Category Archives: Blogging

New Haiku

pigeonsCetologists identify whales by the scars and general wear of their flukes, their idiosyncratic calling cards slipping into the deep again, marking years by disappearance and reappearance. When we moved in May, I thought I’d do the same with pigeons.

They must be as distinctive, I figured, and I meant to know my new neighborhood by its non-human citizens. For a time, on every walk exploring the new streets around us, I scrutinized each bird that lingered on the sidewalk. I meant to memorize a few, sure I’d meet some familiarity eventually.

Of course, I failed. The proliferation of pigeon colors and patterns can’t be captured by one mind, at least not one as small as mine. Even if I thought I remembered their odd, mixed variations of gray and white and brown, who could be sure? Was this pigeon a friend?

Over the last eight months, since abandoning my blog, I’ve written little, only haiku, and part of me discounts those seventeen (or so) syllables as frivolity, too easy to matter for much. They’re pigeons, perhaps beautiful if you’re prone to scrutinize but likely just another square of a sea’s surface or a patch of sky… more of the same.

Ezra Pound, a great lover of haiku, said, “The image itself is speech. The image is the word beyond formulated language.” If so, I wonder what those images add up to and how a person might turn so many disparate moments into anything comprehensive or consoling.

In May of 2015, I wrote a haiku,

eventually

enough raindrops will

wet this field

Maybe. If nothing else, belief intends sense. Each haiku promises content, however fleeting. My pigeon friends gather en masse in a parking lot near where I live. A step in their direction sends them wheeling into the air, and every distinction between them vanishes in shuddering wings and new perspectives of their flight. They’re no longer verifiably separate.

If haiku accomplish so much, perhaps that’s enough. When I was four, I remember scooting along the curb after a storm, my feet driving a wave of rainwater ahead of me. That instant persists because I seldom feel such power now. I’d like to write something substantial—a novel, a poem worthy of public attention, a collection of essays or short stories—and instead settle for the fitful awareness in haiku—they might add up, or, at the other extreme, one will be the apparition of faces in a crowd, petals plastered against a background making them visible at last.

One of Basho’s loveliest haiku reads,

winter solitude—

in a world of one color

the sound of the wind

Aren’t we always hoping for that, connectedness and singularity, belonging and the strange joy of feeling so?

I saw a pigeon recently I was sure I’d recall. It was ginger rather than gray, and one wing feather was a white vee, the other not. Turning to me as if it knew me, its strut faced my direction. I thought it spoke, issuing a challenge to be known and understood.

No haiku occurred to me, but I knew then what haiku is.

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Number 500

closed-signOnce or twice, after arriving at a favorite neighborhood restaurant, I’ve discovered it closed for good. On the door is a pithy thank you note to loyal patrons. First I think, “Oh no!” and then, “Are they calling me out? Wasn’t I loyal?”

They don’t have me in mind. Restaurants close all the time in Chicago. It’s rough getting started, rough maintaining quality, rough remaining relevant, and rough for owners who must sometimes resent the crazy, constant labor of their working lives. Even popular places can’t always make a go of it when the rent rises or someplace new opens nearby. More loyal patronage, I’ve decided, wouldn’t help. It’s the situation. Better to remember the wonderful meals you had there with friends and move on.

Today’s post is my last on Signals to Attend at least until the end of the year, and maybe forever. For some time, I’ve been thinking about closing. And though I haven’t decided entirely, I feel finished.

A blog isn’t like a restaurant. Few people make a profit, so money doesn’t matter. Nor do I rely on visitors as restaurants must. Okay… it sometimes bothers me when an essay or story I’ve slaved over gathers few readers, but then I tell myself I don’t do it for numbers. People are busy, and it’s nothing against me.

Which brings me to bloggers’ similarities with restaurant owners, at least the ones who never hit the big time. We don’t expect fame, maybe, but we hope to provide a place where pleasure might be found. We don’t imagine we’re the only choice or the most revered or the glitziest, buzziest choice, but we hope to satisfy those who happen in, loyal or not. And much of what we do is behind the scenes… necessarily so. The cycles of resupply and preparation that carry us from one offering to the next aren’t visible. We think, plan, and rethink until we’re ready, and, if  we aim for our best work, we don’t begrudge the labor.

As announced in the title, this post is number 500. I couldn’t begin to count the hours I’ve spent composing and revising for this blog. Dear Reader, it may not seem much, but for six years, my life has revolved around being here. Whatever else I was doing—reading, preparing for class, grading papers, coaching, writing grade reports, traveling, dealing with personal and family crises and celebrations, seeing to the rest of my creative life on my other blogs and in my other life as a visual artist—I appeared here at the requisite times. I wanted to post something new, and I’ve missed few deadlines I set for myself. Sometimes this blog felt like a part time job in a life too busy to accommodate one.

More so lately, not just because of the challenge of finding something new to say or because I’m still seeking different voices and styles but also because questions about my purpose nag me. Distinguishing between desire and obligation can be difficult, especially as visitors shrink and the thrill of twice being “Freshly Pressed” or cresting some follower milestone fade. I’m proud of my consistency—even if it’s crap, there’s a lot of it!—but when I mention my blog to friends and colleagues these days, they ask, “Are you still doing that?”

A restaurant owner might say doing anything for a long time—even when you try your damnedest to maintain quality—makes you reliable, which is not at all the same as exciting.

I’m not leaving the blogosphere entirely. I have a poetry blog I post to when I feel like it, a haiku-a-day site I’m devoted to, and the weekly cocktail blog I share with my brother. This site will stay open, if only as an archive.

So consider this my note on the door:

Thank you to all my loyal and not-so-loyal followers, my periodic and random visitors, my disgruntled objectors, my sympathetic ears, and my tsk-tskers. Your intelligent reading, your “Likes,” and especially your thoughtful comments inspired me and challenged me and helped me grow. You have been the center of my attention, and, though you may no longer find new material here, you haven’t left my thoughts.

 

 

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Blogging’s Faint Stamp of Approval

imagesMy wife and I sat at a picnic table, and next to us were three strangers eating in advance of the same outdoor Shakespeare performance we were attending.

One of them asked the other about a daughter who recently graduated from college, and she answered, “My daughter wants to be a writer.”

“Has she published anything?” the first said.

“No. Right now, she has a blog.”

I tried not to spy but didn’t need to look over to hear the message behind the answer—embarrassment, putting a positive face on the only response possible. She might have substituted, “No, not yet… but, you know, she’s pretending.”

That’s the trouble with blogging. Anything in magazines, journals, newspapers, books, or even commercial promotions comes with verification. Some authority says this writing deserves notice. In contrast, posts only require clicking “publish,” a faint stamp of approval that—most people assume—comes too readily. Based on this overheard conversation, the writer-daughter takes herself seriously, maybe thinks a great deal of her own work. The rest is up for grabs.

Any blogger’s vindication of blogs sounds like rationalization, further effort to gild the author’s own work. I felt for this girl’s mother. Naturally, a mom wants to believe, and, though blogging is hardly the same as appearing in The New Yorker or even the local paper, her daughter means to ply her craft, to pursue a dream, to practice by taking baby steps toward something brag-worthy. More than that, she may want to be read, and creating a blog assures a voice and audience… albeit a limited, often intimate audience. Which, she may think, isn’t so bad and certainly better than no readers. She might even like blogging and regard it as a distinct form with idiosyncratic challenges and potential.

Eavesdropping, I couldn’t help thinking about this blog as it approaches its 500th post. Am I still, after all this time, practicing for something real? Am I more proud (and appreciative) than I ought to be of my tiny audience? Am I alone in valuing my labor while real writers snicker? Have I, all along, been deluding myself to avoid actual evaluation and accomplishment? Does self-expression only count when someone else says it does?

This week a colleague posted on Facebook, “I’m writing everywhere else but on my blog, which means I’m finally working. I won’t be stopped.” In no way did he mean to direct the comment at me, but my spirit sunk nonetheless. My inner Rodney Dangerfield started muttering, “I get no respect. I get no respect at all.”

He meant, I’m sure, to say his blog has faded as more public writing projects took precedence, but the assumption seemed to be—or my defensiveness heard—you can’t be serious and simply blog. Blogging is what you do while waiting for anything better. In itself, as a writing genre (if it is), it sometimes seems the equivalent of copy printed on grocery-brand macaroni and cheese. Though cute, it hardly counts.

A fury of counterarguments rears: if you’re not a published writer does it mean more or less that people choose to read you (based necessarily on content rather than name, reputation or designation by Important People)? What sort of motive to write takes precedence when fame and remuneration are unlikely? Do readers from the Philippines, India, Botswana, and Latvia counterbalance having a small audience? What does it say when readers feel compelled to comment fresh from encountering ideas—can that be bad?

But those are framed questions, as all my questions are. They dig the hole (from which I shout) deeper. They evoke that unfortunate parent proffering her daughter’s blog as proof she’s a writer.

Perhaps there’s no satisfactory vindication or apology. As seriously and carefully as bloggers compose, the possibility lurks they have no place else to be writers and their only claim to the title is one they’ve asserted themselves.

Although, to me, these essays, stories, poems, and haiku feel quite real.

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Habitual

fountain-pen-writingAnother odd fiction….

Joan writes with invisible ink.

She started when she was young. Her secrets should be lost, she thought, and once she’d spilled her emotions, words’ effectiveness ended anyway. In the beginning, she never returned to her pages except to assure they’d faded and, sometimes, if they didn’t, she sought an unnoticed patch of sunlight to erase them.

Friends and family watched Joan march parades of words through her notebooks, the prose dropping like a curtain line after line. When she was a teenager, her father counted notebooks on the shelves in her room, called her “His scribbler,” and pleaded.

“What stories you must have told by now—why won’t you let us read?”

Joan stared at the page and pretended to recite what she found there, all of her speech invented, all of it strange and estranging. Her father listened as well as he could as long as he could but soon found reason to leave. Joan hid her notebooks after that.

Though she needn’t have. They were empty. When she left for college she discovered she could refill the earliest books and did, again and again, wondering whether she followed the actual ruts of what she’d written before or how these thoughts might echo earlier ones. Nothing seemed fresh, and, try as she might, her dreams of novelty disappointed.

Her husband was the one who encouraged her to become an actual writer. By then she’d stopped refilling notebooks, but her family told stories of Joan’s late hours poised in a puddle of light at her desk, her pen pirouetting. For their first anniversary, her husband bought a fountain pen, sturdy ink labeled “archival,” and several blank books with pages opaque as canvas and suitable for sails.

Joan started immediately, and the habit came back like breath. Soon, her husband fell asleep to her scratching. Moons presided over tidal confession.

He wanted to hear what she was saying to her blank books, but, through an odd alchemy, something in Joan’s mind and hand invaded the pen and transmuted the ink. Permanence, it turned out, didn’t arise from circumstance as much as routine. What she’d written the week before disappeared as it always had. She kept books closed to preserve words, but—in light or darkness—they slipped from sight. Joan cried. The tears washed pigment from the page.

For some weeks, she traced the trail of prior days’ signs, but her hand cramped, her mind quit. Shadow overtook her. In its wake, little remained.

So Joan pretended again, speaking invention instead of reading. Blank books gathered in plain sight, but her husband, respecting her privacy, stopped asking.

Then Joan only sat at her desk, studying her husband’s sleep and dreaming what writing might mean, imagining her words honored by attention, their sounds real, important to more than her.

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Danger Danger

8326674788_ffc5919ef8_zOccasionally people ask if I worry about posting online. They wonder about potential embarrassment to me or to my family, or the professional trouble I might get into if superiors or students read a post, or the hate even a mild point of view can inspire. I know the internet is prone to spinning gray into black and white and isn’t a natural place for the measured or reasonable. Anyone who reads comments sees the disproportion of cyberspace, the glee some take in judging others on the barest basis and then spewing ugly, often scary, venom.

But, no, I don’t worry about that. Statistics tell me how many people find this blog every day and who can be sure how many actually read? After four years, Signals to Attend has quite a few followers, but WordPress doesn’t say how many of those really follow and how many hope for a visitor or follower in return. For the record, I return visits (though not always with comments) and am grateful for whatever loyalty this blog cultivates. Reading and writing is, potentially, the positive side of the internet, its capacity to create community, and company. Whatever the risk of blogging, the benefit of meeting thoughtful writers is greater. For me, it has been anyway.

I don’t rely on limited visibility though. One wrong reader could make life miserable and, although sometimes my ire bubbles up, I try to moderate the ferment, to be circumspect, to watch my measures and combinations to make the best brew possible. I use no names not already in the public sphere. I name neither family members nor my workplace and try to protect anyone I do name by considering how it might feel to be the object of my criticism.

Writerly friends, in fact, sometimes urge taking more risks. They say I’d have more readers if my opinions ventured into perilous territory. Yet, the biggest risk, to me, is saying what you think or feel as exactly as you can. It’s easier to be dramatic and “out there” if you don’t worry how accurately you express yourself or communicate the truth you see. Getting your own heart right courts equivocation and complexity. In our world, maybe that’s the risky stance.

Every once in a while a comment arrives that might be summarized as “Why would you think such a stupid thing?” or offers unsolicited advice carefully tailored for the misguided… and tailored a couple of sizes too small. In those cases, I’m polite. They come from a desire to make things better. And, of course, they’re often right.

Plus risk is part of the process. Who would want to create no response? If writing were simple, we wouldn’t suffer so much over it and—suffer over it as much as we like—our writing is bound to be incomplete if we try (as we ought to) to sort out what we don’t understand. Anyone who can help me understand my topic or myself better is welcome. For that, I’m also grateful. Just assume my intentions are good, please.

Really, my only worry about posting online is that my time and effort may be wasted. Everyone knows the Oscar Wilde quotation, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” As many bloggers must, I worry about dancing to my own tune, calling “important” what’s actually self-indulgent and solipsistic. Worse than wandering into trouble is wandering into dark and empty rooms. I think of closing this blog down every time I pass a significant number of posts, but it’s never because I fear backlash. What I fear is that the trouble is all mine or that my best escape from issues is being irrelevant.

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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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Choose ONE

alternativesThe toughest part of any blog, I imagine, is finding what to write. I’m off to New York this week and don’t have time for a full post, but I’m offering openings I wrote and never pursued. Which would you’d like to see developed to full length? I’ll try, I promise.

1.

Some moments seems contiguous. The final gasps and throes of the coffeemaker, unvaried, could be one song. Initials in the sidewalk announce themselves as they always have, meaning to make today into yesterday, when you also noticed them. Tires drone between steady beats of highway seams. A furze of yellowy pink clings to a familiar flat horizon. More is similar than different, all one morning.

2.

You discover who you are by failing. It’s unfortunate, but bumping against the ceiling of your abilities or unveiling how wrong you were or seeing the familiar transformed by a new understanding or feeling, or blushing with deep embarrassment and error that says, “I’m not what I seem”—that’s what matters.

3.

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but I do. My appreciation for book designers rests on their nifty solutions to unseen needs. They shirk the profound pressure to entice. They remain somehow, despite it all, playful. They innovate. They renovate what you expect from text, turning letters into objects and images into signs. You can’t say how a cover affects you, but you know which do.

4.

My people-watching grows more intense with age. Everyone, it seems, is more interesting than I am, more beautiful and/or paired with someone more beautiful than I am, off more purposefully to more interesting destinations uncolored by worry. They’re smarter, hipper, happier. They don’t care how very screwed the world is. They aren’t old.

5.

She sat on the floor and watched me cry, unmoved but interested, silently remarking and studying. You wouldn’t know she was the child and I the adult, and the power to make me cry—her influence over and exploitation of her parent didn’t seem to be her primary focus. She was shocked to see me dissolve.

6.

In my alternate lives, I travel more, draw more, talk with people much more intelligent than I am, find hidden strengths in myself, feel deeply, and make a bigger difference to myself and others. Perhaps it’s too late for redefinition at my age. Yet the futility of self-improvement does little to impede fantasy. Disappointment inspires bigger, better, bolder versions of my impossible, limited self.

7.

I don’t think often about former relationships. I’m happily married. But, if I do, the break-up scenes appear, angry accusations and bitter assessments, smolderingly indifferent verdicts, barely-beneath-the-surface hurt, resignation still tinged with faint hope, the most persistent denial. If you could collect all the people who’ve rejected me or I’ve rejected, the testimony might form a complete picture of why I’m such an ass.

8.

Why do I distrust certainty so? When someone says, “That’s just how it is,” I want to shout, “Is anything ever what we say it is? Isn’t saying what it is the same as revealing an unexpressed or unconscious wish it were and that we have no choice about it and this situation is what it must be?” I prefer those who say, “I don’t know, but intend to find out.” Do your best to reveal something closer to the truth. Don’t be sure.

9.

Maybe every child experiences being lost and approaching a stranger to ask (in some form), “Can you help me find my mommy?” You hope to be settled again and not so anchorless. More than anything else, you seek a sure sense of where you belong, what makes you feel whole and complete.

10.

When my history students ask about some time in my past—how I felt about MLK’s assassination or the end of the war in Vietnam, I stretch to reach an earlier self. Like a fly in an expansive room, it runs from me. How do you answer, “How did you feel?” when the question requires re-knowing, and re-knowing is fraught with revision, what you ought to have felt or might have felt or thought?

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