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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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