Reading my own writing

This morning at breakfast, faced with a large stack of unread magazines and newspapers, I realized that I really wanted to go upstairs to my office to work on my own book project instead.

Although my own writing is clumsy and inarticulate, it’s never on a topic that doesn’t interest me. Also, if I don’t like a word choice or phrasing, if an important side point seems left out, I can just fix it right then and there.

It’s never perfect; there’s always some way to improve it.

In contrast, in this great collection of magazines––New Scientist, The Nation, Mother Jones, Natural History, Texas Monthly, Mad, The New Yorker, and more––there are occasionally topics of only minor interest; some articles are too long, some too short.

What can I do if I disagree with a word choice or think an argument is unsupported? Fume? Write a letter to the editor? It feels very passive compared to what I can do with my book project. For me the life of the writer seems far superior, not in a moral sense, but simply in the sense of attracting my time and attention.

But then I flipped through an issue of The New York Review of Books (August 19, 2021). For a reader, that’s always intimidating. Faced with hundreds of interesting new books, my write now strategy looks even more attractive.

I came across an excerpt from a new book by Wisława Szymborska, How to Start Writing (and When to Stop). It’s a collection of the advice columns that she wrote anonymously in the Polish journal Życie literackie (Literary Life) from 1960 to 1981.

My musings about writing over reading stopped cold when I read one letter in which Szymborska decides to console a writer rather than to give him/her some hope of publication.

A splendid fate awaits you, the fate of a reader, and a reader of the highest caliber, that is to say, disinterested—the fate of a lover of literature, who will always be its steadiest companion, the conquest, not the conqueror. You will read it all for the pleasure of reading. Not spotting “tricks,” not wondering if this or that passage might be better written, or just as well, but differently. No envy, no dejection, no attacks of spleen, none of the sensations accompanying the reader who also writes.

She goes on to describe the many benefits of being a reader, rather than a writer:

And there is also this not inconsiderable benefit: people speak of incompetent writers, but never of incompetent readers. There are of course hordes of failed readers—needless to say, we do not include you among them—but somehow they get away with it, whereas anyone who writes without success will instantly be deluged in winks and sighs. Not even girlfriends are to be relied upon in such cases.

So, where to go from here?

I decided that I had read enough; the cantaloupe was finished and the oatmeal was cold. I could still pour some more coffee and return to my writer’s garret. Like the Ancient Mariner:

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man
He rose the morrow morn.

Nature during Covid-19 times

[This post also appears on the Wellfleet Conservation Trust blog.]

In these locked-up times we miss large gatherings, concerts, dining out, and social visits. Many of us have lost jobs and contact with loved ones. It’s easy to assume that all our social interactions must be through Zoom, our meditations guided by YouTube, and our thinking trapped in endless narratives of the end-of-times.

However, the natural world remains to explore and enjoy. We can still watch the unceasing but ever-changing waves at the beach, walk through forests, listen to birds, check out the bees in the new bee house, and watch adorable rabbits eating our recently planted vegetables. With fewer cars and trucks travelling long distances the air is cleaner and living things are flourishing.

In his book, Confessions, Jean-Jacques Rousseau says, “I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think; my mind works only with my legs.” Rousseau’s walking was in the woods, not on a treadmill or in a shopping mall. His journeys remind us that our life cannot be separated from the natural world.

Walking in nature can be a social activity as well (six feet apart, of course). Informal connection can be deeper and more attuned to the needs we all feel in these times. We may still feel lost, but we have a chance to find both others and ourselves when we remember our role in nature.

The Trust asked supporters, trustees, and other lovers of nature what particular consolation from nature they are finding during these Covid times. You can see some of the responses in the June 2020 newsletter.

The dump lives on

My friend and former student Beena alerted me to a wonderful blog post by Nicholas Delbanco. It’s a celebration of Wellfleet’s Transfer Center from U-M’s alumni publication Michigan Today: The order of ordure.

Driving down the hill away from the landfill, windows shut against the stench of it, I congratulate myself on having completed my task. I am, after all, helping to organize the planet. “The order of ordure” — I try out a phrase — “the composition of compost, the transfer of trash, the way of waste.” There’s something deeply gratifying about such distribution. Every item has its place and all can be redeemed.

This is absurd, of course. We make small difference here. Rumor has it that the 16-wheelers hauling garbage lump everything together after our dutiful sorting. And day by week by month the waste accumulates again. But as the air clears and I open the car windows, I’m seized by the conviction that what I’ve done is similar to what I also do each day: distribute words on a page.

2016-08-22 10.57.53Delbanco writes as a summer resident. As a full-time one, I can confirm what he says, and perhaps add a little texture. During the winter, the Transfer Center remains as the top attraction in town, the place where you see your friends and catch up on gossip. But it loses the bustle that Delbanco sees and definitely the stench.

By the way, I don’t experience that smell as a uniform aroma, but as one that guides you through the site, noticeable at the bottle and cans area, a little stronger near the discarded sea shells and fishing gear, not so noticeable at the metal recycling or the mulch pile.

Delbanco also emphasizes the dropping off aspect. That’s of course the reason for the very existence of the Center. But he may not appreciate how much some clients (the “cadre of those who pick over what others discard”) find to remove from the site. Only some of those do it for cash.

We go to the dump (aka2016-08-22 11.01.46 Wellfleet Transfer Center and Recycling Station) with our Forester filled to its gills, but often return with just as much stuff. That leaves me with mixed feelings. On the one hand there’s a sense of the great find, such as the canoe we retrieved, which only leaks a little. We typically come home with eight buckets of compost or mulch for the garden. The swap shop often has the perfect item that even Amazon can’t find.

On the other hand, there’s a feeling of complete failure to progress. We use up Energy to make the exchange, but the Conservation of Mass is maintained.

12291159-the-enormous-room-now-available-on-web-bookscomDelbanco suggests that transferring and recycling trash is not so different from doing the same with words. He mentions E. E. Cummings in that regard, but may not realize a connection to Wellfleet.

William Slater Brown was a friend of Cummings, best known as the character “B.” in Cummings’s  The Enormous Room. That book details their temporary imprisonment in France during World War I. B. was arrested by French authorities as a result of anti-war sentiments he had expressed in some letters, and Cummings stood by him. Today, Brown’s daughter Rachel is a prominent photographer living in Wellfleet.