Sunday, January 31, 2021

After Dark

When you find a book you love, it's hard not to become an evangelist. 

For instance, it's been all I can do not to write every post about Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man, even though I read it months ago. (What would I write every week? I'd probably just copy and paste “holy shit” a thousand times and call it a post. While that would convey how I felt when I finished the book, I don't think you can call that a blog.)

And now it's happened again. I finished reading Bonnie Friedman's Writing Past Dark, and now I want to write every post about that. Until late last year I'd never heard of it before, and it's turned out to be one of the best collections of writing essays I've ever read. After each essay I'd just sit there and think, "What the fuck? Why didn't anyone tell me to read this?"

It's not like I don't hang around writers, who are all very happy to recommend books. And it's not like I don't read books about writing – Bird by Bird, On Writing, The Writing Life, The War of Art, Writing Down the Bones, Big Magic, and so on. I've got a whole shelf of books like these, so I figured if I'd never heard of Writing Past Dark, that must mean no one has.

Which is, of course, the magic ingredient that compels every new convert to spread the good word. “My god! How did I miss this? I have to tell everyone else!” You launch out in the world with your newfound zeal only to discover that no, actually, people have read the book. In fact your very copy is a 2020 reprint of a book published in 1993 -- not exactly typical treatment for an undiscovered gem.

I suspect the truth is I'm more like the last to know than the first. I'm the last one to read The Story's Body, which contains lines that help unlock everything that's beautiful about Isherwood's novel:

"Transcendence is not fleeing, not an absence, but a most attentive presence. To write well we must sink into the silt of this world."

"The body pulls the soul after it."

Could there be a better explanation as to why, seven months later, I still think about George Falconer's yellow pencil sharpener? 

I'm probably also the last to read Glittering Icons, Lush Orchards, Friedman's essay about failure and success. If that's the case, then I'm sure you've already read this:

"I live in dread that the story I am currently writing resembles those that have been rejected. They are bad, I think. When I recognize emerging on the page a rhythm similar to the rhythm of one of these 'bad' stories, or when I recognize a character that turned up in one of them, I am appalled. I want to cross it out. I want to put away from me forever everything associated with those 'bad' stories because frankly I do not really understand what was wrong with them. Something was probably wrong; one must be realistic enough to admit it. Yet it feels as if my new writing comes from the exact same place.

"The idea of success divides us; it cleaves us. It makes us want to name some part of us 'bad' and the rest, the undiscovered part perhaps, as 'good.' And it is the 'good' that will save us, that will transform us, that will deliver to us the confidence of those we admire as well as their material achievement. The 'bad'--that old familiar impulsive, groping, gooey, fixated, feverish self that keeps turning up on the page; the self that is 'too much'--can't be dispatched with fast enough.

"Yet our finest writing will certainly come from what is unregenerate in ourselves. It will come from the part that is obdurate, unbanishable, immune to education, springing up like grass. It will come from who we already are and how we already write. To love our lives right now--that is the transformative success. To see what is already beautiful--that is the astonishing strength." 

What could I possibly add to that? Except maybe to say, "Holy shit. Holy shit."


Sunday, January 24, 2021

Priorities

The kale in our garden is somehow still standing, despite days and nights well below freezing. This week I was able to harvest enough to fill our big red mixing bowl, which is the approximate measure I use for making potato kale soup.

(The recipe, roughly: Three pounds of potato, peeled and diced, cooked in five cups of vegetable broth. Dice the kale and add it in at the end of the boil, just enough to blanch. Blend about 2/3rds of this mixture with a cup of yogurt, then pour the puree back in the pot and stir. Salt to taste.)

Much like the ungodly amount of sweet potatoes we harvested this year, the kale has turned out to be something of a boon during a time when our priorities have changed. We used to build meal plans around what we felt like eating that week. Now we build them around what will keep us out of the store for the longest stretch possible. Since potatoes keep well in the basement, and the kale in the garden keeps growing, soup has really shot up the list.

This is also the third week of January, which means it's the third week of working toward my new writing goals. In years past I've focused on word counts because it's such a handy (and obvious) metric. And I did set some word count goals for the novel-in-progress, because I think they can help drive the persistent effort necessary for long-form projects. Sometimes the only way through the swamp of the second act is to keep track of evidence that shows you're advancing, even if only by inches.

Photographer Ted Orland, with a big white beard and wearing a blue shirt
Ted Orland

But this year I'm trying out a new metric. I've thought a lot about Ted Orland's advice, and about what it means to create effective habits while producing enough bad work to get to the good. One of the things I realized was that focusing on word count can begin to feel like a sprint—the hurried scribbling squeezed into your day in order to hit that target.

Using time as the metric allows for a different approach. For one thing, it feels like you've got a little more room. If the goal is to sit in your chair for two hours instead of hitting a word count then you can start to relax, swing your arms around, and let your mind wander. You can write a meandering blog about kale and Ted Orland and just see where it goes. It's more like a leisurely walk than a sprint, which means you can pause more often, look more closely, and indulge strange detours.

It also forces a realignment of your schedule. In my case, I set a goal of ten hours per week. On a regular schedule that means a minimum of one hour daily, and two hours at least three times a week. That's not an impossible goal by any means, but it does require a little more planning. It means my writing is not something I can squeeze in haphazardly on lunch breaks, or do at the end of the day as a final chore to cross off of my list.

I've always thought I prioritized writing, but the last three weeks have made me question that. Are priorities things you fit inside a schedule that already exists? Or are they the things you build your schedule around? Twenty-four days into January, I'm beginning to see it's the latter.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Bonnie and Seth

I really am trying to be better this year. I'm trying to make sure I read the books I got for this Christmas before the next one comes rolling around. This shouldn't be an unattainable goal, but as a reader I've always been flighty. The books I'm interested in today are never the same as the books I'll want to read tomorrow. 

You can see this in action by the strata of books piled up on my bedside table. From the bottom: I ran out of steam on The Glass Hotel, so I thought I might start reading Rex Stout, but then I read Frankl's The Unconscious God and thought I should re-read Man's Search for Meaning, but then Conning Harvard is due back at the library soon, but then, but then, but then …

Like I said, I'm trying to be better. And toward that end I've now finished Seth Godin's The Practice, a quick read that I enjoyed very much, and I've started Bonnie Friedman's Writing Past Dark, which I've read a bit slower but savored.

One of the great pleasures of reading, of course, is when one book speaks to another, and that's been the case with these two. Friedman's book was first published in 1993 and Godin's came out at the end of last year. But both take up questions of creativity, practice, and distraction, and so both voice similar truths.

I've pulled out a few quotes that feel like part of a larger conversation to me. I'm sharing them here without further comment:

“Most everyone gets excited by being noticed, connected, or truly seen. The essence of your art isn't that it comes from a rare place of genius. The magic is that you choose to share it.”
-Seth Godin

“Revision, I realized, allowed an ordinary intelligence to achieve greatness.”
-Bonnie Friedman

“If you want to change your story, change your actions first. When we choose to act a certain way, our mind can't help but rework our narrative to make those actions become coherent. We become what we do.”
-Seth Godin

“I had a choice. I could choose my way or not choose my way. Nobody else's way would deliver me into my own territory. You can't get there from here. You can only get more and more fully here during the time you are lucky enough to be here.”
-Bonnie Friedman

“We are in free fall. Always. Attachment pushes us to grab ahold of something. Attachment is about seeking a place to hide in a world that offers us little solace. But of course, the bad news is that there is no foundation. We're always falling. The good news is that there's nothing to hold onto. As soon as we stop looking for something to grab, our attention is freed up to go back to the practice, to go back to the work. The strongest foundation we can find is the realization that there is no foundation.”
-Seth Godin

“The answer to envy is one's own work. Always one's own work. Not the thinking about it. Not the assessing of it. But the doing of it. The answers you want can come only from the work itself.”
-Bonnie Friedman

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Pour Me

I've started drafts of this blog a couple times already this week. I wrote one about the persistence of the kale in our garden. It's still out there, entirely edible if no longer growing. The last time I harvested some I had to scrape snow off the leaves. Damn hardy stuff.

Then Wednesday happened, and I spent most of my day watching the attack on the Capitol unfold. My work productivity took a hit, to say nothing of my writing goals. And I thought, okay, there's something – maybe I'd write about that.

But I don't have anything useful to say. I keep a blog instead of social media because my “hot takes” are always either obvious, wrong, or both. I've spent the last several days just trying to get my head around what happened, let alone what it means. The future – and I'm talking week by week at this point – seems not just unknowable but blown wide apart. Anything could happen, including the worst, and my misused imagination has really come up with novel ideas of what “the worst” might entail.

I really picked a bad decade to quit drinking.

In Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing*, Kierkegaard describes that “one thing” as “the Good.” Which is only kind of useful, because “the Good” is a pretty vague term, and Kierkegaard doesn't spend a ton of time defining it. He opts instead to spend chapters and chapters identifying different cases of "double-mindedness," which is the opposite of purity of heart. And boy does he identify a lot of it.

But at some point he does get a little more concrete. What we're meant to focus our will toward, Kierkegaard says, is a consciousness of our individual responsibility before God. He's talking partly about devotion here, but he's also pointing to the fact that in every moment we each have the capacity to make an individual choice. 

In Kierkegaard's theology, we won't be able to make any evasions when faced with Eternity. We won't be able to blame the crowd or the mob or society for our decisions. We are all responsible, entirely, for the choices we make. If that doesn't spark a little fear and trembling, I don't know what could.

There's a saying I've heard in AA: “Poor me, poor me, pour me another drink.” Self-pity is an easy evasion when things go to shit. It's a great excuse to start drinking. Believe me, I speak from experience. Worry and anger and fear are good excuses, too. But part of recovery is realizing that there will always be one more good excuse. If you're looking for a reason to evade responsibility for the choices you're making, they really aren't that difficult to find.

This is the moment we're in. It's pretty badly fucked up, and I don't have any answers. But just like I have a choice as to whether or not I drink – and I won't, because I choose not to – I have other choices every other moment as well. I don't know if Kierkegaard was wright about God, but he was spot fucking on about that.



*Can you imagine how mad Flannery O'Connor must have been that Kierkegaard got to this title first?

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Our Man in China

"Your ability to see is not increased by the distance you put between yourself and your home. If you do not see what is around you every day, what will you see when you go to Tangiers?"    --Freeman Patterson, Photography and the Art of Seeing


"If anyone is looking for knowledge let him go where such fish are to be caught: there is nothing I claim to less. These are my own thoughts, by which I am striving to make known not matter but me."    --Michel de Montaigne, On Books


* * *

My dad didn't write very much. He was dyslexic, and also an engineer, and maybe because of these factors he always seemed much more comfortable in the world of measurements and numbers. I have no letters from him. I don't have any emails he sent. There's no written archive of posts on social media. About the most writing he left behind was his signature in greeting cards. On some occasions he might even add a "Happy birthday!" for good measure.

Oddly enough, though, when Dad died he did leave behind a big stack of old notebooks. They're the same brand I like, but while I use a slim notepad with stitched binding, Dad favored stout, stocky sprial-bound notebooks two inches thick. You could call them "pocket-sized," but only in the same way you'd describe a mass market copy of War and Peace.

Then again, this was a man who spent his life sitting on a leather wallet as thick as a cinderblock, so I don't know. Maybe he put the wallet beneath one cheek and the notebook below the other just so he could sit level.

I didn't expect to find very much in the notebooks. Still, I couldn't help looking. I spent an evening flipping through the pile one by one, curious to see what was there. There's something odd and comforting about seeing your father's handwriting even when it's only recording some unintelligible minutiae of metallurgy.

And for the most part, that's what the notebooks were for. They're filled with hastily sketched diagrams and technical notes, chemical formulae and the serial numbers of machine parts. Now and then his personal life peeks in -- there's the occasional grocery list, a note about medication, a reminder to call mom about the cat. But then, with no transition but the turn of a page, one of the notebooks becomes something else entirely.

Over the course of about twenty pages Dad wrote the only journal he may have ever kept (certainly the only one that I've ever seen). The context is a work trip to China; Dad's there to inspect a production plant and make recommendations. But the evenings he has to himself, and these he spends exploring.

The journal actually begins as a letter to Mom. Within a few paragraphs, though, that's all forgotten, and it begins to read more like an inner monologue than a letter directed to somebody else. Dad notes his impressions of the city, his hotel, the local food, the people he meets. The entries are sporadic, a few paragraphs here and there when he finds himself alone and with time to kill. Often they begin by noting that he's about to eat a meal, or that he's waiting for a cab, or that he's sitting on the hotel balcony finishing his coffee.

What's surprising is how fast these entries add up to a personality, to Dad's specific consciousness filtering the world around him. Sometimes it's recognizable to me as the man I knew: Birder Dad noting the local magpies and swallows; Hungry Dad making notes on the nearby German restaurant, his trouble using chopsticks, his inability to find good coffee. (Give Dad enough food and interesting birds and you could keep him busy for weeks.)

Other times Dad's reactions surprise me. I never knew my father to be particularly social, but there he is writing with a twinge of loneliness as he notes that he's the only one at the hotel who ever sits outside on the balcony. He never struck me as conscious of age, but then he notes how young everyone seems, describing the city as a "college campus during homecoming (said the 55-year-old-man)." The self-consciousness in his parenthetical seems completely alien to the person I knew, but telling for the person he was.

The way these observations stack up, they begin to illuminate not just what he saw but who he was. Like a bolt of lightning, each entry presents the glimpse of a thought seen within the flash of my father's attention. But then it's over just as fast; the moment passes, and the light goes dark.

 

Either/Or

Lately I've been in the bad habit of not quite finishing books. I get antsy toward the last twenty pages or so, distracted like a fickle...