Traces

Last summer, my mother fell seriously ill. We thought, for several days, that she was dying. My four brothers and I gathered at the regional hospital in the small city where she lives, preparing for the worst. We said our goodbyes. But that time we were fortunate; eventually she rallied and survived, and she’s still with us. The crisis passed.

I woke at about 4 the other morning, thinking about my brown daughter and my brown sons, about the dangers they’ll face. The fear I feel is different, of course, from what I experienced with my mother. I wonder whether my children will ever find a place in this world where they can be safe. And by safe, I don’t mean free from any possibility of harm. No one has that. I only wonder whether they’ll they find a community that accepts and encourages them for who they are, a place without a thousand large and small indicators telling them they are less than.

I awoke thinking of all the ways the world can harm the ones I love, and all the suffering people and creatures on this planet that I don’t even know. I woke up feeling useless; I woke up feeling out of control.

One night during my mother’s illness, one of my brothers and I sat in the hospital room with her as she slept. He and I hadn’t really spoken in depth for a long time. Generally when we get together for holidays we see sisters-in-law, nieces, nephews; we argue over sports and whatever‘s happening in the world; and, of course, we tell stories about one another and the trouble we got into as boys. We laugh, recounting who did what to whom. But this time, between my brother and me, there wasn’t much of that.

I try to live in such a way that I leave less suffering in the world. I think about the effects of my actions. With whom do I interact? In what ways do I use my words? How do my thoughts and feelings influence the way I treat others? How consciously do I reflect on and decide what products I buy or what I watch on TV? What are the things I take into and put from me?

But my sense of helplessness about my effect on the world persists because the uncertainty about it is real. I don’t control the long-term results of my actions. I don’t know how my decisions will turn out. Given that, how much change can I bring about in the world? What good can this single, limited self do? It’s tempting to say, “Well, if I can’t be sure that it’ll do any good, why bother? Why face reality if I don’t know whether I can change it?”

That night at my mother’s bedside, the conversation between my brother and I took an unusual turn. We ended up talking less about our memories of what the other had done and more about who the other had been. Instead of recounting events, we each shared our impressions of the other—character and temperament and personality—and how the other’s way of being had made deep marks on each of us that we still carried.

We realized each of us often saw himself in terms of what he had (or hadn’t) done. But our thoughts of the other brother centered on who he had been. While each had, over the years, preoccupied himself with his own flaws, what I spoke to him and he spoke to me was admiration for what we had represented to one another. The love between us didn’t rest in doing but in being. And I know there have been times that simply remembering the kind of person he was had encouraged and strengthened me.

The memory of our conversation reminds me that not just my actions but my being itself matters. I make the choices I make not just because of what they might achieve, but because of the person I want to be: the kind who faces reality, the kind who, at the end, can truthfully say, “Well, at least I looked life in the face and didn’t look away.”

My conversation with my brother reminded me that who I am leaves traces on those I encounter. I have no idea what others will do with those traces. I have no idea what differences, if any, they’ll make. Despite what our culture encourages us to pretend, no one knows that. Our play at certainty may be our deepest make-believe.

However limited my ability to shape my children’s world, the way I choose to exist can give them a sense of how to be themselves. I feel so much fear for these human beings I‘ve helped make and raise and will someday turn over to the world. But in the end, the only—and the most important—thing I can send with them is who and how I’ve been. All I can teach them is the way I try to embody my values, the memory of my questions, the memory of my words.

So when I write, I consider what kinds of words will come from me, not only because of their effect on the reader but even more because those words will speak the truth about me to those I love. Words are one of the most fundamental ways I exist. And I can only hope the words my children take away from me will be enough.

Signal and Noise

Somehow the jazz drummer weaves a way through the percussive explosion and finds the beat; they find the signal in the midst of what we perceive as chaos.

Right now, I’m generating text. I know signals exist among the words I’ve been setting down, but you know what? I’m also afraid that’s not true. I’m afraid I’ve only composed a pile of nothing. The problem—or really the opportunity—lies in diving down into the words; no, in moving with them. Because this is, as in so many situations, a dialogue I enter into with the environment in which I find myself.

A tracker sees the marks that indicate someone or something has passed through the terrain. What look like random scratches to the rest of us the tracker sees as pattern, and in that pattern finds meaning, finds consistency, finds a story of a living being’s journey.

How often in the writing or literature courses I taught did my students read an assigned text and decide it was meaningless, consider it random jibberish? I tried to get them to find a path in what they perceived as a trackless wilderness.

I’m talking, or course, about discernment; I’m talking about sifting through sensations to find structure.

I look at a tree and see a mass of leaves, but a botanist looks at that same tree and sees order in the shape of the plant; in when and where the tree branches part from the trunk; in the shape of the crown—whether it soars or sits squat and low to the ground; whether and how it widens; where it tops out. In all of these, where I see only a blurred wall of perception and sensation, the botanist discerns order, finds the signal in what I consider noise.

I can break through my perceptual limitations in various ways. Sometimes I get new information that puts what I’ve considered ordinary in a new light. It allows the structure to appear, as when I find the missing piece of a puzzle, the squiggle that fits into a larger shape with those four or five or six pieces that had fallen on the floor and been kicked under the table. Without that discovery, I never could have known how that section fit together; I had to gather more details for the gaps to become a continuous outline.

But other times, the insight arises from how I look at the puzzle pieces. Sometimes all the pieces have rested in my hands forever, then I turn the right piece in the right way and the structure suddenly explodes into view; the nonsense becomes a pattern. The noise turns into a signal clear as Caribbean water, and everything from the surface all the way down to the bottom becomes visible.

You can call those “leaps of insight,” but they amount to finding the order that was always there. It happened because I turned my mind loose; I stopped insisting on the view I’ve held and allowed myself to consider significant what I once thought insignificant (“not a sign,” not something capable of bearing information that matters).

Creativity starts there. Creativity starts in the willingness to go beyond my mind’s conventional response to information, to sensation, to data. To reach around my mind’s tendency to distinguish, in predictable ways, what holds meaning from what clutters up the scenery. My willingness to release the ordinary way of naming the structures around me and letting my mind build structures anew or at least new compared to how we’ve looked at them before.

Sometimes the structures I suddenly “discover” have existed for eons but were discarded by the current culture. Sometimes the signal isn’t new at all, just a way of looking that we’ve forgotten or disrespected. Sometimes structures get buried and have to be excavated in the same way archaeologists uncover a site that seemed only a random feature; and at that site we find what others or nature had buried a long time ago.

This is how and why creativity disrupts the literal view we’ve held. This is what makes creativity dangerous and exciting and frightening and hopeful. It reminds us that our sensations and our brains get trained; it reminds us that under the structures we’ve been taught to see lie treasures of perception that can rewrite us, and the universe.

Over and over again as a writer, I make this journey. At the outset of each excursion I have moments when the signal seems completely lost, when I despair that I’ll ever find it, or even that a signal ever existed. I can easily convince myself that I’ve been chasing nothing buy noise. At these points, faith or patience or stubbornness—or a practice that coaxes them from—holds me together.

Sometimes the trail peters out and only noise remains, but he world is thick with signals unheard, undiscerned, and forgotten. And the search for signals always matters because when I stop searching, I encase myself in habit and static.

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Precarious

I wake up each day wondering whether I’ll have any words.

Just looking at that sentence written down, it seems absurd. How can I run out of words?

When my partner and my children get up in a while, words will come easily to me: “Hello.” “Good morning.” “How did you sleep?” “I love you.”

Even as I sit here writing, words constantly pile up in my brain, and as soon as I type, they jostle and scramble to get out. So what is it about the idea of putting them down that immediately unsettles me? What makes me start to judge and sort as soon as I think of “writing”?

First I tell myself it’s because I have to figure out what I want to “say.” Where do I want my writing to lead? What point do I want to make? That is, I wrap myself in the subject or ideas, which I don’t yet know. I tell myself that I have to hunt my meaning down before I can put anything on the page because otherwise the writing might not go anywhere. And what’s the point of that?

Then I remember all the times I’ve written in my journal, freewriting, just placing word after word, some of the wonderful places those words have taken me. How they’ve revealed sensations and ideas I didn’t know were there until the words embodied them. I remember all the times the meaning has made itself when I’ve let the language run and watched it form lines in front of me.

I think of the countless times in my writing classes when I had my students do the same thing as a warm up exercise.

“Just write,” I’ve told them. “Turn the judge off and see what comes out. You don’t even have to keep it. It’s just practice.”

Easy to say when it’s not me trying to climb the sheer rock face of creating. Easy to say when it’s not me searching for the next hand hold, desperate not to slip and fall into meaninglessness.

But that’s not all.

I mean, who cares? What does it matter if I fall? Nobody ever died just because they found themselves landing, at the end of a long fall, onto a jagged broken surface of disjointed words. Some people even manage to publish them instead of perishing.

So if the danger doesn’t lie in the lack of meaning, and if it doesn’t lie in some deadly consequence, since I can always choose to keep my words to myself, or even throw them away, where does that precarious feeling come from?

Of course, it doesn’t take much contemplation before I know: It comes from my ego. It comes from trying to maintain a certain image about myself.

I’m a Writer, I’ve decided. And so I am. And so is anyone else who chooses to climb up the sheer face of writing. But what kind of writer am I, I ask myself, without the validation? I need to know my writing’s “good.” I need to know that it has “quality.” I need to believe that others will smile and nod and agree about how clever and talented I am, and want to publish me.

I need to believe that acclaim, and maybe even money, will flow toward me from my writing. I need that validation.

And all those needs make my climb up the face of writing so sheer and slippery and dangerous. They make it hard for me to know where to grip next. They make me tentative and frightened of what will happen if I lose my balance and fall.

My younger children—mid and late elementary school age—love climbing. They love to try the climbing walls at a nearby outdoor equipment store. They love to see how high they can reach.

My two grown sons have also managed to climb into their lives, even in these uncertain times. They’ve both found work that challenges them and that they enjoy. They’ve both thrown themselves into their lives, not without fear, of course, but without allowing whatever fear they feel to swallow them.

I can’t say where my children got that from; I marvel at those qualities in them. I only hope it’s not too late for them to teach me.

I’m trying to learn from them to do this for myself. To approach this steep slope of words each day. And climb.

8 Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: Reconsider

The work I did for newspapers was by far the most collaborative writing I’ve ever done, though generally I didn’t think I was collaborating at the time.

Every day, I reported my story, I thought about it, and I wrote it down—or I wrote it down and thought about it. I polished it up nice and shiny and minded my factual as well as stylistic p’s and q‘s, then turned it over to my editing and copyediting colleagues to put their fingers into it.

When the rooting around worked, it worked because those colleagues made you reconsider everything in the story that mattered. I reconsidered it when I sat down beside the desk editor and she questioned this lead paragraph and that quote and this comma and the use of that term. When, perhaps, she questioned whether my story was news at all rather than just the same old, same old. Or conversely when she questioned whether the run-of-the-mill story I had composed might instead be a significant crack in the wall of some institutional edifice.

I reconsidered it when, after I had left work and stopped to have a few beers and arrived at home to have a few more and watch something insipid but entertaining on television, or god forbid that I had gone out with my wife to a movie or dinner with friends, and someone on the copy desk interrupted my insipid entertainment, or I came home from the movie or dinner and found a blinking light on my answering machine (picture a time before cell phones when people were not constantly available).

At each reconsideration, you had to defend the decisions you made. And with each defense, if you had anything mentally going on, you had to ask yourself what the editor was asking you: Had your choices been the right ones? Had you left something out that you shouldn’t have? Had you gotten the essence of the story or had you missed it completely? And sometimes you discovered that the answers to at least some of those questions did not comfort you, but that this discomfort made the story better and made you a better writer. And then you realized that whatever the quality of your decisions, the act of reconsideration itself made you a better writer because it taught you the kinds of questions to ask yourself whether there was a copyeditor at the other end of the phone line or not.

You learned that what a priest I once interviewed said about his faith applied equally well to writing: that finding appropriate moments to question our choices makes our choices better.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the need, at some point, to make conscious decisions about your intentions for a piece and what means you would use to carry those intentions out. A simpler word for that decision-making is design. I would choose an experience I wanted my reader to have and design the writing to achieve that experience.

The collaborative experience in journalism helped me see the equal necessity of reconsidering my design, of being willing to chuck it all and start from scratch if I found my design to be wrongheaded. I have always found this reconsideration both terrifying and liberating. It scares me because it means that hours, days, weeks or more of labor can end up junked. But it frees more than it frightens because however wrong I get it, I can always give myself the chance to recuperate my writing, so long as I’m willing to tell myself the truth about the work I’ve done.

Where I’m writing to

I have no idea. No, that isn’t quite right: I have no consistent idea. Sometimes I think I’m writing to my wife or to my children, either now or in the future. Or to my parents or siblings or ancestors in the past. Sometimes I entertain myself with thinking of writing to a massive audience of readers, either now or in the future—preferably while I’m still alive. Sometimes I think I’m writing to one of the many versions of myself, but they disagree so that no matter which version I make happy I leave at least a half dozen others frustrated or angry or heartbroken.

Mostly, though, when it works, I think I write to a sensation. It feels like my legs at the end of a speedwork session on a track or a treadmill, when I’ve run hard, then rested a bit, then run hard, then rested a bit, on and on like that for four or six or eight repetitions. And each time the rest part ends and the hard bit is about to begin again, a twinge of fear grips me about whether I’ll be able to stand the hard bit, but I start running hard anyway. Each time the twinge and then the pushing through it. And when I finish the last one, my legs weak and my lungs struggling for breath again and my skin looking like I’ve stepped from a shower and the lenses of my glasses flecked with sweat and dried sweat, and I want to leap in fatigued satisfaction.

When the writing works, the words hit the page or I tweak them this way or that, and seeing them in the daylight I almost gasp in a fear that says, “Shit, did you really just do that?” and then I know that I had to put it exactly that way and that it never would have occurred to me before I put it that way that that was exactly how it should be said.

I’m writing to the payoff of uncertainty. Writing for a payoff isn’t hard; I spend most of my time trying to get the payoff (or possible payoff) out of my head. Writing to uncertainty is hard, but most of the time I don’t have any choice because certainty isn’t really what I’m after; most of the time, I reside in uncertainty uncomfortably but by choice. And most of the time, uncertainty doesn’t pay off, or it does but I don’t recognize it because it doesn’t look like what I wanted.

Every once in a while, though, uncertainty does pay off in a way so visceral and explosive and absolutely true that even I can’t miss it. And a good bit of the payoff comes from the surprise, the discovery of something that I didn’t realize I possessed—and that perhaps I don’t possess but that language, or the circuit between language and me, does. You see? That’s what I mean: the payoff of uncertainty. I never knew that phrase until now, but it’s been waiting for me in that place. The place I’m writing to.

Elementary Romance

Before I say more about how play deepens my relationship with language and writing, let me backtrack a bit. Up to now, I’ve framed my discussion of writing in romantic terms, casting language itself—particularly written language—as the object of a writer’s romantic intentions. But I haven’t described that romantic object. I mean, if I’m going to pursue someone romantically, it helps to know something of that person’s identity, at least superficially. What is writing? What are its elements?

Writing students often stumble over this problem. A student enters a class confident that she understands clearly what “writing” involves. She doesn’t realize that her concept differs wildly from her teacher’s and just as widely from those of her fellow students. So the teacher uses the word “writing” and each time activates a chain of associations and values unique to each student. I experienced the same problem in my MFA creative writing program. Each program participant brought his own idea of what “fiction” or “story” meant to the discussion of his classmates’ work—as did the professor—so that we spent much of our time talking past one another, imagining that we were using the same language, not realizing that it amounted to very different vocabularies and sets of values. No wonder discussions frequently degenerated into confusion and contention, spoken or unspoken.

But the trouble isn’t limited to students. Ask a different writer or writing teacher to name the essential elements of writing, and you’re bound to get some variation in answers. Some will emphasize style or voice; some will take apart the writing process; another group might focus on theme or content or message; some will head first to genres of writing (fiction, essay, poem, memoir, etc.); others will find the essence in conventions or mechanics or rules; and there will be those who most value emotion or expressiveness or genuineness of feeling.

So for clarity’s sake, let me offer my answer to the question, “What do I talk about when I talk about writing?” Simply this: A written text generates an experience that the reader undergoes while she reads. And the writer’s ability to influence that experience boils down to her use of four elements: the words she chooses, the syntax she uses to relate the words to one another, the larger organization of the text, and the content or subject matter of the writing. Take away any of these and a written text ceases to be a written text. It may become something else, and that something else may have interest or value, but it’s not writing.

An individual writer’s style or voice amounts to the way he or she combines—either unconsciously or deliberately—those elements. A genre means nothing more than a standardized, recognizable pattern for how they’re combined. Conventions are simply expectations for how they will be combined. And any sense the reader has of “knowing” the writer (aside from knowledge gained outside the text), any emotion the reader feels, or the reader’s sense of trust (or distrust) comes from the combination of those four elements.

When I play or shape or engage in any of the interactions with language that I discussed here, these are the elements I am playing or shaping of engaging with. And what I’m exploring here is how I can know and accept the unique characteristics and tendencies of each of these elements to creating experiences that matter to readers.

How Play Forms the Foundation of My Writing, Part I

Here’s what I believe: If, during the course of a day, I can only do one writing-related activity, that activity should be play. On any given day, I could draft new material, edit or revise one of the drafts I’ve been working on, outline something I’ve written, plan how to organize an idea I have for a piece, do some reading or research for a poem or story or essay. Each of these is a good use of my time; each can help me as a writer. But if I can only do one of thing, it should be play. Why?

Because nothing expresses the love I feel for someone or something as powerfully as play. Nothing cements my regard as much as shutting off all purpose and advantage and gain and simply spending active, pleasurable time in the presence of who or what I love. Play says that at this moment, the joy I share with you matters more than whatever use I might get from doing anything else. It says that I gladly turn over the most precious things I have—my time and my active attention—to the happiness of being with you. In play, I also give up control and will and direction. I open myself up to surprise. I forget about the outcome because the moment with you matters more than any outcome could. And as much as intention eventually informs my finished writing, I also need to learn to practice letting go of intention and outcome when I create.

Given the power of play, its ability to consume me emotionally and physically and psychologically, of course I struggle with it. Ironically, it often takes work for me to give myself over to play. Sometimes I pretend I’m playing when I’m really just tuning out, vegging, watching television, drifting along the electronic waves of the internet, or evening reading an interesting or diverting article. For me the difference between these activities and play lies in the engagement and energy I feel while I’m doing them and the sense of reinvigoration I feel afterward.  When I “pass the time” relaxing, I don’t feel worn out when I’m done, but I generally don’t feel recharged either; it’s more as though I’ve awakened from a nap that didn’t last long enough—or that lasted too long. Part of me wants the time back.

But when I play, my mind and body feel sharper, even if I end up more physically tired. It’s often after engaging in some writing play that I feel most ready to get down to work, and if I can’t do that, I’m frustrated. In a strange way, knowing what feelings may follow play can discourage me from doing it sometimes. That is, I anticipate the energy my playing generates, and I hesitate to get myself cranked up if I won’t then have the opportunity to use that energy. I’ve found, though, I never really waste the energy play produces. If nothing else, I connect more strongly to the person or subject the play has been about; I feel more alive; I have a stronger sense of optimism and possibility; I believe that I’ll be able to deal with problems that seem insurmountable when I haven’t played.

So that’s the role that play serves in my writing life—a fundamental role. In Part II, I’ll writing about what forms my writing play takes.

I’d love to hear from you: Is play a part of your writing life? Why or why not? And what does it look like when you play with language?

The Practice of Romancing Language: Habits of Courtship

For all our dreamy imaginings, and the stories we tell ourselves and each other about destiny and desire and what is meant to be, both writing and romance are practical arts that find their life in action. And thank goodness for that, because it means that my attitudes and practices have much more to do with the course of my life than would otherwise be the case. But in both of these realms, magical thinking permeates our popular perceptions of what makes them work. Would-be writers try to think or inspire their way to good texts; would-be friends and partners wait for the right person to come along, someone who will understand them intuitively, like what they like, hate what they hate—someone who will somehow “click.”

In some times and some cultures, what we might call romance takes the form of courtship—actions that lay what that culture considers the proper groundwork for an good relationship. Of course, that proper groundwork varies from group to group. It mean demonstrating potential wealth; it could mean having a certain name or reputation. Sometimes it means having the right values or character. Of course, sometimes it’s also meant a way to control and repress whole groups of people, especially women. And for that, among other, reasons, the language of courtship seems to have been set aside in our own time and place.

But whatever we call it, I recognize that both writing and romance are ongoing relationships, not a single, discreet decision. Romance doesn’t end when people commit themselves to one another, and writing doesn’t end when a string of inspired words land on the page or computer screen. I have to feed my writing life with ongoing attitudes of openness and discipline, and those attitudes manifest themselves in deliberately chosen acts—what I like to think of as acts of courtship. My writing process has six of them:

I attend: In a relationship, we try to learn more about the other, and I approach writing in the same way. I attend to language by reading, listening, noting how people use words and how I and others respond to those uses. I also try to notice how I  use words, both when my writing succeeds and when it fails.

I interact: I interact whenever I’m drafting—putting down words that I hope to use in a piece. This may seem an obvious activity for a writer, but I’ve seen students try to think their way through their writing, focusing on ideas but refusing to put down words until the piece is “perfect” in their heads. But doing this only makes my drafting harder and my revision and my revision agonizing. Who wants to change what he’s taken that much time just to get down?

I set intentions: At some point in any relationship, I need to have “the talk.” Who are we to one another? What do we expect? Are we on the same page about what’s going on? Some people, and some writers, like to “go with the flow,” as do I. But I’ve never brought a piece to completion without making some conscious decisions explicitly defining my task. I rarely do it first, but I always do it.

I play: The most underrated act of courtship, especially when it comes to writing, play happens when I interact and experiment with language, not for some larger purpose or set outcome but just to see what emerges and for the pure pleasure of the sight and sound and sensation of it. Sometimes I use these bits of play; sometimes I discard them. But it reminds why I love writing, and that however much I think I know about language, it holds surprises for me.

I reconsider: Whatever intentions I have for a  piece of writing—for the content or diction or syntactic style or structure—I always take time to reconsider them once I’ve drafted. In any relationship, I need to think about how to improve it, about whether we’re going as we hoped we’d go and whether that’s bringing us satisfaction. I might abandon a piece as a result, or set it aside for a while. I might radically change the genre or subject or point of view. I might confirm the choices I made when I set my intentions. But whatever happens, reconsidering keeps me from charging blindly ahead just because I said I would, and it makes responding to obstacles less intimidating.

I shape: When I play in writing, I manipulate words and sentences and ideas and structures just to see what happens, not for any specific purpose or outcome. But when I shape my writing, I manipulate those same elements so that I can achieve the intentions I’ve set for myself. Often in the course of drafting, I drift off on tangents or put concepts or events in a confusing sequence. My sentences often get away from me and from what I want them to do. When I shape my writing, I try to align what I put on the page with my intentions so that I create the experience I aimed for.

So those are the writing habits I try to cultivate and maintain. I want to talk more in later posts about how I do that. What are your writing acts or habits?

Plow

A line of cursive S’s creeps across
the brown face of a grocery bag
before the day of paper or plastic.
The line drips ink from the tip of a ballpoint pen, in a kitchen under the rhythm rain of gray day clouds tapping on the roof, on a table strewn with groceries from the commissary at cut rates that still barely make the way for a family always in a frenzy of feeding, a family with five boys pummeling each other on schedule like the trains that travel over the tracks that the family seems to be on, the train going in the same direction. Nothing stopping, no new passengers, no new stations, just the same small milk run each day week month year. What was he wearing at the kitchen table the small brown boy not yet school age, not yet knowing what letters mean but mimicking the shape and slope of them drawn in a line on the brown face of the brown bag by the brown hand?

But that story’s been told. Ever notice how the same story comes up over and over again from the same brain of the insane. Nothing but the same story and the same meaning. Nothing but the brown hand and the brown bag’s face and nothing new on the words that get said, like a prayer or a magic incantation. Like that’s supposed to bring something to life that died a long time ago. Like the boy. He doesn’t exist anymore. He had a nice run and now it’s over. Now he has a son taller than he is and he has no stories to tell anymore. Nothing that anyone wants to hear. Well, aren’t we feeling sorry for ourselves this evening. Poor us with no one to listen because we don’t have anything to say.
Sorry. A word.

This bores even me. Well, what wouldn’t? What about words still makes you feel excited?
A clock ticks. It measures what could become music. Sick. Sounds. Muses. Muse. A sympathy in the soul that tells something. The click of these keys that sounds like a dance, Gregory Hines or Savion Glover. Click, tick. Music. A muse. Amusing. Losing snoozing, choosing. Something in the choosing that we don’t do but that gets done to us.
Ok. Here’s how it works. You begin with a word. Any word. “Plow” let’s say, and you follow the furrow that it leaves in it’s wake. It leads you somewhere. To a farm, to the black-brown earth of the prairie days on the Kansas plains, where the sky does all the telling about what kind of day it will be. Not the mountains, not the sea, not the motions in the trees. All the telling gets done by the sky, through it’s messenger, the wind. The wind sends along everything that’s going to be needed during the day. Everything you need to know, the wind will be telling you, but you better listen, because if you don’t, then the world around you will suddenly have a different color and you didn’t see it coming. Gray to lime green. Or blue to black. Or light blue white to red and orange. Fire hanging from the clouds as though the sky were raging at day’s end.
A wheat field at the end of the street, where the concrete dead-ends and rows of earth clumped into clods have scattered themselves after the plow’s passage, after the field has been disced and the ground has dried and the dirt clumps have the consistency of rock, can burst open a lip or the side of a head. On the prairie, the wind tells all the stories, in whispers or shrieks or slow songs. The plow lines even as though they will run to the end of the earth. Tree lines in their feeble stands supposed to keep the wind from carrying away the soil skinned by the plow.
He passed years under the tyranny of the wind and learned to hear warnings in some of its songs. Southwest winds with their black floating anvils swelling in afternoon heat.

This evening the words have come slowly to me hee hee the wee mind of the man thinking about what words will come next. They really don’t like to be told what to do. So the fingers slip and click along the path furrowed by the plow that his words have made, the cutting edge of where the the swearing of the new life of the new knife the knew knife the knife that knew where it would cut before the man who wielded it could place it on the skin of the earth and divine where it could should leave it’s mark. And that’s where I find myself trying to fathom the depth of the mark I should make and not to know where the cuts will fall or where they will leap up into the air. Not knowing what direction they will go because they tell you nothing these words. And you’re expected to trust them. They meet you in the alley with the raincoat buttoned up tight and the rain is falling in a wet drizzle so you can’t see anything because you have to keep wiping your glasses. You weren’t made for weather like this if you have to wear glasses. And the words call you into the alley, not even out of the rain and promise you something shiny if you’re willing to pony up a small amount just for a little look-see. So being the rube you are you say yes and empty your pocket and it says, “Sorry, not enough.” So you go to the money machine and take out some more and when you get back to the corner no one is there, which means you’ve lost the initial investment. But each time you come back to the street, you see the word waiting for you.

No it’s nothing like that. Because you do get to see the thing you’ve paid the money for if you keep coming back. But you better not have any expectation because if you do, you won’t see anything. The page turns blank with your expectations and only fills with you willingness to swing low over the pulp and things rise up behind you, like a wave that follows, like the wake that marks the path of the plow after it’s passed, and that’s how you know it’s been there. The riches it turns up in the mark that it makes, the deepness of the color, the darkness and the glimmer of richness against the dark where minerals are feeding the soil. But you have to turn it over, you have to dig it up, which means you have to love the dirt, because if you’re looking for diamonds, then you won’t see that you’ve got rich bottomland that can keep you fed for years, for eons, if you’re willing to plow the same field, keep turning the earth and mining the dark depth of it. The worms keep it alive. They’re way more valuable that diamonds. All the things you can’t see that break down all the things you can, that crawl with the patience of all the offal you throw on a pile and mix with straw and water and time so that you can grow whatever you want.
You pile the words and feed them and spread them on the plowed earth. Compost. Words are like compost and like soil and like nothing you expect and like nothing so much as time that won’t let you do anything until it’s ready.

All writing is waiting.

Waiting for the time to come to say it. To say whatever’s been waiting for you to get patient enough to say without thinking you came up with it and you’re some kind of genius or know something. It was lying fallow in the words all those years, waiting for you to turn them in your ordinary, plowing-the-field, preparing-the-soil way. The only way you ever get to find out anything that’s worth saying. Like it’s yours. Like it came from you. Like you know shit in the first place that you ever could get to language to do something rather than let it be willing to tell you what it wants to say. Like the language was ever anything but what needed to be said waiting for it’s time to speak.

Writing is waiting. Saying nothing and you say something, then saying something until you say something worth saying because you’ve finally been smart enough to know that anything ever said has said itself. For god’s sake, learn to close your mouth. Shut up and plow.