Monthly Archives: June 2014

Thoughts of a Struggling Diarist

photo 1-33Lists of famous diarists run many pages, going on so long you begin to believe anyone who desires merit must keep a diary. I know I’m confusing correlation and causation, but journal writing has been urged upon me so many times, there must be something to it… that so far eludes me.

In my backpack I keep a notebook where I occasionally jot ideas. It includes recommended books and movies, sentences revised and re-revised, odd overheard statements, and strange sights. My attempts at a daily journal, however, typically fail. A few days in, I ask why I’m telling myself what I already know or why it’s vital to describe in tiresome detail events that just occurred and hardly seem worth remembering. Writers laud journals as practice, which certainly makes sense, but my skepticism rears. What kind of practice? My audience, myself, will accept any old thing, and, though he’s unimpressed with the familiar, gets little else. If I perform the way I rehearse—which most people do—journaling won’t create brilliance. Quite the opposite.

I never re-read. Though writing-to-think is a valuable process, my journals meander in the dark, prodded by obligation, trying one direction and another and hoping, half-heartedly, to trip over treasure.

If you’re a journal-er, you’ll say my problem is the author. I do wonder—if I can commit, will I discover how life changes when I record it? Since school ended, I’ve been trying again, scheduling a regular visit to a blank sketchbook filling up with scrawl and doodles. The secret, I tell myself, is to think of this journal as a savings bank where investments in self-examination will grow.

According to Susan Sontag, it’s “Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb and illiterate.” For her, the journal is not a place to “Express myself more openly than I could to any person,” but a place where, “I create myself.”

“People who keep journals have life twice,” Jessamyn West said, and Anaïs Nin called her diary “My kief, hashish, and opium pipe… my drug and my vice.”

One of my former colleagues kept journals and, during one of his free periods each day, covered exactly one page. I watched, without reading, as he somehow spent thoughts to die out on the last line. He didn’t share his entries with me or anyone and said he had shelves of journals dating back to the sixties that he never, never, never revisited.

His writing was, I’m guessing, a continual reshoring, a levee preserving his sense of himself. Without reading a single entry, I picture him reassuring, encouraging, redesigning. In my imagination, he plans how to be, his range and domain.

But my experience so far tells me I’m romanticizing. My entries are dull, larded with worries about productivity and self-worth… which, it turns out, are often the same thing.

Virginia Woolf said she’d like her journal to:

Resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, and yet steady, tranquil compounds with the aloofness of a work of art.

I’d like that too. But how do I become Virginia Woolf? How do you ask so much so regularly? How do you battle the relentless, regular tide of personality? How can you try so hard when no one watches or cares?

These mysteries I can only settle over time, I tell myself. Right now, my journal feels like investment, pretty in its script and drawings… but vapid. I have almost no interest in history, being able to say on such and such a day such and such happened, but then what am I interested in, what steady voice emerges?

“The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one,” Joan Didion says, “inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.”

Maybe my journal writing will only become important as it approaches compulsion, as it embraces no justification beyond blind obsession.

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Hermit

photo 3-29At Kenyon for a literary hybrid workshop, I wrote and created books to contain my work. The story below is around 250 words, and the first two lines come from the 20 “first lines” I submitted before arriving. The book (pictured) was a simple quarto, designed to demonstrate how formats change readers’ experience. In this case, turning one page into eight pages meant the first page inside was right side up and second upside downphoto 2-31photo 1-32. The cover is outside and the two center pages. To read the book, you flip back and forth first to last pages—through the center—then turn over to read the second and fifth pages.

Don’t follow? Exactly. Some happy accidents occurred—the story talks about middles, for instance. However the account makes a little more sense (but only a little) in this version…

“WILL THE CRABS GET US?” she asks.

In any alphabetical list, I’m almost always in the middle—not keen enough for A nor bold enough for Z… and blending in.

You won’t find your way out of any list without meeting others as mild or anxious or lost.

“The crabs will not get us,” I say, “if your hand goes near them they pull into their shellsand they have no claws.”

But they do, narrow as straws and barbless, useful for lifting the sea’s leftovers to mouth.

Appendages as implements.

Shells put you a moment from solitude. Though I’ve seen only shells’ front halls, their walls are shiny eggshell with a blush of azure and iodine.

“I need a smoother, tighter sky,” I might say.

She won’t reach into the tank. The crabs amble into and out of cracks in the rocks. The exhibit burbles with pumps. Everyone else talks, and some grab a crab, call it, coax it to emerge. They name their prey, but, when nothing summons the resident, they drop it into the pool again.

I close my eyes against the splash and picture the crabs as they pendulum against water’s resistance—flat stones, bubbles rising as the last air in their homes escapes.

“They’re ugly anyway.” she says.

We’re no company to each another. The shadows of this space leave us alone, and voices nearby—but not here—pause for laughter. We leave together, neither first nor last, pushed and pulled by the current of another moment ebbing.

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It’s Okay If You’re Not Listening

imagesA fellow blogger once told me, “Don’t expect too much from summer.” She meant visitors, not summer in general.

She’s right about visitors. Something happens in June, and those WordPress bar graphs flatten to foothills. My first two years of blogging, I worried I’d said something so heinous no one liked me anymore. Now the summer lull is a familiar pattern, and, being a grizzled veteran of the sport of blogging, I accept readers’ attention wanes when the weather encourages healthier alternatives to reading angsty, self-doubting prose.

You can hardly look at an overcoat when it’s boiling out. I get that.

In fact, I more than accept the quiet. I relish it as a resort town must sigh through October or the babysitter must claim the whole couch between lights out and parents’ return. It’s not that I relax so much as I don’t worry about relaxing.

Blogging and publishing offer very different companionship. Real writers must imagine readers. In contrast, bloggers can usually guess how crowded the room is and adjust their volume and tempo, maybe even whisper because more intimate speech is okay right now.

Over the last six months or so, I’ve sent some writing away, and all of it has returned with “No thanks.” So perhaps I’m telling myself summer’s drought shouldn’t be ego-killing the way those rejections are. The alternative is believing I have nothing to say. Maybe I have nothing valuable to say sometimes, but I do desire speech. I want to say something.

And a strange relief arises when less is at stake. The less important the end, the more enjoyable the means. Why not be experimental or confessional or meta-conditional or plainspoken?

Writing is like swimming. It’s strange imagining someone inventing a way to cross a river, but someone must have. Conventional strokes—freestyle and breaststroke and butterfly—have well polished efficiencies, and they work. They aren’t the only means to reach another shore, however. Trying other methods might be embarrassing, but you could dream up something if you didn’t worry about looking like a fool. Plenty of brilliant writers master conventional syntax to compose lovely prose, but others revise the rules. Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, James Joyce all swim oddly.

Probably because they didn’t care and worried little about readers—who readers might be or how they might react to their beautiful fumbling.

Our MFA age is more homogenous, full of MacPoems, MacShort Stories, and MacNovels acceptably well structured, thoughtful, and forgettable. Hell, you might be reading a MacEssay right now. The “focus group” and “workshop” sometimes seem oddly named, as they often center on acceptability instead of vision or idiosyncrasy.

“I don’t mean to be mean,” I hear a classmate criticizing Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, “but aren’t these opening pages just a lot of throat-clearing?”

Fumbling isn’t always beautiful, but it’s more human than self-consciousness generally permits. I realize all my efforts to “get myself out there” and “learn what editors want” may improve my work because I’ll learn to appraise and revise what’s invisible to me now. But solitude—or an intimate gathering of friends—can be helpful too, especially if I can become comfortable with throat-clearing as I learn to sing.

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Watching

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother short fiction…

He read once about a philosopher so circumscribed by life he spent most of each day seated at his desk looking out one window at the same church steeple. At his own desk he notes how, since the tree leafed out, he can see just a wall of green.

No matter. He isn’t a philosopher and sitting at his desk mostly means paying bills or answering email, the television babbling to his wife’s nearly perpetual clatter.

As a young man, he had thoughts. He wrote in composition books sporadically and imagined his words being found among his effects when he died. He fantasized his ideas would awaken scholars who would scrutinize and deconstruct every phrase and declare them brilliant. They’d also lament—their eyes wet with intellectualized empathy—he never knew he’d be important.

Those journals must be somewhere in the house, stored inside a box inside a closet. Every once in a while he thinks he’d rather not be embarrassed by their discovery. He means to destroy them, but the impulse pops up too sporadically. Other priorities supplant it, and they remain, somewhere.

In the the winter, before the leaves return, he looks at neighbors’ homes across the street. They emerge and return according to schedules he never learns, but he knows them down to the idiosyncrasy of their locomotion. He knows their clothes—their winter coats, at least—and who pairs with whom, which dogs go with whom. He pretends he understands them, writing their stories in his mind… which are really his stories.

This time of day, the sun directs its attention to his desk. The stapler and the plastic cup of pens draw monstrous shadows, and sometimes he spreads his first two fingers to create a colossus striding among them. So many of the tasks he means to perform at this desk remain undone.

Soon his wife will call out, “Dinner!” and he’ll make his way downstairs. He considers how he’s arrived here, how her smaller summons speaks to the larger one leading to this desk, this life.

He taps a key or two and sees he’s accomplished a little. Petty achievements offer paltry pride, but, nonetheless, he looks for satisfaction in doing. He means to be in the world and not explain it, though he once hoped he would understand. Doing, he tells himself, is his better fate.

Another couple of items on his to-do list completed, he sits anticipating dinner. “It’s not so bad,” he tells himself, “to be so well fed.”

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Doing and Being

office-art-mindset1Today I travel to a Literary Hybrid workshop at Kenyon College that combines writing and visual art. The program promises to “Blend techniques of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and visual arts to generate creative writing through the art of the book.” It appeals to, “A writer curious to write in more genres, or an artist wishing to deepen engagement with text.”

So I’m in those descriptions somewhere, and what I want is to put my two abiding creative outlets in the same room and see what they have to say to each other. Whatever else comes out of the experience will be a bonus, but I’d like to see my work a little differently, whether this label “literary hybrid” fits.

I generally don’t call myself a visual artist. It’s presumptuous to do so because I stand in awe of people who hold and deserve the title. If they are citizens of that country, then I’m standing at its border staring in. Oh I know there’s no fence, no river, no guard keeping me out. People tell me part of belonging is striding over the line with a smile on your face.

I’m just hesitant to transgress. I do art, but does doing make being? Unsure.

As part of my sabbatical project, I’ve been reading Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, and it has me thinking about the difference between activity and identity. Dweck argues that humans fall into two broad categories, those with an open mindset and those whose mindsets are closed. You don’t want to be on the closed side. Those people take everything they do as contributing to their identity, some measure of who they are and what they’re worth. They are “A Students” because they make A’s. They are athletes because they once excelled at athletics. They make nouns of life’s verbs.

The price is high. Closed mindset people may become inflexible and timid, afraid to risk how they see themselves. They may choose not to run a race they can’t win, and they’re far more sensitive to setbacks. Trouble compromises self-images they’ve cultivated. In fact, they’re prone to call setbacks “failure” and mistakes “failure” and shortcomings “failure.”

On the other side are the open mindsets who see half-full glasses everywhere. A low score on an essay—even if it’s unexpected—is an opportunity to learn and grow. A flat tire on the way to a job interview is an unfortunate episode and not a judgment from the gods. People with open mindsets enjoy struggling because they see themselves growing. They don’t care about what they’re growing toward as long as they’re creeping upward.

Sounds great—let me be an open mindset person too!—but something in the idea (and the hype-y, self-help-y voice Dweck deploys in her book) rankles me. I’ll pass by the contradiction of a label-based division that makes being one identity good and another bad. Dweck wants to create a clear division, and that’s fine. And she’s right we ought not to think so much about ends. But my question is more fundamental: Is it so terrible to wish for achievement, mastery, and an assurance you’ve reached an accepted level of competence?

If all it takes to be an artist is doing art, for instance, how meaningful is the distinction? If labels weren’t so desirable, we all could just have fun, but humans generally seek affirmation. I know I do.

My motivation to attend the workshop at Kenyon comes mostly from an open mindset. My clumsy art won’t bother me as much because I don’t consider myself an visual artist, and perhaps my struggles as a writer will bother me more for the opposite reason. I’ll deal with that. Ultimately, however, I want both to do and to be and also to understand where I am. I don’t need a grade—I’m against those—but I need honest appraisal beyond “Thanks for trying!”

I want to know: was I selected from applicants of more than the 15 participants or was I one of the first 15 to apply? Dweck may call that a bad question, but respect motivates. The possibility of being makes me want to do.

A good time will be had by all—I certainly intend to have a good time— and we’ll all get trophies, I’m sure. Yet I also hope someone will let me know where I am. I don’t mind waiting at the border of Artistia—I’m comfortable there—but I’d love to be invited over, and, if I’m not, well, I need to deal with that.

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No True Past

reality%20show-thumbThis spring, when my history students asked how I felt about the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, I stretched to reach my earlier self. Like a fly in an expansive room, however, the past is there, but it’s never where you look. Who can answer, “How did you feel?” when the question requires re-knowing, and re-knowing is revision of what you might have felt?

Scientists say we remember the last time we remembered something and, after the first retrieval, never return to the true moment. You can only recall reading the previous sentence once. Then you are simply recalling remembering it. Each moment, like the one arriving and departing right now, is absolutely elusive.

I read an article by George Musser in the September 2011 edition of Scientific American complicating this dilemma. It suggests we construct time instead of perceiving it. We live 80 milliseconds behind so that each piece of sensory data has already passed. 80 milliseconds doesn’t seem much to me, but delay allows the brain time to work. According to physics, someone 30 meters away can clap hands and the sound will be late. Yet, at that distance, though two hands meeting and their sound shouldn’t be simultaneous, we sense they are. Take one step out of that zone and we exceed the brain’s capacity to mend discontinuity. Motion and sound no longer coincide.

A better example, perhaps: you may have watched something where a speaker’s lips don’t quite match the words. Experiments indicate that, as long as the delay is under 80 milliseconds, we won’t notice. After that, we do.

The article describes other clever experiments exposing narratives our brains create. When you touch your nose and your toe at the same time, the sensory data arrives at the same time though the route from nose to brain is appreciably shorter. David Eagleman, a neurologist studying time, rigged up a light that, when you press a button, blinks after a slight delay. After 10 or so tries, the subjects’ brains align the button and the light—they appear consonant. Then when the lag decreases, subjects think the light blinks before they press.

This microcosmic failing is relevant to my macrocosmic memory of 1968. We’re hard-wired to construct reality from signs, to fix memory with prejudice. Another of Eagleman’s flashing light experiments asks observers to assess the duration a light stays on. The first occurrence or one that broke a pattern seems to last longer. Our narratives are sensitive to novelty, they gather impressions with significant bias, and we gain confidence when we’re sure we’ve experienced something distinctive.

It’s easy to remember Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination. I was 10 and lived in coastal Texas. It was early in my summer vacation. When I got up, the television was on, and my mother told me RFK had been shot and would likely die. The heat had already come, and, when I went outside, I felt—for maybe the first time—frightened by the world I occupied. Only part of it was the day’s news or Martin Luther King’s assassination two months before. Sitting on the curb, I thought about why Texas had to be so hot and whether the earth could ever be too hot to leave my house.

I may be inventing this scene. Neurologists say thoughts of past and future illuminate the same parts of our brains. Looking forward requires fabrication and so does looking back.

Malcolm MacIver, another scientist mentioned in the article, speculates evolution favors animals whose sensory volume (how far they can see, hear, smell, etc.) exceeds their motor volume (how well they move in the space they occupy). Consciousness itself, he argues, springs from knowing where we are according to where we’ve been and a plan to take advantage of what’s ahead. It’s all one big survival game relying on surmise.

My sensory volume is huge, doubled by my creative volume. Those most desperate for narratives are most susceptible to delusion. I seek comfort, and, if circumstances are uncomfortable, I at least think I know the trouble. I can’t answer my students’ questions about the ugly history I experienced, but I like thinking I can. Picture a 10 year-old sitting on the curb, sun baking him before noon, and perhaps that feels true to you.

He may not be me.

Memory is complicated to the point of deception. I see the world as through a telescope or periscope or microscope. My brain—our brains—make sense of observations we sometimes call “history.” We try to straighten out the past before we write it into books but never revisit the thing itself. We can’t.

We are time travelers only in our imaginations.

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Big Big Plans

KING LEAR by ShakespeareYesterday I woke with the idea of adapting a one-person version of King Lear for security cameras. I debated whether I had to include the Edgar-Gloucester-Edmund plot, then chose scenes, then determined how to split myself into the daughters, then considered what might be lost without Shakespeare’s actual text and if placards would help or distract. My thoughts ran to ground somewhere between a scheme to stage it all in one place (and thus hope someone in security would piece the event together) or staging it many places (and thus be satisfied with knowing I’d done it).

Idle thoughts have that power—absurd plans occupy me for hours, and I sort through the finest minutia as if I were plotting an invasion of Sicily (which I did plot, last Wednesday afternoon). I begin with “what if” and stay there. The walk to work is long enough to blueprint coming out with a line of shower curtains. On the way to the grocery I conceive a few rudimentary designs for barware no one yet knows they need. Waiting for the bus, I arrange a mental list of illustrated parables I’ll compose for adults. I weigh likely publishers.

And perhaps it’s the influence of a Catholic upbringing, but acknowledging ambition is enough. Once I reach work, or pull the grocery list from my back pocket, or climb on the bus, I’m finished. I’ve as good as done Lear.

It was brilliant, in my mind, mad and hilarious and yet, in some hard-to-define way, said exactly what Shakespeare meant. Finally, someone understands Lear as it’s meant to be understood. That someone is me… in my mind.

Unfortunately, even my semi-serious and serious plans occupy the magical land of Whatif (which is also the location for a fantasy novel I’ve been outlining on the elliptical at the gym). My aspirations come with ready-made mental timelines and freshly self-disciplined routines and inevitably stunning outcomes. They involve, in other words, someone I’m not. Each is more impressive in its initial stages than in its execution. True accomplishment is in follow-through, and follow-through isn’t my specialty.

Some misinformed people may marvel at my productivity. They ask me how I’ve managed so much output, but you have to understand I complete about one-third of what I dream. Scrutinize this blog, for instance, and you’ll discover efforts to sell my art online, resolutions to submit my work for publication, determination to start a podcast, whims of all sorts, and convictions I can make various physical and metaphysical changes in my life. Few come to pass.

The slog of living stamps them out and so does determination’s life-cycle, which begins in possibility and ends in delusion. It’s all just so challenging, especially when conception is easy and execution complicated.

What I need is a staff, some crowd of interns (you don’t think I’d pay people, do you?) waiting at the kitchen table each morning, jotting my fancies down, elbowing each other to impress me with the alacrity of their fruition. They ask what I want, and I say. They ask how, and I say how. They ask, “Will this do?” and I say, “It isn’t quite what I pictured. Keep trying.”

This staff, of course, is another fiction, another visit from desire that barely lasts beyond its expression. Since breakfast, I’ve have seven such dreams. Tomorrow I have more time. Maybe I’ll reach 20.

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