With this blog entry, I do a turn — not 180º but perhaps 120º, devoting this blog, and this website in its entirety, to the writing life — the life of a writer, that is, and everything he or she might be interested in, including readers.
Young Zeck or, more fully, Young Zeck Image Communications, was the name of the little corporate communications consultancy I operated for about 25 years. It was, every now and then, successful in producing corporate jobs like company brochures, annual reports, and websites — and the income that goes along with such jobs.
The consultancy was not as successful as it might have been because I never fully devoted myself to the corporate life or corporate lie, if that’s not too extreme. Let’s put it this way, rather: the institution (corporate, governmental, academic) has a belief system that prefers money or a consistent code of values above all else. As someone trained in the humanities, and from the earliest age, how could I give myself to this kind of groupthink? The focus on money, and system, mean truth was an easy prey and beauty not far behind.
Yes, companies will hire you to produce plausible representations of their business and business methods, and you can write and design attractive products that both you and the client can be proud of. But when I did so, I would always think, what now? What new job must I be hunting for? What new values in life?
Since the mid-1980s at least, I’ve been writing stories and poems, and they’ve been accumulating in my drawers (computer drawers or folders). I’ve published a few, but not many. There’s very little money in publishing in little literary magazines, and, yes, money is a consideration if not the main consideration. There’s very little ego confirmation when the stuff you’ve sweated over so hard is rejected by these magazines.
Most literary writers, I think, publish for exposure. They want their names out, their creativity on display. They want to be read and, yes, admired. They don’t quit their day jobs, most of them, and they shouldn’t. But always in the back of the mind the idea lurks that they could make it someday as a writer.
Make it, as in making a living. Make it, as in getting a life. Make it, as in doing just what they’ve always dreamed of doing but were afraid to ask or try.
I retired from college teaching and corporate communications about six years ago when my wife Jennifer and I moved from Minnesota to Northwest Arkansas. Since then, I’ve tutored kids and done a little webmastering, but have continued to write stories and poems … and now and again the beginnings of a novel.
About four months ago I joined a weekly writers’ group, the Dickson Street Writers. We meet every Monday afternoon at Nightbird Books, an indie book shop in Fayetteville that accommodates us and other groups. Our facilitator, Linda, is writing a group biography about Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keefe, and that gang. Most of us are writing fiction, a few poetry.
We bring a printed copy of what we’re working on to the store and shop it around among ourselves. We read our own piece, that is, and the others mark and muse the typescript, then comment on it orally. More than the specific comments and directives, which are often helpful, it’s the mere example of others who are doing the same kind of thing and honoring the same direction, that is invaluable.
Yes, I’ve been in other writers’ group before, but somehow they didn’t last long. They were beset by divisions, competitions, lack of interest, ennui, lack of comprehension (I have no idea what you’re trying to say, or why you’re trying to say it). The Dickson Street Writers are older, for one thing, and more mature. (No spring chickens peck this barnyard.) They’re more tolerant of differences — one of which is that I am the only male member! (Sometimes in jest I call the group 12 Old Ladies and 1 Old Man.) Linda has remarked, on more than one occasion, that I’m brave to read what I do — a man’s fiction, perhaps, among so many women. Or fractious fiction, could be, among more conventional MOs. (I’ll take up this topic of courage in writing in more detail later.)
So here, at last, to the writer’s life. Raise your glasses high. To something of a meaning and purpose for your later years, if that’s what they’ve come down to.
Since I retired and moved to Arkansas five years ago, I’ve been doing a little tutoring. Yes, I tutor kids and adults too in reading, writing, and language.
The word “tutor” comes from the Latinfor protector, so a tutor has a privileged and responsible position vis-a-vis his tutees, a position of trust and confidence. In the case of children, the parents entrust the child to the tutor so he or she can grow in knowledge and critical thinking abilities. He will know how to take on the world on his own.
In ancient Rome, tutelary spirits guarded the household, protecting and defending the inhabitants. They cast a protective shade over the huddle of family. They acted almost like a talisman, or charm, and so too the tutor can provide such magic to ward off the dangers of the world at large.
With kids, it’s great fun to see them develop as readers, thinkers, and writers. They are naturally curious and fidgety, and so our lessons may at first resemble squirrel chases inside a cage. I get them to sit down and read a bit, and they do. But pretty soon they are fidgeting, cracking knuckles or looking at the ceiling. I put a pen in their hand, and they resist its power. Oh, the pain of this business of thinking and translating thoughts into words! They can talk bushels, but writing is a different monster altogether.
What’s most difficult is to convert all the diffuse energies of childish play into something logical, linear, disciplined, of course. It’s a conversion that most adults have not yet made, if we can judge by such phenomena as our recent presidential election. Who needs logic and reason when we can have games and carnival? When creepy clowns beckon in the guise of wise men?
For man doth not live by bread alone. Nor do we protect ourselves, and stand our ground, with guns alone. It’s ideas that protect and transform us. It’s the ability to digest, combine, and reformulate others’ ideas — and to make of them some kind of intellectual and spiritual life of our own. Woodworking and flower arranging are great hobbies and talents. Soulmaking is of another order.
Have a right-wing friend, let’s say acquaintance, at the gym I attend. We get along fine, laughing and japing, until we get into politics.
I’ve made clear to Tommy, let’s call him, that I abhor the NRA and its bloody gun-promotion at any cost policies, but he counters that statistics prove having a gun at home protects people from intruders. (What did Mark Twain say about “lies, damned lies, and statistics”?)
I suggest that paranoia has intruded into his brain, that his fears are “projections,” much like bullets projected from a gun, which he attributes to others but which come from within. His own fears, that is, represent his fears of the unknown alien or other. (Yes, he makes many racist remarks about Latinos and blacks.)
The other day, we got into it in the locker room, both Tommy and I and a big dumb pal of his, about 6’4″, 300 lbs., a former Razorback basketball player who, at the age of 50, works as a clerk at a liquor store and for pleasure keeps a deer stand on which many guns are mounted. I suggested to Mr Razorback that I would give him a fine book of poetry which he could read in his stand, and he’d forget all about his guns. You will merge and commune with nature, I suggested, and your violent impulses will disappear.
But Tommy, entering the room, heard me inveigh against gun violence and the NRA, and shouted, “I’m an NRA member!”
Bad cess for you, Tommy.
Somehow, the argument escalated, and Tom spit out, When the food shelves run out at Walmart, you damned liberals will have nothing to eat.
Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo! I intoned, for one and all to hear in the sweaty locker room.
You just wait! Tom roared. You’ll starve to death!
Apparently, it’s the “elite” who foist such cultural products as clear, logical, intelligent writing on the masses. Therefor, of course, Tom and Razorbelly will not read such stuff, especially if it comes from political pundits of the center and left. How dare others have gifts and insights that we lack? they seem to suggest. Simply because these elitists have a gift, have studied many years, learned a discipline, including logic. The smug superior bastards!
This last year has offered many lessons, or opportunities for same, on the civic virtues. Or, more basically, the virtues of civilization, if they still exist.
Without getting into the unseemly mess of American politics, and no doubt annoying the conservative brethren among us, I’ll just say that rowing the boat together seems to me not a bad idea, since we’re in it together and it’s leaking. We might try pulling together in the same direction more than we have, and arguing less over who’s working too hard and who hasn’t worked a lick, and who’s to blame and who gets to steer the craft.
Off by ourselves in a reflective corner, we might, by the time Thanksgiving rolls around, begin to dwell a bit less on our own misery, real or imagined, and more on that of people who don’t have nearly what we do, or have lost what they had. We might think of Syria, for example, which has seen untold suffering lately, and Iraq, and any number of other places on the globe where our action, or inaction, might have contributed to suffering.
Thankful for our comfort, ease, and affluence, we hold up a holiday candle to the world and send bright thoughts and a bit of money, if we can, to those near and far who suffer privation, want, cold, and hunger. (International Rescue Committee is one good choice. Doctors without Borders is another.) Jennifer gives to Bridge of Peace Syria, a charity headquartered in our home city, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and working even now inside that wartorn, miserable country.
And charity is the greatest of these
And we think of St Paul, could be, who, though no merry old soul like King Cole, was a droll boy in his own right. That line about better marry than burn, for example! Was the gent never married? Did he never marry AND burn? (Jen and I have been married, and burning, 45 years as of this Dec. 19!)
And what about his Paul’s riff on faith, hope, and charity?
For if faith is lacking in this idol-worshipping world (consider Baal and Mammon, to name just two, and throw in Beelzebub for good measure) … and hope is a speck in the farthest starling’s eye … then charity, it could be, is all we have left and what we have, and need most, to give each other.
Is it possible, brothers and sisters, that the charity that begins at home and flies through the world like the truest arrow, will make a luminous mark where it alights? And that it alights on and in us?
In this year of upcoming elections and crazy national politics, we could use a bit of charity, couldn’t we? More light, less heat? More embraces, fewer pointed fingers.
In this season of cheer and plenty, it’s not just about stringing out Christmas lights and planting Santa and reindeer on the lawn.
Or pouring eggnog into our neighbor’s cups, spiked or not.
But looking around and contemplating, for the time being, which is all we have, what our relation is to our fellow man.
God rest ye, merry gentlemen and -women, and nothing you dismay! This is our fondest, most peaceful, and most charitable hope for the New Year.
Exemplars & examples
Every year at this time, I have cause to think of my wife Jennifer’s marvelous generosity, which began in her home and then began to define ours when we married 45 years ago. My own family, like hers, had two parents and seven kids, but Jen’s parents were, frankly, more generous and giving than mine could be, with their background and temperament. I don’t mean merely in material terms, for I think my father Bob the lawyer (RIP) and Mary the housewife (RIP) made more than Jen’s father Max the pastor and Vi the secretary (RIP). It’s just that whatever they had, Max and Vi were willing to share, on every occasion, with the family, and even if family grew to include (if not comprehend) such dubious and unbelieving outsiders like me the charity extended that far and beyond.
Baa baa, black sheep, Max and Vi might say, we too had wool.
And the greatest of these woolly virtues was, and is, charity.
So here’s to Jennifer, and the generous souls in her family and circle of friends! Let’s lift a glass of eggnog (spiked or not) and celebrate the flowing from these welling sources onward and outward into the desert world.
Lindo Mexico, here we come again
Jen and I had the great pleasure of traveling to Mexico this October and November, for 2 1/2 weeks, the first visit in four years. We flew to Guadalajara, the country’s second biggest city, with a metro population of maybe six million, but spent most of our time in the much quieter retreat of Ajijic, a cobblestoned village of about 10,000 on the shores of Mexico’s largest lake, Chapala.
We met a few old friends, both gringo and Mexican, including Randall Lankford, a North Carolinian hippie in Tlaquepaque, an artsy enclave of Guadalajara, and Claudia Nery, a miraculous painter who lives on the lake and whose website I keep. (See www.claudianery.com. I also keep a site for Pepé Orozco, a tour and shopping guide whom we saw, at www.guideworksorozco.com.)
Bitten anew by the Mexico bug, we are returning, in January, this time to Mazatlan, the northernmost commercial port city. Mazatlan is special because it is such a working city (a fleet of about 600 shrimping boats, for example, the largest in North America) and yet a typically charming Mexican city too.
The commerce includes fishing, brewing (Mazatlan is home to the Pacifico brewery), and tourism (largely located in the new hotel strip or Golden Zone). All this business means that Mazatlan is pretty prosperous, and there are plenty of hotels, restaurants, museums, and other sources of fun and reflection for tourists as well as paying jobs for the locals.
Charm? It’s not mostly in the commercial part of Mazatlan. Look rather to the old city, its churches, squares, restaurants, and unfranchised amusements like
The malecon, or ocean walk, which features, as one reviewer says on TripAdvisor, “Great walk, ocean breezes, sunsets, people, bikes, roller blades — it’s all here. Plus you can stop for lunch or a refreshment!”
The Plaza Machada, or square, of the old historical section, with cathedral on one side, plus plenty of shops, restaurants, and outdoor seating.
The El Faro lighthouse and the view from the top of the entire harbor and beyond.
The Olas Altas beach (High Waves), which was once the only beach, and act, in town.
The return of the prodigal son et al.
In July, this year, our son Gabe and his family returned to Fayetteville, after an exile of two years in the frozen tundra of Minneapolis–St. Paul.
Gabe is working from home, as a computer programmer, for a New York City firm, and Heidi is once more working as an adolescent psych nurse. Ruby, we’re proud to say, is now eight years old and enjoying second grade at the local Happy Hollow School. It was hard for her at first, as she left behind many friends in St. Paul, where the kids were living, but they all seem to have adapted well once more to the Ozarks. (They moved down here originally in 2010, and are the reason Jen and I retired here the following year.)
Like his mom, Gabe is a good cook, the principal chef in the family. Like his dad, he bought a new bike this year, and has done some biking with him on the wonderful Razorback Greenway, which goes north from Fayetteville almost to the Missouri border, about 40 miles. (I’ve done 60+ miles at a time and am aiming, next year, for 100 miles.)
Moderation in all things (or Facebook anyway)
At the tail-end of the year, I took a break from Facebook for a while, checking into the FAC (Facebook Addiction Clinic), where I stayed for observation and therapy. Most of this, understand, was self-induced, and I could recommend it to you heartily.
You simply lie about and watch yourself, out of the corner of your eye, noting shifty and desperate shifts toward the keyboard and monitor … or extra time peeking at your smartphone or tablet. You observe the desperate longing and the panting, yet somehow they pass, a bit, with each passing day, and you find yourself busy with more important things, it could be, or more outward things.
A novel event
In my case, most of the action, this coming year, may take the form of a novel I’m researching — on gun violence, of all the Yuletide themes. I’m learning fascinating things that psychologists and sociologists, among others, have discovered about mass murderers, of whom we have had way too many recently.
The novelist, of course, is more than the sum of his personal prejudices, but he can turn them to fictional account. He can invent characters inflamed with passions, sadness, violence, benevolence, you name it, and cover the whole panoply of human emotions and ideals. And still, to some degree, stand back, as if from a cosmic and comic distance and watch the human ants build and destroy.
Whether you sling a gun or hash, whether you’re wholly sane or certifiable, we wish you here from the heart of the Ozarks a merry holiday season and, oh yes, hugs, kisses & big bags of charity, which is the greatest of these and, like sugar, sweetens the cookies.
You’ve heard of Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian writing sensation? I’ve read several reviews of his six-part memoir, My Struggle (Min Kamp, in Norwegian, which itself caused great controversy, sounding so much like Hitler’s Mein Kampf), and have finally got round to start reading his work.
It’s mesmerizing, really, his day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour account of his youth in rural Norway, his erotic coming of age, his marriage and vocation as writer in Stockholm, Sweden.
It’s hard to account for the pull and power of this work in some ways, as it’s not (quite) fiction and not (quite) narrative. Rather, it’s a memoir comprising meditation and narrative, a melange of forms that seems to derive power from the minute details of the day and how the author reacts to these stimuli. Things that most of us would not notice, or bother reporting, Knausgaard dwells on and develops. His father’s tics and temper, for example. The details of the rocky, wooded topography near his boyhood home. The subterfuges he and his best friend employed, at age 16, to get out of the house and drink beer.
Things that we would repress, too, he hauls up and examines. Indeed, the first volume begins with a macabre meditation on death, the physiology and anatomy of death, the pooling of blood in the nether regions, the “dark, soft patch on ever whitening skin,” the smuggling of the corpse into the morgue, the hiding away of this dark, dirty secret, “the collective act of repression symbolized by the concealment of our dead.”
After the account of his youth in rural Norway, Knausgaard tells of his struggles as an emerging writer. How he gets up, sleepless, in the middle of the night, in Stockholm, while his wife Linda is pregnant and about to have their first child, and sees the police raid the porno store below him. Knausgaard describes how furtive men, attempting to appear normal both coming and going, file into the basement store and then file out. He thinks of the strange communal ritual, though the men don’t seem to acknowledge each other, of plunging down into this underground, selecting a film and a booth, watching the porno, jerking off, using Kleenex to mop up. This too, it seems, is part of the ritual of repression, of avoiding mentioning or publicizing our drives — and our drives’ end(s).
And all the while he’s recounting his struggle to become a writer, Knausgaard is using details of struggles, others’ and his own, as part of his material. There’s some sort of odd parallel between these struggles, in fact. Perhaps he’s saying masturbation for most men is some kind of equivalent of writing for him, or vice versa? Or, more accurately, the longings and dissatisfactions that most of us may take out on our penis, he takes out on, or with, his pen.
Knausgaard has an office 20 minutes from home and, even when Linda is expecting any time, reports dutifully to his office, unpacks his laptop, keeps chugging along on the novel he’s been writing for five years without success.
Is this novel something that he finally abandoned? Did it give way at last to this dreamy, fiction-like memoir we’re reading now? Is that K’s struggle? While others are pounding their puds or their dismal, vain, unpublishable novels, Knausgaard is pounding his head against the wall trying to find the subject that will make him? And discovers only after years of futility that his subject is, after all, immediately at hand? Is himself, the details of his own life?
Of course, all of us have these details at hand. But how many of us make anything of them? We’re not all gifted writers, or painters, or thinkers. We can’t grasp these fleeting moments, before the blood pools, and make sense of them. We’re ordinary mortals, that’s all, with ordinary lives. If only we knew how to tell these lives, not just dart into porno stores, not just scribble nonsense that who would want to read? Who in his right mind? In his busy, dismal, unpublishable life? Who? Who?
When I joined, we looked at a couple of poets with Arkansas connections: Miller Williams, who died just this year and who taught for many years at the U of A, and a student of his, Jo McDougall, who grew up on a rice farm in the Arkansas delta. Both are more or less traditional poets, intent on form and formal compression — saying a lot in a little space, which they do admirably.
Then we came to Claudia Rankine, a black Jamaican poet, living and teaching in the States, whose two books of poetry have been hailed as “brilliant” by the critics. The second volume, Citizen: An American Lyric, which we read, struck me, however, and others in our group, as fraught with problems and questions:
Why the naked aggression of the tone, the confrontational manner?
Who is the audience for this “lyric” or mixed-media collage (many passages are prose, or video script, and they’re accompanied by photos and/or photo collages)?
Why the abstract academic language and could-be-Marxist jargon?
Linda gently countered our objections, offering other views but not disparaging us.
Walt Whitman, she pointed out, was greeted with cat-calls and confusion when he first published Leaves of Grass. Here was a poetry so new, so revolutionary, it startled, shocked, offended people used to traditional English forms like rhymed iambic pentameter.
Maybe the audience is the people — a inclusive, popular, demotic group? Maybe it’s white bourgeoisie, like us, who read poetry and who need shock and waking up? (Let’s face it, there were ten or eleven white faces, female and male, in the group last night, not one black face, or brown, or yellow. Let’s face it, if Baudelaire and Rimbaud could épater lebourgeois, or shock the middle class, shouldn’t we expect today’s artists to do the same? Sitting on our capital accumulations and hemorrhoids, don’t we need shaking up?)
But what do you do (Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!) when you read a passage like this?
And there is no (Black) who has not felt, briefly or for long periods, with anguish sharp or dull, in varying degrees and to varying effect, simple, naked, and unanswerable hatred; who has not wanted to smash any white face he may encounter in a day, to violate, out of motives of the clearest vengeance … to break the bodies of all white people and bring them low, as low as the dust into which he himself has been and is being trampled …
Rankine is catching no flies with this vinegar.
Similarly, she defends, as an egregious example of racism, the kind of bad line calls that Serena Williams suffered in major tennis matches, and Williams’ response to one call, telling the referee that “I’ll fucking take this ball and shove it down your fucking throat.” The ghetto of her upbringing reasserts itself in the face of white prejudice, the desire to smash the white face and wipe it out. (And yet Williams glosses this event, and the outrage it produced, this way in a recent interview: “I just think it was weird. I just really thought that was strange. You have people who made a career out of yelling at line judges. And a woman does it, and it’s like a big problem. But you know, hey.”)
Not just a woman. A black woman. A black woman so physically imposing and dominating that she, and her sister Venus, have been called “the Williams brothers” (if mostly by the Russians, who should talk, they with their Olympic doping record).
Each person reading Citizen will have a different reaction. Our group was divided about the work, many praising it, others like myself doubting its worth, all of us prying, under Linda’s instructional nudging, into the whys and wherefores of this odd and perhaps epic new American “lyric.”
So I have asked my tutees, or students, to keep journals — and I figure I’d better do so too. Better resume my journaling, or blogging, that is, for the sake of the practice if not perfection it might lead to.
In fact, if practice makes perfect, that’s certainly not the aim of journaling. It’s, rather, the achievement of fluidity or fluency, making a daily habit of writing as if you were water flowing and could no more help flowing than a river can.
This journaling is a habit I used to keep back in the day — way back in the day, say, as long ago as 45 years, when I was starting out teaching English in Detroit (Wayne State University). I can plunge now into my closet and find dusty journals from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. To me these records have historical and sentimental value, and may have utilitarian properties too, as I’ve thought often enough of mining them for story (fiction) or art (collage) ideas.
The downside of keeping a purely private journal is obviously that it’s private — written in the dark with no audience besides yourself and your carping conscience or niggling vanity. And we all know that performing in the dark, however much practice squints toward perfection, soon palls.
Journaling is fluidity, fluency, yes. Practice makes if not perfect then flowing and going toward some sort of outcome and delta. Writing becomes not something to shirk or avoid, but precisely to pursue, no matter how much in the dark you may find yourself, no matter how trickling the effort may seem some days.
And if my tutees must do it — go, and go with the flow — so must I.
Met last night, at a local bookstore, with a new meetup.com group of local writers.
Four of us thronged the long table and pulled long faces at the start.
No, we didn’t know each other; in fact, had never met before. We were shy, introspective, examining our navels.
Trouble was the founder and leader of the group did not show up, as promised. So there we were, on each other’s hands, in the semi-dark of this book-lined room, and how to proceed?
As a pretty gregarious person and former college writing teacher, I prodded the multitude to introduce themselves. We had D, who tried to write short stories, but they turned out to be poems. (The stories “weren’t going anywhere,” he said.) We had M, just returned from eight years of bumming around Europe and Asia teaching English as a second language. We had S, who offered she wanted to write a book about enlightenment. (I assured her there was plenty of darkness to dispel.)
M read a poem from a book he was assembling about his experience teaching in Alaska. S immediately asked whether this was a dry village. (Alcohol was not in the poem.) And if the natives used sealskin canoes. (No boats or seals were in the poem.)
I read the first page of a story I wrote about a year ago, and brushed up just that day a bit, about patricide, you might say, called “Who You Daddy?” Or maybe it’s about fraternal longing and fecklessness. You may kill off the daddy, in other words, but then when you’re in charge you’re still wondering, Who you daddy?
There is plenty of darkness to go around, all right. We write out of darkness and hope for the light, including of course the light of publication. We sweat and wrestle and doubt ourselves, and fall willy nilly into depression and despondency. What athlete wants to train in the dark, forever, without the chance to get on the field and play the game and hear the crowd roar?
Well, art, if we’re talking art writing, is not necessarily about winning. In fact, I’ve heard, on more than one occasion, it’s about losing and failing. I don’t mean the writer doesn’t want to publish: of course not. I mean he or she writes about failure, as Kafka wrote “The Hunger Artist,” dramatizing the dying artist in a cage of straw at the circus, the crowd sweeping by, ignoring him entirely, for they’ve come to see the lions, tigers, acrobats, and clowns. Or as Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina, about the beautiful woman of the title, who commits suicide in the face of her society’s judgment and hypocrisy. Or as Atwood wrote The Blind Assassin, where narrative itself is elegy, for “taken to its logical conclusion, every story is sad, because at the end everyone dies.¨
So why write? Why not just play golf? Or go to the bar? Plenty of darkness there, too.