You can now order Waking the Dead in Real Time and read about my other books in-progress at www.davidblistein.com. Check it out!Oct242011
Ken Burns and I have published a signed limited-edition 48pp. monograph that features excerpts from my book in progress Real Time. There are modern-day encounters with Jezebel, Minamoto no Yoritomo (first Shogun), Chopin, & Harriet Tubman; plus an original essay by Ken on his roots as a documentary filmmaker. You can order at this link.Oct172011
Writing Aside #25.
“Go Look It Up” was the closest thing we had to a mantra in our ‘60s academic family. Unabridged dictionaries (Webster’s 3rd and then the Oxford) were the closest things we had to sacred texts. And encyclopedias were frowned upon because they weren’t “original source material.”
I’m six weeks into rewriting a manuscript that, while fiction of sorts, includes quite a bit of botany. Since I never took a botany, chemistry, or biology class, this presents some challenges.
When I first drafted the book in 2001, I had a whole shelf of relevant reference. And I took just as many books out of the library—from the kids’ section of course, which is the only place you can find any scientific information in plain English. Since DSL was still two miles and three years away, the Internet was a last resort.
In the course of editing, I’ve realized that some of my science was a little off: The exact way a male pollen grain travels from anther to stigma and then a style to the ovule—where the fun really begins. How you keep a variety of flower from impregnating itself when you only want it to mate with the variety two rows away.* How atoms relate to molecules which relate to monomers, which relate to polymers, and how nanotechnology relates to all of them in truly inexplicable ways; and, most importantly, what all this advanced technology has to do with your typical, happy-go-lucky, low-tech carrot.
Each of these subjects takes up, at most, a few paragraphs in the final draft—and my facts were usually 90% - 95% correct to begin with. Still, I spent most of a day on each one, reviewing those facts over and over until I was confident I had them right—I hope.
I just realized, to my shock and awe, that in the entire time I’ve been doing this research:
I haven’t picked up a book. Not even when the answer was right there in one on the other side of the room.
I haven’t once referred to my extensive reference files—digital and hard copy—from ten years ago.
I haven’t looked up a single fact in a single library. Even though my wife works at one.
I did look up a word in the dictionary once (Webster’s 2nd).
There are a lot of things I could say about this. A lot of opinions I could have. A lot of conclusions I could draw. But they all seem too easy, too facile, too glib.
Around when I turned 50, I promised myself I’d never say the words, “When I was your age.” Today, it’s hard not to say them to myself.
The Internet is still kind of wondrous strange, isn’t it?**
* I hate to be the one to break it to you, but hybridization involves a whole lot of arranged marriages, sterilization, castration, and/or virtual vegetable condoms—put on by hand.
** Hamlet Act 1, Scene 5 http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/show/149737. My dad would have told me to go look it up—really look it up. Probably in the “First Folio” edition.
BTW: I have taken careful note of all the key URLs I referred to so I can credit them. It’s the least I could do. E.g., the illustration is from a Angiosperm Reproduction and Biotechnology; Chapter 38 of Biology, Seventh Edition by Neil Campbell and Jane Reece. It’s Copyright 2005 Pearson Education, Inc. http://www.course-notes.org; something I probably wouldn’t have managed to track down without the Internet…even at my old college library.Mar242011
Writing Aside #24.
Every writer with a romantic synapse in his/her brain, can picture himself sitting at a café on the Left Bank, drinking an espresso, au lait or Calvados, writing words that are so existentially self-referential that delusions of Sartre and Remarque can’t help but dance in your head.
I sat in a café on the Left Bank once, but I didn’t write anything. It felt like every sentence that could possibly be written there had already been written. Undoubtedly in virtually every language.
But I have written in a lot of coffee shops in a lot of places. The main requirements are that the large daily grind is $2.50 or less, there’s free Internet and, preferably, the place isn’t a Starbucks. Especially if it’s a strange town and I’m trying to figure out what I’m doing there.
Someday, I’ll make a list. Maybe a map. Circling out from the the locals: Amy’s, Blue Moose, and the iconic Mocha Joes in Brattleboro, east to Prime Roast and Brewbakers in Keene, north to The Front Porch in Putney and The Café in Bellows Falls, south to Haymarket in Northampton, and southeast to The Edge in Providence.* All of which have served as temporary offices. For which I feel a quiet gratitude that goes beyond the extra $1 I occasionally leave in the tip jar.
My literary refuges have reached as far east as The New Café in Florence and west to the Bean Bag Café in San Francisco. I remember the taste of the coffee at many of them. But I remember what we used to call the gestalt of all of them.
Today, I’m at Kudu in Charleston, South Carolina. Sitting at a seat that’s one to the left of the three at the bar. The place blends in so well with the neighborhood that, from the outside, it looks like the home of some obscure liberal arts department that the College of Charleston wishes would just go away. They make a remarkable “True Italian Cappucino,” with just enough steamed milk to know it’s there, but little enough so you can still taste the espresso. When I walked in the second day, the barista asked if I wanted “the same.” He did call me “sir,” but, by now, I have no excuse for taking away any points for that.
Inevitably, most of these shops are in college neighborhoods. Which have become—even in the south—so completely color blind that you begin to think we actually accomplished something in the ’60s. In fact, the only ethnic group that stands out is 50+ somethings. Most walk by quickly, smiling sheepishly, embarrassed that they’ve just been caught trying to pass for someone half their age.
Paris, Putney, San Francisco or Brattleboro. They’re all great places to write. But there’s always the risk of being existentially self-referential.
Case in point.
* I mention these because 1) they deserve mention and 2) if you ever find yourself in those cities you’ll know good places to go. Someone should do an idiosyncratically subjective guide to good independent coffee shops. Or set up a wiki website for it.Feb042011
Writing Aside #22.
About five years ago, during a particularly manic phase of my life, we built a big labyrinth behind our house, using only branches and the occasional log. After I laid out each of the 11 basic circles, Wendy would build them up and gently point out minor errors in my design—like how a curve should go behind a particular tree instead in front, or that my idea of true north was wrong on both counts.
A labyrinth guides you to its center and back out along a clearly define path. Whereas a maze throws you in there and wishes you luck. I actually don’t enjoy walking either. The predictability of labyrinths bores me—even pacing a floor has more room for improvisation. While mazes make me claustrophobic.
So I rarely walk ours. After a turn or two, I start picking up newly-fallen branches and using them to define borders that are slowly composting themselves back to earth. But, after a snowstorm, I’m eager to see if I can “find” it under the windblown snow.
The morning after our 20” the other day, I began following the barely detectable curving ridges, tripping over metaphors with virtually every step. Most people find walking labyrinths an opportunity for quiet contemplation. But I gave up on that a long time ago. By the time I completed about 3/4 of the circuits, I had at least three essays outlined in my head, one of which was virtually written.
Then I lost it. I had somehow meandered from circle three to circle four, screwing both of them up in the process. I retraced my steps. Hopped over to a circuit I recognized further along and tried to work my way back. Hopeless. Not only had I lost the true path, I’d lost all three essays.
I went back in the house to have lunch. But couldn’t sit still. So I went back out, diagram in one hand, shovel in the other. Eventually, I figured out where I’d gone wrong. Slowly, step-by-step, inch-by-inch, I tramped the true path and smoothed the broken borders, until the words I knew were there emerged from their snowy oblivion.Jan142011
Writing Aside #21.
In the old days, all a writer had to do to stay in shape was drink scotch and smoke non-filter cigarettes. Oh, maybe you’d play a little tennis, golf, or croquet. Or go hunting in Africa. But times change. Ever since I gave up smoking 20 years ago, I’ve played tennis, racquetball, and squash; done some fierce aerobics; and cycled several thousand miles. At the beginning, it was just to deal with the adrenaline-fueled nicotine fits. But soon, working out became an integral part of the rhythm of my writing day.
For the last few years my favorite workout has been spinning. With girls. Where else, in 45 minutes, can you get totally out of breath and drenched in sweat, while listening to ear-splitting music and a beautiful woman yelling, “What’s holding you back right now???” Not to mention being told that you’re the only person in the room with real balls.
But, as if that weren’t enough to make a guy happy, I have a confession to make: I do some of my best writing while spinning. Which isn’t exactly the point.
You see, in addition to knowing how to turn your heart rate into a mere plaything, real good spinning teachers make the class a meditation. An opportunity to let go of the stresses of the day. To bring yourself back to center. To experience your body fully. To let go of “everything outside this room.” In short, to not think.
Once in a while I actually do experience my body fully in the moment. But, it really hurts. So, I go back to thinking. About a scene that’s overwritten. A transition that makes no sense. A character who isn’t saying what she really wants to say.
People occasionally question my motives for spinning in a room full of women. But, by the time I get to my car, I’m really inspired.Dec182010
Writing Aside #20.
I like the idea of meditating in the morning. In fact, I did it every day for about 20 years. For some people, it’s a gentle way to make the transition from the chaos of dreams to the illusion of structure. But, for me, it’s like telling a dog that just woke up to lie down again. Got to let that puppy out to run around for a while.
After one hit of caffeine and a distracted look out the window, the ideas start bubbling up. To try to let them go or tamp them down—what Plato called creatus interruptus—seems not only like an exercise in futility, but oddly unnatural.
Often, it’s just a phrase or sentence that rises to the surface. Occasionally, it’s a big-time holographic vision that can take months to elaborate.
When I was younger, I’d try to keep my legs crossed and mind relatively still, while quietly sending those thoughts off into a kind of mnemonic holding tank. But now, if I don’t catch them while they’re flying by, I’ll never remember them. Or, more importantly, why the hell I thought they were so brilliant in the first place. Which, often, they’re not.
Eventually, my mind stops on its own to take a breather. Like a dog who, after relentlessly chasing a tennis ball or frisbee for half-hour or so, is panting so hard its gullet is hanging out. She may act like she wants more, but is actually quite content to collapse at your feet.
In the same way, after spending a while calmly drinking coffee and frenetically chasing ideas, my mind is actually quite content to collapse at my feet.
That would be a good time to meditate. Of course, I have been all along.
(With thanks to Bella & Milly.)Dec082010
Writing Aside #19.
Pockets are a problem. Whoever came up with the idea back in the 18th century was doing way too much snuff. And probably going through nicotine withdrawal because some “ruffian” had ripped off the pouch with his snuff box, hanging from his belt.
Pockets are especially a problem for writers. Because, in addition to keys, loose change, wallet, cell phone, and water bottle, you also need a pad, pen, glasses, digital recorder, napkin that you’ll throw away even though it has some really good ideas on it, and, of course, an unabridged dictionary.
I make things worse by dressing in layers—an increasing number of layers as it gets colder. So, between jeans, fleece vest, sweatshirt, and the occasional windbreaker, I could be walking around with anywhere from four to ten pockets. And I’m not even counting those weird hidden zippered ones. You put something in them and it’s history.
All those pockets, combined with a barely detectable attention span, means it’s unlikely I’ll find my phone before the person hangs up, a pen before I remember what I wanted to write, or my keys anytime in the near future. So I end up spending most of my time in public patting myself in ways that most people would find disconcerting.
For several years, Wendy’s been mildly suggesting—and that’s putting it mildly—that I put myself out of my misery by getting a “man bag”.
In addition to the phrase’s obviously troublesome connotations, I didn’t see how I’d benefit from a public display of pockets. Besides, it’s perfectly clear that most women spend half their lives looking for the perfect handbag and the other half trying to find the things they put in them. Why should I suffer a similar fate? This is not sexist, by the way. Women have told me this. And I’ve observed it. For way more than twenty years…and I’m not about to apologize now.
Then there’s my fashion sense. For me, that means wearing anything in plain sight…preferably on the floor.
I’m willing to make concessions when the occasion calls for it. I get some points for wearing a suit and overcoat to Emily’s wedding, don’t I? I even shined the shoes that I got for $5 at the Salvation Army. But the rest of the time I don’t give it a lot of thought.
Still…me? A man bag? It’d definitely raise a few eyebrows in Brattleboro and would give my favorite Putney farmer way too much cynical fodder.
So, it came as a surprise to me and Wendy that, in the middle of an innocent walk through a crowded outdoor market, I absent-mindedly tried a few on and made a vaguely positive comment about one of them. Immediately, she was paying for it—after, of course, bludgeoning the dealer down a few bucks from what was already the incredibly low price set by the local black (and khaki) market.
I’ve spent a few weeks trying to wear the thing. I successfully designated two pockets for the essentials—one for my phone and another for the pad, pen, and glasses. I didn’t even panic when I discovered two more tiny side pockets that were crying out for toothpicks, aspirin, or a Swiss-army knife that would get confiscated at the airport because I forgot it was in there.
In fact, I was starting to get used to it until I met Emily for lunch the other day. She has the same acute design eye as Wendy, but one that’s informed by an aesthetic that’s 25+ (or 30-) years younger.
“Look, Em…mom finally finally got me to buy a man bag,” I said, bravely flinging it over my shoulder.
Her eyes flickered.
I jump on her silent response. “Not working is it?” I said quickly.
“No,” I said, seeing a way to end the experiment, “I agree with you.”
She proceeded to make every point I had already made in my first draft of this post, finishing by explaining I needed something bigger; something more mail- than man- bag.
“Well, then I might as well just use my computer bag again.”
“No, smaller than a computer bag,” she said thoughtfully.
I looked at her. She looked at me.
“It’s a problem,” she said.
Note: There’s a history of pockets on http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A798159 which seems to be the source for every other site that discusses them.Oct212010
Writing Aside #18.
Since my father’s sources were often obscure, I didn’t realize as a child that most of his “lines in the script” weren’t original. Which, I suppose, makes him an early “Tumblr.” A misspelling that, no matter how intentional, would have made him wince.
Elmer—a rather odd moniker for a Jewish kid from Pawtucket, Rhode Island—taught Shakespeare at Brown University for almost 40 years.* But he could quote Harpo as easily as Hamlet, Philip Marlowe as easily as Christopher Marlowe.
A good line was a good line. Provenance had little to do with it. Although Providence was another story.
On the one hand, he was an exacting grammatician who would repeatedly remind anyone within earshot that “the reason is because” is redundant…ditto for “proactive,” and that you shouldn’t start a sentence with “hopefully” (no matter what anyone else said).
On the other hand, he taught me that it was fine to occasionally make up words, split infinitives, end sentences with prepositions, and use slang…as long as you knew what the hell you were doing it for. Sentence fragments were also OK in moderation. If you catch my drift.
The most important thing he taught me was the difference between what I thought my words were saying and what they actually were saying. For example, he often told my impatient teenage self that my rants about the Vietnam War wouldn’t convince anyone if they were incoherent; and that my “brilliant” insights about the relation between biblical prophecy and hallucinations would never be taken seriously if I kept jumping to so many drug-addled conclusions.
My dad had a know-it-all (and-he-knew-it) grin. Which I can see now. Because I’ve been rewriting this piece for more than three hours in a futile attempt not to incur his good-humored, spectral editing wrath.
As for jumping to conclusions, I intended to use the quote below to talk about something entirely different. I guess it was time to give a little credit where a lot is due.
*He would, of course, have been the first to point out that he could not teach, nor have taught, Shakespeare anything.
This picture was taken in 1974 when, although I was about to graduate college, he still had a few things to teach me.Oct172010
“Don’t get your mental exercise by jumping to conclusions.”
- Elmer Blistein (1920-1993)Oct172010
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