This 100th Morning

This morning I am writing my 100th daily post in a row.

I’m quite proud of this: I didn’t miss a day, and I ran the gamut of posts, from short jokes or links to long essays on important topics, with everything in between. It has been extremely good for me to have this daily deadline, especially during the last few months of the school year, when I tend to want to do nothing strenuous or intellectually challenging because I have to summon so much energy just to keep teaching. This blog has kept me writing, and it makes me happy and proud.

I’m very thankful for the people who have been reading: the numbers on this blog have all gone up, subscribers, visitors, and viewers. I admit that sometimes I’m surprised that people still come and read this, considering some of the crap I’ve said on here — both silly things and offensive, controversial things —  but I am grateful that you do, indeed, seem to  keep coming here to read what I say.

And I hate to do this to you.

But I have to shift my focus. It’s summertime, and though it sounds long it feels short; and this is the best chance I have to finish my book. The Adventures of Damnation Kane, Volume II. I have to keep my promise: I told people at the Festival of Books that I would have the second volume edited and published within a month or two; I didn’t make that deadline, but I can at least do it now.

I don’t plan to stop blogging: there are still things I want and need to say, and this is the best place to do it. I just won’t be doing it as much, at least for a little while. The book really is nearly  done: the main story is written and typed already, I just need to format and edit it; I’m nearly done with the bonus chapters, at least in first draft. So I am hopeful that it will be finished soon, and then maybe I can go back to daily posts — though there is also that third volume out there, waiting to be written . . .

 

I hope this doesn’t drive people away. I hope I’ve earned enough of your kindness and consideration that you will let me finish this other project without feeling that I’m too lame for not being able to do both. Who knows? Maybe I can do both. (I’m pretty sure I can’t do both and move, which pretty much eliminates blogging for the next week or so.) Maybe I can manage a really short post a day, just something to spark a thought or bring a snort of laughter. I’ll try. And I’ll keep trying. Even if you all do stop visiting here and reading what I have written.

Thanks again, and see you soon?

Also, read my book: the second volume is forthcoming.

The Adventures of Damnation Kane

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This Morning

This morning, I think I have an answer to my question from yesterday morning.

Yesterday, I was wondering what I could say to my wife, to my students, to myself, that would help comfort us in the face of inevitable suffering, and I wished that I could rely on God as that answer, because then I could at least stop thinking about it — and I should have said worrying about it and fretting about it, because that’s the point; it’s not the idea of not thinking, it’s the idea of “let go and let God.” Which I can’t do, but I appreciate that people can.

But I have another cliche that I have gleaned from outside of the fields of the Lord (And that enormously obscure reference is brought to you by the podcast I’ve been listening to, Sunday School Dropouts. Probably also why God has shown up in this atheist’s morning ramblings.), that as I understand it, many churches focus on as the heart of their message (and others may sprinkle in, in between railing against homosexuals and abortion and Democrats in Washington), which is this: God is love.

Once again, that doesn’t work for me. But it comes with another way of looking at it, that I think does fit in nicely with what I’ve been looking for:

Love is God.

That is to say, love is everything. Everything that matters. It is the alpha and the omega, it is the answer to all questions, all doubts and fears. Love. And love, I think, can offer an answer precisely as satisfying  — and not any more satisfying — as can the answer “God.”

What should I tell my students when the future looms ominously over them? Love. Look for love in your life, look for love in what you do; if you don’t find any love in your life, then change it, and if you don’t find any love in what you do, then stop doing it. Don’t work for money, work for love: and I don’t mean to be flippant there, because I am a person who works for money precisely because he cannot live on what he loves; but for me, the money I earn is spent on those I love, and used to give me an opportunity to do what I love, which I am doing right now. So I never mind my job very much, because it is done for love, if not always in love. And yes, sometimes I love my job: I do love books and poetry, and I love writing, and I guess I don’t entirely loathe my students. (No, I love some of them. More, I love the people they become, and the potential I see in them when they are young.)

What do I tell myself when I am in my darkest, foulest, most hopeless moods? Love. I have lost some of my liberal idealism in these last few years, and I have begun to lean a wee bit more conservative; it has made me worry, because I know that this is a common pattern, especially among aging white men, as we start to get a taste of power and become greedy and start worrying about people taking away what we have. And I do not want to be that guy. But I think that so long as I focus on love, so long as my actions and intentions are begun with love in mind, then I won’t turn into someone I would hate. At least some of my shifting to the right is based on the consideration that people on the right can’t be bad people, can’t be evil people, not all of them. (Trump is.) Not any more than there are evil people on the left. It’s not reasonable to take a person’s political leanings as the sole evidence of their morality or their value, or anything else apart from their political leanings; evil people are conservatives, conservatives aren’t evil people. Thinking that makes me give some conservative ideas (like the free market and lower regulation, the independence of states and, perhaps most shocking to me and those who know me, the value of the Second Amendment) the benefit of the doubt, and that makes me move away from my liberal roots.

But that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if I’m a liberal or a libertarian or a moderate or an anarchist: so long as I consider what is best for my fellow men, and treat them always with respect and with love, then my ideas will never be bad, even if they are wrong.

I also need to remember this for myself when I am disappointed in my writing career. When I think about how old I am compared to other writers, and when I realize how good I am compared to some other writers — and then when I think about how entirely devoid of success I am compared to most other writers; I need to remember: love. I do this because I love it, because I love the me who does this. And so long as I write for love, with love, and out of love, then I can’t be a failure. I am a writer.

What do I tell my wife when she worries about our future, about what we’ll do for money, about where we’ll live, about how we’ll see the world and how we’ll live in it? I will tell her, as I do as often as I possibly can, that I love her, without limits and without end, and that I always will, and that love will see us through, no matter what else happens. Always. Love.

It doesn’t solve the problems we all face. But then, neither does God. I hope that it brings you some comfort, as it brings me some. I hope that it gives us all the strength to keep fighting towards our goals, and I hope it keeps us from hating those who fight against us, or at least in the opposite direction. I hope that the love in your life is enough to make you smile, as it is for me, even on a Monday morning.

Thank you for reading what I write. I won’t say I love you, because I don’t know you, but I love the fact of you and the existence of you, and what you give to me. Thank you.

Now go love!

Book Review: The War of Art

Image result for the war of art

The War of Art

by Steven Pressfield

In retrospect, I should have known from the foreword that this was the wrong book for me: Robert McKee talks about art like it’s a war that Pressfield will help me to win; and while I think art is a struggle, I really don’t think it’s a war; indeed, as I am a pacifist, couching things in warrior’s terms is just going to push me away. He also references golf as evidence that Pressfield is a consummate professional (Pressfield wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance, which I have neither read nor seen; I guess it’s about golf? I guess Pressfield likes the game? But he writes anyway instead of playing, which – I guess is impressive?), and there’s the second best way to alienate me. He talks about tearing up over the Spartans’ death at Thermopylae, which was the subject of Pressfield’s other big book, Gates of Fire, which I did read, and did like quite a lot – but it didn’t make me weepy, and I don’t know what it has to do with inspiration to make art. So I’m really having trouble relating to this foreword author – and then he ends his intro with this:

“When inspiration touches talent, she gives birth to truth and beauty. And when Steven Pressfield was writing The War of Art, she had her hands all over him.”

Creepy sexual metaphors, especially about things that are not remotely sexual – like the act of putting words on a page – that is the number one way to make me say “Nope.” So I should have known.

Let me say this, though: this is a book intended to inspire artists, to help people break through creative blocks and create art they can be proud of. I can’t think of many more noble things to try to do, and I appreciate Pressfield’s earnest and genuine attempt to give people tools to do what they should be doing. So: if you do appreciate sports metaphors, and war metaphors, and you like a good, strong pep talk – or as the cover blurb calls it “A vital gem… a kick in the ass,” (which also should have been a warning sign for me) – then please ignore this review, and go get this book. I hope it helps.

It didn’t help me.

There are moments when I agree with Pressfield. He talks about questioning his writing, and feeling hopeless, and the strength and stamina it requires to push through all that and just keep working. He calls it work, and talks about how important it is to just keep putting in the hours, to keep trying, to keep seeking to hone your craft and do the best you can – but first and foremost, to just put the goddamn letters on the goddamn page, and to never give up. And I agree with that entirely. He talks about how he was in his 40’s before he found success, and how it came from an entirely unlikely source, which was, logical or not, simply the book he had to write at the time; and as a 44-year-old writer who is working on his second novel about a time-traveling Irish pirate, I appreciate everything about that.

But then there are the places where he talks about being a Marine, and how other servicemen in other branches are weaker than Marines because Marines love being miserable (This is a metaphor for how artists should be: willing to suffer and be miserable. I kind of see that. This whole Marines-have-bigger-dicks-than-other-soldiers? Nah.) and the other services are soft. Where he talks about writing and art like it is a war to be fought and won; or an animal to be hunted and then eaten; or a football game where you have to “leave everything on the field.” And I hate all of that. He talks about the urges and habits that get in the way of art as Resistance, and that’s pretty good, but he also talks about how like not cleaning your room is a way to lose to Resistance, and – what? And how golf is an art, and Tiger Woods is the greatest artist of all because he can be interrupted mid-swing, stop his swing, and then refocus and hit a golf ball really hard and – I fail to see the art in that. And he says that mental illness, depression and anxiety, are not real, but only a failure to combat resistance, which can be overcome by determination and the earnest pursuit of one’s true calling, and hey, fuck you, Pressfield.

He’s got a strange (And contradictory) section where he tries to talk about thinking territorially instead of hierarchically, and basically he means you should do what you think is right rather than worry about what other people think is right, and okay, sure – but first, he says elsewhere in the book that he knows he’s written well when his family is pleased and proud of him, which is hierarchical thinking by his own definition and explanation, so either he’s a REALLY bad editor who missed that continuity break, or he’s full of crap in one of these places; and second, his example of someone thinking territorially is Arnold Schwarzenegger going to the gym. Which is both weird and not at all artistically inspiring. It gets really weird in the third section, where the devout Christian Pressfield (Though he also admires the ancient Greeks so damn much that he seems to kinda want to worship Zeus and Apollo. I can’t really disagree with that, though I wouldn’t pick the same gods.) talks about angels who help inspire artists to work, because God wants us to create beautiful things for Him to admire, and how everything an artist is comes from God and we should understand that we contribute nothing, that we are only the vessel through which the divine will is worked. I mean, when we’re not being hardcore fucking Marines. Or hitting 310 yards off the tee. Otherwise, though, we should be all humble before God. It is not quite this Christian – he really does admire and know a lot about the Greeks – but it does read that way, as a repudiation of human accomplishment and a glorification of the eternal Whatever. And as an atheist and a part-time humanist, I am not at all down with that.

This thing reads exactly like what it is: a privileged Baby Boomer looking down on everyone else who doesn’t have all of his privileges; and by the way, he says some interesting and intelligent things that show me he really is an artist like me. Just way more of a shmuck. Hoo rah.

This Morning

This morning, I am thinking about books.

I have too many books. I have too many books and I don’t read enough. I have a hard and demanding and time-consuming job, one that is important to me to do well, and so that takes up a ton of time and energy; maybe the worst thing about it is that my most-free time is late at night before I go to bed — but I can’t read then because it puts me to sleep. Which sucks because I want to read! And it also makes me feel like a lame-o who doesn’t care enough about reading, I mean, if I loved reading enough, I wouldn’t fall asleep doing it. But that’s dumb, because reading relaxes me, and I’m tired, et voila. Nodding off mid-page and dropping the book, which I do all the time. Scares my dogs. Though fortunately I rarely hit myself in the face. Not never; but rarely.

I also have this second job where I’m trying to write books. That also is draining and difficult and time- and energy-consuming, and so the two things together leave very little time for reading. This one gives me a strange feedback loop, too, because while I want to read as much as possible, as it gives me inspiration and fodder for writing, that means that when I read, it makes me want to write, so if the reading is going well that’s generally when I stop reading to write. Conversely, if the writing is not going well, it makes me want to read more, but then I also feel bad for not getting my writing done, because as much as I want to read, that is still my avocation, my hobby, my peaceful relaxing thing; it’s not my job. I don’t have goals and ambitions as a reader, but I do as a writer, so when I’m reading with the intention of getting back to writing, I am more focused on the getting back to writing, which makes me not enjoy the reading as much.

But I love reading. I love getting lost in a book. I love finding a new hidden thing, or a lovely turn of phrase. I love arguing with the author, or questioning why they did a thing — and I adore when I realize later in the book exactly why they did that thing. I love getting to know and understand characters, and I love seeing how things unfold in their lives. I love seeing how authors begin a story, and how they end one. I love reading detailed descriptions, and perfect metaphors, and ideas that I’ve never thought of before but that resonate with me down to the iron strings inside that Emerson talked about in “On Self-Reliance.” I love doing that, too, thinking of things I’ve read while I’m out in the world, and realizing that the book has had an influence on me, that it matters outside of the time I spend between the covers, wandering across the pages.

I love long books and short books, fiction books and fact books, children’s books and adult books, fantasy and science fiction and horror and romance and everything in between. There is no genre I won’t read, and no subject I won’t at least read about, though of course I have my preferences. Bookstores are dangerous for me, because every time I stop and notice something, I want to buy it. Even knowing that I have too many books at home and I don’t know if or when I’ll ever get to read that new book, I still want to buy it. I want it to be mine. I want to have the opportunity to pick that one right off my shelf, and then dive in and start reading it. When I travel, I pack extra books, because I don’t know when I’m packing which book I will want to read next, and I want that first moment of opening a book to be exciting and welcome, not feel onerous or like it’s just the best I can do. I don’t mind too much having too many books, because I just read that Umberto Eco had a personal library of 30,000 volumes, which he never could have read, but that it’s good to have more books than you can read because then you have to choose, which makes you more invested in the book and gives you the chance to learn new things throughout your life. I like that. I want to die with books unread: but not as many as  books read. That’s my goal.

I don’t ever want to be without books.

This Morning

This morning I am thinking about the work of art.

I have often questioned whether or not I’m an artist, a writer. And whether or not I should be an artist. I think that I don’t take it seriously enough, because art doesn’t always come first for me; I do all sorts of things other than art. The most obvious is work: as a teacher, I put in fifty or so hours a week on my job, and since I’m an English teacher, a lot of that time is spent reading and writing and talking about reading and writing. I took the job because I thought it would be both fun and beneficial for me to be surrounded by language and literature,  and to some extent it has been both; but I don’t understand why I didn’t think about how much effort it would take to do the job well. I question all the time whether I should have stayed a janitor, some kind of nice, essentially mindless work that would allow me to go home at the end of the day and write, for hours on end. I ask myself: are you really an artist if you spend all of this time and energy on your job? Shouldn’t all of that effort go into writing? Shouldn’t you quit your job and find a mindless one? Or at the least do your job poorly, with the minimum expenditure of effort?

Maybe so.

I also took this job because of summers off, and the several week(s)-long vacations; I figured I could use that time to write more seriously. And I have; summer has always been my primary writing time, along with spring break and winter break, and fall break, now that I have that. But even in those times, I only spend a couple of hours a day, at most, on actual writing. I’ve read about authors who work for eight hours a day, or who lock themselves away for a month, two months, six months at a time, and do nothing but write, all day every day. And here I am with two or three months off, and I write for — an hour a day? Clearly I can’t be much of a writer if that’s all I can stand to do.

But that’s not fair. Because the truth is that writing is fucking hard. It takes an enormous effort to focus on every single word, every single punctuation mark, every sentence, every paragraph, and make exactly the right choices in exactly the right places; and to do that at the same time that I am trying to keep a larger story in mind? Especially when the story is a novel, and so I have both the complete scene I am writing and the overall story to keep in mind while I am selecting each and every word? Jesus Christ, it’s amazing I can do this at all, if you don’t mind my bragging a little. Of course I don’t make all of the right choices, I probably make wrong choices most of the time; but I’m good enough at this that even my wrong choices are generally not terrible, not unforgivable. And just as a doctor’s first rule is “Do no harm,” meaning make sure you don’t do the wrong thing even before you try to do the right thing, I think my first rule as a writer is, “Don’t write shit. Or at least if you write shit, don’t let anybody else see it.”

But even that is hard, because shit is enormously easy to write. Just ask James Patterson. BOOM! No, I’m kidding, he’s not a bad writer. He’s a whore who made a name for himself and then let his publisher pimp that name out in “collaborations” that Patterson likely has almost no hand in, but his name is prominent on the front cover in order to boost sales — but he’s not a bad writer. I don’t want to actually name any bad writers; I’m not going to throw any writers under the bus quite that hard, because all of us struggle with this. All of us have to put in this colossal effort, and then take this terrible soul-searing step of letting other people read what we write.

It’s brutal. It is laborious and effortful and wearing and taxing and just hard.

And I keep doing it. And I keep doing it well enough that I am pleased with what I produce. And I do it sincerely enough that I feel better emotionally after I’ve done it, after I’ve written honestly and as well as I can; even though I’m generally mentally exhausted after I do it. I will also say that I don’t write much more than an hour most days, but I can always put in that hour: these morning blogs have been quite good for that, it turns out; I’ve also worked on my book every day for the last few days, and I’ll do it today, too. I am also capable of some serious marathon sessions of writing: I wrote the final chapter of my most recent book over one weekend, two days of solid writing for more than eight hours each day; I produced something like fifty pages.

Huh. Maybe that’s why I haven’t written that much in the months since.

But even when I hit these dry patches, I still come back to it. Even though it’s hard — and it is hard, though I sometimes fool even myself into thinking that it’s easy because sometimes the words just come and are perfect; but that is the end result of a whoooooooooole lot of hours spent slogging, and writing and rewriting and discarding the whole thing and then starting over again. Still I put in the time. I put in the work. Because I love it, and I believe in it, and I like myself better when I do it than when I don’t.

I guess I am an artist, after all.

This Morning

This morning I am thinking about work.

It’s an interesting word, one that we use in many different ways: it is simple effort (“That looks like a lot of work!”), it is our profession (“I have to go to work. Please kill me.”), it means to stretch (“You have to work the joint”) or to exercise (“I have to go work out. Please kill me.”). It means to move or to move into place (“Her mouth worked furiously as she worked the Q-tip into her ear”), it means to control or manipulate or stress the emotions (“He worked himself into a tizzy, and then he went out on stage and worked the crowd like a pro.”). It means to maximize reward or response through confidence and panache (“Work it, girl!”) and it is the final product and achievement (“This is a work of art.”).

It is, for an artist, the goal. The purpose. We do this for the sake of the work. And not just the final product, because you can’t know going into it that what you will end up with will be a masterwork, will be your magnum opus (Magnum means great. Want to guess what opus means? Other than the most adorable cartoon penguin in history, that is?); we do what we do for the sake of doing it, for what doing it makes us feel, and what it makes us not feel; for who we are when we are doing the work and who we become after we do it and after we decide to keep doing it.

Sorry if that was too abstract. Let me be more clear. (Let me also give a modicum of credit to Steven Pressfield, because while he’s a toxic-masculine doofus who wrote a bad motivational book, he does talk about the value of artists simply doing the work, putting in the time and the effort, and so he has inspired me despite his doofery.) I write because writing brings me joy, and it gives me solace. When I am upset about something, particularly when the thing upsetting me is confusing or complex, my first urge is always to get out a journal of some form and write about it. When I have an idea, I always want to write it down; and then once I start writing about it, I want to keep writing about it until I have explored all of the possibilities. I am always happiest communicating through writing (Though I’m still, always, a little nervous when someone is reading what I have written.). This relationship with the page, the pen, the written word, along with my lifelong passion for reading, has led me to become a writer. That is how I define myself, how I view myself. It’s where the monogram that makes up my banner on this site came from (Also note: my brilliant wife, who is an artist and illustrator because everything I say about writing, she would say the same about drawing, made that banner for me.) My most important work, the thing that I was born to do, is write. Thus, when I write, both while I am in the act of writing and when I have done enough writing to have produced something worth reading, I feel most myself. I like myself best at those times. I like my life best at those times. That’s why I write: not for reward, not for applause or respect; but because of who I am when I write.

One of my favorite poems, We Are Many by Pablo Neruda, includes these lines:

While I am writing, I am far away;
and when I come back, I have already left.

I’ve taught this poem several times, and students always struggle to understand it (Not just because of these lines: the whole thing is about multiple selves, particularly perceived self vs. actual self, and it’s fantastically bizarre to read — “and so I never know just WHO I AM,/ nor how many I am, nor WHO WE WILL BE BEING.”). but I understand this part perfectly, and I think other artists would, as well, if they change the verb “am writing” to something appropriate to them, am dancing, am painting, am carving, am composing, am playing. Am working. While I am writing, I do not feel connected to the world; I am in my mind, sifting through words and phrases, images and metaphors, like the child I once was at the beach, when I would grab up handfuls of sand and pour them onto the ground, onto my legs, from one hand onto another, just to see how the sand piled up and how it fell, how it felt running through my fingers and sliding across my skin. I would thrust my hand, palm down, into the dry whispers of sand, and then I would lift my hand straight up to watch myself emerge from the Earth, and to see the way the sand would remain in skeletal ridges on the backs of my fingers; then I would drop my wrist and watch the sand blow away in a swirl of motes.

Just now, I forgot that I am sitting on my couch next to my dog, with a blanket around my shoulders and my laptop perched atop my crossed legs. I was remembering being on the beach and playing, and I was trying to dig for the right words to capture that moment. I was far away.  And now that I’ve come back, I’ve already left — which line I think has two meanings, both that the self that Neruda most clearly takes as his own, his writing self, the part of his mind that rises to find the words and put them in place, is only present while he is actually writing; and also that once he has written down what he was thinking, and he returns to awareness of the world and sees the words as a completed thought on the page, his writing mind is already off on another voyage through the clouds, soaring far above or below where he sits, suddenly aware that his ankles ache. It makes me want to just keep writing, to recapture that feeling of weightlessness, of timelessness, of pure and simple being; the fact that I can do it, and the fact that when I do it, I have this evidence, this product, this work that is my words, pleases me enormously. So much so that the potential rewards of that work, while I want them for the sake of my non-writing self, don’t matter so much as this: I did the work, and the work now exists because of me. It is both humbling in that I don’t matter nearly so much as the words do, and also flattering in that I am capable of making those words do what they do.

I am proud of my work.  I hope my work is proud of me.

 

I do have to note that this was not where I intended this entry to go; I was going to talk about the effort required to make art, and how it has to be done regularly, constantly, no matter how onerous it feels — and it does feel onerous sometimes; but I think I’ll save that for tomorrow. I am happy with this work.

This Morning

This morning I am thinking about words.

I’ve written about 700,000 words worth of books, over five (longish) novels. I’ve no doubt I’ve written twice that in blogs and essays and book reviews, and probably its equal again in journals and diaries, notes and letters and the various ephemeral thoughts that find their way onto paper. That means I’ve written somewhere above 3,000,000 words in my lifetime.

How many of them were the right word? The best word? Twain said that the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning-bug, and nobody has said it better. Not all of mine are the best words, not by any stretch; but I think some of them have been. Sometimes. and even where they weren’t the perfect word, the best word, quite a few of them have been good words. And when the total is 3,000,000 words, “quite a few” — well, that’s something. It’s something.

I wonder how many people have read my words. I’ve read my essays to students for as long as I’ve been teaching, and sometimes my short stories or even an excerpt from one of my books; that’s around 3,000 students over the last twenty years. Three thousand people. And of course, I’ve written notes and comments and such on their work, and answered their questions and concerns in emails now to the tune of thousands of words, tens of thousands of words. I’ve never sold a lot of books, but I have sold some, and I’ve had blogs, with some number of readers, for more than a decade.

How many times have my words made people smile? Made them widen their eyes? Made them feel angry, or sad, or touched? How many times have my thoughts made someone else think something truly powerful, a sky-shattering inspiration, a ground-shaking memory, a tidal wave of thoughts?

I think those things have already happened. I think I’ve done them several times. I have. With my words.

This morning, I’m proud of that.

This morning, I hope I get to do it more, and more, and more.