The blues, the horror, the everyday, and the I don’t know what

I’ve been reading and listening to a lot lately and I’d like to talk about it now if you don’t mind…

The Blues:

While trying to write the other weekend, I was listening to some classic Appalachian blues and some of the lyrics were so awesome I had to write them down.

With great titles like Hesitation Blues, The Sky is Falling, and Way On the Outskirts of Town how could theses songs not be completely wonderful? There’s something so simple and true about the blues. It’s like reaching down and grabbing something straight out of your gut. What that something is exactly, I’m not so sure but that’s one of the great things about the blues, and most music for that matter–you don’t have to understand it to know it’s great.

Some of my favorite lyrics…

Put your man in your bed, put your husband down on the floor.

I was a playboy, I couldn’t be true. I couldn’t believe I really loved you. But when you left me, oh how I cried. You don’t miss your water till your well runs dry.

See what you done done.

Don’t you marry no concrete man.

Look over yonder, tell me what you see. Yonder come the blues running after me.

I could tell you about my life. And keep you amused I’m sure. About all the times I’ve cried. And how I don’t want to be sad anymore. And how I wish I was in love.

The Horror:

I finished Stephen King’s On Writing a couple of weeks ago and it had some fun stories and good advice. I’ve never actually read King’s fiction (I’ve been meaning to pick up some short stories of his but haven’t gotten around to them yet) but I’ve read his essays and articles before and I’m always interested in how different types of writers approach the craft. King’s book had some good practical advice on how to live and write at the same time. I’m sure there’s some piece of literary criticism out there, or maybe just another blog, that articulates this better but there are writers and there are storytellers. I think you can be such a good writer that you can tell a story about farting (actually farting is pretty funny and entertaining so that’s a bad example) or about um… sitting in a chair, and it will be wonderful. On another note, you can be a pretty mediocre writer but if you have wonderful magic-filled stories then they’ll be wonderful as well. And I don’t just mean Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings magic. I also mean Cormac McCarthy, Jack Kerouac, or I dunno, Steve Tolz magic. (If you haven’t read A Fraction of the Whole yet, oh man, go get that book right now because it’s so much fun.)

But yes, Stephen King is a story-teller more than a writer. But he’s a great writer as well. He’s maybe not my favorite kind of writer but he is quite good.

And, as you can imagine, his writing book/biography had some great tips but it was also just a fun story about one writing man’s life. Some favorite lines…

It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.

You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair–the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs and I will shout it from the rooftops.

Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe.

You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.

The Everyday:

This week I’ve been reading a collection by John Updike, Pigeons Feathers and other stories. I had only read a couple of Updike stories here or there in college or in The New Yorker–I had probably read more about Updike than his actual stories. But, oh man, he is everything everyone said he was. His writing is completely delightful and amazing. Some of his descriptions are simply wonderful. They remind me of why, haha, I want to write. But also why I read. Why I go on reading new things and looking for new authors and stories and words and word combinations to fall in love with. Because maybe, just maybe, in that next book I open I might find and fall in love with something like this…

A barn, in day, is a small night The splinters of light between the dry shingles pierce the high roof like stars, and the rafters and crossbeams and built-in ladders seem, until your eyes adjust, as mysterious as the branches of a haunted forest.

I know just that feeling but I could never express it so beautifully. Or what about this…

What did we say? I talked about myself. It is hard to hear, much less remember, what we ourselves say, just as it might be hard for a movie projector, given life, to see the shadows its eye of light is casting. A transcript, could I produce it, of my monologue through the wide turning point of that night, with all its word-by-word conceit, would distort the picture: this living room miles from home, the street light piercing the chinks in the curtains and erecting on the wallpaper rods of light the size of yardsticks, our hosts and companions asleep upstairs, the incessant sigh of my voice, coffee-primed Molly on the floor beside my chair, her stockinged legs stretched out on the rug; and this odd sense in the room, a tasteless and odorless aura unfamiliar to me, as of a pool of water widening.

Ahh… I love it! Or, okay, so this next passage is best read within the context of the entire story but I simply can’t help myself…

He dug the hole, in a spot where there were no strawberry plants, before he studied the pigeons. He had never seen a bird this close before. The feathers were more wonderful than dog’s hair, for each filament was shaped within the shape of the feather, and the feathers in turn were trimmed to fit a pattern that flowed without error across the bird’s body. He lost himself in the geometrical tides as the feathers now broadened and stiffened to make an edge for flight, now softened and constricted to cup warmth around the mute flesh. And across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers played idle designs of color, no two alike, designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him. Yet these birds bred in the millions and were exterminated as pests. Into the fragrant open earth he dropped one broadly banded in slate shades of blue, and on top of it another, mottled all over in rhythms of lilac and gray. The next was almost wholly white, but for a salmon glaze at its throat. As he fitted the last two, still plaint, on the top, and stood up, crusty coverings were lifted from him, and with a feminine, slipping sensation along his nerves that seemed to give the air hands, he was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.

Finding God and heaven in a pile of dead pigeons? I mean, come on, does it get any better than that? Ha, not for me I suppose. But I love the sublime in the everyday. I love it when authors do that. Find that. Create that. (OMG, it’s like so totally Virginia Woolf.) And, my goodness, there is so much beautiful and perfect in that small piece of prose I can hardly stand it. It’s enough to make me hold a hand to my heart and say things like, My goodness. Ha, like I’m some kind of old woman out of breathe from a walk through the park or a scandalous scene in a move.

So ya, I really like Updike. I recommend him. Go on, go get you some Updike. You won’t regret it.

The I Don’t Know What:

So to supplement my other reading and mix things up a bit I’ve also been reading Barry Hannah’s Airships. I’m not really sure how to describe Hannah but the word raw comes to mind. Raw and maybe dirty. Maybe it just seems authentic. I dunno, something about him and his writing reminds me of the blues lyrics I was writing down up above. Maybe some art comes from the heart and some comes from the gut. Then again, maybe it all comes from the same unknown place and I don’t know what I’m talking about. Either way, here are some passages….

She sat on the rear fender and they went off in the damned most bizarre juxtaposition you ever saw. Similar to a circus tandem but not for fun. This was loyalty and romance, brothers. I know he was leaving blood up the road, though you couldn’t see it at night. The bike was wobbling all over the place, but they were going ahead.

That was some man, that boy.

In the alleys there were sighs and derisions and the slide of dice in the brick dust.

Some of us are made to live for a long time. Others for a short time. Donna wanted what she wanted. I gave it to her.

The old man who’d told his story was calm and fixed to his place. He’d told the truth. The crowd on the pier was outraged and discomfited. He wasn’t one of them. But he stood his place. He had a distressed pride. You could see he had never recovered from the thing he’d told about.

I am her always and she is my always and that’s the whole trouble.

I’m not sure how to end this little post of mine so I’ll sum it up with one more quote from an old poetry professor of mine…

Books are great. I like books. People should get ’em.


Off-balance, heavy at the mouth, we are pulled forward…

Enjoying Why, How to Write from This Recording. These collections are so full of fun advice and beautiful sentiments. (And some of the photography is delightful as well. Joan Didion looks like a total movie star, smoking and drinking in front of her Stingray.)

Explore them yourself:  Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4

Or read some of my favorite passages:

It’s as if we feel constantly other from the person we were the day, the hour before, and this sense of flux is terrifying, we have to crystallize, fix every moment of ourselves in order not to disappear altogether, as if our very identity were constantly threatened with dissolution.

A good writer should be so simple that he has no faults, only sins.

Don’t try for too many characters. The center of gravity should reside in two: he and she.

As Francis Ponge puts it, “Man is a curious body whose center of gravity is not in himself.” Instead it seems to be located in language, by virtue of which we negotiate our mentalities and the world; off-balance, heavy at the mouth, we are pulled forward.

I don’t believe that less is more. I believe that more is more. I believe that less is less, fat fat, thin thin and enough is enough.

Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.

Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.

I guess something about my voice and my projection of myself meshes with the poems. That is nice, but it is also rather saddening because I can’t sit down with every potential reader and read aloud to him.

Sometimes I think heaven must be one continuous unexhausted reading.

What some people find religion, a writer may find in his craft or whatever it is — absorption of the small and frightened and lonely into the whole and complete, a kind of breaking through to glory.

Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it.

Over yonder

So I have this old Believer planner that I made it to the end of recently, and before throwing it out I went through the pages and found some old notes and quotes and random thoughts. Somehow I can’t throw them away completely so I thought I’d toss them out here instead…

The shape of his head, the pale yellow and white of his hair and beard, the immeasurable meaning of his black eyes, the richness and breath of his manners, These I used to go and visit him to see.  – Whitman, I Sing the Body Electric

His is still my favorite dialog, the dialog that rings truest, that’s at once very naturalistic and musical; it’s really remarkable how difficult it is to do what he does between quotation marks. – Dave Eggers on Salinger

Don’t you sometimes sit down with a book, pour yourself a glass of wine or a mug of tea, and just feel unbearably smug? – Deirdre Foley-Mendesohm

The incredible journey that is consciousness

How foul a creature I am. I hate my fellows. I am thin and wasted by this consuming passion, my reason is gone and I feed myself on dreams. – David Garnet

It’s a thrill, imagining his onward journey – on book-swapping

One factor that unites the literary homeless throughout the ages is libraries.

It is true we are weak and sick and ugly and quarrelsome but if that is all we ever were, we would millenniums ago have disappeared from the face of the earth. – East of Eden

This is a great place to wait for Godot.

Do we brave the hazards of feeling–the whole messy spectrum of it–or play it safe, forsaking the sensitivity we possess as children to live a life that Holden famously calls “phony”?

I’ve been in my own head all day, which is kind of fine since I like it there.

“A real adventure. That’s what I want.”
“Well then you’re going to have to do something stupid. It’s the only way to make sure you’re in a real adventure. You have to smack yourself in the face with it.”

Where exactly is yonder? And why is it always way over or down over? Why not up over or diagonal over? Why not right in front of our faces?

The familiar rhythm…

Now begins to rise in me the familiar rhythm; words that have lain dormant now lift, now toss their crests, and fall and rise, and fall and rise again. I am a poet, yes. Surely I am a great poet. Boats and youth passing and distant trees, ‘the falling fountains of the pendent trees.’ I see it all, I feel it all. I am inspired. My eyes fill with tears. Yet even as I feel this, I lash my frenzy higher and higher. It foams. It becomes artificial, insincere. Words and words and words, how they gallop–how they lash their long manes and tails, but for some fault in me I cannot give myself to their backs; I cannot fly with them, scattering woman and string bags. There is some flaw in me–some fatal hesitancy, which, if I pass it over, turns to foam and falsity. Yet it is incredible that I should not be a great poet. What did I write last night if it was not poetry? Am I too fast, too facile? I do not know, I do not know myself sometimes, or how to measure and name and count out the grains that make me what I am.

The Waves, Virginia Woolf