Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Beginner's Mind


Finding a very nice hardback copy of Bruce Chatwin's last book in a bargain bin, a kind of miscellany of previously uncollected pieces called What Am I Doing Here, got me reading him for the first time in maybe two decades.  I read him in the 1980s mostly, into the early 90s.  He died in 1989.

Reading the first pieces in this book in conjunction with at least the wikipedia version of his biography prompted a few loose thoughts about writing.  Chatwin had problems establishing himself as a writer in the 1970s.  He was a very good looking man and a bisexual, which apparently helped with influential relationships.  Some things he tried failed, some combinations of contacts and happenstance paid off--he made the best of some bad situations and some good opportunities.

His travels seems to begin almost accidentally, as did his reputation as a travel writer.  His first big success was In Patagonia in 1977.  He later published novels and articles before the book he is most known for, The Songlines in 1989.

I read in the wikipedia entry that one of his early models for prose was Hemingway, and I could certainly see that influence, particularly in his dialogue, in a couple of early pieces in What Am I Doing Here, like "A Coup, A Story," which is his account of being held captive for three days in Benin during a coup, and "Until My Blood Is Pure, A Story."  The Coup story includes descriptions of memorable meals he'd eaten, recollected while in captivity without food.  It's very Hemingwayesque in style and subject, and the episode is itself reminiscent of Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber."

Writers learn by imitating others, and even stealing from them.  Chatwin had other models and how he handles the combination is part of what turns out to be his style.  Even these pieces in which the Hemingway influence is overt, the writing is pleasing and effective whether you see it that way or not.  If only because the subject and the diction are more recent, they are in some ways more pleasing than Hemingway, who can seem now to be quite wordy, with a vocabulary a little arcane by this time.

Chatwin liked to experiment with the form of a book.  That was very 20th century, especially in Hemingway's time, but also in those decades of the 70s and 80s.  The times sometime insist on new forms, if only because writers find it very difficult to write using the old forms.  They don't see and hear the world that way.

Chatwin experimented with the form of The Songlines and in a formal sense he failed.  It starts out as an account of Australian Aboriginal beliefs about the songlines that link them as a people and as individuals to the land, for songlines are both topographical lines of passage and song stories about their origins and relationships, linked by the rhythm of walking.

But the story broadens out to considerations of human origins and the nomadic impulse (about which he'd tried to write a book previously, and some chapters in What Am I Doing Here seem to come from that uncompleted project), until it abruptly shifts to a selection of quotations and notes taken from his notebooks and other sources.  So while this book has a beginning, it doesn't have an ending.

On that basis it should have failed.  Instead The Songlines was a best seller throughout much of 1987, and then again as a paperback.  I was completely enthralled by it.  I remember wanting to read it out in the open, so I found a spot on a sparsely traveled road between Seton Hill College and other buildings on its isolated hill.  I sat reading under a tree, and recall a car driving by with an older woman driving who saw me and smiled to herself.

It was partly the times--little was known about Indigenous cultures, but there was great interest that would blossom in the early 90s.  Certainly it was a revelation to me, but as a reading experience it was exciting as well.

What makes a successful piece of writing, whether or not it becomes a best-seller? It's in a way a happy accident, though it is a deliberate accident.  We like to think we're in control and following some prescription, or perhaps we feel that our powers are such that anything we apply ourselves to will succeed.  Usually we are forcibly disabused of such notions.

There are always times in a project that the writing is hard, or the research is overwhelming a sense of what to select from it, or there are conceptual roadblocks and--worst of all--dead ends.  Everyone who writes was seduced by what some others have written.  We want to do the same thing, so we try something similar, but try to be different, too.  Here the first level of talent is discernible.  Lots of people can write a good beginning.  But where does it go?  That's frequently the first problem: the dead end.

Chatwin had a lifelong obsession with nomads, with the impulse to wander he shared and which he believed was intrinsic to humans, and that became the center of The Songlines.  That center and that beginning was good enough to make up for the lack of an ending.  It may have worked because it left the reader wanting more.  It also allowed the reader to participate, to consider the questions, to expand on the thoughts and quotations.  To wonder, along with Chatwin, what this is all about.

There are other possible reasons for why The Songlines worked--such as the reader being seduced to identify with the first person narrator, a necessity when the first person is used.  How thought out this way, how intentional, I don't know.  There's also the question of how ill he was, how close to the end he felt.  But my experience as a writer suggests that something about the process caught him and carried him along.  Some rhythm in the words, in the pages.  Something that might not mean anything to anyone else.

What is front and center in that book to me is the Beginner's Mind. It's difficult to find it again after so much writing, so many trials.  But if you're a writer, or if you've ever started to write, you've generally started with that Beginner's Mind.

 Things are exciting the first time, which is why we remember events of our first 20 years more clearly than later experiences.  Similarly, the approach to writing of the Beginner's Mind can--when it works--transmit that excitement, that engagement, to the reader.

I've come to believe that, despite those who say all writing is just hard work, the really good work comes most often from the Beginner's Mind, the feeling that the formal problems you have set for yourself or encounter, the approach you are taking, the material you are working with, are in ways important to you, utterly new.  Isn't that the definition of "creating" anyway?  Making something new.

It's hard to hold onto the Beginner's Mind, and it's hard to find it again.  When you've never had a response to your work, you write with innocence.  When you have, and when that response makes you self-conscious, or the lack of subsequent and present response fills you with a sense of futility, the innocence of the Beginner's Mind is gone.

When writing becomes work for pay only, and has no play in it anymore, Beginner's Mind may go off somewhere else, maybe playing with the aps on the iphone.

I've come to believe that finding the project that so fascinates and involves you that these are not considerations, that your Beginner's Mind and heart are fully engaged, is completely the key.  Maybe it happens only partially, and maybe you get lucky like Chatwin did with The Songlines and you more or less stumble onto something new, like the way he ended it.  But it's what you need.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Long May You Run


It's been several months now since I gave up El Volvo.  Born in 1986, the same year as one of my nieces (married, a mother), El Volvo came into my life in 1999 and served me well for 16 plus years.

Not much to look at, El Volvo had an engine that wouldn't quit.  But circumstances brought another car into our possession, and we can hardly justify two, let alone three.  Still, I held on to the Volvo for a lot longer than I should have.

It took me months to understand why.  Then I realized that on my many drives to local theatres to review plays, I was almost always alone.  I went alone, sat alone and returned alone.  I had to get myself together to go, especially when they were plays I didn't particularly want to see, on nights or afternoons I would rather have stayed home.  And then I had to figure out what to say about them.

At several theatres, the management people were nice to me, but by and large actors and others involved in the production weren't especially friendly.  Why should they be--I was outside the process, judging them.  Pretty much a buzzkill.  Most often these weren't comfortable evenings.

But I did have one companion--El Volvo.  My car got me there safely and most importantly, got me home.  That applies to other situations as well.  That was a relationship, and it turned out to be hard to end.

There was a lot I liked about that old car.  It pre-dated a lot of fancy technologies that are mostly confusing and are little more than something else that can break.  The windows actually wound down.  At the same time, there were some very nice Volvo features.  Headlights that go off when I turn off the engine.  A visor that swivels to catch sunglare to the sides.  I liked the dark blue upholstered seats.  And all the confidence of being in a Volvo out there with the crazies.

El Volvo gave me very little trouble over the years, mostly electrical from that old wiring.  It was missing rear brake lights and the headlights never were very strong.  But I do believe there was some good karma attached to the car because of how I bought it.

I answered an ad in the Times Standard.  The car was being sold by a young woman in Eureka.  She and her boyfriend bought it used--she told me the price they paid--and now she was selling it so she could go visit him in Mexico, prior to their wedding.  He was working there.  She was living with her father.

I had it looked at before I bought and it needed some work.  She and her father listened to me say so in the dimly lit living room.  But when I made my offer they were both surprised.  Essentially I offered about $100 more than she'd paid for it, pretty obviously as a wedding present.  She was overjoyed.  Her father was so pleased he almost hugged me.

When it came time to part ways, I thought I would donate it to a public radio station.  But that turned out to be complicated and pretty impersonal.  I was supposed to talk to somebody in Colorado.  Then a local guy offered to buy it--he likes fixing up old cars.  I figured El Volvo would have a better chance at a longer life that way.  With your chrome heart shining in the sun, long may you run.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Tangled Up

Bob Dylan has won this year's Nobel Prize for Literature.

 When I saw this I immediately recalled a moment in my senior year of college--1967/8--when I railed to a lit professor that the literature of our times was being written by Dylan, the Beatles etc. in the form of a few minutes of song.

 It wasn't an original idea. I recall reading an interview with Donovan who referred to "Eleanor Rigby" as a three minute novel.

 But as important as Dylan's songs have been to me and to our times, this news didn't arrive as a vindication. I'm actually disappointed.

The truth is Bob Dylan doesn't need any more awards. I'm pretty sure he'd tell you that himself.  He's a pop star, and has been recognized for his contribution to American culture many times, including at the White House.

 But there are a lot of writers who aren't pop stars who have only a few shots at recognition. Yes, they can get medals from their nation for cultural contributions. But this is the big international prize for their art.


I think of Ursula LeGuin who is 87. She is only one of several I can think of who deserve this prize, which is given only to the living.

Giving Dylan this prize does nothing but muddy the waters. Does this make Sting and James Taylor and Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen eligible? I guess so. But why? They don't need it. The world doesn't need it.

 Giving this prize to, say, Kim Stanley Robinson on the other hand could actually change the world. It would recognize a form of literature and give him a platform for expressing ideas and focusing a dialogue the world needs to survive.

 Hey, even a National Book Award or a Pulitzer would go a long way. But writers in the sci-fi ghetto don't get those awards, despite their contributions to literature and literary culture, not to mention the world. They have a better shot at the Nobel.

 So it's another occasion to celebrate Dylan's work (though eventually somebody is going to point out that his borrowings remain controversial) and that's fine. But we know about Dylan's work. We've been swimming in it for more than fifty years.  Is this more of an award for us?

Sure, I recognize that songs like "The Times They Are A Changin" and "Tangled Up in Blue" and a few dozen more have had more lasting and layered effects on me, including deep visceral effects, and may even say more about life in these times than almost any novel or poem.  But their power is in their nature as songs.

Without the music, Dylan might be--as Allen Ginsberg came to believe--a good minor poet.  That's not faint praise.  There aren't that many good minor poets. But that's not really relevant.  This is a different form.  Dylan would probably tell you that.  (And come to that, where is Allen Ginsberg's prize?)

 This prize is for literature, and the work of literature gets no greater recognition. Think of all that Margaret Atwood (for one) has written and done, and the example she sets for a literary culture. Or Gary Snyder (age 86.)  Or is that over now? That's not good.

It's possible to argue that songs of the kind that Dylan wrote aren't being written or at least heard as much anymore because popular music has changed. But that's a different argument. The fact is that the popular music forms are not threatened. They still bring in big bucks. Literary culture around the world is endangered. And this prize does nothing to support it.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Nobody Blogs Anymore (But Me)

"Nobody blogs anymore," I was told, by someone who is in a position to know about trends in techworld.  I wasn't surprised, even when I said instinctively, "I do."

I suspect there are far fewer people blogging, at least in the old sense of writing often for an autonomous site, with the goal of inducing as many readers as possible to follow each consecutive post.

And that's because of course there are far fewer readers who follow specific blogs.  While some bloggers have gone on by affiliating with media sites, most I suspect have transitioned to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  Social media is The Thing, and it drive out everything else.

I sometimes try to make myself care.  I suppose it is possible to enhance reader access by using social media to alert readers to posts, or maybe I could get over my extreme distaste for the aesthetics of the Facebook page and post there.  Assuming I could get used to the ever-changing nature of the site, and it's chaotic and privacy-threatening features.

It seems like a lot of trouble that takes a lot of time, especially time away from writing the blog entries/essays.  Avoiding all that trouble was pretty much why I started in the first place.  I had spent far too much time and energy on trying to make publication possible.  Blogs were (and are) instant publication.

Somehow I've taken to writing in this format.  I've been working for years on book projects, and have recently found I can complete chapters for a projected Soul of Star Trek book by preparing them as posts for my blog, Soul of Star Trek.

So I'm basically not going to mess with that.  Maybe later I'll do something different in addition.  If there is a later.

But for now, I'm content to work within existing parameters.  As a writer you learn not to mess with what's working.

I have a small cadre of known regular readers for my Dreaming Up Daily blog, and at least until the election I'm content to sound off for them.  There are many more hits registered for Soul of Star Trek but I don't know about actual readers.  I suspect my recent posts aren't being read, but that's okay.  I'm doing them to do them, finally, and let them go.  (Although the goal is still a book, even if  I wind up publishing it through google or whatever, and once again cast something to the wind.)

But there aren't many hits registered for this blog, which I think I started first or maybe second of still-going blogs, all those blogging centuries ago.  But I've known for several years that this blog gets few hits, so my occasional posts here are in the nature of a kind of diary, plus a kind of file cabinet of ideas, for easy access.  As much as I counsel against becoming dependent on "the cloud" and cyberspace in general for storing things, I've done it through my blogs.  A lot of my writing exists on them, and nowhere else.  They could truly be gone with the wind.

So...here it is, here am I, September 2016.  I'm needing to fill the hummingbird feeders more frequently now, though I'm seeing only one hummer, a delicate slim small green one.  In past years there's been at least two, usually three, and sometimes four.  There are hummers around all year now (and may always have been) but they come to the feeders in late summer through mid February.  Other times I see them in the front yard more than in the back.  Plenty of flowers they like in both places.

Today is fog covered but it has again seemed to be sunnier more often this summer than say ten years ago, though that's been the trend for several summers now.  Knowing what it portends adds a strange dimension to the general perception that it is pretty damn nice--warm to hot sun, blue skies and warm to cool temps.  After some spikes early in the season, we got no real hot and humid days this summer.  The variation day to day seemed larger, but within a comfortable range.

Now it's getting cooler, especially at night.  This year we had a good crop of tomatoes--cherry tomato size though different varieties--and blueberries on several bushes back and front, and some but not many strawberries.

I can see Toby's pear trees next door are bearing a lot of fruit, so far unpicked. I don't think the people who live there now are relatives, but it seems the family still owns the place. Toby's trees have outlived him, and so his memory stays alive, at least here. We got some pears from our little tree, but the little apple tree, while it yields full sized apples, doesn't produce many edible ones.  Never has.

Pema the cat is hanging out next to me now as I write this.  We've spent a lot of time and attention on her health for several months now, but that's another post in itself.  At the moment she's good, sort of.

Okay, I'm going to throw in a few random photos I've taken this summer into this post.  With the rise of Instagram and the phone cameras, people are altering their photos with filters etc. until reality is unrecognizable.  I don't know what I think about that, except for two things: (1) once again I'm not taking the time, trouble and expense of doing such, and (2) I tend not to look at photos that appear to be excessively manipulated.  Because, what am I looking at? I've noticed this especially with photos taken during eclipses, Super Moons and meteor showers, etc.  They're often unbelievable. So what's the point?

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Internet of Remembering

My unfiltered photo, Trinidad Head June 30, 2016, now past, but now your present, and here to stay.
In the New Yorker this week, Casey Johnston wrote about various social media platforms that wipe away photos and text after a brief period, like 24 hours. Now you see it, now you won't. This is much prized, Johnston writes, especially by younger posters whose identity is formed in the moment, and may be obsolete and even embarrassing before long. This "satisfies a craving for immediacy and ephemerality, one that has lately grown to encompass all of social media." Johnston calls this the Internet of Forgetting.

 Well, I am not young and that is not my Internet. Time and its contents helplessly obsess me. I crave scope, so I can maybe make some sense of it. The past has a different reality now that I have more of it myself. Rediscovering elements of the past and reflecting on them, connecting and reconciling, all add something necessary to my present. Besides, these discoveries as well as re-discoveries in both their original context and in mine now, also constitute much of my entertainment. 

So fortunately for me, there is also an Internet of Remembering. There are search functions to vast data, various Wikis and especially YouTube. On YouTube I can access (as I have recently) radio broadcasts from the 1940s, particular baseball or basketball games from--well, I haven't even explored how far back. Interviews from the 50s, movies from the 30s (ever heard of the Torchy Blane series? Neither had I. It's pretty good. Besides which, it may have been an inspiration for Lois Lane.)

Reading about past events in historical context, I can find documents and publications of the time online. I can even see the faces and hear the voices, from at least FDR on. There are surprising snippets of performances by legendary actors, though unfortunately not so many whole plays. Can't find in any library an obscure treatise on ethics and psychology by one of the greatest classic science fiction authors (and least known outside the s/f community), Olaf Stapledon? Search online, and ye shall find the entire text. And so on.

A recent instance of personal memory...I remember one Saturday morning when I was 8. I was watching "Space Patrol"--an episode in which Buzz Corey and crew used their "time drive" to travel to 1956. They mentioned that they were traveling from the 30th century, when "Space Patrol" takes place.

 My mother caught some of this. She asked me if I knew what century we were living in. I don't think I did, exactly. She said it was the 20th century, and the Space Patrol people were coming from the 30th. She mentioned that she used to listen to Buck Rogers on the radio, and he had traveled to the 25th century. I probably remember this because I learned something about time.

 I recall Saturday mornings when there was one outer space show after another--"Tom Corbett, Space Cadet," "Rocky Jones, Space Ranger," "Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers" and "Space Patrol." I researched these shows on the Internet in 2010 and discovered enough to figure out that they were probably all on during only one year: 1954.

 I was writing fiction based on my childhood, and for reasons having to do with other events in the chapter, I selected a certain October Saturday to revisit these shows, and how my friends and I used them in play. Then I found a "Space Patrol" episode guide that described the show scheduled on the Saturday I had selected. From the description it seemed very likely it was the very one I remember, when my mother and I had that conversation. (I blogged about all this right here at the time.)

 Well, it's 2016 and many "Space Patrol" episodes are now on YouTube, though not always under their original titles. Also YouTube can be difficult to search systematically. But the other night, I happened upon and saw this episode--the one I last saw with my mother in our living room in 1954.

 But the Internet of remembering has more functions than revisiting personal memories. Here's another YouTube show I watched recently. I've been reading Arthur Miller lately--this latest Miller jag started when I read a roundtable discussion of contemporary playwrights, and one of them quoted Miller. I then found on the Internet the interview with Miller that contained that quote, and more along that line. That started me reading some of his nonfiction and lesser known plays, and re-reading his autobiography. So on a whim I went back and searched YouTube for television interviews.

I immediately found an interview he did with Charlie Rose in 1992. When the conversation veered to that now historical moment--the 1992 election campaign and the rise of Ross Perot, a purported billionaire businessman outsider--I got chills, especially when Miller said: "When a leadership arises in a country that believes it can lead by using the darkness in men, it's probably unstoppable at a certain point." He'd grown up watching Hitler's rise in Germany. 

Does anybody--even those who lived through it, as I did-- remember what it felt like with Ross Perot in 1992? I didn't. From 2016, Perot now looks like an early and milder version of Trump, thanks to this interview. There's precedent, a continuum of sorts perhaps. And people were worried then. (Miller thought America was too diverse to fall completely for a dictator of darkness, which of course may be our salvation now.)

 And to add to all this co-incidence (which means things happening at the same time, like the past in the present), Miller once described the function of playwriting as "remembering."

About many things, it doesn't pay to forget. The Internet of Remembering is important to our survival, as well as the lives of "the olds" as Johnston says that tech folks call anybody over 30. So in my case I guess it's "the ancients."

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Fiesta

My parents were married in August 1945. Among their wedding presents was a set of Fiestaware: cups and saucers, plates of various sizes, salt and pepper shakers, a gravy boat, a pitcher, bowls, sugar bowl and creamer, a lazy susan and possibly other items. They were the mix of colors typical of what's officially called just Fiesta, made by a West Virginia outfit and originally introduced at a pottery fair in Pittsburgh in 1936. I believe they were a gift from my mother's younger sister.

 Many of these pieces were ubiquitous in my childhood and beyond. The dishes were perhaps the "good dishes" for awhile, but some pieces in enough use that some bit the dust (the bowls, the cups and saucers.) Some pieces (the salt and pepper shakers) were in common use forty years later. The sugar bowl just quietly disappeared. But at a certain point in the 60s or 70s, they were replaced by a new, more formal looking set, and the remaining Fiestaware consigned to the back of a kitchen cabinet.

So imagine my shock when I was walking through a huge exhibit called The Machine Age in the Carnegie Museum of Art in 1985 or so, when I came upon a collection of Fiestaware that might have been taken from that cabinet, but it was in a glass case and labeled.

 When my childhood home was sold, I got most of the surviving Fiestaware, and perhaps all of it. I brought it with me out here to California. There wasn't really much of it left, and though one of the rarer pieces is in excellent condition, some of the plates are chipped. But one piece survived with only minor abrasions, all the more surprising because it was one of the most used pieces.

 That, it will come as no surprise by now, was the yellow pitcher. As a representative piece it is quite striking for the Art Deco design is most evident of all the pieces. But it also carries the memories of a lot of Kool-Aid and ice cubes on hot summer days through the 1950s and beyond.

 This past October of 2015, my niece Sarah got married. Her wedding was almost exactly 70 years after my parents wedding. So it seemed especially fitting that this Fiestaware pitcher be passed down to her on this occasion. And that's what I did. 

Though it has value on the collectors market, she is honoring its family history by using it.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

On Book Publishing


A long New Yorker piece on Amazon and books from earlier this year is disquieting to say the least.  It seems that Amazon has become the Wal-Mart of book publishing, making demands that publishers can't afford not to accept.  It's not a pretty picture.

On the other hand, at least since the 1980s, New York publishers adopted self-defeating business practices, aping inappropriate business models, in which books became "product," etc.  It bred arrogance and (among real editors and authors) disillusion, so there weren't a lot of people left to feel sorry for them.

And the condition in this quote has been going on for quite some time:

Writing is being outsourced, because the only people who can afford to write books make money elsewhere—academics, rich people, celebrities,” Colin Robinson, a veteran publisher, said. “The real talent, the people who are writers because they happen to be really good at writing—they aren’t going to be able to afford to do it.”

This became obvious to me as an author more than a decade ago.

As for the book business, the article cites one example of a counter-approach, which essentially has publishing going smaller and selling direct to readers.  Whether or not this would work, I believe Andrew Wylie is largely right in his quoted statement: "The [publishing] industry thinks of itself as Procter & Gamble*. What gave publishers the idea that this was some big goddam business? It’s not—it’s a tiny little business, selling to a bunch of odd people who read.”