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What I Didn't Write #2

 

One of my weekly habits is to sit down with the new issue of The New Yorker the afternoon I fetch it from our mailbox, deliberately ignore the table of contents, and then read every cartoon in order, page after page. If my wife is nearby and I come upon a cartoon that seems pertinent to her, maybe reminiscent of something she mentioned or a conversation we've had, I'll show her the image and let her read the caption. Sometimes a thematic undercurrent seems to run through the cartoons, as if they were in tune with issues of the day or the psychology of the cartoon editor, and sometimes they seem entirely randomly selected, unrelated to one another. Sometimes, as often happens with whatever we encounter in our daily activities, a cartoon will set a chain of memories and reflections in motion.

 

That happened with the December 30, 2019 issue, entirely devoted to cartoons and to humorous prose. On page 39, a comic drawing by Paul Noth showed two female figures—or possibly three. The young woman on the left seemed etched from a late nineteenth-early twentieth century magazine illustration. The figure on the right was a perfect replica of a classic 1915 optical illusion by William Ely Hill, "My Wife and My Mother-in-Law." It contains both women at once—the "wife" turning to look behind her (in Noth's drawing she faces the woman on the left) and the "mother-in-law" seen in profile. It's a famous ambiguous illusion, like Rubin's Vase, an image from the same year that is simultaneously a white vase in a black background and the black profiles of two men facing one another against a white background. Noth's interpretation of Hill's illusion has one woman telling the other, "I'm turning into my mother." It's essentially an homage to the earlier illusion but it adds a different psychological dimension. For Hill the ambiguous figure is simultaneously his wife and his mother-in-law, as if the illustrator as husband is aware of the resemblances that age heightens; for Noth the speaker is the daughter acknowledging changes in herself, adding another level of ambiguity, since the changes may not be only physical—notice how dour that older woman seems, compared to the fashionable adornment of the daughter.

 

As it turns out, the Noth cartoon didn't simply remind me of those ambiguous illustrations of the past; it took me back at least seven years to a time when I downloaded the Hill and Rubin images to add to a slideshow I planned to run in a summer residency writing class. The images were really background, establishing the tradition of optical illusion art before projecting images from a video of eight young women dancing onstage to a German polka-rock recording titled "Tanz" by the group Hiss. The women are dressed in alternating outfits with one white side and one black side, the white of one linked to the white of someone next to her and her black side linked to someone on the other side. They have to coordinate their movements even coming on stage since they have their arms behind one another and their costumes are all connected at the hips. When the music starts the dancers have to move their legs, all white legs together, then all black legs together, but since different dancers have those colors on different legs, some left, some right, their movements create an optical illusion. The audience cracks up all through the number. Since then I've discovered a number of other performances like this from different groups, some male, some female, some mixed-gender, and I get the feeling that this is a popular amateur chorus line act.

 

When I put the talk together, I'd been focusing on the idea of ekphrasis, the art of writing about images. I would start with famous poems like Keat's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," William Carlos Williams' "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus," W. H. Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts," and Patricia Hampl's "Woman Before an Aquarium." I would also show music videos to reinforce the possibility of ekphrasis extending into other forms, such as visualizing a poem or a song lyric. I located the German lyrics to "Tanz" and found a translation, and it inspired me to try writing my own poem about the "Strumpfhosentanz" video. Google Translate tells me "Strumpfhosentanz" in English would be "Pantyhose Dance." I think I'll stick with the German title. This is my ekphrastic poem:

 

Strumpfhosentanz: An Ekphrasis

 

Strumpfhosentanz,
schwarz und weiss.

How elusive the illusion
when made so vital—
and by now viral—
as if strobe lights
had come to life,
become Rockettes
for polka-rock.

 

Was ist gut für den Korper,
für die Seele, für den Geist?
the singer asks.

Der Tanz! The dance!

Shifting focus without
the blink of an eye,
repeatedly startled
by what I comprehend
that is at the same time
what cannot happen—
and happens,

as if, in Hill's cartoon,
the old woman suddenly
smiles while the young woman
turns ever so slightly,
as if Rubin's vase becoming
the faces becoming the vase again
were somehow animated.

 

My allusions elude me,
my optical ekphrasis
mere delusion.

Strumpfhosen auf schwarz und Weiss
tops and bottoms don't align
within the chorus line.
"Hebe deine Beine"
and their legs lift
and what cannot happen
happens.

Strumpfhozentanz auf
Schwarz und Weiss.

How elusive the illusion;
my ekphrasis applauds delusion.

 

This is something I've only done once, to this song and this video. I think this is the way ekphrasis works—something in what you see sets off something within you and you give voice to it somehow, in a poem, a song, an essay. If you watch the video linked to the image and listen to the song, I hope you'll sense the way they inspired my response. They may even inspire a response from you.

 

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Apertures

 

One recent morning another one of those coincidences I tend to notice occurred at breakfast time. In the May 18, 2020 issue of The New Yorker Peter Schjeldahl reviewed an exhibit of Dorothea Lange's photos on the Museum of Modern Art's website, one of those virtual tours our pandemic times encourage. Over twenty years ago I'd read about Lange in Robert Coles' splendid Doing Documentary Work, then examined online holdings of her photos at the Library of Congress and began using some of her images, including the "Migrant Mother" photo Schjeldahl discusses, in writing courses I was teaching. He devotes a paragraph to Lange's pictures of Japanese Americans sent to internment camps during World War II, "work that was commissioned and then suppressed by the federal government."

 

"One of the best known is a shot of children, Japanese-Americans and others, with hands on hearts, apparently reciting the Pledge of Allegiance," Schjeldahl tells us. "Lange's images show the detained as regular people who had to cope with an outrageously unjust confinement—and who, in doing so, were buoyed by being together, at least." He claims that "Lange was a poet of the ordinary but imperious human need, under any conditions, for mutual contact." When I closed the issue, I saw again the cover display of a dozen separate images of young people in graduation dress all wearing face masks—"Class of 2020" by Anita Kunz. It made for a timely juxtaposition.

 

Ordinarily, such a review would simply send me to view Lange's photos online, but I'd also been reading sections of Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy, edited by Simmons Buntin, Elizabeth Dodd, and Derek Sheffield, a collection of "letters to America" published since 2016 at Terrain.org. After breakfast I happened to open the anthology to "Aperture: A Photoless Photo Essay" by Traci Brimhall. Her essay consists of a series of eight short segments each composed of two paragraphs, the first subtitled Image and the second subtitled Caption. The Image paragraph describes a photo and the Caption paragraph explains and reacts to the picture. No photos are attached to the essay. Her third segment at first startled and then engrossed me—it centered on two of Dorothea Lange's photos of the WWII Japanese internment project.

 

Brimhall introduces the first image as "Rows of barracks and a dust storm moving through them" and then starts the next four sentence fragments the same way: "Dust through . . ."—floorboards, broken windows, "the unfurled American flag straining at the pole," "the clothes of the two Japanese Americans running through the dust roads between the barracks." She describes the second image this way: "A father posed with his family. A tag looped through his coat buttonhole, the child next to him, tagged. The child in front of him, tagged. And the other child. And the other child. Each one staring unsmiling except the smallest child who watches someone the camera cannot see. Their bags labeled with their surname and a symbol to reunite them someday." In the Caption section Brimhall explains how the War Relocation Authority, which recruited Lange to take the photos, impounded them after they were submitted and stored them in the National Archives. Brimhall surmises, "When they realized the photos were sympathetic portrayals of Americans moved into horse stalls, standing in line for hours for food, weaving camouflage nets to help the war effort, the WRA realized the images must remain unseen." They only resurfaced in 2006. Brimhall asks, "Dear Unlooking America, it embarrasses me, but when a mirror teaches us who we are, do we ever believe it?"

 

Other segments in the essay treat images from the Manzanar Concentration Camp in California and the Gila River Concentration Camp in Arizona, built on a reservation—she calls it "A prison on a prison." Fort Sill in Oklahoma, she tells us, has been a relocation camp for Native Americans, a concentration camp for Japanese Americans, and, recently, a detention center for migrant children. In one more contemporary segment, the image paragraph details drawings by children released by the Border Patrol from a detention center and asked to draw their experiences before being transferred into a "respite center." "The Smithsonian expresses interest in acquiring their drawings as artifacts." Brimhall claims to be "disturbed that we need images to make us pay better attention," which partly explains why this is a "photoless photo essay."

 

And yet the words Peter Schjeldahl and Traci Brimhall find to describe the images they've scanned closely don't simply recreate them but interpret them in ways that reveal how the images affected them. Consequently, their accounts of those images impact their readers by making them visualize what these writers were viewing. If we were to view those images after reading their accounts, we would likely see them in much the same way. The question is, if we had seen them without those descriptions, how would we have understood them?

 

An aperture is an opening in a lens that lets light pass through. The images are apertures that let our history appear and, like any image, what we see depends on the setting of the aperture. It changes when we no longer see the image in isolation but view it among others, perhaps across time, in an album. Or even in a photoless photo essay.

 

Note: Dorothea Lange's Dust Storm image is viewable here.

 

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Imagining Images

One nice thing about being addicted to reading as a writer is finding yourself inspired or provoked to start writing about memories or ideas that your reading has somehow triggered. Over a period of a few days I happened to read a posting on Facebook by Leslie Carol Roberts, a writer whose work I like, author of The Entire Earth and Sky and Here Is Where I Walk. She asked her readers, "Tell me about the first book you wrote" and mentioned writing and illustrating a book at age 8. I responded at once with a story I've written about a couple times before. Here's what I told her:

 

I haven't been able to find any copies of my earliest writing—a good deal of it was destroyed by mold in our basement—but I have vivid memories of coming home from a matinee showing of Superman and the Mole Men with my neighborhood friend Bobby Hall. We both were excited about the movie—it later was shown in two parts on The Adventures of Superman television series—and when we got to my house we pried open my mother's typewriter and sat down on the living room floor to write adventure stories. At the time, in addition to reading superhero comics and faithfully following adventure series in the Sunday newspapers, I was also a big fan of the old Flash Gordon serial being shown daily on local television. All that influence came together that day in my creation of several one-paragraph action stories about Tiger Boy. He had superpowers and lived on the Tiger Planet, modeled on Flash Gordon's planet Mongo and ruled by an evil emperor like Mongo's Ming the Merciless. The various civilizations in peril were all part human, part tiger, like Tiger Boy, whose secret identity I've forgotten. Bobby and I had a good time—his stories were more sports related, I think—and when my mother read my typed tales, she eventually got me a toy typewriter of my own so I wouldn't break into hers again. I've been a writer ever since.

 

Around the same time I responded to Leslie's post, I read an essay titled "Dear Me" by Ann Napolitano in the New York Times Book Review. Starting at age 14 she'd been writing letters to her future self to be opened ten years later, her most recent one at age 44. I've blogged about that essay before, but along with admitting that, at my advanced age, I might not be around to open such a letter ten years from now, the convergence of Leslie's post and Napolitano's essay set off something else in me.

 

Revisiting that Tiger Boy story again I realized a couple of things about it that I hadn't thought before. One is the way the story might have shifted its emphasis. It's an autobiographical narrative about something that happened to me that I remember fondly. It is also a personal anecdote about the influences of popular culture on a young boy (I think I was eight years old) and it could lead in a couple of directions, towards the idea of private creativity arising from public creativity or towards an argument about the nature of contemporary culture influencing the creation of further popular culture or towards a memoir of a young writer's interactions with his family (my mother wasn't always supportive, as I mentioned in my memoir Happenstance). It's also a tale about learning how to use a typewriter.

 

But, possibly because I've been thinking about writing with images more often lately and have done a certain amount of such writing, I realized that every time I've told about Bobby and me typing our one-paragraph stories, I have re-entered that "first living room" (as we called it), the room at the entrance to our house, and seen the two of us on the floor not far from the coat rack and the front door and the front wall mirror opposite my mother's piano and the staircase leading to our bedrooms and the hallway to the kitchen at the back of the house and the open archway into the "second living room," the one where we watched television and listened to records and read. I could go on. Just mentioning any one of those features sets off memories of many more of them.

 

Mostly when I think or talk about writing from images, I think about the ways we can find an old photo and imaginatively, psychologically, enter it, walk around, check out the nature of the place and the personalities of the people in it, re-acclimate ourselves to having occupied that space at one time or, more challengingly, assess how the living presences in that space interacted even if we weren't there at the time. But I also think that it's possible to reverse that process—to re-enter a scene through memory and by writing about it re-inhabit it fully. In my writing classes I sometimes ask students to imagine themselves as a time-traveling drone that can approach their home from the exterior and look through a window into a family room—perhaps the living room or the kitchen or the bathroom or their own bedroom—in order to first of all describe what that drone would see and only later interpret what the things being viewed might reveal about the occupants. If you could take a photo of that room from one angle, what would be in the picture? What would a casual viewer realize about the people who used that room? What does examining that picture do for you?

 

We carry a wealth of images around with us all the time and they offer us abundant entries into memory and imagination.

 

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Sequencing Words and Images

 

It's been a habit with me to take photographs in a sequence whenever I experience a new place—hike an unfamiliar trail, for example, or visit a forest I've never been in before. Since I often write about place, sequences of images have been a useful way to revive memories of where I've been. I take a photo at the trailhead, often with my wife in it if we're hiking together, and then record changes in the terrain or interesting features that crop up: certain trees or clusters of trees, certain rock formations, certain meadows or prairies, a bridge and a stream, a boardwalk. Later, particularly if I've decided to write about that experience, examining the photos in the order they were taken can revive my memories of being there. I not only recognize the location recorded in the photo but I can close my eyes and project an imaginary video of my progress between each pictured place. Sequencing the images lets me re-walk the walk in my imagination.

 

Not all projects work that way, of course. I once wrote short essays for radio, virtually composing scripts while doing whatever I was doing. I noticed the world around me as I experienced it, sometimes taking photos but mostly narrating—silently—whatever I was doing and whatever I was seeing as it happened. A nature-writer friend told me once that he needs to hike alone so that he can speak aloud as he walks and record whatever he reacts to as he notices it. His recordings also pick up background sounds of birds and breeze and the crunch of his bootsteps. It's the most immediate way to compose. My habit is to write a log or journal entry after the experience as soon as I can, just to get something in motion, on record. Writing extemporaneously—what we used to call "freewriting"—opens up your thinking in ways that impromptu speaking or formal composing can't quite achieve.

 

Everything I've been saying here suggests that tackling an experience in image and language is best done within a limited time frame. Nowadays, of course, I take my photos on my phone and can share the sequence with my wife as soon as I get home, but when I first began photographing scenes from a hike I had to wait until I'd taken the roll of film into my favorite developer and picked them up days later before I could react to the sequence I'd recorded. The more slowly—weeks, perhaps a month or more—I got around to getting film developed, the wider the gap between the experience and the examination of the images, the more challenging the comprehension of the sequencing became. Sometimes in the frantic pace of living my log entries were very slight and my opportunities to peruse a sequence were slim. With enough distance between experience and examination I sometimes couldn't remember what I was viewing or how I happened to record it. For a nonfictionist of place that's embarrassing as well as frustrating.

 

For example, nearly two decades ago I embarked on an ambitious project: to compare the Hudson and Rhine rivers in both literature and onsite journeying. It took a lot of time and a lot of travel to gather the written and visual materials for the book I hoped to write. But by the time I'd done that, the long-term press of other projects and the complications of relocation and re-employment distanced me from everything I'd collected. I never wrote that book. Lately, no longer immersed in those other (very rewarding) activities and wondering whether I could revive that project, I leafed through the material I'd accumulated. My notes and journals generally seemed insufficient and the photographs, though plentiful, seemed remote and vague.

 

And yet I found myself returning to one brief sequence of images. My wife and I had taken a cruise on the Rhine and predictably I'd photographed various sights along the shore and occasionally on the vessel itself. One photo showed the two of us against a shoreline background with a castle on the highest point. A picture centered on the castle itself came next and then one of a smiling man in a deck chair. The sequence brought certain moments back to memory. The castle was the Marksburg, an iconic fixture along the Rhine, and the photo of the two of us was taken by the man in the deck chair, whom we'd been talking to on the cruise. A German a few years older than me, he'd learned English from American soldiers at the end of World War II.

 

At first the pictures seemed to inspire simply a slight memory passage, little more than an anecdote, and my first draft was only about the image of the two of us and the solitary image of the castle. But I couldn't stop thinking about the personable German who'd taken our photo, his pleasant interaction with us two Americans, and his youthful experience with American soldiers, as my father-in-law had been at that time and in that place. The contrast between his life experiences and mine made me aware that he and I would never see the Rhine or the Marksburg in quite the same way. The sequence of images urged me to deepen my understanding of that moment in our travels, an understanding I might not have had when I was actually there but now couldn't avoid thinking about. And couldn't avoid writing about.

 

Note: My essay titled "The Marksburg Photo" was published online in the November 2019 issue of Ascent at https://readthebestwriting.com/the-marksburg-photo-robert-root/

 

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Learning from Coincidence

April 30, 2020. This morning, looking out my study window to appreciate how green the grass across the street has become and to watch the swaying of the trees that tower beyond the condos opposite ours in insistent gusts of wind, I caught a movement in front of a neighbor's garage. I noticed robins bouncing around the driveways, suspected goldfinches and purple finches and mourning doves and chickadees might be visiting our feeders, out of sight from my window, but knew at once the movement I'd seen was not a bird. I leaned closer to the window and saw a rabbit scurry past white garage doors and condo entrances and small bushes and then beyond more garages and bushes and parked cars until it disappeared into a well-manicured hedgerow at the end of the buildings. I look out at six two-story condos in a row and the rabbit scampered past them all.

 

A few minutes later the rabbit made a second run past the condos, as if it had circled others behind them to complete the circuit. This time I watched it closely, trying to see if it was nibbling anything in the flowers below the shrubs and trees, but it moved on quickly and slipped in between the bushes in front of the final condo again. Almost before I could remember what I was doing on the computer the rabbit returned to run in the opposite direction and veer off toward the back near where it had first appeared. And then it was back a fourth time, partly retracing its last run but suddenly turning onto the blacktop driveway, crossing lawn and sidewalk and curb and bouncing across the street toward our complex, only a few doors down from me. I hurried into our bedroom for a closer view but by the time I opened the blinds it had vanished. I wondered if it had run through my neighbor's flowers and herbs or past our patio and garage. For the rest of the morning I kept flicking my gaze up from my laptop screen to scan the scene before me but saw no sign of the rabbit again.

 

Ours is a pretty suburban neighborhood, our condo complex sprawling across two sides of our street, pretentiously labeling itself as Townhomes of River Place. The Fox River runs through wetlands beyond the condos behind ours and a bike path lets us walk near it and through a forest. From time to time deer emerge from the woods to venture into the neighborhood, Sandhill cranes stalk parkland close by, a blue heron wades in a pond near the bike path, and foxes have been seen near the Fox River, so the rabbit wasn't entirely a surprise visitor. But it especially activated my attention this morning because of the images my cousin had posted on Facebook that were taken from her bedroom window in Arizona.

 

She lives in a retirement community and often displays the lively activities of her friends and neighbors, though of late the need for social distancing has limited the interaction she's been reporting. This morning, however, the photos and videos she posted were all of javelinas (collared peccaries) strolling through her patio at sunrise. She counted twelve, including at least three babies, and sure enough her videos show them wandering through cacti and ferns and wicker chairs and small endtables, munching on acorns that have fallen across stones and patio flooring. In one photo a javelina close to her bedroom window looks in at her.

 

My cousin's southwestern wildlife is more exotic that my midwestern ones but the coincidence of us both noticing unfamiliar animal activity the same morning put me in mind of images I've been seeing lately on internet posts from far-flung acquaintances. All of them seem to suggest that, during these days of lockdown and human isolation, wildlife have felt freer to roam suburban and urban areas. It's not entirely unusual to hear of cougars wandering in Boulder but this year their wandering has been a little more wide-ranging—at least one image showed a cougar passing a department store. Coyotes have been more visible in San Francisco; a kangaroo was filmed hopping down an empty thoroughfare in Adelaide, Australia; herds of deer, sheep, and goats have been grazing more readily on suburban lawns in Britain, Japan, and North America. Given how empty the streets of my neighborhood have tended to be over the past several weeks, I shouldn't be surprised if local wildlife didn't range more freely around here, especially with the grass so green and lush. My wife and I have noticed birds in the street uncertain about how to behave in regard to oncoming cars.

 

But then, now that the traffic is so light, my attention has more often been drawn to the birds and the squirrels and that rabbit, delighted to see the heron, hoping the cranes will show up soon. I look at those swaying trees a few blocks east and am aware of how seldom I attend to them. On cloudless days I remember images people have posted of smogless skies above LA, clear skylines in the distance in Chicago and Detroit, free-ranging animals having Rocky Mountain National Park or Yellowstone all to themselves. All those creatures going about their lives as if they barely know we're here.

 

Or maybe it is that we barely notice they are here and have been and will be. Given our own losses and our isolation in this pandemic, our awareness of sharing something simultaneously intimate and universal, our altered sense of our existence, gives us the chance to remind ourselves that this world is not ours alone. In the weeks or months to come, the other creatures we share it with will likely keep reminding us. We ought to pay attention.

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What I Didn't Write #1

 

February 12, 2020. This morning, by accident, trying to find something to read at breakfast among the back issues of The New Yorker that we'd let pile up, I discovered, in the January 13, 2020 issue, "Tabula Rasa: Volume One" by John McPhee. Over the years I've collected all of McPhee's books; depending on the physical measurement of the books, they take up most of the middle shelf in one bookcase, part of the narrower paperback shelf above, and part of the taller lower shelf below. I've read them all and occasionally reviewed them. The last one I reviewed was Draft #4: On the Writing Process, considered along with a review of The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl: two of my favorite nonfictionists pondering their own careers after decades of memorable publications. Since then McPhee published a miscellany, The Patch, a patchwork publication, drawing on things that had never made it into his books.

 

"Tabula Rasa," however, is different from everything else he's written, including The Patch. It consists of nine distinct segments, the first and last segments forming a frame through focus on locations in Spain, one titled "Trujillo," after a town in Extremadura, and the other "Extremadura," identified as "an autonomous community" the size of Switzerland. The segment that reveals what McPhee is up to in the article (almost a jumble of micro-essays) is the second one, "Thornton Wilder at the Century." McPhee explains how, decades ago, his editor at Time took him to meet Thornton Wilder. When Wilder was asked what he was working on, the playwright explained that he was cataloging the four hundred and thirty-one surviving plays of the Spanish playwright Lope de Vega. McPhee, then less than half Wilder's age of sixty-six and estimating how long such a task would take, asked ("callowly," according to him), "Why would anyone do that?" The question infuriated Wilder and McPhee was reduced to embarrassed silence for the rest of the conversation. "Nonetheless," he recalls, "at that time in my life I thought the question deserved an answer. And I couldn't imagine what it might be." Then McPhee responds to his younger self:

 

I can now. I am eighty-eight years old at this writing, and I know that those four hundred and thirty-one plays were serving to extend Thornton Wilder's life. Reading them and cataloging them was something to do, and do, and do. It was a project meant not to end.

 

He realizes, "I could use one of my own. . . . With the same ulterior motive, I could undertake to describe in capsule form the many writing projects that I have conceived and seriously planned across the years but have never written." An essay or book about Extremadura was one of them.

 

In the third segment (or capsule), "The Moons of Methusaleh," McPhee muses about the unwritten writing he might now reflect upon, but starts to have second thoughts. He tells of bike riding with a friend and "whin[ing]" about how such a project "begets a desire to publish what you write, and publication defeats the ongoing project, the purpose of which is to keep the old writer alive by never coming to an end." His friend advises, "Just call it 'Volume One.'"

 

When I have a writing project in process I often keep a log or a journal, occasional reports to myself about how the work is progressing. Sometimes, when the writing isn't going well, I borrow an approach McPhee has used. He claimed he would write a letter to his mother, begin with family chatter but then complain about what he's working on. By explaining to her what he should be writing but hasn't been, he ends up drafting the text that he was blocked on. He then tears off the top of the letter and copies the part where he created a rough draft of a chapter or article and goes back to work, no longer blocked. I've used the same strategy, sometimes explaining to my wife, if she asks what I'm doing, that I'm writing about why I'm not writing. In the midst of something in process, the strategy works.

 

Lately however, having completed two book-length manuscripts that I haven't yet published and published all the essays and articles I have completed, my various logs and journals have mostly been about what I'm not doing. Sometimes there are mentions of work that I started long ago but never followed through on or work that I spent years researching that only recently produced one short essay instead of the massive travel memoir I'd intended to write. I realize how much of my time is taken up with daily chores and tangential tasks and writing log entries about how much more stalled various potential projects have become. But reading that passage about McPhee's belated awareness of what Wilder was up to moved me to tears. Later he writes of "decid[ing] to describe many such saved-up, bypassed, intended pieces of writing as an old-man project of my own." I was immediately aware that I was only ten years younger than McPhee and he had never steered me wrong before. I too could engage in a project like Wilder's and McPhee's (and, according to McPhee, Mark Twain's). Instead of frequently writing about not writing I could write about what I didn't write. It would help me empty a good many boxes of file folders cluttering up our garage.

 

And then I thought, I could post my capsules on a blog. A blog isn't really a publication, is it? Isn't a blog kind of like a journal, its entries left open on the Internet?

 

It might be a project that would never end.

 

 

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Writers as Readers

In the January 27, 2020 issue of The New Yorker Rebecca Mead, a frequent contributor to the magazine and a pretty reliable source of amusement and enlightenment for me, wrote about the pleasures of wild swimming. Titled "The Subversive Joy of Cold-Water Swimming," it opened with an account of British writer Roger Deakin's decision to "make an aquatic journey around England, Wales, and Scotland, bathing in seas, rivers, ponds, and lakes." She calls Waterlog, his book about that experience, "a classic of British nature writing" and finds his prose "sensuous," erudite, and "subtly political." I almost immediately wanted to track it down and start reading.

 

The book was published in 1999 and Deakin died in 2006, his home at Walnut Tree Farm now maintained by a couple who offer overnight stays on the property. In 2019 Mead visited the farm with the intent of immersing in the moat Deakin renovated and, in the opening of his book, swam in himself, partly inspired by John Cheever's short story, "The Swimmer," about a man crossing pool by pool through his neighborhood on his own aquatic odyssey. I remember Cheever's story well and Burt Lancaster's portrayal in Frank Perry's film version. The rest of Mead's article records her visits to sites of "wild swimming," a popular pastime in Britain since the publication of Waterlog.

 

I recommend her article and hope to soon be able to recommend Deakin's book, but the element that first caught my attention was the chain of influence she records: a Cheever short story inspiring Deakin's book which inspired Mead's article and influenced the wild swimming movement, which in turn has provoked further writing, including a book of essays, At the Pond, with a contribution by Margaret Drabble. Mead doesn't mention Joe Minihane's Floating: A Life Regained, a memoir about recreating Deakin's book. All this made me remember how often in my own reading I've selected books for their resemblance to earlier books I'd enjoyed or, in reverse order, discovered earlier books mentioned by authors I'd just read. Helen Macdonald's H Is For Hawk, a profound nature memoir, has much to say about T. H. White's much earlier The Goshawk; Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways pays respect to Nan Shepard and her book The Living Mountain (which I'm just about to read).

 

Everywhere I travel I try to find a book to guide me there, and sometimes the combination of book and onsite wandering prompts me to write about the place itself. That happened with my visits to Belgrade Lakes in Maine, the site of E. B. White's classic essay, "Once More to the Lake," and to Walden Pond, motivated by not only Thoreau's book (which I've reread more than any other) but also by White's essay about his own visit there, making me wander the pond looking over their shoulders. It happened with reading Isabella Bird's A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, leading me to record a retired English teacher's wanderings in Rocky Mountain National Park in Following Isabella, and with my visiting Wisconsin landscapes written about by John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and August Derleth (all Thoreau enthusiasts themselves) in Walking Home Ground. It isn't simply following in the footsteps of earlier writers for me and for the other writers I've mentioned; it's also having those writers open me up as a reader to the possibilities of connection with particular places.

 

I remember studying English literature in graduate school, particularly the rise of British fiction, and discovering the connections among the novels by reading them in the order they were published. Samuel Richardson's Pamela prompted Henry Fielding to first publish a satire, Shamela, and then a comic novel about "Pamela's" brother, Joseph Andrews. Richardson countered with the darker novel Clarissa and Fielding moved on to his masterpiece, Tom Jones. With these models before them Tobias Smollett wrote The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker and Laurence Sterne The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. I suspect that a great deal of literature is generated in response to earlier literature, whether deliberately or inadvertently. A later writer thinks, 'Here's the way I would have told that story' or 'Here's a story that reminds me of one that also needs to be told' or 'Here's the way I would have presented the issues dealt with in that story.'

 

Stories arise out of experience, it's true, but the way stories are told arise out of the way earlier stories have been told. You can't be a writer without having been a reader.

 

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Moonlight

 

I didn't see the moon on April 8—the "Pink Supermoon" being hyped online in anticipation for days—because the skies were cloudy in Wisconsin, but the next night, I saw a very large, very bright moon, not pink but still as close to the earth as it would get all year and as dazzlingly illuminated as I had ever seen it. I wondered if the brilliance was enhanced by the recent clearing of the atmosphere because factory and traffic pollution had lessened everywhere as the country practiced self-isolation. The travel and business shut-down due to the Coronavirus quarantine was, generally speaking, good for the air, a plus for the environment. It had been a very long time since I'd seen the moon so bright in a sky so clear,

 

As it happened, I'd been reading Kathleen Jamie's essay collection, Sightlines, before I noticed the brightness beyond our window blinds. I immediately turned back several pages, to one I'd dogeared in her essay "Moon." She had the chance to watch a lunar eclipse mostly on her own at home, the children preoccupied downstairs, and her account of the eclipse is carefully and exactingly observed. I was struck by her reflections on the event. "The moon does us great service," she tells us, "metaphorically and literally, and this is part of it—occasionally she allows us to appreciate the shadow cast by our own planet. She shows us that the earth, for all the cacophony of life on its surface, is firstly an object, bigger than we are, magisterial enough to cast a shadow thousands and thousands of miles into space." Her essay made me remember being stunned by Annie Dillard's essay "Total Eclipse," in Teaching a Stone to Talk, where she takes us through a solar eclipse and ponders its impact upon her.

 

Despite the catchy title of Supermoon, the moon this April offered nothing of the drama of the earth's shadow darkening its surface or the moon's body blocking our view of the sun, but it held my attention for many minutes. I could see it at an angle through the space between the bedroom window and the blind, nearly filling that narrow gap, making me put my book away and reach for a pair of opera glasses I use to watch birds on our feeder some mornings. I could easily see the dark land-formation shapes against a gleaming yellow surface and eventually hurried downstairs to fetch stronger binoculars. Soon enough I urged my wife to come to my side of the bed and look out at the moon, handing her the opera glasses and binoculars in turn. I turned off my reading lamp to make our bedroom darker, to make the moon even brighter,

 

Unexpectedly, memories of moon-gazing flashed into my mind. I'd been in college when the first unmanned lunar landings occurred, living alone in an apartment in an old house in a neighboring town. I sat up past three o'clock in the morning to watch the first live telecast from the moon from a camera on the lunar lander. When the images began to appear, slowly, one strip at a time, I turned off the lights and pushed my face close to the screen, as if I could get even closer to the moon. On earth the physical moon could at that moment be seen through my apartment window high in a clear, cloudless sky. I kept looking out the window at that small bright circle in the darkness and then looking back at the image on the television screen, trying to reconcile the two, trying to appreciate how I could be seeing both the familiar remote and distant satellite and the close-up of its actual surface at the same moment. I remember feeling that our relationship with the solar system—with the universe itself—had changed.

 

Now, back in bed, leaning to keep the moon in view, I hoped to memorize what I was seeing so that I might be able to call it up when I closed my eyes some cloudy nights, to reassure myself it was out there. In our daily lives, our attention to getting and spending keeps our line of vision low and lets so many aspects of the natural world be overlooked, ignored, forgotten about. I was happy to lie there quietly, envisioning the moon as vividly when I closed my eyes as when I had viewed it through my window. I tried for a moment to put pandemics and politics into perspective, but soon dismissed thinking about them at all. Even with my eyes closed, the moon was too bright, too close, too permanent for me to be distracted by anything else.

 

 

Note: This image of the April 7, 2020 Supermoon by Bill Funcheon appeared on www.space.com the next day. He photographed it above New Jersey.

 

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Dear Me

I've been a little behind in my reading of our subscriptions. Whenever we go away for a few weeks, as we now do each autumn, our copies of The New Yorker and The New York Times Book Review pile up and even by the end of the year we haven't caught up. Somehow, though, probably hurrying to find something to read at breakfast before we left the house for the day, I happened upon "Dear Me," an essay by Ann Napolitano in the NYTBR. It recounts how, inspired by a passage in Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery in which the title character writes a letter to her future self, Ann at 14 wrote herself a letter that "described the current state of my life and listed my hopes and dreams for myself 10 years later." Wrestling against impulse, she didn't open the letter until her 24th birthday and was "horrified" at what "an absolute fool" her teenaged self seemed to her to be. But then she wrote another letter, to be opened at age 34, and at 34 wrote one to be opened at age 44, and at 44 wrote still another to be opened at age 54. She still has six years to wait before opening that last one. She describes the thrill of opening those pages she hasn't seen in a decade: "Who will I find in the envelope? Will I be surprised?" She wonders how many such letters she will have written by the end of her life and "love(s) the idea of the oldest version of me—how old will she be?—reading through the page, probably laughing at how young and serious I was, in every letter."

 

I have to admit that I like the idea of writing letters to oneself, recording where you are in life at one moment and where you hope to be (or predict you will be) ten years later. If I were still teaching, I think I'd likely make "Letter to Your Future Self" an assignment in my composition classes—a pretty apt one for high school and college freshmen and prospective graduates at any level. In fact, I have long had the habit of keeping a journal in which I make sure to write entries on significant days: my birthday, for example, or New Year's Day, or Solstices and Equinoxes. I tend to record what happened in the year past, list what I hope to accomplish in the year to come; sometimes, when I'm brave, I look back at the entry from a year earlier to see what claims I made, and groan when I confirm that my actions didn't match my intentions.

 

The one discouraging thing about Napolitano's example is that my peers and I are at a time of life where it's uncertain whether we'll be around in ten years to open today's letter to self. In the past calendar year alone I've lost a sister, a cousin, an aunt, and a dear friend, and media notices of celebrity deaths of every stripe confirm how many of the prominent in my generation are concluding their time here. I remember some professor somewhere—it might have a pretty morose writing teacher—who suggested his students should write their own obituaries, the ones they imagine might be written about them when the (hopefully) distant occasion for such a text would arise. I've contributed to at least one obituary in the past year and read others without comment. I wonder if we'll get the chance to read all Ann Napolitano's letters to her self as her final, perhaps posthumous book, and get the chance to compare them to what her obituaries tell us.

 

Of course, this has been the kind of year that challenges everyone's expectations of the future. The Coronavirus Pandemic has disrupted our domestic lives in every way we could imagine—schools closed, businesses closed, churches closed, events cancelled, daily life transformed. We're challenged to perform all the common tasks we took for granted—doing our work, doing our shopping, socializing, taking care of our families and homes and possessions, simply stocking up for daily living, Last week there was no toilet paper and few paper towels, this week there is almost no orange juice or Vitamin C, all kinds of products on supermarket shelves are in short supply and we find ourselves buying brand names we've never heard of before because they are the only ones on the shelves. We rely on digital technology to get in touch with loved ones we can't risk visiting in person. We watch or listen to audience-less performances or reruns from past seasons. Political news, when we make ourselves consult it, adds unfamiliar levels of anxiety and angst daily.

 

So one question the semi-apocalyptic world we're living in invites us to ask ourselves—one that would have seemed morbid last year but seems practical right now—is this: if you were going to write what perhaps will be the final letter to your future self, a message to read in a potential existence after this one, how would you describe where you are in your life right now? How did you get there? What did you hope you would have accomplished or attained if you had had that additional decade you expected? What would you like that self who will have eternity to consider who you really were to know about you? What would you not like them to know but will confess anyway?

 

I drafted the first three paragraphs here over two months ago; the final three, including this one I drafted today, almost the end of March 2020. One of the things writing has taught me is that circumstances can abruptly alter what you think you're talking about. Imagine the alterations ten years may bring.

 

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Once a Writer . . .

A phrase that begins with "Once a . . ." tends to end with "always a . . ." repeating the same noun after each opening. If I open this post with "Once a Writer . . ."—and include those three periods to indicate that something follows it—I hope that most readers will automatically add "Always a Writer." At least, I suspect that any reader who is also a writer will think that way. I like the construction and hope that "Once a reader, always a reader" would also be a reliable assertion, probably for all writers and hopefully for all children who are taught to read at an early age. But as a title for this series of posts it seems particularly apt for me.

 

Because I'm at an age where, when synapses open unexpectedly, I can't be sure they'll stay open very long or predictably reopen at my request, I've been hoping to find ways of making myself pay stricter attention to unplanned connections that catch my attention. Writing has usually been one way to do that over the years. It may be, in fact, that my reliance on writing has weakened my habit of remembering, since I suspect that, if I can't remember something, I may find out I've jotted it down somewhere. The trick is to remember where.

 

It used to be that English teachers taught students about free-writing, the act of composing spontaneously, informally, to wrestle with ideas or feelings and open synapses that give you freer access to them and more potential for expressing them more clearly in more formal drafts. I have long been someone who has trouble responding to certain emails—I never get letters or even postcards anymore—and usually delay until I've had time to free-write and then revise a response. Often I take so long that I don't respond at all. Online at Facebook I tend to simply hit the "Like" button rather than comment and reacting to sad or troubling news is particularly hard—I don't want to "like" news of a death or divorce or illness but repeating standard expressions of condolences seems inadequate.

 

Over the years I've been in the habit of writing books and essays and at the moment I've been avoiding trying to publish the last two books I completed. (It's the writing I'm interested in—the publishing has always been an afterthought.) But I have no new project in mind, nothing on the scale of another book-length venture, and neither have I been teaching writing lately, as I've done almost continuously for fifty years. Somehow I was pretty productive while simultaneously writing and teaching; not teaching and not writing gives me too much time to think about what I'm not doing. Social distancing adds another level of remoteness and I've begun to think that I've been social-distancing from myself a lot lately.

 

Friends encouraged me to start a blog, as they have also done, give myself an informal place to think on the digital page and occasionally send it out into the world. I could write about writing, or write about reading, or write about thinking about writing or reading. The blog part of it makes it less fraught than an essay or an article; the online part of it makes it a little more of a communication (even if I won't know if anyone else has read it) than a journal entry destined for a box in the garage (where years of them are piled). And at least, my friends remind me, I'll be writing again.

 

As it happens, things surface unexpectedly in my daily life, mostly in my habitual reading at the breakfast table or in a book I'm reading aloud while my wife prepares dinner or in my bedtime reading before sleep—an idea or a sentence in an article or an essay or a scene in a novel, an image in an illustration or in a cartoon or a film or television series we've watched at night—and they haunt me long enough that I feel the need to respond to them in words, mostly to find out why they haunt me, why they made me react the way I did, why I can't get them out of my mind. I keep logs for projects I'm working on, but those are geared toward ruminating about their progress or their problems; a blog would let me just react to whatever surfaces. I wouldn't have to post that particular entry, but I could. I'd let the entry itself tell me if it feels like going semi-public. Anyway, I'd be writing.

 

You know what they say: Once a writer . . .

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