Sunday, March 7, 2021

Cultivation

 A few things this week. First, certainty.

Very little in my life has been as constant as the certainty I feel when I write. It bubbles up in the process of writing every story, whether it's six words or six thousand. At some point—maybe multiple points—I will stare at the page I'm working on and know, with absolute conviction, that it's dog shit.

When you know you're writing garbage, it's tempting to set it aside and start on something else. It is much harder to recognize that what feels like certainty is in fact the same resistance you've felt before. Certainty means knowing that this time it's different; this time your gut is correct; this time you're working on garbage.

In these moments, a valuable practice for a writer is the cultivation of doubt. This does seem bad, doesn't it? But let's just see where it goes. Let's write to the end to be sure.


*


I've been reading Will Cuppy's How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes. Cuppy was a humorist maybe most famous for his book of history, The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, but he spent much of his time researching and writing about nature. Most of the pieces in Apes are only a page or two long, which is kind of a shame, since Cuppy's humor really works best when he's got room for asides and diversions, like in his essay What I Hate About Spring:

“More than one psychologist has hinted that there must be something amiss with a bookish old recluse who does not enjoy the combined yawpings and yowling and yammerings of the entire brute creation while he is trying to get some plain and fancy writing done. I reply that there must be something wrong, and radically wrong, with a lot of birds who cannot let a poor hack have five minutes of peace in which to grind out his copy.

I advise pedants to skip my classification of bird noises. I find that most birds, if left to their own devices, are likely to go zeegle zeegle zeegle. There is also the bloop type, and I may as well mention the phut phut and willuch willuch varieties—see the text of my articles for the details.

Or, one may divide the avifauna of Jones's [Island] into those that sound like scraping a blackboard with chalk, those that resemble the sound of blowing into a bunghole, and those that remind the hearer of delicate steel gimlets boring remorselessly into the more sensitive tissues of the human brain. Another bird which I should love to get my hands on emits a circular whiz guaranteed to turn a cave-man into an incurable neurotic in five minutes of steady application. Perhaps I may be pardoned for regarding the Jones's Island Whizzer as a menace to American letters.”


*


I've also been reading Derek Lin's excellent translation of/commentary on the Tao Te Ching. According to the sticker on the cover I bought this book fourteen years ago, which means I've tried and failed to read it off and on for the last decade and a half. This month, I guess I was ready.

It's always a mystery why and when certain books finally click. I'm still stymied by Marcus Aurelius, which is slightly embarrassing to admit, since Meditations is usually regarded as a pretty accessible point of entry for Stoicism in particular and philosophy in general. It's like saying I'm stymied by Aesop's Fables. 

Periodically I'll read an Aurelius quote that seems straightforward enough. Something like: “It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.”

I'll read that and think, Well that doesn't seem so difficult. Maybe I should try it again? But a few pages on I'll find myself stumped and set Meditations  aside.

This is why I have so much trouble getting rid of books. Maybe I didn't like it, maybe I couldn't get into it, but it hardly seems fair to blame that on the book. Maybe I just need to grow into it. If I carry it with me for the next fourteen years, who's to say what might happen?


*


And, finally, I pruned up our peach trees this week. They were badly in need of a trim, not least because they were stretching out over the neighbor's front yard and dropping stones in their lawn. 

This will be the sixth year we've had the trees, and in that time I think we've harvested perhaps twelve ounces of edible fruit. It's the pests. Every year they beat us to the punch, eating the peaches well before we can, and it's never the same pests twice. 

The first year it was the squirrels. The second year it was a ground hog, which our neighbors swore they saw leap from the tree multiple times despite being as large and as round as a pot-bellied pig. In year three we had bees. Year four was the stink bugs. And last year the peaches were covered in wasps, which were frankly much worse than the bees. The bees at least seemed to respect each other and take turns nibbling. The wasps treated it like a free for all, swarming the fruits fifteen at a time whether they were still on the tree or the ground.

My wife is an organic gardener, which rules out most of the defenses other gardeners might use, but last year we had a terrific jalapeno harvest. I diced most of them up for pickling, and as we've eaten our way through the jar I've been saving the juice to spray on our trees. Maybe it will work, maybe it won't, but I say let's just see where this goes.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Coffeehouse

This week I've been reading Amy Krouse Rosenthal's Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, which is a book I go back to often. It's like reading a long letter from an old friend who can't wait to tell you everything.

Author Amy Krouse Rosenthal, sitting on a swing
Amy Krouse Rosenthal

The conceit of the book is pretty simple. It's a memoir (kind of) in the form of an encyclopedia, and like an encyclopedia there's not much concern for linear time. Incidents from childhood, adulthood, and adolescence are shuffled together like a deck of cards. Some entries are just stray thoughts, or lists, or detailed graphs. Some are more like social experiments, like the entry in which she appeals a parking ticket on the grounds of “karma.” (Rosenthal had parked too long while buying books for other people, and petitioned the court to ask this be counted in her favor. The city of Chicago apparently agreed; the fine was waived.)

It's a very funny and charming book, exactly the kind of thing you want to read before bed (though slightly dangerous because of the temptation to read much later than what you intended). What I didn't expect this time around was how nostalgic it would make me feel for the mundane. 

Here, take this for instance, the start of an entry titled COFFEEHOUSE:

“My coffeehouse died. The one I went to every single Thursday for three years, minus a couple sore throats, vacations, and childbirths. The one where I wrote or tried to write or thought about trying to write. The one where I ate ham-and-cheese sandwiches, tofu asiago melts, and bagels with basil and cream cheese. The one where I would sit for hours and sip and sip (never enough water). It was called Urbus Orbis, and I loved it.

“I fancied Chicago's Urbus as the kind of coffeehouse/salon you would have once found in Paris's 4th Arrondissement. I'm totally making this up; I should know more about the history and role of European coffeehouses, but I'm rather attached to smoky notions I've adopted as fact: Passion. Pretension. Unnecessary gesticulating. Cigarettes that didn't cause cancer. And pencils that caused revolution.”

I know this coffeehouse. Not Urbus, per se, but my own versions of it, some of them closed, some still thriving. Unlike Rosenthal, I've never had much luck writing there. I get too distracted, too self-conscious, too busy watching and listening to everyone else. I get more work done where I'm writing now, in a chilly basement office that, even in our small home, can barely maintain its WiFi reception. I'm very fortunate in this respect because, at least when it comes to writing, the pandemic hasn't upset my routine very much.

But reading COFFEEHOUSE now, and the thousand other entries about the daily tasks of life and the places where we live it, I miss these things very much. I miss my coffeehouse, with the familiar baristas and lousy breakfast burritos and the airpots where you can refill your own coffee. I miss the courtyard outside where for just one week a year the cherry blossom is in spectacular bloom. I miss the occasional sirens and the door that didn't close very well and the boy in glasses who would always be reading Greek classics alone in the front window.

Rosenthal doesn't mention any of this, of course, because her specifics are very different from mine. Yet the magic of specificity is how it all interlinks. The more detail she provides about her life—the idiosyncratic fascinations and experiences and conversations—the more details of my own life I'm reminded of.

It makes me think again of that Bonnie Friedman quote:

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

Encyclopedia is deep in that silt, and that's why it's such a pleasure to read.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

After the Storm

This week I was going to write about our adventures digging through ten inches of snow and negotiating the storms, but I don't think this is really the time. The news from the south continues to be awful, and there will still be significant ongoing recovery work long after the disaster is out of the news cycle.

So today I'm going to keep it pretty short, and instead share some links on how you can help:



"Food banks across Texas are springing into action during this extreme winter weather and energy crisis. In several cities, our network is supporting warming shelters for the unhoused, as well as those without power and water. Many food banks have also experienced supply chain disruptions and severe loss of perishable foods due to power outages. Please consider donating to help us feed those in need."



"Financial donations ensure that the Regional Food Bank can provide food assistance to the one in six Oklahomans, including one in four children, who face food insecurity. For every $1 donated, the Regional Food Bank helps provide four meals."



"$10 = 55 meals, so even a small donation can help a person eat for a day. Your gift will immediately fight hunger in Northeast Louisiana."



"For ANYONE in need of  a warm, safe place to stay! Those experiencing homelessness can come stay in safety during this winter storm. Please share the word & let all people in need know. To our friends, we love each of you more than we can say & we are here for you. Please stay safe & come if needed."



"Welcome to the H.O.M.E. Center! Our goal is simple, to serve our community. On a daily basis, our volunteers are connecting with those experiencing homelessness or people at risk of being homeless. We help provide temporary aid and build a bridge to resources available in Central Texas. Like every organization, we would not be able to continue this initiative without our donors and volunteers. Help us expand our impact!"

Sunday, February 14, 2021

If it Doesn't Ship

My friend Eliza emailed a couple weeks ago just to check in. Eliza is also a writer, and so after we exchanged updates we sent each other a couple short stories. She'd written a piece about the pandemic that was funny and moving and mournful, which is just about everything I want from a story. I sent her a piece I wrote early last year before the pandemic, which now feels like it was written decades ago.

She liked the story, she said, but suggested I change the last tile. I'd never heard anyone use that phrase before, but I instantly knew what she meant -- the last scene of a story, the one that snaps everything else into place.

My story did not have that snap. I had tried a trick that sometimes works when I get stuck on an ending, which is to start flipping back through the pages and hope something sparks. Is there a loop you can close, a live wire to ground, a thread you can pull to cinch up the plot? But what I landed on was weak, and way too interior. Instead of ending on a final image the reader was left with the main character's thoughts, and those thoughts basically boiled down to, "Here is this story's theme."

Not great!

I haven't figured that one out yet, so this week I set that story aside so I could finish up a couple others. One of my goals this year is to write more garbage, on the theory that this will lead to more writing I'm proud of

I hate calling this "productivity" because that word has such a strong whiff of the workplace, and workplace productivity rarely grants room for failure. In one of my first office jobs, as a wee young copywriter for a major corporation, I lived or died by two metrics: quality and productivity. But there was a catch. 

Although the Corporation believed in maximizing both, it recognized that these two metrics were in some ways opposed. If I had to produce fifty websites a week it was probably unreasonable to expect zero spelling mistakes. If I had to make zero spelling mistakes, I'd have to spend more time proofreading and less time writing.

With creative productivity, the assumptions are different. It's not that the quality metric is gone; more like it's been suspended. "Quality" is something you worry about later, as part of a revision process in which you decide what half-formed material has promise and what might need to be abandoned. 

(The nice thing about being a writer is that even the stuff you "abandon" can still be discreetly set aside for later, and at no real cost. It's not like being a sculptor where you have to clear out failed statues to make space in your studio. Why, with just a couple thumb drives I can keep my failed work with me at all times, to haunt me the rest of my life! Hooray!)

Still, this week "quality" reared its handsome head. As Seth Godin says, if it doesn't ship, it doesn't count. After I set aside the short story that wasn't working, I polished up a couple others for submission and sent them out into the world. After spending the first six weeks of 2021 writing an awful lot of awful first drafts, it felt nice to get something out.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Contestants

A couple months ago I leaned about a writing contest open to anybody over the age of 10. I read over the rules, looking up the organization that's doing the organizin', then copied the link and sent it to my niece.

“Do you want to enter a contest together?”

“Mayyyybeeee,” she said, suspicious of anything that looked so much like homework. “Let me think about it.”

The kid is barely old enough to qualify, but she's a voracious reader and writes well above grade level. I figured she'd be a shoo in, but I didn't want to put her under pressure. Nothing ruins the fun of writing like adults who turn it into a chore. A few days later, though, she agreed we should do it. After that we were off to the races.

The contest is broken out into three divisions – Middle School, High School, and Adult – but all three get the same rules. Stories have to be between 500 and 1,000 words; they all have to use the same first sentence; and they all have to use the same last sentence.

Those requirements proved irresistible. They sparked our imaginations. Even my mom, who was hearing about the contest from both me and my niece, started pitching us her own ideas. At the end of one phone call, after she ran through yet another entire original plotline, I told her that maybe she ought to enter.

“Oh, no,” Mom said, “I'm not creative.”

I decided not to pressure her, either. I didn't need the extra competition.

I made the last edits on my story this week, ruthlessly paring it down to get myself down below the 1,000 words. I put it aside, came back the next day. Put it aside, came back again. Finally I submitted the story.

Later I asked my niece, how's her story going? We're not sharing manuscripts with each other until we've both submitted. She's afraid I might steal her ideas.

“Good,” my niece said, “but it might get too long. I'm already at 300 words.”

“Well, that's okay, you've got a little more room,” I said, trying to be reassuring. “How much have you still got to write?”

“They still have to fight the basilisk,” she said. “And the dragon and the electric eels and the monster I invented. There's also a volcano.”

“Ah,” I said. “Maybe you are cutting it a little too close.”

“What's your story about?” my niece asked. I gave her the pitch, my tale about a young mouse who's off to seek his fortune in Australia. I figured she'd love it—kids love adventuring mice. But when I stopped talking there was silence on the other end of the line.

“What?” I asked. “Not exciting enough?”

“It sounds pretty good,” she said diplomatically, “but maybe you should have him fight monsters.”

Good writing advice, maybe, but by then it was too late. You live and you learn, I suppose. Our hopes will have to rest upon her.

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...