Same as it ever was

Thoughts on influences of writing and dealing with The Plague.

I got an offline comment recently from someone who said that they don’t follow my blog much anymore because it’s just stuff written by other people. To this I replied they ought to read it, maybe starting with the blog’s description in the right column:

Metaphor is my blog on writing: the art, the life, the culture, the tech, and the inspiration. Plus whatever metaphorically floats my boat, tickles my Elmo, etc.

It doesn’t say my blog of my writing. It says on writing … and the inspiration.

To be sure, the commend wasn’t meant to be hurtful or derogatory. More than anything, it reflects the fact that we’re all drowning in data and it’s become a great challenge to focus and read deeply. That includes me; I often comment on news links posited to social media, based solely on the headline.

Tonight I saw this:

Opinion: “I hope that when both our daughters think back on this time, they’ll remember how many good people worked so hard to keep the world running — often at risk to themselves,” says NPR’s Scott Simon.

I commented: “Maybe they will remember all the people who out of love didn’t put themselves at risk and instead protected their family and community and made a future – and a future generation – possible.” Nice comment. I hope it made it seem like I read the article but I didn’t; I just read just the Facebook post. Time to move on!

But a blog is here for people who are looking for something to read for a few minutes, not a few seconds. And the blogger owes them his/her best efforts to make those minutes worth the investment.

Any blog about writing is essentially a blog about its inspiration, as well as its process and hopefully its product. None of that exists out of context. I read books. I listen to music, watch movies, listen to people, watch life go by. I share it and write about it and comment on it. That’s what writers do. We give attribution – credit where credit is due – and explore what if anything the inspiration brings.

If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.

Carl Sagan

Besides, it looks to me like at least 80% of what’s here is 100% written by me. My poems are shared here when I think they’re worth sharing

Speaking of watching life go by, we’re in Day 36 of quarantine here in California. I asked myself in my journal whether today feels like my real normal life, within the terms of quarantine. My first answer was No. It still feels like my real life got put on pause 5 weeks ago. This feels like life in suspended animation. It feels like we’re not free to get on with Life on Life’s Terms.

For example, I can’t pack a bag, gas up the car, and head off to visit my brother. Not only would that be two separate quarantines commingling. I would have to stop along with way – it’s over 400 miles – and risk infection. Not good. No going. I love my brother and my family.

I realize that my first response to the question is wrong. This is my life today. This is precisely Life on Life’s Terms. I’m just not psychologically acclimated yet. I’m still getting my footing in a situation that’s like crossing a dangerous stream of Time on a mossy, wobbly log. Watch your step there, Scouts!

This is the way it is right now. For some reason, the universe has inflicted us with a time of plague and we can’t change that. Until November, we can’t change the fact that the people tasked with providing common solutions and help on the national macro level are corrupt failures. But we can decide how we’re going to react to it all. And if we’re not to be among the selfish and addle-minded herd, we have to do the right and loving thing and effing deal with those terms life is setting for us. Stay Home. Stay Safe. For the Love of God and Everybody, Stay Apart.

Yeah, I’m saying that the people who are protesting orders to keep businesses closed and stay safe at home are committing acts of incredible selfishness; the moral treason of carelessness; not in any way love for their fellow humans. It’s not hate, it’s ignorant indifference. And as we’ve been taught by Elie Wiesel, the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference.

That’s what I think, and the thoughts are mine and were written by me. [OK, I’m being a little hard on the person who gave me that comment. I’m just hoping if they read the blog again, they’ll actually read the blog this time.] When you read something someone else has written you’re giving the gift of your time. Writers and other artists should never take the gift of time and attention lightly. I am grateful always.

____________________________________

Now with apologies to The Talking Heads, here’s something paraphrased.

You may find yourself
living in a quarantine.
And you may ask yourself
how did I get here?
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful life.

Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down.

Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Letting the days go by
Same as it ever was

SHARING

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.
– Rodin 

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)

i   

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.   

ii   

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.   

iii   

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.

The Trick

The trick, for me, is carving out time for things and trying to do them with some wit…. I am not ready for the world until I’ve had my 45 minutes with four espressos in the back garden with earbuds in…. I spend a lot of time on my own, and mostly in my office. You can emulate these obvious role-model traits by excavating yourself a cave in your back garden or taking over a room in your apartment, fitting it with uncomfortably bright lights and way too many screens, filling all the spaces with books and skulls, playing nothing but music that sounds like it’s emanating from a dead moon, and waiting for everyone to leave you alone forever, and then dying in seclusion and being eaten by cats.

– Warren Ellis

I suppose we all have to find what works best for us. I tend to stay up too late, hunched over my notebook, getting frustrated, and muttering great philosophical maxims like Sartre’s “Hell is other people.”  But for a long time I’ve wished to get a grip, buckle down, pull up my britches, etc., and try Toni Morrison’s approach.

“I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark-it must be dark—and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come… Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.”

– Toni Morrison

So what works – or, like me, maybe sometimes almost works – for you?

Guesswork

It is a lonely life sometimes, like throwing a stone into the deep darkness. It might hit something, but you can’t see it. The only thing you can do is to guess, and to believe.
– Haruki Murakami

Differently

“I write differently from what I speak, I speak differently from what I think, I think differently from the way I ought to think, and so it all proceeds into deepest darkness.”

~ Franz Kafka

Something to Do

I found a list of daily journaling prompts online and the one for yesterday was “you have film for one picture.” I’ve also been thinking about the word shimmer. It’s a good word. So I’m working on a poem inspired by that idea and that word. Maybe it’s a poem; it’s something that wasn’t there before.

Here’s a quote for your day:

“There is always something to do. There are hungry people to feed, naked people to clothe, sick people to comfort and make well. And while I don’t expect you to save the world I do think it’s not asking too much for you to love those with whom you sleep, share the happiness of those whom you call friend, engage those among you who are visionary and remove from your life those who offer you depression, despair and disrespect.”

— Nikki Giovanni

Analog Abides

“My memory is certainly in my hands.
I can remember things only if
I have a pencil and I can write with it…”
– Rebecca West

I used to write a lot of posts on this blog about writing tools: office suites, word processing software, low-distraction text editors, note-taking apps, etc. This is going to be like that but very different, because analog abides.

I’m writing this post in a Moleskine notebook that I bought in 2011. It has ivory paper and a smooth hard black cover. It has held up well and been appreciated, humble as it is. I’m writing with a General’s Cedar Pointe #333 HB pencil, a natural wood tool made in the USA of sustainable California incense cedar. Natural means that unlike most pencils, it’s not painted. It has a cool black ferrule and a black eraser.

My choice of writing implements means that no app needs to be launched, though either the notebook or the pencil could be launched, if I were provoked. No batteries are involved, no lights are shining in my eyes, and I can depend on these devices not to suddenly beep at me.

Analog is not dead. My journey to this revelation began last summer. I was furiously plowing through an array of productivity apps, trying to find the best way to get a grip on everything I have to do for my job, my home, writing life, etc. This had been going on intermittently for years. I would routinely decide that whatever system I was using wasn’t working; it didn’t really fit my needs. I believe I’ve tried every to do and project management app offered in a free version before 2017, usually in combinations of task manager (e.g., Producteev, Any.do, etc.), note-taker (Evernote, OneNote, Google Keep), and calendar (Google). I was frustrated but I was completely immersed in the digital realms and looked there for all solutions.

I’m not exaggerating that digtial immersion. After nearly a quarter century of daily computer use, I had begun dreaming in computers. Not dreaming of being a human using a computer; I dreamt of nothing but what was within the frame of the monitor, within the functions of the program. I thought that was pretty twisted but went on searching for the best digital tools.

My search for productivity options led to YouTube videos and blog posts, mostly about the latest updates or the best tips and tricks for all those applications I’d been trying and hating forever. One night I watched a video about the Bullet Journal method, using a paper notebook to plan and track tasks, events, etc. I learned that people all over the world use variations of this method, some minimalist, others extravagant and artistic, employing a variety of notebooks.

I decided to give it a try, but opted not to buy one of the trendy or popular brands like the German Leuchtturm 1917, or the French Rhodia. Not my style. One thing I already knew was that anything too precious doesn’t get used up, it gets pampered. (Like my 7 year old Moleskine). So I ordered an AmazonBasics notebook, simple black hardcover, with good enough paper, for $8.99. I have continued to buy them. I keep my notes and tasks list in these basic lined notebooks, I work in the computer without living in it as much, and I’m less aggravated. I don’t dream computing anymore.

In October I decided to apply my new love of notebooks to my personal journal. I stopped failing to keep a journal on computer and started really journaling – a lot – with one of those Amazon notebooks. They’re 240 pages and I’m well into my third one. After Christmas, I discovered Field Notes, simple but awesome little pocket notebooks made in the USA. More about them in a future post.

Until the Ides of March, I wrote in my notebooks exclusively with pens; mostly my favorite pen, the Pilot G2 gel pen, black .07mm. I hadn’t used pencils for many years. Then one day in March, I happened upon a box of Dixon Ticonderoga pencils in a drawer. Just for fun, I sharpened and tried a couple of the Ticonderogas and decided they write too light. (Remember I was used to heavy black ink.) I did some googling and learned that my box was made in the USA and pre-dates the millennium. Dixon has made pencils in China and Mexico since 2000.  In fact, I used to brief cases for law school in pencil, and these probably survive from that time, the mid-1980s.

I soon discovered that pencils are interesting – their history, manufacturing – they’re fun to write with, they feel right to the mind. They’re (mostly) surprisingly inexpensive. A box of pencils for the price of a coffee or two. They’re tactile, organic, and real. I have been learning, and become an enthusiast for pencils. I found there are podcasts and blogs, countless YouTube video reviews, and social media groups of people whose hobby centers on pencils, pens, and notebooks. There are worse things to be enthusiastic about, especially in these bleak days of the rise of fascism, resurgence of racism, and The Great American Stupid. But I digress.

I’ve learned something about myself through this process; something more important than the fact that I was a little too dependent on technology to meet all of my everyday needs. I learned something about my personality.

I am a very tactile person. I value the inner life of the creative mind and enter the world by writing about it, but I find the sense of touch in outer life profound and essential. And in these times of extreme sensory overload, of sights and sounds that can in no sense be called real, the tactile sense can be a soothing touchstone for consciousness and Being, and a consolation in mundane life. It can even be an antidote to the psychological impacts of digital burnout.

The quilt presently and often on my bed was made for me by my grandmother. She gave it to me for Christmas 2000, and she passed away in 2004. Sometimes when I get into bed I’ll run my hand over it for a moment and believe that I have been loved, I am loved, I share love in this hysterical and sometimes demoralizing world.

I like the feeling of touching cloth, leather, and wood. I love the feeling of warm water in the shower. The feeling of a warm cup of coffee in my hands is nice. I enjoy the textures of paper, copper, and stone. I have 2 small polished stones on my desk, both imbued with thoughts of people I love. I pick them up and hold them sometimes.

Organic and tactile, pencil and paper have become the imperative first step in my creative process. Always, my favorite thing to touch is a dog. Happiness, Charles Schultz said, is a warm puppy.

Antonio Machado wrote:

“All over I have seen
caravans of sadness,
pompous and melancholy men
drunk with black shadows.”

The meaning of life is found in the life being lived and it’s a process of self-discovery. A deep life is a good life. But it’s not easy. We live in a destitute time, what Heidegger would have called “the world’s night.” So it’s incumbent upon each of us to find what consoles and inspires us and hold fast: the music that gives us joy, the distant tree that defies the lowering sky, the words that we know to be true, the faces and memories that we recognize and love. And write those things down.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Pencil Notes:

In writing this post, rather than sharpening one, I used the following pencils:

General’s Cedar Pointe #333 HB pencil. It’s a favorite because of the natural finish, which feels good in the hand. I got a dozen from Amazon for $6.94.

Palomino Golden Bear, made in Stockton CA. Possibly my #1 favorite. It’s blue with gold imprinting, with a silver ferrule and a white eraser. It’s a little darker than the Cedar Point, writes smooth. $3 for a dozen from pencils.com. That’s 25 cents each and it’s a good pencil.

Mitsubishi 9850 HB General Writing pencil, a beautiful deep maroon thing with gold lettering. Made in Japan. Japanese pencils are generally considered excellent; it’s very smooth. It’s the most expensive I have at $8.90 for a dozen from Amazon.

PaperMate Miardo Black Warrior, a round pencil with flat black finish. It writes dark and is a great pencil for the price. It was a total impulse buy in a drug store, about $2 for the package of 8.

It’s important to buy pencils made of sustainable wood sourced from managed forests.

 

 

 

The End is Never Told

A writer out of loneliness is trying to communicate like a distant star sending signals. He isn’t telling or teaching or ordering. Rather he seeks to establish a relationship of meaning, of feeling, of observing. We are lonesome animals. We spend all life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say—and to feel— “Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.” Of course a writer rearranges life, shortens time intervals, sharpens events, and devises beginnings, middles and ends. We do have curtains—in a day, morning, noon and night, in a man, birth, growth and death.
These are curtain rise and curtain fall, but the story goes on and nothing finishes.
To finish is sadness to a writer—a little death. He puts the last word down and it is done. But it isn’t really done. The story goes on and leaves the writer behind, for no story is ever done.
– John Steinbeck



The storyteller makes no choice
soon you will not hear his voice
his job is to shed light
and not to master

Since the end is never told
we pay the teller off in gold
in hopes he will come back
but he cannot be bought or sold

– The Grateful Dead, Terrapin Station

Finding Time

 

Now what challenges me is finding the time to write. I suppose this is the pact I’ve made because I’ve published my work and if I want to keep publishing my work there is all this work around the work; writing things to get people to read the original thing I wrote can feel so absurd!

Jenny Zhang

Bite Me

My stories run up and bite me in the leg — I respond by writing them down — everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go and runs off.

– Ray Bradbury
science-fiction writer (22 Aug 1920-2012)