Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Letter To A Good Book

My Dearest Book, My Beloved,

I know I have left you alone for a long time now. Before you give up on me completely, let me explain.

My actions, I understand, are hurtful. It is only natural that you feel abandoned; it would be odd if you didn't. I have abandoned you--in the way you conceive of abandonment. I have left you alone. I haven't taken you out in a long time. I have barely touched you, and when I have thought of you, it has always been with the heaviness that comes of imagining how hard it will be to console you, and to reestablish an ease and peacefulness between us. You are too smart and know me way too well for me to hide this from you--your telepathy sees through my defenses and excuses, my sophistries and lies. I can't hide from you--nor do I really want to, no matter what I may say to myself some mornings. I want you; you know it. We can both count on that.

But that is unfair! you say. That lets you off so easily.

I know. I want to see how much I can get away with. You know that.

Stop it! I'm too smart...

I know what you're going to say. That it isn't enough for you to be the only one who really knows me--that's for teenagers. But you are the one who really knows me; I'm the one who is trying to know you. That's no easy task. You keep telling me you are simple, but I find you as complex as they come. You seem all over the place to me. Your looks, your mood, your tone, your behavior--everything has changed in the time I've known you. You are a challenge! Yes, I want that. Yes, that attracts me. I want to know you as well as you know me. When that happens, I believe other people will see us as a couple that couldn't be kept apart, in spite of the difficulty it took for us to be together. We have to be brave. You have to be brave enough to wait for me. I have to be brave enough to set everything else aside for you. Together we have to be brave enough to do what is necessary to become as one. We have to lock ourselves in a room. We have to put each other first.

I know this. I want this. But I am not ready.

Please, Book, try to understand. I knew I wouldn't be able to give you the attention you deserve during the semester, that too many other responsibilities would keep us apart. I have also learned that spending time with you under those conditions doesn't work out well. I am too distracted, and can't keep all of you in mind, as you deserve. You deserve, merit, require my full and undivided attention. When I cannot give it to you, when I can only touch part of you, I get confused. I start to pull you apart. I rage at you. I want to stay away on purpose! You, of course, feel all of this, and you ask for an explanation of my behavior. I, in turn, get frustrated. Why are you so impatient? Haven't I told you you are the most important book in my life? Haven't I promised I will never leave you? Haven't I assured you I am always thinking of you even if I can't be with you? Why can't you remember my reassurances? It's me who has the problem, not you. I need to work it out. Yes, I do feel better when I am with you. But from here to there is a long way--or so it feels. My better self knows it is not.

I know you wanted to spend time together on Christmas. Well, I'm sorry. But Book--don't you know that we will have our Christmases together in the future? Please have faith in me. I love you, even if I don't always say so.

My dearest Book, we love each other most, and therefore want most from the other. You behave toward me the way you want me to behave toward you, and vice versa. You ask for more of my attention, greater consistency, whereas I want to be carefree with you, and come and go as I please. Pick you up and put you down on my time, not yours. Yes, I could reach out to you everyday, if only in a sentence--but I don't want to! Not now. I want to be with you without care--freely! I know you think these are my terms, but they are a luxury for me, and I appreciate them. You are so steadfast. 

Listen, Book--I've never had what we have. Never trusted any book to do this for me. Always felt like I had to perform in order to be safe and loved. You love me deeply enough and are courageous enough to grant me this space. I know it is a lot to ask--especially as you legitimately need me to be with you. I understand. You say you will never be able to reach your potential--we will never reach ours--under those conditions. I know you are right, even if I argue against that. I will do things with you, make you central, take you to bed with me, even if I protest that I won't. Just not yet. Please let me do things my way for now without putting up a fight. I have never been able to do that before. My file drawers are filled with books that have left me, or that I have left because I was afraid they were going to betray me. Please let me have a long leash right now, knowing you are with me. I really am with you and you alone. I may entertain the idea of other projects, but that doesn't mean what you think it does. I am wholly yours.

Book, it has taken me a long time to begin to see you clearly, and I am not there yet. I am trying. I was scared of you for years, because I knew you'd demand of me what I've never done before; to tell the truth. But you--you give me the strength to do what should be done--what I have always wanted to do. Do you have any idea what that means to me? Of course you do. Maybe better than I know it myself. You are so often ahead of me.

Book, I know you want to be with me now. I promise I will spend some time with you during this break. I want to tell you about Aristotle's Poetics, which I just reread. It applies to us. Let me show you what I mean about this. Let's draw a map together, all right? Won't that be fun for us? I want to do something to make you happy. Something you can live off of for...a while.

We have so much between us, so much feeling, so much comprehension, so much love. Trust me. I'll work this out. Soon it will be all about us. Don't pay attention to anything you may hear about me. You know me. You get me. I will get you, too, I promise. That's all that matters.

Love, Your Person

Thursday, December 15, 2011


I have always defended a person's right to commit suicide, if it can be called a right. Or a choice. It seems so when people seek out a Dr. Kavorkian to help them. I believe that there is a biological imperative toward suicide in mammals that sits inside the genes of some of us. It is a cousin to the death that sits inside us all. We don't have the choice whether or not to die, and some of us don't have a choice about whether or not to commit suicide. It comes, and is carried out.
Yesterday I learned of the suicide of a person I once knew well. It wasn't a surprise that he killed himself; I still have his ID card from Shepard Pratt. He wore that caul all along.
I have always talked about him from the perspective of the end of our relationship, when he was heading for a breakdown, and violent. He threw me down a set of stairs through a glass door--thinking I was his mother, and hurling at me (hurling me) the rage he felt toward her. "You loved Betsy more than me!" Then he tried to run over me with his car. My best friend was with me, and we still speak of it often. Yesterday, when we were remembering him, I reminded her that I had seen him a couple of years later sitting on a bench on Locust Walk, at Penn. I was seriously ill, on my way into the hospital where I'd remain for 10 days on an IV drip of antibiotics. He wanted to talk to me. I couldn't stop. My friend said he probably assumed I didn't recognize him when he wasn't behind the wheel of his car.
Dark humor. That was a joke he'd have laughed at.
He was the most charismatic, wittiest, coolest boy in our college. Older than me. Irresistible and wildly destructive. I have a picture of him that portrays his characteristic style: a faded blue shirt, khakis also faded worn low on his hips, an alligator belt, his face pointing toward the ground, hands pushed into his pockets, his hair cut in curls around a long thin face. Louche and slouchy. Absurdly thin with veined arms that made you want to be a vampire. Somehow he always seemed to be on the post office steps. You'd say hello, and that lowered head would raise like a horse's heavy head, and in a moment he'd be laughing from deep inside that concave chest. Did I mention the cigarette? There was always a cigarette, dangling from his mouth or pinched between the tips of his fingers.
He groaned when he read. He was picky, and poor writing tortured him. His female fans wrote his papers for him. We all had a laugh when he became a successful magazine editor and writer. Who was his ghost then?
He took me to Disney World when it first opened. Can you imagine going there with a person like that? It tortured him, too. Yet it had to be done. He was from Florida and he had to exorcise Florida. He became a New Yorker, in with the in crowd.
He took me to Martha's Vineyard and disappeared every day. Finally he told me he was going to the gay beach, just out of curiosity. There were many women after me, before he became gay. Perhaps we were all a curiosity too.
I don't think it means anything to describe him.
There was an explanation for his suicide, but those explanations always come from the rationalizations of the living, to make the mystery of self erasure less confusing.
Suicides of sacrifice are far more accepted than suicides that seem to be made of sorrow. One unselfish, the other private. We are terribly afraid of what we don't know about another person, or ourselves. The idea that this lives inside is so threatening it is literally criminalized.
But maybe they are coming, coming from the beginning, like all of death.
I have written all this down the way I always write this blog, in a fast unfurling of a skein I've yet done nothing with. This is only partly elegiac. It's also about something else.
It's about being thrown through a glass door, and feeling ashamed of it. I tell the first part of the story, but not about that feeling. It's sickening, sad, and confusing. Like knowing a person is gone.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Sweet Boy

Tuffy Loved The Beach
Animals find you. Cats, always: they choose.
But dogs, too. Dogs charm their way in. They know
You're a sucker for a big-eyed grin, a lick on the hand.
Animals find you. They don't just appear in your home
By accident. They come out of the woods, out of the wild,
to be close to the hearth. You think you don't want a pet.
You say you want to travel light, unencumbered. You're free
To stay out late and never know the number of a vet.
You think you're smart not to take on all that work.
Or you think maybe someday, when life is dull anyway.
But an animal chooses when and where. Ask Eve. One
minute you're all alone, and the next, moved by the blink
of an eye, a skyward smile, a flicking tail, you're owned.

My husband called me from work. "I'm looking at the Internet and I see that someone is giving away a schipperke in New Jersey."
"That's weird." It was. Schipperkes are rare. Most people don't even know what they are. We had one called Edie, and I had been asked if she were a wolf, a fox, a pig. The breed isn't related to any other. They look like miniature Belgian sheepdogs, but they aren't. Their story is that they were bred to live on boats and to work as ratters, but this may be a myth.
"I'll bring the ad to show you."
This was meant to be for purposes of curiosity only. We had Edie. We had cats. A child. A small house. Enough already.
He brought this ad home, and swears now the accurate version of what happened is that the next day he came home from work and the dog was in the house.

I had called the number and had a long talk with a young woman who had to give her dog away. The story came out over several weeks but it was this: she had gone to a car dealership to buy a car so she could go to Rutgers where she had been given a full scholarship. The car dealer, a man in his late forties, had romanced her on the spot and she started going out with him. (Oh boy. She was eighteen.) He took her to a pet store and bought her an $800 dollar puppy. (I didn't tell her about puppy mills. She already had this ancient boyfriend--bad news enough.) She and Spaz, as she called the puppy--too young to coordinate all his motions--then moved in with the boyfriend, who once he had bagged her felt a rivalry and a hatred toward the dog. (To understand the monstrousness of this, take a look at some YouTube videos of schipperke puppies. Yes, all puppies are cute, but these are like little toys come to life--irresistibly so.)

The dog had to stay locked in a room and was NEVER ALLOWED OUT. Never went outside. Never sat with the girl while she watched TV. She went to the back room to feed him and change his paper, but he was utterly alone. (She didn't go to college, but got pregnant and was basically stuck in the apartment herself.) She realized this wasn't a good life for the dog and decided to find him a home. I am grateful to her for this.

So I took him. It wasn't that simple, though. We kept him for a week and then my husband insisted we give him back. He was wild and anxious and peed everywhere. I didn't mind, but I have been told I have a high tolerance for crazy. We drove him to the depressing apartment. The skeezy boyfriend glared. The girl put him back in his room and we left, with me heartbroken.

I kept talking to the young girl about him and her boyfriend was threatening the pound--so I took him again, with clearance this time, for a two month stay, during which I would train him and find him a home. He was completely unhousebroken and had never been outside. He knew nothing.
This was in January of 1998. January! House training a dog when there are no scents on the ground, in the snow, in the cold, twelve trips outside a day (I have never liked crate training)...but Spaz, quickly renamed Chaz (somehow I couldn't see walking around the town parks yelling out Spaz! and anyway, if names are destiny...). But the dog was an easy and sweet boy who wanted to learn and please. He was utterly open and would go right up to the scariest dogs in Mills reservation with a big smile on his face, all curiosity and bright expectation, and they'd look at him like, are you fucking kidding me? I am a Rottweiler. What planet are you from, you friendly moron? I had to explain to him what was up and soon enough he got the idea of watching my other schipperke, Edie, who was street smart and cool; when those big dogs passed her she turned around and gave a little nip at their heels, just enough so they'd swing their heavy heads around to look, because they'd felt something...but she'd be playing innocent by then. She got away with it every time. Chaz, whose name morphed through a series of changes into Tuffy, never wanted to be like that, but he backed up Edie while she did it. He never stopped looking after those he loved.
Two months passed, and I found a very good home for him. He was here until a couple of weeks ago. His last night he wanted to stay in bed with me, very uncharacteristic of him; he liked to guard the house at night, either sleeping down near the front door or on the steps on the way upstairs. He could not breathe. He'd had cancer for several months but had been doing very well until that night. All three of the rest of the pets stayed in the room too, to be near him.  I hoped to take him to his vet in the morning but when it because clear he was deeply distressed and uncomfortable, I drove him to the emergency vet to be euthanized. He kept his head outside the window the whole way, both having his last look at life, and gasping for air. I was able to tell him he was about to die, and would be comfortable very soon. When he got the shots he collapsed into my arms. He isn't here anymore, and never will be. The house has lost an anchor.
The other night I was driving home from work and when I was thirty seconds from my driveway, I had the clear thought, "I am about to see Tuffy." I probably had that thought a thousand times but never noticed it. It was part of the background, as he was, in many ways--the least demanding of anyone in the house. "I am about to see Tuffy. But, no, I'm not."

I have had many animals with me in my life. It is a privilege and a mystery in every case. They grow and change in ways people don't, and they remain the same in ways people don't. The language of communion with animals is as complex as the human is willing for it to be. The vocabulary is truly endless. The death of the animal is part of that vocabulary and always present; knowing their life span, every day is a memento mori. So the life is vivid and fresh. Every walk is taken in Beginner's Mind.
Our other dog, Jesse, is still in mourning. She was his companion all her life and utterly bonded to him. Her grief has been deep, and I have tried to spend as much time with her as possible. She is beginning to adapt, just now.
I didn't take Tuffy's ashes as I did for Edie, and for Rupert, a great cat. Their ashes are on the shelf, and rather meaningless.  Instead I have an epitaph, something my son proclaimed: Tuffy is Gentle. He was.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Grazing, Thrilling

Sometimes one feeds on the art of others. During busy times it becomes grazing--poking around to see what might satisfy an urge, balance out an exhaustion, offer up sweetness. This has been a time of grazing, balancing out the intensity of teaching. On my bedside table, just to settle me, as I really do not read in bed:

The Pilgrim Hawk by Glenway Wescott, given to me last summer by the brilliant English writer Sarah Salway, a book I didn't know, my bad--and now I have hunted down all his work and have a stack of it. I'm reading it, one paragraph at a time, again.

A Regular Guy by Mona Simpson. I have read this one a few times, it has some scenes that are breathtaking. There is some Steve Jobs in this book but never mind that. Mona is great.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami. This is a very loose book, loose in the writing, maybe a runner's stretching. It is the only Murakami I have ever read. Larry Dark is reading 1Q84, which is heavy enough to break a few bones.

( ) Hold Everything Dear by John Berger. I love him and always feel braced when I read him. And sad.

Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee. I am teaching it again, both in my undergrad course and as a book to discuss in an independent study with an MFA student. So I have read it twice again in the last four months and listened to the audio book. All the stitching and hemming and basting has become very clear to me, but seeing how it is put together hasn't ruined it--this is a good book. IMHO Mr Lee is a great writer. The conceit of this book is very smart indeed--the man figured out a way to write about the alienation of first generation Americans metaphorically. I shall not give the plot away because the small mysteries at the beginning are best experienced. I am not sure if this book really moves me, or if I am jarred by it--the many beautiful sentences and the moments of wisdom have yet to make me cry or ache, but I remember them. I stand in relation to the book much as Lelia, the wife, stands in relation to the protagonist, Henry Park--I make lists of observations about it, I find it a turn on, I pick up on its accent in spite of its effort to be undetectable, and I want it to feel for me as I feel for it, but we're not quite there yet. Maybe that will happen when I teach it yet again.

I needed to graze some art today so went with a pal to Asbury Park to see the Shepard Fairey, a.k.a Obey, wheat pastes and murals recently put up around town. They were like old blacklight posters. Very very fun stuff that hit the spot. And the ocean churned wildly! Wind blew hard down the boardwalk! Thrilling.
Shepard Fairey

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Hours and Hours

When I was young I used to read all day. The habit began because of a fear. In the summer of age eight I refused to go to the beach because of a man who terrified me. When I saw him I lost all sense of breath and safety and sometimes fainted. Soon enough it was decided I could stay back at the house--even if the adults thought it a waste of beautiful beach days. Having a near death experience on a daily basis rendered me oblivious to anything beautiful about the beach. So while everyone else went off I stayed home and read.

I lay on an old horsehair sofa on the upstairs porch and raced through book after book--sometimes three in a day. I kept a list of all the books and handed it to my teacher on the first day of school. I was proud of the numbers but more than that I'd created a waking dream space inside myself where hours could pass without my noting time. Look down at the book at 9 a.m.; look up and it is lunchtime. Same for the afternoon. I could spend hours doing other things with equal engagement but I never lost sense of time in the same way. In my reading I traveled to the world of the characters who did not live in time. A scene could take me a minute to read but I'd know it took an hour to live. Weeks might pass in a nanosecond. Nothing was the same as in my world. This going back and forth between temporal realities offered a pleasure and a release from the boredom of child time--waiting and waiting. I could go into books and get away from that oppressive constraint. Not to mention being entertained and surprised. Books didn't hurt me or cause me turmoil or sorrow. I didn't cry unless I wanted to. I could choose to participate in the author's prompt for tears--or I could skip the pages if I didn't want to feel that way in a particular moment. I had I had a sense of my own agency when I read in a way I had nowhere else.

Now over to writing. How much time? How lost must one be in time and to time? Every writer has to figure this out for herself but from anecdotal evidence it seems that the more time is set as aside and given over the deeper and one is able to go. What's down deep? The symbols; the metaphors; the intuitive connections drawn between words and therefore characters. The skips in time. What is necessary. At some point during the creation of a work the writer must enter timelessness in the same sense as the reader.  Most writers have an inkling that this must be true: therefore all the questions at readings about how many hours a day a writer works. This is not a dumb or pedestrian question. It's trying to get at how the magic happens. Though the answer is individual it is useful to hear the experience of others. When do you begin to lose sense of yourself in the world and give yourself over to the work? That's interesting isn't it?

Every writer I know is frustrated when he doesn't have the necessary time. Many wait until they do because grabbing time in between more pressing daily matters ends up being unproductive and can convince you that you cannot write. It can offer the physical release that writers need--the hand gets very dependent on daily exercise--but it's not going to get where the work wants to really happen.

That sensation of timelessness on the part of the artist occurs at some point in the process of creation of all good art.

I used to teach dailiness and habit but now I encourage time. Take a day. Take a weekend. Stay up all night. You remember what that was like. Light the candles. Close the door. Lose track.

That was my plan for today. Unfortunately ...

Saturday, September 24, 2011

It Was There All Along

The plot. A plot. To plot.
Some people are born with an innate sense of how to do this and don't think about it at all. For example in Stephen King's otherwise quite enjoyable writing book http://amzn.to/oH47BQ he says very little about plot; I believe he goes so far as to say he doesn't plot (I don't have the book here to check.) Yet he does. He writes plots that keep those pages turning and the money flowing. Every twist he takes on his way to the ending resounds with a ka-ching!

Other people need to learn how to plot. It's a point of craft that can be learned--a good answer to all those many who say MFAs are useless and writing cannot be taught. Plot can be taught; practiced; mastered. Amendment--the basics can be mastered. A great plot is a great theme is a great mind. A great mind is a combination of intelligence and self-honesty. Howevs--I would say that learning to plot is a way of developing the self and the mind because it's a way of organizing and choosing that asks for a lot of thought--deep thought. When you are in deep thought you have an opportunity to cast a glance sideways at your emotions and defenses and see what's up. I guess I'd say that self-development for an artist is different than self-development for a monk or a nun--the goal is different. The goal isn't to exfoliate and polish the inside for a God. The goal is to be realistic about what it means to be human. This is why a lot of great artists are also great jerks--one can be a bit too pleased with one's impulses. No harm in seeing oneself clearly but acting a little good.

One reason plotting is a skill to be learned is that in life we are fascinated by complexity so to shift over to simplicity is counter-intuitive to what we think writing is supposed to be about. Aren't we representing the complexity? Not exactly. We're playing off it; pointing to it; asking the reader to remember it exists--but we're working above all with a math formula--not a camera or a paintbrush.  This isn't obvious in great books because the math is hidden beneath layers of description characterization scene setting etc. And...everything the author wants to say. Ideally the math disappears for the reader and the characters come alive. But the math has to be there. The math is always there--in the most experimental books it's another formula but it's there. The math is the safe place for an author. Once it's in place the paintbrush can be brought out.

I think though that the basic shape of a plot does exist internally in the drama of how our minds and bodies work. This is why there is a universal response to the basic plot formula. It doesn't only represent the raw experience of the world; it corresponds with our interior patterns. We are living our insides all the time. Whether or not we stop to notice we know.

So learning about plot from a teacher is like learning about who we are from a shrink. There is a mirror involved--maybe not a looking glass. Let's say a reflector.
Shane Ruminating On Her Tail

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Four Hours in Philly

Grandad would never to take me to see where he grew up--too ashamed of how poor he'd been. Ironic that the heir moved there? Or predictable? It's a very very vibrant place if you are a kid who likes the life of urban exploration. Reminds me of my own youth here and there. I could have lived without being shown a few sights of heartstopping activities-- bit I approved of the caricature of a big betty with a dachshund being used as the example of model behavior.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Misbehaving Chimney

I am taking a break from mopping up the basement. It has been a busy morning here at Dark Corners, beginning with a big CRACK at around 7 a.m. What could that be? Hmmm...

We live on a county road, so a guy was here early inspecting the damage. The tree completely blocked passage, so if you were an ambulance or a firetruck and you wanted to zoom along toward the hospital, or either other end of town, you'd have to carve a less direct route along other streets. You'd be slowed down, maybe disastrously. This is a SNOW route! Serious county business. Not a problem to be ignored for long.

It is the kind of problem, too, that requires everyone to come out of their houses and stand around and discuss, and ponder, even your basement is filled with water--or, let me testify, especially then. One neighbor lost power because of the fallen tree. The lines were wrapped all around it, as if the wind had taken its best advantage of the moment of tiiimmmbbbeeerrrrr......Whipping and twisting a hairstyle. 

Someone made the powerless person coffee. Neighbors neighbored.

(Me too! It was still during the pouring hours when I got to help saw up some big branches off another neighbor's car. They couldn't, because of health problems. It wasn't heroic but it did feel like that old America where people built barns together. Oh, that reminds me...time to watch Cold Mountain again.)

Now we are moving stuff we moved yesterday to get at all the water on the basement floor. Amazing finds! All my Beatle records, my summer clothes (September is hot, right?), a pair of boots someone had left here and has longed for for years, a beautiful pair of Agnes B. suit pants, and the Christmas Rudolph action figure and tree lights. Also--a dumpster's worth of stuff that needs to go away forever.

I thought, as I always do, of Cape May, and all the hurricanes, tropicaal storms, and Noreasters I lived through there. The Coast Guard would come along New Jersey Ave with a bull horn telling everyone to evacuate. Sometimes they were in a truck, and sometimes, if the ocean had already poured over the sea wall, they came in a little motor boat. Grandad stood on the porch, drink in hand, and suggested they come join him instead. His posture of going down with the ship was mimicked along our row of houses, and all around the town. The Coast Guard seemed to respect this stalwart attitude. I think. Now it is very different, since Katrina. I also think I didn't know enough to be scared. I wasn't being given scared cues. I was a child, watching something new happen.

So we'd sit on the porch in the wind and watch the waves crash against the sea wall, counting how many flew up higher than the electric wires. I loved the wind, and being stung by the rain. (I always identified in English novels with the women who walked out into the driving rain...if you have a taste for it, there is nothing like it. It's a thrill of weather--all the water inside the body finding a kinship in the thundering water outside.)

During the Noreaster of 1962, a house near ours washed away.
The house that washed away. Our old house is behind it on the far right.


My grandmother would come to the door every few minutes. "Come inside!" She'd jerk her hand back toward the interior, and looked vexed and perplexed. Why would anyone want to be outside at such a time? Grandad and I said "Soon." Not meaning it.

Once lightning hit our house and our chimney blew to pieces. This turned out to be horrible--because, aside from storms, Grandad was very anxious. The hurricane ended and the day was blue and rinsed, the air charged with ions, the ocean requesting to be walked along, and then, even calmer, visited for a swim. We were not allowed out! What if one of the bricks slid off the roof and bopped us on the head? We could die on the spot!

He went out though, unfairly. I glared at him from the porch as he visored his eyes and looked up at the damage. "Hey, why do you get to be on the lawn?" 

"Wait for Ashton," he said--his friend, the fireman. "When he says it's safe, you can go out."

It took three days. Pure torment. 

What did I do at noon today? Called my boy and told him not to wade in deep street water, there could be electric currents from downed wires. I was out in the rain, though. Now I'm the adult.

These old photos are from the CMHS.

Postscript: It seemed as though it was over. The rain stopped; the sun shone. Then more wind, fantastical tree bending wind. A big branch took all our wires down. So much for the romance of a storm. Four days in the dark, until today when the manly men of PSEG came and hooked me up. I am lucky, but I feel very concerned for those who still have no power, or are flooded out of their houses--and as always, the animals. What happened to all my chipmunks and moles? What happens? Why am I still not convinced to turn against storms?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Mind to Mind: A Reflection on What's Personal

Here is a brief piece of video I took on the Hadlock Pond Loop last evening at 6 p.m.  It is at the top of a several mile uphill climb--a climb that had had me thinking the whole way, at least on one channel of mind (on another, I was enjoying the scent of the different firs, noticing how autumnal the air has become suddenly, admiring how flexible the shadows are--they can stretch, even at the end of the day, repeating over and over, during the whole walk down all alone, past not one other person, how beautiful, beautiful, beautiful) that what I really love most in writing is when I feel I'm behind the mask with an author, and having an encounter with the personal--the real person who is doing the writing.

But thinking this raised so many questions. What does that even mean? Why do I feel it with certain authors and not others who are just as good? Where is the locus of my interest? In the sentence? The subject? The meaning? The voice? What exactly am I responding to when I feel I am experiencing a person naked on the page?

I know, I can say for sure, it has nothing to do with confession. Most people have secrets, and some pretty intense experiences that can be expressed in the form of a headline. I have nothing against this, and am a supporter of the addiction/incest/illness memoir. These stories should be told, for many reasons, the most basic of which is that people must be allowed to say what happened to them--and what they did about it--if they choose to. Yet these stories don't automatically lead to a revelation of the personal, in the sense I mean it. A person can be detached from his own secrets, his own experiences, his own confessions, and deliver them as headlines, offerings, enticements, one upsmanships, shocks--mask upon mask. It isn't necessarily brave to tell what happened, or to state one's opinions; it's actually pretty cinchy to do, just a collection of words blurted.

So it's not that. 

Nor is it care with language, or beautiful writing.  It is possible to write beautifully but impersonally. A writer can choose a style, or hear a voice, and be true to it while not exposing himself. Some very good books are written this way. It isn't at all a flaw, or a withholding--an injecting of the personal isn't necessary. Yet it is what excites me. What does it look like? It may be the farthest subject from an author's own life. It may be the simplest style. What it is, it seems to me, is an author matching the shape of his sentences to his own deepest thinking, or deepest feeling, or most potent daydream. These all appear in the body as rhythms before they become language--so it is picking over one's sentences to correspond to those personal and unique rhythms rather than working on them to make them read well that makes something personal. 

I have observed that writing in a state of emotion can effect this. Somehow being upset can circumvent the censors that make one judge oneself too soon. When a student says to me he wants to quit a story because he feels it's too corny, I become optimistic. 

Yet thought can be in touch with rhythm, too. Henry James comes to mind--a very personal writer.

I have recently being reading Mavis Gallant. Personal to the core. I love her.

Is the voice of a waterfall personal? It sounds that way to me.

Friday, August 19, 2011

At the Helm

I am posting this photo I took the other morning of a spider web--one of dozens and dozens in the trees along the path where I walked. I'm not going to make a metaphor out of it--I already did this, once upon a time, in a poem, and enough is enough. Anyway, seeing scads of these all at once kicks any artist's ass pretty hard. Are you kidding? Forget about the Internet, or TV, or whatevs--I'm competing with this? Nature is better, and best. I bow down.

What I'm thinking about are these weird interior images and feelings I get when I'm trying to steer a story toward a particular point on the shore. Heaviness in my arms as I try and try to make the turn, but the story is still reeling out ahead, or maybe in the opposite direction. What's this all about anyway? Why can't I make it go in the direction I want--easily? Why this big drama, as if I'm Captain Bligh, turning the helm in the big storm to get around the Horn?

I carry around such vivid images of the physical work of writing--they are so real to me I don't even question them. They can hover all day.

I just got to the end of a story. I hope it's good. It has been a separate world and a respite from what's on my mind, and the bad dreams I've been having every night. I have to type it next. Another image; the three stories that need typing, and the section of the novel that goes in the can, never to be touched again. I'm dragging them all forward. Heavy chains, clanking.

I am waiting. For what, I won't say. I write what comes, dream the bad dreams, photograph the marvels. Meanwhile my body has a strong sense of what it needs to do to keep the show on the road. One of the many aspects of life that is private.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Three Angels

I learned to swim in the Congress Hall pool in Cape May. I wanted to, very much, so I could go into the ocean above my knees. For years I'd watched other people go in up to their necks, or swim along parallel to the beach. Best, bodysurf--I knew I could do it, if I could swim!
(So similar to writing, really...)

All week I have been longing for the sea, more than usual. I have a lot to think about right now, but that didn't seem why. Sometimes the only way to figure out how you feel is to jump. So this morning I drove down to Asbury Park and let things happen.

The boardwalk goes through town after town and you walk for miles before realizing it--and so I did. It was pretty empty. The beaches had sprouted lots of umbrellas, so it seemed everyone was crossing the boards rather than strolling. Oh yes--I chose to stroll, and not be all pointedly exercise-y. Exercisers passed me, arms pumping. Go ahead! Be that way. Me and the beach grass moved slowly, as the breeze would have it.

I walked back up to AP for the beaching. Cheaper--$5--and wide open. Just me and my towel. Pretty off the grid behavior among all the beach chairs and umbrellas. Back to the sand.

The tide was super low, so the waves broke on the beach; if you stood close to shore, they broke behind you, and you had sudden thrills of salt spray pelting your back. A serene, rolling ocean coming off a storm somewhere--you could feel that provenance in the verve of the swells. Maybe that was why all the children shrieked every time a wave pulled up out of nothing.

No body surfing, or parallel swimming. Just floating over the waves, sometimes getting a face washing.

I didn't shriek, but I did stay in until my teeth were banging so hard I was afraid I'd bite my tongue off. That's what you do, of course. You stay in...

Oh! Oh. Here it was, the need, what I came to think about. Here, when I stepped on this broken clam shell, or was pinched by this crab, or stepped off a ledge into a small cold pool. A few things--one being the story I am nervous in. I realized what I was writing about the other day and was so taken aback that I haven't written a word of it since. Am I really ready for that one?

You're an ocean girl.

Some things are too private to write down, even in one's own blog. Let me just tell you that no one minds if you cry your heart out on the beach in AP. It's that great there.

Two guys were selling pit bull pups, 5 weeks old, on the boardwalk. Three little angels, zonked with sun. All sorts of feelings came up as I touched their perfect heads. Several possible scenarios played out in half a second. But I'd already made some decisions, enough for one summer day. I didn't buy them.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Not Quite Back to the Drawing Board

I leave Paris tomorrow for New Jersey, for home, and to get back to work. Though I have been working all along. The habit is so ingrained that I can't miss a day without some form of scribbling; it is my hand that takes over, it is a dog that needs its walk.

I have written in England and France with the lift afforded by a new place, and happily I have been gripped with a craving for excellent books. Oh, I always am, but I cannot always sink into the lusciousness of reading in my own odd and private way, nor can I be subjective and strange about it. At school I need to be dispassionate to some degree, and instructive, rhythmic, on a deadline. This private reading though--I have been overcome with the luscious feeling I had when I was a girl. This is one of the best aspects of the trip.

The stimulation began when I read The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion. I have resisted it until now, and suddenly I had to have it for the plane. Before, I couldn't bear to read of Joan's grief; nor could I manage reading about the death of her only child (not in the book, after all), to have that fear stoked by a great writer. But it carried me across the ocean and got in bed with me at night at my friend Tom's house. I realized why I'd wanted it--her prose. I remembered it as being mordant and stark. It still is. She has such a strong distinct style that it nearly trumped the subject matter. Nearly.

I'd forgotten her tropes, the repetition of sentences or phrases, the predilection for beginning sentences and paragraphs naming the street where she lived in a particular year, the 1950s diction when speaking of the publishing and film industries ( a tic that sounds dated now, rather than ironic). All of this is intact, and her book would be recognizable as hers within a page. I read such a stylist for the style--it is an exercise in swimming. Lines stick. How long has it been since I read Play It As It Lays, or Slouching Toward Bethlehem? Decades. Yet I remember lines--lines that prove shape is meaning. Her is my line from his book: "He waited every night to eat with me." It encapsulates the entire book. It is particularly shaped for maximum poignance. He waited. What he did. Grief belongs to the remembrance of action, not thought.

The next book--a fantastic treat, all the more because I didn't know it. Sarah Salway gave me The Pilgrim Hawk, by Glenway Wescott. Oh, I fell for this one instantly. It is exactly my favorite kind of novel; short, compressed in time (an afternoon), the plot set completely by character, unguessable, and lifting up and up with gorgeous sentences. I completely lost myself to it and read it in my own weird way of reading, skipping to the end just after I found I loved the writing at the beginning, rereading some pages five times before moving on, sleeping on top of it, forcing myself to stay awake to be with it, and so on. My girl habits. I bow to this book. It is deeply creepy and mysterious, passion written about dispassionately. What is the truth about that dispassionate narrator? That was what hurt me after all; how often everyone is forced to be dispassionate, when it is never true. The narrator is a failed novelist--that is his dispassion. That, too, is a grief, but when portrayed so excellently, it is curious. I am curious.

Last night I couldn't sleep even for a moment. Over and over I turned, thinking of major shifts. When I couldn't bear the consequences I imagined I jumped on the Ipad and ordered books. Today I returned to an English language bookstore three times (Parisian hours!) to buy more books for the plane. I am checking out to check up, stay up. Writing, too. Am I cool, dispassionate? I don't know.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

No Touches

An all day drive with three animals, heavy rain, and a GPS with nutty ideas. 
Not a writing day.

The first day in two weeks that I haven't touched my book. I'm feeling as though I should visit it now, just to maintain continuity, but I am tired, and having not worked, chances are I'll look at it and see problems I shouldn't see right now, doubt sentences that aren't meant to be questioned at this stage. In fact, everything may be fine--but I'm not meant to judge yet. I'm not at that stage.

So much of getting through piece of work is knowing at what stage you are and not wishing you were further along. Maybe it comes of being twelve, a whole long year of twelve, and wishing you were older. That's a wish, though. You still have to be twelve for as long as it takes; 365 days. You have to finish the first stage of your book, as long as it takes, before you can move to the second. The first stage can take 50 drafts or none. The first stage is figuring it out.

Then on to stage two. Writing. That comes after figuring it out, which maybe was also writing--but not the same kind.

Stage three. Better writing. This is when you translate all the creepy, cloying, sentimental, dumb sentences into literature. Fun! 

Stage Four. Out the door/in the drawer. Show people or not. But it's ready to leave the desk.

Stage one is a toughie, because it can take a long time. I think of writers, big writers, who I've heard say took eight or nine or ten years to figure a book out (and maybe hundreds of pages tossed), and then one or two to write it. Who doesn't want that eight, nine, ten years to go faster? Who doesn't wish for it all to be figured out shortly after you have an idea?

(Looking back, you can always see why it took so long to get through stage one. You hadn't gone deep enough inside yourself, or you were focusing on the wrong aspect, or you needed the right person in your life et cetera. It's often a matter of personal development more than it is a matter of ability. You have to grow up enough to understand your own idea. A twelve year old can be as intellectually quick as anybody, a math genius, a phenom in many arenas, but a twelve year old is a kid. A kid can't write Anna Karenina. Writing is for adults. Most people take a while to get there--past age 21.)

When I don't get a touch in during a day I am anxious that I will slip back down the tunnel into darkness. I get muddled about the stages again. Usually what I'll do is to jump to Stage Three, better writing, and doll up a few sentences. That can feel good for a little while, but it can also go very wrong, and become a channel for doubting every sentence. It's much better to sit down and have an honest think about where I am. To wait until I can really suit up to even look.

Can I resist opening the file? If it were cookies, I'd throw them out. I can't throw out my computer, though. Dammit! I think I've just made a case for being an adult, which, after a day like this one, means going to bed like a twelve year old.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Monday Morning

There are always workmen on a Monday morning, somewhere nearby, doing something loud. 
There's a sense of staring over, of this week I will make life better.
(This week I will write 6000 words. This week I will not eat any wheat or sugar. This week I will do yoga every day.)
There's the relief of getting past Sunday, and its hookiness. A formal feeling comes. (To adapt Emily's loveliest formulation.)
There are the leftover projects begun on Sunday--an impulsive trip to the garden center, a vision for dotting the deck with unusual annuals, a handing over of the credit card, getting only part way done with the planting. 
There's the to do list. 
There are events to look forward to and events to decline. (There is a determination to remember who you are.)
There are ideas for many pieces to write, and the discipline to make note of them but stick to the project at hand.
There's the gratifying time spent with the appointment book.
There's a twinge of free floating panic.
There are the dogs, and the liberating belief that they don't know what day it is. 
There is beginning and continuity.
There is a faint presentiment of failure, and a counter determination to reframe it.
There's the pleasure of solitude in contemplation of one's own time.
There's the frustration of time being claimed by duty.
There is the moment to get to work.
The workmen have been at it since the dawn of time, after all.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Writing at Mother's

I am staying with my mother for two weeks, specifically to work, the idea being that I can put in many hours a day without the interruptions I usually have at home.
It sounds simple, but it isn't. It is my mother, and it is my writing. Can the two be in the same place at the same time?
"I hate your voice," my son used to say to me. I understood. There's nothing quite like your mother's voice. For better or worse, you're sensitive to it. And yes, sometimes hate it--particularly when it is calling up the stairs. Particularly when it interrupts.
At this point in my life, I can recognize the flash of rage, and neutralize it. My mother is old and she's not going to change now. I will miss her when she's gone--if she dies first. I want to spend time with her. But is this a place to write? Really?
So many writers have gone to live with their mothers to get their work done. I am thinking particularly of Gustave Flaubert, Flannery O' Connor, and Eudora Welty. How did that go? Did they struggle to maintain an equilibrium? Did they feel supported? Did they offer support? Did they ever feel undermined, if only by the past?
One thing I do imagine; that living with their mothers put them in touch with some deep feelings.
I speak for myself, but I find it both difficult and compelling to be with my mother and writing at the same time. The fantasy of no interruptions is a laugh. She moves around the house, and I know exactly her gestures and expressions, and that knowledge comes with waves of associations. Do I want to go ahead and think about about them or do I spend energy tying them off? Then there are all the things I want to do for her before I go back, as well as the day to day of dishes and laundry. She's very independent, but I feel like I should keep her company. And we have my two dogs and one of my cats, her two dogs and her cat in the house--with all their many needs and desires. It's complicated!
But I have gotten lots of work done. It never feels like much in a day--I always think I have written nothing--but it adds up. I am still inside this book, feeling it, and haven't yet stepped outside and judged it or thrown it out. The large plot I had in mind is naturally breaking down to the smaller step by step moments that move the whole shabang forward. My back and shoulder are in incredible pain from this table and chair, but something's happening.
Once I pressed Flannery O'Connor on a student. She came back to me saying she didn't know what to make of it--was it even fiction? It was so much like her own mother. Oh. That wasn't the part of the stories I'd focused on, or what I was thinking about FOC. Suddenly whoosh! I could see where she got her sense of humor, where she'd need it.
My mother is relatively easy to be around, but she's still my mother. She's nervous that I'm writing about her. No, I'm not. I'm staying with her. That's a whole different story.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Do You Take This Book...

I have at least a hundred books on the wall behind me about writing, some extraordinary, some instruction manuals. Some try to describe the mystery of writing, some are how-tos--as irresistible as diet books. I don't read them very often anymore, but I like the rows of these books. I used to want to write one myself. The plan was to write cases, and how they were solved. The title: The Man Who Mistook His Life for A Plot.

But there are so many writing books! And none of them exactly describe how bizarre it is to write a story, a poem, a novel. Attempts to represent the deep work often refer to directional properties. That makes sense. Written works are cumulative, and horizontal, or vertical, or both. I think of reaching for a bough, or traveling along a canal with locks, or laying rails.

Now school's out and I am writing. I turn on http://macfreedom.com , and dig in. The feeling is; get back to where you once came from, to that first feeling of water pouring from a pitcher, feelings and visions pouring onto a page. Freedom! 

(Ha! Half the time I look at FB, follow links, read up on history relevant to the book--and not, stare at houses for sale on the Jersey shore...)

I am writing a book, and I am thinking that the difficulties of writing a book mirror the difficulties of having a real relationship; a book is as separate and individual and demanding as an other, and requires as much thought and care and attention. It's consuming, exciting, scary. Very very real. I'm in the trenches of life. People who think writing is an escape from reality don't quite know how wrenching it can be to try to understand beyond one's own usual capacities to understand. You have to be smarter and more empathic than daily life asks of you. Whatever humanity you have in you has to man/woman up.

I wonder if part of the desire to write a book is to have a real relationship? Where you can't coast, or get away with anything. Really, truly being in love. Where the other loves and sees your deepest self, and everything on the way down, good, bad, and twisted.  There is a drive to be known that invents all-knowing gods in the sky and searches the personal ads for a possible match, but it is terrifying stuff when it really happens. We forget how much we rely on hiding to keep us safe. The fantasy is that being in love means that all our under-appreciated greatness will be recognized--not that our smallnesses will be under the lights.We fantasize being set free to be our real selves; and forget that we will also take on the responsibility of keeping the other in mind, making the phone call, talking, fighting, responding, responding, responding. We are both more and less free than when we were isolated. We bear the constant burden of fear--fear of being seen in all the ways we speculate make us essentially unlovable, fear of being trapped, fear of loss.

The same happens with a book. We take on a responsibility to it, and we are under its power, have to respond, fight, stay up, adore, bring it presents! We attend to it all the time, whether we want to or not. That's the relationship, take it or leave it. Have it all the way, or don't get involved--but no half measures. No trying to have it both ways, reserving oneself while dabbling in some slight intimacy. You're either on the bus or you're off the bus. Almost only counts in horse shoes. Point made?

The commitment and the struggle are there at the desk and there in the final book. It is impossible not to come face to face with one's own moves while writing. Where you turn away, don't tell the truth, jump up for a glass of water--what then did you just feel that you don't want to feel? Also, your brilliances, your flights of imagination and connection, your ability to find le mot juste, everything that has added up over time. You see yourself, if you care to look. The book is a perceptive lover--dammit!

I have been working up to writing a book for years, hundreds of pages of attempts and throw outs, lots of self doubt and thoughts of doing something else with my life  (dog breeder! animal rights lawyer! analyst! and...moving to the Islands). Rough stuff, lonely, kind of depraved. It has taken me years to fall in love with this book of mine--I pushed it away and rejected it for a long time. Now I'm in love and I want to spend time with it whenever I can. I miss it when I don't. The prospect of publishing and doing everything a writer has to do now to publicize and sell a book aren't in my mind. I am writing. Building a brick street. I'm in the relationship, and it is demanding. It requires constant choices about how I will spend my time, but even more than that basic choice is the one about what I will do with my thoughts. In a relationship it is necessary to think of the other more than you think about yourself. To want to do everything you can to help them fulfill their potential. The book is waiting for me to think of it. Will I now, and now and now? Will I think of it when I am working on it? It seems obvious that I will, but it is easy not to--just as it is easy not to think of another person in his company. 

I'm in love, but that's the easy part. Now, to have the relationship. To be constantly aware and available. To not retreat into safe, hidden places. To attend.

I meant when I began to write this post to describe what it is like to compose a piece of writing, and I haven't. I'll try again soon. I plan to post some of my writing notes as I work along. To what end? I'll tell, or try to explain, in my next post.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Do Not Turn Your Back on the Ocean

Country Home  Sea Ranch

For Stacey  Sea Ranch
For Sarah  Mendocino
Is This Love?  Sea Ranch
What Up?  Mendocino
A Room With a View  Sea Ranch
Mellow Yellow   Sea Ranch
I Am A Rock  Sea Ranch
She Has a House and Garden  The Stanford Inn, Mendocino
Walk on By  Mendocino
The Gospels  Mendocino
Don't Even Think About It  Glen Ellen
Eight Miles High  Hendy Woods
I Live in a Meadow  Pierce Ranch, Point Reyes
but I did