Category Archives: Blogging

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?

8 Comments

Filed under Aging, Ambition, Art, Blogging, Desire, Doubt, Epiphany, Essays, Experiments, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Modern Life, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Time, Worry

My Honking Lament

imgThe geese in Lincoln Park are residents. They don’t migrate, or, if their flight can be called migration, only consists of travel to the western suburbs, announcing their exercise with loud exaltation, arresting pedestrians’ attention.

I wish I were so proud. My own diffidence says little more than, “Hi, I’ve arrived” or “I’m back” or “I’ve been thinking…” or “I’m still here.”

Travel isn’t something I relish, yet I know I have to leave here sometimes. I must meet the world to be part of it—no pretending musing online is being public—and life is supposed to be about greeting folks, about expanding myself through contact with genuine others.

The electronic reality I occupy suggests otherwise. The “friends” I create through Facebook and other “social” media don’t seem to seek intimacy. They appear to desire the electronic equivalent of a honking sortie through fall or spring skies, affection without heart. Noise over communication.

I’m sorry if that’s insulting, better to be sincere even when wrong. I’m guilty too.

And no wonder I’m lonely. Maybe my inability to express my feelings is my limitation. True character would insist on recognition, demanding—seeing as normal—the spouting I lid and re-lid daily. But I don’t know what to think or whether feeling is really looked-for from me. Most men live lives of quiet desperation, but what if quiet oppresses? I hesitate to say more… except to confess obsessing over all I hide, withhold, and swallow.

It’s not anger. I’m not mad as hell and can’t take it anymore. I want company, would like to be starkly myself.

Do people sense how convincingly “acceptable” overthrows “sincere”? Do others long to meet, long to talk instead of text, long to release feeling and speak rather than perform? The niceties aren’t nice, the insults more brutal by being couched.

Taking risks sounds good in abstract. Really, it’s embarrassing, showing emotion you know others—discretely or indulgently—ignore. You imagine people laughing. Derision is the modern default. The Eliot of “J. Alfred Prufrock” knew that, the Arthur Miller of “Death of a Salesman” knew that, but we’ve learned little. We devise new modes of communication to say less, in fewer characters.

Real life still awaits us—by that I mean, of course, real life awaits me—and I travel further and further from authenticity by circling, circling, circling.

6 Comments

Filed under Blogging, Depression, Desire, Doubt, Essays, Facebook, Friendship, Identity, Jeremiads, Laments, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Opinion, Solitude, Sturm und Drang, Thoreau, Thoughts, Voice, Worry, Writing

AKA Mr. Haiku

haiku-busonYou may not believe me, but sometimes my daily haiku seem the only important writing I do. They are short enough that I can’t screw up or, if I screw up, their singular utterance seems only cryptic, perhaps ironic, maybe (possibly) deliberate. They are at very least fun and arrive like cinnamon or dark chocolate or wood smoke, a hint of scent elsewhere, even in winter.

Truthfully, I rarely worry about how good they may be. Issa wrote, “What a strange thing! To be alive beneath cherry blossoms” and thus said what every haiku does. If we’re attuned to fresh perception, it visits us continually.

Every early spring a day arrives when I hear birds. I’ve missed their song without knowing, and they seem entirely novel, an alien echo, another dimension intruding. When my life is right, the sudden appearance of sun any time of year elicits automatic exaltation.

Occasionally, trying to write haiku, I sense my mind laboring for profundity, as if this time I’ll dive deeper and hold my breath longer and experience denser reality. What appears instead is the absurdity of wishing and a bemused relief at escaping seriousness.

Most people regard writing haiku as a special sort of serenity. In Haiku Mind, Patricia Donegan describes her encounter with this state as she looked at a sun-bathed orange and felt, “All was perfect as it was, and I felt suddenly at peace as I saw ‘the thing itself’ as if it was in its nakedness without my overlay of thoughts or opinions, and tears rolled down my face.”

Crying isn’t a regular part of my own experience, not just because such high contentedness is hard to come by but also because haiku don’t seem so limited to gratification. I understand “the thing itself” revelation but sometimes experience resignation instead, knowing whatever I feel—serenity, longing, grief, desire, frustration, self-pity, or the unnamable—is okay. The angry haiku, the sad haiku, the elated haiku, the confused haiku all possess similar acquiescence.

I haven’t much patience for people who want to distinguish between hokku and haiku, between haiku and senryu or between strict haiku and free. Those distinctions and requirements seem—I apologize to purists—silly. Haiku are finally clearer in spirit than definition.

My affection for the dark before commercials and silence after a song’s coda comes from every human’s desire to pause. For just a moment, nothing is moving on to better or worse. I’m not serene so much as still.

And, to me, haiku often resemble jokes, springing as they do from simultaneously startling and familiar observations, hinging on changing directions. The flame in wood grain resolves itself as a graph of the day’s troubles, the fire hydrant seems momentarily stubborn, planted sumo-like in defiance, or a dog with a leash but no owner becomes a murder suspect.

Haiku writers place shifts in kireji, cutting words, but revelation isn’t structural. Pay exclusive attention to words or syllables and haiku become too material to flicker and eddy. They sound translated even in home languages. I’m never sure if only the oblique can be conveyed in haiku or if the form of haiku renders everything oblique. In either case, the syllabled joints and angles see life as through a series of mirrors and thus, for once, afresh.

Someone asked me recently if I thought haiku were important to my “practice.” I felt a flood of goodwill—I wanted to embrace him. How wonderful to endow my fixation with such gravity! Yet, truth told, that moment offered validation, the uttered truth of faith. These daily haiku may seem amusement and rehearsal, but they’re central to all I see, sense, and feel as a writer and human being.

7 Comments

Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Art, Blogging, Buddhism, Desire, Epiphany, Essays, Haiku, Identity, life, Meditations, Poetry, Survival, Thoughts, Voice, Work, 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.

2 Comments

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

Writing Funny

David-Sedaris_lYou may have to take my word for it, but in real life I have a sense of humor. Not one as reliable or uproarious as I’d like, but I ocassionally make others laugh, or, failing that, I laugh at stories, absurdities, clever turns of phrase. Laughter is a survival skill I appreciate, but I doubt any reader of this blog comes here for yucks.

Writing to be funny is a challenge I shirk. Oh, I try occasionally (I’ve tried more than once) and hope someone might laugh or smile at some point in nearly everything I write. But, with laughter, it’s so much easier when you sense live results. In the absence of a reaction, you fall into can’t-miss anecdotes or resort to formulae to entrap readers. Funny episodes, images, verbal combinations, and crazy lists occur to me, but, as I write them, my sails slacken. It all sounds artificial, contrived. Once I strain for a laugh, I lose will. I can’t tell you how many half-written, not-so-funny pieces I’ve spared you.

You’re welcome.

I’ve gone to see David Sedaris read a couple of times, and I’m continually amazed at the consistency of his work. He seems to have a nearly infallible sense of the comedic. Having the name “humorist,” Sedaris leads loyal readers to expect snorting, chuckling, guffawing even. While that expectation could be the worst sort of imprisonment for me, he ranges over all sorts of subjects, ambushing readers and listeners though they suspect what’s coming.

To be truly funny, I think, is to do more than surprise. In fact, writing humorously often means surpassing rather than violating expectations. The comedian Bob Hope, now long gone, kept a small and shifting stable of joke writers, and no one’s job was ever secure. They met together to pitch their best stuff, and when you came to this meeting with Mr. Hope, he only accepted jokes that made the other writers laugh… which meant those jokes made people laugh even when laughing at someone else might mean an end to your own employment.

In contrast, when I listen to comedians now or watch a comedy, I’m sometimes confused. Am I laughing because it’s genuinely funny or because the subject matter is shockingly out of bounds? Is what I’m hearing and seeing really funny or something so bizarre only laughter answers it? The two aren’t at all the same thing. As Hope’s mad method suggests, something is really funny only when you laugh despite yourself. Does laughing out of discomfort or embarrassment even count?

Funny is a cruel taskmaster. Sedaris’ early work contained odd turns into illuminating or even instructive territory, but I don’t see nearly so many of those interludes now. I wonder if sincerity seems glib or cliché to him, whether he worries any surprise of that sort would be the wrong sort. When he tries to be poignant, he could seem ironic or, worse, simply false. Perhaps it’s sour grapes, but I’m not sure I’d want t0 be Sedaris. I like the freedom to write what occurs to me, whether it’s happy, sad, funny, or just plain strange. Establish yourself as a comedian and suddenly the disassociative associative style that once seemed fresh can come across as meandering, lazy, being you, doing what you do.

Perhaps that explains why the half-lives of comic actors are shorter than dramatic actors. They play themselves out—we seem to want them to—or they turn, often unsuccessfully, to serious or mixed roles. If they can be more than the usual clown, they continue. The hardest task is to be taken seriously, to make us cry or make us care and make us laugh. Failing that, they’re gone.

All writing is magical, but funny writing particularly so. A writer can dazzle readers, as Sedaris has, with the escalating quirkiness and unpredictability of his actions and observations, but continuing success requires even more. It requires reinventing the way you write to attain the poignancy of Mark Twain or Kurt Vonnegut, producing effects that transcend pure humor or joke-telling.

Every writer is finite—housed by his or her idiosyncratic perspective and approach—but what do you do when you’ve overmined your life and find yourself sitting on a block of swiss cheese? All writers must worry what they will do when they run out of material, but funny ones have it hardest.

Maybe this blog post is all just an elaborate excuse—Dear Reader, I do wish I could make you laugh more, I really do—but I’m happier not raising your expectations. I’d rather be myself (whether that means being funny or not) and pray you hear something more genuine in my voice than wanting a laugh.

6 Comments

Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Blogging, David Sedaris, Desire, Doubt, Envy, Essays, Humor, Identity, Laments, Mark Twain, Resolutions, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Tributes, Voice, Worry, Writing

Again, What—Exactly—Am I Doing Here?

doughThe other night, I dreamt of baking or, more accurately, of trying to bake. My dough reached the awkward stage when it should have formed one mass and instead insisted on crumbling cliffs of loose chunks falling in landslides, the relentless earthquake of failure. I worked the mass with a spoon and with my hands, added water and oil and a number of dream ingredients like tubbed bouillon and lemon zest. Still—no bolus, no bread.

For any Freudians listening in, I know, I know.

Even without Freud, however, this dream seems pretty transparent. It’s about the creative process, about times (like this one) when the moment calls for collection and synthesis, and nothing will satisfy more than a combination of incongruities ending in miracles. That my dream dough doesn’t achieve bread says something big and speaks to questions my recent writing raises.

Most notably, what magic will transform parts into a being?

Some nights I swing between unconsciousness and nutty, irrational, aggregating thoughts. I can’t think where I am and can’t answer how many hours I’ve “slept.” The clock says “11:17,” then it says, “12:45,” later, “3:28.” I hate these numbers and remember them. And each feels, at the time, like revelation.

Somewhere in my dream of dough I thought of Gollums, creatures assembled of clay and enacted by rabbis. My Gollum didn’t speak or walk, didn’t blink. He gave no sign of cooperation in genesis or animation. He never was, and yet I summoned him as if he’d come.

That’s faith. Even unanswered, it persists. You’re sure something must happen, if only by accident, some combination of words will form a spell.

I used to be a prolific visual artist. Every week and weekend, I’d produce a new image. Most of it was abstract, improvisational, and surprising because it was unplanned. More serendipity than scheme, my paintings arose from some deep unconscious memory or impulse. Their yeast was self-assurance and confidence the next step would swell the stuff. It’d declare its own end. I knew—or thought I knew—an outcome would materialize.

What do you do if such assurance disappears?

There’s much to be said for ambling, overturning rocks in hopes of finding something interesting beneath. That said, I sometimes long for an assignment. I’d welcome the chance to receive direction in place of supplying it myself.

A professional writer might say, “Be careful what you wish for,” but conception is tiring.  Twice a week I need a subject that mustn’t be world-weariness. I count on inspiration. I count on novelty. I’m waiting for another voice to tell me to get going on the ark or to desist building this crazy tower to God.

Maybe every artist, on some level, desires direction. It’d be nice to feel moved, to find compulsions quite outside yourself. Yet muses rarely speak. You invoke them, invoke them again, and still they wait, looking for the perfect entry. You hope, in the end, to produce something and experience a glancing brush with inspiration, and to speak.

Whoever knows if you actually do.

2 Comments

Filed under Ambition, Anxiety, Art, Blogging, Doubt, Dreaming, Ego, Essays, Hope, Identity, Insomnia, Laments, life

Starting by Finishing

Library_of_Ashurbanipal_synonym_list_tabletPeriodically, I feel compelled to present capricious visitations of ideas—random brainstorms that never make it as complete essays or posts. Maybe somewhere in these 25 openings is a longer composition, but they seemed complete almost before I finished expressing them…

1. When it comes time to write another post, I often have only the first line, and everything unreels from it.

2. One impulse from childhood has never left me—if I see a branch barely hanging from a tree, or find a hole not quite punched out of a page of loose leaf, or hear a song nearing its end as I leave a store, or notice a speck of lint on a woman’s black sweater, or encounter a gate just ajar—well, you get the idea.

3. As you grow older, you change enough to think your memories might belong to someone else.

4. In third grade, I was always afraid classmates heard when my teacher called me up to her desk to tell me to smile.

5. People sometimes imply I’m not grateful enough—I don’t miss their hints and I don’t think they’re wrong—but agreeing doesn’t seem to get me far.

6. Here’s a list I’ve been idly compiling recently—foods that are just too laborious to eat.

7. Sometimes I imagine famous writers looking over my shoulder as I compose my posts, and they are almost always full of disdain.

8. Whenever someone pauses for comments, or asks some assembly whether anyone has an announcement, or if I visit a place with a guest book waiting for my name, home, and some short note, I’m always tempted to paraphrase Nabokov’s Pale Fire, “There’s a very loud amusement park across from my present dwelling”—for some reason, that sentence is, reliably, the first thought passing through my mind.

9. I’d love to write about the great abiding things in life—stars and seasons, small talk and people in cars glancing my way, the sudden smile of someone who’s just had a revelation or eyes cast down or away—but I wonder if I could make them interesting again.

10. Has anyone who wanted to be funnier ever managed to become so?

11. Perhaps a valuable object is among items I’ve squirreled away in disused drawers and boxes in boxes, but I didn’t put them there to save them—I wanted them out of my sight.

12. My peculiar brand of egotism includes believing I’ve got the market cornered on laments, that no one can speak to feelings of inadequacy better than I can.

13. The other night, when I couldn’t sleep I tried to remember places I only visited once and discovered how very many such places there are.

14. Reading poetry always makes me want to write, and sometimes I don’t finish a poem, half-afraid it will get to what I want to say.

15. Is it terrible that I think humans might have had their chance?

16. All my life I’ve been saving material for the one time I’m allowed to write about having nothing to write about.

17. I use so many analogies in my daily conversation I’ve tried to come up with an analogy for why they seem so useful.

18. It’s occurred to me that not being able to play a single card in solitaire may be far more rare than winning.

19. Once someone asked me, “If you were in an airplane of famous poets, and it was going down, sure to crash, and there was only one parachute left, what poet would you give it up for?” I still don’t have an answer because I can’t get past visualizing the hypothetical.

20. My conversation and writing abound with phrasing and vocabulary I’ve encountered (and reencountered and reencountered) in books and poems I’ve taught, and I keep hoping someone notices.

21. Track workouts in high school taught me how to count tortures. “After this lap,” I told myself, “I can say ‘after this one, I can say, “after this one, one more.”’”

22. “Familiarity breeds contempt” and “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” so I’ve been studying the right moment to get lost.

23. One of my students asked me if I thought I had “a novel in me,” and I wish I’d considered how she’d react before I answered, “Sure, I’m a sack of novels just waiting to rip open.”

24. I’d like to assemble all the people I care about (but lost track of) so I can apologize.

25. In middle school a forensic event called “Extemporaneous Speaking” taught me you can always find something worthless to say.

2 Comments

Filed under Aging, Ambition, Blogging, Desire, Doubt, Ego, Essays, Experiments, Gratitude, Identity, Laments, life, Lyn Hejinian, Lyric Essays, Meditations, Memory, Poetry, Reading, Recollection, Resolutions, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts, Uncategorized, Voice, Worry, Writing