented that writing and reading are escapes, and I disagree. I read to reclaim the past and reframe the present. Knowledge of the past makes our understanding of the present more complex, more nuanced, and more true. I write to give life more weight, more depth, more of what the past holds, and what the present should hold. After all, that is what makes a good story a good story—a vision that makes us stop and take account of our present moment and our lives. If I have any intention that lasts past the next three months, let alone 300 years, or 5000 (5000 years?), that is it.
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
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
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.
Every Sunday, save for one or two while I was traveling, since April, I have wandered through the various art galleries on the National Mall. I carried my notebook with me, and wrote. There was something invigorating about being in the presence of beautifully made things—whether a drinking horn from the 6th century BCE, or a bronze horse from the late 20th century. Bits and pieces of what I saw inspired my writing, which was about an entirely different time and place.
The routine gave me something to anticipate each week while I was in the middle of my project. The two hours—one spent driving in, another on the way back—were worth the result. I found favorite places and favorite works. Monet’s painting of the Houses of Parliament has been a touchstone on these trips. It reminds me of an early interest in his work, of travels I have since taken, and of an approach to work that I have come to appreciate more and more. Partly that approach means honoring the routine, no matter what.
Routine seems like it would be the antithesis of inspiration. Think of the ways we denigrate the grind or the slog of work. Or the way we quote Emerson: “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” However, I would point out that Emerson nails “A foolish consistency,” not all consistency. I would hazard that there is a wise consistency to be found as well. Like wisdom, it is hard-earned, and requires a kind of flexibility. For instance, when my daughter came to visit, I did not insist on making my weekly sojourn because other plans (a trip to see our family) interrupted my routine. Or last week, when I took a day off (my rough draft was done, and I felt spent), I granted myself some quiet time.
This week, I am back at it though. The sun is once more setting behind the Houses of Parliament, and I have walked about half the distance I will walk the rest of a cloudy day in Washington DC. And I am writing—this now, but the revision continues apace. My routine will be important in the coming months because school has begun again, and without some carefully delineated routines, schoolwork can too easily consume time. Teacher’s always feel as if they could do more—one more brilliantly placed comment on an essay, one more after school event, one more meeting, all while managing the daily preparation. I will get to the gym—the body work supports the brain work. And I will set aside an hour (more as needed) a day to write. I will guard my sleep.
And, I hate to admit this, I will do less of other things. Some were just distractions (Sunday Morning News shows), others (dating) brought joy with the distraction. Like it or not, the wise routine will preclude even delightful entanglements—at least until the process of getting to a final draft (agent, publisher) wraps up. And, of course, the next book is waiting.
I’m not sure what I will find on the way ahead. I know that I will rely on my routines to get me through the uncertain times. And I will seek wisdom, and a wise consistency as I go. Inspiration this way waits.
Today is my New Years Day. Today school meetings begin in earnest; students return and classes resume next week. What that means in practical terms is that I was up while the clock had a “6” to start the time, and at work while it showed a “7.”
The time doesn’t really matter. As long as something like 8 hours of sleep happened before I wake, time is just a way to organize the day, so that people can make arrangements. During the school year, the events of the day begin at 8 AM, and I like to be present and pleasantly caffeinated well before then. I plan accordingly.
Nonetheless, it is a new year, with all the attendant joy that comes with beginning. This year, I begin in strangely excellent physical condition. I can swim five miles without stopping (a task I once reserved as a test before heading out on the ocean). I can lift more weight than I have in thirty years. And I weigh as much as I did when I was fit and in college. These are all old markers, but remind me that even though years may pass, I can still fight myself back into shape.
I have also finished a draft of a novel, and have started working on revision. These are new thresholds, and mark a significant change in my daily life. Writing every day has been a revelation. I did not plan far ahead, but trusted—blindly, confidently—that there would be wells along the way. I know that the way ahead is—as it is in my favorite Kafka short story (“My Destination”)—“fortunately, a truly immense journey.” I cannot carry enough water to get me where I am going; there must be wells ahead.
I do not know where that journey will lead. I do not know what the next books will be about, but I can feel the impulse to write, to imagine and . All that matters is the writing and allowing for the discovery—the thrill of the new and of exploration of a subject, characters, places, and ideas. I know that there will be a physical analog to that journey, but that it will be bound to psychological, artistic, and spiritual travel as well. All must happen, and will happen.
Once upon a time I wrote a poem about baseball (and not at all about baseball) that ends: “Each day the day begins again.” And so it does, except I am more aware of my old self, and of carrying him—that old hulk, but also that bright star—into this year. So I go, crafting a way forward, learning, reclaiming, and working.
This is the single greatest attraction beginning a new school year—as it has been since I was much younger. There is something new to learn, some new idea, some new book, some new inner and outer experience on the horizon. Even though I am now a teacher, I plunge ahead, building on what I know, and striving for something I do not know, and prepared to discover. Away we go.
I am looking at a painting made by a French artist of a British building that hangs in an American museum. This seems at once perfectly natural—what else would I be doing? What else would a French artist paint (or an Italian, British, Russian, Afghan, or American)? And where else would a painting be? Of course, this seems only natural because it is what we have become accustomed to, since the time when Ennigaldi-Nanna opened the first museum.
If it is “only natural,” it is also a miracle. That Claude Monet painted? A miracle. That the Houses of Parliament were built along the Thames? A miracle. That the painting somehow came to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC? A miracle. And that I am here, somehow, seeing this and writing about it? A miracle as well.
We take the commonplace for common, and lose the ability to be a little amazed at what is all around us, and the wild series of coincidences that brings the present moment into bloom. On the flip side, we excuse the awful as “could be worse,” instead of insisting on the more miraculous possibilities that could be. I stand amazed at what is, and demand more. Why not? Why fall back into what is easy, what masquerades as wit, what only keeps us from feeling that we have more to do?
I am looking at a painting made by a French artist of a British building that hangs in an American museum. The gauntlet has been thrown down. This is only the beginning.