Holiday cards

Now that the holidays are over, it may be time to sort through the holiday news, well wishes, and greetings we received through the mail.

Who sends and who gets Christmas cards anymore?

Ruby at Axis
One of the pages of my holiday calendar for 2020 showing our granddaughter Ruby after her first cross-dressing spectacle.

Not too awfully many, I suppose. I gave up mailing cards maybe 10 years ago and have resorted to email since then, at first composing a rambling letter with many photos and then gradually through the years dwindling down to a Powerpoint calendar format, as you see at left: one or two big pics for each month and a pithy comment to go with. 

This year my wife Jennifer and I received about a dozen such season’s greetings in the mail. As I count and sort ’em, they are

      • Two postcards with photos on one or both sides
      • One sheet printed one side with family photos and captions
      • Five typed letters of various length, with or without photos
      • One hand-written card with photo
Patrick and Candace
Patrick and Candace, two apple-cheeked young friends from Louisville and their woof-woofs.

I can see why I stopped writing long Xmas letters: who has time to write or even read ’em? And unless you’re an experienced writer, the details tend to be rolled out in humdrum fashion. Yes, these are the lives of friends and relatives you haven’t seen in a while, and you miss these people but you want to go deeper, into the interior, even the heart of darkness, and these tend to sweetness, blitheness, blither & light.

We are happy, of course, that your family is doing well:

      • You survived an attack of the dread Covid
      • You lost one job and picked up another
      • You summered in your home state
      • You visited friends with pets
      • Yes, you love dogs, dogs, dogs
      • You went to Paris and the Louvre, where they keep some wowser art
      • Your kids are surviving, working and marrying
      • You bought a guitar, flew half across the country to see friends, suffered from MS, MD, AD, ALS, or other acronymical disasters
      • The twins turned 17, is it possible, and you joined a book club

These titbits are not boring, they’re simply not in the context of a novel or coherent, compelling narrative, a transfixing fiction or poem. The details don’t seem to add up; they miss the point, which is what? 

As I know from my calendrical missives, that’s the trouble with trying to sum things up and wrap them in a tidy package with a bow.

Here’s us, sitting on the living room sofa. Here’s our dogs. Bow wow.

Matt and Hongjian
Matt and Hongjian and their new baby Aine Mai (Joy Plum Blossom), yes, and let’s not forget the hound.

Perhaps I was most affected by the one hand-written card from a young academic couple. It’s a card with a photo on the front showing the couple, a dog (woof), a Christmas tree, and a new baby in mom’s arms. The greeting is “Happy Holidays” and, verso, “From our family to yours, wishing you a joyful holiday season!”

Yes, love and joy come to you, with or without the accouterments of religion, or ideology, for it’s that time of year, isn’t it, when we should be able to lay aside our sadness and grief and anger, and recognize in each other our common humanity?

Why not? Don’t we get tired, after all, of shaming and blaming our political enemies and ducking disease and sticking our head in a hole? 

Enough already.

And I read in the five paragraphs, in a neat tiny hand, how our Chinese-American friend, a young woman I met here in Fayetteville and hiked with for a year or so, is now happily married; is stressed out by her teaching schedule at Purdue and her publishing a book that one reviewer called “eccentric” (thatta girl!); and had a baby girl just before Thanksgiving named Aine (Gaelic for joy) Mei (Mandarin for plum blossom). 

Now if a name like Aine Mei doesn’t presage joy and love and laughter in this daughter, a poetic and blissful life, I don’t know what will!

Yes, love and joy come to you, and to you good wassail too, dear friends and family, through the year. And keep on writing those cards, won’t you, full of feelings and events that may add up to a story after all, a story that may stir the world.

Should you join a writers’ group?

In the wake of the publication of my first book (Transitions: Early Poems, 1979–1989), I’ve been looking at and even joining a few online writers’ group. Everybody has a story to tell, and so many want to be a writer, the only thing stopping them being fear, doubt, and experience.

Not inexperience in telling stories, which we all do easily among friends and family. But shaping the stories, or poems, or dramas — or any idea for public transmission — into publishable form.

Most of the questions posed in writers’ groups are naive and childish, seems to me. Seeing them, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Let me show you a few examples here and see what you think.

Cruikshank, The Juggernaut
George Cruikshank (1792–1878) was an English satirical illustrator, beginning in the 1820s. He satirized politicians, royalty, and the hoi polloi. Why not extend his target from royalty to would-be royal writers. Gin-soaks in his day, those drunk on the dream of fame in ours.

In a Facebook group, a would-be author asks, “What is a good title for a memoir about surviving a double lung transplant?” To date she’s gotten more than 700 suggestions, all manner of “help” from would-be helpers, including

  • A Different Kind of Windfall
  • Wind-Owe to My Soul
  • Wind-Oh to My Soul
  • How to Breathe
  • Out of Breath
  • Breathing Gratitude
  • Thank God I Survived Twice: The Story of Two Lung Transplants
  • Within the Rib Cage
  • Branching Passages of Air
  • Double Your Pleasure
  • Heavy Breathing

Most of these suggestions are going nowhere fast. They’re embarrassing or off the point, if the point can be divined. I commented, simply, “Write the book, Snoopy, and forget the title. It will come to you, easily, after the heavy lifting.”

Writers Helping Writers, the name of this group, suggests that writing is a lonely craft, which it certainly is. Do writers need other writers? Certainly. They need people with experience and judgment to help them through the long, lonely task — the heavy lifting — of writing, revising, and finishing a book. What the experience and critical capabilities of the people in this Facebook group are, however, only the gods know.

Writing is lonely. You’ll have craft if you put the necessary blood, sweat, and tears into the task. To paraphrase the title character in Henry James’s The American, I would exhort all young writers, “Read. Read all you can. It’s a mistake not to.” (James’ character, the ambassador of the title, Lambert Strether, tells the young man he’s talking to, “Live. Live all you can,” which is also great advice and necessary for the writer.) Live all you can and read the best stuff you can find, wherever your interests lie. For how can you write if you do not live, or have not read, or written enough to punch your way out of the kraft bag (craft bag) you have put yourself in?

No, you don’t have to enroll in a formal course of study, the way I did way back when (majoring in English in college and then earning a Ph.D. in American lit and teaching literature and writing for years). You don’t have to get into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, or any other formal school, though joining a local writers’ group may be helpful if the members are competent writers and compassionate, knowledgeable critics too. (Face-to-face writers’ groups don’t always work out, as I can testify from experience. Sometimes there are petty personal disagreements. Sometimes you simply can’t get much interest or attention in your project. There may be too many members, or too few. But at their best, writers’ groups offer live support and immediate clarification if not gratification.)

Reading the best stuff will help you form your judgment and inform your craft. Your writing will become a stronger mix of direct day-to-day experience, stories and ideas you’ve heard from friends and family, and the most intriguing craftsmanship. There is a divide between high and low culture, of course. I’m not suggesting you must stick strictly to the high road, but if your idea of craft is informed only or largely by pop music or genre fiction, you’re on pretty shaky ground as to influence.

In another online writers’ group, on LinkedIn, a member passes on advice for struggling writers, as in “How To Overcome Writers Block: 12 Simple Ideas That Helps with Creative Blockage.” Not a bad read, actually, if you’re on the ball and don’t take everything here literally. (Shouldn’t writers, of all people, learn to distrust the literal, the concrete, the superficial, that which pretends to be anchored in the “real,” whatever that is?) If you think, for example, that writer’s block is caused by “emotional distress,” you may not have sorted through or dealt otherwise with your emotions. Indeed, you might say we write precisely to sort through our emotions, to banish or lay down distress in the dust, to master that which has threatened to master us.

What about the suggestion here to “Take a shower”? Excuse me, I think I’ll pour myself a bourbon. Or “Meditate/Yoga”? Up to you, my fine feathered friend.

But here’s a good one, an excellent idea: “Read other people’s writings.” Of course. Other professional writers’ good writing, celebrated and justly acclaimed writing. It’s a mistake not to!

Connections, electrical and other

Helping a friend, who had a bad traffic accident a few months ago, wire his deck. He promised to be my assistant, sitting in his wheelchair, and I could do the work.

Turns out he’s quite the tyrant, even in his sedentary position. While I clamber from one ladder to another, putting up PVC conduit and pulling wire, he tells me just what to do. Make that quite the martinet. Without barking, he barks out orders: do this, do that, do the other, as if I have no idea what I’m doing.

(Well, I’ve been doing this sort of basic electrical for years without having much idea what I’m doing. But have yet to shock or kill anyone. And have saved a lot of money, and learned a bit, by not calling in an electrician.)

How To Choose A Ladder | Werner EUWhen I show a bit of impatience with my friend, he tells me a story about how he had a plumber in a few years ago. Evidently he hovered over the guy and told him just what to do, or suggested how he do it, till finally the plumber stood up, clearly peeved, and said, “Look, I’m a master plumber. If you want to tell someone what to do, why don’t you hire a $5 an hour handyman?”

My rates, for this special friend, are $0 an hour, but they do not include, I suggested to him, too much verbal abuse. I know how to make the basic connections: white to white, black to black, ground to the green screw; in-wall box, box extension, cover; PVC connector, conduit, glue, straps, and like that.

(I should admit that the friend is aching to get back to physical connections. He’s a great putterer in his big garage, where he works on several old sports cars at a time; where he invents parts if he doesn’t have ’em; where his restless hands get a full work-out. And he’s aching too to get back to walking, hiking, and biking.)

In the end, basic electricity is not rocket science, nor is basic friendship. One connection is made, and then another. Disruptions occur, ground faults, shorts. But the friendship survives because of shared feeling and interests. In the case of my injured friend, these interests include hiking, biking, joking, laughing, and drinking dark beer, if not artistic matters (he worked in a technical field). I brush off his bossiness and go on with the work. He can’t rise from the chair or rise to the occasion, so I must. I ascend the ladder, I screw in a box, I twist in a length of conduit and screw in a few straps. The air is cleaner up here, could be, and the higher I ascend the purer it becomes. All of this is helped by my hearing difficulties. The higher this old guy goes, the more serene it becomes.

Say what, earthling? I don’t care. Way up in the air I am now making angelic connections.