Writing at turmoil’s gunpoint


“We’re doing this thing on my timeline. My way.”
He looked at her with avuncular condescension. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Tired of listening to other voices, or writing in them, she walked out.

“My story, Sir Pen, is, to put it briefly: I’m a blank sheet of paper that no one will write on.” -from “Peer Gynt”, Henrik Ibsen

“But in these theories there always remained a void that no one knew how to fill, a zone of darkness between cause and effect; how does one arrive at the written page? By what route is the soul or history or society or the subconscious transformed into a series of black lines on a white page?” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino

Turmoil sharpens syntax and diction, makes the willingness to hunt for the right words acute – heightens the senses like a hunter on the trail of his prey. You will know what I mean if you write when you feel anguish, pain or even the murky mist of questioning. When you revisit those distress-filled writings, you might not find answers, but you may find keen edges on your prose that you don’t find when you’re writing without emotional gags and bindings. It’s odd to consider that turmoil, which can render us helpless and not free, gives us the freedom of discipline (which sounds contradictory). Turmoil forces us to write, and ties our hands and our minds to make us only write about what it wants.

“For me, to write is self-deprecating, and yet I can’t quit doing it. Writing is like the drug I abhor and keep taking, the addiction I despise and depend on.”The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa

On the other hand, for a person so ‘haunted’ by the demand to write, only by writing through it can you make sense of your experience.

“By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.” –The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien

You may go back, as suggested, and see well-chosen words and sharp edges, but what you read might not fill you with the glee of someone who has written superlative, quality prose. No, in fact, it will probably read as self-pitying, naive, maudlin, even silly.

“There is no separating yourself from the things you make, he thought. If you are a cesspool, what else can your work be except shit?” –Before the Fall, Noah Hawley

You’re not doing it because you think it will be a masterpiece; you don’t even imagine anyone will ever see it.

You nevertheless were held hostage to the need to get it out.

“no smoke without you, my fire”


Memories of Glasgow…

One Cigarette
Edwin Morgan
No smoke without you, my fire.
After you left,
your cigarette glowed on in my ashtray
and sent up a long thread of such quiet grey
I smiled to wonder who would believe its signal
of so much love. One cigarette
in the non-smoker’s tray.
As the last spire
trembles up, a sudden draught
blows it winding into my face.
Is it smell, is it taste?
You are here again, and I am drunk on your tobacco lips.
Out with the light.
Let the smoke lie back in the dark.
Till I hear the very ash
sigh down among the flowers of brass
I’ll breathe, and long past midnight, your last kiss.



Three or four classrooms full of children, all around 9 or 10 years of age, were put together to take a historically oriented field trip to downtown Seattle. This was the mid-1980s, when it seemed that the homeless population had, if not reached a peak, penetrated the Pioneer Square area of Seattle… and the (paranoid) consciousness of suburbanite schoolteachers and parents. Enough visibility and paranoia that the homeless presence warranted ‘warnings’, apparently. I don’t know if these warnings were issued because 100+ unruly children are hard enough to control under the best of circumstances, so the adults thought they would ‘scare’ us into submission, or if the teachers and school really believed that the homeless population was a grave threat to us (“us” the children or all of us as a society).

We were told not just to not interact with “them”, but not even to look at “them”. “Ignore them, as if they don’t exist.” All I do know is that the message they branded on our young, malleable brains was: “You don’t need to care about these throwaway people.”

This still comes to mind and bothers me now, 30+ years later.

Photo by Zhifei Zhou on Unsplash

life as strange garment

And just as I start delving into more WS Merwin, what should appear? A lovely article about Merwin’s work, particularly The Lice, and “gives us a mode to experience a dysfunctional world“.

For the Anniversary of My Death
WS Merwin
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what



Mothers and Daughters
David Campbell
The cruel girls we loved
Are over forty.
Their subtle daughters
Have stolen their beauty;

And with a blue stare
Of cool surprise,
They mock their anxious mothers
With their mothers’ eyes.

shed in the garden


Her News
Hugo Williams
You paused for a moment and I heard you smoking
on the other end of the line.
I pictured your expression,
one eye screwed shut against the smoke
as you waited for my reaction.
I was waiting for it myself, a list of my own news
gone suddenly cold in my hand.
Supposing my wife found out, what would happen then?
Would I have to leave her and marry you now?
Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad,
starting again with someone new, finding a new place,
pretending the best was yet to come.
It might even be fun,
playing the family man, walking around in the park
full of righteous indignation.
But no, I couldn’t go through all that again,
not without my own wife being there,
not without her getting cross about everything.

Perhaps she wouldn’t mind about the baby,
then we could buy a house in the country
and all move in together.
That sounded like a better idea.
Now that I’d been caught at last, a wave of relief
swept over me. I was just considering
a shed in the garden with a radio and a day bed,
when I remembered I hadn’t seen you for over a year.
“Congratulations,” I said. “When’s it due?”

invisible disembodiment


“…am not at all the sort of person who attracts attention, I am an anonymous presence against an even more anonymous background.” –If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino

I have returned to the land where cutting grass takes hours unless you have a machine (or person) to do it for you. Almost a pity to see the grass disappear, clipped in the prime of its wild life, robbing various animals, birds and insects of their hiding places.

Meanwhile, I hide in the overwarm, artificial darkness, thinking about how one can scythe away the debris that clutters life … to tear away the scabs of permissiveness while retaining some kinship with compassion?

I wrote to one of my darlingest people this week, when she caught me at the strangest moment, the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to a disembodied nothing state, something like:

“You catch me today in a strange frame of mind. I have been, as you know, for all of this year, relaxing and engaging in individual, cerebral activities (for the most part). I have been reading nonstop, taking walks, sleeping a lot and focusing on health and a kind of mindful emptiness. Since late winter, I have not become too tangled in complicated emotional things, in fact feeling almost completely free of all such entanglements lately. Not in the sense that I feel nothing but just that there is no negative association, or worst of all, dread, questioning or angst connected to any of it.

But at the same time, I also feel almost as though I just don’t belong in this … world. Or on this particular plane of existence. Not that I don’t want to be alive – it’s nothing like that at all. Suddenly I feel disconnected at the same time as being completely connected. I can’t find ‘passion’ or ‘fire’ for anything like anger, impatience, annoyance, elation – but not in a bad way. It’s just that what had felt a bit like laze and malaise has transmogrified into a centered contentedness. Nothing to say this won’t pass, as most things do, but it feels like it has been slowly emerging for months… and here I am feeling perfectly well, content, not in need of anything, not in want of anything, not seeking, not suffering. Just a serene nothingness.”

I wondered later, in rereading these paragraphs if it were a crafty and self-deceiving form of … self-aggrandized importance (i.e., as I wrote to my friend, “sounding as though I am completely up my own ass”) or ascribing traits to myself that I have no right to assign or name. But I could not change that I felt every contradiction in perfect balance (and counterbalance): I felt as though I were seeing everything for the very first time but that I had also seen everything a million times. I wondered if this nothingness would lead me nowhere – or everywhere. Had I been sleepwalking and hibernating all along?

“A hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action.” –Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

I had certainly been living a life in my head, retreating more and more into the lives of books, fictions, histories I have never lived, less and less in contact with or seeing people, as though I were prematurely preparing for a departure. We never know when we will go (literally or figuratively), and while some reach out and expand into the life that surrounds them, I found solace or comfort in retreating into what was left of my life, without remorse or regret. Again, this is not about literal death, but the leaving behind a form or way of life… or a moulting of skin.

I wonder now, as I prepare for a next, but undefined, step, if the starkest change could be the will to exert real effort. The truth is… I don’t try very hard. At anything. I never have. I sometimes feel guilty about this, wondering what I could do – or could have done – had I truly applied myself. But nothing has seemed interesting enough to press myself that deeply into it. I have always felt it to be too much like pressing one’s own flesh through a sieve. One’s own essence and pulp taken away, leaving only the juice – the minimalist nectar of a diminished selfhood. This self I have hidden and selfishly guarded, wanting to be “an anonymous presence against an even more anonymous background”. I never wanted or needed to be the best – at anything – I just wanted more. To see more, do more, learn more.

With all of this in mind, I wondered if I had ever felt determination, a no-nonsense tour-de-force of self raging through me, wanting to win or compete, to fire people from my life rather than coddling, enabling and understanding them, to get things done aggressively, as though knocking down physical obstacles in my path, to punch in the face the presumptuous, disobedient and manipulative tricksters, hucksters, fuckers and just plain pathetic shitheads who pop up to block the way? The idea of all of it is violent … and a far cry from the woman I have always been, and the person I have been particularly for the last half year or more: retiring, cerebral, and above all, patient.

Suddenly I realize: There is very little I can do with violence, and there is nothing I can do without patience; patience is valuable, and I will have endless patience, never able to deny compassion, wherever my next incarnation leads.

nothing to barter but life


Revolutionary Letter #1
Diane di Prima
I have just realized that the stakes are myself
I have no other
ransom money, nothing to break or barter but my life
my spirit measured out, in bits, spread over
the roulette table, I recoup what I can
nothing else to shove under the nose of the maître de jeu
nothing to thrust out the window, no white flag
this flesh all I have to offer, to make the play with
this immediate head, what it comes up with, my move
as we slither over this go board, stepping always
(we hope) between the lines

Photo (c) 2011 eatsmilesleep used under Creative Commons license.

Contextual past and eventual becoming


“I am writing for the person I used to be. Perhaps the person I once left behind persists, standing there, still and grim, in some attic of time – on a bend, on a crossroads – and in some mysterious way she is able to read the lines I am setting out here, without seeing them.” –A General Theory of Oblivion, José Eduardo Agualusa

In If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino hints gently at context, and by envisioning parallel, fictional realities, we may be ripping some gem from its intended context and stuffing it into another to serve another purpose, to enhance another context. These are not even close to his words, and in fact, in my own paraphrasing I have moved his original words (in translation no less) quite far from their origin and intended context to justify my own. It is the intent, perhaps, that a reader should interpret and ‘steal’ concepts (I know that in one of the multitudes of books I have read this week, there was a passage somewhere about stealing and refashioning good ideas – but I don’t know if I saved the quote. A shame).

But this is my pattern. I read aggressively, voraciously, feverishly highlighting meaningful passages (stopping briefly to wonder if I might highlight different passages and quotes if I were in another frame of mind, or context). And later I find some application – or context – for those passages that meant most to me in some way.

Behavior eventually shows its hand and establishes a pattern if you wait long enough. I can change these patterns to change behaviors, but the underlying drive comes out the same. I shifted from television addiction to a reading addiction, which I would argue is the better of the two addictions. But both are addictive and almost compulsive behaviors. To compensate, I seek and find some balance, and my constant underlying drive is not just the search for balance but the search for change. And for me, change is always about the future and ensuring some otherness or difference from the now and the past. It is not about dragging vestiges of the past with me into new scenery; it is likewise not about erasing that past or its experience. It does not mean cast off the you who was, but does mean give careful consideration to the you who will be.

“This is what I mean when I say I would like to swim against the stream of time: I would like to erase the consequences of certain events and restore an initial condition. But every moment of my life brings with it an accumulation of new facts, and each of these new facts brings with it its consequences; so the more I seek to return to the zero moment from which I set out, the further I move away from it: though all my actions are bent on erasing the consequences of previous actions and though I manage to achieve appreciable results in this erasure, enough to open my heart to hopes of immediate relief, I must, however, bear in mind that my every move to erase previous events provokes a rain of new events, which complicate the situation worse than before and which I will then, in their turn, have to try to erase. Therefore I must calculate carefully every move so as to achieve the maximum of erasure with the minimum of recomplication.” If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino

While many recognize and complain about their patterns, they do nothing to alter them. Change, after all, is what we most avoid. Because of this aversion to change, at least some kinds of change, the complaints are idle and the angst projected about them contrived. But we all have our blind spots, especially when it comes to other, unpredictable, people.

“…but at that moment it was as if an undigested bit of the past had come back up his throat.” –The Solitude of Prime Numbers, Paolo Giordano

Yes, people. Unpredictable people who jump around in the timeline of our lives. Almost dead within our archives, yet somehow we live on, almost as living, breathing people in the daily existences, of which we are (almost) no longer a part. I can control my books or tv viewing or the lengths of walks in the rain (though I cannot yet control the rain). I can control how much I sleep and how deeply involved I become in my mad dreams (how I love these). But people… and how much the past wears on and continues to affect (and infect) people.

Someone told me recently that “the past is a foreign country”, which sounds, not unlike my allusions and references to Calvino, like something lifted from a literary source (with which I am not familiar). This is poetic, but Calvino himself manages to describe the pernicious nature of the past with a far more apt simile:

“The past is like a tapeworm, constantly growing, which I carry curled up inside me”.

The past, and the people who populate it, has a voracious appetite and will eat away at one from the inside, if one lets it.

The interesting part is that the phantoms, those living in the past as though it were yesterday: they are often the most honest ones. Maybe not about how the past was (they can in fact be quite blind and/or deluded), but they aren’t hiding their intentions or papering over their defects. And the people laboring along in the firm belief that they are living in the present and looking toward the future? The veneer of calm does not hide the high-strung individual underneath, paddling away from reminders of the past like poor swimmers with no instinct for floating – there is no actual serenity in those who so desperately seek it. Maybe, like Daniel Hall writes in “Love Letter Burning”: “The past will shed some light/but never keep us warm”.

“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.”Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion