Saturday, March 15, 2008

Words Do This

Why write this blog? I tried to explain the motivation in my first entry (, but did so in a tentative, self-conscious way. Self-consciousness immobilizes writing and I was reminded of this in a recent email exchange I had with my friend, Art.

First a little background. We met Art and his lovely wife Sydelle on a cruise to the Caribbean after I retired. They had been teachers in the New York City Public School system, dedicated and deserving Purple Hearts for their service. They have wide-ranging interests, traveling the world, staying in elder hostels and constantly learning.

Art is active in woodworking design and sculpture and still plays organized softball and, Sydelle, who has a beautiful voice, performs in local theater groups, and has a wonderful sense of humor, something she demonstrated when they attended my 65th birthday party. She wrote and designed a special birthday card, parodying the lyrics of nine songs from Oklahoma. I particularly like the one that is set to the music of “The Farmer and The Rancher”…

The piano and his books they
are his friends.
The piano and his books they
are his friends.

He stays at home to play
the keys.
Grabs a book and starts
to read.
Bob is happy with his
little friends.

It’s a wonder that he likes us
It’s a wonder we all think
It’s a wonder he invites us
We liked him better when he
used to drink!

It is creative and funny (to those who know me) as it comes close to the bone. Good writing, even parody, explores the truth, no matter how indelicate.

Art had emailed about my modest blog efforts saying, “I've always been reluctant to attempt to write creatively.” He then went on to relate a fascinating story about how he recently reconnected with a friend after losing track for fifty years. As I said to Art in my response, “But, you complain that you are not a writer, and what an interesting note! I think good writing is to say what you want/need to say and do so truthfully. And that is what you did telling me about your friend. Methinks, you ought to get busy on your own blog and not be self-conscious, which is the biggest enemy when I write. Another problem is expectations, mostly my own, pertaining to topics and how often I might write. It sometimes feels like that plant in Little Shop of Horrors is crying out to me, ‘Feed Me.’ I’m trying not to be a slave to it.”

And writing is work, to get it right, at least from the writer’s viewpoint. It is also solitary, something I’m comfortable with although I’m out of sync with many of my contemporaries who prefer playing golf or bridge. I have nothing against this, but I’m too compulsive and competitive to play games that would distract from my own interests.

Not long ago I read the 70-year old classic by Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write; A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit. It is less about “how to write” than it is about the philosophy of writing. As Ueland clarifies, “At last I understood that writing was about this: an impulse to share with other people a feeling of truth that I myself had. Not to preach to them, but to give it to them if they cared to hear it. If they did not – fine. They did not need to listen. That was all right too…. You should work from now on until you die, with real love and imagination and intelligence, at your writing or whatever work it is that you care about. If you do that, out of the mountains that you write some mole hills will be published…. But if nothing is ever published at all and you never make a cent, just the same it will be good that you have worked.” On a subliminal level those words probably in part led me to write this blog, as working on it is productive and meaningful (to me at least), as is practicing the songs from the Great American Songbook, trying to interpret the compositions of Bill Evans, or, I guess, working at one’s golf game if that’s what you care about.

Given my profession, publishing, I have known many writers, some eminent in their fields. But I love following the progress of my older son’s writing (Chris). He is a natural and I’ve encouraged him to bring his gift to a broader audience. But he writes mainly for himself, “with real love and imagination and intelligence.”

A while ago he wrote a playful piece, spot on this topic, so appropriate that I borrowed one of his lines for the title of this entry. Now, I hope he does not mind my closing by quoting it in its entirety:

Why Am I A Writer?

I am not a writer. The words volunteer to join my feelings. I pay them no money.

Most words volunteer their time because they are bored with their lives. They are used to the same routine day in and day out at other jobs: Journalism, Cubicle Jobs, Entertainment, Internet, History. Most of them have been saying the same thing to the world. Things they say they are not interested in. There is no use for the words in their other jobs; so they end up coming to me.

"I have no resources, I can't pay you anything," I say to them.

"It doesn't matter." they say, "We don't judge"

I told them they could stay for as long as they want. There's not much overhead to house them, feed them or keep them around. "You think you'll have a career with me?" I asked.

"It doesn't matter. We have transferable skills," they mentioned. "If we can't continue with your organization, we could probably get much higher, more in-demand jobs."

"There are times I don't want to write. I don't have anything to say." I said. "What will you do then? Won't you get bored and leave?"

"We don't usually do that unless what you write about us is boring. We don't care if you don't use us; it’s what you say which will probably be the deciding factor."

"I'm afraid you’re boring me, and I don't want to use words anymore."

"I don't think you have a choice. You're stuck with us whether you like it or not."

"Not necessarily. 'Actions speak louder than words'. I can simply not write and let you fellows go on your own. I can bike, swim, get a job, climb a mountain, make love, go shopping, or any number of things. There would be no need to write about these things. I would be free.

"Free? How do you think you will be free of us? You're conscious of this freedom, this thing you call 'time' which lives in your mind."

(‘Freedom’ was the only word that would not volunteer in my vocabulary. I remembered her saying that she was too busy to talk with me. She gave me her cell number and said I should call her tomorrow.)

"We know what you're saying, and we don't care"

"I know," I admitted. "You came and ruined me."

"It’s not that we meant it,” they said, trying to be empathetic. "It’s just that our jobs are to be pragmatic, to say what there is to say about you."

"Why am I a writer, then, when I would feel like this?"

"We couldn't answer that. We let others do that for us."

"What others?"

"You know," they whispered, "out there". They pointed outside my window.

"The world? Are you saying people who read this?"

"It doesn't have to be read if you're a writer."

"What does that mean?"

"Words do this."