Posts Tagged ‘Annie Dillard’

Be Good To Yourself

Monday, April 16th, 2018

lunch break

Lunch Break photo by Todd

“The writer of any work, and particularly a nonfiction work, must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out.” Annie Dillard

Twenty years ago, living in Berkeley and finding no willing publishers for my fiction, I was down to my last few shekels when I was presented with the opportunity to work for an ambitious outgoing woman as her twenty-hour-a-week secretary, editor, and ghostwriter. With my rent due and needing groceries, I took the job. The work was tedious, but the pay was good and my employer was a delightful person. I eventually wrote two books for her, each a commercial flop, though both books were beautifully published.

By the time that five-year gig ended, I had managed to publish two non-fiction works of my own, Open Body: Creating Your Own Yoga and The Writer’s Path. Alas, sales of those lovely books were minimal and I was once again running low on funds, so I put up my shingle, so to speak, as an editor-for-hire.

The phone rang frequently thereafter and over the next couple of years I edited a handful of academic theses as well as a few dreadful novels and memoirs written by people who had succumbed to the now-ubiquitous delusion that anyone can write a book without first learning to write a reasonable sentence. And then I was hired to ghostwrite the autobiography of an elderly man who had been a closeted homosexual in Georgia and Kentucky for all but the last few years of his life.

This project involved several in-person meetings with my client and hundreds of phone interviews. This dear man told me at our first meeting that he was certain his story would be a bestseller. He gave me a two-hour synopsis of his extraordinary life, and I told him what I knew to be true: “If you were famous and your story involved you being intimately involved with other famous people, a book about your life would almost surely find a publisher and be successful. Given that you are not even a tiny bit famous and you don’t know anyone famous means that it is highly unlikely any publisher will be interested in your book, even if we write a masterpiece.”

He was undaunted by that prognosis, took me to lunch at a snazzy restaurant, and we agreed to work together. He was neither a writer nor a gifted storyteller, which meant I had to painstakingly interview him in order to piece together the details of his life and ferret out the most fascinating parts. Over the course of a year I wrote three drafts of his very long autobiography, which he eventually self-published and only a handful of people ever read.

Nearing the end of my labors for him, I was having dreams I knew to be heavily influenced by my client’s life; and when, several months after completing that work, the creative sector of my brain finally individuated from his, I vowed never to ghostwrite anything ever again. Ghostwriting books about tea and handkerchiefs was no great mental challenge for me, but mind melding with another person in order to write the story of their tortured life was a psychic nightmare.

And that is the preface to what I’m about to tell you.

The delightful woman for whom I worked for five years became my dear friend, and it was her habit to call me every day at precisely nine in the morning to discuss the day ahead. She called every day at nine, unfailingly, even if her day did not include working with me. When I would answer my phone, she would invariably say, “Hello. It’s only me.”

For the first few months of these daily calls, I tried to think of thoughtful and/or humorous responses to her unchanging greeting, such as, “You’re hardly an only,” or “Oh you underrate yourself,” or “What a surprise to hear from you,” or “Me who?” Eventually I settled on the simple reply: “Hello, you.” And for some reason, my saying those two words was a never-ending delight to her. Sometimes she would respond to my “Hello, you,” with a hearty laugh, sometimes with a sigh of pleasure, and sometimes she would reply, “Now everything is right with the world.”

I came to greatly appreciate this ritual of mutual acknowledgment; and all these years later, my dear friend gone now for fifteen years, I miss that daily confirmation of our appreciation for each other.

The man for whom I ghostwrote the story of his life had an answering machine message he never changed, the tag line being, “And remember, be good to yourself.”

His kindly suggestion barely registered with me the first several times I called to leave a message, and when his advice did begin to register, I felt annoyed and then resentful—the implication of his suggestion being that I wasn’t being good to myself. How dare he? So I took to holding the phone at arm’s length and pointing the speaker away from me until I heard the All Clear beep, and then I would leave my message.

But one day, whilst in the throes of an emotional crisis, I called him, got his answering machine, and rather than hold the phone away from me, I listened to his message, and when his deep Georgia-accented voice said, “And remember, be good to yourself,” I burst into tears and had a good long cry during which I realized I had once again fallen into my lifelong habit of not being good to myself, and so resolved to break that habit immediately.

And my first act of self-love was to treat myself to a cookie and coffee at Toot Sweets, the little bakery around the corner from my Berkeley digs, where, whilst grazing in that den of pastries and caffeine, I bumped into the stellar singer/songwriter Alexis Harte who I had recently met through a mutual acquaintance.

We chatted about his music and mine, and I heard myself saying I wanted to record some of my songs, something I hadn’t said to anyone in many years. Alexis informed me that he had a little recording studio behind his house where I could do some recording for a reasonable fee—at which moment I recalled my client’s tender “Be good to yourself,” and decided to take Alexis up on his offer, which was the beginning of many wonderful musical adventures.

Being Jewish

Monday, November 20th, 2017

Goody jpeg

Goody photo by Todd

“The writer of any work, and particularly a nonfiction work, must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out.” Annie Dillard

My therapist asked me if I would be willing to let go of the concept of good and bad. I suppose good and bad might be two concepts, but since we can’t have one without the other, I’ll go with good and bad being a duality. I told my therapist I was certainly willing to try to let go of the concept of good and bad, and for the last week I have been hyper-conscious of my use of those two words, as well as my virtually reflexive good/bad judgments about events and things and people, including little old me.

As an editor of my own work and the works of others, and as one who has endeavored to help many people with their writing, I would say the one word that writers use most profusely and to the detriment of their writing is it. Indeed, if you want to improve your writing in almost no time, take a recent page of something you’ve written and circle all the its and replace them with words the its are standing in for. I think you will be pleased by how much more interesting and informative your prose becomes.

I bring up it because, though I’ve long known and suggested to other writers that using words such as bad and good in our writing is almost always less effective than using more incisively descriptive words, I now realize that in my thinking and feeling and talking, I constantly use bad and good instead of saying and feeling and thinking what I more deeply feel and think.

So ever since my therapist asked me if I was willing to let go of the concept of good and bad, whenever the words bad and good come up in my speech and thoughts, I replace them with words that come closer to expressing the feelings I was trying to express with those more general words.

For instance, this morning I had an email from someone in Los Angeles who was curious to know why my book Buddha In A Teacup is not readily available in libraries in Los Angeles. I did some checking and found my correspondent was correct: Buddha In A Teacup is a non-presence in most Los Angeles libraries. I did some further checking and found that Buddha In A Teacup is only available in a few libraries scattered across America.

My initial reaction to this information was This is bad. But because I am retraining my brain/mind/spirit to replace bad with more incisively descriptive terms, I came up with, “The absence of Buddha In A Teacup in thousands of libraries across America made me sad for a moment, but the absence of the book in libraries isn’t bad or good. The absence of my book in libraries is in the nature of things at this moment in time.”

“There are two kinds of comedy. One involves putting people down, having fun at their expense. The other recognizes that each of our lives is equally absurd.” Donald Montwill

For reasons I can’t readily explain, letting go of the concept of good and bad seems to be making me more comfortable with being Jewish. As I explained in my last two articles, my recent return to therapy after a thirty-year hiatus has prompted me to delve into and accept that I am Jewish despite not knowing my mother and her ancestors were Jewish until I was twelve, and despite not knowing until I was forty that my mother’s lifelong pretense of not being Jewish profoundly shaped my self-identity.

This delving into being Jewish has prompted me to write articles about my discoveries and share those articles with you. Writing and posting these articles has been exciting and scary and funny and fascinating. I’ve had several responses from other people who did not learn they were Jewish until they were adults, and I’ve had responses from people who have always known they were Jewish who told me, in so many words, “So what else is new?”

And now that I am retraining my brain to replace good and bad with more specific descriptors, I have, on several occasions, found myself being Jewish, which is unlike any feeling I’ve ever had before. Being Jewish, in the way I’m being Jewish, is so deeply satisfying I’m tempted to say the experience is reminiscent of satisfying sex, but that would be misleading so I will resist the temptation.

What do I mean by finding myself being Jewish? Here’s a for instance. (By the way, the preceding sentence fragment feels ultra-Jewish to me, at least the way I hear myself saying Here’s a for instance.) I’m having a conversation with Marcia about the menu for our upcoming vegetarian Thanksgiving supper with Bill and Sally and Sal. As Marcia and I converse, I’m aware of a subtle shift in my accent and the enhanced ease with which words are coming out of my mouth. This shift is so subtle, I don’t think Marcia realizes, as I am realizing, that I am being Jewish. What’s more, I can feel that as I am being Jewish, I am wonderfully relaxed and, dare I say, more sure of myself. Yes, I dare say I hear a confidence, an ease of expression, and a different grammar defining my speech—a Jewish grammar accompanied by a slight Jewish accent and a full-body enjoyment of being Jewish.

What is Jewish grammar? You’re asking me?

Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist who is a pioneer in the field of neurobiology, frequently talks and writes about how the words we repeatedly use/think to describe ourselves to ourselves and to other people, create templates in our brains that dictate many of our subsequent thoughts and feelings and beliefs. In other words, if I tell myself “I’m a terrible singer” a hundred times a day for ten years, I will probably not pursue a singing career. Oh I might pursue such a career, but chances are better I will become an electrician or the owner of a hat shop.

Who knew that letting go of the concept of good and bad would result in my having several enjoyable experiences of being Jewish? Maybe my therapist knew.

Until now, I haven’t told anyone about these “Jewish moments” because part of the fun is feeling Jewish without making a big deal out of being who I am. Which reminds me of something numerous Buddhist teachers have said about meditation, and I will paraphrase what they said using what might be called Jewish paragraph construction, if there can possibly be such a thing.

So you meditate for twenty minutes every day for several years and you sometimes wonder, “Is this daily meditating doing me any good? Might my time be better spent reading cookbooks or vacuuming?” And then one day you’re at the grocery store and some schmuck shoulders you out of the way and snatches the magnificent zucchini you were just about to get, but instead of saying or thinking, “What a schmuck!” you are hardly bothered at all and you send loving thoughts to the schmuck as he hurries away with the zucchini you wanted, and then you return your focus to the remaining zucchinis, and there, partially obscured by a somewhat battered zucchini, you find a zucchini every bit as firm and beautifully shaped as the zucchini the schmuck stole from you. And you are struck by the realization that meditating every day has helped you become more accepting and tolerant and unattached to outcome, and the schmuck ceases to be a schmuck and becomes a human being with a character disorder.

Whether meditation is doing you any good is another question entirely because the concept of good is a tricky one, just as the concept of being Jewish is a tricky one. What’s so wrong with things being a little tricky? Isn’t life, after all, a little tricky? And isn’t Jewish paragraph construction, if there is such a thing, characterized by questions that are in themselves also answers?

Completion

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

Kindling Pile

Kindling Pile photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2015)

“It is only in literature that coincidences seem unnatural.” Robert Lynd

Several years ago I wrote a piece for the AVA entitled When Is It Done? in which I recounted my meeting with the poet William Everson in Santa Cruz circa 1971. I was hitchhiking on the coast highway, Everson picked me up, and being an aspiring writer and a devotee of his poet compatriot Philip Whalen, I asked William, formerly known as Brother Antoninus, a question I immediately regretted: how do you know when a poem is done?

Fortunately for me, he did not stop the car and tell me to get out. Instead, he thought for a moment and said, “So you decide this is what you want to do, and you do it for years and years and years, not because anybody gives you anything for it but because you want those poems. And you might work a line a hundred times and never get it, and then you’ll be sure you’ve got a good one and the next morning it reads like shit. But one day, after all that work, something shifts in your awareness, and from then on you just know. You just do. There’s no rule about it. You come into harmony with your feelings and you look at the thing and say, ‘Yeah. That’s it.’”

Now I am older than William Everson was when he gave me that ride way back when, and his reply to my youthful question still seems a good answer. There’s no rule about it. Something shifts in your awareness. You come into harmony with your feelings, and you just know.”

Or you don’t know. I know writers and artists who say a book or painting or recording project is done when they can’t bear to work on it any longer. I suppose that could be called a shift in awareness and coming into harmony with your feelings.

“The writer of any work must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out.”” Annie Dillard

One of my favorite paintings by Picasso is Paul In A Clown Suit, a portrait of Picasso’s young son wearing a harlequin costume and sitting on a chair. The upper two-thirds of the chair is black and makes a potent background for the boy, his costume composed of blue and yellow triangles, his reddish brown hair crowned by an odd black hat, his beautiful child’s face expressionless.

The bottom of the chair, however, is a bare charcoal sketch. This is also true of Paul’s feet, and there seems to be a remnant sketch of another leg and foot, unpainted and superimposed over the sketch of the bottom of the chair. Why did Picasso leave these parts unfinished? Or put another way: why did Picasso feel the painting was done?

I don’t know the answers, but I do know that if Picasso had painted every part of this painting and removed the remnant sketch of another leg, the painting would be lovely, unremarkable, and would not incite me, as it does, to consider the countless fleeting moments our brains transpose into notions of reality.

“Every existence in nature, every existence in the human world, every cultural work that we create, is something which was given, or is being given to us, relatively speaking. But as everything is originally one, we are, in actuality, giving out everything. Moment after moment we are creating something, and this is the joy of our life.” Shunryu Suzuki

For the last several months I have been writing the third volume of a fictional epic entitled Ida’s Place. Book One is subtitled Return, Book Two Revival, and Book Three Rehearsal. Set in a place reminiscent of where I live on the north coast of California and peopled with foreigners, artists, visionaries, brilliant children, and just folks, this is my first attempt at a multi-volume work—the process quite different for me than writing a single-volume novel.

Entering my fourth year of involvement with this large cast of characters, I no longer think about where the saga is heading or when it will end, and as a consequence I have been experiencing a wonderfully uninhibited writing flow.

“There is only one valuable thing in art: the thing you cannot explain.” Georges Braque

A couple weeks ago, Marcia went away for five days, and my usual three or four hours of writing each day became seven and eight, the momentum of the Ida saga lasting from morning until late at night. When I took breaks from writing to eat or work in the garden or go to town on errands, the story continued to speak itself, oblivious to my lack of pen and paper.

I thought the flow might slow when Marcia came home, but the pace never faltered. Then a few nights ago, I finished writing a scene, put down my pen, and felt something, a tangible something, sink from my head into my stomach, like an elevator going down and stopping abruptly—with something definitely in that elevator. And I wondered if the first draft of Ida’s Place Book Three was done.

So I posed the question to my muse: has everyone in the story arrived at a good pausing place? Yes. Okay.

I typed the last fifty pages of longhand into the IDA 3 document on my computer and printed out the entire opus to begin, as William Everson would say, working the lines. I have only a vague notion of what has gone on in these several hundred pages, and I am keen to find out. But first I will take a few days off from the adventures of Ida and her people to revel in the glorious spring.