PRACTICE AS A PLACE IN THE UNIVERSE

As I said at the time:

Along the way, the “creative process” is a phrase I’ve come to detest. “Poetic” is another, especially when applied to another art. Whatever “creative” really means or as though the resulting work always occurs in a given sequence. Perhaps “artistic problem-solving” or “artistic exploration” comes closer, except that “artistic” still carries too much excess baggage.

“Process” sounds too much like ritual for my taste. Or a formula, “If you add L to M you’ll end up with an original poem.” Which sounds too much like a dogma or a creed to recite. Like a corridor through a shopping mall. Like a secret code to be disclosed, a joke to be retold in some variation.

For universities, “creative process” can even be seen as the teaching of mistrust and technique. “Absolute skepticism is one of the powers,” Richard Foster writes in Money, Sex & Power. “Absolute skepticism is so pervasive a belief in university life today that it must be considered a spiritual power hostile to an honest search for truth. The task of a university is to pursue truth – all truth – and yet precisely the reverse is happening today.” Creation, however, requires a foundation. Affirmation – a critical embrace of what remains holy. However we want to define that.

In the periodicals, the accepted pieces are typically of a certain length and idiom – that is, they are those lacking the obvious signs of amateurism; they’re idiomatically correct. But do they say anything meaningful, especially to the general reader, much less the populace? Do they speak to others’ conditions? I sense not: at least, seldom my own. (Leading to literary journals read by exclusively by other poets or short story writers, a particularly ticklish incest.)

Meanwhile, when I look at Japanese and Chinese art, the Zen/Chan work jumps out in its freshness from the well-schooled stream of traditional art. Thus, with poetry or musical performance that knows living silence: a whole higher dimension. Necessity for revolution here: transformation. Transfiguration. Transcendence. Transparency, too. On into unending depth.

When I first set forth, I believed to be truly creative, something had to spring out of nowhere – a bolt of lightning accompanying work thoroughly unlike anything before it. Similarly, my girlfriend at the time thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had a language all our own?” One unlike anything before it. Slowly, however, I realized how difficult it is to understand what’s said and written in an existing language, with all of its nuances and roots waiting to be fathomed. The fact is, creative acts happen through building on existing tradition, evolving at the edges and frontiers. The artist or scientist or inventor or entrepreneur is indebted to all who have come earlier, and is responsible as well for those who will follow.

Often see those who start out are filled with an experience/awareness they want to share but cannot because of deficiencies in technique. By the time they master technique, they’ve lost the freshness. Yet I most admire those who have acquired technique the hard way: hands-on, original, primitive, perhaps without any of the accepted shortcuts.

~*~

The term I’ve come to love, by the way, is “practice.” The way a doctor or lawyer practices. Or even a football team or a choir. It’s never really done. It’s just a way of living.

THE IMAGE, AFTER ALL, OF A WRITER

As I said at the time:

I suppose every writer will have had an image of what an acclaimed author would look like. Maybe the impression comes down through a tour of one of those great hushed houses of history – Longfellow or Twain or Whittier or James Whitcomb Riley come to mind. Hemingway’s Key West, as well. Or from the book jacket portraits or a magazine interview or critiques. Then there are the novels and movies themselves about literary struggle and the inevitable success. So much for the myth – and myth it is, with the superhuman vision and divine blessing accompanied by the Guide’s intervention and the visitors’ awe. And just where does each of us place ourselves in its manifestations?

My own expectations have changed greatly. When I set forth from college, I still envisioned an urban life – a stylish high-rise or a federal era townhouse or a loft in some variation of Greenwich Village – accompanied by a suitable social circle. Or life in a quaint college town, as an alternative. Within a few years, though, I was willing to swap for a rambling farmhouse in the mountains or on a lake, with my studio set out on a ridge. Shades of Kesey and Kerouac, of course. All the while, however, I was employed full-time and trying to work in serious writing in my off-hours – the evenings and weekends while my colleagues were raising children, picking up overtime (“OT”) to buy the house and car of their dreams, going off to professional ballgames and rock concerts. My frugal sabbatical year changed the vision, and publication of my first novel delivered a hardened sense of reality. Now I realized how many writers with a string of books to their credit still drew their main paycheck elsewhere. When they met for lunch, the discussion was likely centered on mortgages, medical problems, and mutual friends rather than literature. I could still hope that a breakout novel might free me from the newsroom, but there was no guarantee it would suffice. There had to be a crack in the wall, of course, someplace, if I could only find it and break through. None of this has lessened the compulsion to write; if anything, that has intensified as I turned away from the management track and, thanks to Newspaper Guild union membership, could afford to live a modest life away from the basic hours at the office. (No more sixty- and seventy-hour workweeks.)

Now I imagine it intensified in official retirement. At the moment, I do not sense another novel in the works – not with seven or eight still awaiting a publisher, in addition to the volumes of Quaker history and spirituality, the genealogies, and the poems. So there is plenty of revision to do, plus correspondence and submissions. Perhaps there will finally be time to attend conferences and workshops, to travel, to give readings. I see it continuing where I am, in Dover, where I’ve established friends and community. Maybe the loft of the barn will be finished into a year-round space, as I’ve longed dreamed, but even that’s not necessary; now that I can access it via attic stairs, it serves nicely as a three-session rustic retreat with room to spread out papers and manuscripts. Besides, as long as the children are gone, there’s a bit more room in the house.

What has changed is that successful author has become simply an active writer.

~*~

And to that let me add, Thank God for Smashwords! As well as WordPress!

 

AFRICAN VIOLET

Simply lovely.
Simply lovely.

Can’t see an African violet in bloom without thinking of the calm reading room at the Lilly Library in Bloomington, Indiana. You had to be buzzed in from the museum displays, and the difference in air pressure was noticeable. And there, in the midst of some of the rarest books and broadsides ever printed, a librarian kept potted violets on the thick sills of its windows.

At the time, I was reading a lot of Samuel Johnson in the original. Pinpricks, coffee stains, and all.

STUFFED TO THE GILLS, BUT WHERE?

After moving to the house – and taking up a family – I began facing a profound mystery. Possessions would simply disappear. It wasn’t like my bachelor days, when things returned to their proper places. And it wasn’t always little stuff, either, meaning we couldn’t always suspect the kids.

While I obviously fretted, my wife took the calmer “it will turn up eventually” approach, which occasionally actually worked.

It didn’t take long for me to conclude that we have another room in the house – I know it’s not in the barn – one we haven’t yet located. And I’m certain that’s where all of our missing objects have gone, just waiting to be rediscovered. It has to be quite large, centrally located behind a wall or two. Or maybe even between floors.

There’s one more thing I’m certain of – it will be stuffed to the gills.

My wife has finally agreed with me. And she promises me the room will turn up eventually.

Now, where did I put my glasses?

JUST PAGES APART

As I said at the time …

For me, writing means watching my own shifting mind while opening myself up to all the living energies around me. It means simplifying, following unexpected leadings and openings, sometimes to dead ends, other times to unanticipated ranges. Some time ago I discovered that to write poetry I had to be sitting in meditation every day. And later, I found once a week would suffice.

If ego is an ever present trap, the practice can introduce repeated humbling. As do the rejection slips.

Detachment: who wrote that! And when? (The surprise of rediscovering your own work five or ten years later. Who wrote that, it is so incredibly fine! Or: Who wrote that piece of tripe? I’m glad it never saw publication. Sometimes only pages apart.)

And then the piece goes its own way: a living organism: readers, editors see it differently from you. What you would cut they love. What you love they see as sore thumb.

What we’re most fond of is likely to be what bothers others the most; what we’re about to toss out in the next revision may be what is most effective with our readers. (Point raised, I believe, by Joyce Carol Oates; true to my experience.)

As critics of others’ work: harshest, at times, on those whose work is most like our own! Too much mirror? Push ourselves as far as we can, coming to a point where we no longer know if a piece is any good or not only that we’ve done everything in its pursuit that we possibly can at this period in our life.

Prophetic practice: light in the wilderness.

The dilemma of arts/responsibility/spirituality brought into focus by looking at something like the Florentine court of the Medici: High Art interwound with brutal political/economic force. (Throw the man out the fourth floor window; nowadays, we have helicopters. How exquisite.)

The dilemma of the news photographer: Should I save the victim and lose the opportunity of taking a great photograph? Or should I be “professional” and observe the world as an outsider? This holds for all artists: at one point are we being selfish in our pursuits? At what point is our solitude essential for the well being of all?

Into solitude / the Silence / the Holy Now, as Thomas Kelley phrased it.

At its core, I write to discover / remember / connect / distill.

In my writing I collect – that is, bring myself back together. More and more, I think on paper. I write to find what is under the words and phrases before me. Go deeper, and then wider. I write to listen. Eventually, I write to sing.

DISTANT DRUMS GROWING CLOSER

High among my regrets in this zigzag life of mine is the number of friends who have slipped away along the journey. I started to add “lovers,” but will hedge for a moment, given all of the complications.

Unlike my parents’ generation, mine has exhibited a tendency to let the connections go once we’re no longer in physical proximity. We don’t exchange Christmas cards the way they did. And we don’t visit much in our travels.

I think we’ve simply been too swamped trying to stay afloat in busy schedules, and while it’s possible I’m in an aberrant corner of the baby boomer phenomenon, when I ask around, no one argues to the contrary.

The one exception might be those individuals who serve as “switchboards” connecting social circles, the ones who know the news about everybody, those unique folks you easily confide in, for that matter, or at least easily reveal much more than you’d intend. In my Hippie Trails novels they show up as characters like Tate in the dorm or Nita in the newsroom. But they’re rare, and now that I’m retired from the office, I’m far from the last one of my active acquaintance.

Yes, it is hard to keep up.

~*~

One factor might be simply that guys, as a rule, rarely correspond. More often than not, it’s been their wives who’ve kept me informed – the ones I’ve yet to meet, in many cases, if we’re still exchanging holiday greetings. And that’s before the reality of divorce.

As I’ve also found, attempts to resume contact after a long hiatus can be problematic. Usually, only silence has followed or, in one case, a polite but all too curt update.

Quite simply, we’ve all gone our separate ways.

Admittedly, working in the newspaper trade did little to enhance this. It’s a field with high turnover, at least in the entry-level operations where many of us served in our younger years – the time most prone to socializing together. But the hours are typically nights and weekends, and few anymore would retreat to a nearby bar till closing, as we did during my first internship. Besides, in my last newsroom, closing hour had already arrived before we clocked out and the intensified drunk-driving crackdown dimmed any desire to stop on the way home.

That last newsroom really split into three working circles that rarely interacted anyway – the Sunday paper, where I devoted most of my career, dayside, and nightside. Few of us lived in the same city as the office, either, so once our shift was over, we fanned out across the state for home – well, some split across a state line to the south or east, as well. There was little to link our “outside” activities and families to theirs, despite some attempts such as minor-league baseball outings or a picnic. Mostly, we were pulled along our private byways.

~*~

Looking at my broader life, I’ve known some incredibly talented people and wonder from time to time how they’ve fared. (The kinds I’ve sketched in my Hometown News novel, for that matter.) Many, as I sense, have wound up performing in the small, out-of-the-way places where they’ve settled – something occasionally confirmed in a successful Google search. Or I keep reflecting on a comment a poet repeated the other night, someone born the same year as me – “I never achieved the great things that were expected of me,” even “I failed to accomplish” – something I suspect is very common among those of us born this side of the crest in the baby boom wave. Those just a year or two ahead had that much of an edge in the job openings, especially when it came to university tenure track.

Still, once in a while some jarring bit of news breaks through.

The latest reports the fatal heart attack on Thanksgiving Eve that claimed a photojournalism guru who was at the edge of one of those circles. I knew him through Marcy, the amazing shooter we’d hired at the small newspaper where I was the No. 2 guy in a staff of eight full-timers trying to cover sections of five counties – an operation so tight we didn’t even have access to live wire photos. We were forced to be resourceful (or else mediocre), and some of my proudest work comes from that shoestring venture – especially the projects with Marcy.

Given the long hours and very low pay, it couldn’t last forever. For those of us who were the hired guns from outside, the clock was always ticking – it was only a matter of time before moving on, hopefully out of our own initiative. In this instance, Marcy and Larry married shortly after I’d swept up my own young bride, and as a young couple, they soon shot off to new adventures to the east while my wife and all of our possessions trucked southwest and later northwest.

Larry, as you may have guessed, was the photo guru. In our few encounters, he always loomed larger than life as he overflowed with ideas and energy and, especially, an outrageous glow of humor. He went on, as his obituary confirms, to build a storybook professional resume of management-level success that included the National Geographic and a handful of big-city, big-name newspapers before easing on into college teaching, at least until he was embroiled in a scandal.

Newsroom management, I might add, has always been a tightrope walking act. I’ve seen some very good leaders who were shaken from their heights and simply could never quite get back into the business – they’d gone too far up to go back in the ranks but not far enough up to move from one disaster to the next, as the top level seemed to do.

His wife – and later, former wife – was one of the two photojournalists who have long set the very high standard I apply in editing news pictures, and I’ve often said I’ve worked with some of the best in the business. Her images always had a signature warmth and vision, even before we evaluate her impeccably flawless lab work. But I lost track of her career, picking up only mention that she, too, had gone on to college teaching – something I know she must do well. Somehow I missed that she’d shared in a Pulitzer Prize and now, as I look that up, I see the years she covered the White House for the Associated Press and more. There’s her portrait of five living presidents together or Bill and Hillary with the pope or Socks the cat atop a White House lectern. Yeah, she done good – real good. As I said all along, she’s the best. (Well, with one – just one – exception, who I came across thanks to her reference. But that’s another long story.)

What I didn’t remember – or perhaps even know – was how much Larry fit into that little paper where I’d worked. He was born within its circulation area and became its photographer at the beginning of his career – the same job his future wife would fill. His degree was from the state university at the other edge of our coverage.

What keeps coming back to me is the fact he was only a year older than I am. He always seemed to be, well, that looming presence up the ladder. The one landing in places I might aspire to. One well ahead of me, the way a guide would be.

There were a few close shots at that leap – near misses – but they rarely linger on my list of regrets. If anything, in retrospect, I feel blessed I was instead enabled to reclaim my own life by putting in the required work hours and then going home, where I could live and love and worship and pursue my own literary practices.

I am puzzled that this distant news hits me more than the deaths of a half-dozen colleagues of my generation from my last newsroom did – cancer, diabetes, heart-attack, perhaps even suicide. But I also acknowledge a circle of dear friends facing long-term, but ultimately fatal, diagnoses as well as others who have already had close calls, plus a few others who have passed on – or passed over, in the old Quaker term. Natural mortality is circling in, after all, and there’s no escaping. I’m aging.

So here I am with some glorious wedding photos – taken a day after the ceremony by a Pulitzer Prize winner. The ones that stay in the filing cabinet, given my own eventual divorce. Not just because of the wild polyester suit I wore for the occasion. Historic documentation, as I’m reminded.

And all of that’s flooding back now. Even without the novels.

A LITTLE HOLY CONFESSION

Coming, as most of us modern Quakers do, from other faith traditions, it’s fair to ask ourselves just what we carry with us into the Quaker circle.

My own family, for instance, was quite active in the Evangelical United Brethren denomination, now merged into the United Methodists. Despite the many Sunday mornings spent listening to quarter-hour sermons, however, I find myself remembering very little. There was one telling us not to waste time (because time was a gift from God), another about our bodies being temples that should not be abused by smoking or drinking, another about non-conformity as a Protestant duty (this back in the gray-flannel ‘50s!), as well as the annual money sermon, reduced to a plea for financial support. Surprisingly, I recall no Bible stories. The senior pastor, a quiet and bookish man, quoted many volumes along the way, yet my sense is that he was likely much more effective in his hospital visits and pastoral counsel than he was in the pulpit. The youth pastor, meanwhile, taught me more about organizing and managing successful political campaigns and establishments than about matters of the Holy Spirit.

More influential, I suspect, were the short trailside vespers of our Scout troop. One boy, a preacher’s kid, even spoke of the church being the people, along the lines of the Quaker argument I’ve previously presented. And then there was the twilight circle of rowboats and candles when we camped at Lake Vesuvius – that awe of the stilling day and waters reflecting something of our current worship.

It all seems so long ago, and so far back. Yet a few turns later, emerging from a yoga ashram, I encountered a circle of Friends who began opening the Scriptures to me, and then a few Mennonites who restored the hymn legacy, and something from that past took shape, in a new way. Maybe the last laugh, though, belongs to those EUB officials of my youth who tried to steer me into their ministry – and a faith I soon rejected fully. After all, it opened the way that landed me into free Gospel ministry here.

NO LONGER MUSICAL RARITIES

Looking at yet another recording of Vivaldi’s now ubiquitous Four Seasons reminds me of the first time I encountered the work. Two of our local FM stations each had an hour of classical music each night, and there it was, taking up the entire program, or at least most of it.

At the end of the piece, the announcer came on, leaving me to exclaim, “Who was that? Never heard of him.” A nobody composer, then. (Actually, I think my reaction was more graphic. In those days, I wanted BIG NAMES.)

A month later, the same thing.

And a month after that, the reaction continued.

I must have been a sophomore in high school. By my senior year, Vivaldi had gained enough traction to have one of the Four Seasons concertos be included in a Cincinnati May Festival concert I attended (Robert Shaw conducting), and even Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic had recorded an all-Vivaldi album that was a mainstay of my budding collection.

How times have changed.

I remember, too, discovering Mahler through a Boston Symphony recording under Erich Leinsdorf, probably about the same time. By my senior year of college, Mahler had gained enough visibility that I heard two live performances of his Fifth Symphony, one by an Indiana University orchestra and the other by the Cincinnatians under Max Rudolf – and that was within a span of one month.

Now that Mahler and Vivaldi are regulars in the repertoire, I keep hoping for a similar discovery of John Knowles Paine, George Whitefield Chadwick, Amy Beach, and their American Romantic-era colleagues.

Yes, times and tastes can change. There’s so much more to discover and embrace.