Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Catching days

June 10, 2013

You can’t rush the dawn.

Especially not after you’ve stayed up late watching the Cards pound the Reds and then Don Draper “comfort” a draft-dodger’s mom. I enjoyed both spectacles, but they kept me up after midnight and have disrupted my morning routine.

Routine is crucial to creative success. I was reminded of this by another of Maria Popova’s endless succession of instigating brainpickings. She cited some of my favorite Annie Dillard lines, from The Writing Life .

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.

And then she recites Wallace Stevens’ splendid daily routine: walk an hour to & from work (each way), plus another hour at noon. I’d love that routine, if only my work were an hour’s walk (instead of drive) from home. I’d hate the insurance selling in between walks, but we must all make our compromises.

Popova has lots more on the daily routines and daily rituals of successfully creative people. I’m especially envious of Darwin’s.  (He of course worked from home and so did not have to commute, vehicularly or otherwise.)

Darwin rose, walked, worked, took a mid-morning break in the parlor with Mrs. Darwin (who would read aloud from something diverting, typically personal correspondence and something fictional), worked some more, walked some more, declared it a good day’s work by 1 pm or so, hung out some more with Emma, read, replied to his correspondents, enjoyed his family, and in the process eventually gave us the greatest idea anyone ever had.

Really nice work, if you can get it.

Butterfly in the sky

May 28, 2013

It’s the first unofficial day of summer, with no one to drop at school or (as yesterday) the airport, so I didn’t bother scheduling the harp to prompt my pre-dawn rising. Got up anyway, thanks to long habit and loud birds. Feels virtuous.

backpack2We’re till in the afterglow of Older Daughter’s official launch from High School on Sunday afternoon. Big party tent’s still up and so is my sentimental mood.  The commemorative slideshow Mom labored long and lovingly to assemble, with its time-lapse of 13 annual “first days,” has me strolling memory lane. Oh the places we went, back before graduating pre-school. Those were some happy walks.

And then there were all those flights of armchair adventure. One of our first songs not from the Pooh songbook was the Reading Rainbow theme: “I can go anywhere…”

Gave OlderStorytime with Emma Daughter a Seuss lunchbox filled with non-comestible stuff to chew on, including some advice to the aspiring writer. Best advice ever, of course, is “Read read read…”

But as the genial host always said, you don’t have to take my word for it. Reading’s still fundamental, we’re still born ceaselessly into the past. Follow the green light, Colbert, and read the book.

Crucial complementary advice, if you really want to free your imagination and go places: take a reading/writing break. Take a hike.

“A professor has two functions”

May 13, 2013

Grades reported!

I hate issuing grades, except well-earned A’s. Had more than a few of those this term, so I’m in relatively good spirits this a.m.

But, I’m also in that typical post-semester, tired-of-professing state of mind displayed by William James when he complained about his vocation,

…paid to talk talk talk. It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words words words.

I feel a touch of what he must have felt on retiring from Harvard in 1907:

I thank you for your congratulations on my retirement. It makes me very happy. A professor has two functions: (1) to be learned and distribute bibliographical information; (2) to communicate truth. The 1st function is the essential one, officially considered. The 2nd is the only one I care for. Hitherto I have always felt like a humbug as a professor, for I am weak in the first requirement. Now I can live for the second with a free conscience.

For a few weeks, anyway, my posts to this and other venues will be entirely in service of “communicating truth,” specifically in the form of a work-in-progress I’m calling Philosophy Walks. I’m going to resist the habitual urge to reflect overtly on whatever crosses pre- and semi-caffeinated consciousness, and stick to the business of philosophers who’ve walked and philosophy that’s emerged from walks of my own (with occasional “Happiness” and “Humanist” posts thrown in, just because my self-control is only human).

I’m guessing that might mean fewer pre-dawn posts in the days and weeks ahead. We’ll see.

Plugged in again, ready to greet the dawn

January 7, 2013

Ah yes, 5 am. It all comes blearily back, calm and bright. Or with bright aspirations, at least.

Two weeks unplugged, without a post or tweet or email (if you sent me one and need a reply, please re-send: I’m resolved to be friends again with the “delete” key). It felt like freedom.

I’m reassured that I can quit this medium at will, when I want to.  Have done it many times, in fact, like the proverbial serial ex-smoker. So I choose to assert my free will by believing I’m no internet addict. The unwired world is still there, I can still find my way back to our ancestral reality-based community of now-frequently-missing information. And what a great place to visit.

In fact, though, it’s a bit unsettling to realize how quickly a constructive habitual daily routine can be undone. I’ve been lounging abed ’til my first glimmering awareness of the dawn, every day of this holiday break, and have been shocked (though only briefly) by my own lassitude. Will is a tenuous construction.

But it’s over now, the girls are back in school today and I’m back at my desk in the dim light of a lovely pre-dawn crescent moon.

And it’s good to be here, to snag whatever reflections may happen to break my way in 2013. Not going to force it, and I’m even resolved to sit some days in “radio” silence, unplugged again, with only an open file and ruled notebook for company.

But I’m ready. Alive, alert, awake, enthusiastic, calm, caffeinated, seeking more light.

Why the Internet is cool

December 11, 2012

I heard, out of the blue, from a curious descendant of one of my literary heroes yesterday.

Walker Percy‘s grandson (living in Houston) had seen an old post about my visit to a “teahouse” gazebo his grandfather and young Shelby Foote (the great Civil War historian) constructed in the late ’30’s, near the University of the South at Sewanee, TN. Theirs was an inspiring friendship, nearly lifelong, and an impressive correspondence.

The grandson doesn’t know where the teahouse is, though he has a picture of it;  nor (he says) did anyone at Walker’s widow’s recent funeral know its whereabouts, either.

In 1996 my wife looked for an autumn weekend rental near Monteagle and Sewanee for us to share with her parents. In the process, and quite inadvertently (never having read Percy herself) she booked us into the property on Brinkwood Lane overlooking Lost Cove, formerly owned by Walker’s own grandpa.

You can’t imagine how thrilled I was, back then, to stand for this photo… nor how thrilled I am now to provide a missing link to the heirs of a writer I admire so greatly.


See, that’s what I’m always going on about: the “continuous human community” in which we all are links. It means a lot.

“Somewhere simple”-the lure of the Little House

December 10, 2012

Grading pile’s about to replenish, as exam week begins. There’s just time to take a breath and exhale a quick word of appreciation for my old Vandy friend David Wood’s New York Times Stone essay on writer’s huts and the specific locales where thinking and writing can occur.

little house3

The Lure of the Writer’s Cabin” materialized whilst I was gliding out on the back porch of my own shoddy little Shangri-la yesterday (another eerily-warm December day), a place I’ve waxed about before [search “Little House”].

My new neighbor, the one I find I like a lot more since the Romney signs fell, was gazing at it across the fence with curious envy just yesterday morning. He wondered if it had cable. No, but it does pick up Fox sports nicely during baseball season. And wi-fi. And it’s where I ignite my recreational (and thermal) hydrocarbons to indulge my fireplace delusion.

My old firewood man stopped by again last night, startling Younger Daughter, banging on the back door we never open and greeting me with his cheery “Hello, Perfesser!” He was hoping I’d already spent my last rick. Told him I think I’m good ’til February.

Anyway, I appreciate David’s clear-eyed recognition that being in the hut/cabin/Little House is a cultural construction saturated in allusion, association, and reference. It’s not some mythic Thoreauvian retreat into purest nature.

One does not have to be a Thoreau or a Rousseau for one of these modest spaces to supply what is needed to write. Identification with nature is not required (if indeed it were possible); a certain harmony with nature is already broken by putting pen to paper. And would one really seek harmony with nature if one were privy to the ruthless struggles being played out under every rock? The roof of the cabin, the door, the window are all designed to keep nature at bay. The flat surface of the desk, the laptop screen, the artificial light all bear witness to the necessity to subordinate nature’s spontaneous irregularity, to fashion a little Versailles.

The greatest lure of my Little House is that it feels so much more remote and private than it actually is. When I’m there, I can pretend that the little stand of trees in back is the edge of a great dark Wood. I can shuffle from porch to hammock to roll-top to recliner and sit and think. Or just sit. Sometimes even write a bit. And grade.

But it’s not too far away from what we call civilization, up in the Big House. I was halfway through David’s lovely essay when I heard Older Daughter’s familiar insistent “Da-aa-ad!” She’d come for the car-keys, she and Younger Daughter were going malling – without a parental escort. (Now there’s a milestone!) Did I need anything? Not much, really. Just “a table, a chair, somewhere simple, free of distraction.”

And maybe some eggnog, please. “Conjuring other worlds, brave new possibilities” is thirsty work.

And guess what? The girls delivered. Did Emerson ever do that for Henry?

The journey itself’s the thing

June 20, 2012

Then again, sometimes the best-laid plans are bested by circumstance.

My appointment with Carl Safina had to be re-scheduled, S decided to comandeer my Lazy Point (what I’m now calling the pool-hammock-glider zone out back) for an office party. I was to be elsewhere.

Younger Daughter took care of some of that, first summoning the Dad cab for a ride to the Pet Resort (Angel needed a makeover, apparently) and then to basketball camp. A couple more small errands, and then (why not?) McKay’s.

I still had a $20 credit in my wallet from the last time. It’s down to $4 now, and my summer reading stack is way up. Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang and Desert Solitaire, Abbott’s FlatlandLerner’s America as a Civilization, Ford’s American Short Story, a symphonic recording of baseball classics called Play Ball (including James Earl Jones’ rendition of “Casey at the Bat”)… and the big prize:

“The soul of a journey is liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel, do just as one pleases. We go a journey chiefly to be free of all impediments and of all inconveniences; to leave ourselves behind, much more to get rid of others.”  Wm Hazlitt

“In these divine pleasures permitted to me of walks in the June night under the moon and stars, I can put my life as a fact before me and stand aloof from its honor and shame.” Emerson

“Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, Healthy, free, the world before me, The long brown path before me leading me wherever I choose.” Whitman

“The longest journey begins with a single step, not with a turn of the ignition key. That’s the best thing about walking, the journey itself. It doesn’t much matter if you get where you’re going or not. You’ll get there anyway.” Edward Abbey

And that’s just from the jacket. A meander off the designated trail is perfectly in keeping with the Lazy Point mentality, a well-placed monkey wrench along my way. John McDermott always says “the nectar’s in the journey,” too. I’m getting there.

Getting a grip, adjusting stance

June 16, 2012

Speaking of making words sing, Mark at Baseball Bard sent along a pleasing poem for Father’s Day. “Better air in our lungs,” indeed!

Baseball as metaphor for life is cliche, but find a better one. Paternally considered, it’s hugely gratifying when your home-team’s players develop skills exceeding your own. Not just talkin’ baseball here. How’s writing camp going over there in Memphis, Older Daughter?

Writing is an act of optimism

June 15, 2012

I was disappointed to miss Richard Ford‘s appearance here last night. He signed my copy of Independence Day in June ’96 at the old Davis-Kidd in Nashville, and we had a brief but engaging conversation about teaching and living. Oh well. Oh Canada.

So I did the next best thing, and hunted up his recent appearances on YouTube. There are a few. I’m impressed by Ford’s seemingly effortless ability in Q-&-A sessions to call up just the right illustrative quotation.

I’m also impressed by Ford’s commitment to always finding something, in even the bleakest of stories, to affirm and assent to.

Q. Would you say you are a positive writer who explores existential failures in your books?

I feel that’s exactly what I am – an optimist, who believes with Sartre, that to write about the darker possible things is an act of optimism. But what I’m looking for is drama, which occurs when people are at a loss, and not succeeding. I try to find a vocabulary which makes those things expressible. In the process of making those expressible to a readership, it becomes an act of optimism, because it imagines a future in which these things will be understood, and be mediated in some way. Writing for me is always an act of optimism. I probably wouldn’t do it otherwise, no matter how dark things are. CSM

He discourages young writers from setting out to make a career of it, unless they just can’t help themselves. Every author he knows, successful or not, works “like a dog.” (Strange expression: my dogs actually have it pretty easy.) But that’s because they want to, are driven to, are unable to settle for any other vocation.

But, he wonders, if you’ve made that commitment why would you settle for less than the best in terms of your own output? Why would you be content merely to cobble competent sentences rather than try to craft something truly great and enduring?

It’s obvious, as a review noted recently, that Ford takes extreme care in the production of each of his sentences. (“I estimate my success by how the words sing to me.”) Sorry I didn’t get to see him doing that live and in person last night. Next time.

Ford in the great white north… Road tripExplain nothing in publicFord on livingfiction’s business

“At sunrise, I’m out again”

June 7, 2012

We’ve lost one of our great autodidacts. Ray Bradbury educated himself (“found myself”) in libraries, where he developed a Whitman-like regard for the personalities embedded in books, and became a great non-academic teacher of writing and of life. He said we should “give the gift of life with our books. Say to a girl or boy at age ten, Hey, life is fun! Grow tall!”

And, he said, “if you enjoy living, it is not difficult to keep the sense of wonder.” And vice versa.

His greatest writerly advice:

Stuff your head. A course of bedtime reading: one short story, one poem (but Pope, Shakespeare, and Frost, not modern “crap”), and one essay. These essays should come from a diversity of fields, including archaeology, zoology, biology, philosophy, politics, and literature. “At the end of a thousand nights,” so he sums it up, “Jesus God, you’ll be full of stuff!”

Write with joy. In his mind, “writing is not a serious business.” If a story starts to feel like work, scrap it and start one that doesn’t. “I want you to envy me my joy,” he tells his audience.

List ten things you love, and ten things you hate. Then write about the former, and “kill” the later — also by writing about them. Do the same with your fears.

Just type any old thing that comes into your head. He recommends “word association” to break down any creative blockages, since “you don’t know what’s in you until you test it.”

Bradbury was hopeful and positive but wary, urgently warning us of all we’ve got to lose if we don’t value and preserve our inheritance. He recoiled from cynics and misanthropes, imagining a wondrous future built around great transformative ideas. “But,” he told Paris Review, “I don’t think I’m too overoptimistic.” In fact,

I don’t believe in optimism. I believe in optimal behavior. That’s a different thing. If you behave every day of your life to the top of your genetics, what can you do? Test it. Find out. You don’t know—you haven’t done it yet. You must live life at the top of your voice!”

Living at the top of his voice meant to him a kind of transcendence. When Ray was a little boy he saw a circus performer called “Mr. Electrico,” who touched him with a sizzling sword and said Live forever! “And I decided to.”

He wrote his own perfect coda, at the beginning of his novel-writing career, with a great testament to books and living called Fahrenheit 451. It concludes:

At sunset I’ve won or lost. At sunrise, I’m out again, giving it the old try.

It’s not game over with sunset. For optimalists like Ray Bradbury, the sun is after all still a morning star. Light is metaphor, light is life. “More light.”