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barton cole :: veni, vedi, vero scripsi
Sunday, January 10, 2010
Writing is a hostile art.
It would seem passive, since one doesn't have to break out sharp tools to shape wood, or heat glass until it's molten - no, just think of the right verbs and put them in sentences, and write them down. The only work is in the writing - pen scratching (hopefully smoothly! I take pens from stores when signing a check, if they scrawl smoothly), or keys being tapped…
And yet it's the thinking that's the anguish. At least, for me it is. I do it compulsively, banging away at a machine, trying to report whatever is the present topic. I get up in the morning, make coffee, feed the birds, let the cat in or out, and write at least a thousand words, every day. Most days, I'm comfortably over fifteen-hundred words. Lately, over two thousand a day. Writing about this and that, reporting the mundane events (I can look up how frequently I bought bird seed from my copious notes, going back some years, now), or delving into some concept that strikes my fancy, like an intellectual magpie.
But thinking of the words, whatever the compulsion to sit down might be, is the hard work. Just now, between paragraphs, I found myself walking around the machine (presently working on a laptop), looking at it, waiting for some sign of animation, some new reason to engage with it. Apparently, I found one, as I'm sitting here typing this, but it's like trying to dance with a cadaver.
You look for some sign, some twitch of recognition and invitation, some sign of liveliness, but at the end of it, you're going to have to do all the work. So you tentatively lift a lifeless hand, the fingernails grayish-blue, and cup it as the foxtrot teacher told you. Rigor mortis has passed, the fingers are nearly supple.
If you breathe just right, and pretend, you can take this lifeless mass and put glow in the cheeks, and feel warmish breath, and step around the room with it, and sit down and bang out a few hundred words, and maybe keep as much as half?
That's compulsive typing; I often won't call it writing, since the least I can say is that I typed, and there's the word count to prove it.
I could have learned how to type in school, but that was a course that was off-limits to boys, if unofficially. Typing, prior to the computer age, was a skill only required by stenographers (and okay, journalists and writers, but I didn't know I was going to be devoted to that), which was a job held only by women, as nursing seemed to be, even merely a few years ago. Bookkeeping was acceptable for boys to take, but the typing class was filled nearly exclusively by girls.
I ought to have seen further ahead - I had determined, when I was a boy, that I wanted to grow up and be a writer. My mother was a writer, yet died young, so I intended to somehow fulfill her legacy. It never occurred to me that to write, you just have to start writing, like crossing a mountain range. You just keep walking. But I didn't learn how to type when I was in school; if I had, maybe everything would have been different.
In my youth, I wrote, but longhand, and would soon tire of it. I remember one extended effort, that lasted for some months, in which I wrote about a thousand words a day, longhand, in the morning (as I do now) and in the evening. I still have the notebook; it's comical to read that stuff from long ago.
I'd get frustrated, though, and stop writing. For one, my hand couldn't keep up with my mind, so it would take too long to get to the delicious, juicy end of the paragraph I had just imagined, if I had to fill in the preceding blanks. And for another, the tedium of writing longhand would wear me out. My hand would get sore.
In my mid-twenties, I was briefly unemployed. Something snapped, and I brought home a typing course book from the library, got out my grandmother's old Smith Corona from the 50s (still had an unfinished letter from then in the carriage; one of my uncles had given it to her to foster more letters - apparently, she didn't like to type).
Every day, for three weeks, typing from that book was about all I did, other than sleeping and eating. Bangity-bang, all the exercises, over and over and over, and at the end of it, I was doing an almost-solid forty words a minutes, with one error or two.
And I began to be able to keep up with my mind, and I writing improved (you'll have to take my word for it; I'm developing a website that will archive all the writing I have in a digital format - all of it that's publishable, so hundreds of poems and essays - eventually, I'll accrue an amanuensis, and all the other stuff will find its way to a forum).
Years later, having earned some money by typing, and having had some stuff published (however modest the publication), I have developed the habit. When I eventually had a computer of my own, I typed whenever I felt I had the chance, which wasn't often or disciplined enough.
But 2004 rolled around, and I decided I would write every day. At first, I had to remind myself, but soon, I fell into a stride.
I pledged to adhere to a simple rule: when it was time to type, I would sit down and type, and if I couldn't think of anything to write about, that was what I would write.
I would incorporate some thing I had witnessed in my frequent time outside, and a format developed. Most of my life is chronicled since then, but I have also used the same file as a source of raw material, like a cornstalk holding up a fat cob.
So that daily file in which I type, which gets partitioned off into chunks in a directory as I go through the seasons, grows and grows. Lately, it's up to close to three million words for the last six years (and consigned to a repository in Indiana, in the hands of a literary executor - to be published, or not, in event of my death and at his discretion - some juicy stuff in there!).
I consider them my notes, so I'm really the most compulsive notetaker I know.
And when I sat down to write this, I didn't know where I was going, but gradually found out as I went, so thanks for taking the same risk I did (although comfortably easier; good for you).
Sunday, January 03, 2010
[note: not all facts are checked, not all images are formatted and uploaded, but the bones of the story are here... all images but Whitman portrait © 2009 Drew Kampion]
My good friend, Drew Kampion, has been sending out Walt Whitman poems every Tuesday for the last year, a practice instituted on the day of the election of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth president of the United States of America.
His selections are pertinent to the times, and have prompted many on his extensive list to explore what the guy had to say, me among them.
I recall studying O Captain! My Captain! (Whitman on the death of Lincoln, which affected him profoundly) in school, but other than that, my exposure was pretty meager.
Along came Drew, though, lighting the Walt Whitman fire.
I don’t know what sort of reaction he was getting with his posts of Whitman’s poetry. I, for one, appreciated it – I have a number of correspondents who are poets, and many who send out poems, which I always enjoy, and sometimes to which I respond.
Also, it was interesting to see Drew’s selections of poems, and their relevance (or not) to our times; or, at least, Drew’s interpretation of it.
Drew has often been out in front in his time on Whidbey Island. He came here in the early nineties (as did I), and soon, established the Island Independent, an alternative newspaper, distributed around our archipelago fortnightly.
[open note to you compulsively-researching Wikipedia editors: why don’t you guys put together a page about Drew Kampion, and one about the Island Independent?]
It was really a great paper, featuring some excellent journalism, and interesting regular features (including, after a couple of years, my food column). A beloved newspaper, for which some still pine.
One of his correspondents, Kim Hoelting, is also a devotee of Walt Whitman. Kim lives out in the Maxwelton Valley, on the southern end of South Whidbey Island, next to a huge, old school, built just over a hundred years ago from native softwood (old-growth douglas fir), and standing strong. Kim uses the hall as his showroom for his imposing lumber selection, which includes book-matched douglas fir planks about three inches thick, three feet wide, and sixteen feet long, and some douglas fir two-by-twentyfours, about twenty feet long, and other large pieces of western red cedar, sitka spruce, Alaska yellow cedar, redwood, maple, you name it.
As I understand it, Kim became a salvage logger after having spent some years as a fisherman in Alaska (Bristol Bay Gillnetters, I think, or maybe a seiner or troller). On his way south, coming down the Inside Passage (relatively sheltered water among the northern end of the extensive archipelago, of which my island is the southernmost), he’d see huge logs on the beach, and began towing them home and milling them up and selling the boards. Often, driftwood, as his supply generally was, are old logs that are completely rot resistant – from natural attributes, and from being in salt water.
Kim began to deal in these specialty planks, and now, does that as his trade. He’s also a construction contractor, having participated in a renovation of the Paradise Inn at Tahoma (known as “Mount Rainier” to the yokels), installing huge Alaska cedar logs along the snow-shedding eaves, low to the ground below a high, steep roof.
Drew and Kim began to talk about working their way through Whitman’s work – which is entirely published in the perpetually-edited Leaves of Grass, deathbed edition, 1892. They had thought about meeting once a week, and continuing until they had exhausted the book, but then came the idea of reading the whole thing in one marathon go.
According to the statistic I saw recently published, the whole work would take about twenty-one hours to read; Drew and Kim made their own calculations (essentially 1.5 minutes per page, having timed various readings with a stopwatch), and determined that the whole thing would take twenty-four hours, one day between sunsets.
They selected a date (I hadn’t thought to ask if it were significant): 28-29 December 2009, beginning at 16:24, the time of local sunset (here in GMT-8 time).
Right on the heels of Christmas, which had me so engaged I hadn’t given his reading a thought, other than to check in when he was looking for recruits to read, and asked for a graveyard shift. I thought I would enjoy that most; I have abundant performing experience, particularly with spoken word, but the idea of not having an audience was appealing – as is my dream of hearing crickets when I get a curtain call, like Daffy Duck would).
Suddenly, it was the day before the event. I had just made arrangements to work in america at my Dad’s house, whipping his garden into shape, and would be leaving for the ferry soon after the reading ended, which felt to me like it was best that I was going to read late at night and early in the morning the night before. I intended to spend the night at my dad’s and commence the garden work the next day, so being short on sleep shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Not only that, but I am as stalwart a campaigner as they come, having slept folded up in the seat of a Fiat to be out of the rain at a trailhead in the Olympic Rainforest, and then hiked twenty miles the next day with a load. Come on, my motto – one of them – is podestis me impedere, sed non me sistere.
"You may be able to hinder me, but you are unable to stop me.”
I checked in with Drew’s email-published schedule (an ambitious piece of work – I have organized poetry festivals, and it’s hard to arrange the timetable), and sure enough, I wa on late.
When I got there, around 11:00 at night, it was well dark, the room dimly lit, and just a few were there. They were nearly two hundred pages into a 455 page book; some hours to go, yet. About a third of the way done.
I hung around until 3:00; I read a bit, I listened a lot.
The book was the culmination of Whitman’s work; originally published in 1855 with a mere twelve poems, it eventually, by the last edition in 1892, featured over four hundred poems, and included the entirety of his published poetry.
The Civil War had a great impact on the nation, and particularly on Walt Whitman. When I left the reading in the middle of the night, they were about to hit the patch of Civil War poems, but I had to go home and sleep, since I needed to get up in a few hours to go off and work.
As tired as I was, I got home just fine; the weather was around freezing, and the roads were a bit icy, but there hadn’t been any precipitation, so they weren’t so bad.
After a mere three hours of sleep, I was up and at it again; I did my morning routine and went off to work for a while.
Around noon, I decided I was too tired to keep working, so I headed back to the reading. They were around page 385; merely seventy pages to go.
Drew and Kim were bleary; Kim’s brother, Kurt, had slept in a sleeping bag laid on a huge plank and piece of foam, so he was fresher than Drew or Kim, but not by much.
Compared to them, I was fresh as a daisy – but still not that fresh; I was quite tired.
I got inserted into the mix of readers – there were about twelve people there, and it was getting down to the end.
With thirty pages to go, Drew halted the proceedings to announce that, and to parcel out the remaining works, so that the ship came into port not by blowing there, but with intention.
I took on a few poems, and was flattered that Kim anointed me to read the last poem, Goodbye, My Fancy.
Whitman suffered a paralytic stroke around 1874; he spent the last eighteen years of his life expecting to die, so much of his poetry from then has an air of finality, and saying goodbye. But not as much as the last.
I read that last poem, and stepped away from the podium. I thought about closing the book, as an act of finality and completion, but left if open, as works of art such as that should remain available for deployment, like an alert fireman.
Silence, for a few minutes.
And then Kim spoke, talking about what a meaningful event it was.
The book from which we read had belonged to Kim’s father-in-law, who died during a marathon reading of it; do you suppose that might have contributed to the power of the event?
People began moving around, and leaving; the twenty-four hours had passed. There was mostly silence. Every word had been spoken aloud; the wooden building would remember it, always.
GOOD-BYE my Fancy!
Farewell dear mate, dear love!
I'm going away, I know not where,
Or to what fortune, or whether I may ever see you again,
So Good-bye my Fancy.
Now for my last - let me look back a moment;
The slower fainter ticking of the clock is in me,
Exit, nightfall, and soon the heart-thud stopping.
Long have we lived, joy'd, caress'd together;
Delightful! - now separation - Good-bye my Fancy.
Yet let me not be too hasty,
Long indeed have we lived, slept, filter'd, become really blended
Then if we die we die together, (yes, we'll remain one,)
If we go anywhere we'll go together to meet what happens,
May-be we'll be better off and blither, and learn something,
May-be it is yourself now really ushering me to the true songs, (who
May-be it is you the mortal knob really undoing, turning-so now
Good-bye-and hail! my Fancy.