Anyone who has left love, who has stepped out of the boat, onto the water, learns what they had not known or wanted to. Anyone who turns their back on love, as if it might not take too long for them to go all the way around and come up behind it— anyone who lets love go, opens their hand while walking through a crowd, as if getting, piece by piece, rid of evidence, will lose, along with evidence of the thing, the thing itself. Anyone who sets love down, and takes their eyes away, anyone who travels far when love is home, anyone who homes alone when love is far, will lose what cannot be found. Maybe they thought love was the earth under the road, or the road under the sole of the shoe or the foot under the body but by now it is back there. It was a bush like a fire, and now—no more fragrance or light will be inhaled, or seen, as when you die you will not see the world again. Even if you thought you had not believed you were loved, something in you knew that you were—and you stepped right off love’s roof.
Four years ago, when I started my blog ruminationville, the word “blogger” was often used to disparage someone who either had limited writing skill or who thought more highly of his or her skill, personal magnetism, and importance than others might have done.
While the term still manages to purse some lips (as in “She’s not a writer; she’s just a blah-gger.”), and while a needless blog is born just about every second, I’m not much taunted by the negative connotations the word can conjure.
Starting a blog (and then having to call up enough discipline to maintain it week after week) has given me more moxie than I could have imagined for myself. Whereas before I couldn’t even see myself writing for an online audience of one, now I think along these lines: Come one, come all. Read me or don’t read me. Follow me, don’t follow me, or unfollow me. Like me or don’t like me. Just don’t land on this wobbly little planet of me looking to make a bit of stupid trouble. I’m shy and yielding, yes. That’s my nature. But when it comes to stupid trouble, I can be fierce.
So, what have I learned while I’ve been blogging? These things:
People in this BuzzFeed era have become accustomed to headlines that seduce and alarm (as in “This One Ridiculously Crazy Idea Will Scare the Holy Bejesus Out of You!”), but I won’t write a ridiculously shocking headline unless I have something ridiculously shocking to say, which so far is never.
In this age of online news-bite consumptionism, people have come to adore lists. I have come to adore lists, and I can be drawn to an article that promises I will discover the meaning of life if I follow six simple steps.
Still, I try and stay away from giving easy, empty, unlived advice.
I have absolutely no way of knowing, or predicting, if what I have written will appeal to readers. I can post something I think no one will find interesting, and my “like” stars will light up like tiny, pointy Christmas bulbs. Or, I can post something I am certain everyone will think is pure genius, and the only response I will get is nothing.
Last night I received an email from a friend who told me she had just finished reading Jenny Offill’s 2014 novel Dept. of Speculation. “Somehow, it reminds me of you,” she wrote. There is such mystery embedded in these six words that I searched for it at once on Amazon.
Happily, I was able to “Look Inside!↓” and read a few selected pages of the book. Though I couldn’t determine from these pages what in them might have reminded her of me, I did come upon a passage that made me think of something I wrote in 2012 on painter Lucian Freud. More a piece about what one needs innerly to live an artist’s life than it is about Freud himself, though, “An Ode to Selfishness” gave me an opportunity to reflect briefly on qualities that seem to make the difference between those who sustain the life of an artist — in the very broadest sense of the word — and those who do not.
Freud was a prodigious talent; he was also a prodigious philanderer who was rumored to have fathered as many as 40 children. A man who has a predilection for spilling his seed across continents is of interest anthropologically, yes, but what was most fascinating to me about him was, as I wrote, “his single-minded devotion to his art and…his devil-may-care attitude over what others thought of him….”
As I have gotten older, I have become much less preoccupied with what others might think about me, but I don’t imagine I will ever fully abandon my need for another’s good opinion. This craving, I have come to think, stands in the way of what it takes, in my case, to be a writer worth her salt.
In her novel, Offill has her narrator reflect more deeply on this idea and on how it is related to gender. “My plan was to never get married,” she says. “I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”
Today I caught the last moments of a Terry Gross interview on NPR. In it, she was speaking with Jack Miles, general editor of TheNorton Anthology Of World Religions and professor of English and religious studies at the University of California, Irvine. He is also the author of God: A Biography, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996. What I heard was of great interest, but most interesting of all was a seeming throwaway line I might have missed had I not gone back to read an online transcript of the discussion and reflect on what had been said.
“I have no confidence that the world [awaiting] us — given global warming, given the threat to the human habitat — is a world of ever-increasing knowledge…,” says Miles. “We may be at a peak now from which we will decline. Who knows?”
I think I can honestly say it never occurred to me that human beings would stop evolving; in fact, I have often taken comfort in the belief that we could grow out of our smallnesses and stupidities to become the enlightened band of sisters and brothers we were meant to be. But one glance at the day’s headlines, and I have to wonder if we are, in fact, on a slow, steady slide downward.
Tomorrow it will be three years since I wrote my first blog post. To celebrate, and as a way of offering you my gratitude for reading and supporting my work, I thought I’d unearth and reprint “The hay who wore a toupée,” one of the pieces I wrote in January 2012:
When I was a child, I think I thought that words were more reliable than grown-ups but not as important as horses. Grown-ups were always gone or leaving, but words were right where you left them. Horses were passion, though, and nothing trumps passion. Just as I can’t remember a time when I was read to I can’t remember a time when I did not read. Any words would do so long as they were companion enough. I especially loved stories of young girls with a heap of derring-do. My favorite was Ginny Gordon and the Lending Library, and I smile now to think of the reason. At such a young age I couldn’t possibly have understood why a mystery novel about a grown-up who keeps trying to steal a book would have taken me so completely. Probably as soon as I mastered cursive I wrote my first poem. This is how it went: On a bright sunny day/he galloped away/his mouth full of hay/wearing a toupée.
I started this blog nearly three years ago, and, at the time, I had no expectations about what I should do or about how I should do it. I knew only that I wanted to write in a disciplined, thoughtful way because I saw that, for me, a careful, dogged approach to the craft and art of writing was the only path to developing myself.
Though I have done many things in my life — teaching writing among them — I always seemed to run from this slow, steady approach to my own work. Early on here, I began to write sections of a short story and to post them each week. This felt very risky, but your “likes,” “follows,” and comments gave me the confidence to keep on with it. I have since had the piece published — thanks in large part to your support. I now find myself very caught up in writing poetry, which has been a wonderful surprise for me, and I am once again grateful for your responsiveness to this work. I thought you might all want to jump ship if I stopped posting short pieces of nonfiction regularly, but so far only one person has jumped, and perhaps for other reasons.
I often have felt quite sad during the holiday season because the essence of its holiness seems lost on many of us — as does a true sense of wonder and gratitude for the life we each have been given, with every day a chance for renewal and for giving and receiving loving kindness. By staying with me over these years, you have shown me much loving kindness, and I am very grateful to you. During this season, may you all find and keep the peace and love you so deserve.
Some years ago, I taught a literature course in which, among other works, we read Montana 1948, a powerful novel by Larry Watson. The book sparked interesting class discussions over a period of several weeks, though none more intriguing — to me at least — than the one that took place after I found myself reminding students we were talking about a work of fiction, which meant the story, though written in the first person, was not true.
One student, a very quiet young man who always sat in the way back, seemed not to have understood that the book was entirely spun out of sugar and air until he heard my jolting reminder. When my words registered with him, he looked as though I had punched him low and hard. Because he had all along believed the story to be true, he said he felt betrayed — so much so that he told us he would never again read another novel. Other students said they also felt bamboozled, though no one else vowed to give up on fiction for good.
Even when I was a very young and inexperienced writer of fiction and poetry, I often got twisted around this idea of truth-telling and wondered what it actually meant for me to be an honest writer of made-up stories and poems. Over time, I have come to think that truth-telling is any writer’s true north and that sensitive readers will know an honest piece of writing, no matter the genre, by the way it makes them feel. Judging by the student responses in my class, I’d say Larry Watson’s compass needle was stuck on “N” all the while he was writing Montana 1948.
For many years I have been fascinated by the use of a technique in poetry known as the “dramatic monologue.” Though he certainly wasn’t the first to use this technique (or form), Victorian poet Robert Browning perfected it in such poems as “Porphyria’s Lover” (a favorite) and “My Last Duchess.” Later, T.S. Eliot used the form in his famous poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (another favorite), and John Berryman used it in his “Dream Songs.” Poems that incorporate dramatic monologue — also known as persona poems — typically make use of one “character” through whom the poem is spoken or delivered. Because a poem using this technique is often in the first person, it is tempting to conclude that the poem’s narrator and the poet are one and the same. But don’t be fooled! Writing this type of poem allows the writer to adopt the “voice” of the character and to inhabit him or her from the inside out (as an actor might). And, because there is no overt commentary about or analysis of the character given within the poem itself, it is left to the reader to decide the poem’s meaning and power by paying close attention to what the often “unreliable narrator” says — or doesn’t say.