The following is simply a series of rambling anecdotes and arbitrary thoughts that are meant to mean nothing and to do no harm. They are certainly not political, nor do they have anything to say about the contemporary moment; in fact, there are no connections. Coordinating conjunctions, conjunctive adverbs, transitions of any sort and the like have been tossed to the side. They rest, discarded, lonely, in a muddy gutter, in the same place where Ezra threw out Tom's wasted transitions at the moment when Modernity refused to connect nothing with nothing. Like Samuel Beckett's dismay in meaning more than he could ever mean were it not for others (for them) saying he meant what he never intended to mean when he disturbed the silence with words that "they" taught him, I speak only out of a loneliness, similar to that of the long distance runner, simply wanting a love reaction, to quote Springsteen, only wanting to dance in the dark. (These may seem like metaphors--that loneliness the long distance runner suffers from and the notion of dancing in the dark--but be careful what you do with figurative language.)
Anecdote one: "The Writing Utensil": If you are taking creative writing classes this Fall semester, then your writing utensil should be a pencil, not a pen. Writing in ink implies that you know what you are doing. Ink implies certainty or mastery, and implies that you are a professional. Writers of poetry and of fiction and of theory should always be forever amateurs; that is, if the writer can muster the courage to remain an amateur.
When I was in elementary school, I still remember the magical moment when Sister Mary told us we would be writing our essays in pen, and only using our pencils for math. I felt I had entered the adult world of knowing what I was doing. And, indeed, I had entered that world. I looked around that world, filled with shopping malls and conformity, and I fled it, headed into the forest, fell down a rabbit hole, met a woman from San Francisco named Grace. She held magic beans or pills in the palms of her hand. She sang to me.
I hesitated, not knowing which pill to take. Recalling a wrinkled nancy of a woman warning me to just say no. Just no. Say no. As if such a nancy would ever know the complexity of such a refusal. And I looked in the sky and saw Lucy and the ones who came before me: Jimi, Janis, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Bob, and I was tempted to say not no, but then I saw Bonds, Barry Bonds, and I realized saying no was the Pittsburgh thing to do, so I did.
Giving any writer a pen is a sin against nature, a violation of desire.
And for all of you going to school this fall, and for all of you who want to write, promise me that you will think of being an "amateur" in the French sense of the word: that of being a lover. (Oh, Roland, sweet Roland, how I miss you.)
Be a lover. Be a passionate, fearless warrior. Seek out the thinking that unnerves the muscles beneath your skin.
And to be a lover means to always to be in the suspended state of surprise, of not knowing; thus, a writing utensil should be a pencil with a big-ass eraser. Also, being a lover means discovering new ways to enjoy being with the moment, to be near-to the moment of uncertainty, to be in a reckless state of devotion and uncertainty, and to want to stay there, not to be done with it.
To hold-to the ecstasy of the moment of writing. The sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice. To linger there. The moment of the melting.
Do not write wanting someone’s approval. (That is to be co-dependent and that would be another class…or something else entirely.) Write, not to have written, but to be writing. Write because, inside the moment you are writing, you are in love with the moment of the act of writing. In fact, if you are a mathematician, approach your problems with the same desire. Love the moment of the complexity of the problem. Make the moment tremble with wanting. If you do this, you can never be disappointed, because you are writing out of a love for writing, not out of a desire to be seen as a writer.
Anecdote Two: "The Encounter with the alien": My first day in graduate school, I was walking down the hallway in the basement of the English Department of SUNY-Binghamton, when John Gardner, my mentor, saw me and ordered me to follow him. I walked with him down the hall. He asked me what I had done over the summer. I said, “I wrote a couple stories. I read Oates’ Bellefleur, re-read some Lawrence and Woolf. Read a few interviews and so on…” He then turned to walk into the bathroom. I hesitated. He looked at me, making it clear that he wanted me to follow him, so I did. It was John Gardner for god’s sake. What would you have done? What would Jesus have done, for crissakes? It was the author of Grendel, of Nickel Mountain, of so many other books, calling me to follow him. So, I followed him.
In the bathroom, he stood at a stall, looked over his shoulder at me, and asked: “What are you doing here?” I quickly tried to assess what he meant by “here”, and decided, hopefully, he meant what was I doing going to graduate school, so I replied: “I’m here to write. After all, you gave me a scholarship with a stipend, so I’m going to write and read and daydream, and SUNY-Binghamton is going to pay for it.” He finished his bathroom mission, turned to me, and said: “You get to stay.” Again, I was hoping he meant in graduate school, not so much stay in the bathroom in the basement. And he did, by the way, mean that I was allowed to stay in Binghamton and study with him. Later, I learned that the wrong answer to Gardner’s question was saying that you were here to publish or to be a writer.
Anecdote Three: "My encounter with the painting": My first conference with Gardner, was in the lair of his office in the dungeon of the English building on campus. At one point, I mentioned his manual typewriter, manual, not electric. I asked him if it was an antique, nostalgia, and asked if he had an electric typewriter at home. He said, "No, why would I want something that could make me write faster." He then added, "You don't have an electric typewriter, do you?" he stared hard and direct at me. "Do you?" I replied, "No. Hell no."
Later, wanting to make a human connection with my mentor, I pointed at a somewhat infantile painting on his wall, signed: "J. Gardner." Assuming it was his son's, Joel's, painting. I said something about it being nice that he had his son's painting on his wall. He said it was a painting he had done. I said, "Of course, I meant. I," and with John looking at me with those beautiful dragon eyes of his, I kept mumbling something about the subtle nature of the brushstrokes, that were so astonishing in his painting, so subtle that they could not be seen on first glance, that they seemed to have been made by a child so pure, so innocent. At one point, I think I simply shouted "Caravaggio!!!!" because for some reason, it made sense to me to shout out Caravaggio's name. When in doubt while talking about art always shout out Caravaggio. ... John shook his noble head in utter dismay with me, and said, he painted in order to slow down his seeing, and to practice seeing in ways that were different than the seeing he did while writing sentences.
Anecdote Four: "Two geniuses meet": The only time James Joyce met Marcel Proust, the two immortals shared a cab. Proust was smoking a cigar, and Joyce kept winding down the windows of the cab, while Proust kept winding them back up. Proust, the slightly narcissistic rememberer of things past, went on and on about his writing. Eventually, he remembered that Joyce was in the cab with him, so he asked that ulyssean Irishman what kind of writing he did, and Joyce replied: “I write writing.”
So if you are taking writing classes this fall, get a pencil, buy a few notebooks. Fill those notebooks up with scribbling. Scribble. Practice writing instead of writing as if you were already in control of every sentence that you are writing. Be kind to yourself so that you can practice writing and actually write, instead of focusing so much on having written or on getting published or on being a writer (whatever the hell that even means).
And, remember, if you are a woman, if you are my daughter, remember: a woman who writes a word down is not the same as a woman who does not. (PS: to my daughters, I am not simply asking you to write me more letters ... (or am I?), no, I am suggesting something a little more important than that.)
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