Monthly Archives: June 2012

A Lesson in Randomness

The last few days, my wife has been rolling her eyes because, as I reread Yoshida Kenko’s Essays in Idleness, I chuckle to myself or say, “Whaaaat?” Sometimes I ask to read an essay aloud to her, and she nods indulgently. She liked the story of the man who ate radishes every morning and then, when attackers assailed his house, was protected by two strangers who, after helpfully defeating the invaders, announced they were radishes.

Much of the time, these essays fit the expression, “I guess you had to be there.”

But not always.

Yoshida Kenko (C. 1283-1352) was a former emperor’s advisor who, after a well-connected public life, retired to seclusion as a Buddhist priest. Essays in Idleness is a collection of 243 separate pieces he wrote in his remaining years, published posthumously. He discusses public and private life, ostentation and simplicity, contemplation and action, skill and sincerity, growing old and growing cranky. Some “essays” are two pages and some are two sentences, but none last long enough to turn anyone away. Here’s the whole of #229 to illustrate the book’s style and tone:

They say that a good carver of images always uses a slightly blunt knife. The knife of Myokan did not cut at all easily.

At first these thoughts can seem banal—many are—but if you can take the time to think about them, they usually offer something curious to consider. The carver who uses a slightly blunt knife must have to work a little harder, but perhaps his tool slows him down as well, and who says a task worth doing well should be fast or easy? As Kenko expresses elsewhere, the key to artistry isn’t skill but care. That could be Myokan’s secret… whoever he is. Could that be Kenko’s secret?

Kenko’s work is rife with lost names, and it often recounts stories of foolish priests or unassuming people who unexpectedly spout some pithy and admirable answer, or the opposite, or something between. The 53rd essay describes a well-loved and promising young acolyte who, after drinking at his ordination, puts an iron pot on his head. It isn’t enough to wear it as a hat, so he pulls it over his ears and nose. Only, he can’t get it off again, so the other students walk the acolyte into town where a healer tries to understand what the boy is saying inside his pot. The healer shrugs and says, in effect, “Hey, I wasn’t trained to take iron pots off people’s heads!” So they resign themselves to the boy’s death. Finally someone says, “Suppose he does lose his ears and nose, so far as living goes there is no reason he should not survive.” It takes some tugging, but they get the pot off. His ears and nose also come off. Kenko ends with, “He escaped with his bare life, suffering afterwards for many a long day.”

Sometimes I’m unsure whether to laugh or cry at these stories. I receive limited clues to how Kenko feels—and fewer about how I’m supposed to feel. The boy should not have pulled a pot over his head, that’s plain, but, having made such a stupid momentary decision, should his life be over? Who hasn’t put a figurative iron pot over his or her figurative head? Does Kenko feel for what he himself calls “suffering”?

Many pieces in this collection explain the derivation of words, and others describe the usefulness of developing good handwriting (#35), how much taller head-dresses are these days (#65), the efficacy of certain herbs in treating snakebites (#96), and how a powder made from deer horns shouldn’t be smelled because it contains “A small insect that which enters by the nose and feeds on the brain” (#149). Here’s the entirety of #46:

Near Yangiwara there was a priest known as His Reverence Robbery-by-Violence. This name was given to him because he had several times been the victim of robbers.

Yet, if many of these essays seem to emerge from an inky sea, their wisdom does too. Because Kenko says anything and everything, a reader learns his prejudices, his affections, and, most of all, his voice. When Kenko turns to more serious matters, you hear him as if he has been whispering to you all along. “When in the space of a day, nay, even an hour,” Kenko writes in #188, “a number of tasks present themselves, we should perform that one of them which is even by a little the most profitable.” His advice is simple enough, but, in the next essay, he uses that observation to address the unanticipated urgencies that fill our daily lives and delay our deeper spiritual aspirations. We settle small things, he says, “The thing that was troublesome passes off without difficulty,” but “the thing that should have been easy causes great anxiety.” Here, as elsewhere, he spoke to me.

Reading Kenko teaches me not to ride in carriages with five straps (#64) and to know when the blossoms are prime (#161). It also demonstrates the value of writing playfully, with filters off. The mixture of high and low, mundane and cosmic, idiosyncratic and universal, make his personality and perspective vivid seven centuries later. He lives by what he preaches—give your earnest and sincere self, don’t posture.

In #19, he writes, “I have let my pen run on aimlessly, because a man is ill at ease if he does not say the things he feels,” then adds, “and, after all, this is to be thrown away and not to be seen by others.” As often as I laughed reading Essays in Idleness, I also thought what a loss it would be if Kenko’s expectation of invisibility came to pass.

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Okay With It

Thomas Paine produced Common Sense himself, and half a million copies contributed significantly to sentiment for the Revolutionary War. Henry David Thoreau published Walden, and before E. B. White edited the book and found another press, William Strunk published Elements of Style himself. John Bartlett printed his three volumes of Familiar Quotations. When a publisher saw Beatrice Potter’s illustrations for The Tale of Peter Rabbit, he turned down the book as too expensive. Potter financed it herself, and, after brisk sales, he changed his mind.

According to a self-publishing hall of fame online, novelists who paid for their first work include Willa Cather, Pat Conroy, Roddy Doyle, Alexandre Dumas, Thomas Hardy, Ernest Hemingway, Terry McMillan, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf. The list of poets who bankrolled volumes is longer: Margaret Atwood, Paul Laurence Dunbar, T. S. Eliot, Nikki Giovanni, Lord Byron, Robinson Jeffers, Alexander Pope, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Walt Whitman.

e. e. cummings’ book, No Thanks, started with a list of the thirteen publishers who rejected the book before he funded its publication.

Yet, the label “Vanity press” may say all that needs to be said. Though it’s impossible to measure authorial hope against authorial disappointment, I have to guess the historical balance sheet for self-publication is still in the red. Thoreau reported that his library included “Nearly nine-hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.”

Self-publishing will never have the caché of published work. You cannot call yourself a “Published author” if you fill both roles. An Author once told me he disapproved of blogs because, “I like to be read by strangers who pay for the privilege.” Purchasing a book ratifies the writer. With books you publish yourself, recovering costs is the only redemption. Most authors reach the hall of fame because of sales. Then they experience real success with real publishers.

As I prepare my own book for an online vanity press—and gulp over the expense—it occurs to me that a publisher would be nice, that I’m cowardly not shopping the book around, that I shouldn’t be so impatient, that I’m denying myself the chance to discover if my writing is any good, that my efforts should have material value, that no one will really admire or respect the book (or the time I’ve committed) without authentic approval.

Still, I’m going ahead. Why?

I like to think E-publishing and publication-on-demand improve the process. Now writers can regard publication as another sort of marathon, an accomplishment you invest in for personal reasons. Of course, it helps if you can station a few allies along the route, but people who run marathons simply look for their best effort. Only the elite look for money, and I’ve long been fine with not being the elite. As when I ran road races, I need a public event to fulfill my commitment. That’s all. It’s not about winning.

There’s an added benefit. Though I can’t imagine a market for lyric essays in 243 parts, publishers would likely want profits. They would design the cover, dictate the book’s layout, and haggle over its content. Then I’d hawk the book. I escape all of those elements by taking them on myself. The hawking part, thankfully, disappears altogether. And anyone who buys the book will be spared another marketing campaign, which seems kind. I remain an anonymous artist, a committed amateur who’s not famous, not rich, and not busy worrying about the next networking connection to assure his continued livelihood and/or sense of self-worth.

This week I finished the first draft of The Lost Work of Wasps, and now  I’m into the next stages of revising, editing, polishing, laying-out and publishing. I won’t look back anymore. What I produce, good or bad, will be my work. As a visual artist, I’m excited to marry composition and design, my two abiding passions. It’s important the book be beautiful and reflect my aesthetic, especially as I’ll give most of the books away—with no expectation of return—to friends and supporters. They, after all, give as freely. I really rather doubt you’ll find me in any hall of fame, but I’m okay with that. If we can chat in your front hall, I’ll be happy.

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Last Confession

William Hazlitt, 1802 Self-Portrait

Reprise…

As a former Catholic, I know how to sell confession—confess sinfulness to clear the way for salvation. However, as with many moral compulsions, the negative argument seems more potent—not confessing means you won’t see the sin, you won’t feel it. Not overcoming the sin can seem a reasonable trade-off for comfort.

Iniquity is the human condition. There’s always something to confess.

The confessionals in my childhood church were phone booths—Father Elkins waited on the other side to forward your call to God—and I approached appropriately fearful. I’d been well trained in my wickedness, but, when the moment arrived, I could never recall particular sins, exact circumstances, or detailed actions. So I generally confessed in categories. I must have hit my brother, sassed my parents, and used the Lord’s name in vain; I was safe in saying so. However, one Saturday, I remember reaching the end of my standard list and suddenly confessing, “I made up my sins, Father, because I couldn’t remember anything specific.”

Father Elkins wasn’t happy. The red light outside the confessional blazed as he lectured me on confession. It switched to green ten minutes later when I took my knees off the kneeler briefly in anticipation of escape…but then switched to red again when I asked for my penance all in Our Fathers because I couldn’t remember the Hail Mary.

I wish I could recall what Father Elkins said. Confession seems integral to my writing life, and I’d like to know why.

Oscar Wilde said in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.” Confession didn’t feel like luxury when I was growing up—because the priest compelled me to look for sins after the fact—but now my self-reproach is habitual, conditioned, and prophylactic, for just the reason Wilde says. I mean to escape blame by confessing, to move directly to absolution.

I can explain. Didn’t Socrates say in “The Apology” that the wisest man knows his ignorance? Doesn’t wisdom require an awareness of inadequacy? Really, I don’t mean to escape blame so much as to admit my imperfection and put readers at ease. And I’m never innocent of the crimes I describe.

But I can’t believe myself. Is that too a lie?

I’m not innocent of ulterior motives. I’m trying to make my sins into assets. William Hazlitt, the English Essayist, said most people see confession as less a matter of “Sincerity or modesty than of ostentation,” adding, “it seems as if we thought our weaknesses as good as other people’s virtues.” I think he’s right…and I’m guilty.

So what is the answer to this quandary? How do I get out of Father Elkin’s box?

Dorothy Dix, the American writer and reformer said, “Confession is always weakness. The grave soul keeps its own secrets, and takes its own punishment in silence.”

The only answer is to accept confession itself as sin…and stop confessing.

Silence… okay… but what will I write then?

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Against the Current

It’s mid-June in Chicago, and, week by week, summer and the city will empty, enthusiasm reserved in the heat, spirit shed with dripping sweat. Every remaining motive marches people east toward the Lake. Each step is pointed as if meant to avoid melting into the hot sidewalk. Maybe these pilgrims concentrate on the chairs, towels, coolers, and oversized umbrellas they carry, but they train their eyes on the space at their feet, avowing anticipation in sideways expressions and swallowed laughter. It’s too hot to ask much more than “How much longer?”

They seem sure their direction is the only recourse. Gathering themselves requires ambition, but their faith rests in believing, once started, they will accelerate to their destination like ice melting on a hot slide. Once there, they will be where they’re meant to be and bask in accepting each gift earned.

Only I go the other way, against their current, carrying things they’d find useless—books, a computer, tasks I want to complete. The sun walks behind them. I walk into the sun, looking up, fighting light as if I meant to speak to God at last. And I do think that perhaps I could turn, reinterpret this daily migration, reverse myself and try to believe in some acquiescence that isn’t surrender. Relaxing, I’m told, requires devotion. But I wonder how I’d feel, half-naked, half-buried in sand and stunned by noise, blaring sun, and company.

Time itself creates my self-consciousness. Regret is the only prayer I understand. No matter where I am, I dream of reasons to go inside.

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Father’s Day: My Dad and Me

When my father died in 1993, the medical school where he taught held a memorial. The event came well after the funeral, after I’d traveled home to resume my job and life. My mother sent me a recording of his colleagues’ remarks.

At the time, I listened to it in pieces. It was like trying to keep my hand on an electric fence, and not enough time had passed. But I listened to the tape later when I found it in a drawer.

As you might expect, his colleagues painted a portrait of a great doctor and a great man—no one at any memorial ever says, “Then again, he could be a real bastard.”

One speaker seemed to describe my father particularly well, however. He called him, “An even-tempered man who never lost his cool, who never made an enemy.” “Even when he tried to be mean,” he said, “he couldn’t manage it.” On the tape, this remark raises a laugh from the audience, and I still hear a private joke lurking, my dad’s attempt to be unkind misfiring in some comic way.

Granted, the people at the memorial did not know him the way I did. Though my father was generally calm and genial, I saw his temper a few times. He wasn’t mad at all often, but on those rare occasions he was, he was mad in both senses of the word.

I also knew his bad habits. Men of my father’s generation could engage in considerable self-destruction and still be considered “in bounds.” My father waged the same battles with nicotine and alcohol so many of his peers seemed to face. He eventually died of lung cancer.

But his colleague was right. My father wasn’t mean—he couldn’t be—and, though I know I’m biased, I could not imagine his having an enemy, an adversary, even a detractor.

Though my relationship with my father was complicated, the recording reminded me how much I’d like to be like him…and how short I seem to fall sometimes. He was a painter, and I’d satisfy for half his talent. He was witty. He could be quiet all evening then ambush you with his sneaky sense of humor. And whatever his troubles—and he had plenty—he was strong and kept them to himself.

At the memorial, my father’s colleagues talked about his courage facing cancer, how he never complained about his personal problems and insisted on, “Not being spared his duties.”

I’m not sure it’s healthy to keep your troubles hidden—I’m sure it wasn’t healthy for him—so I can forgive myself for complaining about my bad days, my challenging job, and the sometimes frustrating complications that are supposed to make life interesting but often make it hell. My wife, who has more than fulfilled the “sickness and health” clause in our contract, might say I could complain a little less, but falling short in that area doesn’t bother me… much.

What does is what my father was—and what I’m not and would like to be—a man whose integrity was above reproach.

I don’t think I have many enemies, but I’m sure there are people who have little respect for me. While I don’t agree with their assessment—how could I?—I want to be my father’s son, to bear up under their indifference, to be worthy of their respect even if they cannot grant it.

My sister once told me “the person of whom no ill can be spoken” is a fantasy. Everyone has detractors, she says, if you didn’t create a critic or two, you must stand for nothing, be hiding something, or be dead. She may be right, but a deep stubborn streak wants to put her thinking to the test. I like to believe we can disagree with people we nonetheless respect and can even admire those people. My father seems to have achieved it.

In any case, that’s my aspiration, my inspiration. I’m not after certainty—too many people are sure they are right—I just want to feel confident I’ve done the best I can. After listening and considering every perspective, I’d like to arrive at a position I can communicate without waffling or balking. I want to act on my beliefs.

Like my father, I am even-tempered and slow to anger. I hope no one would ever describe me as “mean.” I may never equal him as an artist or stoic, but I’d like to equal his integrity.

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Does Writing Make Us Lie?

Lucy Grealy (1963-2002)

Vivian Gornick reportedly delivered a talk about writing memoir and fielded an innocent question about her memoir Fierce Attachments. “How can you so precisely recall conversations with your mother?” a reporter asked.  She answered she didn’t remember. She recollected some of what she reported and the spirit of the rest of it. She added particulars to fulfill that spirit.

Though her “creativity” doesn’t attain the same scale as David Sedaris’ tall tales or James Frey’s dastardly autobiography, her confession is nonetheless startling. If we rely on spirit to tell the truth of an event, where does spirit come from? What happens when impressions become conclusions? Can raw experience transform into carefully orchestrated and effective composition without losing something as well? What if our spirit is to amuse or persuade or resolve or please or even complete?

Writing is orderly. You have the broadest choices to make about the subject and what to leave in and take out. You have tiny, cumulative choices as you select words, sequence words into sentences, and stack sentences in paragraphs. Even if you could remain absolutely objective, writing necessitates some system, authority, a prime mover.

But the deeper, more abstract compulsions are more devastating. Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face told the story of a series of surgeries that left the author’s face disfigured. For most of the book Grealy wrestles with her fate more courageously than Jacob or Job. She takes on all-comers—every dangerous fight with blame, self-pity, or pollyanna-ism ends in a stand-off. She stays out of the grip of sentimentality by staring it down.

For most of the book, anyway.

Near the end, Grealy’s work becomes—to me—a little tinny. Her prose can’t bear quite the same weight as she begins to shed complexity for clarity and completion.

Perhaps she sought only a formal conclusion and the most gentle and subtle resolution, not an answer. She probably didn’t accept or believe in real life restitution, but as the book closed, it became much harder to distinguish between the structure imposed by writing, the structure imposed by artistry, the structure imposed by hope, and the structure imposed by a desire to please. She wanted something. Her readers, she knew, would want something. To me, it felt as though she couldn’t resist giving in.

Grealy was an instructor where I went to graduate school, and, though the faculty felt very warmly toward her, she seemed prickly to many students. She was brilliant, perceptive, and funny. But I’ll never forget her yelling at classmates for whispering in the library. Peremptory reactions after lectures and notorious comments on student work underlined her toughness. I wondered if her confidence and—I’m sorry to risk offending those who knew her better—her arrogance helped her accept herself. Or whether acceptance was only possible in writing.

Sadly, Grealy’s overdose in 2002 casts darker shadows on every affirmation of those last chapters. While Sedaris, Frey, and Gornick may commit errors of fact, what happens if an author slips into errors of spirit?

Americans laughed when Charles Barkley, the former NBA star, said he’d been misquoted in his autobiography, but should we have laughed? It seems easy to misquote ourselves when we aim for gravitas and a well-shaped urn decorated with acceptable sentiment.

And in a nation of overwhelming life-hype, it’s hard to claim ignorance of what’s expected of us. The rewards are greater for playing nice. It’s easier too.

I’m not immune. I think sometimes about shadowy posts that might let my dis-ease show, but I press the ejector button again and again. For all my talk to students about choosing topics according to what you can’t figure out, can’t face, or don’t want to discuss, I’m a coward. Thinking how I might be received, I won’t open the closet for another ugly monster.

Saying what you mean is hard enough when you don’t know what you mean. It’s even harder when you DO know, and dare not say.

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One Voice

Perhaps I’m exaggerating when I say I’ve been writing one essay all my life. But, now especially, it seems so. I have four different theories why:

1. My memory isn’t what it used to be.

My students say, “You’ve told us this before,” and I’m doubly surprised—first, that they’re listening so closely and, second, that they see me as I saw so many teachers, as sound loops whose advice followed a recognizable arc ever threatening toward circling. Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised. Teachers never give students’ attention enough credit, while, mostly unconsciously I hope, perpetuating the hierarchy of authority and acolyte. Though we shouldn’t assume pupils need to hear lessons more than once, we do.

Yet it’s devastatingly disappointing to discover I’ve repeated myself writing. Who knows how many sentences I’ve composed here and elsewhere, and who could keep track of such a number? Nonetheless, my heart sinks when rereading reveals the same thoughts. One of the best motives for feeding your brain with news, with visual art, with music, with fiction, with essays, with culture in every form  is to train and supplement your mind. If you can remember what you experience, maybe you will find something new to say or a different way to say it. I wish I could absorb more of the world outside.

2. I’m finite.

Then again, maybe I’m being too hard on myself. Rationalization may lie behind this assertion, but what one person calls repetition another calls evolution, refinement, or focus. I may have only so much to say because experience points me toward a point of view. My conclusions stem from what I’ve seen and decided is true.

Once a student asked me to give her a list of five qualities of good writing. Thinking she was really after “What the teacher is looking for,” I tried to devise some surprises, but, after teaching composition so long, I found the task herculean. I do like what I like and love/hate my preferences, never knowing whether to embrace or deplore them. The best I could do for my curious student was to reshape and clarify what I’d so often said before.

3. I never finish a thought.

Yet as long as I’m rationalizing, here’s another explanation to consider: these abetting subjects might be abetting questions instead. I return to them because they remain unfinished and unsettled, like apples that sit uncertainly atop a pile of apples, threatening to undermine everything they rest upon.

But I don’t really believe that, and how consoling would it be if I did? What’s the difference between being stuck in the same questions and confessing how stalled you feel? I could be admitting finitude again, just circling to get there.

4. I only have one voice.

So maybe the answer is acceptance.

I have a strange affection for commencement speeches and haunt YouTube each spring to find intriguing ones. Most are just what anyone would expect, but occasionally, I unearth an unlikely find.

John Grisham delivered the graduation speech at UNC in 2010, and, while I’m largely uninformed about Grisham the writer, his humility, humor, and sense about writing moved me. He said, “Writing is a lot like life itself. In life, a voice is much more than the sound we make when we talk. Infants and preschoolers have voices and can make a lot of noise, but a voice is more than sound.”

This “more,” he suggests, is a writer’s characteristic expression, for “When a writer finds the voice, the words flow freely, the sentences become paragraphs and pages and chapters and the story is told, the writer is heard and the reader is rewarded.”

I’ve only read one Grisham novel and can’t remember how rewarded I felt, but putting the instrument before the music offers comfort. If writers have, and properly have, only certain notes to sound, then artistry is playing their instruments with sincerity and spirit. A writer can lament his or her instrument isn’t better—I continually do—but, if you have something to say, maybe it’s only because you are saying it. Seen in this light, writing one essay isn’t so bad, not a sin but a startling mastery of the obvious. “These essays are all you,” I might tell myself, “and how could you be anything else?”

Grisham says:

The most difficult part of writing a book is not devising a plot which will captivate the reader; it is not developing characters the reader will have strong feelings for or against; it is not finding a setting which will take the reader to a place he or she has never been; it is not the research, whether in fiction or non-fiction. The most difficult task facing a writer is to find a voice in which to tell the story.

I’m not sure I have a voice or even like the idea if it means I possess all I can expect to. Maybe this book I’m writing is the only book I can or will write. But voice promises that, if I never have a fresh thought again, I own a means to express what I know, notice, realize, and feel, at least today. And, as long as I concentrate on speaking clearly, you might understand me. I’ll be heard.

Maybe the joy of exercising my voice should be enough.

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