A Thing I Wrote in Last Night’s Workshop

From the prompt, “A child falling through the air”
November 5, 2017

The thing about seeing a child falling through the air is that you can really only see it in a dream or in slow motion in a movie.
Picture a child falling through the air and reflect upon how we are all children falling through the air. We are all in motion, a motion not of our own making, we are all being pulled toward something we do not want to strike but must inevitably strike, and it will not be pretty when we strike this thing we are headed to, and we do not have any say in the matter, and it is also possible that as the universe expands and accelerates so we too, in our inexorable falling out of control, are falling at ever greater speed toward some end we would not wish on ourselves or anyone else, and this ought to cause us great alarm if we thought about it a lot, but meantime it is quite easy to sit on a couch in a quiet room in a small town in Italy and type into a MacBook Pro, with one’s guitar sitting there at one’s feet, a nice guitar, but a guitar which also like everything else is hurtling through space powered by a force that we of course have no control over.
My novel.
Kid falling through the air. My novel. Same thing. Out of control, beyond all power to stop, headed for a messy concussive end, nothing I can do about it. My kid self. Could be. What of it? Who wants to know?
Kevin Costner in Tin Cup goes to see Rene Russo his golf student who is a psychotherapist and he sits on the couch and tells her he’s in love with her and she tries to keep it professional and calls her own therapist to talk about it and I’m thinking Tin Cup is a good movie if you like falling in love with your therapist and doomed Quixotic quest type movies which I do.
Kid falling through the air. Frozen now, got that image in my head, nothing to do about it, can’t stop shit from happening. Like that baby falling through the air, nothing we can do, we got no control, we got nothing, not even a fire department with nets, it’s all happening too fast. All we can do is accept it. Accept that tornado. Accept that blue sky. Accept that sunset, that lady bug, that skullcap, that immigrant. That immigrant I give two euros to every time I see him. Something about crossing water in a boat, in a what’s the word for it, what a shit brain I’ve ended up with, like a surly shopkeeper who won’t show you what you want to see, you know it’s there but he’s just not interested in showing it to you so you go Zephyr, no, Zebra, no, what is the name for that inflatable boat those immigrants came over from Libya on, that Prosper the napkin peddler came over on, Zodiac, that’s it, just like the killer in San Francisco. Zodiac.
Baby falling through the air. Immigrant from Nigeria crossing the Mediterranean in a Zodiac. Me falling through the air with this novel in my hand. I can feel the wind. Everything is accelerating. At the same time I know exactly what I’m doing, because it’s a performance, just like that baby falling through the air, seems so natural, like he’s not even acting, seems so real like it’s actually happening.

——————————

I, too, dislike “craft”

I just read this Alif Batuman piece in n+1 from a few years back in which I found a kinship reading of “craft.” So let me get something off my chest, counterproductive and humiliating as it may be:
Craft is awful. I hate craft!
Instead of standing out there in the hot sun polishing and polishing your doomed anachronistic prose beauty why not instead, today! unleash the wild craftless being within, that incoherent and frightening voice that keeps whispering criminal truths to your inner ear and let it come forth in all its terrible beauty and find its footing on its own, in a process of natural growth? Why push it, mold it, craft it, polish it like a little soldier to line up in uniform with all the other little soldiers of bland literature? Why? when it is a miracle as it is?
I love Amherst Writers and Artists workshops because they make possible a powerful and dignified emergence of the inchoate soul thing, this pure personal voice from the deep well of common humanity. Craft. Fuck craft. Do we humans need craft? No, it needs us. Craft demands that we shape our beings into product. I hate craft.
And yet I have spent the last 30 years practicing and ever-more-elegant craft, worshiping at the altar of “craft,” guiding my boat on a steady course of grammar and diction and usage and coherence … and why? When in my secret and true being I am nothing like the crafted representation of myself that I so earnestly slave over! Why? Because I have also needed to be employed! I have learned and practiced the craft of column-writing and copy-editing and line editing and developmental editing and I have learned the craft of novel writing because I want to be in the room, I want to survive, I want to get paid! I have learned plot and dialog and setting because I want to get into the room where the smart people are enjoying each other. I want their comforts! I want their pedigrees! I am a slave to my own sick, empty need for cultural approbation!
Yet it is true: I hate all of these things. My pure voice rails at these things. It resists. It resists the slightest hint of awkward accommodation or knuckling under. It resists the boring, the routine, the necessary. It resists quotidian requirements because its whole reason for emerging is to escape the quotidian.
This bursting, sparkling, desperate inner being looking for escape and expression must contend with the need to pay the rent (pay the rant?) by doing things that require craft: Journalism, copy-editing, consulting, teaching, workshop leading. And yet at heart it is not about craft. It is about mystery.
Not to mislead: Yes, in AWA workshops we do talk about craft. Yes, it is true ina quotidian sense you can’t go anywhere without craft; it is like air in the tires. But more important we talk about vision and personal truth. For who is going to stop you on the road and congratulate you for having adequate air in your tires?

Indeed in any honest workshop we must talk about craft but I would rather talk about finding the clear water. I would rather talk about finding the central strange inner being that needs voice, that resists easy assimilation, that elbows its way into the room and roars and farts and laughs at us as we slavishly attempt to craft it into something comprehensible. I would rather talk about the incomprehensible. I would rather worship at the feet of this central strange inner being that rightly resists the demands of “craft.”

Fuck craft. I hate “craft.”

OK. I’m done now. I’ll unlock the door and you can leave.

Plot

OK, here is a quick post about how to make a magic book appear in someone’s hands. As I may have mentioned, I write in a sometimes unstructured and intuitive way, and I tend to hear the words I write; I don’t think it all out ahead of time. So I end up with events that happen in the novel but without explaining how and why they happened. For instance, I imagined a book, a fake book, a book not actually written by Mesopotamians five-thousand years ago but purporting to be such a book and believed to be such a book by certain gullible, vulnerable people. This was a funny joke for me. But what about what they call in some circles the “chain of custody”? How did this fake book get into the hands of this gullible person such that she actually believed it was written by Mesopotamians five thousand years ago and explained how her little town in the Sacramento River delta came to be? Ridiculous, I know. But that’s the conceit, in a satirical novel. She appears with the book at a certain time. How did she end up with the book?

This is where plot thinking is necessary. I got much out of reading Patricia Highsmith’s book about writing suspense fiction. Thinking about such things is not my strong suit. As I said, I tend to hear voices, write down what they say, and figure out later where they are coming from: Are these two people talking in a bar, or on a long car ride, or in bed, side by side? Is this one person talking to herself? Where is she while she’s talking to herself? What is the visible setting?  So, as regards this fake book, I had to come up with an elaborate and initially innocent situation in which the protagonist’s business partners created it as a practical joke. But then the situation changed. They create it and plant it in the local library, and this alone requires considerable resources and skill, which they do have, as powerful and wealthy practitioners of the arts of illusion, i.e. television sitcoms and movies. So the book is planted in the library where the protagonist will find it and believe that it is real. But then the situation drastically changes–as will happen in novels. The situation changes in such a way that the book is no longer just an innocent prank but sets off a series of events with big consequences. Still, how does she end up with the book in her hands?  When does she have the opportunity to go to the library and why? Why does she go to the library? She’s not a library-going person. All these are storytelling things. Plus: How to tell it? Show the scene or summarize it, or tell it in a jaunty, ironic, faintly superior third-person authorial voice? Decisions, decisions.

Plus: It turns out in my intuitive, don’t know why I’m writing this scene sort of way, I had already written a scene where the protagonist goes to the library and checks out this book. But where is that scene? I can’t find it. I’m searching text files with the world “library” and can’t find it. Oh, well. I can write it again.

It is annoying to me that stuff has to happen for a reason, but readers, myself included, do seem to require at least a modicum of cause-and-effect. So I neatly arrange things so that when all the magic happens, one can look back and see how the situation developed. That is one of the chief pleasures of reading a novel, appreciating how it unfolds, appreciating the little bits of handiwork.

That’s it for today. Except for the fact that, due to circumstances beyond my control, I don’t really get to write that part yet. I have to drive somewhere with someone do to something with someone plus six dogs.

I wish all I had to do was write.

Taking it down to the sentence level

I have rewritten a certain scene several times. As a result, I now have several overlapping texts, texts that repeat other texts or portray the same events in different colors.

Luckily, using Scrivener, I can go through this 3,000-word morass of visionary … OK, that’s the other problem: This scene combined the visible world, i.e. a woman who is sleepwalking, with the interior world, the things she is dreaming while she is sleepwalking, and then the things she is saying out loud, audibly, as a result of what she is dreaming as she is sleepwalking. It would be easier if she were on stage. We would see her and she would act out the sleepwalking part. But this is a character in a novel and I must indicate what is going on. So I had all these texts, which were basically, to be honest, failed attempts to get it right. Each text had some interesting language and some useful information. But they didn’t work as a scene. Luckily, with Scrivener, I can use the Split at Selection and the Split With Selection as Title tools. Most people probably only split longer things but sometimes, like today, if I am in a hurricane of compelling but confusing text and I am trying to make several things work at the same time, i.e. tone, scene, interior monologue, external description, alternating poetic interior with forward movement toward a sudden moment of awareness, i.e. she is awakened by someone’s voice, then I might use these tools to take it down to the sentence level, summarizing each sentence to really understand what’s going on.

It’s slow, painstaking work but that’s why writing, for me, takes a long time. I worked on it yesterday, I worked on it last night after dinner, and I am working on it again this morning. Norma and I went to Bar Maro for pastries and coffee and then strolled through the little Sunday market on the streets of Castiglion Fiorentino and I came across

the most achingly beautiful mandolino from the 1800s and I had to leave it in its case and return to the apartment and start in on this again because time it the medium in which one works. Plus I was out of sorts because of the following: I was working on it last night in my study and then I thought, gee, I’m kinda tired now, and I lay down and next thing you know it’s 5am and I’ve slept in my clothes on top of the daybed. Then crawl into actual bed with actual wife to try and attain a few more hours sleep only to find that … I haven’t paid the TIM bill and our Internet is cut off! Not pretty scene with wife. Then off to COOP store where we pay the TIM bill and, miraculously, we did not expect this at all, but the Internet went back on in about an hour.

Anyway, if you’re lost, if it isn’t working, take it down to the sentence level. Slow, painstaking work.

Or throw it out! You could, you know. If it isn’t essential. But this thing, I really want it in there. I want it to work. That is my wish. And what is a novel but a collection of cherished wishes, worked over and worked over until they are shining, luminous prayers, good enough to fool the gods.

Working on the novel in Italy on Thanksgiving Day

Hi. So here it is Day 3 of my 49-day project to finish this novel using the Finishing School method and talk about it as I do so. Today, what I am editing is a long solo performance by the main character in which she gives a rambling monologue that makes her sound faintly deranged, and then dumps the contents of two bags on stage, one an expensive Gucci bag and the other a cheap Safeway bag, and uses the objects to fuel her monologue, as she disrobes and throws her clothes on the pile, and then squirts her father’s Ronson lighter fluid on the pile and lights it on fire and disappears, as in the title of the novel, Famous Actress Disappears.

Then there is a big fire onstage and all the audience members are locked into the theater.  It is challenging and complicated to write and I have been working on it a long time but I am now pretty close to having it done. The entire scene is about 10,000 words.

I am trying to give the narration of the performance the same intensity as the performance itself yet also must draw back to describe situations outside the scene to maintain narrative sense for the reader.

It’s hella tricky, dude! But another day and I think I will have this scene good enough, so that it does not break down or fall apart or lose readers.

The plan here is to finish the novel and have it be good enough to send to agents. For a while I thought of hiring a professional editor but I really don’t want to do that. I want to do it myself. I’m in that old tradition of the writer as lone hero, figuring it all out for himself. Though I advise against that in my work with others, I seem to be stuck with it for myself, at least for this novel. I want all the glory.

So I put in a good day of work, on this Thanksgiving Day, in Italy, and we ate pasta with cinghiale, or wild boar, and apple cake from the alimentari, and assam tea from Henry’s on Noriega in San Francisco (Thank you, Margaret McCue, for bringing it!), and I have 47 more days to get this thing done.

Also, which is the whole point here, I am using the Finishing School method, i.e. figuring out how much time it’s going to take, finding the time, enumerating the tasks, psyching myself up (that’s not actually in the method, I just do it), and checking in with my creative buddy before and after each work session. So I’m on track. It’s really pretty simple. One of those things that’s really simple but really effective if you do it.

I’m an artist about to explode

Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Oct 26, 2011

Don’t get in my face! I’ve made enough compromises


Dear Cary,

I can’t do everything and I am pissed off that I can’t. I am also preemptively pissed off at your peanut gallery since they trend anti-artist and tend to take a sadistic glee in other people’s hard knocks.  I just wanted to give them the middle finger before I get on with my letter. Yeah assholes. This is me. Writing to Cary. STFU.

OK cool. Just between you and me, Cary, in that Internet way: I got a terrible review at work. In fact, I am about to have a meeting with my boss about it in two hours.  I work for a nonprofit. I HATE MY JOB, although I don’t really have anything against the org — or even my boss really. I am an artist. I work really, really hard to keep that dream alive. My artwork is the car I’ll never own, the house I’ll never own, the baby I’ll never get to have.

I am my own sugar daddy. I work 55 hours a week. I make totally decent money. In fact if I don’t screw up, my org is very generous with the 401K. I have to work here long enough for it to vest, though. My health insurance is off the hook too. Like shit I can and do totally see a doctor on a regular basis. It is rad. Oh, did I tell you that my student loans rival those of lawyers and doctors and I have never been late or missed a payment ever? Yep, I got that going on too.

The second I leave the office it’s like a parallel universe. I wear incredible shoes (thank you, inner sugar daddy!!) and blue glitter eyeliner. I help run an art gallery. I make and show large-scale installations that will never sell because it matches no one’s couch but whatever. I exercise and make amazing homemade ice cream to balance it out. I research and write grant proposals regularly. I take occasional classes on the weekend to learn new skills. I read a lot of art books because I happen to write art book reviews. I collaborate on art projects with my awesome boyfriend and we stay up too late because we are never finished talking.

I never get enough sleep.

So I am veering dangerously into burnout cuz whoops you actually can’t live two opposing lives for years on end. And I am furious. I’m furious that I’ve been playing this game for so long and still haven’t won. Furious that the system will tell me to sacrifice the life I actually love for work. Furious that my student loans are so enormous I can’t really afford to burn out. Furious that I don’t really have time to see a therapist since going to a therapist will take me away from my precious art-making time. Furious at whomever is going to tell me stop buying expensive eye makeup from Sephora because I could be saving more. Goddamit, people, how hard is it to understand that you have to spend more on makeup because that’s the only way you are going to get the exact shade and pigmentation you want? I am furious that I try so hard to make artwork and I simply just don’t have the time and energy to make it my best.

And now I have to sit and listen to my boss tell me how much I suck at a job that I guess I’m supposed to be grateful for. Fucking perverse man.

I need a little tenderness.

tuscanad_sept2016

Dear Needing a Little Tenderness,

Well, you came to the right place for a little tenderness mixed with rage at your tormenters because I am just back from leading writing workshops at the Sun Magazine “Into the Fire” conference at Esalen and still flush in the spirit of acclaiming and applauding all creative endeavors and all people who — and here comes the convoluted rest of the sentence  — endeavor them in whatever hell of nonprofit, politically correct, ego-manipulating, do-goody church-disguised-as-public-service to which they more-or-less willingly donate the marrow of their souls all to service their enormous college debt!

Debt! This debt! This massive debt of a generation! How was this fraud perpetrated upon an entire generation? This generation did not deserve to be saddled with debt. This generation deserved to be given horses to ride and blankets to sleep under.

(Beneath the stars of America the beautiful.)

But look what happened! And look at the crass and hectoring sadism of hecklers hurling rocks and bottles from the safe shadows of Internet anonymity at anyone who dares to speak honestly about his or her own true nature. Of course we know it’s projection for protection; we know that each person harbors his own artist/child who would speak up and proclaim its messy incompleteness of self and its own strange longing for expression if it hadn’t been wounded and filled with fear by family ridicule and school regimentation. We know that. So we try to be generous. Still, there are limits. We don’t have to smile and tolerate it. We can hit delete.

But look what happened! We should have been protesting all the time! We should have protested when we saw it coming! But we were too busy cultivating whatever semi-safe niche of cultural compromise we could find that offered a livable wage and health insurance! We were too busy surviving! Like you are!

And thus, surviving, are we sucked dry. Thus are we drained of our vitality. Thus are we lulled to sleep.

It is heartening to see the protests erupting around the country and around the world. These things are connected: The discontent of artists, the gloom of student debt, the crushing burden of housing costs, the rage at our nation’s foreign policy, the stupidification of our schools, the increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few cunning philistines, the whole thing. The whole mess. It’s all connected. It is a Zeitgeist of obvious unfairness and wrongness that fairly screams out, This shit is just wrong! And thus it is perceived easily by any human.

So yeah.

How did it happen that a whole generation now lives in servitude to private lenders through the subterfuge of a supposed generosity? How the hell did that happen? It is mind-boggling. I can barely contain …

Anyway, I’m for you and I’m all for us artists. We are making it however we can. We are making it in whatever strange niche we have burrowed into. We are making it in whatever gallery to which we donate our hands and hours because we only feel completely alive when hanging something on a wall for others to look at or putting some handmade vision of torment and loveliness in just the right slant of skylight sun.

I’m all for us. I’m all for those of us who are only completely alive when alone in a room putting words together in ways that have never been done that way before.

I’m all for those of us who are courageously fulfilling a whispered instruction to go forth and create.

I’m all for those of us who are different, those of us who believe things that might sound crazy, things we can’t explain yet believe to be true and which we continue to see in our dreams. I’m all for those of us who will no longer apologize for being beautiful and true. I’m all on the side of the strangely deranged, the misguided and quietly stubborn defenders of obscure happiness.

I’ve made my compromises too. I worked at Chevron for five years to pay the rent. It wasn’t anybody forcing me to do that. It was my big idea to make peace with The Man, my big idea to try to do everything, have a marriage, have dogs, have a job, have a house, make prose and poems, live at the beach, all this of which I complain bitterly from time to time, this was all my idea. So I make my angry peace with it. I make my peace but I salute those who protest, and I will be joining them as soon as I am able.

So how long can you go at this pace before you break something? In my experience, when you start asking how long can you go it’s time to pull over for a nap so you can keep your eyes open and don’t run into the back of a truck.

Artistic ambition should come in a bottle with a warning label: Do not exceed recommended dosage. Side effects include distorted perception, melancholia, sudden rage and smudged eye shadow.

Or, in the immortal words of Pete Seeger, “Take it easy. But take it.”

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Will our words ever be heard again?

 

Write for Advice

We write and we write and we write on the Net, dispensing thoughts and advice. For what?

 Cary’s classic column from  WEDNESDAY, FEB 4, 2009

Dear Cary,

My problem is that we have a one-day cycle in our writing, in our lives. You read our problems; then people read our problems in your column. Then people read our responses, but then the sun comes up again, and all our writing goes down on the cycle, to oblivion.

I go nuts trying to give good advice to your letter writers, and also trying to provide wisdom and info in other Salon topics. But it all washes away after a single day. Smart, thoughtful posters get their say, but raging ding-dong posters get away with their silliness, because it all starts over again every day.

I always have imagined that future historians and archaeologists will read Salon, and gain insight on our society. But, Lord Almighty, we have so many words on our World Wide Web, and so many people!

Classical civilization had fewer writers than we have now, and even fewer whose work has survived. It is possible for a person to read every single surviving written work from all of Greek and Roman literature. Now, though, yikes! Overall, we generate as many words in a day as all those surviving classical works.

So! My question: Will anybody ever read what we write here, after today? I am sure our writing will persist in the World Wide Web, but will anybody ever read it again? Will our best, well-meant advice ever help anybody else in the future? Will our detailed knowledge ever help anybody in the future? Or do we just get filed, permanently?

And, does it matter?

Frequent Wise Man

FranceAd2015

Dear Frequent Wise Man,

We do not know what will be left of our culture.

I do imagine that in oral cultures a great deal of brilliant talk was made and all of it is lost. I imagine that Homer composed poems more brilliant than any that were written down, and they are lost. I imagine that throughout time seers and sages have solved the mysteries of the universe while drunk on wine or high on hallucinogens, have seen it all and tried to convey it but had no tools with which to do so, and therefore countless moments of wisdom and genius, perhaps the very keys to the universe itself, have been glimpsed and they are lost.

If you have ever had the sensation of comprehending for an instant the totality of the universe and thinking, I’ve got it! I see it! I understand! and then slinking sheepishly into the house an hour later with only the fuzziest recollection of what you have witnessed, then you can imagine how many times this has happened throughout history, how many solutions to the world’s ills, how many poems of crystalline brilliance, how many mathematical proofs, how many perfect melodies and glistening poems and fantastic, indescribable visions of universal harmony have come to our ancestors and our brothers and sisters throughout time meditating high on mountaintops or walking along dirt paths from village to village or sitting in forest shacks and caves, or journeying in ships across vast oceans or contemplating the enormous desert sky, and you can imagine the tragedy or humor implicit in this: that it all has been lost. I imagine that many who have taken psychedelics have seen, in an instant, the very core of existence, but have not had the mathematics or the physics or the poetry to convey it, and so those visions are lost. I imagine that in the pubs of Ireland poems are composed daily by farmers in their cups and they are lost by the morning. I imagine that in New Guinea seers know with utter certainty the secrets of the universe but do not trust us or do not know us or figure we wouldn’t understand anyway, and so these secrets of the universe will die with them and be lost.

At the same time, as we prattle on endlessly in our way, I imagine that software of ever-increasing subtlety will be devised to ferret out important truths from the staggering mass of words that now pile up like a digital landfill, clogging the servers of the world. I imagine that everything we have written on the Net will eventually be retrieved, sorted and priced, valued according to its originality and wit.

But does what I imagine bear any relationship to the actual future we race into as though sliding down an icy mountain? Will what we say here ever really be unearthed and used? Will there be a need for it? Are we just playing out the old fantasy of immortality, dreaming that our words will live on? And, as you say, does it matter?

I do not know, but you and I and all the rest of us go on dreaming, trying to see the order in chaos, to glimpse the perfection at the edge of madness, look for the souls of trees and hear the voices of clouds and see in each occluded heart some echo of divinity. I know that we keep on talking and writing and it goes somewhere. Perhaps in that universe that even now is spinning backward from our own, our words are coming back out of the spring air and into our mouths and back into our brains where they will lie dormant, as if never spoken, until the pre-universe universe contracts sufficiently to cause another Big Bang, and it will start all over again, and after millions of years fish will climb the rocks and grow lungs again and apes will pick up tools and invent language all over again, and again as they speak and speak they will begin to wonder, Will this ever be heard again? Will future generations benefit from all our thoughts and visions? Does any of this really matter? And again the apes will go to psychiatrists and lie on couches and fill the air with doubt and uncertainty.

So it goes. Our uncertainty and doubt extend to the infinite sky and throughout time, shrouding perfection, blurring truth, undermining what feeble faith we can muster, reminding us that we are both divine and mortal, that we live both inside time and outside time, that we are creatures of many worlds, and that we will always wonder, and always try to cheat death, and always listen for the echoes of our words in every strange town, on every strange mountain, in every strange dream that comes to us in the night.

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I’m an absent-minded engineer; my mind wanders and so does my wallet

I fear I lack common sense in life, and this affects my performance.

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUL 24, 2008

Dear Cary,

How does one build common sense? I’m a 31-year-old who has been plagued for most of my adult life with this problem. I’m a software engineer by trade, but I really love the theoretical aspects more than the practical aspects: algorithms and design as opposed to debugging and being very, very careful.

Unfortunately, even though I work in a national lab that does research, most of my job is fairly mundane, building software, with occasional forays into the higher-level thinking I really enjoy. Also, I’m a fairly serious musician, and have been playing piano for 15 years, studying jazz and Latin music for the past six, practicing and gigging regularly and making a part-time living that way. I went to a top university, where I reveled in subjects in and out of my major, including chamber music, dance and drawing.

But this problem of common sense affects me in several ways. First, I tend to space out at work — often music is the culprit, or else ideas I happen to be thinking of at the time. I’ve become highly forgetful, from where did I put my wallet to the details of what was given at last week’s presentation at work, to the point of probably losing some professional standing. In a way, I feel like I’m living life as if insulated by some invisible suit, like there’s a layer between me and the rest of the world somehow. This layer goes away when there is an intense emotional experience, like when I’m really in the groove musically, or having a great conversation, or eating a great meal, or having my heart broken (i.e., pain).

I also have rather sporadic discipline; whereas in high school and early college I could be counted on to go above and beyond the call of duty in my own free time to prepare for some long-term goal, now my commitment wavers, whether it be regular daily music practice, regular exercise, keeping my apartment clean or reading science journals during spare time at work.

Overall, I’m doing fine, but I would like to increase my common sense and moment-to-moment awareness if I could. Or is it time to simply “accept who I am,” the absent-minded professor type with his head in the clouds? BTW, I do have friends whom I have a pretty good connection with and do not have much trouble with meeting women, but when out of my element I can be socially awkward, in case these are related.

Thanks!

Kind of Spacey

Dear Kind of Spacey,

Overall, you are fine. You really are. Common sense is overrated.

Now, I am no expert in software, but I know that software engineers seek elegant solutions. If a software program had 11 different places where one variable might be stored, and if every time this variable were needed the program had to look in 11 different places, you might seek a more elegant solution. You might say, well, let’s give that variable an address, or whatnot, and have it always stored in the same place.

Analyze the systems that are your own life. Analyze them as you would analyze a software-engineering problem. Define your wallet as a variable. Define your glasses as a variable. Look at all the places your wallet could be. Look at the system of where you put your glasses. You didn’t mention glasses, but that is probably because they are lost. We will help you find them.

As if from space, watch your movements through your house, through your town, through your office. Map your movements and see where the glasses go. Take notes for a week on where your glasses are. Where are the weak points in the system? When you stop to do the dishes, for instance, or when you answer the door? Or when you come in the house? Where do you put your glasses? Where do you put your wallet? Do you put them just anywhere? If you put them just anywhere, stop doing that. Put them someplace. Name the place. Name it: front table by the door, or kitchen counter. Name all the places.

Basically you have two stable areas, your home and your office. And then you have this phenomenon of travel, in which you are moving through space. You may be in a car or on a train or a bus or you may be walking. When you are traveling you are wearing clothes and you are carrying something. Your glasses are probably in a container and the container is either in your clothes or in what you are carrying. Your wallet is in the cargo area of your clothing.

Analyze the travel of the glasses and the wallet, their journey through space. Analyze your body’s proximity to the glasses and the wallet. Is there any way the glasses can always be attached to your body? If they were on a strap or string?

How many places can the glasses go? Eliminate most of those places. Do the same for your wallet. Stop when you are taking out your wallet and ask, Why am I taking out my wallet? Is it because it is jammed into my hip most unnaturally? Examine the architecture of pants. The back pocket attracts wallets. Naturally, the wallet seeks shade and warmth. So it gravitates toward the back pocket. But perhaps it does not belong there.

Today’s clothes are built with several cargo areas. Examine the cargo areas. As the status level of clothes changes, so the cargo area changes. High-status men carry no cargo.

Couldn’t there be just one system of wallet carrying? The left inside pocket of a blazer works. But then you take the blazer off. The wallet has cards and money. It has secrets. If you take the blazer off and hang it on a hook, you take the wallet. You might need it at the table to display your card status, your remaining strength, your devolving credits.

The wallet is inefficient. Soon electronics will solve that. It will all be in a device. Then where will we carry the device? The hip is no place for a device. It makes you look like maintenance. You are not maintenance. You are big-time. You are aerodynamic. You are not encumbered by key rings or pouches. The architecture of your ensemble forbids it. So where will it go?

The backpack or biker bag seems to be the way. The man purse or fanny pack is not the way. But a backpack or a biker bag can be manly. Strap it to you like a weapon. Keep things in it.

If you have a bag that is always with you, assign that bag as the place where the glasses always are. Practice putting them there. For a week, even though it may at times take more effort or time than you feel is efficient, always put the glasses in the bag. Carry the bag with you and always put the glasses in the bag.

Once you have mapped out a system for tracking your glasses, think of your attention as a pair of glasses. You always want to have your attention with you but sometimes it is not there. Where is it? Where did you leave it? Where did you put it down? Watch yourself as you go from the house to the mode of transit to the office: Where does your attention go as you travel? Watch it and see what it does.

The difficulty of this is that the attention is moving even when you are sitting still. It is hard to carefully observe the attention when the attention is in motion. So slow down the process by meditating. Sit for 15 minutes on the floor and breathe in and out. Watch your attention. See where it goes. After a few minutes you may see that your attention slows down. Like a bird, it settles somewhere. Take note of how long it settles and when it moves.

Scientists first observe. Then they hypothesize. In this case the instrument, or method, is the meditative pose. It is a duck blind from which you observe but are not seen. Observe where your attention wanders. Watch what it does.

After a while, you can learn to call to it. Call to it in a whisper. Say, Hey, attention. Over here.

It has, of course, its own devices. It is autonomous and wandering. It flits. It can be skittish. You will never control it completely. It has notions. But you can learn its habits and how to find it. You can learn to call it when it seems lost.

So to sum up, my suggestion is that you not worry too much about common sense because common sense is common. Instead, bring to these questions your unusual intelligence and your training. Analyze these phenomena as you would analyze something in your area of expertise. View them as systems. Become alert to the way they twist and turn, how they vary, how they wiggle. Elementary particles wiggle, don’t they? Wallets wiggle. Even time wiggles as it flows close to its opposite-flowing twin, does it not? Are we not in a tangle of strings? Is it not all music?

Letter to a friend, with a poem at the end

Dear …

I thought of you just now. I am sitting in this renovated 13th-century Italian convent between Rome and Florence, a short walk up from the train station, and your face  drifted into view. There were a lot of people here for ten days but they all left on the train today. I suppose suddenly being alone was one reason I thought of you. There had been little time to really think. Now I am alone.

I wanted to tell you some things, just being truthful, not wanting anything specific or immediate from you, but not wanting to offend you either with my bald frankness, which I realize has sometimes seemed uncivilized or cruel. As you may know, I was raised by people who spoke sharply to each other as a rule, and to us kids, with the understanding that sharp words were intellectual love and honesty. We spoke to each other with such words and it was not seen as cruelty or even bad manners. It was a point of pride. We knew what we meant.

But my wife has taught me many things in the 20-odd years we have been married. I have come to see how being too honest too quickly can seem cruel. In the spirit of that honesty, though, I will say up front that I do want something from you. Of course we all want things from each other all the time. But sometimes wanting something can cast doubt on the sincerity of what we are saying: Why are you telling me this now? You must want something from me.

Let me do this in my way. I just want to be honest, more honest than I would be if we were face to face. I want to say that I thought of you and believe it or not I felt gratitude. The word “gratitude” is in trouble these days from reckless overuse. It hardly means anything. There is even a restaurant near where I live called “Cafe Gratitude.” But I do want to say I am grateful, meaning conscious of having received much from you.

It is hot here in Castiglion Fiorentino today, hotter than we expected it to be in June. Another workshop starts in two days. People will begin arriving tomorrow. So I have only a little time. This lack of time may be one reason I got to thinking about all the people, like you, whom I’ve been able to meet and write with over the last eight years. You know, we always say in these workshops, “Let’s reflect back what we remember, what sticks with us.” I remember many things about you but some of those things have blended into a composite picture.

Here is something I wrote in the workshop yesterday, on the last day, which I thought I would send to you, which in a personal way sums up where I’m at, what it’s like to be me today. I share this because I have seen, over the years, what happens when people keep coming to these workshops. We go deeper and we get better at being able to capture a moment, where we’re at.

We’re not all big amazing genius type writers and I don’t give a damn about that, frankly. I feel that writing in this way, in a group, has given my writing something else, a home separate from the world of publication. Writing that is published has one kind of home, a big, public home where many shoppers come and go, and people can pick it up and make judgments about it, or dismiss it or do whatever they want with it. Here, though, in the group, it is like we are writing in someone’s home, and everyone is more attuned to the personal implications of each piece, and how we are affected by what is said and not said.

So I have the world that I write for publicly, and this world, where I write things and share them immediately, like just-baked biscuits. They get consumed fresh and that is that and we move on. That’s what I give a damn about: the feeling of having a home for my creative practice.

There are probably reasons that I am more comfortable sharing in a group than publishing, or at least as comfortable, and maybe we will talk about them at another time. But for now, I wanted to share with you this, a just-written piece, not agonized over, not polished but fresh and perhaps revealing in ways that I am not aware of, but which I don’t mind … while I have a moment, before the next nine-day workshop begins:

 

Is this a turning point?
Am I at a turning point?
How the hell would I know?
I know my history.

I remember running as a kind of change.
The only way I knew to change was to run.
Every word seems full of other meanings.
Are we in the dark or have we found a fertile garden?
Everything is ripe with more meaning than is wanted.

I know that in the past I turned and ran. Rant.
Plots have turning points. Plots are also graves.
The turning point. Remember that movie? It was
About ballet. Oh well. A plot is a grave and a
Turn is a spin and a point is an infinitesimal idea.

I learned that in geometry. Are we getting off the subject?
Welcome to the stream I dip my toe in.

Wood smoke. Bird cries. This endless thing.
Looking for a turning point, a radius. I wish I
could be witty. Is this a turning point? I have always
run. Now I try to pivot.

So I say to the therapist that I later fired,
I hate my house. He says, you hate your house?
He didn’t say anything about the house as metaphor.

Can I take a different road? Can I live in Italy?
What I came to San Francisco for now is gone.

I’m thinking about a wire transfer. Is that part of the turning?
I love the words that things are made of: wire, and transfer,
The things that money are made of, the keystrokes, the clatter,
the random number generator and who tracks, who sees, the
random numbers generated? This intrigues me as I wonder
If I am turning.

Could I simplify? Wood smoke like visiting Grandma Ann.

Now all these feelings start to come up. Why do we say come up
And not arrive, or fall down? Why do they come up? Are they
Being held down? I guess so. Duh. That’s how we do it, that’s our
Metier, our special Nordic genius for drinking and shutting up.

Shutting up and shutting down the
things that would come up or out; ever
think of that? We shut up but there is an object too that is then imprisoned.
=================

And then I’m sure there is more. But what I wanted to share with you was that. And I said I wanted something and yes, I do. I want these workshops, when we come back to San Francisco, to be big and full of joy. I want you to come. I want you to make time in your life for these workshops, so you will share these things with me. I want them to be big, like celebrations. I want you to feel free to dig deep and be respected. I want the house to be full of your spirit once again.