On writing – Oct. 29, 2017

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 That I was unpublished in any way at the time was irrelevant to him.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.



To be held and to hold

There is not enough holding each other going on. Not enough hugs. That warm-kindness gift between beings when, for the time it lasts (and then some, if you’re lucky), you are caring and cared for. Those who hug for effect’s sake rather than sincerity’s sake are not included in this missive.

I would gladly hug Charles Dickens for saying, ““Have a heart that never hardens, and a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts.”

There is an abundance of evidence telling us the presence of touch improves our quality of life and the absence of touch reduces the quality of life. “Touch makes our world real,” is one of the  salient points made by Alberto Gallace and Charles Spence in their book, “In Touch with the Future: The sense of touch from cognitive neuroscience to virtual reality.” Spence works out of Sommerville College, in Oxford, England and Gallace is with the Department of Psychology at University of Milano-Bicocca in Italy.

In a time when technology (driven by government and big business (I am repeating myself)) draws us out of self and into their control the importance of being truly present in the moment and present with another in the moment is, I fear, fading.  Pairs of eyes by the thousands staring at handheld devices unaware that they are slowly but surely being fed whatever the powers that be want them to be fed. 

Which is why to hold someone and be held by someone is one of the purest forms of sanctuary life offers.

Hug those you love, let them hug you back. Hold them. Allow them to hold you. Springsteen was right. Sometimes it all comes down to wanting “a little of that human touch.”

Addiction to technology is not about life, to be held and to hold is.

Days of contemplation

As I begin setting these words down I am listening to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, music my father would listen too when he wanted to relax and release the tensions and anxieties of the day. I listen to them now, not just for the same reasons he did, but to bring him close to me. The day my father died my ability to feel safe being me in the world died with him. I was 15, he was 55, way too early on both fronts.

I am inflicting no special form on this essay, other than that of staying with my thoughts and setting them down as accurately, openly and honestly as possible. If I am going to set this down for you to read, you deserve all three elements.

Recently I have been contemplating how best to shape what I currently see as the home stretch of my life. There are certain things I know for sure:

  • I want to write. Not just offerings in this blog and for remarkable publications like the newspaper Independence Today, but short stories and novels and, finally, the completion of a memoir.
  • I will stay involved in advocacy, especially now, when the penchant for budget cuts combined with the forces of greed and out-of-control egos have already done damage and threaten to do more damage.
  • I know that while we have been estranged for some time, the door to my life will always be open to my daughter. I will not go into details here, but no matter the past, there is no person on planet earth that I love more than I love my daughter, not a single one. It would be nice to have time for just the two of us.
  • I would like to travel, though God knows how this will come about given the poverty that currently has me by the throat. But there is time, and there is much I’d like to see: the Grand Canyon (wouldn’t mind living in it as matter of fact), Germany, so I could, finally, make a childhood dream come true and stand in a room the Beethoven was in. And then, of course, England to visit the haunts of Charles Dickens and company, Russia to visit Tolstoy’s home, France to visit all kinds of places including those directly linked to a relative: Jean Jacques Rousseau.
  • I would like to read all the classics ever written.
  • I’d like to break the bonds of PTSD and go outside more than I do.

The current challenge is to find a new home, not easy when you have no money and when your pickings are shaped by rents approved by HUD (Section 8), but, thankfully, not impossible. If I could pick a destination it would be Western Massachusetts. We’ll see, I need to stay open to all reasonable possibilities.

Step one is find a home, then, one day at a time, make the things I know for sure, some just dreams at the moment, come true.

Without book

It is one of the most uncomfortable unsettling experiences for me. That gap between books. I finish one and then, for some inexplicable reason,  finding another one to land in is a problem. It’s like trying on articles of clothing and nothing seems to fit.

I am happy to report that this does not happen to me as much as it used to. But when it does, oh my, the stress. When I am without book it’s almost as if I am being asked to get through the day without air to breathe. There are times when I understand why finding that next book is a problem. You get drawn into one author’s world and then find transitioning to the next author somewhat tricky For example, a few years ago I read almost everything by Charles Dickens. Anyone who loves to read will experience a gift from heaven if they read Dickens, which means, for American readers anyway, slowing down and taking your time with each sentence and then, if you do, his dazzling prescience, comprehension and understanding of life from all angles emerges and you understand why he is, without question, one of the greatest writers that has ever walked the earth. But when I finished my time with Dickens, I went through a rather uncomfortable period of who to read next.  Who on earth do you turn to after Dickens?!

One of my common reading patterns is to lock into writers who strikes my fancy and then read a lot of what they’ve written. Last year I gobbled up nearly everything John Dos Passos wrote. This year it was all the books written by Bernard Malamud and then books by a writer who is now one of my favorites and who seemed to understand life with the same kind of global prescience and comprehension as Dickens: J.G. Farrell. But, oh my, those periods of time between books. Nerve wracking. Like being adrift at sea without a compass.

For as long as I have memory I’ve loved books. Though when I was about eight or so, I found myself convinced that I was not, like my mother and father, a real reader. My father taught English literature at Columbia University and my mother had been one of his students after World War II.  My father had served in the Army and my mother had been in London during the war. Her first husband was a pilot in the RAF.  Needless to say, they loved to read.

And so at age eight I went to my father’s room. He was sitting at his desk marking papers. Behind him was a ceiling-to-floor bookshelf filled with books, to this day one of the most beautiful sights in the world  as far as I’m concerned.

“Daddy, I don’t think I’m a reader like you and Mommy.”

He sat back in his chair and gave me a gentle smile. “What makes you say that?”

I looked at the wall full of books. “Because every time I start reading one I can’t finish it.”

“What makes you think you have to finish it?”

I was completely taken off guard. Of course you were supposed to finish the book. Wasn’t that some kind of rule? “Aren’t you supposed to finish’m?”

“No no. You’re thinking about school assignments. We’re talking about reading. Don’t you think the author has some responsibility to keep you interested?”

I had to admit, he made sense. “I guess so.”

“Okay then,” he looked at the books behind him and back at me. “Pick ten books that seem interesting to you. Forget page numbers. Read them until you don’t want to read them anymore. One day you’ll look up and realize you finished one.”

My father gave me the world of reading and the freedom to explore that world. Books have been my joy and refuge throughout my life. Through my days of homelessness (I would nick them off the paperback racks in drugstores)  I’d always have one stuffed in my back pocket. Do I finish every book I start? Not at all. My book shelves are filled with books sprouting book marks.  And while I still don’t like being without book, the good news is there is no shortage of books and, for those of us on fixed incomes, there are libraries.

By the way,  I finished my first book a week or so after talking with my Dad. I still have it: “The Folded Leaf,” by William Maxwell. 

25 Years Later

Tomorrow marks the 25th anniversary of the day two teenager held me up on a Brooklyn street. One put a gun to my head and fired. He and his accomplice, who was rifling through my pockets when the trigger was pulled, got $63 for their efforts. The bullet is still lodged in the brain and I take great pleasure in feigning disappointment that I do not set off  airport alarms (if you were hoping for a humor free essay you might as well stop reading now).

To this day there are occasions when, upon hearing about the shooting, a person will lean forward, their brow furrowed a bit, and say things like,  "Did it change you?", or, "Is life different?" or, "Do you understand life in a way you didn’t before?" Honest questions all, but I always get the impression that the asker believes being part of an extraordinary act of violence automatically results in a deeper understanding of life. It doesn’t. At least I don’t think it does.

The experience did give me a new appreciation for the importance of ducking. It certainly increased my awareness of the human capacity for cruelty. And, it has helped me to remember to live, not miss the moment I’m in,  and not miss the chance to tell people I love that I love them.

Much has changed in the last 25 years and there is nothing unique in that. Some wonderful things in life have happened as a result of the shooting. I have been given the gift of being able to work with survivors of brain injury, their families and people in the health care field.

The health care field itself exposes you to wonderful people and to people who have a capacity for cruelty that outdoes the cruelty of shooting an innocent person in the head. Health care providers who see and treat people with disabilities as sub-human beings that are on this earth so they can make a profit ought to be jailed. I know one owner of a community-based program who has run clinical meetings for people in the program and doesn’t have one iota of training as a clinician, yet his ego is so distorted and the lack of regulations so prominent, he gets away with it, to the detriment of those receiving services in the program. I know another director of a brain injury program who told the wife of a brain injury survivor, with her husband present, that there needed to be a funeral for her husband because he no longer exists and she and her husband needed to allow this director and his team of sycophants to re-create him. By comparison, the kid who shot me was simply having a bad day.

There is another thing the shooting gave me. An appreciation for having a bucket list, though it wasn’t until the movie came out that I became aware of the term bucket list. I was, however, aware of experiences I wanted  and want to have before my time is up. I want to meet Bruce Springsteen and thank him for the role his songs had in helping me stay alive during some dark times. I’d like to visit the Grand Canyon and spend a week or more exploring the canyon itself. I want to stand in a room that Beethoven was in, and in a room Tolstoy was in, and in a room Dickens was in. I’d even like to get married again some day, really share life with a soul mate. I’d like my daughter and I to have a relationship again before time’s up.  And, of course, I want to write and write and write. The list goes on.

One other thing, I’d like to thank God with all my heart and soul that I am alive 25 years later to even have a bucket list,  and write this essay for you.