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Archive for the tag “Writing”


Liquor Bottles

The bar in the basement of my parents’ house held all sizes and shapes of bottles; big ones in the back and tiny decorative ones along the side; whisky, gin, and vodka—serious stuff—as well as colorful concoctions like sloe gin and blackberry brandy. The men in my family all drank lots of beer, too. At parties and gatherings, it was carried into the house in cases. Nothing exotic there; mostly Stroh’s and Budweiser, if I remember right.

Once I got drunk on vodka and grapefruit juice in the basement of a girlfriend’s house when her parents were away. We spent the evening listening to records and drinking our vodka mixed with too little grapefruit juice out of paper cups. It was briefly exhilarating. Later, when I felt sick and dizzy and out of control, I decided it wasn’t worth it. Subsequently, I remained sober.

When the wind was red, like a summer wine
When the wind was red, like your lips on mine
It caressed my face and it tossed my hair
You were there.

I don’t recall ever seeing a bottle of wine in my parents’ house. John often brought wine, though, bottles of deep red wine made from grapes grown in Italy. He was Italian. The red wine John brought tasted of other, older worlds, of things mysterious and sophisticated and foreign. It also tasted of him and of this reckless, improbable, and hopeless love.

Does anyone even remember that song? I’d never heard it before I met John. I’d never heard of Chris Connor.

When the wind was green, at the start of spring
When the wind was green, like a lving thing
It was on my lips and its kiss was fair
You were there.

He gave me that scratchy old 78, and listening to it puts me right back inside my dark apartment in 1967. It’s 2 or 3 in the morning, after John has gone—after John has come with a bottle of red wine and this old music, and gone. If the few hours with John were the height of my week, the hours following his departure were the depth. I’d always leave his wine glass on the floor or table where he’d left it, at least until the next day. And I’d sit in the dark for a while and look around the apartment and out the window at the night sky in a kind of pained ecstasy or ecstatic pain, if you know what I mean.

Then came the fall and all of love came tumbling,
stumbling down,
Like leaves that lost to frost and found they were
flying, crying, in a brown wind

My father knew a disc jockey, and he used to bring home dozens of used 45s. I grew up listening to The Mills Brothers, Patti Page, Theresa Brewer, Gogi Grant. The Gandy Dancers’ Ball was one childhood favorite. And I’ve never completely gotten There’s a Pawnshop on a Corner in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania out of my head. My brothers and I always watched the Hit Parade on TV on Saturday night after we took our baths. Snookey, Giselle, Dorothy, and Russell performing the top 10 tunes of the week.

And of course my girlfriends and I were glued to the TV every afternoon for “American Bandstand.” As soon as I had a disposable income of my own, I invested part of it in growing the collection of 45s, favoring Sam Cooke and Connie Francis.

In college, I listened to folk music and tooled around town in my 1966 Candy Apple Red Ford Mustang listening to a guy with a gravelly voice sing about The Eve of Destruction. What the heck did I know? There was other music around—Sinatra, Streisand, Nancy Wilson. A few of my friends listened to jazz and blues, but the music always seemed too ripe for them. Most of them hadn’t even started to live.

John was eight years older. When he played the blues, it sucked me right in. He filled my head with his recollections of sitting in smoke-filled clubs in downtown Detroit listening to all of these musicians. He brought me No Sun in Venice by the Modern Jazz Quartet. It took me 15 years to track down a copy of that album at Tower Records in San Francisco after I looked for it in record stores all over the country.

In turn, I introduced John to Simon and Garfunkel and The Moody Blues. He said 59th Street Bridge Song reminded him of me. “Feelin’ groovy?” Really? Was I like that? Or was that just how he preferred to see me? For that matter, was he the person I thought he was? Who can say?

The two of us spent so little time together, and being with him was so intense, that all the incidental elements—his cigarette smoke, the wine, and most of all the music—fused together. I couldn’t separate those things from him. He left a couple of his albums with me, the one by Chris Connor and another by Billie Holiday. They evoked such bittersweetness for years and years, long after the end of John and me.

But the winter’s come and we both should know
That the wind is white like the swelling snow
And we’ll never see all the wonderful things to be seen
When the wind is green.

I never drank enough of that Italian red wine to get drunk. I got drunk on John and his music instead. It was briefly exhilarating. Later, when I felt sick and dizzy and out of control, I decided it wasn’t worth it. Subsequently, I remained sober.

this is what the whole thing is about

National Poetry Month

In honor of National Poetry month, two poems from a poet I just discovered, alas long after his death. William Stafford was born in 1914 and died in 1993.

He was born in Kansas and received a B.A. from the University of Kansas in 1937. A pacifist, he declared himself a conscientious objector and did forestry and soil conservation work during World War II. His first major collection of poetry, Traveling Through the Dark, wasn’t published until he was 48. It won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1963.

when I met my muse

I glanced at her and took my glasses
off–they were still singing. They buzzed
like a locust on the coffee table and then
ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the
sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
knew that nails up there took a new grip
on whatever they touched. “I am your own
way of looking at things,” she said. “When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation.” And I took her hand.


just thinking

Got up on a cool morning. Leaned out a window.

No cloud, no wind. Air that flowers held
for awhile. Some dove somewhere.

Been on probation most of my life. And
the rest of my life been condemned. So these moments
count for a lot–peace, you know.

Let the bucket of memory down into the well,
bring it up. Cool, cool minutes. No one
stirring, no plans. Just being there.

This is what the whole thing is about.



Stafford’s poems are often deceptively simple. Like Robert Frost’s, however, they reveal a distinctive and complex vision upon closer examination. Among his best-known books are The Rescued Year (1966), Stories That Could Be True: New and Collected Poems (1977), Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer’s Vocation (1978), and An Oregon Message (1987).

radio writing: magic carpet ride

The Flying Carpet by Viktor Vasnetsov (1880). ...

Why don’t you come with me, little girl, on a magic carpet ride? Tripping. Of course. Sex and/or drugs—the basic subjects of rock’n’roll.

Close your eyes, girl, the singer croons; look inside, girl. And then I realize this is just as much a song about writing as it is about sex or drugs.

Look around you, he implores. And I think, yes, you have to look around, observe what’s going on, from the minutest flicker of grasshopper wings to the cataclysms of birth and death, war and the striving for peace.

Let the sound take you away…the sound of the world around you, the sound of your own inner voice, and especially the sound of the words on the page. If the sounds don’t take you away, then maybe you have nothing to say.

You don’t know what we can find. You don’t know what we can see. Writing is always a voyage of discovery. You can’t be sure when you set out where you will end up. That’s part of the mystery and the magic of the writing process, the thrill of the “ride.”

Fantasy will set you free. There’s as much truth in fiction as there is in reality, and the truth in fantasy will set you free, but only if you really look and really listen. Then your story will have the power to take its readers on a magic carpet ride.

Magic Carpet Ride (Steppenwolf)

I like to dream, yes, yes
Right between the sound machine
On a cloud of sound I drift in the night
Any place it goes is right
Goes far, flies near
To the stars away from here

Well, you don’t know what
We can find
Why don’t you come with me little girl
On a magic carpet ride

Well, you don’t know what
We can see
Why don’t you tell your dreams to me
Fantasy will set you free

Close your eyes now
Look inside now
Let the sound
Take you away

Last night I hold Aladdin’s lamp
So I wished that I could stay
Before the thing could answer me
Well, someone came and took the lamp away

I looked
A lousy candle’s all I found

Well, you don’t know what
We can find
Why don’t you come with me little girl
On a magic carpet ride

Well, you don’t know what
We can see
Why don’t you tell your dreams to me
Fantasy will set you free

stormy weather

Two poems about the sometimes rough weather of relationships, one written by my partner and the other written by me, before we knew each other.

weather man


I’m a storm center. Still,
Sun broke through, warming her
Now and again. Then I’d think,
She is bound to get used to
my weather.

Always, though, cloudbanks
Returned to us, scudding ashore
Like a black threat. We stood
At the seawall, screaming
into the wind.

She said it was nothing to her
If I wanted to waste my days
Gathering darkness, but
She needed light, craved
spaciousness, clarity.

She was tired of grayness
Clinging to edges, fogging
Our seasons. Winter forever:
Words freezing, losing their
power to move.

I told her
There’s nothing that changes
as fast as the weather.

“Not yours,” she said, turning
To stare out
the window.

She left unexpectedly. I was
Astounded; the day had been fine.
I ran where I thought she had gone to.
“Look! Look!” I shouted.

“The sun is shining! The sun
is shining!”


Pose de 90 secondes. Lightnings. 90 seconds ex...

Lightning struck
the room,
our sins,
splitting us
into separate pieces
and sending us
to different places:
You to purgatory
and me to hell,
although it may only be
a trick of the mind.

But then why
am I
still burning?

And why
do we speak
to each other
in foreign tongues?

I can’t hear you
over the howling
of the wind
and I wonder
if you can see
the rain
washing away
the traces.

If it rains
long enough,
will it put out
the fire
and bring me
back to earth?

just driving

Dead End Sign

Dead End (Photo credit: Susanne Davidson)

I’m driving my car alone at night. It’s very dark: black like midnight. There’s no one else, no other cars, no other people. The darkness is palpable. It has a texture. Smooth, but not exactly soft. I think of wool, but that’s not exactly it. Let it go.

I have no sense of what I’m wearing or the feel of the air against my skin. All I’m aware of is driving, moving, the motion of the car—and the darkness, which is an envelope that contains me.

I’m driving along an empty road, alone in the middle of the night. I find it odd now, but I used to do it all the time in Michigan. I was much younger then. I often drove home late, late and alone, on River Road or I-75. It was unremarkable, comfortable, familiar—although sometimes bittersweet, depending on where I had been. And who I had been with.

This is a different empty road I’m driving on, in West Marin, maybe near Olema, but I know it very well. I have no specific destination, no particular sense of purpose. Then I come to a stop sign where the road dead-ends, and I have to turn. I have to make a choice. Which way should I go, left or right? I should know which way because I’ve been on this road many times before. Why don’t I know which way to turn?

Consternation. Even though it’s the middle of the night and there’s no traffic, no one behind me, no one with me, and I don’t need to be anywhere by any particular time, I feel a sense of urgency about deciding. I must choose. I must choose now.

I choose to turn left. I don’t know why. I begin driving down the road on the left and soon find myself in an unfamiliar place. The road goes up and down hills, twists and turns, and runs between buildings. The buildings are brick, the size of houses or a little larger, all the same pale color. The area is deserted, but the pattern of streets and buildings is very busy.

I now know I have made the wrong choice. I decide to retrace my route back to the point of choosing and choose again. It’s surprisingly easy to do it, to go backward. Even though I’ve made the wrong choice, I haven’t gotten lost. I can find my way back.

How have I recognized that I’m in the wrong place? Is it just the strangeness of the surroundings? I don’t know. When I return to the point where I turned left, I continue traveling straight. Now I feel that I’m moving in the right direction. It feels like alignment, balance, correctness—not all that remarkable. It’s the absence of that feeling that was noticeable and even disturbing.

Night Sky, Moon

Night Sky, Moon (Photo credit: thisreidwrites)

Now I’m driving on a country road that curves gently here and there. I’m still the only one traveling on it. I can’t really see very much, but I know there are trees and hills alongside the road. I feel that I know where I am. As I come around a curve, I look up and see the moon in the dark sky. It’s a half or three-quarter moon, and I can see both the dark and the light parts—a complete circle of moon surrounded by a thin ring of light. It is very large, three or four times larger than normal for this late at night. This moon is so compelling. I stare at it for several seconds, caught by it, surprised by it. Why am I seeing it? What does it mean?

When I look back at the road, I see only black in front of me. I blink my eyes a few times to clear them, but nothing happens. Now I’m driving down this country road, alone, in the middle of the night, and I’m blind. I don’t slow down. I don’t veer off the road. I just keep driving.

This is dangerous, but I’m not afraid. I still don’t slow down. I have been blinded by the moon. Blinded by the light of the moon, and driving, driving, driving in the right direction. There’s no one else in my midnight, moonstruck world, and nowhere I need to be. I’m just driving.

San Francisco poems (1974)

last days

English: Fog at Ocean Beach in San Francisco i...

Fog at Ocean Beach in San Francisco is clearing up (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Smoke dreams,
the days went in a haze
of musky air;
green and gold and lavender
love-spangled hours,
sun-dappled minutes;
fleeting glimpse
of someone
here or there.
In dreams conceived and born,
to dust return:
finely colored ash,
dissolved and lost.

ocean beach 

and a riot of foam:
the waves
roll in,
the beach meticulously,
inch by inch,
sucking in
pebbles and shells
and footsteps
of bathers—
unwrinkling the shoreline
and retreating.

A small bird
the newly varnished
of the sand.


inking a path
thru the night;
new words,
old words—
translated into safety.

with a dream
or a pen
always breaks
in the coming of the dawn,
whose grey reality will
tear the page and
rip the fabric
of the night.

the infinity of possibilities
ends here
in the clarity of morning:
I don’t touch you,
not even with my words;
and the dreams are only
on the far edge
of the lush and tender forests
we could know.


Sometimes a goldfish,
I swim thru
the city’s nightwater
lit brightly from the top.
Neon and stars
weld their light together:
a gold fishnet
of infinite capacity.

In the damp Pacific air
all the city is an ocean,
full of frogs,
and fish like me,
and seaweed
that tangles in my hair
and ties me
to the concrete ocean floor.

Chinese restaurant (novel excerpt)

This is another excerpt from my novel in progress, Skin of Glass.


Five-Happiness-Restaurant-San-Francisco (Photo credit:

November 1990. At the end of his shift at the bookstore, Ethan intends to grab a sandwich from the deli and go home to work on his paper on symbolism and surrealism in Modern Greek Literature. But once he’s behind the wheel of his car, he’s thinking not about Greek Literature but about Eve. Again. His plan falls apart at the first red light; fifteen minutes later he’s in a phone booth on Van Ness Avenue dialing her number. It’s rush hour and the blare of traffic and stink of exhaust fumes make him dizzy. His nerves are frayed and his reflexes dulled from lack of sleep. If he doesn’t finish his paper by the end of the week, he’s going to nail an incomplete. It goes without saying he isn’t getting any writing done.

When he started daydreaming about Eve, it was a harmless fantasy. Then he began seeing her face everywhere. It’s reached the point where he has to talk to her, at least hear her voice, hear her say his name, if only to tell him to go to hell. He feels as though he’s waiting for the results of some medical tests that mean everything: life or death.

She answers the phone distractedly, but after he identifies himself, she says, “Ethan!” clearly surprised to hear from him. Possibly pleased? Or is he projecting? When he says nothing else, she asks him if anything’s wrong.

“No, nothing’s wrong. I just wondered…have you eaten yet? Do you want to get something to eat?” There’s no warmth in his voice, no invitation. His hand is clamped around the receiver, and he’s staring through the grimy glass enclosure at the three lanes of cars stopped at the corner for the light.

“With you, you mean?”

The light turns green. The booming bass from a passing car vibrates along the pavement and travels up Ethan’s body, all the way to the hand holding the receiver. He says, “Yes,” amid the sudden crescendo of gunned engines. He feels his mouth form the word, but he can’t hear his own voice. When she doesn’t respond immediately, he wonders if he actually said it out loud, if she heard him. He won’t say it again.

“Sure,” she says. “But I need to change; I just got home. Can I meet you somewhere?”

He hadn’t thought that far, but the image of her sitting across from him at that Chinese restaurant pops into his head. He doesn’t remember the name, but she does, and they agree to meet there in an hour. When he hangs up, he looks through the phone book for the address, then walks swiftly toward his car, which is parked illegally across the street. The darkness seems to have deepened in the space of his telephone call, or in response to it. He could go to the library and get a little research done. At least he’d be doing something productive. But until he sees her and settles this thing somehow, it’s hopeless to try to carry on with his everyday life.

The restaurant is on Grant Avenue in Chinatown, an area he doesn’t know. He drives across town and spends twenty minutes trying to find parking. Even this time of year, the street is noisy and crowded, bustling with automobile and foot traffic. He parks on a side street a few blocks from the restaurant and tries to walk off some of his nervous energy. It’s cold and windy; he moves with his head down, his hands stuffed into the pockets of a gray down vest, not looking at anyone, and not bothering to glance into any of the lighted store windows filled with cheap souvenirs and garish clothing. What exactly is he doing? It would have been better for everyone, including him, if Eve hadn’t been home, or if she’d refused to meet him. In fact, he thinks she should have refused. He’s already mentally convicting them of betraying Jesse, although the only betrayal so far is his, and it doesn’t have to go any further.

He enters the restaurant, immediately fortified a little by the aroma of garlic and ginger. The petite smiling hostess shows him to a table for two, assuring him she’ll watch for Eve. He orders a beer, shrugs out of the down vest, and leans back in his chair. He looks around, trying to remember where they sat when they were here for the birthday party. Several tables had been placed end-to-end. But it was a long time ago, and all he can picture is Eve and the heavy red draperies and table linen.

He glimpses himself in the mirrored panel of a room divider and almost doesn’t recognize himself. He looks like a vagrant, somewhat sinister. He goes to the restroom to splash his face with water, run his fingers through his unruly mass of hair, and wash his hands. The whites of his eyes are so bloodshot they look pink; there are dark circles under them. A clear, firm voice in his head says, Leave now. Just go. But he can’t.

He’s back in his seat taking a sip of beer when the hostess leads Eve to the table, both of them smiling as though they share a happy secret. Ethan rises but doesn’t touch her, doesn’t smile, just says her name, “Eve.” Once they’re seated, a waiter places a pot of tea on the table and hands them menus. Eve slips her arms out of her camel’s hair coat and lets it fall against the back of her chair. What now?

She takes in the room. “I haven’t been here since January.” The memory seems a pleasant one. “Have you?”

“Me?” He shakes his head. “I almost never eat out. That was a special occasion.” He has one hand around the cold, wet glass of beer. He can barely look at her. All he registers is that she’s wearing a pale yellow sweater with a high neckline, and her hair is shorter than he remembers. They focus on their menus, although he isn’t really reading his. “You’re more experienced with this. Why don’t you choose?”

“But what do you like?”

“Anything. I’m not fussy.” Afraid he’s being rude, he adds, “I’m sure whatever you select will be perfect.”

Her skin is almost white. Porcelain. He feels vulgar and coarse by comparison. Classic beauty and the beast; they shouldn’t even be occupying the same table. She studies the menu pages, humming to herself so softly and unselfconsciously it melts him, the same way Molly melts him when she sits on the floor singing made-up songs to her dolls.

Eve recites her choices aloud, then repeats them to their waiter, adding, “not too hot, please.” The waiter—Chinese, with close-cropped hair and wire-rimmed glasses—bows and nods.

“Jesse always gets the Kung Pao Tofu here. This is his favorite restaurant in the City.”

Ethan sighs. Why hadn’t that occurred to him? This is such an amazingly bad idea. Jesse is going to be here at the table all evening. Well, it’s what he deserves.

“Did I say something wrong?”

He shakes his head, suddenly drained, too tired to be here, to be doing this. “No, no. This is probably a bad idea. I’m pretty tired. Not very good company. I’m sorry.”

“You just need some food.” She pours tea for both of them. “Are you taking any classes this semester?”

He laughs. “One. Modern Greek Literature. Which I’m doing my absolute best to fail.”

They pass the time talking about teachers, classes, and homework. When their food arrives, he picks up his fork, but Eve insists he learn how to use the chopsticks. It takes him a few minutes to grasp the concept, and even then he’s far from adept. They slip from his fingers, clattering against the plate, and he drops bits of food on their way to his mouth. The rice is especially tricky. They both laugh at his attempts, but she encourages him and his technique improves.

He asks her when she started doing art and learns her father’s an architect.

“I used to go to his office with him, and sometimes I’d draw these fantastic, elaborate houses while he was working. I wanted to do what he did. In fact I would have gone into architecture, but I couldn’t hack all the math. It would have been a much better career choice than fine art, that’s for sure. But I’m rethinking that.”

“Rethinking what?”

“What I want to be when I grow up. It’s one thing to make art for yourself, but I’m not sure about trying to earn a living with it. And I can’t really say I’m driven by any grande artistic vision. I was planning to be an illustrator, now that I’ve finally mastered the human form.”

“What do you mean?”

“Learning how to draw people was hard. I was always pretty good at drawing things—structures, nature. Inanimate objects, I guess you could say.”

“It’s funny how that works. I still have trouble writing descriptions. If I don’t pay attention my stories all end up taking place in fields of white space. I guess I’m not very visual. I mean I see things but—”

“The trick is learning how to feel with your eyes.”

“Feel with your eyes?”

“I read about it in a book my father gave me.”

“An art book?”

“No. A novel. My Name is Asher Lev.”

“Oh. Chaim Potok. I read that one. Long time ago. So you know how to do that? Feel things with your eyes?”

She blushes. “Sort of. When I first tried it I focused very, very intently, but the harder I tried the more frustrating it was. I couldn’t get it. In high school I discovered the secret. Pot.”

They burst into laughter.

“Is your father an artist, too?”

“Technically, no, but he could be. He used to do these exquisite architectural renderings. When you’d see one you’d just want to live in it. In that world, I mean. But he doesn’t have time for it anymore. I’m not as good as he is.” She shrugs. “But this semester I have a photography course and I love it. Maybe because it’s new. But I can imagine being a photographer a lot easier than I can imagine being an artist. And I mean to get off the dole as soon as I can.”

“The dole?”

“Being supported by my father. He does some work for free, for community groups and nonprofit organizations, and I feel like such a leech that he’s still supporting me. I’d like to be on the other end, you know? Be making some kind of a contribution the way he does. Besides, I’m sure he has better things to do with his hard-earned money.”

“Well, speaking as a Dad,” Ethan says, with mock gravity, “I can’t imagine there’s anything I’d rather do with my money than spend it on my daughter. If I had any money, that is.”

“You say that now, when Molly’s, what? Three? Wait till you’re closing in on twenty years of financial support.”

“So would you stop doing art if you became a photographer?”

“No. I like to play with colors, textures, get the feeling of something or someone down on paper, to preserve it. Everything’s so temporary. This way I can preserve the memories.”

“Hm. Like impressionist photographs.”

“Hey, I hadn’t thought of that!”

By the time they’re finishing the lukewarm tea, he feels as though he’s been on a brief vacation. “This was delicious, every bit of it—at least every bit I managed to get into my mouth.”

“All you need is practice. But you did great for the first time.”

Her lipstick is gone, her blue eyes shining; she looks happy and relaxed, hunched over her teacup tucking strands of red hair behind her left ear. He feels a wave of affection for her. Affection. Nothing more. And he won’t ask for more; he won’t betray Jesse.

The waiter brings the check on a small black plastic tray. There’s a single fortune cookie on it. Ethan barely notices the waiter slip a cookie into each of Eve’s hands, he does it so quickly and smoothly. She blushes again, very becoming, and her eyes widen. She glances at Ethan and then at the departing waiter.

Ethan grins at her embarrassment. “There must be some super special fortunes in those cookies.” He reaches for the one on the tray, opens it with a single snap, pulls out the narrow piece of paper, and reads it aloud. “The road to knowledge begins with the turn of a page.” He rolls his eyes and crunches the pieces of cookie in his mouth. “Preaching to the converted here.”

She opens first one cookie, then the other, reading her fortunes to herself. Ethan waits for her to read them aloud, but she gives him a crooked half-smile and pockets them. He teases her about it, but she won’t tell him what they say. He pulls his wallet out and lays some bills on the tray. She slips her arms into her coat and he shrugs into his vest. On the way out, they nod to the waiter, who bows again and thanks them.

“Where’s your car? I’ll walk you to it.”

“It’s only a block away,” she says. “You don’t have to do that.”

“But I want to.” He presses the palm of his hand against her back, steering her in the direction she indicated. They walk slowly, in a comfortable silence. When they get to her car, she rummages through her handbag for her keys, and a small brush falls to the pavement.

“I’ve got it.” Ethan retrieves the brush and hands it to her. She reaches for it carefully, not touching his outstretched palm.

Suddenly she looks away. “Do you ever feel like you’re living someone else’s life? Like no matter how good you are you’ll never measure up?”

There’s a lump in his throat; all he can do is nod.

“Oh, listen to me,” she says, her tone shifting. “As if I have anything to complain about.”

But of course he knows what she means. He knows exactly what she means.

“Thank you, Ethan. That was wonderful. Such a nice surprise on a cold, gloomy day.”

He wants to say something light in response, but they’re standing too close, and instead of saying anything, he grasps her shoulders, pulls her toward him, and kisses her hard on the lips—waiting for her to push him away, maybe even hit him. But she sways unsteadily toward him so he folds his arms around her and she relaxes against him. A sigh escapes from one or both of them, and they stay like that, standing on the dark street in the cold, next to her car.

diaries, journals, and revelations


Diary (Photo credit: Barnaby)

I filled numerous diaries during elementary and high school, divulging my deepest secrets alongside the mundane details of everyday life. I had one-year diaries and five-year diaries. Some were gilt-edged, while others were plain. But no matter how simple or ornate, they all had locks.

When I was 11 or 12, one of my younger brothers rummaged through my dresser drawers and managed to find, unlock, and read my diary. When I complained to my mother, she told me to put it somewhere he couldn’t find it. I thought this unfair and unreasonable, so I consulted a higher authority: Ann Landers. Ann did not publish my letter, but she did write back agreeing with me and suggesting how I might approach this issue with my mother. I showed the letter to Mom, but she was not moved to alter her position. At least I felt vindicated.

Those old diaries are long gone. I switched to college-ruled spiral-bound notebooks somewhere along the way and started referring to them as journals rather than diaries.

My mother used to read excerpts to me from the five-year diary she’d filled between the ages of 16 and 21, which I think was the only diary she ever kept. The passages she read revealed a rebellious streak it may have been unwise of her to share with me, given her ongoing attempts to get me to conform to various social standards.

After she died, I got custody of her diary and read all of it in the course of a week. I’m so grateful to have it for the glimpses it provides of the young girl and young woman she was before becoming a wife and a mother. She missed writing only two or three days in the entire five years, filling every narrow line with both facts and impressions in her tiny, precise handwriting.

My own journals have been much less devoted to facts than to speculating, imagining, complaining, whining, planning, philosophizing, analyzing, rationalizing, and wishful thinking. Although I wrote in my notebooks regularly for years, it was in a very undisciplined manner. Some entries are so self-indulgent they make me cringe to read them. I’m mortified at the thought anyone else might see them. Twice I’ve ritually destroyed all the journals in my possession (once melodramatically and once thoughtfully). Even so, those journals were my faithful companions, and I derived much benefit from them.

After I encountered Ira Progoff’s book At a Journal Workshop, I began using journal writing in a deeper and more creative manner. I’ve subsequently gotten inspiration and direction from many other books and courses. When I worked as a substance abuse counselor, I realized that the practice of writing might be beneficial for my clients. We experimented with writing first in one group and then in another. Initially, some people were skeptical of the process and diffident about their writing ability, but journal writing doesn’t require talent, only willingness and honesty. Almost everyone responded positively to the writing exercises, and a few began keeping their own private journals. Sometimes the results were absolutely breathtaking, surprising both the writer and me.

When I returned home to California after my mother’s funeral, I wrote to her in my journal every night for several weeks. It helped me say good-by to her, which I had not had the opportunity to do before she died. It made me aware of the connection that will always exist between us. I did the same thing after my partner of nearly 30 years died. Journal writing has helped me get through the most difficult losses of my life.

I’m still writing in college-lined, spiral-bound notebooks. Still using my journals as a way to sort things out, understand myself and my world better, and gain perspective on whatever issues I’m dealing with. I’ve cut down on the whining, complaining, and rationalizing, but I haven’t eliminated them completely. My journals are still my faithful companions—a little reproachful from time to time, but generally nonjudgmental.

word surge: can’t stop tapping those keys

English: Emma Thompson at the César awards cer...

English: Emma Thompson at the César awards ceremony. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Writer’s block has some upsides, believe it or not. When you have it, you’re compelled to finish all those nagging household chores, return all your phone calls, and maybe even tackle some exotic project that has been on your to-do list for the past five years. You will also find yourself on the receiving end of a great deal of empathy from other writers and from the entire industry of workshops, websites, books, and writing gurus devoted to making you productive once again. You can even watch movies about not writing, such as Stranger than Fiction, in which Queen Latifah’s character shows up to assist Emma Thompson’s character in overcoming her writer’s block so she can kill off Will Ferrell’s character. You don’t need to look quite so happy about finding a way to kill Will, Emma.

But what happens when you have the opposite of writer’s block? When you can’t tear yourself away from your computer or legal pads and your household falls apart around you? You know you need to ration your writing time, but you’re at least secretly pleased to have this dilemma to deal with. Of course, you can’t tell anyone about it. It’s like finally being able to fit into that pair of skinny jeans. No matter how much you’ve sweated to get to that point; no one wants to hear it. It just annoys everyone.

There isn’t really any support out there to speak of. If you search the internet, you’ll find the compulsion to write characterized as an impulse-control disorder called hypergraphia, which is on a par with other disorders like pyromania. Exactly how is being on fire, metaphorically, the equivalent of setting fires?

I found this list of “famous hypergraphics” in a Psychology Today article:

  • Danielle Steel
  • Edgar Allan Poe
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Sylvia Plath
  • Joyce Carol Oates
  • Stephen King
  • Isaac Asimov

I want what they’re having (well…what most of them are having).

The drive to write is also referred to, quite dramatically, as the midnight disease, which makes it sound sort of disgusting and perverted. But why view the situation in so sinister a light? If the goal of a writer is to write, shouldn’t this surge of words be cause for celebration? As long as your pets, plants, kids, and other family members are still alive, you don’t really have a problem. Right?

This is Louise Erdrich‘s Advice to Myself:

Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don’t patch the cup.
Don’t patch anything. Don’t mend. Buy safety pins.
Don’t even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.

~ ~ ~

This seems like especially good advice for everyone who’s participating in NaNoWriMo 2012–which is, by the way, a great antidote for writer’s block. Best of luck to all those who are participating this year. I hope to be back in the fold next go around.

life or fiction?

Which do you choose? The question is asked by Clay Hammond, one of the characters in the movie The Words. In this story, itself a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, Hammond, played by Dennis Quaid, is the author of a novel about another author, Rory Jenson. Jenson, played by Bradley Cooper, is a struggling writer who, after a trip to Paris with his wife, accidentally comes across the find of his life: an unpublished manuscript, the quality of which far surpasses that of his own multiply rejected efforts.

At a low point in his attempt to get his writing career off the ground, Jenson decides to type the entire manuscript into his computer, just so he can feel the words and experience what it might have been like to write something that good. He has no ulterior motive in doing so. This might not seem believable to everyone in the audience, but writing out or typing passages from the works of great writers is an exercise often recommended to aspiring ones.

After some prodding from his wife, however, Jenson agrees to submit the book to a publisher who naturally falls in love with it. The book is published to great acclaim, and Jenson receives several prestigious awards. As time passes and he’s able to get one or two other novels published, Jenson begins to forget that he didn’t actually write that first book. That’s when the true author of the manuscript, referred to in Hammond’s book as “the old man,” shows up and tells Jensen his story, the story the novel is based on. The old man is played by a grizzled, down-and-out Jeremy Irons.

So Jenson faces a conundrum: what to do now? He wants to make things right, but will he?

a loose weave

There’s a lot to try to tie together here to make everything work and make sense—on the one hand—while sustaining an element of mystery on the other. But the screenwriters either didn’t have or didn’t take enough time to do a seamless job of it. [David Mitchell tackles a much more complex interweaving of multiple storylines in his 500+ page novel The Cloud Atlas. Can’t wait to see the movie version, which will be out later this year. ] As a result, The Words has a few gaps, some of which I was dimly aware of as I watched the movie; others opened up the day after. They weren’t enough to turn me against the movie, but the screenwriters could easily have fixed them. So why didn’t they?

The collective gaps were minor compared to my main problem with the movie, which is the casting of Jeremy Irons in the role of “the old man.” His acting was impeccable, but he wasn’t remotely believable as the aging version of his younger self, a role well-acted by Ben Barnes. Irons bothered me so much that I couldn’t suspend disbelief during any of his scenes. My movie-going companion had the same complaint, but it didn’t bother her to the extent it did me.

The women in The Words all necessarily played supporting roles. I thought the best of the three was Nora Arnezeder as Celia, the young Parisian wife.

Nora Arnezeder & Ben Barnes

On the plus side, it was gratifying to see a writer portrayed so accurately onscreen. That doesn’t always happen in movies about writers or writing. While there are plenty of movies about writers, there are not as many about the process of writing a particular book. Some I’ve enjoyed are Finding Neverland, Capote, and Adaptation. My all-time favorite, though, is Stranger than Fiction, which is in my permanent collection. [Stranger boasts a righteously eclectic cast: Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Queen Latifah, Maggie Gyllenhal, and Dustin Hoffman. If you’ve been put off by the majority of Will Ferrell’s movies, give this one a chance. Watch it for the rest of the cast, but I’ll bet Ferrell will surprise you.]

Back to the question: life or fiction? The old man chose life. What did Jenson choose? And what did Clay Hammond choose?

The Words
Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, directors and screenwriters
Bradley Cooper, Dennis Quaid, Jeremy Irons, Ben Barnes, Zoe Saldana, Nora Arnezeder, and Olivia Wilde

I give it an A for effort and good intentions, an A- for acting, and a C+ for overall execution.

Have you seen it? What did you think? What are your favorite movies about writers and/or the writing life?

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