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.

In Bed with Famous (and Not-So-Famous) Writers

“I’m going to bed,” really means, “I’m going to lie in bed and … write.” 

Brent L. Kendrick (aka “The Wired Researcher”)

Chances are good that you did a double take when you saw the title of today’s post. You may have exclaimed, “No way! I’ve read this already.”

Nope. You haven’t. If the title seems familiar, you’re probably thinking of “Spaces and Habits of Famous (and Not-So-Famous) Writers.” But don’t worry. I’ve changed things up: this post has a brand-new set of linen sheets.

And if you aren’t thinking that you’ve read this post before, you are probably asking yourself, “What’s going on with the Good Professor’s seeming propensity for being in bed?”

Excellent question! I won’t try to pull the sheets over your eyes. It’s simple. “In Bed” makes the title catchy. It certainly makes me lie down and take notice. You’ll take notice, too, when I tell you that, on average, we spend 33 years of our life in bed: 26 years, sleeping; 7 years, trying to doze off.

If the “In Bed” part didn’t grab your attention, “with writers” surely did!

And I’ll bet I know what you’re thinking right now. Come on. Fess up. You’re wondering what they’re doing in bed. And now you’ve got me wondering, too. I’ll be right back.

Thanks for your patience. I had to do a little research. If you were wondering whether they were having…you know...sex, you won’t be impressed by the answer that I just discovered. On average, having…you know…takes up only about one third of a year (117 days) in the course of our entire life. Ironically, people think about having…you know...nearly 19 times a day. I guess we spend far more time thinking about having…you know…than we do enjoying…having you know.

Sadly, I suspect that the 117 days of romance is substantially lower with writers, particularly those who write in bed. I doubt that they would want to be interrupted with their word play. Maybe that’s why William Byrd II (Colonial Virginia aristocrat and man of letters; member of the Governor’s Council; and founder of Richmond, VA) had a fondness for romantic interludes on the billiard table. “He what?” someone gasped in disbelief. Yep. I tease you not. For your own in-bed reading, check out The Secret Diary of William Byrd of Westover (1709-1712). The content of his diary remained a secret until the 1940s when it was decoded. Now I know that I have whetted your literary appetite. Here, let me tease you more with an excerpt from his diary:

“in the afternoon my wife and I had a little quarrel which I reconciled with a flourish. It is to be observed that the flourish was on the billiard table.”

Now you know why he wrote his diary in code. Check it out, but not now. Or, if you must, please come back and finish this post.

But let’s get our writers back in bed where we found them to begin with.

For what it’s worth, I was in bed already, and I intend to stay there, smackdab in the middle. After all, it’s my bed, and in bed is where I write my blog posts. But I’m the not-so-famous writer mentioned in the title, so enough about me. Let’s snuggle up with some famous writers who wrote in bed, and, for the time being they can join me in mine.

Surprisingly, not many writers actually write in bed. That suits me just fine. Although my bed is big–fit for a queen–I still need to be able to pull up the sheets and get comfy.

Little chance of my doing that any time soon. Long-legged Mark Twain has jumped in already. What a bed hog: writing and smoking at the same time. He’s got some nerve! “Just try it in bed sometime. I sit up with a pipe in my mouth and a board on my knees, and I scribble away. Thinking is easy work, and there isn’t much labor in moving your fingers sufficiently to get the words down” (New York Times, “How Mark Twain Writes in Bed,” April 12, 1902).

Joining Twain is Edith Wharton, author of The Age of Innocence. (Well, maybe, innocent, but, after all, she is in bed with Twain even if I am the one who put the two side by side.) Wharton liked to write in bed because it freed her from wearing her corset, thereby liberating her thoughts. Now, at least, we all know where she kept her mind.

And I suppose we have to invite Truman Capote to hop in. He’s often quoted as saying: “I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy.”

On the other side of the bed–to my right–let’s put some European writers. For bed-balance, we’ll add three only, arranged in the same gender order as the Americans: Boy. Girl. Boy.

To my right, William Wordsworth. He wrote his poems in bed in complete darkness, and, if he lost a sheet of paper in bed, he started over. It was easier than rummaging around under the sheets. Thank God for small mercies.

On his right is Dame Edith Sitwell who slept in a coffin from time to time. Without a doubt, she’ll enjoy being in bed for a change, especially since she once commented, “All women should have a day a week in bed.” That’s all fine and dandy as long as they’re not in my bed.

To Sitwell’s right is Marcel Proust, right on the edge of the bed. Writing in bed was not a quirk for him. It was a requirement. Age and illness forced him to stay in bed, and it was in bed where he completed Remembrance of Things Past as well as In Search of Lost Time. On the edge of the bed seemed perfect so that he could get in and out with greater ease.

OMG! I just heard a loud thud. Did you? Let me take a look. Sure enough. The not-so-famous American writer who thought up these shenanigans in the first place is at it again. He has pushed the European writers right out of the bed onto the floor.

Oh, no. I just heard another thud, though not quite as loud. Let me lean across the bed and have a look-see. As I live and breathe! Capote, Wharton, and Twain are all piled up on the Oriental rug. Twain is still smoking his pipe. Wharton is suddenly looking for her corset. And Capote is leaning back, still smoking his cigarette. Maybe he and Twain can blow smoke at one another while Wharton laces up her corset.

Well, at least the Americans landed softly. I really meant no harm, but I had no choice other than to kick the three of them out, too. Seven in my bed was six too many.

I don’t know about you, but it’s perfectly clear to me that writers–whether famous or not-so-famous–make strange bedfellows.

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 Three | Living with a Writer: Owning Up to My Own Eccentricities

“A civilized society is one which tolerates eccentricity to the point of doubtful sanity.” 

–Robert Frost (1874-1963)

You may take great pleasure in knowing that this may be my shortest blog post ever. The operative word here is may. I won’t know how short this post will be until I reach the end. That, I suppose, is my first writerly eccentricity. My writing–very much like Robert Frost’s–rides along on its own melting, like a piece of ice on a hot stove. It goes where it wants to go, and it moves where it wants to move.

But I suspect this post may be my shortest because I will be sharing my eccentricities. Goodness, no. Not those. How on earth did you know about those, anyway? They’re far too personal to share with the world at large. Besides, a post focusing on them would take years and years to share. Not really. But, on the other hand, maybe.

But since I have slid off course already, let me go ahead and share one–just one–of my personal eccentricities before attempting to get back into the flow of writing about my writing eccentricities.

Here it is. I have a tremendous fascination with numbers. Doesn’t that strike you as odd, especially since I am an English professor? It does me. Maybe it will strike you as less odd when I tell you that my fascination is limited to certain types of numbers. Like palindromes. You know. The ones that read the same, forward and backward. 11, 22, 101, 111, 666, 999. I don’t have anything against palindromes, mind you, especially if I only see one every now and then as I go about my day. But some days it seems they won’t go away, especially when they take up residence in my digital clocks and glare at me. 1:11. 3:13. 3:33. 7:07. (Thankfully, they never take up residence in my Grandfather Clock. Palindromes are as much visual as they are numerical.)

What’s even more fascinating are mirror hours. 10:10. 11:11. 12:12. You see them, right? Well, if you don’t, from this point forward, you will. And when you do, you will sit up and take notice, just as I do.

Depending on the combinations and the frequencies, I tend to believe–as many people do–that palindromic numbers and mirror hours signal the presence of messenger angels. I do my best to be attentive to their messages, too, especially if I see the same number repeatedly in the course of a day. A few days ago, for example, I couldn’t escape 555. It was everywhere. I even saw it on my Fitbit. After doing a timed, 6-minute morning meditation, my Fitbit showed that the session fell 5 seconds short, coming in at 5:55 minutes. But I didn’t mind. 555 is an intriguing Angel number heralding adventure, change, liberation, and intensity. Bring it all on. I’m revved. I’m ready.

But this is neither the time nor the place for me to discuss my personal eccentricities. I would be lying if I told you that I don’t have any more, just as you would be lying if you told me that you weren’t dying to know what they are. Forget it. I’m not telling. (Well, maybe a double Martini–extra dry, up, with a twist of lemon–could encourage me to tell a thing or three. Maybe.)

Let’s see. Let me do my best to slip-and-slide my way back a little closer to the melting ice cube of my original intent: my eccentricities as a writer. It occurs to me that this might be the perfect place to thank one of my faithful followers who, after reading my “Living with a Writer,” commented: “You are a published author that continues to educate and amuse us on a weekly basis. I’m sure we would all love to know what your quirks and eccentricities are when it comes to writing?”

I hope that you love what you have read so far so much that you will continue reading to the end as I continue to put into full public view my writerly quirks.

My second eccentricity as a writer bears close kinship to the first. Unlike Edgar Allan Poe who needed to know the last line of what he was writing before he put his pen to page, I need to know the first line of what I’m writing before I touch the first letter on my smartphone. (Yes. I write my blog posts on my smart phone. See my “Spaces and Habits of Famous–and Not-so-Famous–Writers.”) Once I get that first line, the rest melts along all on its own.

My third eccentricity as a writer relates to the first two. With the first line that I write, I like to get a rhythm going, usually a slow and easy one. It’s the sort of rhythm that gospel singer Rev. F. C. Barnes gets going in his “He Was There Just in Time to Rescue Me.” He opens his rendition by saying, “You know. This song is kinda like me: slow. But ya’ll don’t mind, do you?” Then he continues by working the title line and one or two other lines, over and over and over again, for a soothingly rhythmic song stretching out for 8:18 minutes. It’s much the same thing that the Barrett Sisters do in their “Jesus Loves Me” as they milk the rhythm and richness of just three words for a commanding 5:15 minutes. It’s the same thing that Lucille Clifton does in her “won’t you celebrate with me” as she rocks us in a world that has tried to kill her every day but has failed. Those rhythms–and other similar ones–bounce around and around and around in my head and sometimes carry more meaning than the actual words that I spit out. Frost would call it the sound of sense. In my own writing, I am never quite sure what the rhythm is or whether I am achieving it. Often it is more felt than seen, but it pulls my thoughts forward and piles them, like little pillows one atop another, and I like to think that it has the soft sound of sense.

My next eccentricity as a writer–my fourth–is one that I outgrew a long time ago, but it has such quirky quirks that I will memorialize it here for the record.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s when I was working on my The Infant Sphinx: Collected Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, I drafted the general introduction and the introductions to each of the five sections in longhand.

But wait. It gets better.

I wrote them on a note pad. Not just any note pad. It had to be a yellow, legal notepad.

And it gets even better, if such be possible. I had to write using #2, yellow pencils. No erasers. Read on. Discover why.

If I made a mistake on a page, I could not erase. I could not scratch through and move on. I was compelled to rip out the blemished page and start over on a brand-new page, proving my mastery of ideas if not my mastery of time well spent.

I continued that approach to writing for a long, long time.

When PCs came along, however, I shifted with great joy because I discovered that I didn’t need to throw any of my drafts away. I could keep them all, simply by giving each a unique revision number. Keeping all of my drafts, I suppose, is my fifth eccentricity as a writer. I enjoy going back to see how an essay changed over time, from start to finish. More often than not, I will revise anything that I write a dozen or more times. (Let me add here that I love–absolutely love–preparing my posts in WordPress. It automatically tracks and keeps all the changes that I make for each and every post. Right now, for this post, WordPress has captured 22 revisions. I work hard for the money. Thank you very much.)

At this point, I have a huge decision to make. It involves an eccentricity that is personal, but it will have an impact on the writerly eccentricities that I do or do not share with you from this point forward. It, too, has to do with numbers. I do things in odd numbers only. For example, when I’m gardening, plants get planted as single plants or in groupings of 3, 5, 7, 9 and so on. I just don’t do even numbers. Right now, then, I have two choices, and choices are always good. I can stop my post here with five writing eccentricities. Or I can give you a sixth one and then be forced to end with a seventh.

Well, bless you, for shouting out that you want more. I am glad to continue, especially since 7 is one of my favorite numbers. Think about it for a minute. 7 Days. 7 Seas. 7 Brides. 7 Sisters. 7 Dwarfs. 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. And 7 Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Without further rhythmic delay, let’s start exploring my sixth eccentricity.

Those who know me, know that I do not like being told what to do (well, that’s generally true) especially when it comes to writing (and that’s always true). But I love telling others what to do, especially when it comes to writing. Here’s the backstory. It all started on a wordy, wordy day when I was a sophomore in high school. My teacher Anna Mae Collins would march into our classroom, always wearing prim and proper dresses that generally looked like a nurse’s uniform regardless of the color or the fabric. But that didn’t matter. Mrs. Collins loved the parts of speech and sentence diagramming, and since I loved both as well, I loved her all the more. For a typical writing assignment–given usually on a Friday–she would provide the topic and the word length for the essay. She had lots of topics–so many that I don’t remember any. But I remember that she loved essays that were 1,200 words long. More, she loved giving us a structural formula that we had to follow. Here’s how it might go. 9 paragraphs. 10 compound sentences. 6 compound-complex sentences. 4 complex sentences. 1 interrogative sentence. 1 exclamatory sentence. And 1 imperative sentence. We had to underline each of those various types of sentences and identify them in the margin.

We would work our proverbial little butts off all weekend. Well, that’s rather presumptuous of me, isn’t it? Let me revise that claim. I would work my proverbial little butt off all weekend. Ms. Collins would march into class on Monday. I’d be sitting right up front, all smiles because I had met all of her requirements, each and every one of them. I was pumped with pride. She would clomp up and down the aisles, collecting our essays one by one, sizing them up as she clomped.

With measured tread, she would advance to the front. “Class, I am fully confident that your essays are excellent. But you can make them better. Take them home tonight and cut out all the huff and puff and fluff. Watch out for those nasty prepositional phrases. Adjectives will work just as well. You must keep the content of your original essay. However, your revised essay can only be 700 words long. Exactly 700 words. Also, you must use the same formula that I gave you on Friday: 9 paragraphs. 10 compound sentences. 6 compound-complex sentences. 4 complex sentences. 1 interrogative sentence. 1 exclamatory sentence. And 1 imperative sentence.”

Folks. Folks. Folks. We’re talking the Dark Ages of the 1960s. We had to handwrite those essays on lined paper. We had to count the words, word by word. And here we were having to go home and do it all over again. The moans and groans were loud enough to be heard in the principal’s office which is precisely where Mrs. Collins would have marched us if we had challenged her assignment. The more often she gave us assignments like that, the more often I fell in love with Anna Mae because through her I fell in love with the power of revision, especially the powerful revision that takes place when writers have to follow precise guidelines, including word counts.

My sixth eccentricity as a writer, then, is my belief that less can be more. (I believe that everywhere, of course, except in my blog posts. For those, I fantasize that I am being paid by the word. For those, I fantasize that I have 1.41 million followers.)

It will come as no surprise, then, when I tell you that one of my favorite writing assignments for my students–in College Composition and in Creative Writing–is to have them write an essay that is exactly 500 words, excluding the title. Not 499. Not 501. Exactly 500. (Oh, my! I just had a wonderful idea. I can combine this quirk with my numbers quirk and change the length to exactly 555 words. It’s a done deal. Please do not tell prospective students who might have signed up for my classes this fall.)

Further, it will come as no surprise when I tell you that students never change. Mine moan and groan as much as my classmates did in 1963. Unlike them, however, my students come to class with their 500-word essays and thank me profusely. They truly do.

I’m not sure what just happened, but my sixth writerly eccentricity was remarkably longer than any of the previous ones.

I promise. My seventh will be shorter. Hopefully.

Anna Mae Collins was not my only English teacher who insisted on eliminating huff and puff and fluff through tight and rigorous revision.

In college, my freshman English professor Barbara Smith required us to analyze everything that we wrote using the Gunning Fog Index. It was developed by publisher Robert Gunning who theorized that people could not read because newspapers and periodicals encouraged writing that was far too complex. I was fascinated by the Fog Index and discovered readily that my 25-word sentences did nothing but hide the soul and spirit of my message. It was then that I started using smaller words and shorter sentences. 

The Fog Index is still used, but today our computers can measure the fog level for us automatically. MS Word calls it Readability Statistics. Those metrics provide a word count, a Readability Score, a Grade Level, and more.

Here’s my seventh and final eccentricity as a writer: I run Readability Statistics on everything that I write. What’s that? You want proof? Sure. Here are the stats for this post: Readability Score: 76.4%. (The higher the percentage, the easier the read.) Grade Level: 6.1. (The lower the grade level, the easier the read.) I’m pleased with those stats. Maybe I’m slightly puffed. Maybe I’m slightly full of it. But I simply must tell you that former Presidents Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln’s best prose have comparable Readability Statistics. I cannot think of better company.

Clearly, this post did not end up as one of my shortest. It may end up as one of my longest.

What can I say? Blame it on the ice. Blame it on the hot stove. Blame it on Robert Frost. Better still: thank my faithful reader who asked me to write about my writerly quirks and eccentricities.

Directions to the Magical Land of Ideas

My ideas usually come not at my desk writing but in the midst of living.

Anaïs Nin

Without doubt, I love all of the English classes that I teach, but my Creative Writing classes always tug a little tighter at my heartstrings. I think I know why. We write. We draft. We workshop. We revise. We share. We bond. Together.

Aside from valuing writers’ bond, I like writing with my students because I want them to see that seasoned writers struggle perhaps as much as fledgling writers. I want them to see that writing is work. No, I want them to see that writing is hard work. More, I want them to see that with lots and lots of mental lifting they can become agile writing gymnasts.

Here’s another reason why I like to write with my students. As an educator, I want to experience, as nearly as possible, what my students experience: coming up with a topic to meet someone else’s requirements; developing a draft; workshopping the draft with peers; revising the draft based on peer feedback and personal afterthoughts; and sharing with the class the woven words of heart, mind, and soul.

Also, as an educator I want to feel the pain of jumping through the same deadline hoops that “the good professor” imposes on his students. It’s a much-needed lesson in humility, one that I can experience every two weeks, since that’s the allotted timeframe for each writing assignment: drafting; workshopping; revising; and sharing. Spread over a 14-week semester, I am humbled seven times.

In the past, I’ve done my “writing-with-my-students” stint once or twice each semester, eventually bowing out as the semester progressed because of the full range of my professorial responsibilities, namely commitments to other classes. And that is true. Can any full-time professor be a full-time writer? I doubt it.

My students, generally, are full-time students with the full range of their own full-time student responsibilities, and yet I expect them to be full-time writers, too.

This semester I promised myself that I wouldn’t bow out of writing with my students. Actually, I established more rigorous requirements for me than for them. I decided to write and publish a blog post every week.

I did not make known my personal commitment. Nonetheless, week by week, I chatted with my students about my writing. I wanted them to know that I was writing and that I had my own self-imposed goals and Monday deadlines.

At the end of this semester, we celebrated and reflected on our growth and accomplishments as writers. During my reflections, I projected my blog so that the class could see it on the big screen. Several students follow the blog and others are regular visitors, so they knew already that I had published 24 posts this semester. But those completed posts weren’t at the heart of my sharing. Rather, I wanted to watch their faces when my 17 drafts–at various stages of completion–popped up on the screen.

When I finished, one of my students pinned me to the wall with a pointed question: “Where do you find those ideas?”

How do I answer a question like that? To answer assumes that I can provide directions–a map, if you will–to the magical land where ideas reside.

I wish that I could. Sadly, I can’t.

I’m not certain that I even understand what it means to “find” ideas. Where do I look? And how shall I begin? And how do I know when I’ve found one?

As for me, I don’t go around looking for writing ideas. However, I do go around listening to the world. My world. Inner. Outer.

When I listen–when I am attentive–ideas seem to “find” their way to me. This post is a good example. My student’s question captured my fancy: “Where do you find those ideas?” And in response to his question, I shared with the class a writing idea that found its way to me that very morning.

Its working title is “Growing Up More than Once.” While driving to campus, I had been thinking about Fall 2022 as my last semester of teaching. In the midst of my reverie, I had an insight. I’ve grown up three times. Once in the traditional way that we all grow up and launch our own lives. Next was growing up as a researcher and scholar at the University of South Carolina and the Library of Congress. Now I’ve grown up as an educator at Lord Fairfax Community College. And as this phase comes to an end, another phase will open, giving me an opportunity to grow up once more! I will share no more for now. Otherwise, I won’t have anything more to say when I get around to writing that post.

But here’s my point. I didn’t go looking for that idea.  Seemingly, the idea came looking for me. And as soon as it found me, I captured the tentative title and a barebones outline in a WordPress draft as soon as I walked into my office and turned on my computer. Some might call it journaling. But it’s not. I don’t journal. For me, it’s simpling listening. It’s being attentive. Then it’s taking the time to honor an idea that found its way to me.

The same thing holds true for this post. It found me during class when my student asked, “Where do you find those ideas?” Perhaps equally important, the question continued to abide with me as I drove home. Now here I am extending my answer to Morgan through this post. The idea found me; called for–no, demanded–exploration; and I’m honoring the call.

I’ve just shared how one idea found me while teaching and how another idea found me while driving. Other ideas find me when I least expect to be found. Biking, indoors and out. Listening to gospel music. Taking a shower. Pulling weeds in my garden.

For me, it seems that whenever I lose myself–whenever I’m doing something that takes me away from me–a door opens and an idea enters, hoping for home and for honor.

Those are the best directions that I can give to the magical land of ideas.

Get Behind Me, Satan– REVISITED

A memoir forces me to stop and remember carefully. It is an exercise in truth. In a memoir, I look at myself, my life, and the people I love the most in the mirror of the blank screen. In a memoir, feelings are more important than facts, and to write honestly, I have to confront my demons.

Isabel Allende (Chilean-American writer who calls her writing style “realistic literature, rooted in her remarkable upbringing and the mystical people and events that fueled her imagination.”)

I have always been a staunch practitioner of Robert Frost’s precept that “Talking is a hydrant in the yard and writing is a faucet upstairs in the house. Opening the first takes all the pressure off the second” (Letter to Sydney Cox, January 3, 1937).

That’s why I rarely share anything that I am writing with others until I am reasonably comfortable that my “draft” is fast approaching my “fair copy.”

But I would explode if I didn’t share teasing tidbits about what I’m writing with a select few along the way.

For example, when I was drafting “Get Behind Me, Satan,” I shared the basic idea with a friend, telling her that my goal was to create a funny, humorous post that would mention not only the way that my siblings and I dashed out the door as my mother rebuked the Devil, broom in hand, but also the way that the Flip Wilson Show in the early 1970s caught my mother’s comedic fancy. Whenever Geraldine did something wrong–and she loved misbehaving–her defense was always “The Devil made me do it.” My mother loved it. She made it clear that she did not want to be bothered when Flip Wilson was on TV.

When I finished the first draft of my post, I texted my friend:

“Well, good grief! I just finished a crummy draft of ‘Get Behind Me Satan,’ and it slid off in a direction that I did not see coming at all! Any deliberate humor is gone. Flip Wilson is gone. And I’m not sure what the post … IS. Well, it’s crummy. But, at least, I have a crummy draft calling me tomorrow night!”

She texted me back instanter:

“Maybe you have 2 posts in this: the one you set out to write and the one that happened. Can they be two with different messages?”

I replied enthusiastically:

“Hmmm…maybe so! I like that idea a lot! I may use it and NOT give you any credit OR maybe you will become my ‘Linden (VA) Correspondent.’ Oh! I’m liking this a lot! ‘Get Behind Me, Satan, REVISITED!’ Yep! This is a winner!

So now, dear readers, you have the first-hand backstory of the post that you are reading right now.

Obviously, since my Linden Correspondent paved the way for me to explain my initial plan for “Get Behind Me, Satan,” I’ll go right ahead and do so.

I’ve already mentioned that my siblings and I would dash outdoors when my mother started rebuking the Devil.

I’ve already mentioned how my mother fell in love with Flip Wilson and Geraldine.

What I haven’t shared, though, is something that I had intended to include in my initial post if it had not melted away in a different direction. Read on.

Who would have believed that after all these years–and just like my mother–I hold the Devil fully accountable for anything and everything in my life that’s negative.

As you know, especially if you read my post “Baking Up My Past,” I don’t suffer baking failures lightly, and, fortunately, those failures don’t happen often. But I have been known to toss a culinary dream right into the trash can, all the while rebuking the Devil with language not found in the King James Bible and not proper for this post. Nonetheless, the fervor of my rebuke is on par with my mother’s.

And if you remember my post “The Power of Consistency and Persistence,” you know that I take my biking even more seriously than I take my baking.

Without doubt, it’s when I’m biking that Satan tempts me the most. Just imagine. I’m on my bike doing my best to get into my daily routine, and almost always after about twenty minutes into it, I hear that voice:

“This is tough, no? Never gets easier, does it? Hey, give yourself a break. Why not quit for today? You’ve done enough already. Just stop.”

What a mell-of-a-hess that leaves me in, sitting there on my bike, Gospel music shaking the rafters, with that Devilish little voice doing its best: Stop. Hop. Off. Quit.

But it’s at that moment that my pedaling kicks into overdrive. I speed up from 20mph to 23mph, rebuking the Devil out loud, above the blaring Gospel music:

“Satan, you ole slew foot, you! You’d love for me to stop biking now. But I’ll show you who’s the master of this bike. With God’s help, I’ll bike the full sixty minutes, maybe more. So go. Leave me be!”

And for an extra punch, I pause just long enough to light up my Sage Smudge Stick to give my workout area another layer of cleansing purification.

At that point, my dog, Ruby, gives me her puzzled look, tucks her tail, and dashes off to safety, leaving me to fight my own battles.

My biking rebukes work well until the next day or so when inevitably the Devil returns to have another round with me!

So that’s the direction my initial draft was going, and it was moving along exactly as I had expected. That is, until my sister Audrey sent me my mother’s Dickson Bible, the one that included Through the Bible in Pictures. The Gustave Dore images were marvelous, especially the one of the Devil that was the most frightening thing I had ever seen as a child.

After I had looked at that well-worn Bible showing heart-wrenching evidence of my mother’s travels and travails, my next draft of “Get Behind Me, Satan” started to veer away from my intended humorous course.

Then, when I saw that the image of the Devil had been ripped from the lower quadrant of the page exactly where the Devil always stood with his pitchfork and his long serpent tail, waiting for my return visits as a child, it veered further still.

Needless to say when I realized that I must have been the one who destroyed the image as my guileless way of rebuking Satan once and for all, the draft veered into its own and claimed itself, triumphantly.

It became what it was supposed to be.

It became a reflection that captured the simple truth as I recalled it rather than a jazzed-up post aimed at entertaining readers.

If my mother were here, she would look at me, smile, and remind me of what she taught me all along, “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

Touching Lives through Giving

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

Sir Winston Churchill

As a student and as a professor, I have learned some of my best life-lessons through classroom repartee—those lively, light-hearted and spontaneous exchanges that give way to intellectual magic.

As this season of celebrating and gifting winds down and as the year 2021 that gave us all fantods comes to a thankful end, I am reminded of one those magically powerful exchanges from long, long ago. However, its initial significance has been outdistanced by its long-range influence: perpetual mind food (more accurately, soul food) given freely (perhaps, unknowingly). It matters little or not at all whether it was intended for mind or soul. It matters little or not at all whether it was given deliberately or unknowingly. I have savored it and relished it down through the years.

I was a 25-year-old graduate student in an American Literature class at the University of South Carolina. One of the short stories that the late Professor Joel Myerson gave us to read was “Life Everlastin’” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.

I knew that I had better know all the intricacies of the story before going to class. It was, after all, a graduate class. Equally important, the class was so small that we met in a small conference room and sat around a small oval conference table, with Professor Myerson charismatically leading us. Youthful (only several years older than I and the rest of the class), energetic, and intellectually stimulating, he inspired us to come to class prepared to engage in stimulating conversations, demonstrating our abilities to analyze literary works. Professor Myerson was a Formalist and a Textual Bibliographer. Nothing mattered but the literary work itself. Nothing mattered but the text. Without doubt, I needed to give that story my best.

I had been introduced to Freeman the semester before when another professor gave us some of her stories to read, and I had fallen in love with her fiction. Having to read her “Life Everlastin'” was a joy for me.

I read the story initially, and I gave it a second reading, and I am confident that I gave it yet a third reading. Professor Myerson loved giving literary works a close reading. So did I.

I wondered what take he would give the story.

Would he give it a close reading based on the story’s accurate depiction of New England village life?

Would he give it a close reading focusing on the sharp character delineations of the two diametrically opposite sisters? Maybe Mrs. Ansel who is totally preoccupied with being fitted for a new bonnet: “She was always pleased and satisfied with anything that was her own, and possession was to her the law of beauty.”

Maybe her spinster, non-churchgoing sister, Luella Norcross, who was always giving to others, who was always going “somewheres after life-everlastin’ blossoms. … If she was not in full orthodox favor among the respectable part of the town, her fame was bright among the poor and maybe lawless element, whom she befriended.”

Would he take the conversation up a notch or three by pitting seemingly shallow churchgoers (e. g. Mrs. Ansel) against those of seemingly deeper convictions (e. g. Luella Norcross) who stayed home and foraged the fields in search of life everlasting blossoms to give away, much in the same spirit of Emily Dickinson’s “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church”? Or would he perhaps compare Mrs. Ansel’s apparent lack of religious depth to E. E. Cummings’ poem “the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls”?

Or might he go even deeper and explore the story as a subtle indictment of religion similar to the charge that Mark Twain gave organized religion in his “Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Who does not recall the fact that Dan’l, the frog, was so full of quail-shot that he when he went to hop, “he couldn’t budge: he was planted as solid as a church and he couldn’t no more stir than if he was anchored out.” 

And, without doubt, Professor Myerson had to give the backbone of the story lots of attention: Luella’s discovery of two murdered neighbors; her discovery that the alleged murderer (John Gleason) was holed up in a vacant house next to her home; her realization that she had to give him up to the law; and her dramatic decision that she had to give in to her faith: “I don’t see any other way out of it for John Gleason!”

I went to class fully prepared to give my own two cents worth on any or all of those angles.

Indeed, we gave all of them lively pursuits, all that is save one. We did NOT discuss what seemed to me to be the very essence of the story: life everlasting.

I was stunned. No. I was surprised. I suspected that it was with deliberate intent that Professor Myerson did not take the conversation in the direction of the story’s obvious eschatological meaning: the destiny of the soul and of humankind after death. I knew that he wanted us to think about—and talk about—that aspect of the story independently without giving us any coaching.

Silence fell over the class.

There I sat, feeling that we had an obligation to move toward the eschatological and that he had an obligation to take us there. I gave a question that broke the silence.  

“So, Professor Myerson, what exactly IS life everlasting?” I was hoping that the question I gave him would make him squirm.

But he had the upper hand and knew precisely how to make me squirm. An expert in the Socratic method, he gave the question right back to me. “What do YOU think it is, Brent?” 

Aha! The chance for repartee had arrived! I gave in to the moment. I seized it. 

I looked him square in the eye, with an ever-so-innocent look, as I gave him nothing more than the straight botanical definition—a flowering plant in the mint family, noted for its healing, medicinal properties. Then I rambled on about Luella’s inclusion of life-everlasting in the pillows that she made and gave to help neighbors, especially those who were asthmatic.  

I could tell that Professor Myerson was on to me. I was known for this sort of academic maneuvering, and he was not amused. He gave me his over-the-glasses look that he was so skilled in giving. 

I waited to see what he would say—he always said something whenever he gave that look—but we both had to give up for the time being. Class ended.

But Professor Myerson always had a way of getting his way, in one way or another. This time would be no exception. A few days later he stopped me in the hall. With a twinkle in his eyes, he gave me an offprint of one of his articles that had been published in a scholarly magazine. On the front, he had written:

Brent,

This is life everlasting.

Joel Myerson

“What does THAT mean?” I pondered, as I walked away. I confess, however, to no small degree of jealousy. At that point in my life, I was unpublished. Nothing had appeared in print under my name.  But here was Professor Myerson—already a well-known, published scholar, albeit a young one—giving me an inscribed, offprint of his most recent scholarly article.

I had to give this gift more thought.

Did he realize the full impact of his gift?

Or was he a young professor giving me the selfsame banter that I had given him in class?

Or was his gift more serious? Was he giving me another way to look at life everlasting—perhaps different from the traditional eschatological view? Was he suggesting that we live on forever through what we share with others, especially ideas that are immortalized in print? Maybe so. After all, some cultures believe that we live as long as our name is spoken. If that was his intent, he succeeded. Here I am blogging about him, nearly fifty years later. Here I am placing his name in public view, albeit this time under my own name. Whoever reads this blog post will speak his name, even if silently. They may even share my story with others. Professor Myerson continues to live. 

His inscribed offprint had an immediate impact. It gave me some extra encouragement not only to finish my doctoral degree in American Literature but also to publish my own scholarly articles and books. I wanted to give my ideas away to others through the printed word. When that happened for the first time, I was thrilled, and the high that I experience now through being published is as high as it was then.

But here’s the greater truth. His gift touched my soul perhaps more than it touched my mind. It kept me mindful that as human beings we all have needs—immediate and long-range.

It kept me mindful that the needs are great, always and in all ways. In fact, during these pandemic years, the needs are daunting. No. They are staggering. 

Fortunately, for us and for others, the ways that we can touch lives through giving— whatever it is that we have within ourselves to give—are countless. 

We can give our ideas.

We can give our talents

We can give our time.

We can give our purse.

We can give our love.

We can give ourselves—mind, body, and soul

Our gifts need not be large. Our gifts need not be given with any expectation of ever knowing how much they touch others’ lives or of how much they impact others’ lives. This much, though, we do know about giving. It connects us to one another. It binds us to one another. It makes us aware of our relatedness to one another. 

Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, when we touch others’ lives by giving freely of ourselves—without any expectation of receiving anything in return—we might be edging our way, even if unawares, closer and closer and closer toward the very essence of life everlasting.