Saturday, August 17, 2019

The Re-wonderment: Notes from the Residency 2019

During the MFA Residency I usually have no fewer than three things on my mind at all times and it’s  hard to focus on any single thought.  Nonetheless, I jot down notes on the schedule to be unpacked at a later time.  Now is that tim.

“Language is fundamental to the possibility of re-wonderment.”~  Robert Macfarlane, cited in an epigraph to Erin Coughlin Hollowell’s poem “Force”

“Good luck and bad happen at the same time.  Don’t be surprised by either.” ~Dana

“Pay attention to important strangers.”~DL

“All anyone has to offer is their unprecedented experience of being alive.”~Vijay Seshedri, cited by DL

“Do not whack the art.”~Hollis Mickey

“A canon is a weapon no matter how you spell it.”~Valerie Miner

22 years passed between my finishing graduate school and the publication of my first book. ~DS

“The bossy e makes the letter say its name.”~Nicole Stellon O’Donnell

Before Tom, the drunk guy, disturbed our evening reading he introduced himself to me.  I confess: I sized him up as probably homeless, but not inebriated. He asked me: is your cancer in remission?  Have you read The Great Gatsby again?  I was stunned and it took me a beat to realize he was referencing some lines in an essay that I read on the stage ten years ago.  I had not met him or seen him ever before.

The showing vs. telling distinction, which writing teachers love to talk about, universally valorizing showing over telling, is a false dichotomy. There is only telling, which can sometimes foster the illusion of showing.~So I declare.

“Envision a stanza as a guy you dumped.”~NSO

“Lots of black roses and bleeding things.”~NSO speaking of her teenaged writing

“Hot pads and aprons.”~ MoHagani Magnetek

“Why did Slick have to die?”~ Barry Donaldson asked me about a character in my book.

“What’s she trying to do to us?”~ Cameron Murray asked me after I was openly weeping at Lauren Heyano’s singing about her grandfather at the Writers Block.

Also, Cameron to me: “Jesus, do you not know how to pour a beer?”

“Dear Sex Acquaintance~” Keriann Gilson

“I want to be a fly on my life’s wall.”~Sarah Mouracade

“Revise toward strangeness.”~ Brenda Hillman, cited by DL

Revise toward strangeness, David Stevenson concurs, But not when writing your thesis essay.

“Life’s nonsense pierces us with strange relations.”.~Wallace Stevens, cited by DL

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Building the Roaring Bonfire

                                                Building the Roaring Bonfire

When I was in graduate school I began to experience a heart condition that would go undiagnosed for years.  I went to the cardiologist.  The visit was the first time I went to a doctor who was about my own age. Now, of course, they are all teenagers.  So, this doctor and I chatted as peers.  She was in her very first week of practicing medicine and she confessed to me that she feared she had made a terrible mistake. 
            What would you rather be doing? I asked
            Baking bread, she said.  But now I have a fortune to repay in school loans, so I have to do this.

Do you remember the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime” from the 1980s?  I hope so. In the video David Byrne hitting himself in the forehead with his open palm, shouting in terror, as if woken from a dream: “This is not my beautiful house!  This is not my beautiful wife!  My God, what have I done!?”
Thoreau said, because most of you in the room know I can’t speak long of these matters without citing Thoreau, said he hoped not to get to the end of his life and find out that he had not really lived.

We are here [at this residency] to live, as Thoreau advised, deliberately.

We are now watching a whole generation of writers and artists leave us.  Since last summer: W.S. Merwin, Mary Oliver, Donald Hall, Philip Roth.  Much loved writers, or in Roth’s case, admired, if not loved.  There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth over these losses.

But there shouldn’t be.  These writers lead long and extremely productive lives.  They did their work, said what they had to say.  We need not mourn.

We should mourn the tragedies of the creative lives that are never lived.  The unwritten books, the young who leave us before they find their true selves, live their best lives, which, by the way, is what you’re here to do.

Alice Hoffman wrote:

It is the deepest desire of every writer, the one we never admit or even speak of: to

write a book we can leave as a legacy.  And although it is sometimes easy to forget,

wanting to be a writer is not about reviews or advances or how many copies are

printed or sold.  It is much simpler than that, and much more passionate.  If you do it

right , and if they publish it, you may actually leave something behind that can last


This spring I was writing a long piece that required mostly research and my main  source was The American Alpine Journal, a record of mountaineering published every year since the  1902.  I own copies of this dating back to 1966 and the whole set of them is searchable on-line. I was completely immersed in the work and I had experienced a kind of thrill that this amazing historical record even exists.  And then, I remembered that I’m a part of the Journals: I’ve been the book reviews editor since 1995.  I felt humbled and honored at the same time: I am a part of this enormous enterprise.

I remembered a passage from John Cheever’s journals that describes this exact feeling and I went to his journals, collected in a single volume to find the line.  Do you know Cheever’s journal? It’s one of the most harrowing documents in American letters.  He was a profoundly unhappy person, an alcoholic, in an awful marriage—perhaps his  bisexuality lent to this awfulness.  He would re-read his books, throw them into the fireplace.  A truly tortured soul, who experienced just enough transcendent moments to keep himself alive.

Anyway, I went down the Cheever rabbit-hole and never found the lines I was looking for.  But I found these that I wanted to share with you:

From early in his life:
We are as poor as we have ever been.  The rent is not paid, we have very little to eat, relatively little to eat: canned tongue and eggs.  We have many bills.  I can write a story a week, perhaps more.  I’ve tried this before and never succeeded, and I will try again.

From middle age:
To disguise nothing, to conceal nothing, to write about those things that are closest to our pain, our happiness; to write about my  sexual clumsiness, the agonies of Tantalus, the depth of my discouragement—I seem to glimpse it in my dreams—my despair.  To write about the foolish agonies of anxiety, the refreshment of our strength when these are ended: to write about our painful search for self, jeopardized by a stranger in the post office, a half seen face in a train window; top write about the continents and populations of our dreams, about love and death, good and evil, the end of the world.

From near the end:
Literature is the only consciousness we possess.  Literature has been the salvation of the damned.  Literature, literature has inspired and guided loves, routed despair, and can perhaps, in this case save the world.

This feeling of being part of something larger than oneself.  Once I was at the MLA [Modern Language Association] conference and I walked out of my hotel room and just as I closed the door, a woman walked out of her room, and it was Toni Morrison, arguably, the greatest American literary figure of our times.  I couldn’t believe it: I felt like I should crawl behind her, head bowed, and ask permission to touch the hem of her dress.  I was half-stunned to realize I breathe the same air as she, walk the earth at the same time.  What a marvelous coincidence!

She is, by the way, short, and has magificent hair.

My novel took a long time to write, a decade, depending on how you count, and a long time to publish, another decade.  Throughout these years, for some reason, I shared it with no one, not even with Aisha, my wife and usually my first reader.  When she finally did read the novel, she walked up to me, and asked, “Who wrote this book?”

There is a writing self that is mostly hidden from public view.

“The story of your life is not your life.  It’s your story”––John Barth

“A good book is more intelligent than its author.  It can say things the writer is not aware of.”—Umberto Eco

Do not call your life by hard names, Thoreau admonished, it is not so bad as you.

Salvatore Scibona, author of most recently of the novel, The Volunteer, writes this in a recent essay about effort:
An older writer I admire, when asked the polite question what he did for a living, used to snap, “Nothing.” Yet he worked constantly for more than fifty years on story after story, nearly all set in the town, painstakingly described, where he still lives. It must have helped him somehow to claim his effort didn’t count. Recently, upon coming home from his daily walk, strong as ever in his legs but so deep in dementia that he no longer knows his wife’s name, he told her, “There’s an extraordinary town out there—somebody really should write a book about it.”

And from the same essay:
Pride comes not from the extent of our territory but from a belief that the territory is completely ours. No art with any life in it can be made by insisting like this on self-sufficiency. To write with only your own power is to make a dead letter if you make anything at all.

 The writer Lauren Groff­, do you know her work­?  Her most recent book is a collecction of stories called Florida, highly recommended.  She recently published a collaborative work in Tin House with her friend the graphic artist, Leela Corman.  In her prefatory notes to the project, she wrote:

These are hard times, my humans. It is a beautiful and life-giving thing to find your most furious friend, match your brain to theirs, and make art together.  Build a roaring bonfire in this deepening dark.

We are here, my friends, to build this bonfire together.  That is the work of the next two weeks.


Monday, May 20, 2019

Dragonfly Time: Notes from the Oregon Coast

Visiting family in Portland.  In the kitchen my eyes are drawn continually to the clock, the place where a clock would logically be.  But it’s not a clock, it’s a round bowl-shaped, screen-thing decorated with dragonflies.  Many glances before my brain is convinced my eyes will not find a clock there.

On the beach there has been an enormous die-off of little crabs, about a nickel or quarter-sized diameter.  Their bodies mark the long uneven lines of high tide.

For Mother’s Day the community has hid glass balls–floats–on the beach for people to find, not unlike an Easter egg hunt.  These are decorative newly-made glass balls, not the old ones designed to keep fishing nets managed.

Groups of people are searching for the glass floats, randomly, combing through the grass and log-strewn dunes where we typically enjoy solitude.

My wife Aisha and I believe that certain small found objects are tokens of good luck.

Historically, I have been good at finding beach glass, water and sand erosion rounded shards and scraps.  Over these seven days I am finding almost none, but Aisha is finding much.

But, oddly, I am finding many agates.  I am thinking of an old Jesse Colin Young song:

 And my front pathway markers
Are pieces of granite and chert.

Note to self: research the difference between chert and agate.

Note to self: hold on the vinyl LPs (which I haven’t played for years).

The Green Flash.  I have always wanted to see this near mythical phenomenon which occurs over the horizon as the sun sets in the Pacific.

Is that a real thing, Aisha asks, the Green Flash?

I tell her I believe it.  The cloud-dancing coast of Oregon in late spring will probably not be the best place to see it.

“The Blue Men,” my favorite story by Joy Williams.  The line:

The blue men! We wanted so much to see them but we never did.

Written on postcard from the main character’s now-dead son.

We visit Mo’s for dinner, an indulgence, a ritual.  There’s a touristy junky toy shop alongside the line to be seated and I remember Macklin finding this bottle opener with a pirate’s head as the handle.  The pirate looked exactly like him.

Outside of Mo’s is where the Siletz River meets the ocean and the water roils with the meeting of the fresh water emptying out and the salt water rolling in.  Seals are out in the water by the dozens rearing their head above the surface randomly, sleek water dogs, a couple dozen of them.  Above, an equal number of seagulls squawk and wheel and dive also seemingly at random. In the sky above all this the sun is radiating through spectacular dark clouds.  There won’t be green flash tonight but it truly is grand.

We’ve been meeting with a real estate agent here at the coast.  We trust her, and like her.  She reveals a surprising amount of personal information about herself, unbidden.  Which seems somehow unlike her.  She tells us about the time when she and her twin sister were attacked by an intruder at their home in Ketchikan.  Their father arrived in time to prevent disaster.

            Did they catch him?  We wanted to know.
            No, his footprints went through the snow in the backyard, over the fence and into the woods.

None of the houses we look at inspire us to imagine we could love them more than the house we live in now.

How many kids do you have?  The real estate agent asked.
One, we half-lie.  It’s easier.

A few days before he died Macklin and I had a long conversation.  He was thinking, he said, of moving to Lincoln City.  This surprised me because when we took him to Lincoln City he sulked the whole time and barely left the hotel room.  He also asked if I had a spare crucifix.  I did.  He asked if he could borrow a shirt for a job interview.  That blue striped one.  Of course.  Could you iron it for me?

I wish I could remember all the details of that long conversation.  I mainly remember he was calm and wise, as opposed to his more frequently presented self: agitated and smart.

Beach reading.  For a piece I’m writing: David Roberts, Dee Molenaar, Jim Whittaker.  For pleasure: Valerie Luiselli, Jenny Offill, Laura Van den Berg.  From Van den Berg:

Behind every death lay asset of questions. To move on was to agree not to disturb the questions, to let them settle with the body under the earth. Yet some questions so thoroughly dismantled the terms of your own life, turning away was gravitationally impossible.

Because my friend did it, I enter some bits of information into The Death Clock.  According to the Death Clock I will live to be 69 years, 11 months and 2 days.  My last day will be Wednesday May, 10, 2023.

At the shortest life cycle a dragonfly from egg to the death of the adult is about six months.

Which is why I have almost always avoided fortune-tellers, psychics, tarot, and even shamans and lamas.  Don’t ask about what you don’t wish to know.

For Mother’s Day my wife asked me to accompany her to Sunday mass.  The priest was dreadful, a  second-language speaker who paused a full breath between each word.

Through     these     mysteries     may     grace     be     given,     O     Lord,     that    understanding     our     earthly      desires     we     may     learn     to     love     the    things     of      heaven.

My wife demanded a refund from me.

At the shopping center.  My wife points to a penny on the ground.  I pick it up.

I put it there, she says, for you to find.
Yes, my shirt was $9.99 and they gave me penny.  I felt sorry for you because you haven’t found any beach glass.

On our next-to-last morning we find a dead baby seal on the beach.  We had seen them riding on their mother’s backs.  This one shows no sign of trauma and I wonder if it has somehow drowned.  Its lips are curled upward as if in a smile.

The room we are staying in is right on the edge of a bluff looking over the beach.  We have stayed in this exact room, by request, many times. The windows look west and north.  Because we are so close to the edge, the birds swoop past the windows as if we’re in tree house.  We look down at the beach with a bird’s eye view.  People, whose actions are mysterious from this height.  Dogs, running with joyful abandon.

In the last photograph of Macklin, the one the trooper showed me on his cell phone to identify him, he has just been pulled from the water.  He is not smiling.  No, he is not smiling at all.

At the memorial service I am sitting next to his girl friend.  She reaches over to hold my hand, I think, but instead she passes to me the pirate bottle opener. He continued his spiritual journey dressed in the shirt I ironed for him with the crucifix he asked for.  I hold on to the bottle opener.