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?”

Farewell – ПРОЩАНИЕ


Because, for some unknown reason, I didn’t include the English translation when I first shared this…

The Wolf Eel

Bella Akhmadulina
And in conclusion I’ll say –
Goodbye. Don’t commit yourself to love.
I’m breaking down. Or going up
to a high degree of madness.

How did you love? – you tasted
disasters. That’s not the question.
How did you love? – you ruined,
but you ruined so clumsily.

The cruelty of a mistake, oh, for
you there’s no forgiveness. My body’s alive
and wanders, sees the world,
but everything’s gone out of me.

My head still manages a little work.
But my hands fall slack,
and in a flock, obliquely,
my senses leave me.


-Bella Akhmadulina
А напоследок я скажу:
прощай, любить не обязуйся.
С ума схожу. Иль восхожу
к высокой степени безумства.
Как ты любил? Ты пригубил
погибели. Не в этом дело.
Как ты любил? Ты погубил,
но погубил так неумело.
Жестокость промаха … О, нет
тебе прощенья. Живо тело,
и бродит, видит…

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