Posts Tagged ‘Annie Dillard’

AIM FOR THE CHOPPING BLOCK

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Today, on the first day of the “winter” break, there’s much to be done.  Christmas cards. Dry cleaners.  Post office.  Groceries.  Arsenal vs. Man City rerun.  But the impulse to write hit me and all else fell away.  My body seems to know when it’s time to hit the keyboard.  Or mini-me (my mini-lappie) or even a notepad.  My body told me what to do today.  Specifically, it let me know that it was time to write about this book:The Writing Life

Some books are like jewels, like my “portable feasts” books.  This book is a perfect, sweet opal, full of charming vignettes.  But it’s so much more than charm.  It’s opalescent quality comes from these heartfelt, LIVED moments in real time.  Discoveries were made, analogies were generated, faith was lost, faith was restored.  Through it all, Dillard’s humor winks at us in daring and in cheekiness.  “Aim for the chopping block”, she writes.  The physical act is not the objective.  Write towards the vision. 

 

Once, in order to finish a book I was writing and yet not live in the same room with it, I begged a cabin to use as a study.  I finished the book there, wrote some other things, and learned to split wood.

Simple conversation, on the surface, but rub it a bit and wisdom shines through. 

(1) Living with writing: it’s a bit like having a child in the house – or a tenant.  Sooner, rather than later, they will need your undivided attention, no matter what else of import may be occurring.  You are the only one who can deliver that attention.  You can’t hand it off to a nanny or a text message.

(2)  Writing that occurs while you’re writing something else.  The entire time I was working on my last post, I was thinking about this one.  It’s awkward and annoying, but typical for me.  One idea begets another.  It’s actually one of the easier things to handle when writing for a specific objective.

(3)  “Learned to split wood”.  Mental links to physical.  Mental activity tied to physical activity.  That’s why writing and typing are so satisfying.  I’m thinking and generating and rehearsing and arguing.  In my head.  My body is washing dishes, ironing, grading papers, talking with someone.  Not always, mind you.  Sometimes I just plain close my eyes and rehearse something in my head, or play with shapes. 

The current’s got me.  Feels like I’m about in the middle of the channel now.  I just keep at it.  I just keep hoping the tide will turn and bring me in.

God, when I was writing my research paper on “The Dream of Gerontius” by Newman, this is what it felt like.  My vision had no shape, no objective other than to cram in other people’s thoughts and either agree or disagree. It was hard!  I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it.  But I just kept re-reading the poem – the sections where Gerontius or his soul were speaking.  Making comments about what certain lines sounded like, what they reminded me of.  I researched the Latin bits (the only part I truly enjoyed).  So my first, second, and third drafts sounded more like marginalia than erudite scholasticism.  But after about five pages of observations, translations, and kvetches, I had enough wood to grow a stump.  I saw a couple of different patterns I could exploit.  I started to chop some wood, aiming for the stump.  I managed a decent paper.  I tried to do right by the research process.  My insights were scholarly, if not very far-reaching. I was happy with the end product.  I had chopped enough wood.  But I never enjoyed it.  What I did enjoy were the small moments – a turn of phrase, the seamless fabric of quotes and original wording, shaping the vision, working with Latin.  Lots of swimming and a lucky tide.

The written word is weak.  Many people prefer life to it.  Life gets your blood going, and it smells good.  Writing is mere writing, literature is mere.

This is why people don’t like writing – because you can only be admired for it in hindsight.  Never while it’s happening.  While it’s happening, you are judged harshly for not doing something “active” and “useful”.  When it’s all done, though, the tune changes.  It’s a thing created.  After it’s done, it looks like it was work.  When you were working on it, you just looked lazy.  This is the exception to the rule that you can see more clearly from a distance.  Writing doesn’t look like much when it’s happening.  But if you could see inside the brain, you’d see  the synapses firing like crazy and blood flowing through the creative, then the analytical parts of the brain; one then the other then both.  In teaching, this is why non-English people have trouble taking writing seriously. 

You don’t realize how much work it is until you have to do it yourself.  Then you realize you can’t do it well; it’s not as easy as it looks, an denigrate it even more.  _____________________________________________________________

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Back to Nature–Books Whirlybinge

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My last post was in September.  I had just started graduate school, and since then, it’s been a “mad coupla months”!  Reading and writing for every book, for quizzes and tests. Abstracts, research papers, annotations. I love it!  Writing for school is kinda chill.  It satisfies a hunger that can’t be fed by anything material.  All the reading and writing works like Slick50 in my brain.  New words and ideas are firing sparks, making new connections – synapses snapping all day long in a jazzy funk rhythm that knows no time and no boundaries.  My mind is so active and firing on all pistons…

But it’s Christmas holidays now – what some people call “winter” break.  Qoi?  Brutha, pleez!  Down in South Texas, the kindest thing I can say is that it’s NOT 100 degrees F. 

So what’s my point? Where, even?  Well, I was writing an informal essay for every novel, interpreting Middle English, analyzing, synthesizing, assessing – the whole Bloom’s.  Writing for the blog seemed redundant.  Also, I wondered whether writing about the same book here and for class might create a conflict.  I knew in my heart, there would be a significant slip differential between how the work was represented for academic purposes and how I felt about it personally.  Case in point: PATTERN RECOGNITION by William Gibson.  The protagonist Cayce is ridiculously hip and cool in her anti-logo fetish, but the novel itself is well-boring. Snail’s pace. Grim, gray other-world that’s a cross between Graham Greene and Ray Bradbury, except not interesting.  But through academic eyes, it’s a disturbingly visionary story.  Cayce talks about people she doesn’t ever see, chats online with people she never sees but once or twice. Her life has almost nothing to do with human interaction and a lot to do with cyber-communication.  Are we headed there or are we already there?  Geddit?

So I let the blog go for the time-being.  But now that it’s the hols, let the variety begin!

BOOKS BOUGHT

Saturnalia, Volume I: Books 1-2 (Loeb Classical Library)[1] Lucian, Vol. 7: Dialogues of the Dead / Dialogues of the Sea-Gods / Dialogues of the Gods / Dialogues of the Courtesans (Loeb Classical Library, No. 4[2] Genealogy of the Pagan Gods, Volume 1: Books I-V (I Tatti Renaissance Library)[3]
Juvenal and Persius (Loeb Classical Library)[4] Boccaccio, Beauvau and Chaucer: Troilus and Criseyde : Four Perspectives on Influence[5] Days of Reading (Penguin Great Ideas)[6]
One Continuous Mistake : Four Noble Truths for Writers[7] How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students[8] The Consolation of Philosophy (Norton Critical Editions)[9]

 

[1]  I really enjoyed Somnium Scipionis which led me to pick up this SATURNALIA of Macrobius.   LINK to good online overview of this work.  I also have this Loeb by Cicero – De Officiis (Walter Miller, trans.).  LINK to online overview.

[2]  Effing Cool, Irresistible titles!

Product Details[3]  Again – Effing Cool Title. It’s early days but it’s sounding like a crosMs between Bullfinch’sMythology and Ovid’s Metamorpheses.  Loving it! (LINK to online version)  (Who the hell needs Effing SparkNotes for Bullfinch’s Mythology???)

 

[4]  My Medieval Lit prof talked about these satires and I had a Pavlovian reaction to the word “satire”.  That being, ears perk up, blood flows a little faster, I start thinking of clever wordplay, double-entendres, taking the piss, etc.  I shan’t rule out a touch of salivating. (UofMichigan Collection)  I finished reading the six Juvenal satires and, while there was a strong odor of whingeing, the translation was accomplished with a good ear for standup comedy.  Very Lewis Black in nature.

image[5]  4 Perspectives on Troilus and Criseyde.  Pure intellectual spelunking. Highbrow fun.  It reads like the author’s doctoral dissertation, though. What a wonderful advantage to be able to do research in more than one language.  For all that English is wonderfully comprehensive, I now feel incomplete that I can’t read German or Italian well enough (yet) to do more thorough research in Medieval literature. (LINK to online version) My favorite version of T&C is George Phillip Krapp’s rendition in verse.  It’s out of print, but I managed to find a copy through www.ebay.com

[6]   Ahhh, Proust. You most nerdy of nerds. Is there a French word for “nerd”?  Do the French even need one?  You might think not, but then again, Franck Ribery.  C’est une tare’.  Une grosse dinde. 

Product Details[7]  I actually ordered this book in 2009 on the recommendation of my student teacher that semester.  I lent it to a friend because I started reading the other book that ordered with it.  Haven’t seen it since but it’s cool.  That’s a good sign, I think. Beautiful cover design. Very easy to read. It’s kind of like A Writing Life by Annie Dillard.  It just has that kind of “become one with the pencil” kind of vibe.  It’s actually a great apologia for writing, as is Dillard’s book.

[8]  Not here yet

[9] Not here yet.

BOOKS READ

A Writing Life (Annie Dillard)

One Continuous Mistake

Satires of Juvenal and Persius

Navarro’s Promise  (Lora Leigh)

Geneology of The Pagan Gods

Pattern Recognition (William Gibson)

“Simulacra and Simulations” by Jean Baudrillard (Chapter 7 of Baudrillard’s Selected Writings, Mark Poster, ed.)

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