Monthly Archives: February 2014

Outside Sentimentia

mediumIn MFA school, a teacher mailed me a cassette entitled “Mess o’ Sentimentia.” His thinking was that heart-friendly tunes might spur the emotion he saw missing in my work. He wanted me to be more effusive. It didn’t really matter to him if I was more sad, angry, loving, giddy, or resentful, as long as I was less fastidious.

Hearing his plan did make me experience one of those feelings—I’ll leave you to guess which one.

Being described as fastidious could be complimentary if it meant only “attentive to detail,” but the connotation is clear. To be fastidious is to be neat in the most annoying way. For a writer, “fastidious” isn’t far from “constipated.”

Though I promised to listen to his tape, I was relieved when the cassette arrived and, through some error in dubbing, was entirely blank. The list of titles and accompanying hour and a half of silence seemed a condemned man’s reprieve. I’m a dutiful student and debated and debated what to do. I finally decided not to alert him to the problem.

My reasoning—it wasn’t a problem.

Of course, maybe it was. Maybe it still is. I’ve always thought nature abhors a vacuum, and readers abhor the unsaid and supply it, feeling they realized instead of having revelations proffered. To say too much, I figure, is to be treacly or maudlin, and that way lies backlash, a reader’s resentful, “Oh yeah?”

But hiding is just as dangerous. I groom sentences because the simplest is most direct, but my mannered writing must sometimes seem inconsistent with the sloppiness of real emotion. I do feel and, though I’m sometimes afraid to, I like to believe my sadness, anger, love, giddiness, and resentfulness are audible. My heart is never silent.

I envy the disarray of writers who know how to voice undiverted sensations in their own terms, without translation. It’s hard for me to leave any page a mess. I hope neatness signals something too. I have to.

When one of my classes has a “silent conversation” and passes around sheets of paper that contain one student’s question and many students’ answers, I sometimes put on soundtrack music I’ve gathered from various movies. All this music comes from movies unknown to my students. The raw strings and sinking resolution of these pieces, their minor chords and major movements, their clashing waves of piano or invisible, nearly imperceptibly building notes turn the students’ faces to the page. Their pens dance en pointe. Someone invariably says, “This music makes everything I write sound so important!”

That was my teacher’s idea—to open up my apertures to self-expression, to get me believing I have something worth saying. I might have appreciated his gesture more, and, had his “Mess o’ Sentimentia” found volume, perhaps I’d have found myself. He must have hoped he’d draw my genuine soul out.

But those words “sound so important” bother me because who wants their writing to sound important instead of be important? To be true to myself is to distrust every word I utter. A restrained soul communicates itself in reluctance the way stretching a sore muscle yields both relief and pain. My restrained soul—embarrassed by effusiveness or grandiosity—shrinks instead of shouts. Perhaps I don’t know my voice’s full volume, but arrested expression can be real too, the clearest sign of emotions that cannot, dare not, be named.


Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Art, Desire, Doubt, Education, Envy, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Recollection, Resolutions, Thoughts, Voice, Worry, Writing

On Watch

pocket-watchAnother odd fiction….

The watch he carries keeps another time, but as long as its gold cover stays firmly closed, little escapes. It can’t all stay any more than air or water will rest where you leave it. On a busy day, when his attention lapses, he may notice tiny changes telling him something amiss—he seems taller and his pants a less perfect length or an acquaintance who should recognize him professes they’re strangers.

Sometimes, the sun takes the wrong path for the season, or the moon, which last night seemed full to burst, is suddenly a sliver, the barest edge of a boot heel. Leaves change without warning. He wakes to a white world of snow, the pale green sheen of spring, or the drunk sway of trees in summer dawn.

Because of the watch, he’s lost four loves, four women who might have shared life with him and instead left, their absence suddenly as complete as if he’d never met them. Houses left too. He returned to find doors locked and keys useless.

At first, he tired of jumping from one set of rails to another. He longed to rest squarely between two perfect parallels advancing past the horizon. Yet he grew. He learned not to expect such an easy journey, and he tries to accept sliding.

His grandfather gave him the watch and told him how to care for it. “Wind the stem,” he said, “whether you want to or not.” He heard the second statement as a warning—it’d do no good to ignore this gift. And he hasn’t. He can’t. Once he decided to leave the watch in a drawer, to abandon it altogether, and his life changed like flickering flame, adjusting to currents invisible and insensible. Events happened, he perceived, elsewhere.

The watch returned to his pocket. Some control is better than none.

He rarely forgets he carries the watch now. Its gravity grows. It weighs more every day and hefting it presents perverse reassurance—he can’t help holding it any more than you might locate a familiar sign near home or tongue a gap between your teeth. If nothing is exactly steady, at least uncertainty doesn’t change. Doubt is a better companion than none, and sometimes he gets a chill thinking that, by holding the watch, he may be holding hands with God.

Or perhaps he’s God. Often, the only truth he believes is in his head. Time seems his creation, the watch unreal to anyone but him, unreal except as he thinks of it.

Once he woke from a dream where the watch was lost. The night stilled. Beside him was a body he knew, and her breath fell in steady rhythms like breakers at the beach. The geometry of shadows, the dim glimmer of sleep, made the room real and not a cell for once. It was new space, boundless and fresh. He thought he might be free if he could forget.

The next morning the watch waited on his bedside table. “Better to hold it,” he thought. He put it in his pocket again.

He’s carrying it now, never neglecting it, never entirely resting.


Filed under Allegory, Desire, Doubt, Dreaming, Experiments, Fiction, Identity, Laments, life, Love, Meditations, Memory, Parables, Prose Poems, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Time

My Blue Kingdom

manic-depression-joe-macgownWhen I was young, a margarine called Bluebonnet used the slogan “Everything’s Better With Bluebonnet On It,” and their jingle always set my imagination reeling. Everything? Shoe leather? Pine cones? Guano?

But my brother, who loved to argue, refuted possibilities. He said each would be a little better.

I feel similarly about the term “high-functioning,” which seems ambiguously redemptive. Who would want to be a plain alcoholic if they could be high-functioning? Autistics who are high-functioning explain their perspective and make the condition seem almost romantic. Even a coma victim, were he or she described as “high-functioning,” would be better off.

Forgive my black humor. I feel a right to it because I’m a high-functioning depressive, someone who struggles to see light in the gloom, who expends a lot of energy keeping his mouth above the waterline, who regards every moment of laughter—even dry and dark laughter—as immense relief, proof of life. At the same time, I’m competent. I make what contribution I can and hide the cost. I fool many by appearing as normal as possible.

The icon of high-functioning depressives is Abraham Lincoln. Because he used his unhappiness to spur his aspirations, historians regard his acute melancholia with the sort of awe reserved for superpowers. Depression made Abe more ruminative. It granted him greater empathy and contributed to his deepest devotions, his humility, his tolerance. Abe could deal with rivals’ criticisms without rancor or resentment, was immune to jealousy, because no one could possibly think less of him than he thought of himself, and relentless work was the only successful diversion for his blackest moods. He kept going and, in going, gave more than other mortals might.

Regular depression is nothing like that. People have trouble sitting up, and their emotions can be so painful the low-functioning depressed learn how to avoid them altogether, trading pleasure and pain for anhedonia, a feeling of feeling nothing at all. Battling a perpetual sense of inadequacy leaves depressives little energy for family or relationships. And, because a constantly unhappy person can be so very annoying, friends and family (and just about everybody) tries to cheer depressed people up with a zeal that ultimately humiliates them. Depressed people don’t need reminding they should be other than they are—that may be all they can think about—and yet their well-meaning loved ones and co-workers tell them, ad infinitum, how normal people appreciate the world.

My symptoms aren’t so severe, but I understand well enough.

Maybe the sort of attention a depressive gets explains high-functioning better than Lincoln’s model of noble suffering. Everyone wants you to get on with life, and the course of least resistance is to do so. Getting on with life, whatever the cost to your well-being, might at least spare you constant reminders you’re broken. You won’t be any happier, but fewer people may know it. You take muted pleasure—and, for a depressive, every pleasure is muted—in being undiscovered. Your acting improves with practice as the gap grows between the true you and the one others see, splitting gradually, inexorably. The complete rupture is a high-functioning depressive’s feared and cherished dread and desire, a moment of exposure arrived at last.

Lincoln was extraordinary, my hero as a human being as well as a leader, but historians’ version of his depression—or Winston Churchill’s depression or Charles Darwin’s depression or fill-in-the-blank’s—is the happy world’s wish. All these despondent people, history suggests, ought to get off their asses, buck-up, and carry-on like great ones did.

If I had more courage and energy left after fighting to think myself worthy of existence, I’d create a new model of high-functioning depressives, one that includes righteousness. “Why aren’t you depressed,” I might ask, “when the world seems so imperfect and most people too deluded to do anything about it, when those most sensitive to pain are instructed, overtly and covertly, to pretend otherwise, when the neediest people require so much more care than the world is willing to acknowledge?”

Abraham Lincoln might disapprove, but I like to think he’d at least understand. Everything isn’t better by being “high-functioning.” Maybe a little, but mostly the mask fits better.


Filed under Depression, Doubt, Essays, Grief, Identity, Jeremiads, Laments, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Opinion, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Voice, Work, Worry

Another Exchange

ptg01511781We weren’t the only Marshalls in La Marque, Texas. Others lived on the opposite side of the highway, in another part of town we seldom visited and were encouraged to avoid.

I knew Kirby and Landis, two of the other Marshalls, because they were in my gym classes. We lined up beside each other when Coach read the roll, and sometimes Landis would pick me for a team when I was left over. Otherwise, we seldom encountered each other. He was black, and I was white. In La Marque, that meant nearly everything.

Still some strange surname solidarity must have moved him to choose me. I wasn’t tall or coordinated or strong, so I wasn’t always wanted. Seldom, really. The one athletic ability I did have was speed. My genetics or running from my angry brothers made me fast, and, even if I couldn’t snag a spiral or hit with a racket or kick a rolling ball, I could almost always catch someone or—more usefully—flee.

Once in eighth grade, during the track and field unit, we were making relay teams, and Landis urged one of his black friends to pick me for their team.

He leaned toward his friend. “Honky’s fast,” he whispered, loud enough for me to hear.

But his friend wasn’t as generous as Landis and passed me over. Landis ran the first leg and put his team well in the lead. My team, though they weren’t as good, were game, and, by the time I received the baton on the last leg, we were only twenty yards behind. The boy who’d rejected me was ahead, and, when I saw that, a familiar surge went through me.

Back then, the strangest element of running was knowing. Sometimes I saw someone in front of me and just knew where I’d end up. When I felt that unaccountable certainly, I ran faster. Races often fulfilled a script my mind wrote, with little or no doubt. I wish that were still true now.

It took me nearly the entire lap, but by the time I reached the final turn, I was even with Landis’ friend. On the home stretch I pulled away and won. Over the last twenty or thirty yards of the race—when the outcome was truly known—I heard Landis in the infield laughing and shouting at his teammate. “I told you, man! I told you, man! You can’t beat no Marshalls. You can’t!”

If this event were an afterschool special, Landis and I would become best friends, but I only remember handing the baton to Coach and going inside, dreading the shower he’d make me take. Landis and I must have been on teams together after that—if I had a chance to pick him, I’m sure I was smart and did—but I can’t remember a single conversation between us.

My family left La Marque after my sophomore year in high school when my father took a new job in North Carolina. I didn’t fuss because, then, La Marque was a small place you might know nearly everyone. We all attended school together from the beginning of time and, if you wanted the salt from the next table, you found the name to ask… even if you hadn’t uttered it since fourth grade. So leaving and dropping into a world of new names seemed exciting.

Those last, odd couple of months, my younger brother and I ran summer track, and one of our sporadic teammates was Kirby Marshall. My brother may know if Kirby and Landis were related, but I didn’t. And didn’t ask. Yet I begged our coach to put us on a relay together because I thought it would be funny to go Marshall to Marshall to Marshall to… I suppose I had some fantasy that Landis might join us.

I didn’t know Landis outside my imagination, wouldn’t know how to find him, wouldn’t know how he might react to being found.

Yet, in my head, we talked. He explained his living wherever I dreamed he did, and I talked about my neighborhood and all its odd characters. I told him about my dad, my family, the inadequacy I felt living amid expectations, and the absence of any true friend. He understood.

He was imaginary and had no other choice.

When we left town, he stood among the ghosts I’d miss most. I’d never really known him in any meaningful way at all.

I think sometimes of people and picture them at this, very, moment. In another world, Landis and I might lament our divided lives and wonder how much we lost through disconnection. In that separate dimension, we might be real friends.


Filed under Aging, America, Desire, Doubt, Essays, Fiction, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Nostalgia, Place, Recollection, Running, Thoughts, Time, Worry

20 Sentences on Order (Out of Order)

constellations (1)Today’s post is really an exercise or experiment. I wrote 20 sentences and then rearranged them using a random sequence generator. I did it three times but decided on this progression because it seemed least sensible. If you want to read the sentences in the order they were first written, they’re labelled with their original numbers.

2. Stars won’t care.

4. The romance people assign is secondary.

10. Somewhere, amid the lines and dead ends, among parts and their whole, between truth and almost that, lies space.

7. So much of what we think known isn’t.

18. It might speak its own scheme but would take me to interpret it.

9. Blocks of words stretch each of the cardinal directions and their combinations, spreading like spills.

13. We make the image by reshaping our mouths into rooms.

17. I might take a photograph.

15. But we live in our own rooms, our own libraries.

5. Place comes first, and, though we like supremacy, reading chaos as sense isn’t our best trait.

1. You can say what you wish.

11. Maybe wisdom lurks in gaps.

3. Stars wheel through the night as they always have, indifferent and mathematical.

16. Today snow crosses in the air, making instantaneous constellations impossible to read.

12. I see a child standing before a painting, forming her mouth to the shapes of words.

8. Every library contains volumes of madness, shelves of proud misapprehension.

20. What if we embraced the illusion we see?

14. These rooms aren’t anywhere anyone else might live.

6. Stars have order apart from the reason we give them.

19. And that’s after it passes.


Filed under Essays, Experiments, Identity, Laments, life, Lyn Hejinian, Lyric Essays, Metaphor, Place, Play, Prose Poems, Revision, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Time, Voice, Writing

From the Sargasso

SargassoSeaA date calculator online tells me that, at present pace, my 500th post on this blog will appear on December 27, 2014. As I sit here now, looking forward (or back to starting), the event seems impossible.

Time swims more than flies, each moment is flotsam and jetsam borne by calm waves, choppy conditions, unexpected tempests, and every other variety of sea change. As much as we may like to think we’re swimming straight, time carries us strange places. Little in the air impedes us, but tides move us without notice.

This blog contains hundreds of conceits like this—I may even have used this one before—and at the time each likely seemed definitive, revelation at last. In retrospect they’re often just clever, new ways of seeing matters that, for all my efforts to illuminate or explain, remain just what they are, as they were before. A continuous need for novelty will do that. In a doubtful state, you wonder if wanting to say what hasn’t been said is the same as desiring truth.

My writing might be described as defensive. I’ve given so much of my life to learning to write and wouldn’t dare not do it. Fear of stagnation motivates me, so much so I’m grateful to be borne by any current. If not for trouble, my commentary might be more limited, steadier intonations from a known voice.

I hope my voice is pleasant. Blogs rely on constancy, devotion, and companionship, which—believe me—I appreciate. Blogging could be the only writing venue where being yourself is enough. My practice at that is extensive.

My writer friends celebrate arrivals such as new books, appearances in magazines and journals and events. They mark the stages of their progress. My horizon is clear, the line between ocean and sky uncluttered. Perhaps among themselves my friends say my problem is ambition. A writer should seek a destination, a direction… whether he or she gets somewhere or not. My friends may say I fear rejection. They may be right. When I wrote The Lost Work of Wasps, I sought a goal and learned a great deal, but I published the book myself. Little aspiration arose from my endeavor—a few kind words, two generous opportunities to read, and one formal review.

I liked having complete control over design decisions that otherwise wouldn’t be mine. Yet, I’ll always wonder if my work was good enough for a publisher and will never know. The quiet response to my work suggests maybe I found its proper sphere. My writing colleagues would say, diplomatically, a self-published book still counts, but believing them is challenging, particularly for the sort of person who interprets silence as an indictment. My mother always said, “If you can’t find anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Nothing at all speaks on and on, for hours, days, months.

I’m winding my way to an essential question—not “What am I doing here?” because I’ve written on that before and, besides, I am here, until 500 at least. My question is “What’s next?” Candidly, if I woke up tomorrow morning having overcome my compulsion to create, I might be happier. Reaching a true acceptance of my shortcomings would be a great gift. Yet that seems unlikely because, despite what others may say, I am ambitious. Whatever my limits, I like the work of blogging and love the thought some unaccountable island of beauty will still rise from the horizon. I can’t seem to believe anything else.

Determination is a boon and a bane. You want so much, will work so hard for it, and cannot stop even if you sometimes think you should and would like rest. You can’t quit without surrendering who you are. That’s where I am now. By 500, I hope to find a more comfortable place, one way or another.


Filed under Aging, Ambition, Blogging, Desire, Doubt, Ego, Essays, Hope, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Resolutions, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Time, Voice, Work, Writing

Empty Bed

empty_bed_in_an_empty_room_ii_by_aimeelikestotakepicsAs I’ve said before, I’m not particularly gifted at fiction, but sometimes stories occur to me, and I write them down.

She leaves him sleeping, but he isn’t asleep. With his eyes closed he assigns meanings to each zip and snap. When she steps in front of the window, a shadow like a wandering cloud overtakes him. The mattress dips. He hears her putting her feet into her shoes, imagines her pausing at the mirror, waking her hair with her fingers, tilting her head to her left and leaning toward her reflection, rubbing the smudges under her eyes as she does, giving up, and then walking out. At any point, he might speak. She might speak. Neither care to.

They’re friends, but lately they’ve acknowledged this mutual need and the convenient means to fill it. Sometimes, in the throes, he detects a low strain of melancholy in her voice, and he thinks she must want more from him than release, or a release greater than this. Sometimes she reminds him: if she finds someone, they are through with these nights.

And he agrees. When the door closes, he swings his feet to the floor and finds it welcomely cool. These first moments are an untangling—complications resolved in cascades. He’s hungry now and will eat.

They met in middle school. She wasn’t so beautiful then, with odd glasses and braces and a shape stretched mid-growth and not yet full. Still, she seemed perfect, and he averted his eyes when she caught him looking. He engineered ways to line up near her or stand at the same lab table. From the beginning, they laughed apart from the rest. All day, as bells moved him from class to class, their last conversation lingered, and, later, when they spoke again, she remembered what he’d told her. They were experts in each others’ lives.

Through it all, he felt grateful, indebted. She had boyfriends in high school—and some girls had been interested in him—but their friendship never suffered. She still called late. He still gathered thoughts he meant to tell her. When they met again after college, each brought a new store of experience to share. Only recently have they stopped really talking.

When he opens the refrigerator he sees she’s taken the leftovers. He has eggs, the little butter remaining, and a jar of salsa. Enough.

His friends didn’t believe him when he said he’d never kissed her before six months ago, and he was immediately sorry he’d said so. He doesn’t talk about her staying over. She doesn’t forbid him—she wouldn’t—but he always knows what she wants. He doesn’t always like it or like knowing, but he does.

In the years they lost each other, he reinvented her, imagined new warmth between them. During his loneliest hours, she was his fantasy. Now these are his loneliest hours. The touch between them is a sort of ache. He can’t remember how it started.

One day she’ll have news. She’ll meet someone or find distant work. They’ll have a last dinner between them and laugh. Old stories will be aired, and she’ll say again how much he’s always meant to her.

He wonders what he wishes she’d say. He eats his eggs and stares at the blank face of his phone.


Filed under Apologies, Desire, Doubt, Ego, Experiments, Fiction, Friendship, Hope, Identity, Laments, life, Love, Metaphor, Modern Life, Nostalgia, Resolutions, Silence, Solitude, Thoughts, Time, Worry

On Making It

shootinganelephantWhen an established writer speaks to an audience, someone may ask, “What advice would you give aspiring writers?” This moment often arouses the speaker’s chortling, sighs, and/or eye-rolling. Many times—maybe most of the time—the writer urges that if you can do anything else, you ought to. That answer rarely satisfies, coming across as bragging, chest-pounding over some trying period of struggle and doubt now passed, a period the aspiring writer is still, miserably, in.

The advice often sounds self-indulgent, untrue, too happily—smugly—given.

In George Orwell’s essay, “Why I Write,” he offers a similar answer. He presents four motives for a writer: “Sheer egotism” (wanting to be seen as “clever”); “Esthetic enthusiasm” (appreciation of the beauty of words); “Historical impulse” (the desire to find facts and preserve them); and “Political purpose” (wanting to “push the world in a certain direction”). However, by the end of the essay, Orwell decides in favor of simple compulsion.

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle” he says, “one would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” He compares composition to “A long bout of some painful illness.”

His description of writing’s depths of despair echoes more soundly, however, because Orwell adds another distinction few crowing sufferers do. The demon can’t be understood or claimed as a gift, a badge of merit, or a special cargo. “For all one knows” he says, “that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.” The desire to write is a mystery—and also an obsession and a pain and a burden—but mostly primordial, like a wailing child.

The distinction between Orwell and those who claim writing as their special torture may be subtle, but it seems important. Orwell takes no secret (or not-so-secret) pride in survival. He sees agony as central to the process. Creativity is difficult because it requires relentless revision both of the page and the person who fills it. He says, “One can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.” His answer is not the now-clichéd self-congratulation offered by the persevering author who outlasted the hungry phase. He isn’t saying, “If you can do anything besides writing, you ought to.” He says, “If you want to write well, don’t rest.”

The reward of  revelation is great even when it’s temporary. Orwell must have enjoyed what, to others, seems excruciating. Maybe writing takes that.

His outlook gives essays like “Shooting an Elephant” their power—the writer’s willingness to ruin illusions, to strip himself to reveal source material, to reconstruct himself in print… all that subdues egotism. Orwell closes “Shooting an Elephant,” by saying that he shot the elephant, “Solely to avoid looking a fool.” In confessing, he admits to being a fool. Even when the subject does not demand self-effacement, Orwell suggests a writer should seek it.

“By the time you have perfected any style of writing,” Orwell says, “you have always outgrown it.” The restlessness of a writer is also his or her essential trait.

In the final section of “Why I Write,” Orwell tries to respond to those who identify his writing as politically motivated. He says his writing is better when, rather than setting out to change the world, he sees it more plainly. Though political, his impulses arise from a need to face his—and humanity’s—rationalization, puffery, and hypocrisy.

Many authors suggest the chief trouble of being a writer is working long enough and hard enough to make it, and, having made it, they celebrate their difficult journey. Their pride is understandable. Who wouldn‘t feel justified by at last being read? But Orwell’s self-effacement seems more profound. He suggests no real writer ever makes it.


Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Art, Desire, Dissent, Doubt, Ego, Essays, Fame, George Orwell, Identity, Laments, Meditations, Revision, Thoughts, Tributes, Words, Work, Writing