It’s Not a Corset. Don’t Force It.

Is it a corset
or primal wave?
Don’t try to force it.

–from Elaine Mitchell’s “Form”

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing. I have no doubt that it’s because I’ve been writing these posts faithfully every week for nearly an entire year. And I have no doubt that it’s also because I’m teaching Creative Writing this semester. Naturally, I spend lots of my time talking with aspiring writers about writing.

In fact, when I met with my students last week, we did two, one-minute reflections.

For the first, we reflected on the joy of writing. Let me share some of their responses:

● Creating my own world.

● Finding words that describe my own feelings.

● Gaining an understanding of my own life.

● Discovering something about my own identity.

● Daydreaming.

● Letting my thoughts spew out.

● Getting it done–the rhythm, the music, the wish, the dream, and the fear.

For the second reflection, we tackled the challenges of writing. Again, let me share:

● Getting started.

● Finding an interesting topic.

● Putting myself into my writing.

● Encouraging my paragraphs to talk to one another.

● Choosing which idea to explore.

● Connecting the beginning, the middle, and the end.

● Accepting my writing as it is.

I had planned a third reflection, but we ran out of time. Here’s what it would have been: discoveries about writing.

For this one, I’ll take the lead, sharing my own ideas, based largely on what I’ve discovered about writing as I wrote my weekly blog posts this year.

By and large, what I’ve discovered has been by way of reminders. To start, writing isn’t easy. It isn’t spontaneous. And it isn’t magical.

Here’s something else that I have rediscovered. Writing is work. It’s hard work. It’s lots of hard work.

Work. Hard work. Lots of hard work. That’s my mantra these days when I’m working with other aspiring writers. I front-load the conversation: get ready for rich, robust, and heavy mental lifting.

At the same time, over the last year I’ve reminded myself–and others–that even though the hard art of writing isn’t magical, it is filled with magical moments.

Let me share some of mine.

Magical Moment. Getting hooked on an idea that makes my world fade away.

Magical Moment.  Letting an idea explode in my mind as magically as Pop Rocks explode in my mouth.

Magical Moment. Focusing on old-soul insights that have come back to me from far, far away and from long, long ago.

Magical Moment. Fooling around with organizing what I’m writing until I get comfy with one structure that pulls me in close and whispers, “Yes. Let’s do it.”

Don’t get too excited by these moments. They are magical. But let me remind you: they are not magic.

And trust me. The next part–the actual writing–has no magic at all. Sometimes, it might not even have magical moments. The actual writing can be grueling, if not downright defeating, especially since first drafts never hit the mark. Never. Mine don’t, at any rate. Sometimes, even my 13th draft doesn’t seem quite right. How’s this for a confession? Sometimes, I’ve gone as high as 22 drafts. Admittedly, the differences between any two drafts are sometimes majorly minor, and the changes will be unknown forever to all except me. Nonetheless, the work of writing–of revising–goes on and on and on.

And writers keep at it. I keep at it, knowing that what I write will never be perfect, but knowing, too, that at some point it’s as good as it’s going to get.

What I have discovered as well is the simple fact that my scholarly writing is in many ways far easier than writing my personal essays like today’s post. My own scholarly work on The Humourist as well as on Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, for example, has singleness of purpose and focus. Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy.

On the other hand, writing my weekly blog is more challenging, mainly because I don’t focus on the same topic every week. My topics change. As reluctant as I am to admit it, I’ll admit it anyway: I’m never sure from one week to the next exactly what topic will bubble up.

That’s not to say that I don’t have lots of ideas for my posts. I do. I have plenty. In fact, whenever I have an idea for a post, I immediately start a WordPress draft. I give it a working title, and I include as many notes as possible so that when I return, I can glide back into my thinking and writing groove.

Right now, for example, I have 25 drafts in various stages of completion, ranging from “The Power of Showing Up” to “Dating after Twenty-Two” to “Mishaps Make Memories.” I suppose I could also mention “Working Out a Plan” or “A Horrorscopic Week” or “What My Father Saw.” Or I could mention that I might have “My Gardening Attire” finished by next week. I might. But, on the other hand, I might not.

I’m not trying to generate future blog traffic by teasing you with alluring and inviting titles that may or may not morph into posts. Simply put, I have come to the realization that my ideas must germinate in the dark caverns of mindfulness and mindlessness. They must sprout and pop up whenever they are ready for the light of day. No sooner. No later.

All of my tentative topics and all of their accompanying draft notes are simply placeholders. Nothing more.

Yet it occurs to me that maybe they are far more than mere placeholders.

They are talismans. Not to bring me power. Not to bring me luck. But rather to bring me back to the illuminated intensity of the split second when an idea sought refuge within me and pleaded for a some-day home.

What I have discovered, then, is that I need lots and lots of talismans. They are my antidote to the numbness and paralysis that I know fully well will set in if I have no writing options. I don’t write well when my storehouse of options is empty. When that happens, I feel that I have forced myself into the all-too-tight corset of being compelled to write on one topic and one topic only.

On the other hand, when I have many, many topics, one of them might be precisely the one that captures my fancy precisely when my fancy needs to be captured.

It won’t have anything to do with talismanic luck. And it won’t have anything to do with magic.

It will have everything to do with my willingness to let my ideas take their own shape, whatever those shapes might be, without being corseted, without being laced up, and without being forced.

I want my ideas:

● to leave themselves ample space to move around in.

● to do what they want to do.

● to be what they want to be.

It’s really straightforward. My greatest discovery about my own writing is my everlasting need to unlace the corset that constricts my thoughts. It’s my everlasting need to let my ideas breathe and expand freely, whenever and however they wish.

Writers: Our Forever-Friends

“Day by day and night by night we were together—all else has long been forgotten by me…”

Walt Whitman, “Once I Pass’d through a Popular City” (Leaves of Grass, 1855)

Whenever I teach a literature course, I tell my students that aside from celebrating their achievements as they master the course content, I have one special hope for each of them. I want them to find one writer who will be their friend. One writer who will never unfriend them as other friends sometimes do. One writer who will be with them through all the storms of life, for a lifetime. A writer who will be a forever-friend.

What I have in mind is similar to the handful of real-life, forever-friends whom we might have, if we are lucky. It’s never many. At least it has never been many for me. I have perhaps one handful of such friends. All right. Perhaps two handfuls who are in the friends-forever category. With us, we’ve shared so many past experiences that even if we have not seen one another in years, when we reconnect, we pick up magically on the same conversation that we were having when we last met, and we do so without missing a beat. Friends. Forever-friends.

Writers can be our forever-friends, too, with an added bonus. We can have lots and lots of them. As we read more and more, we discover more and more writers who might end up as our friends. We like them. We like what they have to say to us. We like how they inspire us. We like how they make us believe. We like how they make us feel…unalone. We like how they heal our…brokenness. Before long, we want to hang out with them. We can. Whenever we want. For as long as we want.

The great thing about writers who are our forever-friends is that when they pop up unannounced and uninvited, it’s never a problem. We don’t have to clean for them. We don’t have to cook for them. And we don’t have to clear our calendars for them. They can tag along with us just as we are. And they will do just that if we let them.

All that we have to do is be attentive, smile when they arrive, and even smile when they leave, knowing that they will come back to visit us again and again and again.

Their arrival coincides with something that we are experiencing that makes us think of something else. It’s the power of association. Robert Frost captures it best:

“All thought is a feat of association; having what’s in front of you bring up something in your mind that you almost didn’t know you knew.”

That’s the beauty of having writers who are forever-friends. Their arrival is based exclusively on what’s right in front of you or something that you’re thinking about. Something that you almost didn’t know you knew.

No doubt, you have your own writers who are your forever-friends, just as I do.

Obviously, I don’t know about yours, but mine visit me multiple times throughout the day, every day without fail. I never know which writers will visit or when. But I go forth daily, confident of being strengthened and girded up by their company.

For example, Walt Whitman shook his silvery locks right in front of me as I was writing this post. I was thinking about the fact that only a snippet of a writer’s work comes to my mind during an association, while all the other details of the work are seemingly long forgotten. Instantly, the lines from Whitman’s “Once I Pass’d through a Popular City” flashed across my mind:

“Day by day and night by night we were together—all else has long been forgotten by me…”

Here’s another example.

When I met with my Creative Writing class for the first time this semester, I had a slap-stick time promoting this blog. It was nothing more than nonsensical banter aimed at entertaining my students, but they picked up on it.

Not long after I managed to restore myself to a modicum of seriousness, one student raised her hand as if to ask a serious question.

“Professor Kendrick, did you say that you have a blog?”

I started laughing, as did the rest of the class.

A little later on, her hand went up again. I was on to her by then, but I was having far too much fun, so I acknowledged her.

“Professor Kendrick, did you give us the name of your blog?”

(When our laughter died down, my forever-friend Edward Albee paid me a momentary visit. He has chummed me since the 1960s when I was in college and he was a controversial Broadway playwright.)

“Very funny! You know, Caitlin, my hell-bent banter to promote my blog to a brand-new group of students, reminds me of the first line from Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story.”

In the play, Jerry approaches Peter, a total stranger, sitting on a bench in Central Park.

I’ve been to the zoo. [PETER doesn’t notice.] I said, I’ve been to the zoo. MISTER, I’VE BEEN TO THE ZOO! 

I was thrilled by Albee’s visit, especially since I was able to share it with my class. He came as he did and when he did because of my dogged determination to tell my students–a group of strangers, if you will–all about my blog. In the process, I remembered Jerry’s insistence on telling Peter, a total stranger, that he had been to the zoo.

My students got it. They saw the association with great clarity.

On another occasion, something similar happened at the start of the same class.

As I drove on campus. I was aware–painfully so–that the grassy, undeveloped acreage all around the college was being gobbled up by townhouses.

At the start of class, one of my students shared the same observation.

In that nanosecond, former United States Poet Laureate Phillip Levine appeared. Immediately, I walked to my teacher station, googled his poem “A Story” and flashed it on the screen for students to see as I read it aloud.

It captures perfectly what my students and I had witnessed with pain that morning.

Levine chronicles the life and death of the woods that once surrounded us and ends with a chilling doomsday prophecy:

where are the woods? They had to have been

because the continent was clothed in trees.

We all read that in school and knew it to be true.

Yet all we see are houses, rows and rows

of houses as far as sight, and where sight vanishes

into nothing, into the new world no one has seen,

there has to be more than dust, wind-borne particles

of burning earth, the earth we lost, and nothing else.

And right now as I typed the above quotation, Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell popped into my head, chanting a few lines from her “Big Yellow Taxi”:

Don’t it always seem to go

That you don’t know what you’ve got

Till it’s gone

They paved paradise

And put up a parking lot.

My writers–my forever-friends–visit me far more in my alone times than they do when I am teaching or, for that matter, when I am socializing.

Maybe they appear then because they know that in my alone times friends can add a richness to any moment, even ordinary ones.

Ordinary moments like weed whacking. Somehow, I end up doing that chore on Sunday instead of going to church. That’s no big deal to me. I consider myself Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR). Emily Dickinson must be SBNR, too, because she is always with me on my Sunday morns. Her “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church” overpowers the Stihl noise through all the stanzas, rising triumphantly in the final one:

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –

And the sermon is never long,

So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –

I’m going, all along.

Or sometimes it’s as simple as visitorial moments that occur when reading emails from regular friends who aren’t writers. Recently, a friend who is my age wrote that his hands had grown old. I sensed his sadness and immediately thought of a poem about aging by former United States Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz: “Touch Me.” It includes the poignant lines:

What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.

One season only,
and it’s done.

[…]

Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.

And then I immediately thought of Ben Speer singing “Time Has Made a Change in Me.” The title alone was touchstone sufficient. And that led me to W. S. Merwin reading his “Yesterday” with the ever-chilling line:

oh I say
feeling again the cold
of my father’s hand the last time

It’s amazing: the rich literary company that embraced me, all because of one single solitary email sent my way!

Sometimes, though, my forever-friends arrive as I try to make sense of all that’s going on in our world. The ongoing COVID pandemic. The invasion of Ukraine. Recent SCOTUS decisions. The January 6 Hearings. Global Warming. Poverty. Food scarcity. Gender inequality. Homophobia. Transphobia. Growing humanitarian conflicts and crises. The 21st anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks on America.

Need I go on? Sadly, I could. Gladly, I won’t. It’s far too sobering.

But in those dark moments when I find myself spiritually staggering under the weight of it all, I take strength from William Faulkner’s Nobel Acceptance Speech, delivered in 1950 when the world was staggering under the burden of the Cold War:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? […] I decline to accept the end of man.  […] I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.

Maybe, just maybe, the need to have writers who are our forever-friends, boils down to nothing more than this. They come regardless of what we are facing. They reassure us that goodness and mercy shall prevail. They remind us to grapple with our soul, to grapple with our spirit.

They come, as Robert Browning came to me just this second, to calm us and anchor us in the full and steadfast belief that despite all the injustices, all the wrongdoings, all the travail, and all the sorrows,

God’s in His Heaven,

All’s right with the world.

Pippa Passes, Song I (1841)

Take Four | Living with A Writer: Modern Applications of Ancient Writing Artifacts

We are always yapping about the “Good Old Days” and how we look back and enjoy it, but I tell you there is a lot of hooey to it. There is a whole lot of our past lives that was not so hot.

–Will Rogers (1879-1953; American Vaudeville Performer, Actor, and Social Commentator)

Hey, everyone! Listen up! Make certain that you keep a copy of this post in a safe, virtual folder. Maybe even the Cloud. It is destined for fame. It is destined for greatness. It is destined for glory. It will go down in the annals of history as the most historic and historical blog post ever published.

You will discover why as you continue to read. But let me start with one reason and that one reason alone will earn this post its deserved historical distinction. For the first time in my life, I am at a loss for words. I am. My students would be thrilled beyond thrills because they consider me to be exhaustive and, no doubt, exhausting when I start talking about anything that is near and dear to my heart.

No doubt, you–dear reader–are wondering why on earth I am at a loss for words. Let me explain. My post last week focused exclusively on me: “Take Three | Living with a Writer: Owning Up to My Own Eccentricities.”

One of my eccentricities that I felt comfortable sharing was the fact that I had drafted the general introduction and the introductions to the five sections of my The Infant Sphinx: Collected Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman on yellow legal pads, using #2 pencils without erasers. The really quirky part of that eccentricity was that whenever I made a mistake, I ripped out the page and started over.

One of my faithful followers challenged me to write my next post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, and to share with you what happened as I wrote. Dear reader, you are so undeserving of the suffering that you will surely suffer as you continue to read. But please do continue to read. Remember: no pain, no gain. (Because I love you so much–whoever you are and wherever you are [including you, Mrs. Callabash, wherever you are]–I have timed the read-time for this post. You are now 6 minutes and 36.3 seconds away from full fatigue and brain drain.)

It was a commendable challenge, so much so that I really should quote it verbatim, and I would, but I can’t. I am lying in bed writing my post on a legal pad, using a #2 pencil, as challenged–I am such a sucker for challenges–so I don’t want to lose my grain of thought by switching over to my Smartphone to look at last week’s post so that I can quote the comment in its entirety the way that it deserves to be quoted.

Therefore, starting with the next paragraph I will use placeholders for anything that I would normally have the good sense to look up instanter on my Smartphone. I will use this placeholder convention throughout this post. My very first one follows.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Insert faithful reader quote from last week. I believe the reader signed herself “J.”

I responded to “J’s” challenge by asking whether yellow legal pads were even manufactured these days. I noted that if they had fallen out of usage, not to worry: I had seen such writing artifacts at the Smithsonian Institution and, perhaps, I could arrange for a Docupost: Modern Applications of Ancient Writing Artifacts.

My reply to “J.” was far more brilliant than it appears here, but, again, I can’t easily switch over to my Smartphone.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Insert my dazzling reply to “J.” Make sure to capture the correct title of the Docupost that I plan to propose to the Smithsonian Institution.

Not long after “J’s” comment, another faithful follower–“soyfig”–informed me that she had some yellow legal pads and #2 pencils that I could have.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: insert “soyfig’s” actual comment, especially since, as I recall, she used some figurative language.

I responded, of course. I respond to everything, seen and unseen, heard and unheard. But, sadly, I do not remember my exact reply, but I am sure that it was a beauty.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Insert my beauty-of-a-reply to “soyfig” who writes so figuratively.

Obviously, I accepted the challenge because, as I noted earlier, here I am writing about what it’s like writing a blog post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, while lying in bed.

I should be euphoric, I suppose, because I am certain–and history will confirm my certainty–that what I am developing right here and right now is a new Creative Nonfiction genre. To mirror its counterpart in the world of fiction, I hereby announce–with all the power and authority that is not vested in me–that this new genre will be dubbed Creative MetaNonfiction.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Check the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to see whether the word and the genre exist already. If not, notify the editors immediately. “by gorry by jingo by gee by gosh by gum,” fame awaits.

I believe that I have said so already, but I will say so again: writing my post on this yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, is not making me euphoric. I can’t speak for you, but I can speak for me. My bed is a place of immense pleasure. Trust me. This is not pleasurable. I’ve got a stupid yellow legal pad–six times larger than my Smartphone–propped up on my knobby knees and the stupid pencil does not have the same quality graphite that I recall. Yes: I still recall the quality–or lack thereof–of everything going all the way back to the cold and snowy day of my November birth. If that be true–and it is–then fast forward with me and you will know that I speak the truth when I say that recalling something from the 1970s is a piece of graphite for me.

Morever, lean in and listen carefully: the damned yellow legal pad is not backlighted. Why am I whispering? For one good reason. I’m whispering because I don’t want anyone to steal my idea! If an ancient writing artifact like a yellow legal pad is going to continue to plague us, at the very least it should be backlighted so that it will not plague us in the dark.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Check the dictionary. Backlighted? Backlit?

I just heard someone ask, “Why does it matter if your yellow legal pad is not backlighted?” [See above Placeholder.]

Well, that’s a splendid question. it matters a lot. It’s starting to get dark outside. My overhead light makes a glare on the yellow legal pad, so I can’t use it. My nightstand lamp is not bright enough, so I can’t use it either. I must be blunt. I can no longer see what I am writing. And, like my pencil, let me be blunt again. If I can’t see what I’m writing, how do I look into the heart of what I’m thinking?

Thank you very much for your suggestion. I expected it. But, as much as I appreciate it–and I do–I will not run out tomorrow to buy a lamp to attach to my headboard. Simply explained: I won’t be needing it. I will never write another blog post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, while lying in bed at night. Never. Never. Never.

However, I will figure out a way to finish this post since I accepted the challenge, sucker that I am.

Already I can think of three possible solutions.

Solution 1. Fill a Mason jar with fireflies. They might illuminate my yellow legal pad sufficiently.

Solution 2. Jerry-rig a flashlight to the headboard of my bed, with the light beaming down on the yellow legal pad propped up against my knobby knees.

Solution 3. Go to bed at 6pm so that I can work on my post for several hours before it gets too dark for me to see.

“Too dark for me to see” reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s first-person account of death, “I Heard a Fly Buzz.” The poem ends, I believe, with: “And then I could not see to see.”

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Find the Dickinson poem and make sure that my quote above is accurate.

I am back to report that my tentative solutions–even though brilliant–were abysmal failures. That’s too kind. They were duds.

Firefly Solution. It was fairly easy to catch a jar full: they are everywhere in my yard. And, oh, my! Such a golden glow as they put out. For a while my bedroom looked almost like a nightclub dance floor with strobe lights. But it didn’t last long. The glow became dimmer and dimmer and dimmer. And, even more quickly, I grew a guilty feeling for having captured all those helpless little fireflies and for having put them to work against their will Contra Naturam. I set them free. Shine bright. Shine far.

Jerry-rigged Flashlight Solution. I thought for sure that this solution would work. However, I couldn’t figure out a way to mount the flashlight to my headboard, especially at the required angle. I considered duct tape which seems to work for everything, but when I recalled what I had paid for my Henkel Harris bed, I froze with tape and flashlight in mid-air. It took me hours to free myself.

Going to Bed at 6pm Solution. Forget it for one reason only. I have worked long and hard to earn the reputation that I now proudly hold as a wild, night-owl party animal. My friends and my colleagues have grown so proud of me as I have, over time, extended my bedtime from 8:00pm to 8:30pm to 9:00pm. And I have now, after years of practice, mastered the 10:00pm hour. When a party’s going down, I want to be found, and I certainly won’t be found if I am in bed at 6pm.

But I have come up with another solution that had not occurred to me initially. I will take the first hour of my morning routine to write my blog post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil.

Well, I tried it. Let me just say that this is not what anyone might hooey it up to be. Now I am wishing that I had challenged my two faithful followers to this challenge. Thankfully–and luckily for them–I am not that cruel. Absit iniuria.

They wouldn’t like all these disruptions either. Up until now, I have made perfectly good and methodical use of a sensible and calming way of writing my post in bed on my Smartphone. Even though I have willingly taken on a momentary stay against my ever-so sane method, I will remind myself–in mantra manner–that I am blazing new trails into Creative MetaNonfiction. History and literature demand that I continue. History and literature demand that I see this stupid stint through to a stupendous end.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Look up Creative MetaNonfiction to see whether such a genre exists. Oh, no. I remember that I have placed this placeholder in the post already, but since I cannot erase or scratch through, I will build upon the redundancy and puff it up as best I can. Have I actually stumbled upon–simply by stupidly accepting a challenge–a new genre? Oh, joy! Maybe I will enjoy a footnote in the annals of something–anything, please–after all.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Revisit Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” As I recall, the unnamed narrator who goes insane–always be suspicious of unnamed narrators–may have written HER journal on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil. Well, I am fairly certain that she did not, but look it up anyway. Adding that twist to the original story would be masterful for an updated version. The narrator escaped from the yellow wallpaper. But I wonder: would she be able to escape from her yellow legal pad as masterfully as I am about to do, soon and very soon. You’re welcome.

What’s ironic about all of this is that when I accepted this challenge, I did so fully expecting fun, even if nothing more than hearing my pencil graphite its way across the page.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Can graphite be used as a verb? Well. Duh. I just used it as a verb in the preceding paragraph. Therefore, it can be. Therefore, I really do not need to follow through with this placeholder. I will keep it anyway in the interest of not ripping out this yellow page which is otherwise perfect.

But verbs notwithstanding, my pencil is not making those nostalgic sounds that I had longed for, not even when I bend my ear way down close and personal to the page. Instead, it glides along like a waxy crayon. And, in fact, my box of pencils is labeled, on one side of the box, Crayon. Oh, dear. I forgot. Crayon means pencil in some language. An esteemed English professor–a colleague–took great joy in beaming that to me when I showed the box to her. Well, never mind.

I do mind, however, that the only yellow pads that I could find anywhere were 8 1/2 by 11 inches, even though they were marked Legal Pad. Well, excuse me. If it’s not 8 1/2 x 14 inches, it’s not legal, and shorties like the ones that I ended up with ought to be illegal.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: (1) What companies still manufacture these so-called legal pads? (2) Do they come in true legal size? (3) Is it true, as I seem to recall, that courts no longer allow 8 1/2 x 14-inch legal pads because they do not fit readily into filing cabinets–not even virtual ones?

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Do a comparable search into #2 pencils. Focus especially on what kind of graphite manufacturers are using for these crayons–I mean pencils–these days.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: I need a pull quote for this post. What’s the one about a sucker is born every minute? How perfect would that be!

Okay. I need to wrap this post up–Maybe in a yellow graphite bow?–but before I do, I simply must achieve a sense of order with this post–the very first example ever of Creative MetaNonfiction. The annals of history await my final word. I do, too.

I know exactly what I will do. I’ll number the pages that I have written on this yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil. And while I’m doing that, I’ll write AMDG just to the right of each page number, just as a Jesuit lawyer friend of mine did on all his labor relations notes, always written on a genuine yellow legal pad, using a genuine #2 graphite pencil.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Look up AMDG to see what that acronym means. Marty had a perverse sense of humor, but, surely, he would not have penciled anything obscene or scandalous, especially since he knew that I would see what he was writing because I almost always leaned over him at the bar. But be sure to look it up anyway before publishing this post.

Wow! I have written 11 pages already about nothing more than what it’s like to write my post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, while lying in bed. Maybe this Creative MetaNonfiction thingy is not as bad as I have graphited it up to be. Well, if I can type it up, I can certainly graphite it up. But lo and behold! Here I’ve gone and coined still another word: graphited. Who knows? Maybe a Creative MetaNonfiction Novel looms in your future.

I suppose the only thing that might have been more fun than numbering the pages would have been ripping each one out and then taping them all together. I seem to recall a writer who typed one of his books on a continuous roll of paper, created by carefully taping each page together. This would have been, of course, back in the good old, hooey typewriter days.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Try to find out the writer who did this. I think that it was Jack Kerouac. I am certain. Yes. I recall it as vividly as if I had helped him! (Oh, how I wish.) He sellotaped enough pages to create a 120-foot roll when he wrote his On the Road. Check just to make sure. I would never dare publish anything without verifying all the facts before I spew forth. And also look up hooey. It looks like phooey to me.

As for any rhythm that I might be achieving while writing on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, forget it. Forget. It. Trust me. This post is not riding along on its own melting like a piece of ice on a hot stove. Frost itself wouldn’t work. And Frost himself wouldn’t be able to make it work either. I am so focused on paper and pencil that any semblance of thought has wisely flown far, far away to someone sensible enough to write a blog post sensibly on a Smartphone.

Worse, perhaps, I feel as if I am straddling an immeasurable and unfathomable chasm between the 1970s (when I enjoyed writing on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil) and day before yesterday (when I lost my sanity and sold my writerly soul to the Devil by selling myself on the idea of accepting this challenge). To be certain, the image of such a straddler is an intriguing one. Conjure it up if you can. I double dare you. You will see for yourself. But let me assure you, post haste, that my legs–metaphorical or otherwise–are not nearly long enough to bridge such a chasm, and even if they were, I would not stand for it. I would object vehemently for all the world to hear, as, hopefully, all the world is hearing now.

Hear me and hear me well. What I am about to say is quotable, so go ahead and quote me: Phooey to all this hooey.

I object to it so much that I will end it all right now, in one final declaration!

This is a nonsensical challenge up with which I will not put.

FINAL Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: As I recall, Winston Churchill came up with the above quip as an objection to an editor who wouldn’t allow sentences to end with prepositions. Churchill’s retort memorialized the folly of editors who foolishly adhere to grammatical rules rather than to common sense and to the sense of sound. Try to find the specifics. Was it in a memorandum? I’m sure that it was, perhaps in 1941?

Halleluiah! I have freed myself at last from this yellow legal pad and from #2 pencils. I have returned to my sanity. (Wisely, however, I will not change one thing–not one hooey-phooey word–that I have written so honestly and so painfully as I soared my way to and through the heights of this challenge. “The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on.” (No. I will not put a placeholder for that Shakespearean quote. You may kindly–if you please and if you need–google it yourself to obtain the specifics: play, act, and line.) And, thankfully, I have just returned to my Smartphone where I have just had joy beyond measure restored to every fiber–and even every fibre–of my being by doing nothing more than tap touching this post through to completion–one character at a time, using just one finger. Is that inefficient or what?

But the greatest joy ever is the knowledge that I have just written–and you have just read–the first example ever of Creative MetaNonfiction. May it not last forever in the annals of history and literature. May I be spared such notoriety. May I be remembered in far better ways. But, hey. What the heck. If you insist, I accept: better to be remembered for something, I suppose, than for nothing. Either way, it’s all hooey to me.

Take Two |  Living with a Writer: More Frostian Moments

“All thought is a feat of association; having what’s in front of you bring up something in your mind that you almost didn’t know you knew.”

Robert Frost (1874-1963)

Lots–and I mean lots–can be said about last week’s post “Living with a Writer.” I’m not talking about the number of views. The post enjoyed the usual readership. (I will note, however, that it had more readers than usual from foreign countries, including Bosnia & Herzegovina as well as Ecuador.) I’m not talking about Likes, although I was pleased that it had a few more Likes than usual. (It might interest you to know that “Fit as A Fiddle: The Inefficient Way” has the distinction of being my most Liked post of all.)

What’s really important about last week’s post relates to the mileage that I’ll be getting–this week and continuing for several weeks beyond–from reader feedback! I am listening. I hear you. I thank you. And trust me: I’m going to run with the ideas that you tossed my way. I always do.

Some feedback came as emails; other feedback came as comments published to the post.

Here’s my plan. This week I will focus exclusively on readers’ emails, since my responses to them are rather straightforward. I will reserve responses to last week’s comments until next week’s post. Actually, the comments are so rich that I might even get still another week’s post from their richness. Everything is copy. (See my “Directions to the Magical World of Ideas.”)

In one email, a faithful reader wanted to know what Lesley Francis–granddaughter of Robert and Elinor Frost–wrote in the copy of her The Frost Family’s Adventure in Poetry: Sheer Morning Gladness at the Brim that she gave me on April 9, 2002, when I introduced her as part of a Distinguished Lecture Series co-sponsored by Shenandoah University and Lord Fairfax Community College.

I was thrilled to get that email query because I had wanted to include the inscription in my initial post. Unfortunately, I could not because the book was in my office at the college, and, as you know, I work on these posts at night on my smartphone while lying in bed. If you don’t know that, you might want to read my “Spaces and Habits of Famous (and Not-So-Famous) Writers”.

Since last week’s post, though, I went to the college, I pulled the volume from my shelf, and I nostalgically read the inscription:

“For / Brent Kendrick, who / has let Frost lead him /  ‘knowing how way leads on to / way.’ With best wishes from the author and granddaughter / Lesley Lee Francis / 4/9/02 / Lord Fairfax CC”.

The quote within her inscription, of course, is from the third stanza of what, without doubt, is one of Frost’s most popular poems, “The Road Not Taken”:

“And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black. / Oh, I kept the first for another day! / Yet knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back.”

The same faithful reader wanted to know whether I had mentioned any specific Frost poems when I introduced his granddaughter. Splendid question. Indeed, I did. Throughout the afternoon on the day of Dr. Francis’ lecture–“Education by Poetry”–showers passed intermittently through our area, and I had been reciting in my mind a Frost poem that appeared in his book of poetry, A Boy’s Will. I recall wishing that the rain were a little heavier, that the winds were a little more fierce, and that the time of year were not quite so much into spring—perhaps a patch of snow here and there–so that the realities of the day would match more closely those of the poem that I had been reciting. Even though the poetic conditions and the natural conditions that day didn’t enjoy a one-to-one correlation, I included Frost’s “To the Thawing Wind” as part of my introduction. The poem welcomes spring rains, the return of birds and flowers, as well as flowing streams. But equally important is the desire for spring to  “Burst into my narrow stall; / Swing the picture on the wall; Run the rattling pages o’er; Scatter poems on the floor; Turn the poet out of door.” Quoting the poem seemed perfect for the season and the occasion.

Another reader wanted to know some instances when something happened that made me think of a Robert Frost quote.

Actually, it happened most recently just a few minutes ago while I was writing. When I wrote “I nostalgically read the inscription,” I thought immediately of how Frost likened poetry to homesickness and love sickness:

“Poetry begins with a lump in your throat; a homesickness or a love sickness. It is a reaching out toward expression; an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words” (Frost to Louis Untermeyer, 1916).

Here’s another instance. A few nights ago, when I had my nightly phone chat with my sister Audrey, she mentioned that she was rather taken aback when she went to swat a fly, and it seemed to pause and look at her. As she shared her experience with me, I was reminded of Frost’s “A Considerable Speck.” In the poem, the speaker encounters a speck on his manuscript page–still wet with ink. Just as he was about to “stop it with a period of ink,” he has a profound realization: “Plainly with an intelligence I dealt. / It seemed too tiny to have room for feet, / Yet must have had a set of them complete / To express how much it didn’t want to die. […] I have a mind myself and recognize / Mind when I meet with it in any guise. / No one can know how glad I am to find / On any sheet the least display of mind.”

And for one final example. Just this past Sunday, as I worshipped outdoors while weedwhacking along my mountain road to pretty it up for July 4th, I happened upon a small clump of storybook sweet peas with tenacious tendrils and a subtle, alluring fragrance. I had not planted it. How it had gotten there was a mystery to me. But it was so exquisite all alone–showcased midst briar and bramble and honeysuckle–that I spared it. I had not the heart to level it to the ground from which it sprang. I mowed around it, fully confident that it would bring joy to at least one passerby, perhaps more. And, if none, the seeing and the sparing had brought hefty morning notes of joy to me, equal to cathedral tunes.

As soon as the sweet pea stole my fancy–as soon as I saved it–my mind fragranced off to Frost’s “A Tuft of Flowers.” In the poem, the worker who has come to turn the grass after it has been mown, looks and listens unsuccessfully for the one who had done the mowing: “But he had gone his way, the grass all mown, / And I must be, as he had been,—alone, /  ‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart, / ‘Whether they work together or apart.’” At that moment, a butterfly drew attention to a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook: “The mower in the dew had loved them thus, / By leaving them to flourish, not for us, / Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him. / But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.” As the poem continues, the speaker comes to the belief that he has stumbled upon a message from the dawn: “And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech / With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach. / ‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart, / ‘Whether they work together or apart.’”

Frostian moments such as these may be small. They may be fleeting. They may be seemingly insignificant. But one thing is for certain. They stand as extraordinary reminders of why literature matters: it has the magical power to transport us from our ordinary worlds to unforeseen spiritual realms.

Living with a Writer

Blessed are the weird people: poets, misfits, writers, mystics, painters, troubadours, for they teach us to see the world through different eyes.

Jacob Nordby –author of Blessed Are the Weird: A Manifesto for Creatives (2016)

Writers have been the mainstay of my intellectual life since childhood.

It’s safe to say that I know more about writers than I know about anything else. I know not only the breadth and depth of their literary canons (especially those writers whose works I enjoy and teach) but also the breadth and depth of their lives (even those writers whose works I do not enjoy and do not teach).

Taken as a whole, I suppose that writers are a hard lot to live with. (Taken as a whole, I suppose that we are all a hard lot to live with.)

But writers seem to be harder to live with than most of us, and they have more quirks and more eccentricities in their lives and relationships than most of us. Or, maybe it’s simply that they are more in our faces because they have achieved literary fame, the consequence of which is having the world look at all the foibles of their lives through painstaking, unforgiving, and unforgetting research.

A few examples of writerly quirks and eccentricities will suffice. Then you can decide for yourself.

One of the first writers to pop into my mind is Oscar Wilde. He had many eccentricities, but can you imagine living with someone who once walked down the street with his pet lobster on a leash, as he supposedly did on at least one occasion?

Or what about Lord Byron who, when at school, kept a pet bear in his room, walked it around campus on a leash, and even tried to get it a fellowship.

More alarming, still, is Mary Shelley who wrote with her 23-foot boa wrapped around her shoulders. Supposedly, she would write until the boa started to squeeze, at which moment she would stop for the day. Perfect timing, no?

Shelley and Byron and Wilde make Edgar Allan Poe look rather sane if not downright boring. So what if he wrote with his Siamese cat on his shoulder as a double source of relaxation and inspiration? No big deal.

At least two writers had a thing for apples and water, separately not together–the apples and the water, not the authors. Friedrich Schiller kept rotten apples in his desk drawer, claiming that the smell motivated him. And to keep from falling asleep while writing, he dipped his feet into ice water. For her inspiration–a century or so later–Agathie Christie chose to eat the apples rather than let them rot. She did so while taking a bath.

At least one writer wrote wearing nothing but his ideas and his underwear (John Cheever). Another exercised naked in front of the window (Franz Kafka) and enjoyed going to nudist camps. He always stood out in the crowd. Go ahead. Guess. Nope. You’re wrong. He was the only guy wearing swimming trunks.

Some writers stand out in other ways: their writing quarters. Dylan Thomas had a writing hut on his estate. Roald Dahl visited Thomas and was so impressed by the hut that he made one for himself based on the exact same dimensions. George Bernard Shaw’s writing hut was truly unique. It was built on a turntable so that it could be rotated to let in the sun.

And let’s not leave out some really strange quirks that writers use to achieve quotas or to meet deadlines. I am most impressed by Demosthenes who shaved half of his head, knowing that his embarrassment would keep him at home and on task. Victor Hugo was far less dramatic: he met his writing quotas simply by having his valet hide his clothes.

Unrelated to the preceding examples of writers having hard-to-live-with quirks are two writerly snippets too good to not snip and include here. I must. I can. Therefore, I shall. Did you know that John Steinbeck’s dog Toby ate nearly half of the first manuscript version of his Of Mice and Men? I cannot help but wonder whether that culinary delight is the origin of the student lament that educators hear over and over again, “My dog ate my homework.”

All right. I cannot leave you or me in such intellectual limbo. I will be right back to report my findings after I consult the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

I’m back. What a fun journey, though I confess that my speculation was in error. The phrase first appeared in print in the Manchester Guardian (July 1929): “It is a long time since I have had the excuse about the dog tearing up the arithmetic homework.”

While consulting the OED, I decided to go ahead and verify the second snippet that I am about to snip and share since I was not certain of its accuracy. Did you know that Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the following: selfless, psychosomatic, bipolar, bisexual, and suspension of disbelief?

All right. I was wrong about selfless. It first appeared in J. Godolphin Holy Arbor (1651): “I leave this Memento with all selfless Christians.” Coleridge did not use it until 1825 in his Aids to Reflections 112: “Holy Instincts of Maternal Love, detached and in selfless purity.”

I was right about the other words. Psychomatic first appeared in Coleridge’s Shorter Wks. & Fragments (1834): “Hope and Fear..have slipt out their collars, and no longer run in couples…from the Kennel of my Psycho–somatic Ology.” Bipolar appeared in 1810 in his Friend: “Philosophy being necessarily bipolar.” Bisexual appeared in 1825 in his Aids to Reflection. 252:   “The very old Tradition of the Homo androgynusi.e. that the original Man..was bi-sexual.” And my favorite of all–suspension of disbelief–first appeared in his Biographia Literaria II. xiv. 2: “A semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith” (1817).

Obviously, I am fascinated by writers’ quirks and eccentricities. What is not so obvious is the fact that I would have been able to tolerate and be amused by the quirks and eccentricities if I had actually lived with a writer.

For better or for worse, I never had the opportunity.

But I have been blessed to live with one writer for most of my entire life, 24/7. Vicariously.

That’s exactly what I have done with Robert Frost since 1955 when he took up his residence with me, vicariously: heart, head, home.

It’s been easy living with him as I have done. In fact, I would say that I have had the best of all possible Frostian worlds. I have enjoyed all the good. And I have been spared all the drama–mainly a thread of depression that seems to have plagued the entire family. I have been able to read about it rather than live with it. 

I started living with Frost when I was in the third grade. My teacher, Marie Massie, introduced me to literature, and she started with Robert Frost. She hooked me with his poem “Birches.” I still recall reciting the entire lengthy poem–59 lines–not only before the entire class but also mid-air, alone, as I too “subdued my father’s trees / By riding them down over and over again / Until I took the stiffness out of them.” It did not matter to me then that I had not caught the deeper meanings of the poem and that I had missed the ambiguities. I simply liked the sounds, the word play, the associations. And I wanted more. My teacher obliged, not just with poems, but also with Frost’s “The Figure a Poem Makes.” I dare say that very little of the essay made sense to my third-grade mind, but I warmed up from the start to Frost’s notion that poetry, like a piece of ice on a hot stove, should ride along on its own melting.

From that point forward, Frost has served as my own literary touchstone, constant companion, and friend. Every day, at least once a day, sometimes more, something always seems to happen that reminds me of something in Frost’s poetry. And off I go on my poetic flight. Or perhaps it is that every day, at least once a day, something in Frost’s poetry reminds me of something else. And off I fly. Whichever way it happens, it’s a journey of constant joys and surprises and poetic feats of associations. 

On more than one occasion, Frost has been my dream companion.

It’s usually the same dream, over and over, capturing the stereotypical–and erroneous–image of Frost, the farmer poet. Frost and I are always in a garden. It’s always summer. I’ve always worked up a heavy sweat, always pushing a hand plow, always tilling the soil between rows of plants while he always sits all relaxed and all leisure-like on a stump as he recites some of his poems.

That recurring dream started when I was in grade school. I still dream the dream from time to time, and I love it because I am always young and thrilled to be laboring in the presence of my very own poet.

I try, as best I can, to forget the one spat that I had with Frost. Thank God, it was a vicarious and momentary falling out, a literary lovers’ quarrel of sorts. I remember the details vividly. They still pain my memory.

It was the morning of January 20, 1961. Robert Frost had been asked to write and read a poem at John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration. For the occasion, Frost wrote “Dedication.” I watched as televised Frost entered the homes of Americans and others throughout the world. It was an historic occasion. Kennedy was the youngest president to be elected at the age of 43. Kennedy was the first Catholic to be elected president. And Frost was the first poet to be invited to read at a presidential inauguration.

It was a cold, blustery, snowy day and the sun was shining so glaringly on Frost’s manuscript that he fumbled and fumbled and fumbled. Yet he kept trying. Finally, he decided–wisely–to abandon the manuscript of the poem written for the occasion and instead to recite from memory his “The Gift Outright.” Both poems are so similar in spirit that I am not certain the shift in text mattered.

Frost was clearly embarrassed by the turn of events and his struggle, but the audience roared with approval and Frost stole their hearts.

He made my heart fall. I remember commenting to my parents, who were watching television with me, that the crowd cheered simply because they were glad that the fiasco was over and that laws should exist to keep old people from embarrassing themselves in public that way.

To this day, I cannot believe my youthful unkindness on the occasion. I have shared my reaction down through the years, hoping that open confession would lessen the pain of my thoughtlessness.

It has not.

On a more positive note, on more than one occasion, I’ve nearly brushed up against fleeting moments of Frostian fame.

As an undergraduate, I decided to prepare a concordance of Frost’s poetry. Without consulting anyone, I spent two years building the concordance on index cards. At that point, I was emboldened to propose the publication to Frost’s publisher, Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston. Their reply brought a crushing blow: they had entered into a contract with Edward Connery Lathem to develop a Frost concordance. It was published several years later in 1971.

Another close brush with Frostian fame came a year or two later when I reached out to the United States Postal Service suggesting a Commemorative Postage Stamp on the one hundredth anniversary of Frost’s birth: March 26, 1974. Unfortunately, work on the commemorative stamp was underway already. Nonetheless, my enthusiasm earned me a Frost Commemorative Postage Stamp Poster, and it has graced every office that I have occupied since then. I always hang it so that it’s the first thing anyone sees when they enter my office. Measuring three feet by four feet, it is commanding, and it makes a commanding statement. To the right of the crusty old bard’s portrait–seated and writing at a makeshift desk–is a quote from his poem “Mending Wall”: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offense. / Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…”

I value the poster not only because of my personal–albeit ever so slight–connection to the commemorative postage stamp but also because the quote captures a critically important lesson in human relationships and gives each of us an ongoing admonishment about the folly of building walls that separate us from ourselves and those around us.

Decades later, I brushed against Frost in the flesh, if you will, when I had the honor of introducing his granddaughter, Leslie Lee Francis, as part of a 2002 Distinguished Lecture Series co-sponsored by Shenandoah University and Lord Fairfax Community College. She spoke on “Education by Poetry.” It was a special treat for me to meet and chat extensively with Dr. Francis, daughter of Lesley Frost, the eldest child of Robert and Elinor Frost. When the evening ended, she gifted me with an inscribed copy of her book The Frost Family’s Adventure in Poetry: Sheer Morning Gladness at the Brim (University of Missouri Press, 1994.) In the book, Dr. Francis traces the family’s adventures from their years on the Derry Farm in New Hampshire through their nearly three years in England, bringing Robert Frost to the brink of recognition as a poet. Her gift brought me to the brink of tears.

Who would have ever dreamt that a third-grade teacher in the mountainous coal fields of West Virginia would have turned me on to a poet with such fervor that he would become my constant companion for life? But she did. I have never forgotten the magic that she worked, and it’s that same kind of magic that I hope to perform whenever I enter a classroom to teach a literature course. I always have in mind certain goals, objectives, and outcomes that I hope my students will achieve. But deep down in my heart I have one goal that surpasses all of the pedagogical ones.  And I share it with my students. My hope for them is that somewhere during the course they will find a writer—a poet, short story writer, playwright, novelist—any writer who from that point forward will serve as a touchstone in their lives—a friend; a companion; someone who will be there with them always; someone they can live with forever.

Living with a writer, especially vicariously, might just be the best of all possible worlds.