You can hit the ground running like you’re shot from a gun
But going the distance is the hard part, son
Everybody looks good at the starting line
—Paul Thorn, “Everybody Looks Good at the Starting Line”
My six favorite posts from six years of blogging archives.
After my previous post, about quirky personal posts I recall fondly, my blogger friend Shirley Showalter asked me to discuss the benefits and difficulties of blogging in my life. In the past year I’ve struggled for the first time to post—the long energy-producing effort of drafting my memoir over. Plus having to face the What’s next? question. For most people, probably me too, blogging is a phase. For all I know, this is my last post.
So that’s the difficulty part. But the blog has helped me as a writer—kept my prose and my persona down to earth, underscored obsessions, given instant gratification. It has forced me to create something on the fly that turned out to please me and has inspired me to laboriously craft a post that has likewise surprised me. Sometimes I’ve thought, I should have done that for a real publication. But the truth is, without an existing affiliation, like this blog, I wouldn’t have.
The blog made me do it. Paul Thorn, the Mississippi blues-soul-rock musician says it best:
Whatever expression you have in you, instead of thinking about it all the time, do it. Make it tangible, you know? That’s what art is, it’s creativity made tangible.
And the blog has built community, something I’m bad at. Looking at my own book’s reviews on Amazon, it strikes me that of the current 11 reviews, four were posted by people I know only virtually from the blog, readers or nascent friendships cemented through blogging. There’s nothing wrong with promoting your product to an audience you think will like it. But the blog really was an inadvertent way by which I entered the ancient, endless conversation that is literature. It stuns me that blogging has led to my having credibility of sorts in some quarters.
Mostly I must like making sentences and feel the need. And I’m a better person the more I’m writing, more conscious and more grateful. And paradoxically, more outwardly directed. Even if my “real” writing isn’t going anywhere, I have to crank out the blog. It’s writing: it counts, it helps. It signifies my artistic endeavors, even if I’m mostly reading, are going well.
Today is this blog’s sixth birthday, July 17, 2014. Which even a math idiot like me knows means the blog and I are now officially embarking on our seventh year. So I thought I’d pick my six top posts from the blog’s existence. These are ones that I recall without trying, touchstones for me in terms of craft, literature, or my life. Three of them came right after or during vacation travel.
To read the original posts, click on the red headlines—they’re live links that take you right there.
November 16, 2008
Craft is the conduit to art — but craft mustn’t be enshrined.
Our answer is that writing is . . . not a bundle of skills. Although it is true that an ordinary intellectual activity like writing must lead to skills, and skills inevitably mark the performance, the activity does not come from the skills, nor does it consist of using them.— Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner, Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose
This is a very early post, from the blog’s first winter, but I was returning to an old concern, working out something, talking to myself. The background is that two decades ago, after I’d been a journalist for a while, I noticed with consternation how low-level were journalists’ discussions about craft at the newspaper conferences I was attending. This was partly because, in retrospect, I’d become a journeyman reporter. And partly because the meetings were sponsored by the Newspaper Industry—may it rest in pieces—and an industry can no more foster artistry than the state can run a farm.
What is between self and story? Craft. It’s the only thing we can really talk about because the self is so vast and its personal and artistic needs so individual. But we fool ourselves if we think that craft is the most important aspect of art. In a blog ostensibly devoted to craft, I needed to remind myself of that truth. I’ve returned to this theme again and again, memorably for me as well in “Art, craft, and the elusive self,” in “Craft, self & rolling resistance,” and in “Writing by the dangerous method,” the latter again invoking and debating with one of my favorite writing theorists, Peter Elbow.
Here’s Elbow in Writing With Power:
To write is to overcome a certain resistance: you are trying to wrestle a steer to the ground, to wrestle a snake into a bottle, to overcome a demon that sits in your head. To succeed in writing or making sense is to overpower that steer, that snake, that demon. But not kill it.
This myth explains why some people who write fluently and perhaps even clearly—they say just what they mean in adequate, errorless words—are really hopelessly boring to read. There is no resistance in their words; you cannot feel any force being overcome, any orneriness. No surprises. The language is too abjectly obedient. When writing is really good, on the other hand, the words themselves lend some of their energy to the writer. The writer is controlling words he can’t turn his back on without danger of being scratched or bitten.
January 26, 2009
Annie Dillard’s audacious astringent, segmented narrative.
Now if you see Saint Annie
Please tell her thanks a lot
—Bob Dylan, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”
For the Time Being is challenging, strange, ambitious. It’s formally interesting and perfect. There’s a reason Annie Dillard is this blog’s patron saint. I admire her syntactical precision and her intellectual rigor, always buoyed by her restrained passion and informed by her spiritual quest. All the same, sometimes with Dillard I’m reading against my taste.
Her elliptical leaps and gnomic utterances can flummox me. Her persona is so restrained it’s astringent. Yet in her famous essay “Total Eclipse,” she’s frankly emotional (good) unto hysterical (not so much) under the hammer-bright surface of her prose. I want to ask, Just tell us what gives? Annie? Well, I guess she does—she loses it in her cheap motel room for the implied reason: her horror of that sudden darkness, a terror which arises from her tapping into the felt, imagined emotional response of our ancient ancestors. Then there’s that demonic clown painting on the motel wall, and it doesn’t help one bit. Nosiree.
There’s a heightened quality to Dillard’s writing; as if inspiration has arisen from layers of deeply compressed thought and feeling. In her segmented essay “Living Like Weasels,” easily found on line, she relays a naturalist’s anecdote about the skull of a weasel being found clinging to the throat of an eagle; she relates her own encounter with a weasel. And she’s off:
. . . The weasel lives in necessity and we live in choice, hating necessity and dying at the last ignobly in its talons. I would like to live as I should, as the weasel lives as he should. And I suspect that for me the way is like the weasel’s: open to time and death painlessly, noticing everything, remembering nothing, choosing the given with a fierce and pointed will.
. . .
. . . We can live any way we want. People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience—even of silence—by choice. The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse.
. . .
I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part.
You want to live a more heightened life so you can write like that.
Dillard can do it at length. For the Time Being soars—a modernist masterpiece. Admittedly one of the reasons I love her work is that, like Virginia Woolf, I discovered her myself, no formal class involved. My most passionate literary affairs seem to have been strictly my own. Which is to say, they’ve arisen from the passions shared by other common readers, from the thin ether exuded by literature itself among its lovers and supplicants.
April 21, 2010
In memorium: March 20, 1997 – April 17, 2010I profess to hate the literary sin of sentimentality, yet I read every essay I see about somebody’s dog that died. And how can you write about a dead dog without being a tad sentimental? So, fair warning. But I tried. Thing is, I loved Jack. He was sporty, funny, ardent. His brown eyes had olive in them; they were at once warm and feral, as inviting and impersonal as a tiger’s. In his last year, when we spent a lot of time together, sometimes he’d regard me with melting adoration. Which startled me, because it was not a good look for him and because it made me feel unworthy.
His secret name—here revealed publicly for the first time—was Gomez, because he was, as well—in his good nature and unselfconscious macho swagger—a sexy devil. He was 13 when he died. A good long life for a dog. But I’d deluded myself into thinking that Jack, being small, might make it to 16 or 17. Plus, we’d moved off the farm, where he’d been marked for death. He arrived in town, age 12, stitched up over one eye—a giant possum he’d just killed in our barnyard had defended itself. Then, that first December in the suburbs, I noticed a swelling in his throat. Lymphoma.
As for the post, I tried to render it in scene to better convey my experience of loss.
July 9, 2010
— a review and appreciationArt historically has given the illusion of being seamless. A perfect flowing utterance. But usually at least at some point there were seams, melded bits—because that’s how it’s made. Moment by moment, working it out. Slowly and sometimes painfully. In different moods, circumstances, contingencies. In joy, maybe—but it’s fear and trembling you can count on. Modernism (or certainly postmodernism) seems so much about this. Recognizing and even heightening fragmentation through segmenting, collage, lists. The old seamless ideal is more often ignored now, or even attacked—at least, the best company considers it suspect. Our world is fractured so shouldn’t our art be?
Dillard discusses all this and more, including airing her useful theory regarding “fine” and “plain” prose styles and what they portend. I find her notion especially interesting regarding the ramifications of style for persona. Plain prose—spare, submissive, sharp—has carried the day, making fine efforts stick out like a sore thumb. (I made a fumbling attempt to review Joshua Cody’s fine-style [sic]: A Memoir per Dillard’s theory.)
Incidentally, I love the photograph here, an accidentally blurry snap I took about six weeks before the original post in Florence, Italy, where I’d gone with my son. Hardly anyone ever comments on the blog’s illustrations, almost always my own photos, but I enjoy them. I don’t think I’m a Photographer, but love that blogging as has impelled me to take photos that animate the blog and enrich my life.
July 17, 2012
Reading & revising lessons from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild.
Very late in the process of writing my own memoir I read Wild and certain solutions jumped out at me. These weren’t necessarily fixes I was looking for or knew I needed. So that was exciting. I saw that I’d stupidly corralled my father in one chapter, when he needed to roam throughout—as in my memory, as in my life. So I wrote about those discoveries and also reviewed Cheryl Strayed’s blockbuster memoir.
Three days after that, I posed “Studying Wild for its structure,” about how I took my memoir apart. Four days later, in “Cheryl Strayed’s back pages,” I analyzed yet again exactly how Strayed feathered her compelling backstory into Wild and how I tried to emulate her technique. And four days after that, I uploaded “On hating a memorist,” about the backlash against Strayed and her bestseller. That post seemed hugely popular, probably because of the deeply personal responses so many have had to memoirists.
This energetic book revision and posting about came immediately after my family and I had been traveling in England, Scotland, and Ireland. Chalk one up for the benefits of travel and down time.
January 17, 2013
Storytelling & spirituality in Virginia Woolf’s classic feminist text.
I wrote this while on vacation, and the second headline says it all. I don’t know what I’d expected here from Virginia Woolf, like Dillard a beloved writer I discovered for myself, but probably I feared dense man-hating exposition. It is a little tough to start A Room of One’s Own, knowing if you’re male that she’s going to open a big can of whup-ass on you. But her ideas are so acute and so mordantly funny—and, most importantly, so inclusive, at last—that you join her, cheer her on in her prosecution of the patriarchy.
I mean, what if Shakespeare did have an equally genius sister? What about those endless shelves in London’s greatest library devoted to books by men trying to explain women? And then her book-length essay’s glory, content-wise: Woolf’s plea and brief for artistic androgyny. Because anyone of either sex who creates cannot be a gender chauvinist. (If only in the work, I might add, because we’ve all heard the horror stories of the writer being less than the work.) That’s the spiritual part, for me. If any Brits read this: yeah, I’m aware she called herself an atheist. Which doesn’t prevent me from drawing spiritual sustenance from her work.
Qua narrative, A Room of One’s Own awed me for how Woolf always keeps her readers grounded in time and space even as her subject and her mind move. There are scenic touches and reminders that she’s now pondering at her desk, reaching up for a book, or hying herself off to a dusty archive of male thought. As a great novelist, she’s aware of memory’s essentially fictional nature but also of readers’ intuitive rules and expectations of genre. She gives fair warning and then has her way with us—and always takes us with her.
What I’m trying to say is that A Room of One’s Own is appealing and immortal because Virginia Woolf is doing that dusty, humble thing. She’s telling a story.
Who were you loyal to?
What were you passionate about?
What did you believe in,
Beyond a shadow of a doubt?
Who were your teachers?
Did you have one true friend?
These are things worth knowing,
When the long road ends…
—Paul Thorn, “When the Long Road Ends”