I stood at the empty lectern, in the empty room. Dead quiet, but the echo of spoken words, questions, and laughter, still in the air. I had just worked my umpteenth book signing. The audience members, after chatting with the author and getting copies of their books signed, had left; to scrape the ice off their windshields and drive home to their hearty soups, red wine, and public radio.
The author and her colleagues, other writers and friends, had also left, after giving each other directions, and asking, “Should I follow you?” to the place they were having celebratory drinks and nosh. I had been profusely thanked, then left alone. I would say “abandoned” but that would imply that I was ever part of the thing that I had been jettisoned from. Of the tribe of writers I longed to belong to. I could see their campfires from the cold scrub grass, but hadn’t yet been called into the warmth of their circle.
I realized then that I never would be invited, that I had to bust my way in, announce myself, and that only one thing would allow my entry: the work. Wishing wouldn’t make it so. Waking up and hoping that the completed text had magically appeared under my pillow while I slept? Not likely.
I have stories inside myself that I need to get out and the only way to get them out is to do the work. The work all the other writers had already done. The hard work of building something brick by brick, word by word. The long silences, the blank white pages, ghostly and death-like. The terror that is whiteness that Melville understood so well.
Donald Barthelme, in his essay “Not-Knowing”, said, “It’s appropriate to pause and say that the writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.”
This is the constant state of being for the writer. Not knowing. All the time, not knowing what will come next. And being Ok with that. Accepting it, embracing it. You might have control over all the other facets of your life, but if you are a writer, you don’t have control over this. You might know the time and the place when and where you are going to write. You might even have a pretty concrete idea what you’re going to say. But as soon as you sit down in front of that blank page, that flashing cursor, you don’t know.
I’ve finally started my first novel. I know a little bit about it. But of most of it, I have no clue. I don’t know how it will end. I don’t know the title. I don’t know what my next sentence will be, or what my main character’s name is. But every day, I’m doing the work.
In Buddhism, we speak of sitting with things. With anger. With sadness. With hunger. With pain. With happiness. Sitting there with whatever it is, right there in your hara, that sweet spot where all strength comes from, right behind your belly button. We sit with our fear of what the future holds, of what our next words will be. We sit with it, whatever it is, the not-knowing, and then it passes, and we begin again, reborn in each moment.
It’s OK not to know, as long as we resolve to at least start the journey to find out.
One of the reasons I’ll never be a professional writer, that is, one who gets paid for his writing, beside the facts that I can’t type and I overuse the comma, is that I don’t care much for details. I’ve never been a fan of the exegesis. Biographies don’t interest me; I’d rather have mystery. In most cases, unless I’m really obsessed, I don’t want to go “behind the scenes.” I’d rather not see the “making of” specials, or know how most of Star Wars was really just Mark Hamill and Alec Guinness in front of a green screen. When I was an English major in college, people always assumed it was because I wanted to teach. No, I would say. I just like to read books. I knew then I could never teach because the experience of books and reading was and still is too personal for me. What could I tell any potential students that they couldn’t discover on their own? Most of the “great books” I’ve read, I’ve read on my own, for fun: Ulysses, Magic Mountain, Grapes of Wrath, American Tabloid, The Stranger. I think that literature, like all art, is a deeply personal experience that can be talked about superficially, and can even lead to some long, deep, sun-coming-up kinds of discussions, but for me will always remain a private affair. Even at rock concerts or films we are really all in our own private worlds, nodding along with our eyes closed. My favorite novel of all time is Moby Dick, but please don’t ask me what the white whale symbolizes. Even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you. But the thing is, I don’t want to know. I don’t want to know if the whale symbolizes death, or heaven, or the white man’s burden, or any of that. I don’t want to hear about Melville’s childhood. Maybe in the next life, we can sit awhile and talk about it, maybe even go skinny-dipping, old Herman and me (with Walt Whitman too, because you know he’ll be there, peeking through the bushes). But in this life, I’ll take mystery over certainty. Mystery makes things more exciting.
I was thinking about a writer I really liked when I was younger, Madison Smartt Bell. When I still had dreams of being a novelist or short-story writer, he was one of the towering figures in my reading life. Now let’s stop right there. If I were a real writer, this would be the place I would start doing all kinds of internet research about MSB and dive into some long reminiscence, peppered with book reviews and clips from interviews, about how I would sit in one of those folding lawn chairs in my parent’s backyard in Syracuse on a hot summer’s day, under the shade of the pear tree, the pear tree that always produced sour pears that you had to wrap in wax paper, set on the kitchen windowsill, and wait two weeks to ripen before you could eat them, but that we never did and so just waited for them to all fall off the tree and then have rotten pear wars in the fall, whipping them at each other and watching them explode of the vinyl sleeves of our Sears-bought NFL football jackets and smelling the rotten pair guts that never fully washed out of our hair for weeks afterwards and that would leave these really gross, yellowish splotches on our jeans and baseball caps. I could tell you all this, or about how I devoured The Year of Silence, Zero db, Soldier’s Joy, or Waiting For the End of the World. These books, along with Rock Springs and Cathedral, gave me some small hope that I could follow in their literary footsteps. But Bell more than any of the others. It also helped that he wasn’t well known and had a funny name. He was a writer, an artist, I could claim as my own, like R.E.M. when Chronic Town first came out and Michael Stipe was still mumbling lyrics about gardening at night that only I could understand and people thought I was crazy for telling them that Murmur was way better than Synchronicity or Thriller.
There’s a passage in The Year of Silence that I still remember, although my memory might be wrong. Here again, I could look to the internet to correct me, but I’d rather have imperfect memories than perfect facts. The Year of Silence tells the story of a woman who commits suicide, through the reminiscences of all the people who knew her when she was alive. Her friends, her husband, her lover. One of the characters is a pianist, and he decides, as a way to mourn her, he will not play piano for one year (hence the title of the book). But what he does do, is practice on a piece of wood, alone in his apartment, that is painted with the ebony and ivory of piano keys. He practices, tapping this painted piece of wood, in silence, playing music only he can hear, until his yearlong vigil of mourning is over. At least that’s what I think happened.
Tanzan, who I have written about before and who’s postcard story is still one of my favorite Zen tales of all time, inspires me to consider what my own year of silence might be like. As a writer, I vacillate between my desire to put my full self out there for all the word to see and wanting to keep it all in and not expose myself to criticism. “If you got something good, keep it in your pocket,” Muddy Waters used to say. It’s no secret that I’m an over-sharer. Sometimes when I’m on Facebook, I can almost hear people hiding me from their news feeds. There is something about writing that invites disgust. The great Samuel Beckett remarked (and I am probably misremembering the exact words but hope to express the sentiment) that “no sooner than the ink is dry and I am sick of it.” It’s true that sometimes I feel like giving up, that no amount of words will ever express all that I want to say. That no matter how much we all try, “getting to know each other” in this lifetime is futile. People will only go so far, no further. Me included. And yet, I keep writing. I guess I’m not ready to stop telling my story after all. Or hear other people’s. Just please don’t write a biography of me after I’m gone. Embrace the mystery, the silence, instead.
When I first started following English Premier League football, Manchester United was the dominant force in the game. Still are, in many way. As my love of football grew over the years, I developed a love/hate relationship with Man U. They were the New York Yankees of English football, winning everything every year it seemed. Their captain at the time was a mad Irishman named Roy Keane. He was always screaming. At referees, at opposing players, at his own teammates. He was a total fucking bastard. He once broke a guy’s leg in a game on purpose and never apologized. He was crazy. A nutter, as the Brits say. And as you’ll see, Keane not only breaks Alf-Inge Haaland’s leg, ending his career; he bends down and taunts him as he’s leaving the field. Like I said. A nutter.
A writer I once knew, one who is now famous, well-regarded, and almost universally loved, wrote some of his earliest stories, ones that were eventually published in The New Yorker, at work, in secret, when the boss wasn’t looking. Like I’m doing now. I call this having an alt/tab kind of day. A day when by the swift stroke of the keyboard you quickly flip back and forth between the life you have and the life you want. A day when you pretend you’re doing one thing when you’re really doing something else. A day when what you’re getting paid to do isn’t what you’re doing. When you alternate between the screen with the spreadsheet you’re supposed to be working on, the one that’s due in a few hours, and the clandestine novel you’re writing in Word. A day when you turn down your Alice Coltrane so you can hear if your boss is quietly slooshing down the carpeted hallway to your office in her noise-cancelling flats, like some kind of human octogenarian-driven Prius: a silent killer you don’t hear until it flattens you as you step off your creative, true-self curb. A day when you dream about the writer you want to become and try not to dwell on the fact that you’re just a minion in a basement with a banana on your desk. An alt/tab kind of day. A good day.
A rainy Friday. My last full day here. Woke early, around 6:30 am. Walked into town to Bread Alone for bagel and coffee. Spent about two hours eating and reading Glass Bead Game. Walked back to the Inn and took a drive up to Phoenicia, past Mount Tremper and the Zen Mountain Monastery. Came back to town and walked around. Stopped into Dharmaware to buy a small bodhisattva statue for Mom and Dad. Ate lunch at pizzeria (again!) Then walked back to the Inn for coffee and journal writing. Hoping the rain will clear so I might be able to go for a swim later, or at least tomorrow a.m. A lonely day, so far. Just got some good advice about swimming holes: Seven Waterfalls. And I learned that apparently bears are pretty much harmless. Maybe the sun will come out tomorrow. Did more walking in the afternoon. Bought a bottle of wine and got take-out from Joshua’s: a Middle-Eastern sampler. Watching sports on TV in the p.m. Hoping for sun.
Sorry to go all all Tanzan on you like that, but sometimes a guy just needs to get away. Where did I go, you may ask? The easy, but untruthful answer would be to say something like “I was swimming in Walden Pond,” or “I was busy becoming a Buddhist, Rastafarian, Gospel-of-Thomas Christian.” (This might actually be true, since that’s about what I am) But the real answer is that for the longest time I just didn’t have anything to say. Frankly, I don’t know how these professional bloggers do it. Something new every day? My mind doesn’t work that way, I guess. But for the longest time, there was something missing in my life, and I realized it was creative expression. So I’m going to try a new tact, and perhaps be a little more experimental with this blog. Maybe I’ll throw in some poetry or a few more photographs. We shall see. I’m working on a few things right now that I’ll hopefully be able to share with you shortly. As I look out my window right now, I see snowflakes swirling down from the sky. It’s mid-March, and somehow these snowflakes seem unfair. This has been a cruel winter. I can’t afford to heat my tiny house, the front end of my ancient Accord is making scary noises, and my feet are always cold no matter how many pairs of Smartwools I put on. But I have my health, my family, my Buddha nature, and now, once again, I have my blog. Henry’s back from the woods.