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.

I spied this incredibly silver BMW in the Frankfurt, Germany, airport, which is itself worth seeing, a futuristic spectacle

[An auto I saw in Frankfurt, Germany. Doesn’t it make your teeth hurt?] 

November 16, 2008

Between self and story

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

Review: For the Time Being

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”

Annie DillardFor 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.

Claire, 11, and Jack, .9, sledding at our farm in January 1998

[Claire, 11, sledding with puppy Jack at our farm Mossy Dell, January 1998.]

April 21, 2010

Jack, our terrier

In memorium: March 20, 1997 – April 17, 2010

Our Tom, with his buddy Jack

[Son Tom with old Jack.]

I 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 

Annie Dillard’s Living By Fiction

— a review and appreciation

Blurry Street x

[I took this in Florence, Italy.]

Art 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.

I took this photo in June in the ruins of Muckross Abbey, Killarney, Ireland. The tree, planted by Franciscan monks almost 600 years ago, is a common yew of the kind used for shrubbery in the U.S.

[I shot this yew in the ruins of Muckross Abbey, Ireland.] 

July 17, 2012

My wild summer

Reading & revising lessons from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild.

This summer's blockbuster memoir

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

Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own

Storytelling & spirituality in Virginia Woolf’s classic feminist text.

Woolf-A Room2

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


  • Dear Richard, Don’t you DARE make noises about perhaps ceasing to write a blog, and feeling that it was only for a time and a solitary purpose! You are one of the first people I read when I started my own blog in 2012, and I can’t imagine the blogosphere without your posts! Seriously, now, you have to keep in touch with all of us, and realize that it’s not just improving your own writing you’re doing, but helping all of us out here (many of whom are your “informal” students) to write as well. Don’t think the job’s done just because you’ve finished one memoir–(how about a second part?). And happy 6th, by the way!

  • LanieTankard says:

    Happy (Belated) Blog Birthday!

  • This birthday (congrats!) is perfect timing. It’s raining hard, and we may hit fifteen inches by nightfall. After helping Danny feed and stall the horses, I had to cancel plans for the rest of the day. Which means I have time to read. And I read and reread your favorite six posts. (I’d missed the one about Gomez the first time around. Bless his heart.) Now it’s one of my favorites, too. And so are you. I am always happy to find Draft No. 4 in my inbox (rain or shine). And I hope you stick around for a very long time.

    • Richard says:

      I appreciate that, Darrelyn, and it’s always good to hear from you. The Gomez information was a new value-added revelation for today!

      By the way, we’re getting flooded up here in Ohio this summer too.

      • I just searched and found the original piece. “As for the post, I tried to render it in scene to better convey my experience of loss.” A wise choice, Richard. Your words pulled me into that spring day in Ohio. Sorry to hear it’s flooding up there, too.

        • Richard says:

          Thanks so much. Now, Darrelyn and everyone: To read the original posts, click on the red headlines—they’re live links that take you right there. For some reason, my web designer used red to indicate links but this shows how much blue has won the “click here” to go there signal contest.

  • Clay Cormany says:

    Congratulations on reaching the sixth anniversary of your blog. Achieving that milestone takes as much persistence as it does writing ability. I enjoyed reading your six favorite posts, some of which I hadn’t seen earlier, The eulogy for Jack made me realize the complexity of my feelings for my family’s dogs — bichon frise Lulu and Australian cattle dog Kiah. As much as they bedevil my life by having “accidents” on the carpet and barking at anything that moves, I know I’ll miss them when they pass on.

    • Richard says:

      Thanks so much, Clay. Yes, our bonds with our dogs are complex. I didn’t have much time for Jack until late in his life; I am glad we had that last year in town.

  • Dogs really are like people sometimes. A few years back, my brother in Vt. had a four-way mix named Saki (Great Dane, German shepherd, Greyhound, and some dog, maybe Chow, with a partly purple tongue, though her hair was very short). She was the epitome of “Good dog,” “Smart, smart dog,” “loving dog,” etc. She passed on, lamented by all. My brother recently got a year-old pup who looked like her (and who had at least the Great Dane characteristic of leaning over against you like a tub of lard when wanting to be petted). Lo and behold! The new dog, Zeus, who takes his Greek godhood seriously, is nothing like Saki personality or intellect or senses-wise. He’s not smart, is kind of goofy, in fact, is extremely badly behaved despite stringent and marked attempts to guide his behavior, and is evidently hoping to get by in the “loving dog” category, which he shows by constant appeals for playtime and attention and by nipping,not always gently, when he wants to play. Even my brother has to admit sometimes that he is flummoxed by Zeus, and then my brother reminds me of my grandfather years ago, who got a second wife after my grandmother died by marrying someone who looked like her (he was tactful about his quandaries, but that didn’t stop the rest of the family from making comparisons). But recently, Zeus and I have made peace, at least for a while: we were taking care of a sedate older mostly German shepherd mix for a family member, named Zeke, and Zeus had a younger-dog man-crush on him. He followed him everywhere and tried to get him to play, but Zeke is in bad health, and preferred being petted to being trampled. I sat with him quietly and stroked him and gave him lots of gentle attention. Again lo and behold! suddenly Zeus, in a fit of something like either envy or emulation, started sidling up and wanting the kind of attention I can give, being petted, cooed to, made much of in a gentle way. I don’t know how long this will last, but it proves to me that jealousy, whether in the human or canine kingdom, can be a productive force, and not-too-old dogs can still learn new tricks!

    • Richard says:

      How funny! Dogs are so much like us, uncomfortably so at times. They’re definitely emotional creatures, like us, just with less of an intellectual buffer and ability to mask.

  • I remember when you first began to blog. Lovely to watch from seedling to tree. And the branches. Oh, the branches. They have kept me warm in winter, and now, are giving me generous shade in this peculiar summer. After six years, your blog has texture and heft. It has seasons. Congratulations and thank you, Richard.

    p.s. I have returned to blogging, pseudonymously, but still from those ineffable pine woods.

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