Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Midnight Swims: A Legacy

I am writing, I am writing. For the past few months I have been teaching, and slipping in a little writing now and then, but now I am reversing the schedule.
Writing loosely, freely. I was talking to a friend the other day about the blocks that come up, and how many of them have to do with the lack of time--wanton, wastable time. When I was young I never felt blocked at all. I had every night after the house went to bed to sit in my room with my black candles and my records and write poem after poem, then copy them with my quill pen, burn the edges of the paper and drip wax on them to make them look like ancient artifacts.  This took a lot of time, but it was time that passed without notice. 4 a.m., 5 a.m. Then the dawn, mine alone, the way any poet feels.
It was a deeply pleasurable way to be, and it is a muscle memory. After all these many years I have finally reproduced a scenario where I might feel like that again--a room of my own. I am not the first to point out the advantages of such a place for a writer. For the last 25 years I have longed for it. Now--it's here. A bed, a desk, a window. This has taken me back to my old ways.
Not burning parchment or using sealing wax--but writing in messy letters without my glasses on so I can't read or judge. Pressing into a story, then tossing all the crabbed pages aside and writing into it more truly and deeply. Wasted pages, wasted time. Daydreaming indolently. It takes this, to get down to it. It is the fun, the pleasure, when there is the time for it. The nervousness about not getting another chance lifts, and the notion of a writing block is as odd and quaint as it sounded to me when I was a teenager. How could that be? Words were a lazy river, plentiful, mine to dip into and walk away from, dripping. Completely natural.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Within, Christmas Without

I was talking to a friend today about Christmas. She only celebrates it vicariously. (She remembers one year going to a family friend's house with me where everyone was talking about the many men they knew who had slept with Grace Kelly. This is a Philadelphia story I have heard many times, and not a particularly credible or charming one.) We were discussing how there really is no comparable holiday, and no comparable set of memories or nostalgia. Is it the music? At school the practice for Christmas singing began early in the fall, the same at church. Did my lungs ache more from desperately practicing to be chosen to sing the descant parts in various carols or from all the hours of hockey? Too hard to pin down the essence of what makes Christmas the most piercing day. She said the high expectations, but that isn't applicable for me--yet I have Christmas heimweh to a degree hard to describe.  I miss it all year. I wanted my son's name to be Christmas (he was conceived on Christmas, so there was some justification for that, but the husband wasn't going there.) So here it is again. I've done a good job of making the house look a way that is lighted up enough for me. But the inner light is guttering wildly. There has been a lot of really painful loss this fall--two women I knew all my life who died just within the past two months, and recently a deep friend who is a death in life. What do you do with that at Christmas? What could possibly be the story I could tell myself that would light those losses bearably? The story of the birth of the baby Jesus? I am writing a story against the grief. It is a throwback, a linear narrative that believes in tragedy rather than irony. It believes in sad. I wouldn't say this is exactly an act of faith, to go ahead and make something, when I feel so unmade, so messed up. Heimweh, maybe. I am homesick for not knowing what will happen. I can't see Easter from here.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Without Moving I Can See

candles shining in 5 windows
a stuffed gorilla
A Walking Tour of Asbury Park Map & Visitors Guide
three Chinese lantern slides
Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger
5 bottles of perfume
a black scherenschnitte picture of Lynchburg
a wedding photo (Morgan Le Fey dress)
a small aluminum Christmas tree from the '50s
a hand carved duck decoy
a Shaker child's chair
a diptych by Dahlia Elsayed
2 Japanese prints
one Japanese Otsu-e painting
a miniature dachshund
a glass of wine
a stuffed dog from Charles Kirby
a handcolored photo of the Coney Island boardwalk
5 Maine pine pillows
Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
2 needlepoint pillows sewn by Margaret Adam
a Rubic's cube
a bottle of Klonopin
a woodcut of Chaco Canyon by Loren Batt
a pair of brown velvet slippers

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Rules

How often I think of the convent of San Marco in Florence and the Fra Angelico frescoes painted on one wall of each cell. From that memory, on to that life, one so constricted yet so rich in detail.  A cloister with dripping fountains, a kitchen garden with espaliered pear trees against the confining walls,  and the Divine Office: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline. A wall beyond which lives a city, a town, a surrounding countryside, a world beyond reach, yet cared for through prayer.
I love the stories of wild women who became nuns so they might have freedom rather than marriage. The ecstacies and inventiveness, the intensity of the relationships, the mad midnight writings and recalibrations of sexuality, the teeth gritting obedience to the men who came along every so often to make sure the convents were shipshape.
Yet that is not the monasterial life I imagine. It is the Rule, the predictable passage of the body through time, the attempt to shape the mind. 
I am nearly finished cleaning up the room where I will write. It has taken all fall. The walls are grey, the shelves cherry, and the bed covered with an old postage stamp quilt. It's very small--only a couple of steps from one side to the other. I have a painting on the wall done by my mother, and a map of Mount Desert Island. A painting made for me by a friend, of the back of my head--the French braid I wore at my wedding.
When I lie in bed at night I often try to figure out how how many replications of my body it would take to fill the room. Even in such a tiny space, it is so many--thirty, at least. Maybe more.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Block Breaks: A Story

For most of her life she'd carried the print around in her wallet. She wished she could get rid of it, but every time she threw it out, another version of the same print materialized. There were variations in the density of the ink, in lightness and darknesses, but they'd each been pulled off the same block--a simple linoleum block cut into with a small curved blade. The image was fairly simple, but it had fantastical properties--a Rorshach inkblot with a pulse. Some saw a chasm, some a vortex, some a view to the unmapped universe, some a simple garden, some a golden door to heaven. She couldn't predict or control what anyone else would see in it. She would have preferred not to show it at all, but eventually anyone she got to know well wheedled it out of her. Oh that old thing! she said as they stared at it. I hate it but I can't seem to get rid of it. Some of them shrugged as they handed it back. Some of them looked at her funny, though. She told them to pay no attention and warned them about what the artist was up to. Sometimes they heard her. Sometimes they became so entranced by the print they couldn't stop staring at it. When this happened, she heard the artist laughing. 
Then, one day...one day.
The story backs up here, to the creation of the block itself. What a blunt, crude artist it was who carved it, an amoral artist, feelingless and merciless. No mature person would ever accept a piece of his work, but he could trick small children into it. Oh boy. He crept into her room one night and gave her the block.
Why did he come to her room? Because he knows when a child is vulnerable. He knows when the worst has happened. He knows his chance. His intention is purely and only to harm. I know--it is hard to believe there are such creatures. Yet not to believe in them is to be fooled by them. He was very pleased with himself when people who saw his work were afraid of it. That was all the payment he ever asked for.
Forward again.
One night decades after his first visit he crept into her room to do a little touch up work on the linoleum block. Some of the grooves had worn down over time from being pulled at for so long. He went to work, carving and cutting away, and when he was satisfied that she'd get a few more years of prints off of it, he handed her the block again. But this time he'd miscalculated. She looked the artist straight in the eye. Yes, you have harmed me enormously, I'll give you that, she told him. But now I see--how very banal it is. There's nothing here at all, see? She turned the block to him, and he blanched--for all of his markings had disappeared. Infuriated, he grabbed the block away from her and stomped it to bits. She opened her wallet: the print was gone.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Three Muses

I had to find the photos this morning. I've been casually looking for them for the past couple of weeks, wondering how I'd misplaced them when they were in one place for so long--a three windowed leather picture frame, old and worn. 

It held three pictures--Francie, Alice, and Polly. The three women to whom I'd dedicated my second collection, In The Gloaming. I'd been looking for the photos for a few weeks, since Francie died. I couldn't figure out where they'd gone. This morning, I needed them; the day had come when it was the priority. I had some work to do moving things around anyway, so I put finding them at the front of my mind. As often happens with what is lost, focusing on it brings it back. (I have tried St. Anthony, too, on recommendation. He found me a lost diamond engagement ring, and I haven't dared trouble him again.)

Francie inspired my story Watch The Animals. She was fierce, glamorous, beautiful, wickedly funny, noble, generous, intensely loyal if she liked you, scary if she didn't. She always had a pack of animals--mainly those that no one else wanted. Every time I picked a cat or dog off the streets of Manhattan and found it a home (too often with me), it was because she'd shown me that to do so was natural--just paying attention.

Alice Kirby had an incredible sense of humor. She was the younger sister of my father and his twin. After my father died, she wrote to me and sent me presents every year, weird presents that my friends and I marveled at. Is this what teenagers liked in Florida? These leopard skin bags, these gold belts? I began to count on hearing from her, though, as happens in such instances; I wanted those otherworldly gifts.
Charles, Alice, and William Kirby
When my son was born she sent me money, and I used it to buy a ticket to visit her. So much fell into place on that trip; I found out where my father was buried, for one thing. Alice was funny, sharp, and completely kind. She'd built her house on a lake north of Orlando, raised two kids on her own, started a successful business, and took care of her mother all her life. Her father had been born in a log cabin. I could see that.

Polly lived near us, in a house with a white living room--her world view allowed that. Every year we spent Christmas Eve with her and her family, even after divorces and remarriages. She had my engagement party at her house, and the gathering after my grandfather's funeral. Every one of these events ended with hurt stomachs from so much laughter; even the time I got violently ill while staying with her the night before I was due to testify in a court case. I felt like I'd never be better, and also that nothing more hilarious had ever happened on the planet earth. When the phone rang today and I heard her daughter's voice, I instantly knew what I'd already known all morning; I'd been searching for the Polly picture, after all. Tonight I took lots of other Polly, Alice, and Francie photos out of old albums. I don't know why, yet. 
Focus, find.

Friday, November 26, 2010

By Accident

A few nights ago, my friend A. was in a car accident, and I sat in the hospital with her for many hours while she was being checked out.

She's a good friend, an old friend, from 12th grade on. One of those friends about whom I could tell many stories from youth that all seem wild, and from more recently, that all seem brave.

We hadn't seen each other for a while so took the complete helplessness of being on the schedule of the emergency room as a chance to catch up. Kids first--we know each other's kids well, so this isn't as boring as it can be at times. Then we drifted off into the conversational equivalent of speculative fiction. We imagined how the accident could have been worse, then whether or not we should blow off Christmas and go away, and where we would go if we did.

I got to cover her with blankets, to help her drink water, to go with her to be X-rayed, and to help her up when no one would give us a straight answer about whether or not she was allowed to move. As it turned out, she wasn't.  By then we were already across the hall, by the bathroom. You snooze you lose, hospital people.

When the attending finally came in with the test results, he clearly thought I was her lover/partner.  He addressed me with that level of seriousness, and told me all future variables on her care and what we needed to do about insurance.  I didn't correct him. It felt good to be taken into account, as if I were essential--more than just the friend.

My mind leaped to Chagall. Chagall the magical, Chagall who painted dreams in the sky. An odd association, yet I understood.
At the school A. and I attended, there were many women teachers who lived in twos and taught together for their whole lives. One such set of housemates had a collection of Chagall paintings that began as a street purchase in the twenties and grew by gifts over time into a significant owning. I always associate Chagall with these bluestockings who educated me. When I was older I realized that such pairs were actually couples, "more than friends", which seemed a happy ending for them, but also a bittersweet realization for me--in that I had a belief in friendship as being as important as romantic love. I had always thought those women had idyllic lives, to go on living with a friend, after most girls peeled apart and married. I hoped that might be possible--that my friends and I would stay important to each other, would maintain our code of solidarity.

Altar Window All Saints Tudel
Last summer I went with another great friend to a little church in England where the glass was all Chagall. The windows told a beautiful and sad story of a young woman drowning, and the love and acceptance of Jesus and the angels when she ascended to them. She died before all her life got going--who knew what may have become of her? S. and I sat together in peace for a long time, looking at the great works of art made in memory of that girl. No one was there but the two of us. The sun came through the windows so fiercely we couldn't speak for all the color. We were on our own that day, far from everyone and everything that belonged to us but each other and this tiny church holding this enormous genius. We sat in the graveyard after and wrote then read our pages to each other. Not very good, really; but that wasn't important. The sun went down; the windows grew opaque; we headed back. Chagall stayed, floating, as always, his world a beautiful ideal, his Jesus smiling and happy, even on the cross.

When A. was let go after her accident, I drove her home to her husband and daughter and said goodbye. They asked me to stay; I didn't want to stay. I gave her husband the instructions that had been told to me, when I was her partner for a little while--her significant other, rather than just her friend.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

I Tag, Therefore I Write

Recently I was talking to someone about when he started writing.

"I was about to say a couple of years ago, but then I realized I'd actually been writing for a long time. I always called myself a writer. It was just that it was..."

I knew what was coming. He meant tagging. Graffiti.

I've learned a lot about this kind of writing in the last few years. I have many examples in my own basement. The other day I was taken to see the writing below, in an alley, in a city where tagging is a serious activity that involves turf, art, and politics. The artist showed it to me bashfully. "It's not very good. I'm working on it."
Tag by an anonymous artist
I recently watched a good graffiti movie called Infamy, recommended to me as it shows the parents as well as the kids. This is the link to the trailer.   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vTcMqhBgTrQ.

Is this writing? I am willing to give it the benefit of the doubt--except on my furniture.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Wall of Water

 I haven't had it for a while--perhaps there has finally been enough therapy between me and my repetitive nightmares to keep them away. I did have this one for a long time, and it was simple: I was walking along the beach and suddenly, to my left, rose up with no warning a wall of water, grey or green, as high as I could see. It always confused me that I suddenly lost view of the horizon. I yearned for it again, one more glimpse, and hoped I could swim through the wave to the other side even as I knew I was about to get it.

One last wish, for a view to the edge of the world.

The big wave. Lots of possible interpretations. Right now, everything that stands between me and my novel.  The wall of water has its attractions, too, though. How do I sort it all out?

Lately I have been watching videos of big wave surfing--in bed, in the dark, on an Ipad. The habit began while reading The Wave by Susan Casey, much of which portrays the life and extraordinary abilities of Laird Hamilton, the big wave surfer. (Here's the fun of the Ipad--read a few pages, flip over to YouTube and watch the exact ride just described in the book.) I finished the book, but the videos remain, a waking dream before sleep.

Here's Laird Hamilton, surfing my wave dream. He is a genius of the sea.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Fact or Fiction?

Today a friend wrote me with news of an essay contest she thought I might want to enter. I could write about when my father drove off a bridge and was killed, she suggested. Nice idea, except it never happened--except in my novel, Think of England. That father died in a car crash. Not mine.

An editor, a person who knew me very well, made the same mistake. In the course of a conversation she kept referring to "your first husband." 
"I've only had one husband," I reminded her. "The one you know."

"But in your story..."

Yes. In my story. Which was fiction.

This happens when people know each other. Somehow actual acquaintanceship with a person renders their fiction into non-fiction. I can think of many reasons why this might happen, but I don't know for certain. Perhaps there is always the desire for us to know each other more thoroughly, and reading into a book is too irresistible an opportunity. It can also be assumed for the fiction of strangers, but that is more deliciously gossipy. With friends, it's better to afford the benefit of the doubt for an imagination.

Yet that's hard, because there are always bits that do correspond to reality. The novel I'm writing now includes a murder. What will that mean for my friendships?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fazed By The Moon

Last week, a white, shining moon appeared every night, and often in the afternoon as well. I've never seen a moon as purely white. It had an allure that drew me outside over and over again in the evenings, simply to look, to be with it, to try to memorize it. Its edges blurred; my eyes kept attempting to find a border, but finally had to adjust to a shimmering. My bed has a window by it that showed the moon through the black fall branches. I watched it move as if it were a movie--an Andy Warhol movie.

Meanwhile I was working up to rewriting a story I'd let sit for several months. Waiting for a key to how to move it forward. The story contains a moon--an enormous orange moon that heightens the sense of mystery in a fall night.

Usually when I read a story by a student, I can see the clues they have dropped for themselves as to what they really care about. Often the real story hasn't made it to the page yet--it has merely sent forward its scouts. It is easier to spot the clues of others than my own--it can take a long time to locate the central metaphor/its meaning. A big moon, yes, but why? What's the deep connection with story I wrote? How does it reflect something important to me?

The answer came when I was making the bed--oh, moon again, in the form of a bedspread. There it was--the shape of the story moving through its phases. This is pretty much how it happens; I try to make sense of what I've done, and then suddenly I find a logic, which isn't the same thing. The metaphor becomes dynamic, rather than puzzling.

I considered changing the moon to white, in gratitude for the additional pressure it provided, but that wasn't called for. It wants to be orange.

A moon appears orange when it is low in the sky and there are more the usual particles of atmospheric matter between it and the earth. In the fall, at Harvest time, a lot of matter is stirred up, and therefore this huge orange moon is called the Harvest Moon. Good to know, but not my metaphor.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Fireworks Inside and Out

We still had time left in class--time to go a bit deeper into a question I've been wondering about for a few years, and have made a central consideration this semester: why is description often thin or even skipped? Why can it amount to stage direction and not much more?

The answers ranged from fear of sentimentality to laziness to preoccupation with other aspects of getting the story down. There was a sense that description is both daunting and negligible--that it can be a track laid in later when the main line is in place. If needed.

True, there is no necessary order of operations when making a piece of writing.  True, a bare bones story can exist without it.

What if one wants to describe, though, but is shy of taking on the authority to name how a thing is? Or can't find a way to talk about, say, a flower that feels fresh or interesting? 

It was about 7:30 by then; to my left, the picture windows across the outside wall of the room had blackened. I only saw the darkness peripherally. It was time for it to be dark; what of it?

I opened a book we are using this semester in both my classes, Mark Doty's The Art of Description. (It is the latest volume in Graywolf Press's The Art Of series on writing.) What a beautifully written, extraordinarily clear and smart book this is. It would have saved me a lot of years of trying to figure out how writing works if I'd had read it when I was younger, though I'm not sure I'd have grasped it as completely as I do now. Desert Island writing books, limited to two only: Mystery and Manners by Flannery O' Connor and The Art of Description by Mark Doty. Done.

The book is subtitled World Into Word; to myself, I call it that; it names the enterprise and opens the toolbox.  Three words, balanced and tuneful.

In the first essay Mark writes about seeing a fireworks display. I begin this quote partway into the story:
"A few children had to be comforted, a few shocked pets hurried away, but everyone else loved it, craning their heads back and taking in the gold and green and fuchsia sparks exploding over us in the form of starbursts or fantastic down-raining flowers."

How's that? Nice. Fireworksy. But wait:

"Here I sigh. That last sentence just doesn't come anywhere close to evoking the actual visual or auditory experience. Not to mention the smell of burnt powder and drifting smoke picking up a little salt and seaweed tang, mingled with the annoying cigarette of the man next to me.Or my awareness that the colors overhead were complicated by the peripheral sense that the intense light of the launching rockets has lit up the water a peculiar army-surplus green, while a cheerful little blue and yellow inflatable skiff to our right rocked on the wavelets beneath all that celestial action.
But what struck me most was this: as the bits of fire came arcing down, they streaked across the night at the same time that I became aware of the spider-smoke behind them, strange contrails and patterns left where the flares had been; these were already shifted and lengthened by the wind--so that beneath the descending display of lights, a kind of ghostly display moved at a right angle to the first, strangely, like a visible history of fire."

Beautiful. And now we're seeing deeper into the event--we're seeing what Mark noticed. The fireworks have become his experience, and he has parsed it carefully and offered it to the reader. It is singular, particular, sensual, supernatural, historical--a way into the strangeness of the real. Can we guess the state of mind of the person who wrote these lines? Yes, we can come up with some possibilities. Can we begin to construct a story based on this description? We could--we could. Description isn't only an enhancement; it can be a point of origin.

The key to deepening the practice lies in the opening phrase of the last sentence-- what struck me most. 

Me. Most.  These fireworks occurred to this particular mind in this way, with this moment being the most resonant. The event has become filtered through a particular sensibility (a highly refined one, in this case.) Meaning has been made.

We were exhilarated, so much so that we spontaneously began to laugh. Then--the room filled with light! We shrieked! I had no idea what was going on...had we materialized fireworks ourselves? The people facing out said there'd been a display of lightning bolts for the past twenty minutes or so. I missed it. But there were witnesses.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

That Voice

This is a day that has resonated with me and millions of other people for a very long time. John's birthday. I memorized all the Beatle birthdays: John, October 9, Paul, June 18, George, February 25, and Ringo, July 7. A way of holding them, caring for them. Love.

I never screamed over The Beatles. Sally Draper and I finally parted ways two weeks ago when Don told her he was taking her to see them and she screamed. Oh, she's not really serious about them, I thought. She doesn't really see.

All the boys I knew loved John. For me he was a late love, but present and permanent. It is hard to listen to his voice without feeling soul-flensed; he isn't a daily diet, and never background music. His voice, keen and rough both, became more and more unnerving as he aged and went deeper. He graduated from sly clever brilliance and a solid bullshit detector to true tenderness and wisdom. Who holds a feeling better in a note than John Lennon?

He named so many feelings, for so many people.

Still no screams, but he sure makes me cry. A lot more often than October 9.

Here he is, naming pain and doing a bit of screaming himself.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Yesterday, after an hour and a half with the physical therapist who stretched and worked on my foot with great valiance and aplomb, I decided to take the dogs for a walk. A gray day it was, one of my favorite weathers. How very happy they were to be up and out. We went up to the reservation where they can walk without leashes. They're very good about sticking with me--even Tuffy, my schipperke, a breed notorious for not being able to learn to walk off a leash without running away. Tuffy is my second schipperke--the other one, my beautiful Edie, was just as easy, and only separated from me twice, when she was old and confused. (I learned that a panicked dog is apt to stop still at the sound of your voice and wait for you to find her rather than coming as usual. Both times were in the snow--unhappy afternoons.)
Dogs love to do as you ask, as long as you ask for reasonable behaviors and communicate them clearly. Off the leash walking is easy once they are bonded. There's no rush to do it, either. It comes, and then it's reliable. I keep my dogs on leash for nine months just to be sure.

When Jesse, my mini dachsund, went to puppy class, she was roughed up by a black lab and has hated them ever since. Now every time she sees one she immediately looks around for Tuffy, who she counts on to protect her.  Tuffy spots the lab (only the black, the others are okay) and turns sideways to it and lifts his lip. The lab drops its head and slinks by. Lab puppies don't know better and are apt to bound up anyway. Then Tuffy growls fiercely--it's pretty scary. No matter that he's shorter. He's got love on his side, and riteous anger. He prevails.

Tuffy, his lip curled, tells off a perfectly sweet puppy.
Jesse walks so nearby at my heels I often stop and cry out for her, panicked that she has run off. But there she is, too close to see. Today I could barely make it around the block, but she stuck by me while Tuffy went ahead, clearing the way.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Beauty Is Truth

This week Irene McKinney, Poet Laureate of West Virginia, came to my classroom. She already read in our reading series Writers at Newark, so we knew her tough minded great poems and her straightforward manner--she gave a great reading. In class she gave us a lot of wisdom in a short period, two bits of which made everyone lean forward. One was to take a good look at the place you are from, your place, and see what's there for your work. She told us that for a long time she believed her place, rural West Virginia, wasn't a place at all, but nowhere special. It wasn't until she read the poet Gary Snyder that she understood that her deep relationship with her farm might actually be the subject of poetry. A lot of us could relate to that--our places seem too familiar to be interesting. Too specific and foreign to others. 

Yet we know to be true that familiarity and specificity ground us. We may not have experience of Jane Eyre's cold wet houses, or Willa Cather's empty deserts, but these writers lead us to understand how the human mind experiences such places. When an author offers the details that connect a person to a place, and shows the flux between them, he or she opens the place to meaning. Any place can be found to have a profound meaning when the relationship between it and its creatures is discerned.

Irene McKinney
Irene also suggested to us that we write about our shame--not the public embarrassments, but the private shames that only we know about. Doing this will ground us in honesty and possibility with our writing, and let us know what it feels like to be fearless witnesses of our own experiences. I loved her suggesting this; it's both leveling and revealing. You surely see who you think is looking over your shoulder when you're writing, as well as finding out what aspects of yourself you don't really care to think about. Maybe these are necessary to have at hand.

One thing I love about Irene's work is that she doesn't try to lift up the hard feelings in her poems. She simply follows them. Hard, hard to do. Hard not to want to be transformative.

Written down by George Keats
Thinking of all this prompted me to look up Keats' Ode to a Grecian Urn. I turned to it thinking of the famous lines he quotes from Joshua Reynolds. "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." I wanted to read them again, in context. Here are lines that come just a little before the quote:

Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral! 

Oh, I just love that. Cold pastoral, those frozen figures on the urn, and, I feel, the cold beauty of direct perception, beauty discerned in relation to what we can't see as beautiful; aging, death. Paradoxically, when I read great poetry, I get this exalted sense that everything actually is beautiful. That is the truth.  Thanks, John Keats. Thanks, Irene McKinney.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

I Never Noticed That House Before

Recently I had an inspiration about the book I'm working on now. It came in the middle of writing an email to a friend, on a completely different subject. It arrived as a sensation of dropping--something like that jerky lowering of a person sitting in a basket, of a person being rescued from somewhere high up. Drop, drop, drop; at each level another quick glimpse of the possibility. Then, suddenly, the whole of it--the beginning, the end, how it would feel, its meaning. This incorporated all the work I've done on it, and it also reached backward to an initial ambition for the book lost in the intervening work. The inspiration shone a beam on what I know, what I have to give--in this case. Afterward I had the same feeling I have when I suddenly notice a house I've passed hundreds of times but have never seen. The components of the inspiration weren't unfamiliar. They were rearranged, re-envisioned. 
I suppose I was readying myself for this the other night in class. I found myself saying that over time I'd come to have faith in the creative experiences I'd had as a child, when I had no notion of work habits and only proceeded by inspiration. Suddenly I'd have an image in my mind and I'd run to write it or draw it or build it. 
There seems to be a difference between a good idea and a whole one. Inspiration is all encompassing. It's possible to root around for good ideas, but it seems that the whole ones arrive on their own time schedule. Probably it's sensible to practice technique on good ideas so you'll be ready when inspiration arrives, but I'm not even convinced of the necessity. Inspiration can guide and teach, too. Usually it is inspiration that prompts people to learn an art form, to fulfill the vision.
Who knows what will become of my inspiration? That is another matter.

I remembered how beautifully the painter Agnes Martin wrote about inspiration. Here are a few lines from An Untroubled Mind.
Inspiration is pervasive but it is not a power
It's a peaceful thing
It is a consolation even to plants and animals
It is an untroubled mind.
Of course we know that an untroubled state of mind cannot last so we say that inspiration comes and goes but really it is there all the time waiting for us to be untroubled again. We can therefore say it is pervasive. Young children are more untroubled than adults and therefore have many more inspirations. All the moments of inspiration together make what we call sensibility. The development of sensibility is the most important thing for children and adults but it is much more possible in children. In adults it would be accurate to say the awakening to their sensibility is the most important thing.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Flaubert's Four Pages in Four Weeks

Last night in class we discussed Madame Bovary, specifically the scene when Emma goes to the curé for spiritual sustenance or steadying when she is feeling herself slip. The curé only half pays attention to her; he is too busy trying to round up the wayward boys for their catechism class to notice the subtlety of her distress. It is a beautiful little scene told with Flaubert's careful description and to the point dialogue.

We then read a letter Flaubert wrote to his lover and muse, Louise Colet, about his composition of the scene.
"Finally I am beginning to see a little light in my accursed dialogue with the curé. But frankly, there are moments when I almost feel like vomiting physically the whole thing is so low. I want to express the following situation. My little lady, in an excess of religiosity, goes to church; at the door she finds the curé who in a dialogue shows himself to be so stupid, inept, sordid that she goes away disgusted and undevout. ... This must have 6 or 7 pages at most and must contain no comment, no analysis; it will all be direct dialogue. .... So: you are initiated into the torture I have been undergoing for a fortnight. By the end of next week, I hope I will have it off my hands."

I have edited the letter to the salient parts--those that show how fully aware he was of his intention, and that reveal how long it took him to get this little scene right. A fortnight already, now the week he is in, and his guess that it will take him another week. I count somewhere between three and four weeks. The final version has the feeling of inevitability of all great literature. It is simple, clear, and completely alive. This vivid inevitability takes deep thinking and a lot of work. I love Flaubert's letters for many reasons, one of which is that he reveals how long he spends on certain scenes and sections--and he was writing over long, uninterrupted days. He has a plan, always. He knows exactly what scene he needs to write, what must happen, who's present, how it must feel to the reader, how long it should be. His worldly ambitions--he was determined to be famous--enhance the quality of his thinking; he knows what he has to do, how much focus he needs to do it, that he has to give up Paris to write his book.

For the past ten days I have had a toothache, a root canal, and pain in its aftermath. Returning to Flaubert and his anguish over his recalcitrant scenes has been so soothing. Such an angry young man, so determined to be famous. I have the feeling he'd write to Louise about the annoyance of his toothache but he'd still be laying down the tracks of description.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


For the past couple of months I've had plantar fascitis in my right foot, which has curtailed my usual walking. Most days I go up to Mills Reservation with the dogs for an hour or so--or I did, before. Now I'm grounded, more or less. I make it up there a couple of times a week on Aleve, but the next day I am always hobbled. The transition from being able to count on this to having it be sporadic and painful hurts as much as my foot does. The dogs aren't happy about it either. Back on the leash, they walk around the block with me, and they're as cheerful as they can be, but we all know they can be a lot more than that. In the woods, they bring all they've got, and there are moments every day that have us all looking at each other--hey, did you see that dog/flower/fox/wild turkey/kid/snake/branch/shadow? We know every trail up there, and we have our spots--places where we suddenly feel the world grow larger. One of those spots is in this blog's title photo; I think of it as the boreal forest, the tundra, an ancient ground. We live in season here, though, and it when changes my imagination names it differently, the dogs care about it more or less, depending. We're secretly proprietary about everything up there, because we know how it looks and smells spring, summer, fall, winter. We love it when lost people and dogs need our help to get back to the parking lot--yep, we're experts, we know where we are.

For over 15 years now going up there has been my most predictable activity, and the one I guard against submersion into the rest of busyness. I hesitate to call it a meditation practice, though people have told me it is one. How can it be, though, when lots of times I am yakking on the phone the whole way, or listening to MMmm Bop or Jesse's Girl, or I'm talking aloud and loud as a crazy person, trying to explain myself in some way to someone who is no doubt not thinking about me at all? I think of the walk as fun, even when I'm miserable--because I never stay miserable up there. It's not the natural beauty that does it, either. Fact is, it's a nice spot, but not a knock out. What grounds me again and again, what brings me back to a point of happiness, albeit tiny sometimes, is watching my dogs. Call it Beginner's Mind, presence, body wisdom, whatever--what I see is that they just like walking around up there, no matter what. That gets to me, every time. Why not like it?

But I don't like being separated from doing that. I'm grounded, but not in a good way. I'm past the point, too, where I want to eke lessons out of setbacks. I just want to return to my routine, waste some time, watch the dogs stare pointlessly into a hole that has been empty for ages.