I Stand Here Ironing, Too

by Joan Wickersham

I am ironing: the pillowcases, the napkins, some shirts. Nothing says I have to do this — no one would care or notice if all this stuff stayed wrinkled — but I like ironing, the clean-smelling steam rising from the cloth, the quiet rhythmic movement of the iron, and the satisfaction of turning this damp tangle of laundry into a smooth stack (pathetic, I know, but sometimes at the end of a day of writing I’ll grab at anything for a sense of visible, quantifiable accomplishment).

I can’t stand here ironing without thinking of Tillie Olsen’s story “I Stand Here Ironing.” The first time I read it I was in my twenties. A writer I admired had spoken rapturously about it, and so I bought Olsen’s Tell Me A Riddle, read the story, and was baffled. It seemed drab, airless. No plot, no dialogue. A woman, ironing, imagining what she might say — and will never say — to a high school teacher who has expressed concern about her daughter. I had the feeling of being in the presence of something I was too young for. Not because I didn’t yet have children, and not because the narrative was infused with the Depression and the war years that followed. The problem wasn’t with the material of the story; it was that I didn’t yet have enough life — or enough reading life — to appreciate Tillie Olsen’s artistry.

A lot of the reading I did when I was young was investment-reading. My first laborious, unmoved, reading of a book or story — Middlemarch, Bleak House, Portrait of a Lady, anything by Chekhov — would actually turn out to be an investment in a dazzled, revelatory, lightbulb-turning-on second reading years later. The lightbulbs went on because I was older; because I could meet the characters’ feelings and experiences with my own; and because, having read the thing before, I understood its whole shape and could see now, from the outset, what the writer was doing. I found that I would gladly trade the surprise you get from plot on a first reading for the appreciation you have of a story’s design the second time you read it.

When I went back to “I Stand Here Ironing,” a decade or so later, I saw that the “airlessness” of it, which had put me off earlier, was precisely the point. It was not an airless story; it was a story that was brilliantly about airlessness: the airlessness and hopelessness of being stuck in your own head, cataloguing mistakes and shortcomings, trying to justify yourself but not trying to let yourself off the hook. What have you done wrong? What choice did you have? What could have been different? All these questions asked not as melodrama, but in genuine anguish.

It’s an intensely personal story — we are inside the narrator’s head; it doesn’t get more personal than that — but also a political one. This is a woman who says nothing aloud, and who won’t say anything to the teacher, because she has no say in things. She’s poor. She’s overwhelmed by housework, childcare, her daughter’s illnesses. She has seen, over the years, her daughter becoming painfully, existentially, self-reliant, drawing into herself, but the mother has had no time or energy to climb in after her. It’s a story about class, it’s a story about gender. Olsen’s narrator is ironing because she has to. It’s part of the drudgery of her life — though she never uses the word “drudgery” — and it goes unquestioned, except that the whole story questions it. The story is perfectly balanced between self-justification and self-reproach. She can’t blame herself for having failed her daughter, because her life hasn’t given her much choice; but she can’t forgive herself because maybe, maybe, she could have chosen differently.

The narrative is set, subtly, in real time. The narrator is ironing and trying to gather her thoughts but worrying that she’ll be interrupted and lose track of what she’s thinking; then she is interrupted — a baby cries and must be comforted, her daughter comes home — and she does lose track of what she’s thinking, and needs to begin gathering the thoughts again. The rhythms of the prose mirror the heavy back-and-forth of the iron. There’s nothing false about the writing, nothing show-offy or self-congratulatory. The story is blistering in its emotional honesty, all the more so because it is quiet.

If what I did when I was younger was investment-reading, a lot of what I do now could be called permission-reading. “I Stand Here Ironing” is a radical story. It’s permission, and it’s an invitation, to write a story that is small and domestic (a tale of no cities), to write a story in the form of a monologue, to navigate the delicate boundary between self-reproach and self-justification, to defy the truisms of plot and narrative arc. To write prose whose rhythms evoke the experience being described. To write about failure.

We don’t want to write what’s already been written. I stand here thinking about “I Stand Here Ironing” and I don’t want to write a story about a woman ironing. I don’t want to steal it or imitate it. But I am excited to see what the story is doing, and to recognize the legitimacy of its — and my, and any — territory. I read to think, to feel, to absorb, and to see what is possible — to be reminded that anything is possible. I look for permission, but really what I want, and need, and get, is the permission to forego permission. Who could have given Tillie Olsen permission to write a twelve-page ironing monologue? Again and again, I am reading to be reminded that what each story needs to be is itself.

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David Gates and Major Jackson on Beginnings and Endings

DAVID: You begin the first poem in your new collection, Roll Deep, with the words “My midlife journey”—not to brag, but I caught the allusion right away—and in the final poem you speak of planting “winter vegetables in July.” (I’m no gardener, so I don’t know when you’re actually supposed to plant parsnips up here in Zone 1, but I do know that July’s midway toward winter, or maybe a little past.) Not to start off on a grim note—I’m writing this literally in August (figuratively in, what, late October?)—but we both seem to have one ear cocked at time’s winged chariot. (To me, it sometimes sounds like a low-hovering chopper, and sometimes like I’m only hearing things as I go about my business.) And both of us tend to tip our hats to the departed masters—Wallace Stevens and Charles Mingus (among others) crop up in your book; Dickens and Frank Sinatra (among others) crop up in mine—as if we’re seeing our work, or wishing to see our work, as part of some long continuity. Are we delusional? Is anybody going to value the work we value in a hundred years? Okay, make it six hundred, the distance between us and Dante. Or do you care? Sorry to be so heavy—I’m just in an autumnal mood.

MAJOR: That query came fast and straight over the plate and it’s quite easy to go grim after a Dantean opening, which I’m thrilled you heard right away. Let’s see. I have been thinking somewhat about this question but only as it relates to the “humanities” writ large, that which endures especially as it reflects the journey of the human and evolution of consciousness, not in relation to my own poems, which is to say mostly as a reader. One of my many rituals of bookstore carousing, after having ravaged the poetry and rare books section, is to amble over to the “Classics” shelves, where I am more deferential and awe-inspired. Here I wonder: what holes in my slipshod education can I fill? Recently I picked up a tattered copy of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther at The Montague Bookmill. This notion of a story or poem’s usefulness and permanence beyond the author’s lifetime seems almost handed down as a virtue of the best literary work—almost without critical self-reflection, except for that spate of feminist critics who argued that an (often male) author’s quest for literary greatness and longevity was in proportion to the size of his ego, that there was a place for less ambitious and quiet imaginative acts in language whose function was to make the lives of those living here and now better and more fulfilled rather than those in the far off future. The late Philip Levine once told me we are lucky to get even one poem in the Oxford Book. Delusion is good. Here’s why: I see nothing wrong in leaving some evidence, some small residue of our life on earth, which is a way of joining our sound to the language and memory of the tribe. In this regard, language is empirical. Each author’s interpretation of our folly and spinning on earth is mediated through his or her own experiences and imagined in language and form which accretes and accumulates. One can only faintly hope it is then curated and finds it way into some future anthology. If not one with the kind of imprimatur of an Oxford; we hope then for some rescue by a scholar enthused by our work; because of such activism I’m reading Lola Ridge. Who knew?

My linking and riffing off Dante and others and your allusions to the Chairman of the Board Sinatra and Charley D is probably owed to our mentorship to writers and musicians far greater than us. It’s a strategy I inherited early, a kind of call and response with our intellectual inheritance. Keats gives pounds to Homer via Chapman. Music from my youth also showed me the way; in the fall of 1987, when I listened to “Killing an Arab,” the first cut of The Cure’s album Standing on a Beach, with that sinuous, surf rock guitar playing, I happened to be reading Albert Camus’s The Stranger for my 2nd period English class. Whoa, that was a gift. Digable Planet’s album Reachin: A New Refutation in Time & Space alludes to a Jorge Borges essay and one of their rhyming couplets manages to get in Salvador Dali, Erich Fromm, and Sartre. I used to love those moments of recognition and slyhood. Did you know the punk band The Dead Milkmen was named after Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon? So, it’s what we do.

Plus, this last comment: what calls us to affront the notion of mutability and that which irritates us into artful speech is less the desire to be read six hundred years from now, but more, and correct me if I am wrong, the quest for an authentic sound or utterance as refracted in the sentence or language itself. It’s a spiritual addiction that almost always inevitably leads to intransience.

Speaking of sound, I heard a famous writer say that after composing the first sentence of a story, he hears the other hundred or so sentences after that one—i.e. the sentence as tuning fork. Was this the case with the opening sentence of your novella “Banishment” in A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me? It’s a sentence that seems to accumulate and foreground the interior drama that will unfold later in the story. What is your general advice about the opening utterance of a story?

DAVID: I didn’t know that about The Dead Milkmen. Good information. If we were more boring people, we’d be mentioning Bob Dylan and the Possum (I don’t mean George Jones) in this connection. But yes, that is what we do, and I find these hommages and shout-outs moving, when I don’t find them irritating. I’m not hankering after Greatness, and in six hundred years I won’t be around to appreciate being the beneficiary of the sort of rescue mission that gave us back Dawn Powell. What does make me sad—I don’t know why I care about this either, but I do—is the prospect of the Williamses (Hank and William Carlos, and throw in Ted, too) and the Wolves (Howlin’ and Virginia) all vanishing forever. Woolf does a wonderful job of worrying about this in To The Lighthouse, but for now we’ve got To the Lighthouse, so maybe I should just shut up.

At any rate, yes, it’s mostly the quest for (or at least the fumbling after) something that sounds right that gets me up offa that thing, when I manage to do so. I envy that famous writer, even if you’re just making him up. (I assume you’re not, or you would’ve been artful and said “she.”) If I get a first sentence that sounds right, I don’t hear a damn thing except a voice saying Now what? Or maybe You’ve already painted yourself into a corner. That said, I usually can’t make the next move, and the next, until that opening sounds right, and I almost never change it after the piece is done—though I’ll change anything else. Is that how you work? This doesn’t qualify as advice: it’s just what I happen to do, and I don’t necessarily recommend it. What might pass for advice is probably too obvious, even too crass, to state, but: the first sentence needs something (a sound, an image, a fact, whatever) to engage the reader, or the reader won’t keep reading. Also—and this is the point you made about the first sentence of “Banishment”—you want the opening to suggest somehow the mood, the tone, of what will follow, and also the subject or content. There’s some “general advice”—so general as to be borderline useless. I know a wonderful beginning when I hear it, be it plain (“I had a job and Patti didn’t”—Raymond Carver, “Vitamins”) or fancy (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”), but I can’t deduce a formula that will help me begin my next piece, or that would help anybody else. Which is a good thing, right? If you weren’t surprised—and I’d say blessed—by that initial utterance, would you bother to sit down to write? And if every beginning of every novel, poem or story were wonderful, wouldn’t you get bored with wonderfulness?

I don’t know if you heard Katy Simpson Smith’s excellent lecture at Bennington a couple of years ago—she was then getting her MFA; since then she’s published a fine novel, The Story of Land and Sea—but she talked about some of her favorite beginnings in fiction, music and film. What are some of your favorites, of course including poems? Do you generally prefer fast and straight over the plate? Or do you like the first-pitch curveball outside that makes the batter lean in—not in the Sheryl Sandberg sense—and sets up the fastball in on the hands?

MAJOR: Openings are acts of persuasion. I like to be seduced into a poem or story, not so much inveigled or heckled for that matter like much of what I encounter with some performance poetry or overly conceived experimental poetry, but those opening lines or paragraphs should work to establish authority through insinuation of form and lead to a worthy encounter with language and for my tastes, in particular, figuration. I’m a straight sucker for metaphor and how layers of meaning beguile. So, let the first pitch come swerving outside. Let it insinuate and sing. Let those opening notes linger a bit then open up into a performance heretofore heard or experienced. One of my favorites is a little discussed poem by A.R. Ammons. Here’s the opening, and I encourage you to read this whole gem. Whew!

Gravelly Run

I don’t know somehow it seems sufficient
to see and hear whatever coming and going is,
losing the self to the victory
of stones and trees,
of bending sandpit lakes, crescent
round groves of dwarf pine:

for it is not so much to know the self
as to know it as it is known
by galaxy and cedar cone,
as if birth had never found it
and death could never end it:

Ammons grew up in rural North Carolina and raised on a tobacco farm. I do not know if people still speak like this in his native state or elsewhere in America, but damn do I love the music in that opening and throughout the poem, pitched between a kind of vernacular speech, probably Appalachian, and the didactic or professorial, which later he undermines or disavows, but nonetheless, a sweet syrupy wisdom comes through, how he negates his opening negation by establishing a certain kind of power. Of course, he knows; the sound of the poem is so weighted toward an elemental awe and wonder at nature’s beauty. “Hegel is not the winter / yellow in the pines,” he says, then later “stranger, / hoist your burdens, get on down the road.” Some call it voice, but it’s a worthy strategy for any writer, to approximate the timbre and speed of a character in a story or speaker in a poem. Ammons’ opening denial “I don’t know” has that gorgeous caesura, a charged pause, right after, a kind of lyric, thoughtful drift, which then allows him to launch into this sinuous performance of linguistic echoes (known/cone) and (never found it, never end it). Even, “holly” and “entity” are meant to signify on or resonate with holy and entirely. Sorry to explicate a poem this round, but got all excited. I’ve more openings that ring my bell. How about you: any opening sentence that makes your Top Ten?

DAVID: There’d be a lot more than ten, but the opening of that Ammons poem reminded me of the opening of Coleridge’s Dejection ode. (Sorry to trot out such an old warhorse, but it got to be an old warhorse for good reason.) First that epigraph from “Sir Patrick Spens” (or “Spence,” as he spells it)—

Late, late yestreen I saw the new Moon,
With the old Moon in her arms;
And I fear, I fear, My master dear!
We shall have a deadly storm.

And then, after this bit of antique artifice, with the “yestreen” and the jog-trot meter, the poet breaks into speech:

Well! If the Bard was weather-wise, who made
The grand old ballad of Sir Patrick Spence,
This night, so tranquil now, will not go hence
Unroused by winds . . . [and so forth]

It’s that “Well!” that gets my attention, that establishes a voice and an attitude—not unlike Ammons’s “I don’t know,” right? I don’t know how Coleridgeans explicate or paraphrase that “Well!” but to me it suggests a dramatic situation. The epigraph isn’t merely stuck-on—the “Well” tells me that it’s the occasion for the poem. The poet’s actually sitting there reading the ballad on a calm evening, he fetches up on that image of the new moon and the old moon, and thinks Huh—whaddya know. That’s just how the moon looks right now, and if this old bit of lore is right, we’re in for it. And I assume Coleridge is also announcing a new, more plain-spoken sort of poetry: a man speaking to men, as his bud Wordsworth put it (not meaning any offense to women, but I’m afraid managing to give it). In place of the ballad meter, all-purpose iambic pentameter; in place of the old high-flown rhetoric (“I fear, I fear, my Master dear!”), a simple, conversational “Well!” True, the poem goes on to become more rhetorical than the anonymous Bard ever thought of being—and true, I sometimes can’t help hearing that “Well!” delivered in the voice of Jack Benny. Still, that opening gives a good shock to my system, and takes me right into Coleridge’s head.

But how about closing, Major? Here’s one from my Top Ten. It’s the end of Hemingway’s story “After the Storm,” a monologue by a sailor who was the first to come across a sunken liner after a storm in the Caribbean and tried unsuccessfully to break into it and plunder it. These are the last few lines:

“The captain couldn’t have known it was quicksand when she struck unless he knew these waters. He just knew it wasn’t rock. He must have seen it all up in the bridge. He must have known what it was about when she settled. I wonder how fast she made it. I wonder if the mate was there with him. Do you think they stayed inside the bridge or do you think they took it outside? They never found any bodies. Not a one. Nobody floating. They float a long way with life belts too. They must have took it inside. Well, the Greeks got it all. Everything. They must have come fast all right. They picked her clean. First there was the birds, then me, then the Greeks, and even the birds got more out of her than I did.”

It’s not just an accurately rendered voice, but an inadvertent self-portrait of a double-sided character: we get his stoicism (to die is to “take it”) and cold-bloodedness, but also a flash of human empathy for the people on the ship—from which he quickly backtracks into comically bitter resignation (“even the birds got more out her than I did”) in order to preserve an image of toughness and cynicism for his listener, whom he’s just been trying to involve in his sympathetic identification with the dying men: “Do you think they stayed inside the bridge or do you think they took it outside?” (And, as in the Dejection ode—sheerly by coincidence—the turn is marked by the word “Well.”)

Got any endings on your Hit Parade?

MAJOR: Old warhorses or not: I will take those readings of Coleridge and Hemingway any day, or night preferably. As writers, we trust that an audience will possess cultivated ears to pick up such nuanced voicings; there’s such character-building going on, such portraiture that’s achieved in these writers’ (and others of equal greatness) dialogue or interior monologuing. I hear what you mean: the stoicism, cold-bloodedness, but above all that, empathy coming in ever so slyly in the sailor’s words.

I bet old man Papa labored like bejeezus to nail that final sentence, in sentiment, rhythm, and structure. You hear that “Well,” and I solidly hear “more out of her than I did” which performs its ending, a completion in sound, just below a culminating mic-drop, but not so ostentatious. There is not much lingering or thinking “what does he mean?” but a hitting it on the nail finale. I wonder if such virtuosity is instinctual or just plain luck.

Lately, I have come to regard indirection or the last line as “game-changer” as one of the great rhetorical gestures, especially in poetry. We can talk all day about associative leaps, how a writer will move or cast a roving eye across a sweep of objects or observations, and how the poem creates its own logic and charged moments of perception and how it mimics the actual human mind in action, lost to its inability to focus too long on any one object except by force of concentration. I like traveling along with such a writer who wants to, in Matrix-like fashion, teleport in poems especially if she can truly pull off such mental mimicry.

Yet, for my ducats, I’d rather a poetic structure in which a narrative is established or a mood ascertained, then the last line or utterance suddenly, like a band unexpectedly changing chords or pitch or speed, goes to some other field or dimension, but somehow by a strand of glorious implied relationship, shimmers in ambiguity and meaning, a kind of faux tangent, but it means nonetheless because it is language we are dealing with here and its possibilities are being exploited.

Of course, James Wright’s Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota is one such poem that makes an example of what I’m getting at here: “I have wasted my life” which of course intentionally echoes Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo “You must change your life.” Both of these are excellent illustrations of poems that break away from their core scene or established modes.

Conversely, too, maybe not so quite valued, but nonetheless performative is the ending that willfully deflates. In fact, instead of reaching for the transcendent like Wright or Rilke, the poet minimizes or reverses and obliterates their rhetoric. Melissa Stein’s poem Ring is a brilliant specimen in this regard, a lovely lyric in which the speaker, I think, attempts to find analogues or some figure to account for the instability of the world around her, but then ends the poem on “All this / to say I’ve / taken off my ring.” Almost as if abandoning the project of the poem to embellish and lyricize, one hears the needle on the record coming to a stop.

Closing up here: coming round and getting to our initial discussion of sound and echoes and allusions and longevity: here is a sonic ending that figures and calls up Dr. Williams iconic poem This is Just To Say. I hear it, even if she didn’t intend it—be still my sensitive ears. Call it ego or not: we’d be lucky to make a sound in a sentence or line that is so grafted in the imagination of future writers that its sample, however faint or brash, is easily identified by some sensitive reader.

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On Clarity

by Rachel Pastan

Last week I met a law professor friend for dinner, and somehow we ended up talking about teaching writing. I’m the writing teacher—she teaches immigration law—but she was passionate on the subject of teaching students to write well. I was interested to learn that she sends work back to her students for revision more relentlessly than I do—three, four, five times. “I tell them they should write a brief so clearly that their mother could understand it, even if their mother isn’t a native English speaker,” she said. This is, in part, because the stakes are so high. She’s training her students to write—precisely, simply, persuasively—so they can help people in trouble, and maybe even shape U.S. policy in ways she believes are crucial and urgent.

I have always admired the commitment and lucid mind of this friend, who started her own nonprofit right out of law school and, when we were in college, won the undergraduate poetry prize. Now I admired—even envied—her self-assurance. I tend, I confess, to be comparatively wishy-washy with my own students. True, when they write muddy or jumbled sentences, I patiently detangle the prose with my pencil, compose exhortations to clarity, and sometimes refer them (perhaps datedly) to Strunk and White:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Occasionally, in the spirit of an exercise, I select a few of a student’s knottier sentences and ask him or her to try rewriting them in a couple of different ways. Many students are happy to work to clarify and tighten their prose. They see how powerfully concision and tautness allow them to convey emotions, ideas, and images.

Sometimes, though, a student tells me he likes his sentences as they are, thank you very much. He (or she) is not, he explains, out to be understood, necessarily—but rather to evoke, to stir, to experiment and disport. When I hear this, I remind him that it’s possible to be atmospheric in prose, to create all varieties of color and mood, while remaining absolutely comprehensible.

Still, I get where they’re coming from. When I was first falling in love with words, I had two favorite writers (though I would name different ones today). One wrote sentences I passionately adored—sentences like this:

“The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”

The other one wrote sentences I adored just as much—sentences like this:

“Sometimes I could put myself to sleep saying that over and over until after the honeysuckle got all mixed up in it the whole thing came to symbolize night and unrest I seemed to be lying neither asleep nor awake looking down a long corridor of grey halflight where all stable things had become shadowy paradoxical all I had done shadows all I had felt suffered taking visible form antic and perverse mocking without relevance inherent themselves with the denial of the significance they should have affirmed thinking I was I was not who was not was not who.”

A strange, swirling package of words like the latter sentence (by William Faulkner) can swell the heart like nothing else—nothing, that is, except an achingly limpid sentence like the former (by Ernest Hemingway). Of course, Faulkner’s sentence is a complex and sticky web—not a muddle—but it’s hard not to make a muddle when trying to emulate it. I sympathize, though, with the desire to reach for its heady richness. So after I write my exhortations, and I wield my pencil, and I make my students do the exercises, I tend to leave them more or less alone.

Still, I am a devotee of clarity—of the sentence that rings out like a chime. Clarity comes in so many wonderful flavors. There is Austenian acerbity: “Harriet Smith was the natural daughter of somebody.” Rothian derision: “Yakov Blotnik’s old mind hobbled slowly, as if on crutches, and though he couldn’t decide precisely what the boy was doing on the roof, he knew it wasn’t good—that is, it wasn’t-good-for-the-Jews.” Moorian caustic pain: “Life has been taken and broken, quickly, like a stick.” Forsterian enigma: “Professor Godbole had never mentioned an echo; it never impressed him, perhaps.” Note that it’s possible to write about an enigma as clearly as you can write about anything.

Writers are not lawyers, and seldom is anyone injured by our sentences, however clotted or muddled they may be. Even so, the stakes are high: literature not only enriches lives — it, too, can change things. Without clarity, though, the reader must struggle as though through a thicket to see and understand. With it, we extend a hand to guide her into an imaginatively transformed world. This is as crucial and urgent a mission as any I know.

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On Not Writing

by Mark Wunderlich

There is no such thing as “writer’s block.” Such a term suggests an affliction, a mental state like agoraphobia, that prevents the writer from taking up a pen. If you claim to have “writers block,” you’re probably just anxious or bored, or happy or in love, or just busy with other things. I had a teacher who had a particular palsy that allowed him to hold a writing utensil, but just as he brought the hand down toward the paper, that hand would begin to tremble which made the physical act of writing almost impossible unless he used a keyboard, and there were challenges with that process as well. This palsy—an actual diagnosed physical disease—did not stop him from writing numerous books of poetry and fiction.

When people say they have “writer’s block,” they often mean they are just not writing well. A story: After publishing my first book of poems, I began an ambitious project. I wrote a book of poems that used the histories of Tacitus as a source. This project involved much research at the Stanford University Library, a field trip to the Rhine and many hours spent at a desk in my apartment in the San Francisco Mission, looking out at a parking lot, an attractive palm tree and Potrero Hill which slowly rotated from brown to green and back to brown, or as they call it in California, “golden.” After a year of work, I remember printing out the manuscript and leaving it on my desk. I planned to read it in the morning and spend the rest of the day feeling pleased with myself. The next morning I began reading the poems, sipping coffee, and a realization began spreading through me that my ambitious project was just that—a project. The poems were wooden, turgid, crenelated and ornate without actually saying anything true or felt. I began to realize that the book was a zombie—the walking dead—dug from the grave of my first book. In a dramatic move, I scooped up the papers, walked down the hall and chucked the mess down the garbage chute, never to be seen again.

This act of abandonment was one of the better decisions I have made as a writer. In time—a long time as it turned out—I began to write poems again, and those poems became my actual second book. It took a fallow period to lead me to those poems, and in the time I spent not writing, I had to connect once again with the reasons I read and wrote poems in the first place. Eventually, a path opened and I began writing again, and my reasons for doing it were not to feel pleased with myself, but to make complex individual works of art, which is what poems are.

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A Writing Animal

by Benjamin Anastas

At the residency this June—wait: is it already June?—I’m delivering a lecture called “Less Emotion and More Intelligence: Muriel Spark and the Art of Satire.” This is the first time I’ve taken the plunge and given one of the community-wide lectures in Tishman; I’m more used to filing in with the other acolytes from the sunlit world, stopping in at the refreshments table to see about the cookie selection (“Where are the cookies?” I wonder, in astonishment, if the trays have already been picked clean. “Where are the cookies?”), and taking a seat in one of Tishman’s open pews with the jittery excitement that I always feel when I’m inside the building. It comes from the certainty that I am about to learn something and be challenged. This time it will be my turn to challenge the MFA program’s community of believers, to ask them to re-assess their thinking about literature and how we go about making it. This is exactly what Muriel Spark did, in May of 1970, when she delivered the Blashfield Address at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City—her lecture, titled “The Desegregation of Art,” is the departure point for my talk later this month and one of the most peculiar public statements about the art of writing in the 20th Century. It is also incredibly prescient about the new and different pressures facing the artist in a technologically advancing world, and makes a forceful case for satire and ridicule as the only “honorable weapon[s]” left against the oppressive domination of stupidity.

I don’t want to steal too much of my own thunder by giving the talk away in a blog post, but I will say that re-visiting Spark’s arguments in “The Desegregation of Art”—and examining how her ideas are animated in her novels of the period—gave me a whole new appreciation for the singularity of her work. And I was already a long-standing Muriel Spark fan, going back to the late 1990s, when the publisher New Directions started re-issuing the novels from her prime like The Bachelors (1960), The Girls of Slender Means (1963) and The Public Image (1968). For any serious reader of fiction raised, like I was, on the moonlit Jazz and transforming wonder of the American dreamer (Fitzgerald), the redemption of even the worst villain in the heartland (O’Connor, Capote, Mailer), the myth of the rebel who just can’t conform (Hemingway, Salinger), and the tragic suburban casualty (Cheever, Yates), reading Spark and her steelier treatment of the whole human carnival is an education in the sentiments. Also in the writer’s sentience—what we are willing and able to perceive. In “The Desegregation of Art,” Spark refers to herself as “a sort of writing animal,” and by that she means an Artist (with a capital “A”) who has shed the need for illusions, the appetite for easy comforts, and the eagerness to please that’s cultivated in all of us as children. (Spark, though she gave birth to a son and supported him financially, had no talent for or interest in motherhood.) She writes:

“We should know ourselves better by now than to be under the illusion that we are all essentially aspiring, affectionate and loving creatures … So when I speak of the desegregation of art I mean by this the liberation of our minds from the comfortable cells of lofty sentiment in which they are confined and never really satisfied.”

What kind of fiction does the ‘writing animal’ produce? And how can a reader take comfort in it—if not through sentiment?

We’ll answer these questions by looking at Spark’s most famous novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, followed by one of her more experimental outings from just a few years later, The Public Image. (Read them before the lecture if you can.)

See you in Tishman.


Secrets and Lies

by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

Do you write by hand or on a computer? Before computers became de rigueur, this was the first question writers were asked at readings or at parties, or any place where their identity had been discovered. The question was so predictable that when it came up one evening after I’d read with a close friend who knew my habits well, she stood up and said, “I write by hand and”—waving casually to me beside her—“she uses a computer.” Or maybe it was the other way around; I don’t remember anymore. It was long ago; she and her pen or computer have gone to writers’ heaven and I’m now about 90% computerized.

The second most frequently asked question, then and now, is about writing schedules and habits. Do you write in the mornings? Afternoons? Evenings? Every day or when the spirit moves you? Sometimes the word “inspiration” is used. There was a time when I could honestly answer—with a tad of smugness—that I wrote every day, from late morning to late afternoon. Alas, that time and that smugness have passed. In any case, why, I wondered, would anyone care? How could my writing habits be of any use to anyone, or of any interest? They weren’t even of interest to me. I and my fellow writers were hoping for the truly fun questions, about the work itself: all the wonderful details we’d agonized over; those three sentences of description that took hours; that clever allusion that began the last page; the deeper connections and resonances. We wanted to talk about what interested us, not our listeners.

But writers and their work habits fascinate readers. It’s as if they believe there’s some secret to the writing life, and if they could only worm it out of us they’d be writers themselves. I’ve read interviews in which authors are pressed to reveal the most mundane details about their working lives. There were a few modest ones, like the great Italian novelist and essayist Natalia Ginzburg, who claimed to write now and then, when she was in the mood. Knowing her large oeuvre and her impeccable style, I found this baffling.

On the other hand, one very distinguished writer who lived in a Manhattan apartment building was reported to dress in a suit and tie every day as if headed to an office job; then he’d take the elevator to the basement, where he’d fixed up a small studio, and spend the day working—a regular nine to five schedule. Another, a Nobel Prize winner, allegedly wrote all day every day, barely stopping for meals. My favorite of these accounts comes from Tillie Olsen’s book, Silences, where I learned that Joseph Conrad would shut himself up in his study from morning to evening, and his wife would leave a lunch tray outside his door—the nineteenth-century equivalent of a retreat like Yaddo or the MacDowell Colony, without the shared bathrooms.

Sylvia Plath got up at five in the morning to have a couple of writing hours before her babies stirred and claimed her attention. And we know what happened to her. Then there’s Anthony Trollope who, rumor has it, would write on long sheets of yellow foolscap and when he finished a novel, would scrawl “The End,” flip the page and start the next book. Since Trollope held down a responsible day job in the postal administration, this too is puzzling.

What I always wondered about those paragons was, didn’t they ever have to buy a birthday present, or new underwear, or go to the dentist, or get a flu shot, or visit a relative in the hospital, or help out a friend in trouble? (Or read a friend’s new manuscript.) Not to mention shopping for groceries, picking up dry-cleaning, and bringing the broken vacuum cleaner to the repair shop—unless they had spouses as accommodating as Conrad’s. (Plath definitely did not.) I doubt many such remain nowadays.

Finally it dawned on me. They’re lying. Or to put it more graciously, they’re saying what they think their readers want to hear; or more likely what they wish were the case; or what they manage to do for a few weeks at a time now and then, and extrapolate to mean habitually.

In my younger and more confident days, I thought I had all the secrets of the writing life and was more than willing to pass them on. Make a daily writing schedule and stick to it, I’d tell students. Do your writing first, before you tackle the banal tasks of daily life. Don’t go out to lunch—it breaks up the day. Save your social life for after five. (Better still, live like a hermit if you can.) Never fill out forms, unless the government requires it. And so on. I followed those rules for quite a while, writing a certain number of hours daily. It was my job, though I didn’t put on a suit and tie.

When it was time to pick up my children from school I dutifully put down my pen and put on my coat. Later, when they could come home by themselves, I put down my pen the instant I heard the click of the key in the door. It was like the bell ringing in school, to mark the end of a class period.

Because writing was my self-appointed job, it irked me when strangers marveled that I got any work done. A doctor I met at a party who knew I’d published several books asked how in the world I found time to write. I asked him how he found time to take care of his patients. This worked: he slunk away.

The strict rules also worked. My most productive years were when I had school-aged children. (Not babies—their needs are just too much.) It sounds paradoxical, I know, but that rigorous discipline got me through a phase that otherwise might have been focused on finding just the right lunchbox or the right middle school. Not that I didn’t endure those trials, but they were tempered by my knowing that on the desk, waiting eagerly for my return, was a manuscript that transported me to a realm all my own, where I could be endlessly adventurous and playful and focused.

Oddly enough, it was when my children grew up and moved away that my discipline started to flag. I was free of many responsibilities; my time should have been more my own than ever (though I did spend a lot of it teaching). I broke many of my own excellent rules. I could no longer honestly say that I wrote daily from late morning to late afternoon. Unexpected concerns came to occupy my time. The days felt more crowded with each passing year. Crowded with… life itself. The aging parents, the recommendation letters, the birthday gift, the dentist, and all the rest.

I still wrote a lot, but not on my formerly disciplined schedule. Perhaps we all possess a finite amount of discipline, and I had used mine up early on. There were some good long days; others flew by in a crush of details, with barely any time for work. After much agonizing and self-reproach, I came to grasp that I couldn’t win a struggle against the demands of my life. Maybe others could, but for me that struggle was enervating and self-defeating. Rilke could choose to miss his daughter’s wedding—as the story goes—because he had to finish a poem, but I couldn’t and wouldn’t go so far. What mattered was that I write when I could, as best as I could.

I learned to yield to life with as much grace as I could muster (often not much). I never stopped missing the long days at my desk, especially if I was in the middle of something I loved. Or if I hadn’t a piece of work waiting for me, life felt hollowed out, boring. Not a superficial boredom—day by day I was engaged by whatever claimed me—but a deep down boredom, as if the center had been removed and I was drifting along the peripheries.

Today I’d never venture to advise anyone on how to map out their time. Writers’ lives follow different patterns. Some hit their stride in their twenties and thirties; others in their forties and fifties or even later. Unforeseen changes disrupt the best of plans. There are no secrets. Or else each writer has to discover his or her own secret. Hard and constant work is one method. A kind of dreamy receptiveness may be another. Or relentless observation of the world, finally erupting in words. To balance discipline and yielding, shutting the world out and letting it in, is the task that faces all of us. Ultimately our choices will inform our sentences, and make us the individual writers we are.

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by Peter Trachtenberg

I’ve publicly identified as a cat person, but I also like dogs and have spent a lot of time watching them. I was watching them even before I liked them, mostly because I was an anxious kid and was never sure of the intentions of any strange dog that came bounding up to me. Yeah, that looked like a smile, but what was with all the teeth? There was an area in the park where I played after school—I’m old enough to remember a time when parents were so negligent that they let their kids play in the parks unattended—where a bunch of dogs congregated. Unlike children, they were attended by their adult owners, who watched on as the dogs lunged and darted and barked furiously, raced in circles, reared like stallions, collided, grappled, opened their dripping mouths and bit (or appeared to bite) each other, tried to swallow each other whole. The snap of their teeth sounded like bones breaking. Horrible. Once, after spying on this scene, I went up to a cop and told him some men were making their dogs fight. I couldn’t understand why he laughed.

I’ve thought of this moment lately in connection with the longstanding controversy about departures from fact in nonfiction. ‘Departures from fact’ sounds evasive: many no doubt would prefer ‘lying.’ And we all know it’s lying when a memoirist who once spent three hours in a police station for a driving infraction turns that into 18 days for punching out a cop. We know it’s lying when Martha Gellhorn writes an eyewitness account of a lynching in Depression-era Mississippi and later admits she made it up (which might have mitigated the falsehood had she made the admission to her readers and not just in a letter to a friend, even though the friend happened to be Eleanor Roosevelt)? But what do you call it when John D’Agata falsifies minor and not-so-minor facts in a story on a teenager’s suicide in Las Vegas and dismisses his fact-checker’s protest (squeal, murmur) on the grounds that he, D’Agata, isn’t a journalist but an essayist? (I think of this as the Peewee Herman defense: every time Peewee was caught doing something stupid, he’d snap, “I meant to do that!”) Do you call it something else when it becomes apparent that the fact-checker knew all along what D’Agata was up to? Was Joseph Mitchell lying when he quoted down to the comma his heroically odd subjects holding forth with Shakespearian eloquence and at Shakespearian length, though he wrote his legendary profiles long before the advent of the hand-held recorder? Could his short-hand really have been that good?

Maybe my semantic uncertainty reflects my varying respect for, and attachment to, these different writers. I have no trouble calling James Frey a liar: Oprah Winfrey called him a liar. But Joseph Mitchell is a hero of mine. Few other writers have such a sense of the essential strangeness and solitude of their fellow humans or observe them with such humor and such tact. Do I have to call him a liar, too?

Maybe we first have to consider the ethical consequences of untruth. By lying about a lynching, Gellhorn potentially gave ammunition to the forces who wanted to dismiss all such reports as lies, who wanted Americans to believe that lynchings did not take place or that if they did they were only instances of ‘popular justice’ enacted against murderers and rapists. So the first objection to authorial lying might be called tactical: when a writer lies about real events, he or she may make the events themselves seem like lies, and give aid and comfort to liars who are far more organized and accomplished and ill-intentioned.

I’d say that all meretricious nonfiction has two ethical dimensions, or say two axes. The first axis is that of the story’s subject matter, the facts it relates, or purports to relate: a lynching in Mississippi or a suicide in Las Vegas or a young man’s drug addiction and driving habits. Some of those facts possess more gravity than others and some of that gravity has to do with whom those facts involve. Or, put another way, whom those facts belong to, who owns them.

The lies James Frey tells in A Million Little Pieces are fundamentally about James Frey, all its other characters being essentially supporting players, and bit players at that. There’s a thing parents say when their children are about to go off and do something stupid. At least my parents said it, after they’d finished yelling and weeping and realized they still couldn’t keep me from being a moron: It’s your life. And it seems to me that’s true of every memoirist. It’s his or her life.

But when Martha Gellhorn lied about what she saw in Mississippi, she appropriated facts that concerned real people, real share-croppers who died horribly at the hands of their white neighbors. Those facts—and what fact is more final than death?—belonged to them. I suppose you could argue that nobody owns truth, but if anything establishes a claim to it, you’d think it would be suffering.

The second moral axis of this model is the axis of the audience, the reader or listener, who has been conned into believing that a false story was true. Every writer who hopes to be read makes a contract with the reader. The contract is usually implicit, but one sometimes sees it spelled out in a book’s disclaimer: “All characters in this book are fictional and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.” “This story is true, only the names have been changed.” “My family will dispute everything I say about them, but I’m still right.” What these disclaimers do is give the reader a cue as to how literally to take what follows. That can also be done implicitly. Anyone who sees a story that begins “Once upon a time” is unlikely to think she’s reading Lawrence Wright.

And anyone who reads Joseph Mitchell’s profiles—of a ticket-taker in a Bowery movie theater or a drink-cadging Greenwich Village bohemian known for his imitations of seagulls or the trustee of an African-American cemetery on Staten Island—knows almost at once that these aren’t standard works of journalism: they’re tall tales whose central figures happen to be real. Look at how Mitchell begins his beautiful, mournful “Mr. Hunter’s Grave”: “When things get too much for me, I put a wildflower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries down there.” Not Gay Talese or Elizabeth Kolbert but Melville and Ecclesiastes.

Which brings me back to the dogs. The reason that cop laughed at me all those decades ago when I reported the presence of a dog-fighting ring in Riverside Park was that he knew those dogs weren’t fighting. They were playing. One of the things that may have told him this was something dogs do when they signal they want to play: they thump the ground with their forepaws. Try it with your dog some time: it’ll drive him crazy. This thump is the dogs’ equivalent of the cues good writers give their readers to signal how they should take the story to come, how fully they should swallow its facts. Can one bet money on them, or should one just enjoy them, as the writer so plainly did? Of course devising such cues is harder than smacking the ground with your forepaws—hands—but it seems a useful thing for any writer to know, especially at a time when disappointed readers can vent their displeasure on Amazon and Goodreads or even—who knows?—with lawsuits. It does for people what its counterpart does for dogs: keeps them from getting bitten.

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Just Whisper

by April Bernard

When I was in high school, and happy, I knew a pair of pretty sisters, not twins, but only a year apart in school, Patty and Jilly Homan. (“In high school, and happy” sounds implausible, but I was both; it was my refuge from home. And if anyone in school was mean, I knew how to go disdainfully still. To this day, chalk dust and squeaky wood floors evoke a memory of paradise. When I ran the literary magazine for two years, the English teachers actually gave me a corner in their office for my own desk and typewriter. If they had let me, I would have set up a cot and moved in full time.)

Patty and Jilly were, as I say, pretty. But their success with boys and men was evidently disproportionate to matters of mere appearance: for they were also short, with pale eyes and dull brown hair and comically stodgy Fair Isle sweaters. I got to know them on the ski team and through a church group, about which I would have to explain quite a lot to explain what I was doing in it, so I’ll just say that I was mostly chasing the students from Williams College who were our “spiritual leaders.” At practice and choir and occasional camp-outs, the Homan girls’ looks grew on me, too. Patty was a little more conventionally pretty, with her very large flat blue eyes, though her skin was densely freckled and prone to blushing; Jilly’s nose was almost too tiny to count as a nose, and it made her eyes, yellowy green, seem too far apart. I realized that I was watching them, watching the spell they cast on the college boys, trying to figure it out, and as I studied them I became fascinated as well.

Here’s the thing: They said perfectly ordinary things, friendly or banal or sometimes a little bit funny, but they were almost inaudible. You always had to tilt in really close to hear what Patty was saying, even if it was just “Hi. I like your hair that way.”

“Thank you,” you would bellow, as if her whisper meant she was also deaf.

“Is it naturally curly?” she would whisper, and again you would have to lean close in to hear. And close in, well past the ordinary boundaries of where you usually talked to friends, you saw Patty’s pale eyelashes, her freckled ear lobe; you saw her so close that she was all paint dots and not the painting—and the dots were more than pretty; they were beautiful.

One fall day, when we were running the trails behind the school, I came upon Jilly and Patty, legging it side by side in matching blue shorts that ballooned behind them, having a fight. I did not realize until I was almost on their heels that it was a fight, so low were their tones.

“You can be such a, such a —”

That was all I could make out.

I told my best friend, Dez, that I thought the Homan girls were “repressed.” Dez, reasonably enough, challenged me to explain “repressed,” “suppressed,” and “oppressed.” I said that the oppressive atmosphere of their upbringing, about which we in fact knew nothing, had doubtless suppressed their natural voices, and that over time they had become their own internalized policemen, repressing their voices themselves.

Later I revised my opinion for Dez. I told her that Jilly and Patty did it on purpose, to attract men. They whispered to make the men lean close in, and then, like spiders, they ensnared them with feminine wiles.

Dez asked, “What feminine wiles would those be?”

I had no idea. We laughed, as we always did, loudly.

But I have never forgotten Jilly and Patty’s lesson in the power of quiet, the power to make someone strain to hear, to make someone stop everything just to listen. Feminine wiles are all very well; but even more importantly, the whisper works on the page.

Corner Dog, Coming Dog

by Alice Mattison

My most absorbing work during the last few months has been, first, revising a book, and, secondly, teaching our dog, Harold—a large, black, cheerful, energetic, pit bull mix—not to yank on the leash and bark when we see or hear another dog while walking. It wasn’t until recently that I noticed how much Harold resembles the book, though not in all ways, of course.

Neither the dog nor the book understands general instructions, though both grasp English words and even sentences if they are used specifically. You’d better not say to a dog, “Let’s reconsider your policy concerning other dogs” or even “If you pass that dog across the street without going bananas, I’ll let you carry your squeaky toy in your mouth for a block,” and you can’t say to a book, “My theme here is the futility of the American dream” or, more modestly, “I’d like each of the next three chapters to become progressively more exciting.” But the dog understands “Cookie!” or “Look at your squeaky toy!” (a small plastic blue football with magical properties) and the book knows “cut,” “paste,” and “delete”—or Word does—and, even more usefully, the alphabet and punctuation marks. Anything I want the book to do, I must express in letters of the alphabet. Anything I want the dog to do, I must express in words about what’s right here, right now.

At first, on our daily walks, my husband Edward and I just suffered when we passed another dog and dog walker: anxiety, embarrassment, pulled arm muscles. Then our trainer, Katie, showed us high-value treats—cookies you buy at Petco that look like Oreos and smell disgusting, but distract Harold from almost anything. We started by giving him bite after bite. Katie suggested we try fewer bites, and I learned—I am more obsessed than Edward so I hold the leash—that if I count slowly to fifteen or twenty before giving Harold the bite, he is even more intent on the cookie. Then we discovered that squeaky toys work even better. At times. But why sometimes and not other times?

Thinking hard and in generalities—there are times in working with books or dogs when one must think hard and generally, even if neither the dog nor the book can think that way—I realized that on walks, we meet what I might describe as several different sorts of dog. Corner Dogs appear at the next corner. They come down the cross street, pass in front of us before or after crossing the street we’re walking on, and disappear up the cross street again. Across Dogs are across the street, walking in our direction or in the opposite direction. Going Dogs are ahead of us on our side, going our way—so we never meet, but they are in view for a long time. Coming Dogs are on our side of the street coming toward us. They are difficult—we pass nearest them—but we have time to react as they approach. Hardest are Surprise Dogs, which pop up in a yard or get out of a car.

Once I understood the categories, I saw what was going on. Harold’s squeaky toy renders Across Dogs, Corner Dogs, and Going Dogs innocuous. Sometimes talking about the toy is enough; sometimes I show it to him. At worst I wiggle it or squeak it. After the dog is gone Harold carries the toy in his mouth for a block or so, meditatively squeaking.

Coming Dogs require that I count to fifteen or twenty, then proclaim “Cookie cookie cookie starts with C!” while waving a bit of cookie, which he then eats. For Surprise Dogs I use whatever’s handiest, but so far, nothing truly works. But surprise dogs are rare. Mostly, now, we walk down Dog Alley (a five-block stretch in our neighborhood that is especially doggy) without hysteria.


However, what I’m writing about here is not dogs—about whom I have no expertise—but books. There may be a better way to teach a dog, but I know no better method than mine for working on a book: thinking generally, carrying out one’s thoughts specifically. A book, to start with, is a blob floating up from some dark place in your psyche. New writers, faced with its strangeness and propensity for chaos, often write it in one of two ways: they give in to the chaos, claiming that the book is valid because it comes about honestly and intuitively, or they rationally devise themes and plots without regard to what’s coming out of their imaginations, and impose them on the poor uncomprehending thing. The results are either a chaotic, unreadable book, or one that’s so thoroughly thought through that the reader can figure it out from the first page, and the book itself is superfluous. I think it’s wiser to treat a book like a dog. Work on it one word or sentence at a time, but also turn away from it so as to figure out its true nature and what you’ll need to do to the words to reveal that truth. It’s not a matter of copying a theme you already know about into a resisting book, it’s a matter of thinking about what’s in your book already and where it’s going on its own, noticing what theme or large point or action your unconscious mind seems to be coming up with, and altering the words—lengthening and shortening sections, building up intensity or diminishing it, and so on—in a way that will make a reader able to see clearly what your haphazard outpouring indicates only vaguely.

Give your book cookies when that works, wave the squeaky toy when that works. And good luck with Surprise Dogs.

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But No Word Will Ever Be Spoke Here

by Sven Birkerts

Here is one of those private-fantasy questions. You are allowed to have one painting, any painting ever painted, to hang on the wall opposite your bed. To have it there to love, honor, and obey—for course it will end up instructing you, no matter what piece you choose. What do you choose? One painting. It makes you think. Do you really want The Raft of the Medusa, or some impossibly gaunt and vertical El Greco there alongside the dresser; or a constant blare of sunflowers, or some dainty skirts lifting on a swing? How long can anyone stare at a saintly Madonna or endure the punching pulse of Broadway Boogie-Woogie? What to pick? It’s not such an easy question, finally.

We are all of us different, of course, and any hundred people—never mind a hundred writers—will likely pick a hundred different works. Which suggests that it‘s a litmus-test as good as any other. But a litmus of what? Personality? Aesthetics? Are those two things connected? Of course they are! But how? One fanciful question and already we are mired in philosophy.

I’m not—alas, or mercifully—feeling up to any pressured inquiry about why we do as we do, how our nature and nurture together impinge upon expressive impulse and then, if we’re writers, determine our inclination to certain syntactic arrangements, cadences, never mind larger thematic and structural choices. Nor can I leave the business entirely alone. For if I don’t know the specific painting I would pick, I know the kind of painting, and I also have some ideas about what that might mean vis à vis writing, by which I mean: what most gratifies me when I read, and what I aspire to when I feel the need to get words onto the page.

No question, for purpose of ongoing compulsory daily meditation, I would pick a Dutch still life from the 17th or 18th century. A quiet still life rich with shadow and muted pewter, some arrangement of humble entities, be they edible—fish, lemon, apple, grape, pigeon or pheasant—or else just the furnishings of some bygone domesticity: implements, muskets, buckles, dishes… I don’t really want the immediate human presence, unless maybe in the skull-form of the classic memento mori, a phrase which suddenly reminds me that the classic moniker for this whole genre is nature morte—which literally means “dead nature.” And now I do have to ask: what does this say about me? Why not a jolly Rubens or a pensive Modigliani, or at least a Parisian boulevard or a few peasants at harvest?

Trust me, I have nothing against coolly elongated sylphs or any of the rest. But I am mindful that my deal calls for daily contemplation, the calm fixation of mind and senses on the made thing. And really, how long before any face, even a Rembrandt, even that of the Gioconda herself, will start to cloy? A face is mysterious, but it tethers one to a certain kind of musing—inevitably it calls toward a single being. And such explosions of light and color as Van Gogh or Monet may have achieved—how quickly the circuits would fry—it would be like touching one of Rilke’s angels.

Whereas a still-life… Well, this is my way of backing into my intended subject and trying to make it a seamless retro-fit. But what do we have against seams, anyway? Another question for another time. The point is, I originally wanted to reflect here on a quotation that I had found in Mark Doty’s little book Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, but I just could not find my way in. I looked to create the sense of effortless and inevitable, the casual ‘aha!’ that I admire whenever I see it. But it was not to be. So here—behold—is the seam:

Doty’s meditation is so compressed, so slim between covers that the thing tends to disappear between whatever books I shelve it with, the result being that I’m often looking for it and seldom finding it. Maybe that was why serendipitously coming upon it the other day filled me with such pleasure that I decided I had to make it my subject. Meaning—I already knew—that I would look for some way to create a frame for what is, I think, an extraordinary passage of prose.

In the book Doty is writing about a still-life by Osias Beert, taking evident pleasure in describing a platter of oysters which seems to him “the ultimate expression of light playing on the slightly viscous, pearly, opalescent, and convoluted flesh…” He makes various equally luscious sensory overtures before getting what feels to me the heart of the business: not just the business of still-lives, but of all art—writing, too. Doty asserts:

“ …no word will ever be spoke here, among the flowers and snails, the solid and dependable apples, this heap of rumpled books, this pewter plate on which a few opened oysters lie, giving up their silver.

     These are resolutely still, immutable, poised for a forward movement that will never occur. The brink upon which still life rests is the brink of time, the edge of something about to happen. Everything that we know crosses this lip, over and over, like water over the edge of a fall, as what might happen does, as any of the variations of what might come true does so, as things fall into being, tumble through the progression of existing in time.

     Painting creates silence.”

How better to express the meaning—the power and pathos—of the painter’s rendering of the visual world? The stillness marked out as an illusory stay against all vanishing; the idea that the arrest of objects in manufactured light creates silence. I can’t draw an exact parallel to the work of our sentences, but I do believe that this same impulse to immobilize is found at the core of what we do. Not necessarily in the static mode of the still life—we might be writing a narrative charged with momentum and action—but in the more primary sense, as a way of saying: “Come to life here on this white paper and stay alive forever!” Opalescent oysters gleaming in the light—or grapes, or the facets of a goblet, or the polished wood of a mandolin or lute—they get us close to beauty, not just to the fact of it, but to what might be the reason we know it at all, as a small consolation for all the loss that living brings. Cold comfort, I’m thinking, but comfort still.

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