What can a pencil do for all of us? Amazing things. It can write transcendent poetry, uplifting music, or life-changing equations; it can sketch the future, give life to untold beauty, and communicate the full-force of our love and aspirations.
Now all my teachers are dead except silence.
So said W.S. Merwin, poet who died today aged 91. In college he was one of my teachers. At a remove – he didn’t teach at my university – but genuinely, mystically. In a way that mattered.
I mourn his passing, also remotely, as a poet and reader of poetry mourns the passing of all poets. In this destitute time, we need all the poets we can get. But Merwin was no stranger to destitute times, and he earned his stripes.
Farewell, then. Peace.
Around me the earth is quiet
and still. If it speaks, saying
get up, watch the snow moon
rise, touch something real,
I do not hear it.
My fearful mind
is louder than the wind.
J. Kyle Kimberlin
Creative Commons Licensed
We are all powerless against the force of disorder, the sheer chaos, of a universe fleeing the scene of its own creation. But at least we have dogs.
That’s just a brief note copied from last night’s journal entry. And it’s funny: that looks so much more formidable handwritten in that little notebook. It’s half a page! Looks more profound too. But such is the writing life. Sometimes you think you’ve caught a dragon by the tail, but it’s just a hummingbird with other flowers on her mind.
Someday I will think about you
for the last time.
It might be the last time I think
about anything, or it might be
sooner than that.
It’s hard to calculate the curve,
to plot the diminishing rate
of remembering your hair,
your hugs, the smallness
of your shoulders as you
receded into memory,
upon the obscure arc
of my remaining life.
But I know the point
is out there somewhere,
like the luminescence
of whitecaps in moonlight
on a night of dying wind.
J. Kyle Kimberlin
Creative Commons Licensed
Sit down and put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.
– Colette, author (28 Jan 1873-1954)
I’ve been thinking about how much we like to share our thoughts with other people, and how that behavior has changed in the 30-plus years that I have been writing things down and passing them around.
It’s easy to succumb to the temptation to re-post unoriginal stuff. On January 5, I shared a gif video I saw on Facebook, just because I thought it was cute and hilarious. But that was way off topic for this blog. I did it because it was guick and easy and I was restless with the fact that the blog needed content. Those are the posting criteria of social media, not creative work.
In creative work — creative work of all kinds — those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward. Which is something altogether different from the ordinary. Such work does not refute the ordinary. It is, simply, something else. Its labor requires a different outlook — a different set of priorities. – Mary Oliver
As a creative person, my job is to make something that wasn’t there before, eventually to release it, let it go. Then it doesn’t belong to me anymore; it’s been given as a gift. How can this be true if I’m responding to arbitrary external validation and feedback?
It used to be that I would create a poem, a story, or a letter, and revise it and correct it and re-type it, then finally – perhaps months later – share it with other people. A poem might be shared aloud at a workshop or a reading, or published in a journal or a book. That could take a year or two. In the meantime, I would be working on other things.
There was no hurry, is my point. There was no rush to keep filling the void with something – anything – to remain visible. I wasn’t visible or connected with an audience between events or publications. My work was a very private pursuit, and if I gathered bits of wisdom – poems, quotations, etc. – they were mine to keep to myself. I was woolgathering, and that was part of the process.
I remember one of the first times one of my poems was published. I mailed it in the fall. A few months later, in deep winter, the literary journal wrote to accept it and say my work would be published in the spring edition …of the following year. I’d probably reworked and polished that poem for six months before I mailed it. So that means it was about two years from first draft to publication.
That was the 20th century, the last millennium. Then came the Web. But at first and for years, only companies had websites. To have a personal site was the mark of a serious geek; which I was, so I did. Generally, if you wanted a piece of writing on the Internet, and not just your AOL page, you still had to hand it off to someone else.
Patience is also a form of action.
Now that process of time, effort, patience, and often disappointment has collapsed to days, hours, even minutes. Nobody can tell us No anymore, condemning our work to the drawer. The creation of the blogosphere made us all who write also editors and publishers. We set our own standards and we decide what goes out and when. And so long as our standards are high enough by our own reckoning, that’s all good.
I believe this about writing:
Writing is work. It takes a lot of contemplation, concentration, and out-and-out sweat. People tend to romanticize it, that somehow your work appears by benefit of some mystical external force. In reality, to be a writer, you have to sit down and write. It’s work, and often it’s hard work.
– Wendelin Van Draanen
Social media (meaning Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc., not blogs) creates a shortcut from discovering an idea to expressing it, which I find troubling because I fear it is rewiring our brains. Now if I encounter something interesting – a quote, an image, a song – my first impulse is to put it slap it up on Facebook. If I take a good photo, it goes on Instagram. Social media bypasses the essential process of ideation, the hard work. It’s the live broadcast, unedited stream of banal human consciousness, largely devoid of reflective self-awareness. We open our streams, and feed back to the beast its own excrescence.
Like and share, like and share, like and share. Ad infinitum.
Of course, there are exceptions. I sometimes see thoughtful, helpful, kind, and original things posted on social media. You can tell someone spent at least minutes making something where there was nothing, and gave it out as a gift. That’s a good thing. And I belong to a couple of groups in which people are makers of imagery and ideas, and no one is trafficking in contention or discontent.
In general though, social media is an echo chamber and the impulse to create little echoes grows more urgent as the pace of technology increases. This is a problem because the echo chamber also involves a feedback loop. All social interactions involve feedback – positive or negative reinforcement. Positive means I should continue the same type of output; negative means don’t. Basic biology.
Anything that submerges us so deeply in external validation not only anesthetizes the creative process, but scientists now believe it’s actually rewiring our brains.
What is the solution? Should we delete our Facebook and Twitter accounts? Yes, probably. It might come to that. But I think the first step is mindfulness and intentionality. We who would create, or who find ourselves unhappy and unfulfilled in the echo chambers of 2019, need to be very aware of what we are feeding our brains, what we are offering our friends, and do both with the greatest deliberation. We who would be discerning should try to avoid being part of the engine that repeats banality and falsehood, drama and cultural hyperbole.
Second, be selfish. What we gather for our creative process needs to serve our purposes first. This one is mostly for me; it’s not my job to find things on Facebook, or anywhere, to keep my Facebook friends entertained. It’s certainly not my function to make sure everybody sees what everybody is seeing. My job is to feed my soul, to “Make visible what without you, might perhaps never have been seen.” – Robert Bresson.
I think Wendell Berry knows what’s needed better than anyone:
How to Be a Poet
(to remind myself)
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.