Category Archives: Joan Didion

The Graveyard

One of my father's watercolors

My computer is a salvage yard of sorts. Look hard enough and you’ll find essays finished and abandoned and others that are a few sentences short, a few sentences long, or badly broken. Poems pause mid-line at some insurmountable “like…” Sketches for stories spotlight part of a character or plot with no clue what’s ahead or why. All of it is junk, experience added to a vast slag heap.

Wait long enough and your writing seems someone else’s. Sometimes I think of walking among the abandoned hulls and fragments and gathering enough for a golem of parts, a Frankenstein’s monster of my life.

Ten years ago I wrote an essay about my father for graduate school. But it wasn’t for school actually. Parents, particularly departed parents, spur words even when the words ride no bigger idea than need. My father was a quiet man. Maybe I meant to give him a voice, but when I stumbled onto the essay, I didn’t hear him. It was my voice instead. I wasn’t begging for his resuscitation but standing over his form trying to account for his silence. I didn’t remember the scenes I depicted and, as I read on, I began to wonder if writing them killed those scenes forever.

Here’s something I found:

When I was in college, on holiday or breaks, my father retired after dinner to my old bedroom, which he’d converted into his painting studio. Stan Getz played on a stereo, barely audible, quiet enough so you could hear the brush whipped back and forth, clinking on the sides of the glass jar of water. Cigarettes periodically renewed the smell of smoke brimming from the room. I’d look over my father’s shoulder at his painting as I passed down the hall, and watch an image take shape from behind his back. He left only to refill his drink, and refill his drink, and refill his drink. Over the evening, his glass of sherry would dwindle and rise again, repeatedly.

Later, he’d begin to mar what he had done before, adding flourishes to a roof or branches, delineating a sketched house in the distance too clearly, repainting the shadows in a bucket in the foreground to “correct” its perspective. His brush stopped lighting on the paper and began bearing down like a broom. The water grew browner, more thick and murky. I saw paintings starting to go wrong and felt the urge to restrain his arm, steal his brushes, shout “Stop!” but I never did.  I just stood in the doorway and hoped.  Sometimes he quit before it was too late, but some paintings that started as subtle scenes grew muddled and baroque.

Joan Didion once said that she wrote, “To find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” This passage barely hides its metaphor, a message obvious to me now: my father was too much. Immoderate habits marred what he did and made, and, though I wanted to catch his fall, I walked behind him watching instead. Intrusions on his life felt presumptuous, as if he were a stranger.

And, in this passage, he is a stranger. I watch the painting form in purely technical terms, interpret its steps in light of its end instead of understanding his work in the moment. My experience as a visual artist leads me to different conclusions about those paintings now—he was doing what seemed right. He wanted them perfect. They may have been the closest he came to perfection in his sloppy life, and the additional layers of paint and scrubbed colors evinced desperate hope, not the inevitable disappointment I assigned them then. When they felt finished, he stopped. Perhaps he couldn’t tell how good they were at all. Maybe time had to tell that.

Similar feelings arise when I look through work I’ve dumped. The missteps are a charming dance of their own, and, behind everything I try to explain is someone aspiring to speak truth and put the past to rest.

When the past doesn’t really rest. The only tragedy was thinking myself finished, that, having written about my father and every other past spirit, I might bury them. If writing killed those scenes of my father, it was because I let myself believe I could paint them perfectly when really, it was always about hope, about trying to make something good to counterbalance my own sloppy life.

Walking among mistakes, you hope to salvage something because you think everything in that graveyard is somehow wasted. But none of it is wasted really. You do the best you can. You hope, this time, to get it right.

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Filed under Aging, Art, Essays, Identity, Joan Didion, life, Meditations, Memory, Recollection, Thoughts, Writing

One Essay With Separate Titles

1. An Odd Memory

By early August, sun and runners’ feet beat the cross-country course dry, and a morning’s run, even solo, simulated the pound of hooves on clay. But dawn air was undisturbed, and a turn would sometimes carry you into a wisp of fog or through a trough five degrees cooler than before. The sun slanted in, weak but still hot enough, and flashed in and out of your eyes. Sometimes you cut through a spider web or kicked aside twigs fallen during the night.

The whole experience set me thinking about ghosts, as though an invisible crowd had gathered to impede me, their arms impotent against anything as corporeal as a runner charging on. I passed through layers and layers of spirits.

2. Mine

Sitting at my desk during a free period, I overheard two students on a bench down the hall. One said, “Have you heard the na-chur story yet?” and the other answered “Yes, that was weird.”

“Ask him about the canned candidate.”

“What’s that?”

“Ask him.”

I stopped grading a quiz to concentrate. My whole brain needed to place those voices. They were as familiar yet unknown as actors who intone car ads on TV. They were my students, I knew that much. The stories were mine.

3. Fifty-six

As I learned my times tables, some multiples gave me more trouble than others. My memory slipped around seven and eight, and I could never remember what I’d get if I multiplied those numbers times the others. So I would work my way around to an answer—if ten times any number was that number with a zero attached, then nine times must be that number with a zero attached minus the number. Nine times seven equals 70 minus seven or 63, and seven subtracted from that equaled eight times seven, 56.

It’s embarrassing to admit how long I relied on this approach when simply memorizing 56 would have worked. My allegiance was to the route I took and not to the number I arrived at, and, if I was going to abandon one, it would be the number. The number was abstract. The path to it was gentle and familiar, enmeshed in the satisfaction of discovering it, and my obligations felt clear.

4. Burning Still

When I was writing a haiku a day, I hit upon an idea I could never express properly in that form. What if every haiku about a bird, a tree, a swinging backhoe, or a boulder blocking a path set that thing aflame—what if observing it made it burn with eternal fire? What would the world look like, blazing with attention? What might be left cool and untouched?

I think I might clench my eyes shut to preserve the world.

5. A Conversation Remembered

Once I told one of my writing teachers that I worried about running out of things to say. She told me that was silly because writing really isn’t about your subject, it’s about your voice, your perspective, and everything you wrote about was really a window into you.

Her answer seemed terribly egotistical, and, for once, I had the gumption to speak my criticism aloud.

She smiled. “Every writer is an egotist,” she said, “Isn’t it fundamentally egotistical to think you have something to say that hasn’t been said before?”

6. Copenhagen, Part I

One of the most mysterious meetings in history occurred in Copenhagen during the German occupation of Denmark in 1941. Niels Bohr, the father of quantum physics and Werner Heisenberg, the father of quantum mechanics met after a decade-long separation. They discussed a then-theoretical atom bomb.

Heisenberg, a German, and Bohr, a Dane, had long known each other, having met when Heisenberg was a student. They worked together in Copenhagen in the 20’s. Each was a perfect complement to other, as Bohr pictured what Heisenberg could describe mathematically.

More than that, they were best friends. After Heisenberg left Copenhagen to become a full professor at the University of Leipzig, Bohr wrote a sentimental letter where he told his friend, “Rarely have I felt myself in more sincere harmony with another human being.” And, for his part, Heisenberg regarded Bohr as another father, the most important influence on his professional and personal life. Heisenberg received the 1932 Nobel Prize for work they had largely done together, and Bohr wrote, “The awarding of the Nobel Prize to you is one of my life’s happiest moments, which makes me think both back and to the future with gratefulness and comfort.”

7. A Brief Interruption on Instruments

Every instrument designed to perceive also organizes. A digital camera remakes a scene as pixels, and human stereoscopic sight gives a scene depth. Even a photograph in two dimensions the brain reads as a room, a sprawling crowd, a vista.

You can count on imagination to fill the cracks, breaks, pits, and scratches of an incomplete picture, even when you don’t notice it working.

But there might be something changed by such loving attention. The reality perceived and organized might be transformed as our brains search for data to render life meaningful.

Perhaps the commonplace matters most: a quarter-smile, or faint slouch, or a growl under an endearment that launches a fleet of associations larger than one moment.

8. Copenhagen, Part II

What happened in the 1941 Copenhagen meeting between Bohr and Heisenberg remains murky, as neither scientist or friend experienced the same event. In 1956, Robert Jungk’s book Brighter Than a Thousand Suns suggested that Heisenberg visited his old friend with a deal in mind—Heisenberg would stall the Nazi efforts to develop the atomic bomb, and Bohr would make the same effort on the allied side. Jungk credited Heisenberg with heroically sabotaging Hitler’s effort to develop the bomb.

But that isn’t what Bohr experienced in Copenhagen. After Bohr read Jungk’s account (and a letter Heisenberg added in a subsequent edition), Bohr spent the next five years drafting angry responses describing his different impressions. In one draft, he wrote Heisenberg that he was “Greatly amazed to see how much your memory has deceived you in your letter to the author of the book.”

Bohr understood that Heisenberg was saying the bomb would settle the war and that the scientists Heisenberg directed were making efforts in that direction. Bohr accused Heisenberg of revising history to paint a more favorable portrait of himself.

Yet Bohr never sent these letters. They were discovered 25 years after Heisenberg’s death, folded into Bohr’s copy of Jungk’s book. After 1941 Bohr and Heisenberg saw each other, but Bohr refused to discuss their Copenhagen meeting, and Heisenberg died describing their lost friendship as one of his deepest regrets.

9. It Just Goes to Show

Sometimes reality divides, no one cares, and everyone is happy. Sometimes not.

10. Toastmaster General

On a leaning bookshelf in the back of Mr. Ashby’s Speech II class, was a series of dusty Toastmaster books filled with jokes and anecdotes to elevate Kiwanis Club speeches. Most were years old, and, had any eighth grader dared to use their stories, the air might have congealed.

Adapting them wouldn’t even work. What adolescent audience would buy an anecdote about a blind bartender or a mathematically-minded stewardess? Who could believe we had a boss or a wife, an exotic pet, or a car we might describe as “one of those sexy foreign jobs”?

Sometimes, when I was supposed to be working on that Friday’s speech, I’d silently read a few more pages. The voice in my head became Dean Martin’s. Nothing like that had ever happened to me.

I asked Mr. Ashby what the books were doing there, and he explained we weren’t supposed to steal from them. They presented examples of what we might do, what sorts of stories we might cull from our own eighth grade lives.

11. What’s in a Name?

The recent popularity of the lyric essay seems suspect to me, though I’m writing them all the time lately—right now, in fact. Associative thinking can be poetic, but it is also easy. And, if every object is symbolic and any observation can bloom into epiphany then where does choice enter at all?

12. The Ghost of Jackson Pollock

In the early 50′s, Jackson Pollock participated in a documentary about his “action painting.” Big mistake. It was as if the great and powerful Oz dropped the curtain and revealed a man in a barn flinging paint.

Many Americans already rejected his art as a sham, but this film created new detractors, ones who saw his art as purely accidental or serendipitous at best. Some felt Pollock a craven manipulator. Of those who embraced his method, many appreciated the film more as “how to,” than “how unique.”

The moral should be, “Careful about revealing your technique,” but it suggests something else to me. When I see Pollock’s paintings in museums or on the web I picture his wiry form in washed-out color, stooped and astraddle, daubing with a blunt brush, swinging cups of paint or pouring a deliberate trickle, a slung arc, a perfect spill.

I wonder how he saw so deep, how he knew how and where to cross what had gone before, what to cover and what to let show, and when, exactly, the true surface emerged at last, its tangle suddenly complete, whole, and accurate.

And accurate to what, exactly?

13. Writing Me

I think sometimes about writing my autobiography. Of course, there’s no reason to—I couldn’t be less significant historically, and anything I have to say about being human is well known. But how would it feel to revisit events that, in the moment, fell like flakes of snow, random and—up until the last moment—drifting to unsure resting places?

So much of my time here fits the simile. Every Saturday I write what it occurs to me to write. Some blog posts land in fresh territory, others overlap only a little and others entirely obscure what came before and hide the ground under it all. The premise of this method, I suppose, is to cover everything in patches.

I forget what I’ve said, what’s contradictory, redundant, or just as starkly white as what’s fallen before. Collectively, the only order I know is falling, letting things lie where they land.

14. Method

“Though this be madness,” Polonius says of Hamlet, “yet there be method in it.”

G. K. Chesterton said, “There nearly always is method in madness. It’s what drives men mad, being methodical.”

15. The Great Ms. Didion

My best model is Joan Didion. Her writing mimics the fragmentation she depicts, creating a picture of a situation by changing the angle on each section, paragraph, and sentence almost like shifting her camera, turning it, stepping back, leaning forward, dipping or standing tall, squinting and twisting the focus to take in elements unseen.

And much of it—even the most harrowing or horrifying, the most personal and private, the most uncomplimentary or cruel—arrives in two dimensions, flat and factual. She only seems ashamed of lies. Her version of Hemingway is more than style—it doesn’t condense her object so much as render its essence. She wants to remember, she said, “What it was to be me,” and her objectivity derives from the candor of her subjectivity.

She seems continually on the outside, working in. And perhaps that’s how she’s worked into me.

16. Missing

“I’m missing an appointment right now.”

I used to be the head coach of a cross country team and one day before practice, I looked at my watch and noted the date.

A senior paused in his stretching and asked, “What are you missing?”

“When I was a junior in history class we learned about duels. You take a glove, throw it down and challenge. Then you choose seconds and the other guy chooses the weapon. Then you choose the date, time, and place, and you’re done. Eddie Vie challenged me, and I chose a game of electric football. I remember the date and time. We were supposed to meet in front of the Orange Julius in the Hanes Mall food court…. today,” I glanced at my watch, “right about now.”

The challenge was twenty years before that explanation, but the athletes wouldn’t let it go. Throughout practice I’d sense a runner in my periphery, scooting up beside me to ask, “What if he’s there? Won’t you feel bad?”

“Isn’t there a way to find out?” another asked.

I don’t really think Eddie Vie was waiting, but their questions spurred my imagination. I pictured him grayer and fatter, sitting alone, the vibrating green gridiron reflected in his glasses as he watched the running back spinning fruitlessly in the backfield.

17. Another Briefer Interruption (But Perhaps They’re All Interruptions)

Memory has strange allegiances, imagination stranger still.

18. Rooms and Views

Right now, I’m reading E. M. Forster’s A Room With a View. It’s the only Forster novel I haven’t read yet, and the style and form are so familiar to me now I wonder if I’m reading it as anyone else would.

The whole story surrounds a kiss between Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson on a violet-covered slope outside Florence. Lucy comes upon the slope, slides onto it, and George, having shared witnessing a murder with Lucy days before, kisses her without announcing his intentions or feelings.

And Lucy is left to account for the event, and, when George re-enters her life after her engagement to Cecil Vyse, she discovers she can’t. She attributes George’s effect on her to “nerves.” The narrator tells us, “It’s obvious enough for the reader to conclude, ‘She loves young Emerson,’” but…

life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice, and we welcome ‘nerves’ or some other shibboleth that will cloak our personal desire. She loved Cecil; George made her nervous; will the reader explain to her that the phrases are reversed?

Of course, the reader can’t, and not just because Lucy is a fiction frozen in block of words. We can’t because we can’t know. We have our own rooms and views, and, if Forster puts us in a room of his making, we still have our own view, layered through several panes of glass and so altered the ghostly landscape outside wavers with every slight change of perspective.

19. Pausing Before the Close

As I write, I don’t know how the story will end and am not sure I want to finish it. I don’t remember the movie, and I’m grateful to encounter something new from someone I love.

20. The Art of Losing

When you lose an object, you picture it somewhere. It’s draped on the back of a seat in the Austin airport, in the bottom of semi-translucent container absentmindedly opened and then snapped shut, or dropped at one of the intersections of a nervous morning pacing.

It never vanishes, and sometimes you imagine it beating with hot intensity as if it, and not you, sought reunion.

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Filed under Aging, Art, Blogging, Doubt, Education, Ego, Essays, Experiments, High School Teaching, Identity, Joan Didion, life, Lyric Essays, Memory, Modern Life, Recollection, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Visual Art, Writing