Wednesday, November 19, 2014


          Thursday afternoon and the library is full of rumpled, damp old-timers in retreat from the soft, steady rain falling outside. The street is shiny and slick as the cars splash by. At the crosswalk by the coffee shop, a mother and her sober-eyed daughter stand squinting, then break for their car across the street, hands on their heads against the rain. Inside the coffee shop, a bald, portly man watches the rain, sips his coffee, and works intermittently on a crossword puzzle by his plate. A woman peddles her bicycle through the puddles, leaning forward, her dark hair shedding droplets of water. 

Process Reflection:

The other day I found a collection of poems by William Matthews in a second-hand store in town. It include his translations of some prose poems by Jean Follain to which I felt an immediate, intuitive connection. Yesterday I wound up typing the whole series out, trying to get a sense of what makes them work for me. Here's the first one in the series:

            On Easter Sunday the old man puts jewelry onto the wrists, ears, and neck of a long-haired woman.  Already hitched to the black and yellow carriage, the glistening bay mare whinnies.  A sailor sings by an engraving of the end of the world with Christ in the billowy heavens, the dead caught in their shrouds, leaving their graves.  Time fills up with a future that may be fearsome.  A child goes by on the road, wearing a motionless garter snake for a bracelet.  How hot this long day beginning a century will be!  Housebound, a deformed girl closes her blue eyes.
An old man. A horse. A sailor. A child on the road. A blue-eyed girl. There's something elemental and yet mysterious about the sequence. In this poem and others, Follain seems to be exploring the gap between what can be said, what can be enumerated, and what is necessarily elusive and must remain essentially mysterious. I thought I'd try a few of these. This is the first one.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Checking In

Funny how fast a couple of weeks can slide by. Last time I posted something here was eleven days ago. I've been writing; just not here. I've gone back to my Moleskine, which confers some freedoms while making others harder to exercise. The writing I do there feels more relaxed and less fraught, maybe because I know while I'm writing that the only one who is going to see it is me. But it also tends to be ultimately more impulsive and fragmented, because the kind of patient building and layering and re-shaping that I can do over the keyboard is much harder to do with just a pen.

I also circled back around and did a drawing over two days that harkens back stylistically to the series I was doing in late summer.


While it does bear a family resemblance to some of the others I've done along the way (see below), its architecture and temperament are uniquely its own. The combination of centripetal and centrifugal forces in the composition makes the piece feel pretty alive to me.

I started it by just just drawing and connecting the generally horizontal and vertical (and occasionally curved or diagonal) lines into a loosely structured grid, just black on white. The second step was to populate each area of the grid with some kind of shadowing, either by cross-hatching or by filling in areas with black. The last step was shade various blocks with one shade or another of brown ink. Total time invested on this one: maybe five hours. It's time that I consider well spent, even when, as sometimes happens, the experiment goes awry. There's something both calming and satisfying to me about working through the challenges that a drawing presents as I attempt to bring it to life on a blank piece of paper. It's an activity, like washing the dishes or sweeping the leaves off the sidewalk, that has a clear and concretely experienced beginning, middle, and end. And the result of the process is (most if not all of the time) visible progress. You can check that one off. It's done.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Where the Fingers Succeed

Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure, that I ordinarily can't imagine saying them to the people to whom I'm closest. Every once in a while I try to say them out loud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading. Is it the shared solitude of writing, is it that separately we all reside in a place deeper than society, even the society of two? Is it that the tongue fails where the fingers succeed, in telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible aloud?

          - Rebecca Solnit, from The Faraway Nearby, 64

I've been aware for a long time that I'm a different person on paper than I am in person. Or at least that my mind moves differently, and that what my mind serves up on paper is not the same as what comes out of my mouth when I'm in company. Perhaps it has something to do with pace: the words appear under my fingers one letter at a time, and as I type, I am frequently in free fall: I literally have no idea what is coming next, except that it is going to have to bear some relation to what has gone before. When I speak, I usually know what I am going to say; that's why I'm saying it. But when I write, I am most often writing my way into I know not what, which is, to me, sort of the point of writing: to find out both the what and the how. That's perhaps what William Stafford meant when he called writing "a reckless encounter with whatever comes along." This particular moment in this paragraph is a good example; I did not know even one minute ago that I would be writing these words in this way. (Nor did I  know that I would be citing the Stafford until I re-read what I had written earlier, at which point his phrase popped into my head, and I had to Google it to remember who had said it, and then I went back and stuck it in.) And so the writing proceeds, not in a strictly linear fashion, but in a kind of herky-jerky movement: forward, then back, then to the side, then back, then forward again. (*) There's a rhythm to it that changes as it goes along, a rhythm which includes pauses and changes of direction which are for the reader nowhere in evidence in the final product. One such pause is denoted by the asterisk. I had been typing along at a relatively even pace, and then became aware, as I approached the end of the sentence, that I had arrived at a fork in the road: there were a lot of places to go from there, and it took me some seconds during which I was NOT typing for my brain to register that fact and then choose (if choose is the right word, it was actually more of an impulse) to continue by addressing the topic of rhythm. (Another move, considered almost subliminally and discarded, might have been to address the way that the colons and the semicolons arrived in the preceding sentences, and how they influenced the unfolding of the thoughts. In which case I would have wound up citing not William Stafford, but Lewis Thomas, whose essay "On Punctuation" includes several passages that would have been apt.)
It's true that some of those same dynamics apply in conversation: one might begin to say something and then either swerve in mid-utterance or suddenly have an even better idea and leave the opening gambit behind. But it's harder to track those moves when you are in conversation, whereas when you are writing you have more time to process exactly what you are doing and bend the direction of the thought more deliberately. It would be much more difficult to simultaneously speak and monitor my speaking than it is to write and simultaneously monitor my writing. I'm sure there are some speakers who can do that to some degree, but for most of us if we want to see ourselves in action as speakers we need to get someone to videotape us and break it down in retrospect. Whereas in writing we can engage more immediately via (longish pause here to consider appropriate phrasing) self-reflection in process. 
That phrase, as it happens, is one of the more helpful definitions of critical thinking that I have run across, one that I have often shared with my students. It might be said that what I am doing here, in this essay, is to attempt to think critically about the questions that Solnit raises above, and that I am engaging in writing in order precisely because writing, as Solnit suggests, allows me to consider those questions more deliberately and in greater detail than I would be able to do if I were just to think about them, or talk about them. One of the core tenets of my teaching, such as it was, is that writing is the most powerful self-instructional tool we have as human beings. For all the reasons that Solnit suggests, and more.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

64 x 64 (The End of the Road)

We changed the clocks last night, and though it was sunny and warm today at 3:00, it was dark by 5:30. They were playing Christmas carols at the Mall today. This is the last post in the series of 64: the end of the road. A metaphor, but then the air is thick with them: the cold, the wind, the dark. Winter is coming.