A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.
— Thomas Mann
A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.
— Thomas Mann
There is a story in every thing, and every being, and every moment, were we alert to catch it, were we ready with our tender noses; indeed there are a hundred, a thousand stories, uncountable stories, could they only be lured out and appreciated; and more and more now I realize that what I thought was a skill only for authors and pastors and doctors and dream-diviners is the greatest of all human skills, the one that allows us into the heart and soul and deepest layers of our companions on the brief sunlit road between great dark wildernesses. We are here to witness, to apprehend, to see and hear, to plumb, with patience and humility, the shy stories of others; and in some cases, like mine, then shape and share them; so that they might sometimes, like inky arrows, sink into the depths of other men and women and children, and cause pleasure, or empathy, or a sort of delicious pain, as you realize that someone somewhere else, even perhaps in a time long ago, felt just as you did. Stories, among their many virtues, are messages from friends you did not know you had; and while you may well never meet the friend, you feel the better, with one more companion by your side, than you thought you knew.
— Brian Doyle
The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World
Every summer, icebergs from Greenland float by Newfoundland, a silent flotilla centuries in the making. Click on each image to make it nice.
If, in your rare buoyant or less rare unassured moments you fancy yourself a fine writer, you regard other fine writers, especially the ones you know, with a complex gumbo of admiration, envy, respect, jealousy, mystery, yearning, studiousness, fondness, and recognition.
Brian Doyle, who died yesterday from what brain cancer does to the body, would have written the latter part of that sentence more like "with a complex dark astringent wild gumbo of admiration and envy and respect and jealousy and a deep mystery and a human yearning and studiousness and fondness and recognition" because more than anything else he was exuberant with words, a wild and reverent and irreverent and exalted word-drunk scribbler who could deeply move me one moment and piss me off the next. Writers who can do that are the real thing. They write like they mean it. They knock a wobble into our stride, an essential forced veer from the witless path we are on, the one that leads to our fearful and semi-blind and smug and sketchy "grasp" of life.
I knew Brian for more than 20 years. Our friendship most often consisted of brisk emails, his invariably signed "bd." I paid close attention to his unique university magazine, Portland, and he paid attention to mine. We'd bitch about things, share a discrete derisory chuckle about some new folly of our academic milieu or publishing niche, and on those rarest occasions when we found ourselves in the same city, have lunch. He had an assurance about his judgement that lived on the fringes of arrogance. William Blake was the English language's greatest visionary poet and that's all there is to it, Van Morrison had no equal as a singer and songwriter, Robert Louis Stevenson and Plutarch were without peer, the serial comma was essential. He once argued strenuously with the Dalai Lama about which was the greatest sport, basketball or soccer. He never made Van Morrison listenable for me, but to several classrooms of undergraduates I taught his roisterous exemplary essay on Van the Man, published by The American Scholar, one of Brian's regular launchpads. I thought that sometimes he worked too hard casting himself as another in the ancient line of voluble Irish bards, and I may be the only person on Earth who cringed when he induced a rapt audience at a writer's conference to sing "Amazing Grace." Can't say why, I just did. Then I'd read something new from his pen and think goddam that boy can write, and understand all over again that he was one of those rarest of scribblers who make writers want to write something new on the chance that they too might create something so resonant and true and emotionally potent. Now and then I got a note from him praising something I'd written and I'd think, Well, there's something.
I think he was a serious Catholic and reverent about many things, but he could be gleefully irreverent and obscene. As I've said, he wasn't much for commas, especially not commas impeding the cascade of adjectives he might fling into a single sentence, and I remember him telling me about going over an edit of one of his essays. The copyeditor, following her stylebook or Strunk & White or whatever her source for grammatical edicts, had doggedly injected commas into Brian's prose. No no no. He began marking them for excision one by one, countermanding the editor, who perhaps had edited with her brain and memory for rules instead of her ear. When editing a proof, if you indicate a correction or revision and then change your mind and want the original left intact, you write STET in the margin. It's proofreading argot for "never mind." After a dozen individual annotations, a dozen stipulations that he did not want a comma there or there or there, he lost his patience and scrawled on the manuscript "STET FUCKING STET!!!" He cackled with joy when he told me this story.
In a 2007 issue of Notre Dame Magazine, Brian wrote this:
Ten years later, he's gone, in one more example of how life is mean. This morning, I read several things about him and about his passing, and thought about him and remembered him, and finally sighed and said to myself, "Ah, fuck. Get your ass off the sofa and go write something." So here you go.
Start with a mustard seed of irrelevant fact. Rutherford Hayes’s wife, Lucy, was the first American president’s wife to be referred to as the first lady. Scribble this on a scrap of paper and present it to Karen Russell. Tell her she has to write a story about this old dead guy and reincarnate him as a horse. Give her a couple of pencils. Put her in a locked safe à la Houdini. Tie one arm behind her back. Give her the sniffles. Let her go after a modest interval and see what she comes up with: the hilarious, impossibly realized, even moving, story "The Barn at the End of Our Term."
Or how about this? Instead of menses, drugged young girls in feudal Japan produce silk. We’d like 9,000 words, please. Blindfold Karen Russell. Make her compose wearing mittens, her only sustenance Red Bull and those little mandarin orange Cutie things. See what happens: the exquisite "Reeling for the Empire"—first-rate, elegant horror.
Vampires, krill, a stolen rabbit renamed Saturday: Russell will make magic of them all.
That's Joy Williams writing about Vampires in the Lemon Grove in The New York Times about Karen Russell. Williams notes that a "grim, stupendous, unfavorable magic is at work in these stories," and what a fine thing to aspire to as a writer—grim, stupendous, unfavorable magic.
The full New York Times Book Review text is here, but behind a firewall that will repel non-subscribers.
You may read a portion of Williams' essay courtesy of Book Marks.
While I would wish you to love America most because it is your home, I would have you love the whole world and think of all the people in it as your countrymen. You will hear people more foolish than wicked say, “Our country right or wrong,” but that is a false patriotism and bad Americanism. When our country is wrong she is worse than other countries when they are wrong, for she has more light than other countries, and we somehow ought to make her feel that we are sorry and ashamed for her.
— William Dean Howells, from a statement written on his 75th birthday and read to students in New York City public schools
You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.
— Robert Pirsig
When I was an undergraduate in the 1970s, there were three books we all felt were essential texts: Slaughterhouse-Five, Steppenwolf (or The Glass Bead Game, if you considered yourself among the more discerning readers of Hesse), and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. To a 21-year-old Ohio hickboy, Zen seemed unlike anything I'd ever read. As I read more, I realized it wasn't really sui generis, but no matter—reading it for the first time was an expansive experience all too rare at university.
Pirsig died Monday in Maine. I've been tempted to reread Zen a few times, but I'm afraid the experience will be like rereading Kerouac as a grown man—what was so captivating about this when I first read it? Great books transcend the time of their authorship and the time of your first reading. Good books, sometimes, cannot accomplish that, and there's no reanimating that self you brought to the pages the first time around. Maybe I should have a little more faith.
Stories are our prayers. Write and edit them with due reverence, even when the stories themselves are irreverent.
Stories are parables. Write and edit and tell yours with meaning, so each tale stands in for a larger message, each story a guidepost on our collective journey.
Stories are history. Write and edit and tell yours with accuracy and understanding and context and with unwavering devotion to the truth.
Stories are music. Write and edit and tell yours with pace and rhythm and flow. Throw in the dips and twirls that make them exciting, but stay true to the core beat. Readers hear stories with their inner ear.
Stories are our soul. Write and edit and tell yours with your whole selves. Tell them as if they are all that matters. It matters that you do it as if that’s all there is.
— Jacqui Banaszynki
A friend for more than 25 years. A peerless writer, editor, and teacher. And damned fun in a hotel bar when snowed into Boston.
(Thank you to the Romanian scribbler Cristian Lupsa for posting Jacqui's prose on Facebook.)
I recall a cartoon. A cave man contemplates something he has just created—the first wheel. By his side, a cave man colleague with skeptical expression says, "If you can't eat it or screw it, what good is it?"
In other cultures, do artists face the question of art's purpose? Or is that one more example of America's proud exceptionalism? The U.S. Petulant and his henchers seem to believe the purpose of art is to irritate them and their co-conspirators, so no more public money for that. Parents fret that their offspring will spring off in an artsy direction—toward poetry or painting or vocal performance or art history—and warn them to study something practical, so they have a fallback. Because everything that isn't good for something else is falling backwards from the American sense of worth.
Ars longa, sed iam stultitia.
We feel the presence of a deep past, a long history. Of the past, present, and future, the past feels largest; the past has substantial dimension in our imagination. The future feels finite in a way the past does not. But still, we think of the future as also having dimension, and of ourselves as capable of imagining "far into the future." The present? The present has no dimension. The present is evanescent, the instant between past and future. The moment one begins to think, the present vanishes. (One is no longer "in the moment.") The present is in a perpetual state of vanishing, that's what the present does. It can never be measured. It has no duration.
Another view: the present is a Heisenbergian paradox: as light is both particle and wave, the present is simultaneously an instant that can neither be fixed nor measured and a phenomenon with duration.
This presupposes that present and past are not divided by a dimensionless line; instead, the present is a gradient shading into the past, becoming less present and more past as time elapses. (If one can, indeed, be in the moment, the moment must have dimension, for what else could one be "in"?)
Does the present shade into the future? Does the gradient work the other way, making the present a point atop a bell curve? That doesn't seem right. The present cannot shade into the future unless time elapses, and time elapsing will always create a gradient toward the past.
So you see the problem.
Geologic dating of rocks as 3 billion years old. Radiation from the Big Bang traveling 13 billion years to reach Earth. Deep.
Heisenberg's uncertainty principle states that one can measure the position or the momentum of a subatomic paricle, but one can never measure both at the same time. Measure one and the other becomes unmeasurable.
What Silicon Valley sells and we buy is not transcendence but withdrawal. We flock to the virtual because the real demands too much of us.
Men are so inclined to content themselves with what is commonest; the spirit and the senses so easily grow dead to the impressions of the beautiful and perfect, that every one should study, by all methods, to nourish in his mind the faculty of feeling these things. For no man can bear to be entirely deprived of such enjoyments: it is only because they are not used to taste of what is excellent, that the generality of people take delight in silly and insipid things, provided they be new. For this reason, one ought every day at least to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.
— Goethe, from Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship
The more time you spend immersed in the shitstream of TV/internet/social media the stupider and more boring and just like everyone else you will be. Hang out in real life having good conversations with brilliant and hilarious people, so you can steal their ideas and all the clever things they say. Spend a lot of time alone so you can think up some original thoughts of your own.
— Tim Kreider
Two things I can say for certain about last Saturday's Women's March on Washington: Never have I been in a throng so large, and never have I been amidst so many diagrams and freehand renderings of and slang terminology for female genitalia. A friend of mine took her children to the march and later noted, a bit ruefully, that they came home with expanded vocabularies.
I feel certain that the new U.S. Petulant was much irritated by the global turnout, but I hold out no hope that the marches will influence his actions, because he could not care less anyone in any of the marches thinks or wants. But Congress cannot afford to be so arrogant and dismissive. Neither can state legislatures. In the long run, the importance of the Women's March may be less the stunning weight of the masses in the streets and more the emerging infrastructure for resistance that the marches helped initiate. Resistance to bad government is a long, tedious, discouraging, soul-sapping business, but if only a quarter of the marchers who made themselves heard in every state of the union dig in for that effort, that's hundreds of thousands of people bending the arc toward justice.
Palace secrets, and the advice of friends, and services performed by the army, were best undivulged; the throne must not be weakened by referring everything to the senate. The whole point of autocracy...is that the accounts will not come right unless the ruler is their only auditor.
Tomorrow, an adult administration moves out of Washington. Grown-ups will depart the White House. Grown-ups will not be moving in.
There has been no shortage of inventories of Donald Trump's faults: his ignorance, his boorishness, his venality, his avidity for bullying and ridicule and lying. His reflexive xenophobia, misogyny, and authoritarianism. His witless blurts that threaten to undo, in 140 characters, decades of diplomacy and international understandings that foster global security. His surrounding himself with oligarchs and generals and ideologues, a collection of greedy craphounds and entitled hacks who have yet to say anything that would reassure us that they have a clue what it means to govern a superpower and preserve the interests of 325 million people.
There's nothing on that list that does not belong, does not merit anxiety. But the grave flaw in these people, the point source of all the harm they could do starting tomorrow, is this: They are juvenile. Every goddam one.
Almost to a person, Trump and his cadre seem frozen in adolescence. Their intellectual and emotional maturity never advanced beyond the seventh grade. Their perspective on life and culture and society, their approach to resolving problems and governance and human relations is locked in a middle school lunchroom. There seems not to be an adult in the bunch. Trump's juvenility is on display 24 hours a day: his insecurity, his tough-guy posturing, his hypersensitivity, his lack of curiosity or introspection, his inability to pay attention or fashion a coherent statement of more than 20 words. His peevish arrogance.
And all those other smug bullyboys in the Republican party leadership—what a collection of vapid punks. Sneering from the cool kids table at all the other losers as they jockey to sit closest to the witless jackass who happens to be QB 1 and dating the head cheerleader.
Were I their father, I would not hand any of them the car keys. Tomorrow, we will hand them our country.
Ramshackle building in Glouster, Ohio.
Flamingo at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. Click on the image—it looks great in lightbox.
This feels a bit like reopening a summer house. Pull the sheets off the furniture, sweep away the cobwebs and mouse droppings, give the place a fresh coat of paint. The Slithery Form is now Noted. The old title seemed clever and literary at the time—it's from Elizabeth Hardwick—but felt more cumbersome week by week. The new title feels more like what I do every day, and a more appropriate title to what will be published in the days ahead. I've decided to begin devoting time and labor to the blog again, prompted in large part by the dire political events in the United States, where I reside.
The design tweaks have been small but to my liking, and I hope to yours.
I believe in living the questions, in paying attention, in taking notes, in bearing witness and recording testimony. I believe in the written word. I believe in writing it down.
I have voted in American presidential elections for 44 years, and never on the morning after have I felt such despondency and disaffection. In the coming weeks I will come to a more measured, rational place, because as my father memorably observed in the last few days of his life five years ago, I'm a reasonably smart guy. But right now my mood is black.
Had you met me, say, 50 years ago, you might be surprised at my perspective this morning. I grew up in a conservative, working class family in a working class neighborhood. My elders and my friends and I were casually racist; we put no effort into it but we never stopped to think that we might be wrong, either. When my school and neighborhood integrated, we mostly just shrugged, cracked a joke or two about the basketball team getting better, and said "whatever." We never gave a thought to women's rights and we were convinced we knew no one who was gay—they were all in New York and San Francisco. On my street, every woman but one was a housewife; the men were a cop, a postal worker, a sign painter, the owner of a storefront insurance agency, a factory worker, a paper mill worker, a used car salesman, a gas & electric company worker, and that guy on the corner nobody seemed to know. The Vietnam War was raging but I knew no one who opposed it, at least openly. (Wait, there was one teacher in high school...) There had to have been professional people in my town, but I knew not one. My people, including most of my kin, were white, working class, Christian, conservative, Republican, patriotic believers in America.
Then one day I came home from college and my mother said to my father, "That is not the boy we sent away." And my dad, bless his heart, replied, "Well, that's why we sent him to college."
So let me tally this up now. Not the Boy We Sent Away is now almost 63 years old, still white, no longer working class, not Christian, not Republican, and increasingly skeptical of patriotism. I am against racism, against nationalism, against misogyny, against war, and deeply suspicious of organized religion. I am pro-women, pro-LGTB, pro-life, pro-immigrant, pro–African-American, and pro-organized labor. I favor stringent regulation of the financial sector and all the rest of Wall Street; favor stringent environmental regulation; favor legalization of drugs; favor stringent gun control; favor a single-payer health care system; favor public assistance for the homeless, the indigent, the disabled, and the unemployed; and favor tax reform that closes off every loophole that favors the rich and corporations over that alienated working class that just voted for Trump. I stand against fascist punks wherever they live; against the national security state that has largely been a fraud that has looted public coffers without making us safer; against religious fundamentalism of all stripes; against torture; against the mass-incarceration nation; against covert war; and against the craven, cynical, amoral deniers of climate change.
Oh, and for 40 years I've been a journalist.
So you can see why this morning I might feel like more than 58 million of my countrymen just gave me a dismissive glance and said, "Fuck you."
Over the coming months, I will come to some kind of emotional equilibrium about this and begin to think about how to resist the bad shit that I fear is coming. I have a wife to love, friends to love, a magazine to finish, cats to feed. I'm bitter that I might live out what remains of my life dealing with the damage that I'm convinced is imminent. So it goes. The ignorant, the deluded, and the disenfranchised will gloat today, convinced their lot is about to improve, and when the time comes for their reckoning that they've been screwed again, I'll try to be compassionate, but not this morning. I don't have it in me.