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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. “It’s just…” “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.
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.
Writing Aside #16. Over the last few days. I’ve walked down a few dark alleys, seen my share of phantasms, and even managed to have a minor encounter with an authority figure whose language and point of view I didn’t share.* Fortunately, although I’m as wary of lions, tigers, and bears as the next person, as I get older, these things don’t scare me all that much. (I mean Zen Buddhists, in their insistently detached and allegedly nonviolent kind of way, say that if you meet the Buddha on the road, you should kill him. I figure you might as well just say, “Hey, how’s it going?” and move on.) When I was in college, I thought that part of a writer’s “training” was to write about anything— no matter how frightening, repulsive, and/or grotesque. That no amount of violence was gratuitous, as long as you could relate it in some way to your search for meaning—whether that was colossal nihilism or transcendence. My inspiration was a cult classic called El Topo. I staggered out of the theater dazed,
but determined to wage an all-out-assault on squeamishness and conventional good taste. In retrospect, my descriptions were probably mild compared to the vampire classics of modern young-adult fiction. Still, thankfully for me and my very open-minded-but-there-are-limits professors, it was a brief phase. Writing, of course, is riddled with dark alleys, phantasms, and authority figures—not to mention analogies that have been stretched to the breaking point in the search for connections between the individual and the universal, the temporal and eternal. But, as I get older, those things don’t scare me all that much either. I mean, if you’re going to write about things that prima facie seem a little strange (even to yourself!) what choice to you have?
This particular up-close-and-personal interaction with sculpture (see last post) did earn me a, uh, modest fine. But hey, ars longa, etc.
I’m in a foreign city. I know where I want to go. I have a map. But it has no relation to the street signs. I go in circles. Try to avoid crowds. Promising side streets turn into dead ends. The distractions are endless. I need food. I need wine. I need coffee. I need all of the above and more. Maybe it’s not writer’s block we have. We just get lost. For one inspired moment, we know where we want to go. We can see it. The whole thing. We scribble the words as fast as we can. But they evanesce way, way faster. It’s OK. We’ll fill in the blanks later. But, by then, we can barely read our own scribbles, and can only guess at most of the blanks. We go in circles. Try to avoid banalities. Promising phrases turn into dead ends. The distractions are endless. We need food. We need wine. We need coffee. We need all of the above and more. But we keep walking. We keep writing. Until, we’re there. We don’t know how we got there, but we’re there.
Writing Aside #13. A few years ago, I traveled across country in a VW van—which is, I admit, my generation’s version of a religious pilgrimage. During that trip I listened in fits and starts to Susan Orlean’s travel stories. I felt I’d found a friend on that razor’s edge of outer loneliness and inner familiarity you feel when you find yourself in a Talking Heads song. Deeply displaced, but not really lost. All writing requires at least some sense of separateness, doesn’t it? Even if you’re writing about the oneness of all creation—in which case that sense would seem to belie your message. That’s one reason I like airports, train stations, crowded highway rest stops: any place I can look at the faces of hundreds of humans I’ve never seen before and probably won’t again. Many people share share the sheer strangeness of these places—which makes them oddly unifying rather than separating. But traveling still always reminds me of the way I felt when I was 14 and, despite all evidence to the contrary, felt I was the only 14-year-old who ever arrived in Grand Central Station and walked the streets of Manhattan alone. More than 40 years later, rather than feeling lost in those crowds, I feel found in them—that I’ve again rediscovered a sense of myself I can’t experience any other way. A sense of separation that I need in order to keep writing. Even when face to face with the oneness of all creation.
Writing Aside #12. With the exception of Emily Dickinson—and even she went to Philadelphia—travel is another thing many writers do when they aren’t writing. Location, of course, plays a starring, or at least supporting role, in countless novels about traveling. From Caesar’s Gaul to Jack Kerouac’s America, it’s hard to imagine how there’d be any there there, if there’d been no there there back then. These days there are a lot of books and articles—in the tradition if not spirit of Mark Twain—written by people lucky enough to get paid to tell everyone about the best places to go that nobody has ever heard of—until, of course, they write about them.
* * * * * * I like the perceptions of strange people in strange lands as much as the places themselves. The aloneness of Maugham’s barely fictional Ashenden at Lake Como or Remarqué’s Ravic* in Vichy Paris is palpable—even more so because, at any moment, either could be exposed as men without clear country. For Ashenden it always seemed there was another intrigue; or Ravic, no matter how late in the occupation or early in the morning, it always seemed seemed there was another bar in which to take refuge, and another Calvados or Vouvray to drink.
* W. Somerset Maugham: Ashenden, or the British Agent Erich Maria Remarque’s: Arch of Triumph.
Writing Aside #11. There’s an Egyptian myth that Thoth was bragging to Ra he was teaching humans to write. Ra laughed at him, explaining he was destroying human memory in the process.
* * * * *
I always figured if you had writer’s block, it just meant you had nothing to say. You should probably have a beer, pickaxe some ledge for a path, or practice Italian. Maybe all three. Fare attenzione! For many years, I’ve claimed I never have writer’s block. But reading this Egyptian myth got me thinking. About a lot of things. Memory. Meaning. Subconscious. Soul. And suddenly—seriously—I’m having trouble figuring out what I want to say. I’m don’t feel blocked so much as caught in quicksand. Or, as a good friend reminds me in many other contexts: “Tar-Baby, she ain’t sayin’ nuthin’, and Brer Fox, he lay low.” Reading that story again got me thinking. About a lot of things. Aspiration. Inspiration. Impatience. Patience. Desire. Fulfillment. Cleverness. Humility. And suddenly—seriously—I’m having trouble figuring out what I want to say.
* * * * *
Maybe if I go back to the ancient myths, I’ll figure it out. Many of them say that writing comes from the Gods. So if there’s a “block,” it must come from a kind of inability to…to…
Writing Aside #10. When I ran a small ad agency, my two biggest management challenges were temperature and music. Clients could be difficult; writers and designers could be creatively blocked; and suppliers could be late; but, eventually, we were always able to deal with those crises. The battles over temperature and music were chronic and insoluble. First, temperature (we’ll get to music another time):
Some people had their windows wide open. Some had heaters under their desks. Some wore sweaters. Others just t-shirts. Some people drank iced coffee while others needed hot. (As I remember, one person simply transitioned from gin-and-tonics to Jack Daniels straight-up.) You could attribute some of this to the vagaries of temperature in a wide open office. But more had to do with the vagaries of personal comfort. Eventually, we gave up, and installed some kind of fancy microprocessor-controlled thermostat that allegedly time-zoned the entire office. That way, the people who got in at 7am would be warm enough, and the ones who were still working at 7pm wouldn’t be overheated. Which worked fine until just about everybody figured out how to re-program the thing. Some of my best writing has been done on chilly October mornings while looking for the guy in the basement who has to “bleed” the heating pipes every year so the radiators will start hissing. Or finding a big sheet to hang over the south window during that early December afternoon when the sun starts coming in at a certain angle,
immediately raises the temperature 20 degrees, and makes my screen invisible in the process. Or bringing wood in to my cabin on a frigid February morning, starting a fire, and walking around rubbing my hands to get warm; and proceeding to making minute adjustments to that stove and the overhead fans throughout the day. Putting on sweatshirts, taking off sweatshirts; heavier socks, lighter socks; woolen hats and baseball caps (you lose a lot of heat through a bald spot, you know); opening windows as wide as possible; raising and lowering storm windows; putting air conditioners in and taking them out; adjusting the placement and speed of fans and heaters; going outside for a walk because it’s still too hot or too cold… It’s all part of the creative process. When you’re on a roll there are no distractions. When you’re not, everything is.
Shown here with our artist friend Jessica who also, clearly, knows how to dress for creative success.
Writing Aside #9. The two most important Bar Mitzvah gifts I received were a Smith Corona Electric typewriter and a touch-typing course that consisted of several 33-rpm records and a manual. “A,” the record would say. “A” “A” “A” “A”… I could have obeyed its commands all day. And, for many days I did; until I could type 30, 40, and eventually 70-80 words a minute. But the real accomplishment wasn’t speed; it was discovering that you could have a direct connection between brain and fingertips. From then on, while the words might not always come easy…the actual “writing” could
be seamless; without the distractions of pencil sharpening, left-handed smudging, and trying to write in a straight line. All you had to do was change the ribbons once in a while and use a pin to pick out the ink that had hardened inside the o’s, p’s, d’s, & etc. I’ve worked at a keyboard virtually every day since my teens. Let’s call it 45 years. 300 days a year. A minimum of two hours a day. That’s 27,000 hours. Let’s say I’m actually only typing words (as opposed to staring into space or drinking coffee) for 30 minutes in each of those hours. And only typing a leisurely 50 words a minute. If my math is right, that’s 40,000,000 words. Give or take a few 100,000. Of course, I’ve erased a lot of them: first with a nice soft pink eraser on “Corassable Bond,” Then with Ko-Rec-Type, Liquid Paper, and the Delete key. Still, I better stop here, and move along to the show-and-tell:
I’m sure we had a manual typewriter when I was little, but I can’t remember it. I do, however, remember the now-forgotten, instinctive childhood game of banging on the keys to see how many you can jam up at the platen. The first typewriter I ever used for its designed purpose was my dad’s Smith-Corona Electric. He said it was the very first one. Which I took to mean first on the planet, although he meant in terms of model years. I liked this machine. In fact, at some point while I was in college, I traded him. Not only could you watch the action like on a manual, it had the old-fashioned manual return. The very way you hit that lever and threw the carriage back told volumes about who you were—as a person as well as a writer.
On the right is that Bar Mitzvah typewriter. As I remember, the color was more slate-blue. The automatic return was somewhat magical, and could be banged on in frustration when the words wouldn’t show up.
Talk about magical…the IBM Selectric. They were way too expensive for me at the time, but somehow I got a hand-me-down in the late ‘70s. The only problem was that watching the ball spin around was much more interesting than actually writing. More problematically, it let writers change typefaces. Beginning the process that has only escalated since then of being able to distract ourselves from the work at hand by screwing around with formats.
I did use a friend’s dedicated word processor in the early ‘80s, but my first real foray into computers was in January 1984, on a two-disk drive IBM-PC. The program—WordPerfect of course, was in the top drive. The data was in the lower one. There were two problems: accidentally erasing your un-backupable file, and trying to get the printer—a bulky, enclosed typewriter type thing—to understand what the computer was trying to tell it.
Finally, I’ve gone through probably five or six laptops over the last 20 years+. Each has become an extension of my brain. I keep backups on a flash stick and eternal drive. That misspelling was probably intentional… My daughter now owns a couple of vintage typewriters which she’s bought more for their artistic than literary potential. This is a picture one of them. She had it set up at her wedding so people could write congratulatory notes. Too bad my dad wasn’t still around. I can see his face slowly shift from his signature sardonic bemusement to the self-absorption of making sure he gets every word right.
There’s a lot of great writing on the web about vintage typewriters and typewriting. I particularly enjoyed http://www.mrmartinweb.com/type.htm, which is also the source of many of these pictures.
Writing Aside #8: Voice Recorders. In the spirit of the subject matter I am, against all my better literary judgment, posting this exactly how I dictated it. Just imagine a [sic] around the whole thing.
…I think most writers do. After all, who else could fully appreciate the raw, half-baked ideas that run rampant through our brains waiting for someone to make sense out of them. More importantly, or, as importantly, who better to appreciate the sound of our own voices. The transcendent thrill of reading your own words again and again? It seems like some slightly perverse sexual innuendo could go here, but I think I’ll skip it. Of course the other side of the stories is that most writers read their stuff out loud to themselves while editing. It’s usually a humbling experience. This isn’t the raw stuff of brilliance. This is the stuff you thought was brilliant, and turns out to be flat, lame, poorly constructed, confusing, and, at worst, banal. And to make it even worse, or if you want to make it worse, I guess I’d say, you read into a tape recorder and then play it back to yourself. If that’s not enough to make you cringe, then I’m not sure how good a writer you really are. That sounds sort of arrogant. Well, let’s leave it. We all have our scraps of paper, back of envelopes, weird pads, those things lying all over the car, parking tickets, to capture a word or two, usually illegible, that you have to stare at for a while. But if you’re serious about writing a piece, it’s great to have a small tape recorder. I bought my first or, probably, it was bought for me, in the early ‘80s when I was a copywriter and would go interview clients. It was great. You could go interview them, pop the cassette into the car on your way home and, by the time you got back, you’d start…be already editing their words in your head. I always said that if you got a client to talk long enough he’d eventually or she’d eventually write her own headline. But while those recorders … that one there … was really good for putting on a table and interviewing of a CEO of a bank or young startup guy of a computer company, it wasn’t that great for driving around or putting on your own desk, or else I was too young or too self conscious.
The second tape recorder took those little microcassettes. And I don’t really know what the point was except it was easier to hold and it did look better when reporters shoved them in the faces of politicians or criminals. For me, it was just easier to hold in my hand, and I got a little more used to, uh, I got a little more used to transcribing at that point, so I could tape for a while and then transcribe what I wrote. Of course, I was so obsessive, I tried to get every word when very few of them really mattered. This will be kind of interesting, because this part I’m dictating after getting on a plane, whereas the last part I dictated after getting off a bike. And then a kid is screaming behind me. Nevertheless, for me, the big leap in talking to yourself was the introduction of those little handheld digital tape recorders. I can’t remember when I got my first one. I’d say in the middle to late ‘90s. But it’s when I began putting it on the seat next to me, so that when thoughts came to me while I was drinking coffee and talking on the cell phone, I could put down the coffee, hit the record button and start dictating. As soon as I put down the cell phone. Now again, it’s important to say that I used these in fits and starts. Sometimes for just for something a few thoughts I might use at the office the next day. The next leap came in the early 2000s, the brown one there, the Olympus. The cool thing about this one—they thought the cool thing was that it played music, to me the cool thing was that you could plug it into your laptop and put the recording into a file, so you could be playing as you typed. Which meant the whole thing could be done on the keyboard. The problem is that I used it a lot on a long trip I took, a long trip I took along the East Coast in 2005 during which time I dictated lots and lots of stuff, just impressions while driving. Most nights for a while I had the discipline to transcribe, but by the end of the trip, I was several hours behind. Imagine my dismay when suddenly the display turned into Japanese. Something I never quite understood. It just kind of scared me to death. Eventually I called and learned that what I had to do was reformat the software, whatever they call it, on the cassette recorder, which, of course, would erase the 25 files I had on there. Now theoretically I could have transferred all those files into a laptop. But that made me nervous since the instructions were in Japanese. So, traumatized, I occasionally added a few files and transcribed a few. My recording career ended pretty quickly. A few years later, I was going somewhere where I knew I wanted to record a lot, so I bought the last one, which was the old style, the one that you couldn’t plug into the recorder. That’s the one I’m dictating into now, daring myself to put up a post exactly as transcribed. For usually I’ll draft one in 10 or 15 minutes, and then spend two or three hours making sure everything is exactly how I like it. I can’t say that it’s a fair experiment. From the beginning I knew I’d do this. So I thought about each word carefully and paused, though less frequently than I thought, to re-collect my thoughts and speak them. Coming up with an ending which can take a while to get right, feels particularly like cheating because I have the recorder on pause to think about it. And the pressure is becoming almost too much to bear. I exaggerate of course. I understand that I could just plug this into my computer that speech recognition software has gotten good enough that it could actually understand my mumble. I tried one about ten years ago, and didn’t like it, but I guess they’ve improved a lot since then. I suppose I could also use BlueTooth. A name and a technology that I have trouble grasping for some reason. But maybe that’s the real story. Because now, people walk along city streets, or stand in airports. Everyone has learned to talk to themselves and, of course this is almost too trite an ending, but I need to stop, the question is always whether we’re saying anything.
The story sounds apocryphal but probably happens all the time: A doctor and a writer go to their child’s kindergarten open house. All of the kids have to introduce their parents and say what they do for a living. Their daughter says: “This is my mom…she’s a doctor. And this is my dad…he makes tea.” I make tea first thing every morning. Then again after the afternoon nap. With half & half and raw sugar. One cup can last me a couple of hours. Which drives my fiendish dental hygienist crazy. She says it’s like soaking my teeth in sugar. So I keep a water bottle nearby and take a sip and half-hearted swish once in a while. My tea-making will never get me into a Zen monastery, but I do have fairly rigorous standards. The water has to boil furiously. The cup or pot has to be warmed. And I always steep five minutes, even when they say three will do. When I need more than a tea bag’s worth, I use loose tea. I buy it with with the discrimination of a connoisseur and blend it with a heathen’s abandon. Those tea sacks or sachets are easier to use, but some kind of mesh insert is better. Forget the steepers that look like a spoon—you just can’t get enough tea in unless its totally pulverized. Our daughter is decades past kindergarten. And Wendy’s a librarian not a doctor. But I do make a lot of tea.
Photograph by Wendy O’Connell. Hair by 8-hours sleep.
Writing Aside #6. Most writers are “fetishists.” In the traditional sense of the word—before it was ravaged by sexual innuendo. In other words, we believe that certain, seemingly insentient, objects have the magical power to inspire us—or, at least give us something to talk to while we’re waiting for inspiration. Unlike the cigarettes we used to smoke, the pens we still chew on, the yo-yo’s that we yo…yo, and small metal or rubber balls that we roll in our hands or toss in the air, a true talisman has the power to soften the heart, relax the brain, and let loose the subconscious. One of my first was a terracotta Mayan figurine that could, figuratively, crack my mind wide open whenever I put it to my forehead. Since then I’ve entrusted my creativity to seashells, gemstones, keychains, and even ecumenical rosary beads; anything I could hold, look at, and, if necessary, throw against the wall in frustration with seeming impunity. (I can’t speak for the karma involved.) Photographs pinned to the wall or framed on the desk—graven, Kodak, fading Polaroid, or digital—gaze benevolently at virtually all of us, taking us back to more pleasant times; I.e., when we weren’t staring at a screen trying to beat an innocent collection of words into submission. (A picture of my late English professor father is especially helpful at times like this—although he tends to be as condescending now as he was in life.) Many writers, even the most hard-boiled, put their faith in stuffed animals. But for the last 20 years, my muse has been a small plastic figure whom strangers, in their ignorance, refer to as “one of those Mr. Bendys,” but is known, to his secret nationwide network of admirers, simply as “Ben.” For, while there are thousands of similar figures readily available at toy stores—only Ben has been imbued with the magical powers necessary to be my personal fetish. And, as he would tell you, it ain’t easy.
An unabashed egomaniac, Ben takes credit for every good line I’ve ever written and blames every bad one on my foolish refusal to check with him first. He has traveled widely (usually under seats or overhead compartments, although he’s also a big fan of FedEx.) He has survived kidnapping and shameful neglect—including long days in sweltering cars and longer nights outside in the snow. While he’s never gone over Niagara Falls in a barrel, he did, as you can see, come damn close. Plus, he’s been mauled and masticated by many children, leading eventually to the first successful plastic arm transplant in history. (The body part in question was donated by a Hindu Bendy, who, as Ben pointed out, had plenty to spare.) Sometimes talismans become so intrinsic to our writing process, that we forget we are the ones who imbued them with their power in the first place. Although, as Ben hastens to remind me, once they have it, they see no reason to give it back.
One of the greatest failings of my writing career is notebooks. (Another is not knowing whether to use “is” or “are” in that sentence.) I’ve used everything from small pads that I lose almost immediately, to bound journal things with built-in bookmarks that seem too elegant to ravage with my impatient scrawl. Notebooks with pockets, dividers, and even strips of ribbon to mark my place. Spiral bound at the side or top. Notebooks with plain, lined, or even graph paper. Traditional pads? Don’t get me started. Yellow, gray, pink, blue. Letter & legal side. Eco-friendly and not-so. One for each project—a designation that lasts about a day. Clipped to clipboards and inserted into slits made for just that purpose in folders designed exactly, and in my case unsuccessfully, for that purpose.
Some people claim that the secret is to keep using one notebook, regardless of the subject, until it’s filled. I tried that once. The constant battle between my creativity and need to keep things organized turned the poor thing into an illegible war zone. I’ve tried starting from the left with my left-brain ideas and from the right with my right-brain ones. Pretty soon, I forget the difference. I never reach the center from either side. Plus I’m a lefty, of course. Which, in terms of writing left-to-right, is a handicap that only Leonardo ever overcame gracefully.
Every few days I grab all the notebooks and pads in sight, transcribe anything I think can possibly ever have any value, and then either tear out the pages or draw harsh lines across them. Which, I may one day regret. The “Service Writing Tablet” was my father’s in World War. Unfortunately, I must have torn out any pages I (or he) wrote on. But, on the rough cardboard-like back, there are some references to magazines for a paper I wrote in 1965 or 1966. I can see…it’s more a feeling…the kid who wrote them.
Happy Birthday. It’s not easy being the friend of a writer—having to walk that fine line between encouragement and occasionally brutal honesty. My best friend and I have been reading, criticizing, laughing, and rolling our eyes at each other’s words for almost 40 years. Happy birthday, Kenny (from Wendy, too).
Writing Aside #3. When Wendy was in kindergarten, her mother had a “teacher conference.” The woman said her only concern was that, “Wendy stares out the window a lot.” Her mother, an artist, was very pleased to hear that.
Sunrise from our back porch.
Sunrise from our front porch.
South window stare. One time, a friend asked what I like best about our house. I said that there were so many great places to sit and stare.
From chairs under crab apple to cabin. These aren’t spectacular views of ocean sunrises or mountain vistas.
Through Palladian window in cabin. I’m clearly not a professional photographer either.
From cabin porch—I see a face in the center tree. I’m a writer. And one of a writer’s most important tools is having good places to stare from.
Out the window from my worktable. 7 a.m. this morning.
Writing Aside #2. Out west they have a lot of space and, in many places, it’s real dry. So instead of dealing with garages, storage sheds, barns, and basements, they just pick any old out-of-the-way spot and start piling up baling wire, fence posts, old plumbing fixtures, electrical components, and every car part known to man or woman. I have a friend who never throws anything out. She calls it her gold mine. And she keeps it real organized. Because you never know when you might need a door handle for a 1952 Ford Pickup…and pronto.
Although I had little sense of personal history until fairly recently, fortunately my mother did. In spite of my urgent pleas for her to throw them out, two boxes of random ’50s/’60s memorabilia, that she made me take more than ten years ago, still sit under my worktable. And I’m glad. Because a writer never knows when he might need that stack of gas station card receipts which trace the route of your family trip on two-lane roads to Colorado when you were 11. Or one of those random Junior High French assignment books that happened to survive forty years in the attic trenches.
There’s a whole envelope full of report cards in that manila envelope—her handwriting alone gets me. Behind it is one of those old binocular-like View-Master things. And then there’s that banker-file type box full of letters that you always promised ourselves you’ll burn…a combination Pandora’s box and Proustian gold mine.
They say that your life passes before your eyes when you die? Of course it does. It’s passing before your eyes every moment.
Writing Aside #1. I know there are a lot of books about the writing process. But it’s actually easier than it looks. You just take what’s going on up here and try to get it to flow out of your fingers onto a screen or paper. And go back and forth like that until you feel like there’s some kind of synergy between what was up there and what’s down there. Since, I’m juggling five or six writing projects. My office looks like this:
And my bookshelves look like this:
And I start the day looking at something like this:
Which is a problem.
1) Because, sure, it may look organized. But inside all those folders there’s a hodgepodge of Word files that I probably wish I’d put in different folders in the first place; and
2) I believe in loving everything. No exceptions. Actually, exceptions too. But I really don’t like Word. I mean I believe it has as much right to be on the planet as any other person, place, or piece of software. But I don’t like it. Which means…
3) Word not only threatens my writing productivity, it does a serious number on my spiritual pride—which, of course, is never a bad thing.
A few months ago, I started using a program called Scrivener. This is what my desktop looks like now when I start the day.
Every file, including reference, pictures, web links, etc. are all one click away, without leaving that screen. Scrivener isn’t for everyone. But if you’re writing long stuff, it’s like when they invented WordPerfect back in 1984, or the electric typewriter earlier in the 20th century. Or the manual typewriter in the 19th. Or the mechanical pencil in the 18th. Actually, papyrus was kind of fun in its own way. Seems I’ve been doing this a long time.
As I continue to explore the slings and arrows of outrageous Tumblr, I’m keeping my ongoing blog about manic depression: David’s Inferno.Fortunately, it’s neither as manic nor depressive as the title would make you think.
Meanwhile, Real Time has a description of the book I’ve been working on since the beginning of time. It includes an excerpt in which I’m accosted at The Met by Rubens—who takes me to the Crayola Crayon Factory to give me a taste of real creativity. And another in which Harriet Tubman wakes me up from a pleasant nap on a park bench in Berkley to give me a lecture me on real freedom. (The picture is actually at her grave in Auburn, NY.)