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Where We Are

 

One living room wall in our Sarasota rental is almost entirely glass, with the lanai (just a screened-in porch, says our son-in-law) beyond it and, across a shallow stream, a wide expanse of bright green grass and scattered trees. Deep in the condo, at the dining table between living room and kitchen, where my wife and I spend hours on our laptops, I sit directly across from that view of the golf course. When the vertical blinds are open to let early morning air enter, I sometimes see the sun emerging behind distant trees. This morning, rising toward a cloudless sky, it slowly illuminated gently rolling grasses and highlighted dewy stretches alternating with dry ones. Some wet patches changed from silver to orange and then to gold, brightening minute by minute. I crossed the room to photograph the scene, continually captivated by alterations in color and light. Nothing stirred on the golf course. When the sun rose more fully above the trees, its face turned bright white, too brilliant for me to look at. I shut the blinds and let it continue to rise unseen.

 

Wood storks sometimes occupy one solitary, tall slash pine on the lawn upland from the stream. They are another reason for me to open the blinds, step into the lanai, and lean slightly through the screen door to photograph them. Five were in the tree last night. I'd seen at least one, sometimes two, in the late afternoon and early evening over previous days, but finding so many at once captivated us. The first time I saw two on the tree an osprey launched himself off a slightly lower branch and sailed just above the stream past our condo. Osprey. Wood storks. On our first days here we delighted in spotting a limpkin, a few egrets, a cluster of white ibises, and, though I identified them only days later, a bevy of black-bellied whistling ducks. Another day, after a light afternoon rain, three sandhill cranes calmly strolled along the stream bank. Walking in a nearby park we saw an anhinga on a float in a pond, wings spread to dry them, and in a patch of thick wetland a great blue heron stood virtually motionless—motionless until I wondered out loud if he were a statue and he turned his head to stare scornfully at me.

 

Over the years, when we'd come to Sarasota to visit our daughter and her family, we'd fly to Tampa, rent a car, and spend a few long weekends. We'd often stay on Siesta Key, on the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico, where we could walk the beach and identify the shorebirds: snowy plovers, semipalmated plovers, killdeer, sanderlings, western sandpipers, herring gulls, royal terns, least terns, black skimmers, brown pelicans. Once, on a morning when we were somehow almost alone on the beach, a half-dozen dolphins passed us offshore. We smiled and waved but I doubt they noticed us. Sometimes the kids would join us to swim in the Gulf waters. For a short time, we'd enjoy a different way of life.

 

Lately, for health reasons, we've driven down in the fall and rented a house or a condo for more than a month. On weekdays, with daughter and son-in-law at work and grandkids in school, Sue tutored at an elementary school and I hung out in libraries, teaching online or scribbling. Now, in this pandemic year, we send curbside pickup orders online to shops with proximity to our rental and later drive off to fetch them, facemasks on, car windows up, trunk open, hand sanitizer at the ready. We used to take the kids on weekends to familiar places like the Bradenton Museum of Science and Nature, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Ringling Museum, and Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, maybe enjoy a boat tour on Sarasota Bay and snacking at Yogurtology. We're unlikely to visit any of those places this year, as much as we value them. When we see the kids, we try not to make our air hugs too tight.

 

A few days ago, we all drove in separate cars to Turtle Beach and were almost the only masked people on the shoreline. We walked to a semi-isolated spot where the youngest granddaughter braved brisk waves alone while the rest of us cheered her on. A peaceful evening seaside moment. I tried not to compare it to the many other shoreline strolls we've taken, the quiet mornings, the calm sunsets, the sense of connection to something outside ourselves. I wanted simply to enjoy it for the moment we were there. I wanted to remember what we value about being where we are.

 

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Writing Lyrics

 

I don't know how Facebook knew I might be interested—just recently it posted ads for online wine shops right after I Googled a couple different wineries—but it's been sending me notices about the American Songwriter Lyric Contest. Winning contestants might receive a very expensive guitar or a relatively inexpensive microphone, but the Grand Prize Winner would receive a "Round-Trip Flight to Nashville, a Professional Demo Session (one song), two nights at Union Station Hotel Nashville," and a "Dream Co-Write" partnership with a successful professional songwriter. The songwriter and the contest winner would collaborate on turning the winning lyric into a successful, recordable song. Perhaps the lyricist him/herself would become a professional songwriter and go on to fame and celebrity, like winners on American Idol or The Voice do. For a moment, I was alert to the possibilities.

 

I wasn't likely to compose a new set of lyrics by the deadline three or four days later—I hadn't written a new song for decades—but somewhere in a box of old writing projects is a notebook of lyrics I wrote and performed in my brief time as a singer-songwriter. I hadn't been much of a guitar player in college and not a composer at all, but when my first marriage broke up and I moved without a television into a small apartment in the town where I taught, I began playing guitar again, learning tunes in The Joan Baez Songbook and Greatest Hits of the Sixties and watching Laura Webber's Folk Guitar.

 

Eventually, I generated lyrics and tunes silently on the walk to work, mostly forgot them during the day, did more composing on the way home, then worked on them more in the evening. A former student planning to sing at a friend's wedding weeks away told me she'd been singing and playing guitar daily, to get her voice up to performance level after a long lay-off. I decided to do the same thing, hoping at least to sing my own songs in tune. A friend urged me to perform at a local bar's open mike night. With the university on end-of-semester break the bar was nearly empty, but I was encouraged when one of the two drunks in the audience asked me sing Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain" a second time.

 

When the next school year started, I played a short set on a crowded street during an autumn festival. John, a new instructor in our department and also a singer-songwriter, heard me. We got together to play for one another, soon workshopped our songs with Barb, another singer-songwriter, and initiated occasional songwriter nights at a bar in a different college town. At John's house, I met the woman who is now my wife. After both my songwriter friends moved, I stopped writing songs and settled more deeply into my academic life, occasionally performing folk songs with neighborhood friends at a monthly sing-along, the Alma-gamated Song Group (we lived in Alma, Michigan). After the instigating musician of that group moved with his family to Maine, I seldom picked up the guitar.

 

I make the claim to having been a singer-songwriter modestly. I did, after all, write songs and sing them at people for a while, but the truth is I can't write musical notations, only mark chord changes above appropriate words in the lyrics. I taped some of them to recall the melodies later but haven't played those tapes in years. Even with the words in front of me I'd have trouble remembering most of the melodies. I remember writing songs for the woman I courted and married and for each of the children in our blended family. I know many lyrics were often about my situation at the time. One song, "When Does A Man Get Fully Grown?"—pretty folky, if I remember it correctly—was one Barb liked so well that I rewrote it from a woman's perspective and heard her perform it with her own songs.

 

I should find that folder of lyrics and read them through, find those tapes and listen to them. I wonder what I'd think about them as songs; more dangerously, I wonder the degree to which they would reveal the person I was at the time I wrote them. What would I think of him—of myself—as the person who needed to write those songs? To enter that songwriting contest, though, I'd have to submit a recording of myself singing my lyrics and playing guitar. That would require a lot of rehearsal. It would also require tuning the guitar.

 

I still get daily ads for that contest. I don't know why I haven't told Facebook to stop them.

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Les Paul

 

For the second time in three weeks I've come to the Prairie Home Cemetery in Waukesha, to distract myself from waiting for car repairs many blocks away. My treks here have been inspired by the chance to again visit the grave of Les Paul, the Waukesha-born musician who revolutionized the electric guitar and multi-track recording. He's celebrated here all over town with wall murals and colorful, differently themed statues of electric guitars, thirty in all. I still haven't tracked them all down, but I always look for the one with images of Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt, and Heart on it. In the 1950s, when I began listening avidly to pop music, my mother bought a copy of "How High the Moon," the major hit by Les Paul and Mary Ford. She played it so often that it became anchored in my subconscious and I virtually hear it again in its entirety anytime I think of it.

 

Born in June 1915, Paul died in August 2009, just over eleven years ago as I write this. According to the account of his career engraved in the stone walls around his grave, he and Mary had eleven number 1 hits and 36 Gold Records between 1949 and 1962. Their marriage eventually ended but his influence in the recording industry continued for a long time. One of his later recordings, Chester and Lester, was a dual guitar album with Chet Atkins, the prominent country guitarist and producer. Videos on YouTube record Les performing with younger musicians like Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones and Joe Walsh of the Eagles. Younger guitarists were aware of his influence.

 

It's not only the murals and artfully decorated guitars that commemorate his career locally. There's also the Les Paul Experience display in the Waukesha Historical Museum and another, grander exhibit, Les Paul's House of Sound, in Milwaukee's Discovery World. There, each time I go in, usually with grandchildren, I watch the 1953 episode of Omnibus, the informative and entertaining television series hosted by Alistair Cooke, that featured Les and Mary explaining how they managed multi-track recording. In the fifties, when we had only four television channels and networks all offered public service programming as well as entertainment, I saw it when it was first broadcast one Sunday afternoon. The exhibit is expansive and inclusive and the episode itself is available online.

 

Fame is fleeting and life is short (Has anyone else ever mentioned this before?) but I'm always cheered by an awareness that some people—not only presidents but also poets and other creative individuals—are given attention somewhere as a reminder of their accomplishments. Waukesha has a Whittier Elementary School, a Lowell Elementary School, and a Hawthorne Elementary School. My Wisconsin grandchildren live in a school district containing Whitman Middle School and Longfellow Middle School. I like seeing nineteenth-century poets and authors honored in this way, in part because at one time in my life I read them all. Few of those writers are read or remembered today, unless some author revives them, as Mark Doty did in What Is The Grass, his book about Whitman's influence on him, and Nicholas Basbanes did in Cross of Snow, his recent biography of Longfellow. I read both books with considerable pleasure over the past few months.

 

I don't know how many people have come to Waukesha to visit Les Paul's grave, but I was cheered that Central Middle School was renamed after him. It's okay if modern school kids get to hear about creative artists of the 20th Century as we slide more deeply into the 21st. Every so often I learn about the hometown of someone who is or was prominent. For example, Orson Welles was also born in 1915, a month before Les Paul, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a little over fifty miles away. When I drive south to Florida again, on our annual ragweed escape, in Indiana we'll pass a stretch labeled John Mellencamp Highway near Seymour, his birthplace, and remember again that James Dean was born in Marion, not that far away. Online I can easily find lists of people born in towns I've never heard of who achieved either fame or notoriety, many whose names I recognize from films I've seen or books I've read or recordings I've heard. The famous tend to live out most of their lives somewhere other than where they were born. Les Paul started his show business career in Waukesha, as a teenage performer named Rhubarb Red, then spent most of his adult years elsewhere, and eventually returned here at the end of his 94 years.

 

When you discover where accomplished individuals started their lives, you realize that where they began didn't keep them from doing something ambitious, something memorable, as those lives went on. That should be encouraging to people who feel as if they come from Nowhere. It should also be encouraging to people who live Nowhere when some of those people make it known where they come from. I like standing in the sunshine at Les Paul's grave. When I get home, I'll go online to watch and hear "How High the Moon." It's already playing in my subconscious right now.

 

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Doing and Undoing

 

My bedtime reading recently was Terry Tempest Williams' Erosion: Essays of Undoing, a powerful series of reactions to current decimations of the natural world, especially the withdrawal of national parks and monuments from protection against industrial development. I've had a thirty-year acquaintance with her work, beginning in 1991 with Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. That book is simultaneously a moving memoir about her mother's death and an observant nature study about the devastation wrought by a rise in the level of Great Salt Lake. I admired her blend of lyrically personal and conscientiously informative writing. Since then I stayed on the alert for her later books; in Denver's Tattered Cover Bookstore, I once heard her read from her politically charged book, The Open Space of Democracy.

 

Williams is not one to simply write the same book repeatedly. Reading a new book by her is often surprising and rewarding in unexpected ways. Leap has a dust jacket with a detail from Hieronymus Bosch's triptych "The Garden of Earthly Delights" and an endpaper that reproduces the entire triptych. Teaching the book online, I sent students to a website at the Museo del Prado, where they could enlarge the image and scroll around in it. Sections of her book correspond to panels of the triptych: the first explores the panel focused on "Paradise," the second the panel on "Hell," and the third the center panel, "Earthly Delights." As you read, you keep checking the artwork for correspondences with the prose. But it's not simply a book about fifteenth century medieval art; she often alludes to Mormon ritual and theology and her life back home in Utah, and in one daringly imaginative segment enters the painting and walks around in it. I taught it to highlight the ekphrastic impulse in literary writing, not only in poetry but also in essays and memoir, and invited students to enter "The Garden of Earthly Delights" on their own, as much as they could.

 

Having studied medieval literature in grad school, I came to Leap eager to dwell in a triptych, but Williams simultaneously connected me to the contemporary era without difficulty. Her celebration of the centennial of the National Park Service, The Hour of Land (2016), records visits to twelve National Parks. Over the years I'd been to five of those parks: Gettysburg with my father, Effigy Mounds as a grad student, Big Bend and Alcatraz Island with my wife, and Acadia as an artist-in-residence; I'd also had residencies at Isle Royale and Rocky Mountain National Parks. I'm aware of how often I read the kind of books I wish I was writing. Donna Seaman, reviewing the book in Booklist, called Williams "an ardent, often rhapsodic, always scrupulous witness to the living world and advocate for the protection of public lands," and piled on a lot more admiring and accurate adjectives. I notice a slew of dogeared pages in my copy of the book.

 

Erosion: Essays of Undoing, her most recent book, is every bit as "ardent" and "scrupulous." "profound, poignant" and "clarion" as The Hour of Land, as well as "haunting, powerful and brave," according to Diane Ackerman. To all of that I would add the word "urgent." Much of the book reacts to the impact of a misguided, malicious, and arrogant president ruthlessly dedicated to undoing virtually every positive aspect of American life, not only in regard to environment but also to education, employment, health care, and constitutional equality. Each of Erosion's four sections opens with an essay on the theme of essays that follow: Erosion of Home, Erosion of Safety, Erosion of Democracy, and Erosion of Belief. A two-page map after the preface highlights the changes the Trump administration has ordered to be made to Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which President Barack Obama declared enlarged at the end of his term of office, in cooperation with the indigenous tribes that value that landscape in southeast Utah. (David Gessner visits Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in his new book, Leave It As It Is, an apt companion to Erosion.)

 

Williams warns us that, "when it comes to wilderness, 'the open space of democracy' drowns in the wake of greed." Her vision for the country is more spiritual, humane, expansive and inclusive than the indifference and self-interest of our legislatures and our corporations to both environment and community encourages us to feel. By the end of the year we will all know whether her hope for our ability to save not only our society but also the land it inhabits has been rewarded. In the meantime, we have Williams' books to remind us what we have and what we're likely to lose.

 

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Reading and Listening

 

I own all of John McPhee's thirty books published between 1965 and 2018. It may be my longest reading relationship. When I discover a writer who seems to be on my wavelength, I look forward to spending time with him. It's a kind of solitary friendship. McPhee is an accessible writer; I'd taught some of his work to grad students in Michigan along with other essayists, memoirists, and literary journalists. McPhee was the most journalistic of them, reporting on the insights he gained from people in various fields as he gained them; his readers tended to learn with him.

 

My only autographed copy of a McPhee book, Uncommon Carriers, recounts his travels with, as the dust jacket tells us, "people who drive trucks, captain ships, pilot towboats, drive coal trains, and carry lobsters through the air: people who work in freight transportation." My wife and I lived in Colorado and frequented the Tattered Cover Book Store in downtown Denver when it was published in 2006 and McPhee came through on a book tour, giving me the chance to hear him read in person. I arrived early, bought my copy, and went to the nearly empty presentation room to start reading.

 

The first essay, "A Fleet of One," recounts McPhee's experiences accompanying the driver of a sixty-five-foot long chemical tanker across country from Georgia to Oregon. Opening with reflections on learning to drive a standard auto, he begins to see the highway as the driver of an eighteen-wheeler sees it. The change in perspective is revealing, especially in regard to what the drivers of four-wheelers don't appreciate about their relationship to eighteen-wheelers and what the drivers of eighteen-wheelers have to be constantly aware of in traffic shared with four-wheelers. After mentioning the first time his trucker used his air horn, he explains:

"In the three thousand one hundred and ninety miles I rode with him he used it four times. He gave a light muted blast to thank a woman who helped us make a turn in urban traffic close to one destination, and he used it twice in the Yakima Valley, flirting with a woman who was wearing a bikini. She passed us on I-82, and must have pulled over somewhere, because she passed us again on I-90. She waved both times the horn erupted. She was riding in a convertible and her top was down."

 

I reread the last sentence twice and chuckled to myself. Soon the event started, the audience now almost filling the room. McPhee was introduced, gave a quick overview of the book, then read the opening pages of "A Fleet of One." When he read the line "She was riding in a convertible and her top was down," the audience erupted in laughter. He smiled approvingly. At the end of his reading, among a swarm of listeners, I had him autograph the book, muttered something admiring, and headed home, expecting to read further in the collection that night.

 

On my way out of Denver I remembered how closely McPhee's reading of those early pages had echoed the pace, the shifts in stress and emphasis, the tone of my silent reading of them before his talk began. Almost nothing had varied. I had subconsciously read his prose in silence just as he had read it aloud. That is, we had both "heard" the words and sentences exactly the same way, the way McPhee intended them to sound if they were spoken aloud.

 

I might have been aware that McPhee tended to read his writing aloud to his wife before submitting it to The New Yorker, where he often published. In the title essay of his collection Draft #4, he explains how a piece of writing will take four or more drafts: the first ragged draft is there simply to open the door to discovery and further reflection; near the end of the second draft, he says, "the feeling comes over me that I have something I want to show to other people, something that seems to be working and is not going to go away." He reads the second draft aloud, then he "remov[es] the tin horns and radio static that [he] heard" during the third reading, and largely copyedits the fourth draft by replacing certain words with better ones. The final draft gets the right words in the right order.

 

I took McPhee's advice about writing long ago. Writing short scripts for local public radio, I recognized how remote and academic my early ones sounded. Once I began reading them aloud as I edited and revised, I could hear myself sounding more conversational, less like a professor and more like a person. McPhee's Denver reading reconfirmed for me the wisdom of his multi-draft approach. This very post was considerably different in its first draft. As you read it you might be able to sense what it would sound like if you were reading it aloud. It won't sound like John McPhee, but, hopefully, it might sound like me.

 

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Commonplaces

 

Recently, going through books we were donating to our local library, I noticed some with dogeared pages, often more than one, and tried to straighten them. I habitually mark memorable passages that way instead of underlining them or scribbling marginal notes—which makes them unreadable for later readers –or stopping to copy them by hand and lose the expository thread. I reread Walden often, each time the same copy. Many pages have bent-back corners, at top or bottom, depending on where the passage is on the page. One reward of multiple readings of Walden is reminding myself what struck me in those passages; another is discovering unblemished pages with overlooked ideas I now need to dogear. Every page will likely have bent corners by the time I stop rereading the book.

 

If you skim my blog entries, you'll notice how a passage in a book, essay, article, newspaper column, or interview initiates my further reflections. I often type such passages into my laptop, in case I later want to compose a response or instigate a vaguely related meditation of my own. Writers have always done this kind of thing, collecting quotes in commonplace books, almost since the beginning of writing. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius kept one and later drew his published Meditations from it. Rare book archives house manuscript or print copies by such philosophers, scientists, poets, and politicians as Erasmus, da Vinci, Bacon, Milton, Newton, Jefferson, Thoreau, Emerson, Irving, Auden, and Woolf. The tradition continues to this day: on Facebook Dinty W. Moore, the founding editor of Brevity, posts an author's quote about writing almost daily: a digital commonplace site.

 

Decluttering created space on our bookshelves and, while moving different volumes off their customary shelves and onto others, I noticed dogeared pages and wondered what was in that book I wanted to recall. What follows here is (sort of) the start of a commonplace file, what Wikipedia claims works "as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts [. . .] found in other texts." Here are a few from books on my shelves:

 

"Even the oddest, most particular book was written with that kind of crazy courage—the writer's belief that someone would find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect those books and manuscripts and preserve them." (Susan Orlean, The Library Book, 309-310)

 

"The love of a comrade and the attention of the reader: these desires (which have no clear boundary between them) reach effortlessly across years and cities, then centuries and continents. No poet has spoken to the audiences of the future with such certainty that they are there, listening." (Mark Doty, What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life, 252)

 

"The essay poured out with such ease or rather tumbled out seemingly of its own accord. When this happens it means that the thoughts have long been gestating and writing is only a birth of what was already taking form out of sight. So much of the work of writing happens when you are seemingly not working, made by that part of yourself you may not know and do not control, and when the work shows up like that your job is to get out of its way." (Rebecca Solnit, Recollections of My Nonexistence, 216)

 

"Throughout my life it's through attention that I've tried to tie myself to various places, through mindful recognition of my body's presence in the world of forms to memorize my own brief passage in this world. Now I try to imagine the pull of some other bond: mindless, selfless, a recombinant plein air melting in relentless solar wind. A scatter of atoms, unspecific and undifferentiated, into what happens next." (Elizabeth Dodd, Horizon's Lens: My Time on the Turning World, 123)

 

"Some feelings resist expression for years or decades. Some never submit. The sight of the peaks has long struck me as a kind of prayer I am supposed to know but cannot find the words to. They are the chorus of a hymn I want to sing but cannot finish: the mountains rise like, the mountains rise like . . . but what is it they rise like, to the sky?" (William deBuys, The Walk, 96)

 

Any one of these passages might start me pondering what it means to me, why I dogeared that page, what it meant to the author who composed it, how much we would agree about what it expresses. It might even foster a blog entry. Of course, any reader of this entry might wonder why these, among all my dogeared passages, are the ones I'm sharing as commonplace examples. You, reader, might blog about what you think is going on with me or blog about your own reaction to any or all of them or start checking dogeared pages of your own.

 

That's the way commonplace books work, fertilizing the mind by recording ideas in abundance and discovering what emerges over time. It's worked that way for writers of every kind throughout the history of writing.

 

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Online Bookselling

 

Occasionally I'm astonished by what I find on Amazon. For example, I knew that my memoir, Happenstance, was published as an e-book but was surprised that other books, The Nonfictionist's Guide, Following Isabella (not the book about a sheep but the one about Colorado), and Postscripts, had also been published that way. (Note to self: read contracts before you sign them.)

 

A while back, these surprises made me check up on my older books. None had been converted into electronic format, but some offered pricing surprises. For example, E. B. White: The Emergence of an Essayist was available for $91.83 new, only $18.99 used, and was listed as by Robert L., Jr. Root and Robert L., Jr. Root. Difficulty figuring out what to do with a suffix like Jr. is one reason I stopped using my middle initial and suffix, but I can't guess why my name is there twice, as if I were truly identical twins. Recovering Ruth came up on the search first as merely an over- (but accurately) priced paperback; however, though the book only had one paperback edition, it's listed five more times, at somewhat staggering prices: $80.85 (three separate times), $71.37, and $134.75 (perhaps an inadvertently gold-plated copy). All these other listings are apparently for private dealers rather than Amazon's retail department, and they suggest that used book and/or private booksellers have no sense of proportion about pricing.

 

It gets worse. My second book, The Rhetorics of Popular Culture, now thirty-five years old, sells direct from Amazon for $107.95 ("Only 1 left in stock [more on the way]"—really?) and, from two other sellers, for $323.85 and $259.08. When the book was published it was overpriced for libraries so, when I taught from it, I advised students to photocopy the whole thing for around $11.00. Happily, my first book, Thomas Southerne, is only listed as used for $17.00 and the anthology Landscapes with Figures is sensibly priced at $23.95, but it starts getting wackier the longer I search the Amazon website. Working at Writing goes for $56.40; the first edition of Wordsmithery goes reasonably enough for $22.95 and $24, but the second edition, apparently a more wonderful book to judge by pricing, is variously priced, from a mere $57.52 through $132.95 used and $199.58 new to a spectacular $1,133.85 (used). (I have several new copies I'd sacrifice for half that price, with free shipping, in case anyone's tempted.) The first anthology that Mike Steinberg and I edited, Those Who Do Can: Teachers Writing, Writers Teaching, is priced at one site at $4,999.00—that's nearly $19 a page. (I've also got a few of those in the garage; make me an offer.) All editions of The Fourth Genre were priced higher than we'd liked, as happens in the textbook market, yet the idea that the sixth edition runs $69.64 but Amazon will rent it for $53.75 is disturbing, and the offer of the fourth edition for $999.99 is ludicrous. In other entries the first edition goes for $290.21, the third for $115.56, and the fifth is priced at both $254.56 and $319.15. College bookstores who buy used copies at the end of each semester have much cheaper copies, a good many of them with no sign of ever having been used.

 

Compared to ads for rare books in The New York Times Book Review, these prices may seem like chump change, but as author/editor of the ones above they seem bizarre. Does anyone ever pay those prices? They seem symptomatic of a certain aspect of the online marketplace for books: a casual disregard for either reader or author. Not long ago, needing a newer edition of Walden, I found a host of them available for cheap as e-books. Almost none were scholarly editions or products of established trade or small press publishers; instead, they were mostly versions scanned and uploaded by people hoping to sell public domain books in the e-publishing market. All kinds of out-of-print classics and not-so-classics are subjected to this approach. Like Jane Austen or Dante? Find an uncopyrighted nineteenth century edition or translation, scan it into your computer, and start your own e-Collection of Jane Austen's works or your own Divine e-Comedy. You never have to have read a word of either author or ever have written a word about them to sell them online. Plagiarism runs rampant. Thanks to the Internet you can rip people off online without ever getting out of your pajamas.

 

I've self-published electronic and print-on-demand versions of two manuscripts with a very limited audience—for her descendants, my grandmother Betsy Root's 1937 newspaper column in How to Develop Your Personality; for anyone who remembers hearing them, my decades-old series of radio scripts in Limited sight Distance —and I appreciate the availability of these resources, which have removed part of the taint self-publishing had under the label "vanity publishing." As someone who can no longer shop at Border's and can seldom find an older book at a Barnes & Noble or ever-more remote independent booksellers, I appreciate the availability of books online. But I'd feel more comfortable each time I do these things if I didn't feel I was implicating myself in something at best sloppy and shady, something at worst crass and corrupt.

 

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Once a Writer But . . .

 

Lately—well, the last year or so—I've been involved in a project which intends to foster the editing and publishing of book-length manuscripts by relatively long-established nonfictionists. My book Lineage and Steven Harvey's Folly Beach served as the first test cases. In the coming year and perhaps later years the two of us and the poet-essayist Kathryn Winograd expect to apply what we've learned from our experiment to manuscripts by three more writers, in hopes of their books emerging in the near future. At base we're trying to give support and encouragement to people like us who, even though they find it challenging to place their recent writing with the kind of trade or university presses that published their work in the past, still keep writing personal essays and memoirs. As we're well aware, we're not the only ones this happens to.

 

As if I needed confirmation of that, I recently read an essay posted online in Kenyon Review titled "On Not Giving Up," by Laura Maylene Walter. She tells us of her decision years ago to "keep writing even if I never publish again." Writing, she says, "can be a breeding ground for loneliness, self-doubt, and self-loathing; it's rife with rejection; it's tough on both the spine and the heart; and there's pitifully little money in it, and often just as little respect." She adds, "It's not easy to stay the course through the years and decades, especially if you feel you don't have much to show for it." Later she explains her recurring struggles with "how frustrating the writing was," claiming that over the years she was "racking up hundreds—probably thousands—of rejections." In spite of that she kept writing.

 

It will come as no surprise that, despite Walter's account of her bouts with frustration and self-doubt, her refusal to simply quit writing resonates with me and, I'm certain, with most writers unable to break the habit. Something there is in writers that can't resist a blank page, that needs to scribble ideas upon it. My wife and I have been decluttering our dwelling lately and I continue to unearth ancient artifacts of my own writing life, a vast assortment of manuscripts and typescripts and printouts and publications of all kinds—columns and reviews, articles and essays, plays and poems and songs and scripts—and an overwhelming volume of handwritten journal entries dating back many decades. I'm also only too aware of how many project logs and reflective posts (which I often refer to as "whining journal entries") and the like take up bytes and kilobytes and megabytes on my succession of laptops, flashdrives, CDs, and floppy disks, not to mention various "clouds" somewhere.

 

Much of it—maybe even most of it—is overwhelming evidence of an obsession with expression. I even keep a Blog Log, to report to myself what I've been doing or have done or may possibly do to generate another entry. When I'm not specifically working on something I'll write about that in a file—the Notes entry I tend to compose every other Friday now always ends with this quote from me: "Avoiding work by writing about all the work I have to do is a standard device of mine that seems to be working." To my mind, it counts as writing. What got me into writing was not a desire to publish but a need to clarify my thinking by wrestling with the words I use to express it. It's generated a lot of sentences over the years.

 

In her essay on not giving up, Laura Maylene Walter reports that, though she finally has a debut novel, Body of Stars, coming out (and apparently an agent, since it went to auction), "that doesn't mean it's smooth sailing." She adds that "what we're all living through now—a global pandemic, a renewed and overdue call for justice for Black lives, continued political upheaval, climate change, and beyond—can make the pursuit of the writing life seem frivolous." I recently heard a writer friend express reluctance about posting something light, something lyrical, something intimate on her own blog or Facebook page, nervous about being thought to be indifferent to the terrible times we live in, as if she didn't feel the anxiety and anger and outrage that so many of us feel overwhelmed by. But I know she does feel it all, as I do, as do most of the people whose Facebook posts I "like." That doesn't mean that any of us need to entirely abandon everything else that matters to us, ignore the things that grow out of who we are. As Walters observes, "we keep going, and we continue trying to make something meaningful with our words."

 

Wherever my future writing takes me—and wherever my future editing might help other writers take their writing—I'll hope that the words end up being necessary, being honest, being meaningful. I'll hope that we won't give up.

 

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Memoir-in-Essays

 

As we struggle to cope with these troublesome, contentious, and too often tragic times, social media keeps us apprised of positive ways some people are coping. From time to time I tune in on Facebook to actors reading children's books, soloists performing from their living rooms, whole choirs harmonizing from multiple locations, whole orchestras and dance companies blending seamlessly from miles apart, and authors giving virtual readings from virtual bookstores. Just this week I read an online interview with one of my favorite authors whose latest book's publication has been delayed by months because of the pandemic.

 

Rebecca McClanahan's forthcoming In the Key of New York City, originally scheduled to come out in May, will now come out in September. I've admired her earlier books, The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings and The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change, as well as her writing in literary journals and collections like The Best American Essays. She's a writer I can count on to entertain and enlighten me and I was eager to read the interview about the book posted online by the Rainier Writers Workshop (where she also teaches writing). It made think more about the nature of memoir and essay in current creative nonfiction.

 

In answer to a question from Sydney Elliott, the managing editor of RWW Soundings, about "the process of compiling the material for this book," McClanahan discusses the challenges of connecting material that often had been published separately "over a period of many years." She began writing some of the essays when she and her husband first moved to New York—one in particular began prior to the 9/11 attack—but "only three years ago did I finally find the shape for the book and begin to revise—often with much violence." I especially appreciate her explanation of the complications of the form she writes in: "A memoir-in-essays is a tricky form. Though each essay should have a life of its own, when shaping a memoir-in-essays, the writer must consider how the essays talk to each other and build upon each other so that together they form something greater than the sum of their parts." Those are lines I keep returning to; they capture the essence of the "memoir-in-essays."

 

Notice the complications of the interactions among the materials. That "each essay should have a life of its own" suggests independent wholeness while "how the essays talk to each other and build upon each other" suggests the interrelatedness of a cohesive narrative or argument. It may seem contradictory to be pursuing both goals but if successful they can "form something greater than the sum of their parts." That's the challenge of not simply "compiling" such a book but of essentially composing it out of pre-existing parts. McClanahan tells us, "For me, this involved making tough decisions not only about which essays to include (some of my favorites don't appear in the book) but also about what final form the essays would take." Although most of them had already been published, she "rewrote parts of them, cut certain sections, and broke a few long essays into flash pieces and scattered them throughout the manuscript." For one of them, she "dismantled the line breaks to a published poem and rewrote it as prose" when she determined that "the scene described in the poem was integral to the memoir."

 

McClanahan's earlier book, The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings, influenced some of the more personal books I've written. At least one of them, Postscripts: Retrospections on Time and Place, is essentially a collection of essays of place published over a period of years but the process of "compiling" the material was more challenging than it might seem if you look at the contents. Some essays I'd published somehow didn't fit the tone or the voice of the majority of essays I was trying to tie together and had to be discarded. Only after I'd written some new essays did I recognized the thread that bound them all together.

 

It occurs to me that I've been reading other "memoirs-in-essays" over the past few years—surely the term applies to Patricia Hampl's The Art of the Wasted Day and Scott Russell Sanders' Hunting for Hope and Peggy Shumaker's Just Breathe Normally. There's a point in certain works of narrative nonfiction where you need to read each section in order—a chapter is, after all, a section, a division, a segment of a whole (Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)—and there's a point in others where you can read divisions quite separately in any order, each virtually independent of the others (Annie Dillard's Teaching a Stone to Talk). Somewhere between those points is the "memoir-in-essays," where each piece resonates with all the other pieces, harmonizes with them, accumulates awareness of the author's sensibility and outlook. That's what I'm looking forward to in Rebecca McClanahan's In the Key of New York City.

 

 

 

Note: The full interview by Sydney Elliott is "Storing What Remains: An Interview with Rebecca McClanahan" at RWW Soundings, Summer 2020. Rebecca McClanahan's other work can be found on her website.

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Making a Memoir

 

I appreciate the advantages of working with a clear narrative structure, having a straightforward story to tell—"Here's how it started; here's what happened next; here's how it ended." For my first two books of creative nonfiction, Recovering Ruth and Following Isabella, the structure of earlier works determined the structures I built, even though I didn't write my portions as chronologically as Ruth Douglass and Isabella Bird wrote theirs. It's good to follow a straightforward path, the road most travelled; those of us without one can end up on a long and winding road, bushwhacking and breaking trail most of the way.

 

The subject of my memoir, Happenstance, wasn't entirely one I'd ignored. Decades earlier, I'd written vignettes for broadcast on my local Michigan public radio station based on boyhood memories triggered by adult events: renovating the hundred-year old house where my wife and I now lived brought to mind the dank cellar and stripped walls of my parents' house; watching my children play reminded me of childhood neighborhood friends; and so on. Some vignettes showed up again when I encouraged composition students to write about their childhoods—the street map I modeled to help them reconnect with memory ignited my own memories; the guided imagery exercise leading them into past places propelled me toward mine. One student's story about his mother meeting his father because of a fly ball at a summer softball game haunted me: what if the batter had bunted or struck out? What kind of happenstance brought my own parents together?

 

Curious about my own family history after researching others', I began researching a family memoir. The material invited a chronological history but didn't answer questions about my own parents and my own life; everything that surfaced seemed connected with everything else. Though I wanted to write a book that would say something to my children about how their father turned out to be who he was, I plunged deeply into genealogy. After months of research and drafting, my wife asked how it was coming. When I told her I was almost up to the birth of my grandfather, she said quietly, "You know, if this is going to be a memoir, you should probably be in it." I loved all the research, but she was right—I wasn't in the book I was writing to explain about me.

 

I discovered two different ways to focus my attention. Before I assigned students to write caption essays about their family photos, I attempted the exercise myself and was startled by what it unleashed in memory, based on my greater distance from the events. For the memoir I began interrogating family photographs, describing what I saw in them first as a viewer and then as an interpreter. Leafing through family albums, I wrote about the pictures that most interested me. To avoiding a chronological narrative, I also decided to write about the first hundred days of my life that I remembered, in the order they occurred to me. Surely, I could write one a day over the next hundred days. On the eleventh day my father died. I stopped writing but scribbled down a list of possible subjects in case I ever started up again. The list ran well over a hundred items.

 

Life, and other books, intervened. What stayed with me was the experience of the first day I had written about, a day in elementary school when I ran home from school feeling exuberant. Why had I remembered that day first? Why could I remember no other exuberant days? I soon realized this approach could help me find formative moments in my life. I'd begun teaching memoir-writing to graduate students online and felt I should revive the memoir. To the Album entries and Hundred Days entries, I added a third strand reflecting on the nature of happenstance and the nature of choice. In time I realized happenstance was the dominant theme of the memoir. It also became the title.

 

Some of the 57 completed entries in the Hundred Days series got in; many Album entries got in; items I thought of as literary remains from my father, mother and grandmother got in; reflections on the nature of happenstance got in. Some days I would lay all these entries in a circle on our dining table or in a straight line on our carpet and hover over them, trying to feel some sort of sympathetic tuning among them, weaving them together through juxtaposition and association, the reverberations one piece of writing picks up from another piece, the synchronicities ignited by experience and memory. It's a memoir but not entirely narrative; it's more the prose equivalent of a medieval polyptych, a multi-paneled altarpiece, made up of words and photographs.

 

I'm amazed at all the time, energy, false starts, missteps and perplexity this book put me through. No book ever becomes the book you intended to write, of course. When I tell students that the writing will tell you what it wants to be, this is what I mean. It was the only way I could write it—the only way this book would let me write it.

 

 

Note: A slightly different version of this entry was first published on Michael Steinberg's Blog on February 9, 2013 as "The Long and Winding Road: A Memoirist's Journey" at  http://www.mjsteinberg.net/blog/archives/2013-02.

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