creative ramblings & reverie

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Writing Spaces

Writing a life . . .

image:  I'll give credit just as soon as I find the artist's link!

If You Want to Write

You want to write?  Do anything, however menial, to earn a living, except edit or teach. 

Advice I followed to the letter; followed like a lodestar or the Holy Grail.  My favorite writing teacher told me that when I was starting out, and almost thirty years later I’m telling you—I can’t impress on you strongly enough how essential it is to get a job that won’t exhaust your creativity during the day, leave you depleted.  Something like . . . well, making goat cheese, say.  Start small, a couple dozen Nubian goats, those quizzical faces with Roman nose and lop-ears, and that voracious appetite, the way they butt and butt against the slightest resistance.  What better example for a writer?  And the cheeses you will set to curdle in the little molds—the earthy tang of distant rock-bound lands, the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were preserved, the copper and stringed instruments, red clay and peppers, fiery hot and mild, of some great souk in Marrakesh, followed by solitary nights out in the desert with a tribal memory of water and a skiff of stars.  For full-flavored Old Testament language, pithy and fine, ringing with native truths—yes, spend your working hours with the goats.

For good practical prose, though, you might dock ferries.  Keeping a seaman’s eye ahead, gauging the distance left to go before you launch yourself over the breathless yard or so of sea onto the sturdy pier, sure of your footing in your lucky running shoes from freshman track, trusting the land to come to meet you halfway.  You’ll learn to deal with ponderous coils of rope, to pull the boat in after you and tie it in a looping knot around the dock cleat with its salt-worn patina—your large docile thick-skinned beast, a sort of whale or hippo or a floating elephant (think how each of the six blind men knew a different elephant; remember the teaching of Buddha.  How can you weigh a large elephant?  Load it on a boat and draw a line to mark how deep the boat sinks into the water.  Then take out the elephant and load the boat with stones until it sinks to the same depth, and weigh the stones.  How can you weigh a life, or tell a big serious story?  The same way, surely, stone by stone).  Haul your ferry in to shore gladly, hand over hand; just make sure that you fasten it securely so it doesn’t slip away and get up to some mischief in the harbor with the pleasure boats while you’re sneaking a smoke with your mates.  Wear a striped Breton fishing shirt, why not—an element of whimsy never hurts. 

Or okay, so you want to write philosophy, or poems like Merwin, full of clarity and quiet grace?  You must carve doors!  In early morning in your workshop on a good acre of rented land with an artesian well near Tucumcacori, one of the schoolrooms of the original Mission, swept clean as a medieval guild house and shot through with all the light and calm of a Vermeer, study the vastly different characters of different woods, the way they confide in your hands, the contour maps of time drawn on them in unhurried rings—the long, blond grain of Native Hemlock, the rustic backwoods scrawl of Douglas Fir, the golden monastery brown of sacred Burmese Teak, the royal tree, and sometimes for a change African Ayan, South American Chontaquiro.  Planing, giving shape to transitory aspects—entry, egress, portal, limen—so many things a door can be, and always peering ’round the other side to see what lies beyond it.  (O absolutely anything at all, there’s the beauty.)  Imagine that in what you have to say. 

Something more urgent, edgy?  Sure.  Run a small country.  Being a petty dictator pays well, as long as you don’t let the unbridled power go to your head.  Perfect the role of amiable tyrant, one whom everybody really rather likes though they can’t resist grumbling at tax-time.  Your bodyguards a little boisterous but never actually drunk.  Insist on eating lobster regularly; keep a pocketful of black pearls in your natty cargo pants, a thumbworn Penguin paperback Machiavelli with a picture of a Latvian heiress you think you might as well marry as bookmark on the passenger seat of the golf cart you like to drive; design a jaunty new national flag, with your mother’s initials cunningly embroidered onto the hatband of the first garden gnome; like Fitzcaraldo build an opera-house in the jungle, where the 17.2% under-employed can come on Saturdays to watch Met simul-casts.  Bringing roasted almonds in their peasant cloth bags, staring in wonder at the rainbows thrown to every corner of the vaulted ceiling by your chandelier of Murano blown glass.  All terrific for generating off-off Broadway drama, cutting edge, those plays with lean, muscular dialog and lots of exposed brick. 

Or what about adventure writing?  Rum-runner, venom extractor, rider of Brahma bulls, the one who solders spigots to the county pipes . . . 

A what?  An office job?  Oh no, not that—didn’t I say what a mistake it’s been, that terrible advice?  A lodestar long since flickered and burned out.  Do nothing menial, is what he should have said; I’ve missed the forest, avoiding the trees.  Dedicate yourself to vital things.  Wrestle with angels, tramp the world, espouse what’s quixotic and strange.  If only I had seen, even ten years ago, before it was too late.  What is the cost of following a god whose feet when bared are cracked and crumbling clay, of trustingly taking a simple cry from the heart as a universal truth? 

It’s only writing, some would say.  What does it matter if you write?  But what words of any kind does a person have left, who looks up from her desk one day, politely, after all the years doing just that, doggedly doing “anything,” on other people’s terms, only to see—just disappearing like a silent flight of teal across a distant bit of sky outside the office window, twice removed—that she’s been too busy earning a living to have lived a life?

—Christie (February, 2008)