- It’s time to do some writing.
- Fuck me.
- I’m serious.
- I can tell.
- You just –
- One word down, then another –
- And another, exactly.
- You know what gets me?
- It sounds so easy. Just sit down, or stand, whatever works, and then just start writing anything. Just set words down and pay attention and the words will just come of their own accord.
- That’s not so easy.
- What – ?
- “Words will just come of their own accord.” That’s an act of faith on your part. Faith that if you begin the words will follow. The weight’s on you to begin, then it’s pretty much stay the hell out of the way. It can’t be the same experience each time you write, is it?
- Now that you mention it, no.
Let me make one thing clear on the front end of this piece: why someone writes is their business. No artist of any kind is under any obligation to explain why he or she creates. Responding with, I’m sorry, but that’s none of your business, is a just response. It is no one’s business.
As far as I’m concerned, whatever it takes a writer to put words on a page is fine with me. First off, the page can be a hard place to get to and, once there, the necessary experience of being fully present in the moment can be heavy lifting at times. Its the words, the writing that I care most about. An actor who hopes to win an Oscar is no more betraying the craft of acting than a writer who hopes to win a Pulitzer is betraying the craft of writing. Wanting or hoping for an accolade is not a betrayal of creative purity. To think it is is misguided in the best light, and rubbish in any other light.
I have no problem explaining, to some extent, why I write. For some years now my short answer has been pretty much the same: Sometimes I write because I want to, always I write because I have to. I suppose I could polish that sentence into finer stuff, but I’m leaving it as it is because it was born that way.
It is the sanctuary of language itself that brings me to the page, writing or reading. As far back as I can remember, books and writing have provided sanctuaries I could depend on. Even when I was homeless they were they. I am not by nature a thief, but, when I was on the street, I had no problem at all pinching paperback books off those always-squeaky! book racks in drugstores.
Language is a living thing for me. Words are living beings; they have shape, movement, sound; they each have their own pulse; they can be moody. I short, words have personality, every damn one of them.
And then, of course, there is this: language is great company. I am never alone when I write or read. Like I said: Sometimes I write because I want to, always I write because I have to.
The best writing advice I ever received was given to me by Louis Sheaffer, a staggeringly wonderful writer in my view. Mr. Sheaffer received a Pulitzer Prize for the second of his two-volume biography of playwright, Eugene O’Neill. Another remarkable writer and person, to put it mildly.
I met Mr. Sheaffer at his home in Brooklyn Heights around 1980. I’d been bold enough to mail him a script for a play I’d written with a letter written by my nervous hand asking him to read it. And he did! He called me, and invited me to his home, an apartment that was a writer’s workplace. I remember a large and long wood writing table and index card files, everything was wood; it was a beautiful sight.
It is only now I realize Mr. Sheaffer made me feel less alone as a writer. That I was unpublished in any way at the time was irrelevant to him. He knew I was a writer. That this might not sound like much to some is yet another irrelevance.
The task of writing is one of those things that requires, not just being alone, but being alone as completely as you possibly can in the moment you are in. When writers know they are safe with each other, the camaraderie is intimate and glorious, and humbling.
So here is the advice Mr. Sheaffer gave me. “Whatever it is you want to write, read a lot of it. If you want write plays, read a lot of plays, novels, read a lot of novels, poetry, read poetry,” and so on.
Let me tell you, for me, he was spot on. I’m right currently reading a novel called The Hamlet by William Faulkner. His writing is Picasso in English. He takes sentences where most others don’t tread. It’s not a matter of fearing to tread, in the least. It’s usually a matter of not seeing the trailhead, as it were.
Charles Dickens’ writing displays an understanding of people, of children (bless him) and life’s environments so thoroughly I just wish I could have met him and thanked him and hugged him. I will re-read a sentence or paragraph or section because I want the experience again! Do not people listen to a song more than once! I’d avoided Dickens for some knuckle-headed reason, no doubt rooted in the poison soil of judgment, and then, around 1990, thinking about Mr. Sheaffer’s advice, began reading him. Started with his first book, Pickwick Papers.
Going to my grave without experiencing Dickens’ writing would be hell all on its own.
Mr Sheaffer in August 1993 in the Long Island Hospital in Brooklyn, New York, the same hospital that saved my life after I was held up and shot in 1984.
An amazing experience, life.
In times of upheaval, noise, and fear, like those we’re going through now with the Trump administration’s penchant for dishonesty, disregard for equal rights, and seeming dislike for democracy itself, finding healthy places of refuge are important. I can’t tell you what the healthiest places are for you, I can tell you what they are for me.
Books, music, dance, nature, love, are all sanctuaries for me. In his essay, “Nature”, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “Here is a sanctity which shames our religions, and reality which discredits our heroes. Here we find nature to be the circumstances which dwarfs every other circumstance, and judges like a god all men that come to her.” I agree with Emerson, far beyond the reach of any mastery of words I might have in my possession.
For me, the sanctuary found in nature’s embrace protects the soul while the sanctuary in a loved one’s embrace protects the heart. We are all connected.
And yes, of course, music. Classical, jazz, international, Springsteen, the Beatles, and so on. The right music can take the blues away and allow an already happy day to strut its stuff in the clouds. Nature and music aside, it is safe to say books are my primary refuge. They have been for nearly as long as I have memory.
Of all the gifts my parents gave me, I rank my love of reading at the top. I read thirty to forty-something books a year on average. I am baffled by those who go through life without them. No doubt they are aware of other sanctuaries life offers that are utterly lost on me. I hope so. We all need them, and, more importantly, we all deserve them. From my days of homelessness to now, being connected to a book makes the shifting currents of life easier to manage.
Through good times and bad, if you’ll permit me the use of an all too worn phrase, I’ve been part of the infinite number of worlds found in the pages of books. Along the way I spent time with Dickens and Steinbeck, Edith Wharton, Jon Dos Passos, Whitman, Updike, Anna Quindlen, James Salter, and on and on and on. My mind has traveled the sentences their minds created! And, along the way, I’ve hung out with Pip, and listened to Steinbeck’s Charley bark like crazy at the bears in a canyon out west. I spent time with Lincoln and his cabinet in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s, “Team of Rivals.”
Your refuge can be a rich resource of knowledge. I gobbled up Shelby three-volume, “Civil War: A Narrative,” a collection of work so extraordinary I almost believed I was living in the 1860s and nowhere else.
Taking healthy care of yourself is not an act of disloyalty to anyone else. Moreover, remembering to take care of yourself, a retreat into a loved sanctuary, a conversation with a friend, say, will make you far more effective when you turn your focus to the benefit of others. Something we all need to do in today’s climate.
Writing is a place I’ve been visiting for quite awhile now. I’ve discovered that if you visit often enough you look up one day, and you’re a citizen of writing. I’d have it no other way.
Being a writer simply means one thing: write. What you do with it is up to you. Whether you send it out for publication, keep your work in a drawer, or throw it away, you’re still a writer. It is easy to get trapped in the propaganda quicksand of marketing and making money and the quest for fame. And if you do become famous and make lots of money, what, in the long run, would that mean? In the long run, not a damn thing. Because in the long run you’ll be gone, but your writing won’t. And that there’s some good news.
I have a wide-ranging relationship with writing. Sometimes my words become journal entries, poems, short stories, books, memoir, essays. And of course there are the blog pieces, many of them op-ed in nature as they take some to task, put folks on the spot. Oh well…
Now I’ve been on my own for a long time now, since I was 16 to be exact. That’s forty years and counting. I think people who find themselves without family find places of refuge, some healthy some not. God knows I sought refuge in some unhealthy places. But there were some healthy places of refuge too: writing, reading, music and the sanctuary of nature.
It’s nice being a citizen of writing, of reading, of music, nature, life.
My thought for you, my dear reader? Remember to live. You are a citizen of life, and maybe writing too.