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 maybe 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.
Hokusai: Mad about Painting at the National Museum of Asian Art closes on January 9, 2022, so noting a few final thoughts on the exhibit seems fair. On Sundays, I pass these two paintings:
This comparison is all but impossible—the two works connected by nothing other than personal preference—but let’s start easy. They are both paintings. They both have fairly restrained palettes, and each artist pays attention to line. After that, all bets are off.
These two works have more in common, although Corot’s Forest of Founatinebleau (1834) was painted within a dozen years of Hokusai’s Fisherman. Pollock’s Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist) culminates a move in western art toward a kind of purity of effort. The subject is the painting itself—not the woman reading ensconced in nature—or even nature itself. No “meaning” interposes between the viewer and the image. Or any (and every) meaning is available; whatever you bring, the painting will match. “Take that!” it declares and sticks a finger in your eye. Corot’s painting also fills the frame, and we can decide whether the young woman reading by the brook is ignoring the world or opening a world. Either way, Corot, like Pollock, presents a world.
Hokusai’s painting does not. There is more unpainted area than painted. I run screaming from declarations of “negative capability,” or the value of stillness in Japanese art. I appreciate that the Hokusai show features paintings not by Hokusai to show what set him apart. The other works are busier, neither empty nor still. Besides, not all of Hokusai’s paintings are as open as The Fisherman (the fully inked prints from the One Hundred Poets series surge with color). However, as a rule, Hokusai leaves us some space.
Sometimes that space echoes with the noise of a crowd.
Another time that space is ready to be filled with storm.
Writers play with time and space too. The easy examples are Hamlet, when Shakespeare skirts away months in the course of the play’s running, or Macbeth, when the vast awfulness of Macbeth’s reign of terror happens in some interstitial realm. And nothing, when it happens in Beckett, is the point, and it is a crushing kind of nothingness.
What Hokusai manages is different. In part, it’s because he is a draftsman and a painter, and his work feels drawn as much as painted. But that’s not all. Often the main subjects of his painting occupy only a part of the field of the picture—the Thunder God hovers high, a wave, as water must, is bound to the bottom of the frame.
Nonetheless, Hokusai allows an image to float on its own. I find that when I look at something—a tree or a bird—and decide to photograph it, the photo is a poor representation of what I thought I saw. The tree is diminished in a landscape, and the bird disappears in a sea of grass. Hokusai’s paintings are like the kind of selective vision we have when we look at the world. We focus on one thing and dismiss—visually tuning out—what does not catch our attention. The photograph gives the lie to our selective vision; Hokusai lets us focus.
When he portrays a man gazing at a pot of peonies, he includes the man, the .pot of peonies, and the bit of earth on which the pot rests. Was the rest of the world there? Yes, of course, it was. In the same way that his screened mural of the two parties—one raucous, one contemplative—shows how we want to focus and cannot, his paintings are an exercise in focusing on what we might miss. Unlike a still life by Cezanne or Van Gogh, Hokusai directs us to look at the man who looks at the flowers—and the flowers. The Fisherman looks out at the ocean. The girl holds a letter behind her back and looks away from the evidence of what? We don’t know.
Hokusai shows us how we look. We might categorize what he does as minimalist, but I think that is a missed assessment. He focuses on what he sees, and he engages us to help us focus.
When we write—and this was bound to get around to writing—we write in the tradition of Corot, building a world, and the reader (the subject of Corot’s painting) is often dwarfed by that world. The world can do that. Hokusai shows us the value of focus. Choose the detail, the significant relationship, the single gesture. We have enough to distract us already. Focus.
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.
A quick note can save the day. You’re writing, and you start worrying, “Do I have the scene right?” You get bogged down, derailed, and despondent.
In the middle of a chapter, unsure of where it was headed, I inserted this line: “Out to dinner with [the usual crowd—check and add].” That not sat on the page (it didn’t sit long). The music changed, a few paragraphs later, I got up and walked to a different room, and then the note became two pages of unstructured dialogue (see at the end). Will it all stay? I don’t know. The Gatsby-driven exchange may come out.
What I do know, none of it was there when I wrote the note “the usual crowd—check and add.” I kept writing. Advice: If you can’t find what you are looking for, drop in a note to yourself, and move on.
First, writing begets writing. Write something—anything—but write. Put down sentence after sentence. The connections will come. But start. Write holding pattern sentences as a warm-up, the same way you begin a workout with 3-5 minutes of easy exercise before grinding into the “real” work. It’s all real—and all necessary.
Second, never forget that everything can (will) be revised and rewritten. First drafts are first drafts are first drafts. Write it (even if it is temporary, even if you think you have finished), and let it go. It could stick around until the end (maybe there is something Gatsby-esque that will hold that part of the exchange), but don’t get obsessed, attached, or disgusted. Keep going.
A note to yourself can save your day. Just keep writing.
“You have a job?” Valerie was incredulous. “Did Richard find it for you?”
“No!” I answered too forcibly. While they had been my entrée, with this crowd, I felt too much in their shadow.
“The tooth brushing didn’t work out?” Jason asked.
“He told me about that. You’re as scandal, Aletheia. No wonder you never found a real job.”
“She told Jason that she was doing porn—brushing her teeth naked for old men.”
“Or a boyfriend.”
“Better than brushing naked old men’s teeth.”
“No, seriously, how did you get the job?”
“An old man hooked me up.”
“I get it, Wolfsheim.”
“You’re having wine?”
“Just a glass. I gave up cigarettes.”
“You mean, I gave up cigarettes.”
“Well, I’m carrying the package. It’s the least you could do.”
“I’ll have another.”
“Do you have morning sickness?”
“I have nicotine withdrawal. The poor thing will grow up with a pre-baked craving.”
“An itch it can’t scratch.”
“Have you picked out a name?”
“Jason’s great grandmother was named ‘Esmeralda.’ We can call her ‘Esme.’”
“Is it a girl?”
“Who knows, we just found out.”
“Just?” Looks shot back and forth across the table.
“Well, not just.” Jason placed his hand on Valerie’s. “Just enough. It might be a boy, but Val’s convinced.”
There is a scroll of Hokusai’s paintings/drawings. The curator’s note suggests that Jurojin, the aged figure at the left of the scroll, might be a stand-in for Hokusai, who was 80 when he painted this. Jurojin, it should be noted, is a god of longevity. The scroll, like the scroll Jurojin unrolls, may be a teaching tool. Hokusai made many manuals for his students, capturing and encoding the wisdom he accrued over decades.
May I suggest that if Hokusai is taking the part of Jurojin, he is also, at the very least, also acting as the young student sprawled out in front of the deity? Or, he is just the student.
Hokusai declared that “[w]hat [he] painted before the age of seventy does not capture the truth of things.” He kept learning and kept striving for legendary status. Imagine having such a lofty aspiration.
When we are younger and naive, we allow ourselves big dreams. We can foresee heroic possibilities. Time softens those dreams. We take a bite of the realist’s apple and learn to accept humbler goals. We even herald the value of those quieter moments: a well-laid table, an easy transit across town, a perfect fall leaf. All those things matter, yes.
And yet, I think of Monet, late in life, building lily ponds at Giverny, painting them, then draining them and remaking them so that they would match his vision. This was an act that combined impetuousness with determination.
Or, I look at Hokusai and see his determination to keep pushing his art to encapsulate his goal.
Such ambition is, at heart, naive. We let athletes off the hook for greatness when they reach their thirties. What second or third act waits for them? We learn to put away childish things and think and act like adults.
What I love most about Monet is his adult awareness of what he wanted and his adult design to create the very thing he wanted to paint. Wiser critics than I would suggest that Monet’s art was the result of cataracts. But then why build, then drain, and then rebuild those lily ponds? Like a child building with blocks, knocking down, and constructing something similar but better.
We come to creation with hard earned wisdom. Part of that wisdom is the knowledge that creation is a kind of play—play at its most ambitious and visionary. We may start with a pattern, some model from which to work, but then we expand and sharpen. Unlike the baseball player who throws with elegant precision to the strike zone, we toss the ball into the air, seeking a curve and arc that only physics limits. We make our rules and play harder.
As wise as you may grow, we stand astounded before the task ahead. Our propensity for astonishment sets us apart and keeps us in good stead. Here is where we learn, here where we reach for legends.
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me. (Moby Dick, Herman Melville)
We all know “Call me Ishmael,” but there is a reason that the narrator of Melville’s Moby Dick wants to be acknowledged as such. He has left the tribe. Or been summarily cast aside, born of the wrong parent, and replaced by Isaac—he who laughs. Today, I woke up at Ishmael’s side: no laughter, all asunder.
Whether you look to the ocean or not, who hasn’t woken up not just on the wrong side of the bed, but the side that leads you to swear at the news (It’s marginally better these days), then at the car (who designed doors that are guaranteed to make spilling my coffee a near impossibility?), then at the fellow travelers on the road (you cut me off when there was no one behind me to make a left hand turn?) , then at the people clogging the door at Un je ne sais Quois (In or out; I have croissants to buy), or at the spell check that insists on who the fuck knows what for “Un je ne sais Quois.” Yeah, and there it is: “fuck.” Everything is one long variation on that theme, culminating, without effort, in “I fucking hate people.”
Usually, that feeling is evanescent—gone with the glint of sun off a pane of glass. But—my big but—it is always there. The opposite is present as well—gloriously so, necessarily so. The world holds too much that is joyful, whimsical, and beautiful not to be shared and smiled over. I share a few thoughts about Dewing with a woman photographing his The Lute. A man and I share thoughts on Hokusai, and he gives me an added incentive to travel to Tokyo. I keep the persistent disdain and disgust to myself. Who needs more of that?
Even now, as I shared with you, I am writing my way out of it, careening toward something constructive. Ugh. Why does everything need to run aground on the shoals of constructive? There is rarely anything constructive in “Fuck you!” or “Fuck off!” Does that make it any less, what? energizing? It is not just an escape of steam but an increase in indignation. “I see your selfishness and raise you my rage.” Why wait for the dying of a light?
A year or so ago, I started writing about evil and had to put it aside. The news was too full of people accusing each other of evil. The moral high ground wasn’t a hill, rounded and easily climbed or rolled down; it was a mile high pinhead, with more angels crowded on it than can be counted. Except it wasn’t one pinhead. It was two, maybe three, but always two: good and evil, us and them. The clamor from one pinhead to the other was deafening. But, if we stood angel shoulder to angel shoulder on the head of our respective pins, the anger we wielded was a broad mallet. Brickbats of “fuck” dispatched with full flail—forget about nuance and contradiction. Unlike Ishmael, no one knew to run to the sea, and hats went flying.
Now, with lives on the line, people ally themselves with justified rage. Some conflate their rage at wearing a mask or getting a vaccine with the annihilation of 6 million Jewish people by the Nazis. When over 700,000 people have died of COVID in the United States and nearly 5 million in the world, what matters is me, and I will use the rhetorical and emotional arguments I need to make my case. The lack of perspective is mind-blowing. But we have clamored to such extremes for years. We borrow rage when it suits us, when we need to enhance and emphasize how right we are, and diminish and demean those who oppose us.
How hilarious that 4 years ago, people on the right chanted, “Jews will not replace us,” and now people in the same political galaxy are claiming a kind of solidarity with Holocaust victims; we are replacing Jews with us. And the late-breaking news is that Israelis with vaccine passports and will require the booster to be considered fully vaccinated. But, what do they know? Rage knows no shame.
The funny thing is, when Ishmael gets in his moods, he gets on a boat and heads to the ocean—the beautiful open sea. However, on a boat human contact is not just unavoidable but necessary. There are few places as confined as a boat on the ocean. You put aside differences in a hurry when you stand watch through the dog hours. This is a stirring contradiction. Ishmael feels misanthropic, so he goes where he cannot avoid contact.
I spent a chunk of my morning at “high fuck,” then settled in among strangers who are unified only by the call of free art and time to enjoy it. A man stares up at Calder’s Rearing Stallion, and I cannot help but assert how I think it is so cool that the shadow makes a second work of art. We both smile, and you can tell, even though we are both masked, and he tells me what he sees and likes. “It is so cool.” We are on the boat together, looking at the amazing world.
I am honest with myself: I will not stop feeling rage. And love, the sweet balm of human contact in all its brilliant and unbearable forms. I lack a middle ground. I try to put myself in front of things that inspire love and unbridled delight. I will still mutter, “I fucking hate people,” and the angel on my shoulder will buzz in my ear, “Liar.” To borrow from Whitman again, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.” I am back on the boat, sailing once again, to you.
On Sundays, I wander. Truth is, I wander most days. My colleagues and students see me in the halls, going no place in particular. When I attend baseball games in the spring, I do not take a seat in the stands, but pace, eyes focused on some part of the game, feet constantly moving. And yet, I have read 600-page novels in a sitting and watched Lawrence of Arabia in the theater, begrudging the roadshow intermission—and delighting in Maurice Jarre’s intermezzo.
I wander because my mind wanders. A problematic admission for a novelist. Yes, there are touchpoints in each of my Sunday rambles. Monet’s Houses of Parliament, Sunset, the Calder Room in the East Building of the National Gallery, Dosso Dossi’s Circe and her Lovers in a Landscape, all the Dewing at the Freer, all the Sargent everywhere, when the space is open at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Butterfield’s Monekana, Thayer’s Stevenson Memorial. But my attention is drawn elsewhere. A piece of blue tape on the bottom of the pedestal supporting Houdon’s Diana. All the other Dianas. Ingres’s Madame Moitessier. A man sporting a yellow “YINZ” emblazoned on a black t-shirt (Okay, “gold”). An older man walks gingerly with a cane—his halting, carousel-like step revealing that one leg is three inches shorter than the other. A woman who is too beautiful for her date. Wait, am I her date? Is it today?
Wait. It’s not her date; he’s her husband, and they hold hands as they walk through the galleries. Definitely not me. And definitely today. Again.
As I make my way to the stairs that rise in the National Gallery’s East Building tower, I note that Edward Hopper’s Ground Swell is lovely, but who sails parallel to the swell? We sail through or across, never with. Pattern eclipses subject. Same with Ingres’s Madame Moitessier. She stands in front of a wall adorned with patterned red wallpaper. It turns her into part of the pattern. Compare this with Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Madame d’Aguesseau de Fresnes hanging in the same room. Madame d’Aguesseau de Fresnes is the subject and the background Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun gave her is tantamount to a brown tarp. What matters to the artist is the woman, her dress, and her hat. Of course, these, too, are part of a pattern. What isn’t? But Ingres makes it obvious: there is no escape from pattern.
My Sundays—all my days—have a pattern. On Sundays: Coffee, almond croissant, Freer/Sackler, National Gallery, lunch, Smithsonian American, and then home. Some days I add the Hirshhorn. Within each museum, I have a particular path. But I diverge. Today I skipped the Flemish paintings and headed downstairs to walk past Louis Maurice Boutet de Monvel’sJoan of Arc series. Just a glimpse. I recalled when I walked through the galleries almost too distracted to pay attention to Daumier’s heads. Almost.
And even if I did take the exact same route, the people around me would be different. Today, a man broke into impromptu yoga in front of Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/ Cock. On the cement. In the Courtyard Café, a woman at a neighboring table talked about workers complaining about having to go back to the office. “With teachers back in classrooms, it’s hard to argue,” she said. “But teachers knew what they were getting into.” People change everything.
The secret is that even if I took precisely the same route—if the coffee was just as hot, if the croissant was just as flaky, and if the day were as perfect for jeans and a flannel shirt as today was, all the guards standing in the same places—it would still be different because I am different. Whatever has happened during the week, whoever I met, whatever words I put on the page, all these things and more changed me.
Twenty years ago, I stood up in Quaker Meeting at the opening meeting of my old school and praised the opportunity for change. In my hubris—I was 40, I thought I knew better—I called it “the blessing of change.” I had moved to Baltimore and started a career that would sustain me for 20 years. And then a series of unwelcome changes began: my mother got cancer; my relationship ended; my father died. The annus horribilis. Oh, so you like change? Here it comes.
Maybe because my life has taken enough (one can be enough, but who keeps track?) turns (expected, unexpected, this makes no difference), I feel ready to make a few proclamations. At the very least, I proclaim for me, but like Whitman (“And what I assume you shall assume,/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”), I proclaim for you.
I recognize that in our self-driven culture, we value inward focus. I had a minister who emphasized, ala Jack Palance in City Slickers, “one thing.” On a more profound level, this impulse is driven by thinkers like Buddha or Henry David Thoreau. As for the Buddha, I have (not authoritatively) commented on suffering. Here in the United States, we celebrate Thoreau without knowing him. We acknowledge and follow his desire “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” But we forget that he “left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves .” Two years is enough. More lives wait.
Pattern and habit are as intractable as gravity, and this is not always a bad thing. If I was ever put in charge of a Creative Writing curriculum, I would insist on teaching the creation and maintenance of habit. What about artistic standards? Figure out what you need to do in any circumstance—in every place and weather—to keep a daily writing habit, and then worry about quality. Develop a practice that will survive against the “slings and arrows”; they are coming. The routine will help you improve. Words (writing and reading and listening) beget better words. Repetition begets mastery.
Except when it doesn’t. The rest of the time, habits get in the way. Habits become ruts. While a good groove can speed one on their way, how many times does expedience swallow excellence? Other than races, speed is overrated. And yes, this is the novelist talking. Endurance counts. There will be sprints along the way, but this is an ultra-ultra marathon.
Let me extend the sports metaphor one step further. We do not improve based on our intuition; we need a coach to help us succeed. Once upon a time, I was a recently separated father, and I researched how other recently split families managed the transition. I bought books. A friend teased me, “Don’t be silly. You know what to do.” Except, I didn’t. I did not know a thing about managing a split household—let alone a married household, but that’s another story.
In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert concludes that our lives are not all that unique; no matter how much we protest, “No one knows how I feel!” If you want to know whether something will make you happy—divorce or infertility regimens, for instance—ask someone else who has done it. “How did you feel when you divorced your spouse? How did your kids feel?” “How did it feel going through infertility treatments for a year?” Nobody has lived your exact life, but experiences start with incredibly similar foundations.
Intuition is an illusion. We do what we did yesterday, and we do it for a reason. “Wash, rinse, repeat” isn’t just a cheeky mantra. The brain loves to predict and then demands that we adhere tightly to its predictions. When we don’t, the brain sends error messages to our bodies, triggering all sorts of responses, most of which are angled to get us back on track—back into the predictable rut. We only learn when we err. Modern psychobiology is for the feint of head.
Wandering helps trick the brain. Surprises, collisions, and near misses open gaps in the “I-already-know-that” mental processes that keep us on course. “I-did-not-know-that” is the gold. Even if you look inward, if you want to learn yourself, then you will need to make yourself strange and surprising. You will need to interrupt the predicting mechanisms that perpetuate a kind of mental and emotional homeostasis.
Let me revise. I wander because my mind does not wander enough. The brain cannot; that is not how it evolved, not how it works. I seek out error messages—“This is not what I predicted”—lots of little ones to jostle the mechanism as gently as possible. Gently does not always do the trick—at least not if I am going to write.
Look, most people do not write. Why would they? It is hard work and requires tenacity and wildness—two qualities that do not play well together. A writer must be able to apply ass to chair (the commonplace starting point) and want to destroy—and re-create!—every chair that every ass occupies everywhere. I wander and re-create the world with every step, or I do when I finally stop and write. And then, and this is the big secret, let your writing wander. Find the thing that breaks all predictions and deal with it.
Do you want to write? Sit down and wander. Or wander, then sit down. Either way. Wander.
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.
How many times have I told one of my children to be patient? Sitting in the amphitheater waiting for a performance of Pet Shenanigans at Busch Garden, “Be patient.” Frustrated with noise coming from the harp, “Patience (and practice).” Watching some idiot turn right from the left-most lane and causing an accident, “He should have been….” My daughter fills in “Patient.”
I was wrong. Okay, I was partly wrong, which is the same thing. I was wrong. Patience is pointless.
In the Aeneid, Nisus asks Euraylus, “[D]o the gods light this fire in our hearts or does each man’s mad desire become his god?” (“Dine hunc ardorem mentibus addunt, Euryale, an sua cuique deus fit dira cupido?”) The translator Robert Fagels chooses “mad.” Another translator, A.S. Kline, opts for “fatal desire,” which brings to mind Macbeth’s naming of the imaginary dagger as a “fatal vision.” Mandelbaum calls it “relentless longing.” Mad, fatal, and relentless. This particular form of desire is out of the usual—either the gods arouse the passion, or madness begets a monstrous bloom.
Look, desire gets a bad rap. How many hew to the Buddhist credo that desire causes suffering? Well, of course, it does. But, and we forget this, the first of the Four Noble Truths is that suffering (dukkha) exists. Buddha makes the leap into locating the cause of suffering—all dukkha—as the incessant craving of human existence. Let’s add incessant to mad, fatal, and relentless. Okay, to be clear, incessant is my addition.
And, for those of you who are following along, I have praised suffering in short pieces about sailing, swimming, and writing. Suffering is the base. What you build is your choice. But, what you build reflects your desire. Anything you make requires effort, and almost any effort brings at least a modicum of suffering. Sometimes more. Much more.
There are times that patience is more like avoidance, more like acquiescence. Other times, it is the acceptance of the long slog ahead. I cannot finish writing a 300 page novel until I write one word—then another, and another. I patiently work. Let me rephrase, “I diligently, doggedly, and impatiently work.” Even when the words turn to mud, I get into the mud.
Yes, there is the petty form of impatience—tapping one’s foot while waiting in line for the Keurig at work, riding the bumper of the car ahead of yours at 85 mph—but the drive to get from Point A to Point B, from Ignorance to Understanding requires a kind of impatience. I will not wait.
Perhaps because I have been too patient, too distracted by every other thing—that job, that relationship, that dream—I feel the pang of impatience more sharply than ever. At some point, everything must give way to one thing, and then one must move with absolute impatience toward that goal. Is this a “mad desire,” some self-made idol? I am patient with myself, and with my all too obvious flaws, and allow myself this furious impatience.