Tag Archives: writing

What I am Doing is What I am Doing

The last essay that I posted (There.) was the hardest thing I’ve posted. Maybe the hardest thing I’ve written. There is a difference. Like I said, I wrote it for myself. It was something I had to do at a specific time, when I was still drowning in the experience and I didn’t want to remember any of it, but a part of me that I’m learning to listen to told me that maybe I needed to. So I wrote for myself but didn’t post it. Later, when I did post it, I didn’t do so for myself. I posted it for the reason I post anything on here: the reader.

A songwriter might write a song about lost love (or found love) to console or to rejoice privately, then get on a stage and play that same song for others so that the experience which is already common can be realized. So do I write about pain sometimes (but hopefully more often about joy) to first help me work through it, and then “put it out there” and hope that whoever reads it recognizes some of their own thoughts, pain, joy, in it.

So, what is the role of art? More specifically, what is the role of prose? Does it cheapen an event, emotion, pain, joy, discovery, loss, to write about it?

If it did, wouldn’t every song about the pain of heartbreak cheapen love? Is a songwriter like Bob Dylan a master of what it is to be human or just an exploiter of human emotion?

Don’t answer that, it was a rhetorical question.

Can’t we all aspire to first understand the common ordeals of life and then try to describe it so that we aren’t so alone?

I don’t have the answers. Nobody does. That’s my point.

Cormac McCarthy

It is Cormac McCarthy’s command of the English language that primarily draws me to his work. McCarthy has a bigger vocabulary than any other author I can think of, and he uses it to perfectly express a dark lyric vision of America and the West. If nothing else, he has written possibly my favorite sentence ever.

“There is a moonshaped rictus in the streetlamp’s globe where a stone has gone and from this aperture there drifts down through the constant helix of aspiring insects a faint and steady mix of the same forms burnt and lifeless.” – from Suttree

I’ve read all his books. I can’t even say that about Kerouac. McCarthy has published only eight novels. One of them, All the Pretty Horses, was adapted for film.

His oeuvre begins in a surreal, timeless Appalachia with The Orchard Keeper, about the encroachment of the modern on the traditional, amongst other things. Then comes Outer Dark, which features a hillbilly girl wandering the land looking for a child she had by her brother and which he subsequently left for dead in the woods, a band of horsemen reminiscent of the wraiths in Lord of the Rings, and an awful lot of dirt, mud, starvation and night.

After that comes the darkly comedic Child of God about, well, about the trials and tribulations of a necropheliac serial-killer. Suttree was a unique take on the old issue of fathers and sons, set along the muddy, garbage strewn banks of the river in Knoxville.

Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West was the one book that I could not complete. It was not only the first of his Westerns, but is possibly the pinnacle of McCarthy’s skill. But, the story, about the horrors committed along the U.S.-Mexico border in the mid-18th century, could not sustain me.

The Border Trilogy, of which All the Pretty Horses was the first, truly redefined the image of the West and I found the three novels to be fascinating portraits of the fall of the frontier around the time of World War II.

That’s it. There’s also a teleplay and a screenplay and a few short stories published way back when, but his work has been in ways as self-sustaining and independent as many of his characters.

Then there’s the matter of his public life. He has none. McCarthy is one of the most reclusive authors alive today. He has given one interview and one interview only up to this point, and by all accounts it was a favor to his longtime editor upon his editor’s retirement. It was given to the New York Times in 1992 and, not surprisingly, he dodges any questions about his novels, his work, or anything aside from the curiousity of life in the West.

I’ve heard stories about when he and his first wife were living in a converted hay loft in the south, nearly starving to death even though he had published a couple of books. The phone would ring and it would be some university offering to pay him a couple thousand dollars to come give an hour long speech. His response was always: “Everything I have to say is on the page.” Click.

Which brings me to my point. (Yes, I have a point.) Not only is his first book in seven years coming out next week, his second interview ever has been published in Vanity Fair. It’s with the same reporter that he did the Times interview with, Richard B. Woodward. Luckily, a certain someone in my household is a subscriber to that magazine. Before I get a chance to read it, all I can supply here is one quote from the interview that I found online.

“Most people don’t ever see anyone die. It used to be if you grew up in a family you saw everybody die. They died in their bed at home with everyone gathered around. Death is the major issue in the world. For you, for me, for all of us. It just is. To not be able to talk about it is very odd.”

It’s a good quote because if it is McCarthy’s absolute command of language that draws me in, it is his grisly violence that has confused me at best, driven me away at worst. I have admired him for his talent with the craft, but I go to Kerouac and other writers for ideas that I can better relate to and learn from.

I have enough respect for McCarthy as a writer, both as a crafter of words and of stories, that I’ve always kind of known that his tendency toward violence must be more than simple nihilism or something (a la Chuck Palahniuk), but I’ve never quite know what he was doing. Having read his work, what he says in the above quote seems spot-on, and not just writer mumbo-jumbo trying to justify what he likes to write.

No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy‘s latest book, comes out Tuesday.

= Related Articles on The Dharma Blog=

The Impermanence of Everything… Including Words

So the Star Tribune did a decent piece on Gary Snyder a week before his appearance in St. Paul. The big pull quote that flagged the story on the front page of the “Variety” section was

“Wilderness is not, as Thoreau said, ‘the preservation of the world.’ It Is the World.”

Just a few days ago, the Star Tribune ran a correction.

Poet Gary Snyder was incorrectly quoted on Page E1 on April 3. He wrote, “Wildness is not just the ‘preservation of the world,’ it is the world.”

I can see how it happened. The reporter wrote something down about Thoreau, wrote down this quote, didn’t understand the distinction between “wildness” and “wilderness” from the perspective of Gary Snyder, etc.

Seems like a good time to post a few of the better quotes from the story:

“I started writing poems after I started climbing mountains, when I was 15. Mountains that require you to get up at 3 in the morning to get your ropes and crampons and axes together. … It was tremendously powerful, climbing my first snow peaks, and that drove me to find a way to express the experience in words.”

“It got me thinking about the concept of ‘disturbance’ on a grand scale,” he said. The book crystallized in the events leading up to 9/11, Snyder said. “It got me seeing everything in that light, about the extraordinary things that happen occasionally in nature and in history that highlight the nature of all beings, sentient and non-sentient, that all is impermanent; everything is subject to change. That is a central tenet of Buddhism I have never stopped meditating on.”

“We have to recognize those situations where we can have an effect, and take action. And also those things we cannot have an effect on,” he said. “That is the lesson of impermanence. It turns the problem back on ourselves.”

Snyder leaned back on the couch, closed his eyes, and recited a famous haiku by Kobayashi Issa, who wrote in Japan about 200 years ago. “Tsuyu no ya wa/ tsuyu no yo nagara/ sarinagara.” Then he translated: “This dewdrop world/ is but a dewdrop world/ and yet…”

“If you gloss the poem, it means, ‘This impermanent world is just an impermanent world, and yet. … ‘ That ‘and yet’ is what people do. They try to leave something behind. They take care of their children. They make art! And that makes life hugely interesting.”

“Pine needles over bare earth”

This post exists for no other reason to give props to Erich at Cached Memories for a beautiful piece of writing about memory, place, and… smells.

When I left Duluth briefly after college I arrived home (at my parents’) in the fall. Farmers were harvesting their crops and the air was sweet and dry with dusty corn stalks. I don’t miss much about living near the cities, but the sweet, clear harvest skies looked pretty good that night. I laid on my mattress, which was strapped atop my fishing boat still hitched to my truck.Staring at the stars, I plied them for an answer to all of the questions swirling through my Milky Way mind. I had left the town that I loved. The gal I loved was distant like the stars and I wondered if her eyes graced the same ones as mine. I stared into the unknown and breathed the nourishing air and humbly asked for direction.

My mind drifted to the simple days of childhood when I used to lay in bed listening to the drone of the farmers’ combines. I thought about everything that brought me to that point: high school, college, a couple of major decisions, a few lost people and all those daily choices. These things somehow placed me right then and there, laying on my mattress on top of my boat, gazing at the stars and wondering what they had in store for me. To this day every time I smell the harvest air my mind travels back to that night.

I like people who can write well, they bring me a particular joy rare in this world.

Lay down these words / Before your mind like rocks.

Snyder leaned back on the couch, closed his eyes, and recited a famous haiku by Kobayashi Issa, who wrote in Japan about 200 years ago. “Tsuyu no ya wa/ tsuyu no yo nagara/ sarinagara.” Then he translated: “This dewdrop world/ is but a dewdrop world/ and yet. … ”

“If you gloss the poem, it means, ‘This impermanent world is just an impermanent world, and yet. … ‘ That ‘and yet’ is what people do. They try to leave something behind. They take care of their children. They make art! And that makes life hugely interesting.”

“Morality is bringing it back out in the way you live, through personal example and responsible action, ultimately toward the true community (sangha) of “all beings.”

This last aspect means, for me, supporting any cultural and economic revolution that moves clearly toward a free, international, classless world. It means using such means as civil disobedience, outspoken criticism, protest, pacifism, voluntary poverty and even gentle violence if it comes to a matter of restraining some impetuous redneck.”

If animals wrote things down, who would you rather hear a poem by – a raccoon or a possum?
A raccoon’s poem is alert and inquisitive, and amazes you by what a mess it makes. A possum’s poem seems sort of slow and dumb at first, but then it rolls over. When you get close to it, it spits in your eye.

A Walk

Sunday the only day we don’t work:
Mules farting around the meadow,
Murphy fishing,
The tent flaps in the warm
Early sun: I’ve eaten breakfast and I’ll
Take a walk
To Benson Lake. Packed a lunch,
Goodbye. Hopping on creekbed boulders
Up the rock throat three miles
Puite Creek –
In steep gorge glacier-slick rattlesnake country
Jump, land by a pool, trout skitter,
The clear sky. Deer tracks.
Bad place by a falls, boulders big as houses,
Lunch tied to belt,
I stemmed up a crack and almost fell
But rolled out safe on a ledge
and ambled on.
Quail chicks freeze underfoot, color of stone
Then run cheep! away, hen quail fussing.
Craggy west end of Benson Lake — after edging
Past dark creek pools on a long white slope –
Lookt down in the ice-black lake
lined with cliff
From far above: deep shimmering trout.
A lone duck in a gunsightpass
steep side hill
Through slide-aspen and talus, to the east end,
Down to grass, wading a wide smooth stream
Into camp. At last.
By the rusty three-year-
Ago left-behind cookstove
Of the old trail crew,
Stoppt and swam and ate my lunch.

~ Gary Snyder

We’re going to see him speak at the Fitzgerald Theater tonight. Oh joy.

I Want to Write

“I want to fish as deep down as possible into my own subconscious in the belief that once that far down, everyone will understand because they are the same that far down.” – Kerouac