Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer Thomas Larson.
On a recent night, my son and I were stuck in ninety minutes of traffic, driving to the East Bay from the de Young museum in San Francisco where we’d been electrified by Richard Diebenkorn’s exhibition, “The Berkeley Years: 1953-1966,” and we were discussing the discipline of this great California artist, who died in 1993 and whose museum-filling retrospective I reviewed in 1998—the question on our minds was how did Diebenkorn create those deliciously messy, uncanny abstractions? I was glancing at a slip of paper, given out at the exhibit, with some choice lines from the painter. “Tolerate chaos.” “Be careful only in a perverse way.” And this: “Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.”
Hearing those palette-splattered verbals—tolerate, be careful, do search—I reminded my son of my own advice, the one thing I try to get across to any writer I work with, which is also, fundamentally, the flint that sparks my work and that my everydayness should be about: exercise my weaknesses more often than my strengths.
Every writer has strengths. She knows how, for example, to write reflectively, create a summary paragraph, delineate grief with more despair than volatility. She need not spend her days crafting these things, but here’s the problem. Because such strengths are easy to access, that’s exactly what she tends to do, over and over. And, since it feels good to do what we do well, writing is like the person with a long stride who is invigorated by walking uphill. What’s more, she’s often praised, when read or heard in conversation, for her abilities, which are incontestable, hers and hers alone, her mercurial personality, perhaps honed to a persona.
Every writer has weaknesses. No matter how hard he tries he can’t get the description to come out crisp, textured, as sensorially alive as it is when he sees it, the books packed like vertical sediment on his shelf (an image that took me desk-time to find). Why, he wonders, can’t the writing imitate the actual felt thing like the salty taste of a Schlitz malt liquor and its fermenty, burpy after-smack? Why doesn’t it just come to him? Because, by definition, the original is not available; that’s why it’s original. The right words have, on occasion, been steeped in his psyche long enough to bear a tangy brew. But many concoctions have not, which testifies to language’s permeability. So he kvetches and feels lousy that he can’t do it. He’s a talentless drudge with the painter’s pen, and he decides that a weakness is a flaw.
To congratulate your strengths and punish your weaknesses is to do what every writer does—be outsmarted by the psychology of the self when the psychology of the artist is there to free oneself of the rabid judgments writers parent themselves with, as though we must keep tending that bay and bark literature launched in us, namely, that talent rides in the front of the bus while work goes to the rear.
So what do I do, day in, day out? I work at my weaknesses, and this very post, netted now, is an example: trying to unearth a concept or idea that has not been unearthed before—though I admit to falling into the feel-good pattern of just writing and letting my top-spinning ability to create material just be, unadulterated expression, which is my Midas touch and which is magically in me/of me, like the drummer who beats out a pattern, three against two, on anything his drumstick hands touch. Pretty much whenever and wherever I exercise what feels right to me I’d just as soon die doing it than not.
I have to force myself back—call it mindfulness—from the things I know well for the processes I’m not as good at, namely, examining my claims and supporting them with facts. Every day, I learn again to write smart, let the cram and halt of my disputatious side show up more, a strength, but valuable only if it reveals a weakness.
I think that’s what my adolescence and early writing life (as such they weren’t much different) was about—the sweaty joy of exercising my potential, of writing, often daily, in my journal, not for no other reason than it felt carnivalesque to ring-toss words into some order with little regard for their meanings and over-regard for their subtlety, which is the way I thought Scott Fitzgerald, for one, made a first draft, (certainly not best draft), seldom thinking that he had some narrative thread going that grounded his flyaway fancy.
And yet I knew that such flights were my primordial connection to language, that the history of language had sparked in me, from birth on, a Vesuvian burst of thought, arriving simultaneously with the thought’s words, suggesting that thought is the words, punched out for the occasion (also known as the immoderate now), and their coming-into-being so originally confirms the mystical fact that the best writing we do is never prefigured.
What was the email I typed the other day in which I relished how fast the metaphor occurred to me, that is, post-metaphor. I was telling a student I would write a letter of recommendation but not right now because (I didn’t want to say I was too busy or “extremely full” [as they tell us the plane is whenever we board] with deadlines) but that “the hens are laying,” more than apt, I think. Where that metaphor came from I have no idea but its instantaneous arrival is a strength. So I put it in that column of OK, now, some razor-sharp allusions can be relied on, and as such should stand up for a while, at least, which may mean that the day, like today, I need it, baring dementia, it will be there.
Here’s what the art critic W. S. Piero says of Richard Diebenkorn:
He reworked his canvasses endlessly: what mattered most was being in the process of finding just the right deployment of painterly energies. So in a sense, even when he declared a picture complete—one swooping drawn line could pull all the elements of a picture into a satisfying, gorgeous form—it wasn’t really finished.
I wonder, do I—does my practice—tolerate chaos? My strength says I do. Isn’t this chaotic? My weakness says I don’t, and should/will, more often. The right deployment of painterly energies. A.k.a. strength and weakness, an old married couple, whose separation, let alone divorce, would be a… What’s the right phrase here? Give me a moment…
AND THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?
- My recent best book, which always shines on rereading, is Ted Kooser’s Lights on a Ground of Darkness. This sixty-page reminiscence is never cloying, though it does embrace his recollections of being a child, his parents, grandparents, and a beloved uncle in a small Iowa town on the Mississippi. We have the little boy anchoring us in time, 1949, and the adult ranging across history, which is a different time. Both times are occupied by one writer, one of the secrets of this little masterpiece. Another secret is that Kooser wastes nothing and, better, seldom repeats emotion, steers clear of hammering us with sentimentality. I think his achievement is to make a reminiscence, which is ever capable of falling into its own abyss, move and not just love itself and its past. There are repetitions or motifs: the constant mention of irises and the one-by-one death of the elders. But occupying the narrative with that boy’s self in 1949 makes all the difference in giving the book its rhythm. Which leads to:
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- In my writing I work at the rhythm of the prose (sentence by sentence or chunk by chunk). It’s my primary concern for out of it comes the emotional structure of a piece. My advice to writers is to listen to music, really listen for (and study, if necessary) how music makes time move, for it’s in time’s movement that we experience emotion and space and, eventually, meaning. We intuit how composers make music sad or joyous (and more), so you can steal from them the tonal energy of their repetitions, wanderings, creative fire, and more. Two who are absolutely essential are Igor Stravinsky and Keith Jarrett. I would also say that books lose interest for me when they lose their music and become wholly discursive. This is why I love the essay, longform journalism, and short books (30 to 40K). Much more musically can be accomplished in a shorter sphere. See Kooser.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- Something I learned from Jarrett is to shut my eyes or look away from the screen and compose lines as fast as I can, in essence, improvising or letting my hands and not my mind/eyes do the creating. It takes practice but it can be learned and done. It’s often effective when you’re stuck so you begin by asking, What am I trying to say? You’ll be surprised how the self who can’t quite say it suddenly starts to say it if you enlist a different speaking/writing voice.