Sunday, January 1, 2012

With Screams and Blood

Quite often, what strikes me about a piece soon after I’ve written and sent it into the world is how very weak it seems, in terms of completeness and accuracy, compared to life on the street. For instance, not long ago after finishing what I felt was a fairly nice blog entry, I treated myself to part of an afternoon in a used bookstore. Well before I arrived, not five minutes from home, I was struck by the rich variety of attitudes, mannerisms, postures, gaits, and facial expressions in those I passed along the way. Immediately I recognized, for what must have been the ten thousandth time, that my starry-eyed vision of the world has little if any practical meaning in the lives of most people, while their own activities and affairs have everything to do with, and are in many ways similar to, mine. Granted, our approaches in some cases must be different. But considering the limits of human nature, how different can they be? And, most important, can I honestly say that mine are any more effective? Or are they only part of an ongoing conversation with myself, a gee and haw designed to keep me from going insane? Whichever, it’s clear to me that a great deal of it is habit. I think the way I do, and wrestle with problems the way I do, because my mind is trained along that course. In following that course, I meet with familiar obstacles and frustrations, which in turn reinforce what at best is a fleeting identity. Steal my memory, pluck a loved one from my midst, and watch me fall apart. All that I am, quickly becomes all that I was: an anxious child looking for a way to say how I feel. When I was eight years old, I stepped on a piece of cactus that had somehow made its way from my mother’s flowerbed into our front lawn. What did I do when the long needles penetrated my bare heel? How did I respond? With screams and blood.

I feel I should be writing that way now.

I handled a great many, and even sniffed a few, but I bought no books that day.

The store was busier than usual, considering it was after Christmas. Without trying, I eavesdropped on several conversations.

The eighth volume of Grolier’s sixteen-volume set of William Hazlitt’s Life of Napoleon was missing. At eight dollars each, I couldn’t afford the other fifteen books anyway, even though the edition was numbered and limited to 1,000. Wants and needs? As if anything were ever that black, and that white. Damn fool.

There were two young women upstairs, sitting near the railing. They were so beautifully subject to their sexual imperative that the books on the table between them were charged with fantasy and light. Their words reached my ears not as meaning, but as song.

Further on, not far from where I found the Hazlitt volumes, a young man was praising Project Gutenberg. One of the girls he was with replied, “Yes, but it’s not the same as holding the books in your hands.”

It’s not the same, in other words, as holding life — as holding a newborn baby, a flower, or a wet calf fresh from its sweet mama’s insides.

I do not say practical application, because I think it does. For better or worse, how we live as individuals has a direct bearing on what goes on in our world.


Wine and Words said...

I am trying to retrain my mind. The habit of it is not healthy for me. Damn but this old dog barks at the attempt, whimpers and whines, wonders when...if will throw a bone.

William Michaelian said...

I suppose life is the bone. It certainly is enough for all of us to gnaw on. But of course we are life, not apart from it. What we can’t hold in our hands we hold in our minds; and even between them there is no fine distinction.

Thank you, Annie.

Joseph Hutchison said...

Your post brings to mind a passage I ran across this morning in Annie Dillard's essay "To Fashion a Text." She's addressing the "common notion that ... writers differ from other people by possessing enormous and equal portions of talent and willpower." Not so, she argues:

"Writing a book is like rearing children—willpower has very little to do with it. If you have a little baby crying in the middle of the night, and if you depend only on willpower to get you out of bed to feed the baby, that baby will starve. You do it out of love. Willpower is a weak idea; love is strong. you don't have to scourge yourself with a cat-o'-nine-tails to go to the baby. You go the the baby out of love for that particular baby. That's the same way you go to your desk. [...] Caring passionately about something isn't against nature, and it isn't against human nature. it's what we're here to do."

It's what we're here to do. And you're doing it, William. I just want to say that I appreciate your efforts....

Happy New Year!

Anthony Duce said...

I wonder these things too, well maybe not as clearly as here, but I do. There is a tendency to find life in the creating of versions of life in our various art forms, and avoiding dealing with what is real. There is traveling required to hold the newborn child. There are fears to deal with to be in the real world. Sometimes I forget these things, thinking I am living when in my own imagination.

Elisabeth said...

Funny to find you grappling such issues here, William. I've been thinking about them, too. The way our lives in our writing can take on a certain level of self-referentiality that can sometimes seem trite compared to the myriad stories out there that do not get an airing because those who experience them do not choose to write about them, as we do here.

And when we try to write about the events we observe that are always as you say so incomplete,so inaccurate, so much viewed through the lens of or own imaginings that I begin to wonder about their value.

And like you, I'd love to hear more of the story of your childhood experience when you stood on that cactus. How did it feel, with screams and blood?

William Michaelian said...

Happy New Year, Joe, and a hearty thanks for your kind words and the insightful essay passages. It’s true: where love is absent, talent and willpower — and here let’s add intellect — are like fool’s gold, and often destructive and dangerous at that. Real intelligence, at least as I understand the word, requires love. Love doesn’t make intelligence, necessarily; rather, it is inherently so. We don’t need to read books, pass tests, and have a high I.Q. to be intelligent — just as the opposite doesn’t prove our intelligence, only our level of intellectual competence. And of course nothing is absolute. There are shades within shades within shades — or at least so it appears to me, as one all too happy to publicly grasp at straws.

William Michaelian said...

Thank you, too, Anthony. So true about the fears when we are “out there” in it. But I would argue (although I’m obviously not the arguing type) that you are living, and living deeply, when you are in your own imagination. If we are of life, as I mentioned to Annie — and I don’t see how we could be otherwise — then how can what we imagine not be real? Let’s say, instead, that what we imagine is real in another dimension. Certainly the imagination is necessary to our health and survival. And I’m purposely not distinguishing between our mental and physical health, because they too are really just different facets of the same thing. That said, yes, there is “safety” as well in dwelling extensively or exclusively in our artistic dream worlds — just as there is safety in shunning them. We need simplicity, and we need balance.

William Michaelian said...

That’s just it, Elisabeth — to answer that, I could not proceed without my imagination, because it is such a large part of what memory really is.

To “incomplete” and “inaccurate,” I would also add, in many cases, “better.” Facts are only part of the story. We humans, as creatures of memory and imagination, need more than facts. We’re here to experience and to see, but also to dream of what we might experience and see. Facts are a comfort. But are they really to be wholly trusted? Are they permanent and absolute? Will what we know today (if we really know it and don’t only imagine we do) still be valid tomorrow or a century from now? That doubt, I find, is every bit as comforting. It’s why I write, why I get up in the morning.

In the end, it isn’t the value of my writings that I doubt. I only question their degree of value. I want them to be better. I want to see more clearly. As for others, it isn’t always a matter of choosing to write about their experiences. It’s a matter of them being able to. It’s a matter of them being able to see them through fewer filters. A rose is a rose — until you really look at one. And so we’re always writing for others, even when we’re writing for ourselves. If we say something and say it well, if our vision is clear, it might encourage vision and honest self-expression in someone else.

Thanks very much for your observations. What a lovely tangle this all is!

rahina q.h. said...

beautiful reading William and especially loved your wish in the previous post... and so onward to 2012... warmest wishes r.

temporal rooms said...

i watched my brother take a rough board
and with a hand plane take an even curl, and then another, and another
off its four foot length. i leave him alone and do not interrupt him. i notice he is in a trance like state.

after i ask him where he traveled, and in his way
he explained that he went to the future where he saw a woman and a man
with their hands on the soon to be counter top speaking of their day as they prepared a meal. he said he was thinking of the past and the first house he ever built and of our father in his small workshop with the same plane in his hand. he said he thought of how i saw things, life, and what we give to others. he was thinking about his life. the board is beautiful, not a nick or a divot as i ran my hand over the grain of the wood.

there is love in that board
there is life.

this is just a story of what i
witnessed the other day.

his story
and all of ours.

thank you Michael.
with your words we are somehow enabled just a little more.

vazambam said...

How illuminating

A way to begin anew
Year in, year out.

Clarity, clarity, surely clarity is the most beautiful thing in the world, A limited, limiting clarity I have not and never did have any motive of poetry But to achieve clarity.
--George Oppen

William Michaelian said...

Onward, Rahina. But let’s walk. Let’s take our time. Thanks for reading, and thanks for your many thoughtful responses during the year.

William Michaelian said...

Robert, your story is a fine example of what goes on in my own head when I write — and also when I read, because in both cases I usually entertain two or three conversations at a time, which, when I’m lucky, inform the text and vice-versa. I suppose that’s why I’m not very good at remembering names and dates. I’m always looking and listening for what reveals our character and humanity, as well as a sense of the times — and to be fair I should also add, my own ignorance. Thank you.

William Michaelian said...

Clearly, Vassilis, there are words between us. Thank goodness they do not form an obstacle, but a bridge.

-K- said...

"For better or worse, how we live as individuals has a direct bearing on what goes on in our world."

It's wonderful to start the day with coffee and to be reading this.

William Michaelian said...

Coffee and words — two of my favorite drugs. Thanks, Kevin, for mixing mine with yours.

Aleks said...

May I just wish you and your loveones a very happy new year with much of everything needed and much of good love,light and peace? :O)
Happy New Year

William Michaelian said...

Yes, Aleksandra, you certainly may — especially if you allow me to wish you the same. Thank you.