Over Coffee: The art of reading, writing and caring

As my need for escapism intensifies in an environment of smothering political chaos, stacks of books are piling up around me. To keep from obsessing over the madness emanating from Washington during this past year of demagoguery and discontent, I’m pondering the nature of literature as a deterrent to despondency.

Oooops. Wait. My phone is vibrating across my desk. A news alert. Forget it. Mueller can wait. It’s finally the weekend. Back to literature. Coffee close by.

The value of literary art is aptly rendered in an “Author’s Note” by Marilynne Robinson published Sept. 24 in The New York Times Book Review.  “In almost every major literature there are works that make you love being human, and make you love and revere the humanity of other people,” Robinson writes in the column adapted from an essay entitled “Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.”

Is there actually something that RIGHT NOW could make me love the humanity of you know who? Or, if not that, could I at least despise a few people a little less by, say, late next week?

Of course authors of the books I read deserve credit for their dedication to story and plot and character development, and for respecting and enlivening language while probing and expanding creative expression. But the deepest, most genuine nature of the literary arts requires involvement and even dedication on the other end; pushing a literary work to its highest possible level requires involvement from the reader as artist. This reader is one who knows to listen when there is something to hear, to contemplate when a deeper principle or insight can be unearthed, to imagine, extrapolate and allow the story being told to expand beyond the pages, outside the book’s covers.

Two books published this year – the novel “A House Among the Trees” by Julia Glass and the short story collection “Fresh Complaint” by Jeffrey Eugenides – left me writing down excerpts because I didn’t want to lose the feelings of recognition and resonance gained through the wisdom and insights of the authors. These works allow me, as the reader, to become a discoverer with something to claim as my own after being led through frontiers exposing much to treasure.

Perhaps certain excerpts inspire me because of what my subconscious is probing when I commit to considering deeper meanings underlying the author’s observations or descriptions. With all that’s been on my mind since, oh, I don’t know, about a day after the last U.S. presidential election, it’s apropos for the first excerpt included here to be a deft one from the Eugenides’ short story “Great Experiment,” written in 2008. “One’s country was like one’s self. The more you learned about it, the more there was to be ashamed of,” he writes.

One of the characters in the Glass novel pulls me in with this: “So much in her life is still so unfamiliar that sometimes she mistakes fear or uncertainty for regret. Not that she can pretend she has no regrets.” Another gem: “But that’s the netherland of night distorting what she knows by day, which is that she is back in the middle of life, the roiling, muddled middle, and it’s hers. …”

Yes, indeed. Nice stuff coming off these pages – like the essence of the “roiling, muddled middle” that feels like it’s all mine today.

In one passage, Glass describes a walk across New York’s Central Park: “Neither of them knew the paths, which seemed deliberately confusing, as if designed to foil your sense of direction, not deviously but mercifully, as if the park were urging you, Listen! Life is not a mission. Get lost a little, will you?

Yes, indeed. Get lost in a story, let it challenge you to think and experience, to question and contemplate, even to imagine, dread or desire.

In “Complainers,” the first story in Eugenides’ new collection, I found wisdom and reassurance: “Pay no attention to the terrors that visit you in the night. The psyche is at its lowest ebb then, unable to defend itself. The desolation that envelops you feels like truth, but isn’t. It’s just mental fatigue masquerading as insight.”

Ah yes – desolation born of tainted attempts to mask, manipulate and deny the truth. (Sound familiar?)

Eugenides is masterful in getting to the heart of easily misunderstood or overlooked characters, as he does in interpreting observations of an 88-year-old woman suffering from dementia. “Looking at the snow, blowing around beyond the window glass, Della has the feeling that she’s peering into her own brain. Her thoughts are like that now, constantly circulating, moving from one place to another, just a whole big whiteout inside her head.”

The interpretation by Eugenides of what Della thinks and feels warms with clarity, even though those in her life often are mystified by her behavior. “Going out in the snow, disappearing into it, wouldn’t be anything new to her,” Eugenides writes. “It would be like the outside meeting the inside. The two of them merging. Everything white. Just walk on out. Keep going. Maybe she’d meet someone out there, maybe she wouldn’t. A friend.”

These works by Glass and Eugenides have made me care about their characters, to want to understand them. I also want to know more about these writers and their motivations, and about how they get from the blank page to such meaningful written words.

About the mission facing all writers, Robinson writes: “When you enter into the dance with language, you’ll begin to find that there’s something before, or behind, or more absolute than the thing you thought you wanted to express. And as you work, other kinds of meaning emerge than what you might have expected.”

Literature – complete with artistic mystery and written intrigue – is providing much more than a distraction from the concerns I have about the social disintegration around me that began accelerating a year ago. I’ll keep reading to increase my understanding of people and places, of threats and less sinister developments. And I’ll keep appreciating the work of creative artists who venture into the unknown and help me become a discoverer in my own way.

As Robinson says: “Writing should always be exploratory.”

Same with reading, my escapism of choice.

Into an empty sky

Sometimes I can’t write if I hear a clock ticking.

Or if the room is too quiet. Or if it seems my surroundings are too still, like every reminder of life has been squeezed out of the room, the atmosphere, the universe. (Confession: When this happens, I am prone to exaggerate, repeat words or ideas, even disregard grammar rules.)

For some reason, I continue breathing. Here at the keyboard, I am stilled but alive, yearning for expression, but paralyzed.

I have a pulse. I have neural recognition and mobility. I think I have function and purpose, but I cannot prove it. I know I am breathing because I am not in physical distress.

I need, I don’t know – SOMETHING – to trigger synaptic activity, to translate SOMETHING, ANYTHING to the page. A sound, a rhythm, a reminder that time is passing and I am on Earth to record something, register a feeling, highlight an idea, or something, somewhere, even if only through a fictional character, a made-up scene, a story that doesn’t exist – and won’t exist – until I give it contours, until I infuse this manufactured reality with meaning, construct a plot, add depth, or dream to rise beyond razored edges with poignant conflict.

What is this beast that confounds me? (Truly an agile, almost Shakespearean transition.)

This beast, this monster – it’s something so big it loses size, like being overwhelmed, or buried, or ignored, by silence. (This is not a contradiction, but rather irony suffused with dissonance.) Ticking, ticking. Relentless. And then, this beast – also mundane, at times solicitous in its own domain. I search for the forgotten, perhaps abandoned and sometimes pulsating life form within Poe’s heart, another creature that never dies.

My intellect tells me nothing holds me down, but I can’t move. I honestly CANNOT MOVE. (OKAY, I GOT TO THE CAPS LOCK KEY. BUT TRUST ME, I CANNOT MOVE IN A MEANINGFUL WAY. AT LEAST NOT, RIGHT, NOW.)

IF ONLY I COULD HEAR THE TICKING OF A CLOCK, COULD KNOW LIFE GOES ON, COULD BELIEVE THOUGHTS AND COLORS, TEXTURES AND MEMORIES – THESE ALL GIVE MEANING TO MY EXISTENCE BECAUSE I WILL COMMUNICATE ALL THAT I SEE, HEAR, FEEL. I PROMISE!

But here, nothing.

ONE DEEP BREATH. 

EXHALE.  

ANOTHER.

Exhale.  

I’m moving again, perhaps more confident, more assured of why I am here, at the keyboard, in this time, this place.

I am the writer, the one who describes, relates, understands, conveys. I inform, interpret, analyze. I share. And then —

Illusions take shape. (Is that even possible?)

With fingers poised above home row, reality tugs at my brain. I fight the urge to push back. It’s the invisible demon again. (At least I think this devil is invisible; I can’t see it, but I know it’s there.) Right there, yet again, perched on my shoulder. Then the jumping, up and down, a sour voice hissing in my ear: You can’t write! You can’t write.

Next, more menacing: You can’t write. Not now, not ever. Never! Never! Never!

(The devil gets italics AND boldface. You caught that, right?)

Another day: I sit down to write and stop before I even get going, before I’ve found a reason to smile because I like that word there, or this idea nudged alongside a deft description here, or that unplanned cadence or measured tone, perhaps even alliteration that works but seems more like a lucky find than a developed result. Before I get to any of that, I stop, move away, decide something has to be done before I can get going, before I get to be the musician playing keyboards, underscoring today’s existence with a steady beat, adding melody to musing.

Do I hear a clock ticking?

Today is one of THOSE days, when sound – any sound – is an unleashed fury, the wind doesn’t soothe but singes, more like a dreaded goodbye from a close friend than a harbinger of welcome change or harbor of comfort. Then, like so many times, silence becomes the treasure in today’s realm, even though the clock, just, keeps, ticking. …

… on and on and on …

This is what it’s like when I can’t write: The clock keeps ticking, or it doesn’t. Or the devil convinces me I should be doing something else because there are so many other things that need to be done and, well, you know, THE CLOCK IS TICKING!

Or it’s not.

If a door is shut, then it needs to be opened. Same with windows. And the inverse is true as well: If a door or window is open, it needs to be closed. Maybe I should start a load of laundry before I write; maybe then I will think I’m being productive and more likely to ignore distractions because I am convinced that I’ve earned the right to sit down and write.

So how does the next scene go?

I’m headed upstairs, walking through the kitchen when I see the green light glowing on the dishwasher. The solitary green light means only one thing: the cycle has finished. I’ll just take a minute, empty the dishwasher, get a bottle of cold water from the fridge, and then I won’t have any reason to stop writing once I get going.

I put the last glass in the cupboard, close the silverware drawer with my hip. Then, I see it: One of the bulbs in the fixture over the fireplace is out. Where did I put the spares? I know I bought extras the last time I went to the store, or someone did. I know we have more bulbs, and it’s a lot easier to read with all bulbs in place. …

… and on and on and on …

There are so many reasons not to write. So many battles to fight to get to the keyboard, so many challenges to overcome to start writing, and so many hassles that bedevil my best creative efforts, however they present themselves.

Now the blank black sky of my cherished pre-dawn hours is blueing. A creeping exhaustion pervades. I lift my fingers off of the keyboard, anchor my elbows on the blond wood of my desk, rest head in hands.

Desperation, hints of fear, and then, at last, hope rises. Perhaps the biggest challenge is embracing solitude in quiet hours. Chasing affirmation, I close my eyes. I begin typing: 

         The writer writes

         to stake a claim

         in the empty sky.

 

My writing life

When I was 7 or 8 years old, I announced to my family that I wanted to be a writer.

I scrawled my ambition on a blue-lined piece of notebook paper, my chosen pen name and job title emblazoned in bold letters: “M.G. Crane — Writer.” I taped the paper to my bedroom door.

My bemused mother asked: “What are you going to do now?”

“Write,” I said.

I turned our wooden piano bench into a makeshift desk, pen and stapler to my right, paper stacked on my left. I positioned our family’s Royal typewriter so I could reach it comfortably from my perch on the edge of the bed.

My mother later told me I clacked away for what seemed like hours on that old typewriter. I wrote and wrote. Or so I claimed. My mother didn’t remember ever seeing the result of my labor.

Many years later my father added his take: “That racket was more than a little annoying.”

I still can picture him in his worn orange chair in front of the TV as he reminisced about my early writing forays, shaking his head and smiling wryly, acting like it was yet another time when my childhood antics were tough to endure.

I wasn’t fooled; I detected a sense of pride, however faint and obscured by his usual teasing.

When my high school guidance counselor asked me about career goals, I described my dream of the moment: “I want to live on a mountain in Montana and venture down to the post office twice a week, once to mail my column and once to pick up my check.”

My writing life turned out to be a little different from the aspirations I harbored back then.

Someone may have written under the name “M.G. Crane,” but it wasn’t me. I decided I liked having others know what I had written. No pen name for me.

Another monumental shift occurred as I evolved into a professional journalist. After initially dreaming of being a sports columnist, I decided in college I preferred seeing my name in boldface type over hard news stories on Page 1. Being humble is nice, but sometimes the ego refuses to be denied.

And about that vision of myself in Montana: I must say, it still sounds attractive. But I have been there only a few times and only on vacation; I have yet to publish a story under a Montana dateline.

We don’t always get what we think we want when we’re young. In my case, that yielded intrigue, not disappointment.

I’ve witnessed triumph and tragedy, glory and senseless suffering while reporting from three continents, from hellholes, enchanting cities and quaint villages, from yurts sheltering nomads on the Central Asian Steppe to marathon matches on Center Court at the U.S. Open in New York.

Some days I believe my writing matters. Some days I’m not so sure.

When I look back, I eventually conclude that I wouldn’t do it any other way if given a second chance. What a great feeling.

And who knows? I may get to that Montana summit yet.