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The Albatross


My early fiction tended to draw on familiar circumstances and settings. Rereading it, I persistently identify, sometimes vaguely, sometimes sharply, real life individuals who inspired characters. Usually, I recognize myself in the protagonist who reacts to events and interacts with other characters. "The Albatross," however, breaks away from that routine somewhat. To write it, I had to inhabit the personality of someone I assumed was essentially unlike me.


The main character, Dr. Stephen Coleridge Barclay, an aging English professor at a small college, is unhappily married, drinks heavily, and combats loneliness through affairs with co-eds. He's waiting in a hotel room above a bar for his latest lover to arrive and as he thinks about her, he remembers the first one who was his mistress for a long time before she graduated. Their relationship, though transient, was one each of them valued. In flashbacks Barclay fondly remembers their time together, believing her to have been more sincere, more committed, more compassionate than any of those who succeeded her. He struggles to convince himself that this new relationship might evolve like that first one. At the end of the story, as they prepare to have sex, his new mistress asks him to recite a poem, as if that will make the moment more romantic or at least temper his unease.


The short story has two literary allusions that try to deepen the sense of what the main character wrestles with. In the final scene of my typescript Barclay starts to recite Shakespeare's Sonnet 130, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun . . .", which the girl might possibly find romantic but the reader, having learned of Barclay's sense of her physical and intellectual shortcomings compared to his first lover, should find painfully ironic. In the version of the story published in The Experimentalist, our college literary magazine, Shakespeare's sonnet is replaced by Elizabeth Barret Browning's Sonnet 43, which begins, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways," possibly a more direct address. Both sonnets are declarations of love, but the Shakespeare quote internalizes Barclay's misgivings more and Browning's emphasizes his conflicted hypocrisy.


Barclay's middle name, Coleridge, links him to the poet best known for "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Barclay's students and colleagues sometimes refer to him as that title character and, given not only his age but also his awareness of the dead albatross tied around the mariner's neck, Barclay also identifies with him. In my story, Barclay's albatross is entirely symbolic, a metaphor for his uncontrolled need for a young mistress, even one apparently accommodating but obviously insincere and not as genuinely affectionate as his first mistress. To convince himself to continue the affair, he tells her as he undresses, "You're no albatross. You're a bird of paradise."


When I wrote "The Albatross," I was a college student in my early twenties, sexually inexperienced, but somehow aware of a relationship between an older professor and a young woman I'd taken classes with. I'd been in one of his classes and knew his daughter, also a classmate of mine. When I reread the story, I can envision that man, that co-ed, the inn where their assignations take place, the streets of that college town. I'd taken good fiction writing courses there, in one composing fiction in the vein of Anton Chekhov and in both trying to inhabit the motives and the needs of someone other than myself. I must have given thought to the real-life situation of people I knew and wondered what would come of it. The story is essentially an attempt to imagine the psychological aftermath of such an affair on an aging teacher.


I published the story in The Experimentalist, probably assuming no one else would make the connection between fiction and real life. Several people did, and a few chided me for publicly exposing a relationship of which they too were aware. So, I was chagrined when my classmate who had been the real professor's lover approached me in the college center to talk about it. She and the professor had both read the story and discussed it together. To my surprise and embarrassed relief, they both felt I'd given a sympathetic and insightful reading of the future they faced. They knew they would break up when she graduated, and the professor dreaded her absence, his future emptied of the companionship she gave him. What would he do without her? Would he end up like Stephen Coleridge Barclay? I was pleased they thought me sympathetic.


I don't know what any reader who didn't know the background thought of the story. I know my classmate moved on; I don't know what the professor did. I think it may be the best story I ever wrote.



Notes: Bob Root, "The Albatross," The Experimentalist. Volume XII (Spring 1966): 39-45.


The Literary Magazine Project A Look at Geneseo's History Through Student Publications.

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The Stone


In the spring of my junior year, my college literary magazine, The Experimentalist, published "The Stone," my first work of fiction to go public anywhere. It begins with a boy named Jimmy exploring a quarry near the neighborhood his family recently moved into. "He moved along the ridge in anxious exploration, the fringe of his imitation buckskin outfit flapping as he walked. He held his flintlock tightly in his fist and pushed back his furry cap with the imitation-coonskin tail when it started to slide down his forehead. Halfway around the rim he stopped." Already in the first paragraph I remember where these details come from.


The house I grew up in backed up to a city park with a playground, two softball fields, a log cabin, tennis courts, and a vast winter ice skating rink. Neighborhood kids and I often pretended to subdue imaginary villains there while dressed like favorite comic book or movie heroes. For a western adventure, we might costume ourselves like the Lone Ranger, the Cisco Kid, the Durango Kid, the Black Rider, Black Diamond, the Lone Rider—we preferred masked heroes; once I spent so long dressing up like the Ghost Rider that most of my friends tired of the game before I entered it. In "The Stone" Jimmy clearly is dressed like Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett; I once photographed my brother wearing a costume like that in our front yard.


The second paragraph introduces the title object: "On the ground before him lay a white stone. Jimmy picked it up and examined it. It was smooth and even, a pure white oval. Jimmy looked upon it like a jewel. He was many minutes examining it, and then he began to look around for others. There were many stones with white but none so immaculate as the thin stone in his hand. When he could find none to match it, he sat down on a boulder and gave all his attention to it. He looked up when he heard voices."


The voices come from some neighborhood boys, strangers to Jimmy, also sporting toy rifles. Somewhat reluctantly they invite him to play on one of their teams in a pretend gun battle. Only one boy, Jerry, stands up for Jimmy when another boy cheats on him and he later fetches him out of hiding when the game ends without his knowing. Climbing out of the quarry a couple boys kick stones at Jimmy and call him dopey; Jerry alone dawdles behind the departing others long enough to say something apologetic to him. Jimmy scrambles up the hill to show Jerry the stone he found and urges him to keep it, then invites him to look for more stones with him the next day. Jerry is reluctant to commit himself; when, trying to hide his tears, Jimmy asks, "See ya tomorrow?" Jerry shrugs. The story ends with this paragraph:


"Jimmy's tears came faster and sobs rose in his throat. He tried to smile, but he couldn't. His facial muscles had to stay tight, or else he would bawl. The first time he said, 'See ya,' it came out choked and muffled. He called it again, and Jerry said, 'Okay.' Then Jimmy waved. He turned and disappeared over the rim, trying to reach the bottom of the slope before his sobs overtook him."


I suspect that the stone shows up early in the story to suggest something of Jimmy's personality beyond the frontier costume he's wearing and, at the end, it intimates the depth of his loneliness —he gives away something he values in hopes of persuading another boy to befriend him. I have mixed feelings about the final interchange between the two boys at the end, uncertain if it's intended to be more positive than it appears or to be construed as open-ended. Jerry doesn't actually commit to seeing Jimmy the next day, only acknowledges that he might see him sometime.


Reading the story now, a half-century after it was written and published, I'm aware that its setting is a familiar one, a quarry my friends and I sometimes played in along the banks of the Erie Canal in our hometown. I can't be sure there wasn't some background conflict among us then that spurred the narrative—by the time I wrote the story I was no longer in touch with anyone from that neighborhood. But I also recall that William Melvin Kelley, a visiting novelist who taught the fiction workshop I was taking, found the ending too sentimental, too positive—he thought my sympathy for my characters made me resist a more realistic, more unsettling outcome. His critique haunted me each time I reviewed my later fiction. I wonder now how much of me was in the story—was in Jimmy.


Notes: Bob Root, "The Stone," The Experimentalist. Volume XI (Spring 1965): 27-32.


The Literary Magazine Project. A Look at Geneseo's History Through Student Publications.

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My Brother and His Family


Though I was the oldest of the children in my generation, my sister and my brother both married before I did, my sister in late summer, my brother the following winter, I the next summer. My brother's marriage was the most solid of them all and lasted 54 years. His three siblings accumulated five divorces and one annulment between them—only one of them was mine.


For the few years my first wife and I lived in the city and/or the county in which my siblings and I were born, we often visited my brother and his wife and soon his first daughter and later his second daughter across town. I remember helping my brother hide abundant Christmas presents for the girls in the top of their apartment. A few years later, when I started graduate school in the Midwest, my brother and his family drove all the way from western New York to eastern Iowa to visit us, a more arduous trip than our having crossed town on our frequent visits.


My parents seemed to keep more distance from my brother and his family. My father worked around the clock, a clothing salesman from nine to five, a house painter in the evenings, even a trash dispenser late in the night; I don't know how often he got around to David's house. My mother paid more attention to my sister and her family, who lived first in Alaska near her husband's Air Force base and later in Saratoga, New York, near his family, though she did visit my brother's family from time to time and encouraged my wife and me to stop in to see her and our much-younger adopted sister.


My brother's in-laws, on the other hand, were a close and interactive family of several sons, several daughters, and a tendency to gather together. My wife and I were often included among my sister-in-law's siblings for very good holiday meals, cooked largely by my brother's mother-in-law, Bertha, a tall woman of my parents' generation. Her husband Leo was much shorter and more energetic, a factory worker like my brother—my hometown then was rampant with industry, especially Harrison Radiator, a division of General Motors where one of my grandfathers and three of my uncles and my brother (eventually) worked. During World War II my mother also worked at Harrison's.


What partly drew us to those family gatherings of my brother's in-laws was the tendency for the evening to evolve into games. What I most remember was Leo telling his wife and daughters to clear the table so he could start dealing the cards for Rummy. It was a lively, jolly game which Leo made sure we all paid attention to. Family closeness was habitual among my brother's in-laws, and my wife and I were lucky to be included.


Leo didn't long survive retirement, but Bertha did, settling into Bradenton, on the west coast of Florida, near other children of hers. Over time, after my brother's eldest daughter died, much too young, my brother, his wife, and his granddaughter all moved to eastern Florida to be closer to their younger daughter and her family. After our daughter moved to Sarasota and started her family, from time to time my wife and I would see Bertha and her West Florida group when my brother and his family visited. His in-laws kept in touch with one another and from time to time we would be included some of their gatherings. We also often crossed the state to visit my brother's family there. It was good to feel connected to such a large and sprawling family as my brother's was.


Much has changed since those early Florida days, most painfully in regard to family losses. My brother, who had suffered from diabetes for decades, died on June 2, 2020, and later in the year, October 11, we learned that my sister-in-law's mother had died, aged 101. I can't yet bring myself to appreciate the sense of loss my sister-in-law must be feeling after 54 years with her husband and 73 years with her mother, both bonds severed in a single year.


Over the sixteen months of this extended pandemic year, when many family photos record the masks on the faces of loved ones, we haven't been able to actually visit my sister-in-law and her daughter's family and her granddaughter and her great-grandson. We'll hope to see them all in person in the fall of this year. Our distance adds to our grief especially when awareness of loss opens up memories of how good it was to have my brother in our lives. He died just over two weeks before his 72nd birthday. His 73rd birthday would have been today.


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Once a Fictionist . . .


It's occurred to me that, when I was young and inclined to write, I usually wrote fiction. Literature textbooks collected short stories and poetry and college creative writing courses were usually devoted to fiction and poetry—drama was the province of the theater department, except for Shakespeare. Nonfiction writing was not considered a literary field then, though we studied essayists in composition classes; even decades later, when I taught creative nonfiction to college students, the courses were categorized as composition and rhetoric. Because fiction and poetry were the main literary genres and drama regarded as the third genre, when Mike Steinberg and I published the first edition of our creative nonfiction anthology, we called it The Fourth Genre. He started the journal Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction soon after. Most of my literary writing has been in this fourth genre, including posts on this blog.


In terms of "creative writing" I wrote fiction for a very long time, beginning with superhero and horse paragraphs in childhood. I eventually composed a short novel in my gap years after high school and crafted short stories for writing classes throughout undergraduate college. I continued writing fiction as a high school teacher, spent a short time focused on it in graduate school, and picked it up again at the start of my college teaching career, until the need to seem scholarly for employment purposes ended that habit. Some manuscripts I accumulated eventually succumbed to basement flooding and mold, but I still have file boxes filled with partial or complete drafts of short stories, as well as the various creative and academic and journalistic and pedagogical writing I've also done. Somewhere, too, are copies of the one literary journal that published my fiction. Lately I've been leafing through those file boxes, curious to see what still survives after all these years.


Narrative may be the most common way we communicate. We're exposed to storytelling early in life, beginning as toddlers with picture books and the stories read to us exposed us to adventure and excitement and fun and silliness. It's always story—fiction or narrative—never drama or essay—and story is part of the poetry and songs we hear; Sesame Street's characters usually perform their interactions. Often our games are make-believe stories, imitating what we've read or heard. I remember the kids in my neighborhood all dressing up like cowboys and costumed heroes of comic books and tv shows and movie serials to track down invisible imaginary villains. We didn't have to write our stories down because we had the liberty to act them out.


Eventually, my friends became less interested in that kind of play and I became more absorbed in books and films and radio shows and television series. My favorite films were The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn and, most influential on me later, Rebel Without a Cause with James Dean. Both were about outsiders and I identified with both, most especially with Jim Stark in Rebel. I read Evan Hunter's novel The Blackboard Jungle and his short story collection The Jungle Kids. I spent a lot of time alone, often skipping school to read two or three books a day. I thought a lot about the cliques I would never be a part of and the relationships I wished I could be involved in. Eventually I wrote a 97-page novel, David Gable, alluding circumspectly to my sexual growth and romantic imagination. It had a teenaged hero confused by his connections to two school mates, one a good girl, one a troubled girl. I'd read many books in which heroes were challenged by such conflicting desires but usually ended up with a good girl. I doubt whether such confusions were deeply explored in my teenage fiction.


In college I started to take myself more seriously as a writer. I'm uncertain about how much of my youthful fiction I still have—I wrote a satirical column and short stories as an undergraduate and wrote short fiction as a high school teacher, as an MFA candidate (briefly) at the University of Iowa, and (also briefly) as a college professor. It may be possible to find some of that writing stored somewhere in all those boxes in our garage. I wonder what my manuscripts can tell me about who I thought I was when I did that writing, what was on my mind that I felt the need to share, what I thought the world would be like for someone like me. "Once a writer of fiction . . .": his manuscripts likely suggest something about his identity when he composed them; they may reveal something about his outlook on life then and, perhaps, something about who he is now.



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Modes of Preservation


Having launched competing chores of decluttering old files and reviewing past writing, I've noticed how modes of preservation changed over my lifetime. I pull various kinds of typescripts from folder after folder—dittoed or photocopied handouts from different courses I taught, texts of conference papers I once delivered, duplicates of memos and journal submissions and correspondence. Most recent are printouts of email communications, items I somehow needed to physically preserve. The mass of paperwork set aside for recycling makes me feel guilty in a way that creating typescripts and handouts and correspondence never did.


I perhaps overdo preservation of my writing. Since I began using computers, I've stored most of my files first on floppy disks, then on hard disks, then on CDs and DVDs, then on external hard drives. Now, each time I move a file from my "desktop" into a folder on my HD, my laptop asks if I really want to do that, warning I'll remove it from iCloud, an ethereal storage haven maintained digitally somewhere. Wherever it is, it isn't the same place as the desktop BobFolder where all my texts are stored. Why aren't I reassured that work not cataloged in my folders simultaneously exists elsewhere? Would I be the only person able to access them?


Such questions arise because of abundant spam notices arriving in my email. I'm informed daily that Microsoft will cancel my email account if I don't click a specific button. I empty my junk mail and deleted items folders regularly (just digital decluttering, after all), don't get much personal email, so I'm not much alarmed by the prospect of losing the account. But I'm increasingly aware of how much connection I am encouraged—even forced—to have beyond the confines of my home. I searched for step ladders online an hour ago and a half-later an ad for one emerged on Facebook.


We watch television mostly on streaming channels, glad to avoid advertising but often thumb the remote clicker for minutes to learn where we are in the programming. Most programs are always there, not requiring a specific evening or hour for viewing. It's easy now to watch way too much televised programming any time we want. And we do.


I am still a reader and still buy physical copies of books, more often during the pandemic ordering online to get them by mail. I haven't been in a bookstore—or for that matter, a library—for at least a full year (since I've had both vaccine shots and still possess stout masks, I may go in person soon). I seldom read books on my Kindle (a gift), but I downloaded one in about three minutes the other day. Sometimes I'll look something up on my iPhone if I have a question about something we're watching on tv ("How many novels are in the Grace series by Peter James? How many were filmed?") without having to go into the study to search on my laptop.


Preparing to post my reactions to fiction I wrote when younger, I found a typescript of a—to me, memorable—story once published in my college literary magazine. Uncertain if that issue is stored anywhere deep in our clutter, I searched the college website for mention of the journal, found every issue now available online, and downloaded five issues from the mid-1960s with my writing in it, including poetry I'd entirely forgotten. If I had been able to find a physical copy of the issue with that story in a library, I could have photocopied the story to print out on site, then scanned it into my laptop at home. But since it's online, I can view it through the internet, post a link to it on my blog or on my webpage, and make it available to the whole wide world. The whole wide world is not likely to read it, but the opportunity will be there.


My undergraduate library has, for now, preserved the story by physically preserving the issue. A printout of the published copy of the story would further preserve it among my cherished clutter. But do I need to physically duplicate what will be readily available online? Should I download a copy of my own to store in the Cloud? Should I clip a printout of the online version to my old copy of the typescript to file in one of my writing folders?


And what about this blog? Should I create physical printouts of these posts as back up, since I may someday need to copy them to some new mode? What new mode is likely? How long will any of these modes of preservation preserve my writing? How much energy and time should I devote to resisting impermanence?


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I'm not someone who tends to throw things out. In my youth I proudly stacked my paperbacks in a corner of my bedroom to impress my brother with how many books I'd read and, except for occasionally giving some of them to him, I seldom got rid of any. Accumulating seems to be the standard activity someone like me engages in across the course of his life. But eventually things pile up to the point that they start to interfere with daily living, especially if you don't keep finding spaces to put the new stuff you acquire.


Since the first decade of this century, when my wife and I twice downsized our dwelling space in cross-country moves, we often engage in decluttering, reducing the mass of storage items in our home through nearly annual summer housecleaning. We've donated, sold, recycled, and trashed a multitude of possessions, most of it, if not all, easy to dispense with. Having winnowed things down so much, we're getting to the level where, increasingly, some of it becomes more problematic to let go. When I open certain boxes, the artifacts I encounter provoke involuntary time travel into the past.


Here are the records I listened to alone in my bedroom, often singing along and hoping passersby would hear only the recording, not me, as the music drifted out my window into the street. I often sang songs that captured my sense of self, the person I wished I might be or the person the lyrics reminded me I already was. Often the songs were about loneliness—that word readily evokes half a dozen titles: "Lonely Boy," "Lonely Teenager," "Lonesome Town"—about unfulfilled longing, about being desired or imagining being desired or about failing to be desired. I couldn't sing along to the album Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely; I choked up on too many of the lyrics. Even if I'm no longer lonely in that space I occupied then, I feel too intimately connected to these records to let them go.


Some of the albums are 78s with links to childhood and family. I have both Gene Autry's Western Classics albums and dramatized Western adventures starring Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy, all boyhood gifts; I also have my mother's Al Jolson album on 78 and the soundtrack from The Jolson Story on 33 1/3. Even though I no longer have a phonograph that will play them, I can't imagine not keeping them.


The situation gets even more complicated when I start considering the boxes of books. One holds all the plays and literary criticism I used to write my dissertation and eventually my first book, a treasure trove of English Restoration drama material that I haven't looked at in least four decades. Others hold volumes that guided me as a college professor teaching rhetoric, composition, creative nonfiction, and editing. I no longer teach those subjects and won't write further academic articles about them, since I'd need to acquire more recent research. I'm not sure what libraries or used bookstores would take them and I don't want them to end up recycled or shredded. Even though I'm unlikely to write about E. B. White again, I'll still not remove any books by or about him from the shelf and a half they now occupy.


Other people created everything I've mentioned, still resonating with me despite my distance from them. I've accumulated artifacts of my own creation as well, writing I initiated and wrestled with and sometimes sent out into the world. I scribbled in abundant journals across decades, some even older than I remembered, all confessing and recording and lamenting and pondering moments in my life. File boxes harbor handwritten manuscripts and typescripts of songs, poems, plays, short stories, unfinished novels, essays for radio, college newspaper columns, movie and book and theater reviews. The magazines and journals where articles and essays and poems and reviews and interviews were published are now all crammed unread into dusty boxes in our garage. So too are the extra copies of the books—the academic publications that advanced my career, the personal nonfiction that mined my experience and my memory—unsold at bookstore readings and unlikely to leave their boxes in the time to come.


All these things I value solely for their worth to me, if to no one else, all these things that occupied so much of my time across all those years, all that evidence that I once got both something personal and something professional done in the world. To obliterate all that evidence of my existence seems too much like a proclamation of my existence ending. I know it will. For a while longer, I'd just to like to feel as if I'm not agreeing to disappear, I'm only willing to declutter.

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Letting Go


My wife and I have decluttered a lot over the years, most expansively during moves from one state to another—after 21 years in our Michigan house to Colorado, after four years in our Colorado apartment to Wisconsin —and we've done it often during our condo years here. It's been relatively painless, donating unused items to various libraries or charities, deciding which recently accumulated items should replace which items acquired long ago, letting the household slowly clutter again. But once you've pared down easily dispensable belongings, you face items that hold special significance, stuff harder to simply discard, such as, for writers, their writing. Lately I've noticed other writers wrestling with this dilemma.


In "How to Practice," Ann Patchett describes disposing what accumulated in her house, emptying "closets and drawers [. . .] filled with things we never touched and [. . .] had completely forgotten we owned." She provides a vivid picture of the superfluous contents of their home (like the "thirty-five dish towels crammed" in a kitchen drawer). Her details, likely familiar to most homeowners, certainly resonated with me. Eventually she encounters things more difficult to discard.


Because they had "sensed a vacuum in my house and rushed in to fill it," Patchett's mother "gave me a large box of letters and stories I'd written in school. She'd been quietly saving them" and her sister "dropped off a strikingly similar stack of my early work." Patchett "didn't want to see those stories again" but she keeps what they gave her. She also keeps a Hermes 3000 manual typewriter she hasn't used since she was twenty-three, partly because: "The stories my mother and my sister had returned to me: they were all typed on the Hermes. My mother and my stepfather, my darling Lucy, college, graduate school, all those stories—they made up the history of that typewriter." For her, the typewriter "represented both the person I had wanted to be and the person I am." Not letting go of something isn't a question of continued relevance or utility—it's something more intimate and essential to our definition of ourselves.


Online, Rebecca McClanahan similarly details efforts "to slough off another layer of the past," and seems more determined than Patchett to let physical relics of her writing go. Each spring she discards notebooks "containing, among other things, descriptions, responses to readings, quotes, unsent letters, drafts of poems and stories and essays, maps, sketches, song lyrics, lists of joys and fears, scraps of dreams and nightmares, and occasional waves of the emotional tsunamis of life." Having already discarded forty notebooks, she's now letting go of twenty more. Responding to a reader's comments, she mentions that, though she once possessed "thousands of ancestral letters and documents" useful in creating what she hopes is "an artful book"—probably The Tribal Knot, her family memoir—she "was ready to let them pass into other hands," just as she is willing to let her journals go. Perhaps those other hands will preserve them a little longer.


I remembered McClanahan's remarks while reading John McPhee's recent article "Tabula Rasa, Vol. 2", commenting about pieces he didn't write. "Tabula Rasa, Volume One," his previous clearing of old files, partly triggered my writing this blog. I've recently noted a trend among some writers of a certain age. Joan Didion's Let Me Tell You What I Mean, Vivian Gornick's Taking a Long Look and Unfinished Business, Gretel Ehrlich's Unsolaced, Patricia Hampl's The Art of a Wasted Day, and McPhee's own Draft #4 and The Patch all share a valedictory air by gathering previously uncollected or unpublished material. I appreciate the urge to somehow send things out into the world rather than keep them stored in a file cabinet, computer, or digital cloud.


Having just watched Hemingway on PBS, I'm aware that some writers have much of their drafting and composing preserved. My book on E. B. White depended on the archives he donated to Cornell University. But not all writers are asked or are willing to do that. Responding to comments on her Facebook post, McClanahan mentions tearing out pages to give to people who might value them, a compromise with preserving them herself. She argues that "just because we needed to write something doesn't mean we have to save it. If it is/was essential and necessary to write, it now lives inside us." That's an optimistic way to look at it, something I'll think about as I leaf through all the writing I've held on to, before, one way or another, finally, inevitably, letting it go.



Notes: McClanahan, Rebecca. Facebook Post, April 16, 2021

McPhee, John. "Tabula Rasa: Volume Two," The New Yorker, April 19, 2021

Patchett, Ann. "How to Practice," The New Yorker, March 1, 2021 (March 8, 2021 Issue)

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Reg Saner


A very long time ago I published this brief review of Reg Saner's essay collection Reaching Keet Seet: Ruin's Echo and the Anasazi in the Spring 1999 first issue of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction:


"These essays on the Four Corners area of the Southwest vividly recount Reg Saner's travels among Anasazi ruins and give readers both a sense of place and a sense of connection across time, space, and culture. Investigating such Anasazi sites as Mesa Verde, Hovenweep, and Keet Seel, observing the summer solstice in Chaco Canyon, he reflects on Anasazi relationships to the natural world and to other cultures past and present (ancient Hebrews and modern Hopis). Throughout the book, in lyrical, insightful prose, he examines the compelling sense of spiritual presence that the Anasazi inspire as well as his own attraction to their abandoned ruins. He feels that 'through Anasazi vestiges we perhaps pay our respects to what's missing in us, thus honoring . . . a people able to live out lives undivided from themselves.'"


Reg's book had been published the year before; my essay about the Anasazi had been published in North Dakota Quarterly in 1991, although my wanderings with my then-future wife happened ten years earlier. I'd been haunted by Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon but only the 500th anniversary of Columbus' first voyage to the New World and encounters with its indigenous peoples had prompted me to complete the essay for publication.


My connection with Reg Saner was a complicated one. At my colleague Susan Schiller's encouragement, I'd emceed an environmental conference in Estes Park, Colorado, where I met Elizabeth Dodd, who knew and admired Reg Saner, who also spoke there. Years earlier, at the Bread Loaf Conference in Vermont, I had met his former student David Gessner, who mentioned him in his own Colorado book. When writers you admire recommend a writer they admire, you have to read that writer.


I was more than a little daunted by Reaching Keet Seel—a work about the Anasazi by a more lyrical, learned, observant, and thoughtful writer than I felt I had been. I didn't think my essay had anywhere near the scale and the depth of what he had written.


And then, over time, we moved to Colorado, not far from where Reg lived in Boulder. He met me one day at the canyon where David Gessner had lived in graduate school, the locale at the heart of David's book Under the Devil's Thumb. We talked about that canyon and Reg invited me to join him on a day hike into the Front Range, up to Arapahoe Peak. He offered to take my photo against that backdrop and let me take his. His photo of me is still on my website. A week or two later, when my wife had Labor Day weekend off from her new job, I took her to the same place, now unexpectedly snowy, to show her what Reg had shown me.


The truth is that, because Reg lived close to wilderness in the near-outskirts of Boulder and had written lively and vibrant essays about walking his mesa, I never walked that part of Boulder—or for that matter, anywhere else in Colorado—without thinking of walking with Reg or about what he had written about his walks in the Southwest. I spent two weeks as an artist-in-residence at Rocky Mountain National Park and reread Reg's essays while I was there, often setting off to explore the landscape as alertly as I imagined him doing.


Last week David Gessner reported on Facebook that Reg Saner died on April 19, at the age of 93. I hadn't been in touch with him in a very long time, but his death struck me harder than most of the deaths of creative people I've learned about in the past year or two. He'd been a generous man and an honest and attentive writer. I wondered where I'd stored his books—The Four-Cornered Falcon, Reaching Keet Seet, The Dawn Collector—and found them on nearby shelves, among other books I value most, as if after all this time I still needed them there, close at hand.


I examined the pages in Reaching Keet Seel where I'd turned down the corners to see if I could find what I hoped to recall the first time I read them. In "The Pleasure of Ruin": "Trying to see things as the Anasazi saw them may be like drinking the water of a mirage." In "Hovenweep": "As one of this planet's talking creatures, I've a stake in any loss of beauty and intelligence among us." I again wander rugged landscapes and Anasazi ruins with Reg Saner—feel again all I gained from reading him and, especially, from knowing him.




Root, Robert. "Anasazi," North Dakota Quarterly, 59:4 (Fall 1991), 145-154. Reprinted in Landscapes with Figures: The Nonfiction of Place (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007: 185-195) and Postscripts: Retrospections on Time and Place (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012: 83-95).


Root, Robert L., Jr. Review, "Reader to Reader: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Field of Vision, About This Life, Thistle Journal and Other Essays, and Reaching Keet Seel," Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 1:1 (Spring 1999): 171-73.


Saner, Reg. "Over the Rainbow, My Kind of Place," Landscapes with Figures: The Nonfiction of Place. Ed. Robert Root. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007: 220-228).


Saner, Reg. "Mesa Walk," Landscapes with Figures: The Nonfiction of Place. Ed. Robert Root. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007: 220-228). Originally published in The Georgia Review (Vol. 55, No. 2 (Summer 2001), pp. 290-311) and reprinted in The Dawn Collector: On My Way to the Natural World (Santa Fe: Center for American Places, 2005: 66-93).

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Once a Word Processor . . .


When I was a high school senior, I took the Beginning Typing course for students, mostly girls, hoping to become office workers. I hadn't done well in shop classes training mechanics but typing also counted as "occupational education." To get me enough graduation credits, counselors placed me in other courses usually taken sophomore year, including Latin I, adding to my two years of German as a foreign language concentration, and Basic Art, as well as English and History, required subjects no one could major in.


Every chair was filled in the typing class, every manual typewriter occupied. Another boy was in the room, a good-looking, athletic sophomore, and around twenty sophomore girls, one of them his girlfriend. Mr. Myers, our elderly instructor, instructed us about where to place our fingers, how to hold our hands, and how to concentrate on the text we were copying rather than watching the keyboard or the page being created. Surprisingly, I did well in the class.


I had hunted and pecked often on my mother's typewriter or my own, but Mr. Myers made a typist out of me. I adapted his methods to my portable's keyboard, worrying little about perfect accuracy and accepting the need for corrective strikeovers. In college I was more conscientious when submitting assignments to professors or columns and articles to school paper editors, retyping whole pages when errors were too troublesome. In grad school my electric typewriter with dual ribbons allowing easy error correction made me less self-conscious about my typing.


Then technology began to challenge my typing skills. The university department where I taught required ditto masters for course handouts, which couldn't be corrected by strikeovers and needed full replacements. Eventually we were assigned computers, Apple IIe models with floppy disk drives. Our faculty training session was in a former typing lab now filled with computers. Typewriters required pulling the carriage return lever at the end of each line to start another line one space lower; computers automatically moved on to the next line, line after line, until you needed a new indented paragraph. That took some adjustment—at least one colleague hit the return button regularly, as if on his typewriter, and hated the choppy look of his paragraphs. Somehow, eventually, the new approach made sense to me. I said out loud, "Oh, my god, I get it." My colleague glared at me.


That moment might have been forty years ago. If I ever think of myself as a typist, it's force of habit. I'm a word processor now, though my MacBook Pro keyboard—I think they still call them "keys"—looks much like my old Smith-Corona, except that it's flatter and smaller and has an interactive bar across the top that changes with whatever program I'm using. I often hit some unnamed key that makes a panel appear asking "What can I help you with? Go ahead, I'm listening." I stop what I'm writing to turn off the list it displays before it can talk to me. Like those unexpected ads that show up on Facebook, I don't know what the internet thinks it knows about me and what it thinks I'll fall for.


My fingers aren't as nimble as they once were, and the keys aren't so individual that I can get through a paragraph without error but often—not always—the word processing program will correct my spelling without my notice. Lately, it's decided where I should put commas and hyphens and highlights the locations—it wants a comma after "nimble" above. When I write email the program tries to add additional words for a cliché it's sure I intend, to make me sound more like everyone else. Now I not only have to edit myself, I have to edit the word-processing program's revisions.


Word processing is frequently more aggravating than typing ever was. I can't trust my fingering as much as I once did; I check my transcription more often to correct what the program won't. Many errors are those I'd never make on a typewriter—the letter "m" instead of a comma, a comma instead of a period, a sudden rush of capital letters, an unintended return command mid-sentence or even mid-word, an unintended deletion of a paragraph. Unlike my old typewriter, my laptop doesn't seem to be completely on my side.


This morning, in response to the clatter and thumping of the roof repair around me, I wrote a journal entry by hand. I don't journal often but when I do, I don't think I'm processing words. I think I'm . . . what would you call it? Composing? Recording? Maybe I was simply writing. Just the words and me working thoughtfully together. I was glad I took the opportunity to do it.


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Once a Typist . . .


I'd published two editions of a textbook titled Wordsmithery, so when I saw a photo of a typewriter in a catalogue touting innovation and read its label—The Wordsmith's Manual Typewriter—I had to learn how a typewriter might be specifically designed for a wordsmith. I read the description slowly once, then read it more slowly a second time.


The ad claimed that the manual typewriter (as opposed, perhaps, to the word processor, electric typewriter, ball point pen, or quill) "recalls the thoughtful, well-written correspondence" (as opposed, say, to essay, memoir, novel, novella, poem, play, or song lyric) "of yesteryear"—a flagrant bit of misdirection. Like ads showing such authors as Hemingway, Steinbeck, Orwell, and Plath with fingers poised above a typewriter keyboard, perhaps a cigarette dangling from their lips, their shirtsleeves rolled up and collar unbuttoned, as if unaware of the camera and the photographer, it was a tenuous link. ("This is a writer trying to look like a writer when he knows full well he is being photographed," E. B. White once wrote on a photograph of himself.)


The language felt tongue-in-cheek, wryly presenting liabilities as advantages, as when it referenced "the steady click-clacking cadence that encourages the patient, considered sentiment of a wordsmith who thinks before writing"—the way, say, writing in silence with a quill pen by candlelight never did. (If only Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes, or Montaigne had typed!) A student of mine, eager to use a new typewriter and aware that "you can see tears in Plath's manuscript for Ariel because she punched the keys so hard," said she wanted to hear her own keys: "My apartment is quiet. It will be good to add those click click clicks." A week later, instead of "a click click click," she reported, "It makes a CLACK CLACK" and discouraged patient, considered sentiment.


I smiled at the claim that the machine "faithfully reproduces the eclectic [!?] printed impressions of its forebears" such as "variable kerning" (adjusting spaces between characters), "subtly ghosted letters" (creating shadows behind characters), "and nuanced baseline shifts" (uneven lines), thus "imparting unique, personal character to every letter or verse of poetry." Would readers really be charmed by the tendency of your letter "e" to stick and barely strike the paper or your "m" to smudge the spaces between the stems of the letter? Those features never charmed me.


The first typewriter I ever used was my mother's boxy black Royal. She must have shown me how to push the keys, spell out words in type, scroll in paper, advance the platen at the end of a line with the return lever. From the time, around the age of eight, that Bobby Hall and I spent an afternoon composing one-paragraph adventure stories on it, I was hooked on composing on the typewriter. I felt like a writer because my words were in typeface, just like the stories in books.


But it was slow work. I didn't give every key an equally "firm, purposeful stroke" and some letters were faint, others dark, almost smudged. If I misspelled words, I scrolled the paper up and erased the error, rubbing the page until it was sometimes transparent or worn through. The lines were often uneven after I scrolled the paper back to where I tried to replace a word. No matter how slowly I typed, forefinger by forefinger, clink, clunk, clack, it was frustrating never to have a single page error free, as in books. When I acquired them decades later, I never wished to be, once again, "devoid of technological crutches such as spell-check and deletion."


My parents found me substitutes for my mother's Royal: a Louis Marx toy typewriter on which to print a pretend newspaper, which I never did; a lightweight Smith-Corona portable, on which I wrote a 97-page novel in high school and all of my undergraduate college assignments. In graduate school, I bought a Smith-Corona Selectric, an electric typewriter with a rotating ball of type and a double ribbon with a second white ink strand to erase mistakes that let me throw out bottles of liquid White-Out. Leafing through my Selectric-produced dissertation, I felt that transcription technology and I had come as far as we would ever need to go.


I'm not tempted to purchase the Wordsmith's Manual Typewriter, but I remember my typewriters well. "Processing words" about them now on my laptop keyboard lets me almost reinhabit the boy who typed his adventure paragraphs on his mother's Royal, the teenager who clacked away at his novel on his portable, the grad student laboring at his dissertation on his Selectric. For better or for worse, each of them is still somewhere inside of me, prompted by the Wordsmith's Manual Typewriter to remind me that they haven't really gone away.


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