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Is there anything left to say? After 5,000 years of putting it all down on clay, stone, parchment and paper, is there anything that hasn’t been said? It is something every writer faces when putting pen to paper, or fingertip to keyboard. Or even thumbs to smartphone.

And it is something I face, after having written more than four million words in my professional lifetime. Where will the new words come from?

It is also something newlyweds often fear: Will they have anything to say to each other after 20 years of marriage? Forty years? Surely they will have talked each other out.

What we write comes from a deep well, a well of experience and emotion and sometimes we have drawn so much water so quickly, it dries, but give it time and it will recharge. If no new experience enters our lives, our wells remain dry.

One friend has offered this: “That each generation thinks they know more than anybody else who has ever lived.  In a way, that’s a good thing because it allows for new ideas.”

But how new are those ideas? “I guess we have to live with a certain amount of repetition under that system,” she says. “Relying on what previous generations wrote would be so boring. Our ego demands that we pick and choose from past works if we heed them at all.”

I have a different interpretation. We never quite hit the target of what we mean; words are imprecise, concepts are misunderstood. One generation values family, the next understands family in a different way and builds its family from scratch with friends.

As T.S. Eliot says in East Coker:

Every time I put word to word, I come up short, leave things out, use phrases sure to be misinterpreted, have my motives doubted, and — as I learned many times from my readers, they read what they think I wrote and not always what I actually wrote.

And so, there is the possibility of endless clarification, endless rewriting, endless apologizing. And new words to be written.

As someone once said, all philosophy is but a footnote to Plato (who, by the way, is a footnote to the pre-Socratics), and all writing is an attempt to get right what was inartfully expressed in the past. It is a great churn.

All writing is an attempt to express the wordless. The words are never sufficient; we are all wider, broader, deeper, fuzzier, more puzzling and more contradictory than any words, sentences or paragraphs can encompass.

Heck, even the words are fuzzier. Consider “dog.” It seems simple enough, but includes great Danes and chihuahuas, Scotties and dobermans.  As a genus, it includes wolves and foxes. It also describes our feet when we’ve walked too much; the iron rack that holds up fire logs; the woman that male chauvinist pigs consider unattractive; a worthless and contemptible person. You can “put on the dog,” and show off; you can “dog it,” by being half-assed; you can call a bad movie a “dog;” at the ballpark, you can buy a couple of “dogs” with mustard; if you only partly speak a language, you are said to speak “dog French,” or “dog German;” past failures can “dog” you; if you are suspicious, you can “dog” his every move. “Dog” can be an anagram of “God.”

Imagine, then, how loose are the bounds of “good” or “bad,” or “conservative,” or when someone tries to tar a candidate as a “socialist.” Sometimes, a word loses meaning altogether. What, exactly do we mean when we talk of morality or memory, or nationality or the cosmos?

And so, every time we pick up pen to write, we are trying our hardest to scrape up a liquid into a bundle.

And so we rework those words, from Gilgamesh through James Joyce and into Toni Morrison. We rework them on the New York Times editorial page and in the high school history textbook. We rehash them even in such mundane things as our shopping lists or our FaceBook entries.

We will never run out of things to write or say, because we have never yet gotten it quite right.

An earlier version of this essay originally appeared on the Spirit of the Senses webpage on  Aug. 2, 2020. 

I was once or twice asked to speak to a writing class at a local community college. When you write for the daily newspaper, you get such invitations. I always tried to oblige.

As I spoke to the students, who ranged in age from teens to retirees — that is the way it often is in two-year schools — it became clear that I wasn’t saying what the course teacher had wanted me to say. She was clearly tapping her nails on her desk and looking more an more consternated. 

I wasn’t trying to undermine her curriculum, but it was obvious from her comments that she had hoped I would talk about writing outlines, topic sentences, supporting arguments and perorations, all the usual paraphernalia of learning how to put words in order so as not to embarrass yourself to your reader.

But, I’m afraid I had something different in mind. In fact, I started out by laying out only one rule for good writing. And it had nothing to do with not ending a sentence with a preposition; nothing to do with making notes and organizing your thought; nothing to do with spell-check or grammar.

“The most important requirement for good writing,” I told them, “is having something to say.”

It is surprising how many people sit down in front of their computer keyboard and assume that writing is somehow a substitute for having something to say, as if fancy words would bamboozle your readers with flash and mist. It is not hard to imagine where they might get this notion: So much public discourse, from political speech to blathering 24-hour news, is filled with verbiage meant to fill time and space without divulging anything meaningful. Rhetoric, which once meant effective speaking, now is an insult meant to expose empty speechifying. 

You can read online the two-hour speech that Edward Everett gave on Nov. 19, 1863 at the dedication of the soldiers’ cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa. It is a 13,000-word behemoth of rhetoric and panegyric. It was carefully wrought, organized in just such a way as to make impressive points at calculated intervals, rising to climaxes, falling back and rising even higher. It was a masterpiece of construction; unfortunately, all that great scaffolding rather hid the edifice behind.

“Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies  dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed; — grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy.”

Two hours of this. Geez. 

There were references to Ancient Greece, the glory of war and the bravery of soldiers, and a good deal of mention of blue skies and rolling green fields.

It was a memorable performance — at least, that is what people thought at the time, although almost no one remembers it now, except in dim contrast with the words Abraham Lincoln then spoke, with a ratio of words, compared with Everett, of 1-to-50. Lincoln’s words barely fill half a page of typescript.

The difference: Lincoln has something to say.

What is surprising is how few people actually have anything to say. Oh, they jabber on endlessly, but it is mostly prattle. And it is mostly rehash of what others have already said. Original thought is a rare commodity.

What does it mean, having something to say? It can be the recounting of a meaningful experience, it can be a fresh insight, it can be an opinion.

There is a lie that is a cliche (how often they are twins), that opinions are like (I’ll use the word “noses” here to be polite, but you know the familiar wording) noses: everyone has one. But this simply glosses over the fact that almost no one has a true opinion, but rather restates some glib bromide that has been heard from someone else. These are not opinions, they are bumper stickers; they are T-shirt slogans.

A genuine opinion comes from deep experience, probing consideration and formulation of thought within a coherent world view. You can tell the difference easily: If you imagine a meme on Facebook printed in fancy text over a picture of a cat, it is not an opinion. If it a quote questionably ascribed to Mark Twain or Albert Einstein or Mahatma Gandhi, it is not an opinion. If it favors one political party or candidate over another, it is not an opinion. Sorry. 

But I am overplaying opinion. Having something to say is much greater than merely weighing options in a dilemma and reaching a conclusion. In many ways, having something to say is more compelling when it is not trying to persuade us of anything, but to convey to us the experience of something. Or telling us a story. Or discovering something you had not previously known and now feel compelled to share. The compulsion is the all.

Writing is a compulsion. You have something to say; it needs to get out, get down on paper (the legacy version — now we get it down in bits on a laptop screen). Good writing is an overflowing, like a fountain. Questions of creating an outline, or fretting over sentences with prepositions as the ending of, simply don’t come into play.

When you have something to say, the order with which it spills out onto the page will almost certainly be the most effective order. Yes, you can arrange ideas rhetorically, and certainly, if you are not a natural writer, you may be helped by a course in creative writing. But writers are born, not made. Some people have a talent for mathematics, some for music, some for sports. You can teach people the rote version of any of these, but those with the inbred talent will find the best expression for any of these fields. I know that no matter how much I study trigonometry, I will never be a mathematician. I may get the gist, but never the pith.

I suppose you can teach enough rudiments to non-writers so they will not humiliate themselves when they are required to write something down, but you cannot make them writers. And I suppose you can take a raw, unformed writer and make him or her aware of things they hadn’t considered and help them develop their natural ability, but you cannot take a lump and turn it into a gem.

But even talented writers have to have something to say, or they are just spinning their wheels. Think of Hemingway’s later books. 

Something to say requires a life paying attention, a life with an open chest, willing to soak things in. This is filling the well so it may be drawn on later. In the old days, writers like Thomas Wolfe or Hemingway sought out adventures, signing on to merchant ships; or taking cross-country road trips, like Jack Kerouac; or shooting lions; or stabbing a wife, like Norman Mailer (this is not recommended); or leaving America and living out of trash bins in Paris like Henry Miller; in order to gain material for books. Not so much for autobiography, as for the sheer volume of experience that could inform their prose.

The larger you are on the inside, the more pressure for the accumulated steam to escape in words, precious words, delicious words, excited words, needful words.

That is having something to say.

Like so much else, this is something I learned from my late wife, who taught art for so many years to first-, second-, and third-graders. Too many art teachers spent their classes with the color wheel, or with masterworks of art history, or — much, much worse — project art, such as outlining your hand to make Thanksgiving turkeys, or with golden-macaroni Parthenons.

But what my wife did was bring live animals to class and let the children play with them for 20 minutes or a half hour, asking them to sit quiet and observe the bunny or the hermit crab or the turtle; to feel their fur or carapace; to look them in the eye; even to talk to them. She might have them sit in a circle on the floor and put the rabbit in the middle of them and ask them to sit still and try to draw the bunny to them.

Children respond to the animals so strongly that all you have to do is put a piece of paper in front of them after their exposure to the beasts, and give them some paint and brush, and they will be mad to paint their response to the experience. You cannot stop them from making masterpieces. You do not teach them technique, you fill their insides with something real, and they transmute it into utter expressivity. It is a miraculous thing to see.

Educator Viktor Lowenfeld said that given sufficient motivation by experience, the children will find their “adequate means of expression.”

It is the same with writing. You don’t need topic sentences (I snooze at the prospect), you need content. You need enough life in you that you become a conduit for it. It is written because it needs to be written.

An earlier version of this essay originally appeared on the Spirit of the Senses webpage on  Aug. 1, 2017. 

In addition to this blog, which I have been writing since 2012, I have written a monthly essay for the Spirit of the Senses salon group in Phoenix, Ariz., since 2015. I was, at various times, a presenter for the salon, which arranges six to 10 or so lectures or performances each month for its subscribers. Among the other presenters are authors, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, musicians, lawyers and businessmen, each with a topic of interest to those with curious minds. I recently felt that perhaps some of those essays might find a wider audience if I republished them on my own blog. This is one, from Sept. 4, 2019, is now updated and slightly rewritten.

One of my great pleasures, when I was an art critic, was visiting artist studios. Certainly, there was usually a mess, spattered paint, cans dripping or tubes squeezed, and rags and brushes. Things taped to the walls, papers scattered and, often, music blaring. But there was also a sense of purpose, a sense that someone here knew what he or she was doing.

I had that sense again recently while visiting my brother-in-law, the painter Mel Steele. I love his work. And I can watch over time as he works and reworks his canvas, trying this or that to make it better.

Mel is a professional. And by that, I don’t just mean he sells his work, or that he is talented. That goes without saying. I mean something more particular. It is something I see in the work and work habits of many artists I have come across, from Jim Waid to James Turrell.

I have been thinking about the manifest difference between the work of an amateur and that of a professional. And I don’t mean to denigrate the work of amateurs. Indeed, there are professionals stunning mediocrity and there are amateurs hugely talented. No, I mean something about the approach to the work.

This is something that I have been cogitating about since retiring. Without making any great boast about my own writing, I can say with utter confidence that I wrote as a professional. This is not a claim about quality or greatness, but about some inner acquaintance with the nitty-gritty of the craft. It has been 10 years since I worked for The Arizona Republic and I can say with confidence that writers never really retire: They just stop getting paid. 

In 25 years with the newspaper, I wrote three-and-a-half million words. Since retiring, I have written another million-and-a-half for this blog. My fingers get itchy if they don’t pound a keyboard. 

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that the secret to achieving meaningful achievement is to repeat something 10,000 times. The book has been trashed by many critics as a kind of pop psychology, but without taking the actual number as gospel, certainly one of the things that makes a professional is that repetition. You don’t become a professional — as I mean it here — by being hired. You do it over the long haul, writing every day for years. Or painting every day for years. Or dancing, or playing violin. Or, for that matter, plumbing or dealing in the stock market.

For all that patience, what you get are several things. First, you get better at what you do. But you also become familiar with the business. By that, I don’t just mean the financial side of the work, but the daily bits of familiar habit. As a writer, that means understanding deadlines, the importance of editors and copy editors, the argot of the trade — point size, picas, inches, folios, air, heds, ledes, trims, slots, cutlines, sidebars, widows, and more than I can even now remember. But was once the lingo of my daily life.

If told I had 10 inches to fill on deadline, I could write a piece that would come in at 10 inches, give or take nary more than a line, before I even measured it. You just have the feel of it. Occasionally, I would return to the office from a concert at 10:50 p.m. to write a review and have 10 minutes to file before deadline. I could whip that sucker out: Ten inches in 10 minutes, and feel at the end like a rodeo cowboy tying the feet of a calf and throwing my arms out in triumph.

More important, you divest yourself of the bad habits of your amateur years and your novitiate. You unconsciously avoid using the same word twice in paragraph; you vary your sentence length; You know instinctively to include just the amount of background your reader needs, without burdening him or her with unnecessary detail; and you know in what order to present that background. You become aware of consistency within a piece. You know the difference between first ref and subsequent. You don’t leave readers hanging with unfamiliar and unexplained acronyms.  Do you know where commas fall? Do you abbreviate “street” or not? All this comes with familiarity and practice. And becomes second nature.

I now look with embarrassment at something I wrote when I first came to the newspaper business because I see all the stupid mistakes I made. Rookie mistakes. Over time and countless deadlines, you leave those inelegancies behind.

Most of all, you gain a comfort level: a sense that you know what you’re doing. Like a pianist who can run his spider fingers up and down the keyboard and confidently hit each B-flat as it passes. Or a painter who automatically reaches for the Hooker’s green because the Phthalo won’t give him the shade he needs.

You watch Jacques Pepin on TV slicing an onion and you can see how second-nature it has become, how quickly and accurately he does it. He knows how to make an omelet because, as he preaches, he’s done it 10,000 times. There may be more creative or innovative chefs out there, even among amateurs, but you have to admire Pepin for his confident professionalism.

Nor is a professional precious about his work. Museum curators can be fussy about white gloves and humidity levels, but the artists themselves are seldom so concerned. If they screw up, “I can always paint another one.” It is not unusual for Mel to paint over some detail he was unhappy with, even weeks or months later, to alter the work. It is only amateur writers who bitch and moan about editors changing their sacred texts. Editors (good editors — and I was lucky to have only good ones) make the writing better, cleaner, more precise. Even such things as cutting stories to fit news holes won’t perturb the professional. He may negotiate, but he won’t whine.

I’ve written about artists and journalists because that is the world I know best. But much the same could be said about professional musicians, construction foremen or career diplomats. Professionalism, as I mean it here, is not simply about being paid; it is an attitude. An approach to the work. A comfort level and familiarity, an ease, an assurance.

And any true professional can spot a navvy in an instant. You won’t necessarily feel superior, but you will feel a kind of pity for the poor beginner. There is so much to learn that is entirely beyond merely talent.

Today is Bloomsday — June 16 — anniversary of the day, in 1904, when James Joyce set the action of his novel “Ulysses.” He chose that day because it was also the day of his first “date” with his future wife, Nora Barnacle, in Dublin, a date with a happy ending. Around the world, there are people who celebrate the anniversary with live readings of Joyce’s book, and, in Dublin, with trips to the sites featured in it. This is a reprint of an essay written originally for The Spirit of the Senses, a salon group in Phoenix, Ariz., published on their website Nov. 2, 2018. It is now updated and slightly rewritten for Bloomsday. Happy Bloomsday. Have a Guinness on me. 

What’s the most beautiful sentence in the English language?

In his epic TV series, The Singing Detective, author Dennis Potter has his hero ask a similar question: “What’s the loveliest word in the English language?” An answer is offered: “Love.” But no, you’re responding to the sentiment behind the word. What is the loveliest word “in the sound it makes in the mouth? In the shape it makes in the page?”

His answer: “E-L-B-O-W.”

You may have your own candidate. Mine might be “anaflaxis,” or perhaps “curmudgeon.” Both pleasant to say, “in the sound it makes in the mouth.”

My nomination for the most beautiful sentence?

Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.”

It is the opening sentence of the second chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is followed by a tasty list of those comestibles that Mr. Leopold Bloom especially savored. “He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes.” And then he brings you up short with the consummation of the paragraph: “Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

If you get past the last bit without a distinct sensory, gustatory and olfactory assault, you aren’t paying attention.

But it’s that first sentence I want to examine. It has a cadence to it: You can scan its metrics two ways. First, you can break it down into four brief bursts: His name, as if it were the first line of a song; then comes the two-beat “ate with relish;” another two-beat “the inner organs,” and the peroration in another two beats — “of beasts and fowls.”

You can, however, scan it as two lines, a pentameter followed by a tetrameter. And if you do it that way, you can feel behind the rhythm the ghost of Anglo-Saxon poetry, each line interrupted by a caesura.

Mr. Leopold Bloom // ate with relish

The inner organs // of beasts and fowls.

Either way, it is a graceful mix of iambs and dactyls. All that is fine, and worth noting. But the real treasure is paying attention to where in your mouth you articulate the various consonants and vowels: You shift the sounds around in your mouth, front to back, roof to base, like you were savoring a morsel of tasty food. These are words that as you say them out loud, you practically chew on. Try it: Mister Leopold Bloom ate with relish, etc. Your tongue flies around, your lips purse, your teeth come together and separate, your jaw moves forward and back, in a fine simulacrum of mastication.

This is one tasty sentence.

You should also note how heterogeneous the sounds are. A few consonants and vowels are repeated. There are five “L” sounds, which move your tongue up to the palate; four sibilant “S” sounds; four “O” sounds, making your lips project, as if you were smacking them; four short “I” sounds drawing the tongue back in the mouth; four rhotic “R” sounds, which scrunches your mouth up in a contortion (admittedly, a different sound if you speak them with the Irish accent that Joyce would have used); three “T” sounds, moving that tongue to hide just at the back of the teeth; three “E” sounds, stretching your cheeks out wide to pronounce; two “M” sounds, making you go, “mmm,” like you really enjoyed that mouthful; two “N” sounds, drawing the aroma up into your nasal cavities; two “B” bumps, rhyming with the single “P” to keep your lips plosive. There are two different “TH” sounds, an eth and a thorn — voiceless and voiced dental fricatives.

All the rest of the sounds occur only once. Which means, to read the sentence out loud, your tongue, lips and jaw get a workout worthy of Jane Fonda.

So much for the gnathometry of the sentence.

 I also want to point out that the sentence is not difficult to comprehend. It is, in fact, a fairly ordinary sentence, outside its poetry. And I mention that because I want to make the case for the book as a whole. Ulysses has a reputation. People who haven’t yet essayed it are apt to fear it like ebola. But, these days, now nearly a hundred years after its conception, we have grown used to many of its more idiosyncratic habits. Stream of consciousness has made its way to paperback bodice rippers and Tom Clancy munitionology. And after MTV, how simple seems the rapid cutting and multiple points of view. Joyce should not present any unclimbable obstacles these days.

Which makes it all the more important to read the book. It is some of the best prose ever put to paper. Joyce’s writing is elegant, precise, musical and redolent.

The entire final chapter of the book is one of the greatest monologues in literature, when Molly Bloom lies in bed next to her husband and recalls her love affairs, her life, her body, her mind and heart. It alone raises Ulysses to the level of classic. Everyone should read it and weep.

But to enjoy the prose, you have to break yourself of the habit of reading solely for content. Speed reading Ulysses is flying over country where the driving would reveal cities, rivers, regional foods, national parks, and people worth meeting. The prose is meant to noticed. It is unsurpassed. The plot of the book is hardly more than an excuse for the writing.

Joyce wrote the book over many years, writing and rewriting like a demon. It takes reworking on an obsessive scale to get just the right mot juste in every case. You can see that in the manuscript, worked over so thoroughly, it is barely legible.

Ulysses was written at the end of the First World War and published in 1922 by Sylvia Beach and the Paris bookstore, Shakespeare & Co. Joyce was 40 years old and an exile from his native Ireland. It chronicles a single day — June 16, 1904 — in Dublin, Ireland as lived by three primary characters, Stephen Daedalus, and Leopold and Molly Bloom. It’s a simple plot. Not much happens of consequence, but we follow the events in the minds of the characters as much as through the words of a narrator. And we aren’t often told which.

But what is of consequence is the language. You can pretty much read any page and nearly swoon at the beauty of the words, the rhythm, pitch and melody.

Of course, that’s not what caught public attention first. The book has been banned in many countries, including the U.S. It was considered obscene. It had to be printed in Paris, and at least 500 copies were seized and burned by the U.S. Postal Service as they were confiscated in shipment. Another 2000 to 3000 copies were seized and destroyed by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1929.

When Random House decided to take up the American publication, The publisher sued and in The United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, U.S. District Judge John M. Woolsey ruled that the book was not pornographic and therefore could not be obscene. Random House published the authorized American edition in 1934.

We say “authorized,” because Ulysses has been much pirated. Even printed as an underground book by publishers of pornography, wishing to capitalize on its notoriety. I have an edition by Collectors Publications of Industry, Calif., which features pages and pages of ads at the back for such other literary gems as True Love Stories of a Wayward Teenager, The Incestual Triangle, Four Way Swappers, and The Debauched Hospodar. (Along with Henry Miller’s The World of Sex and Lawrence Durrell’s Black Book and The Story of O. They seemed to make little distinction between actual literature and smut, i.e., they knew their audience).

My late wife’s father-in-law was a poet who had studied with Robert Frost, and after a trip to Europe, he smuggled in a copy of Ulysses in the 1920s concealed by binding it in a cover for a Nancy Drew mystery.

To read it now, after Fifty Shades of Grey and countless Jackie Collins tomes, one puzzles over the ruckus. You can search the pages of Ulysses looking for the “good bits” and be disappointed. Judge Woolsey in his judicious judicial opinion famously wrote, “whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.” (Remember the mutton kidneys).

 Woolsey’s opinion opened the door for Lady Chatterly’s Lover (or is it “Lady Loverly’s Chatter?”), Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer., and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. It may be hard to define great literature, but you know it when you see it.

This is the 600th blog entry I’ve written since retiring eight years ago from the writing job I held for 25 years. But as I’ve said many times, a real writer never retires, he just stops getting paid for it. 

During my career, I wrote over 2.5 million words. Since then, I’ve added another million. If you are born a writer, you simply can’t help it. 

(In addition, since 2015, I’ve written a monthly essay for the website of The Spirit of the Senses salon group in Phoenix, Ariz., a continuation of the many salon lectures I gave there for years.)

And even when I write an e-mail to friends or family — the kind of note that for most people contains a short sentence, a quick “LOL” and an emoji — I am more likely to write what looks like an old-fashioned missive, the kind that used to come in a stamped envelope and delivered by a paid government worker. An e-mail from me will take a while to read through.They are sent not merely to convey information, but to be read. They have been written, not just jotted down. 

Over the eight years of blogifying, I’ve covered a great many topics. Many on art and art history — I was an art critic, after all — many on history and geography, a trove of travel pieces, a few frustrated political musings and a hesitant offering of oddball short stories (if you can call them by that name.) 

People say, “Write what you know,” but most real writers, myself included, write to find out what I know. The writing is, itself, the thinking. Any mis-steps get fished out in the re-writing. 

Ah, words. I love words. I love sentences, paragraphs, chapters. Although I wrote for a newspaper, where short, simple sentences are preferred, I often tested the patience of my editors as I proved my affection for words by using obscure and forgotten words and by using them often in long congregations. 

“I love long sentences. I’m tired of all the short ones. Hemingway can keep them. Newspapers can urge them. Twitter can mandate them. To hell with them.

“My ideal can be found in the long serpentine railways of words shunted hither and thither over dependent clauses, parenthetical remarks, explanatory discursions and descriptive ambiguities; sentences such as those found in the word-rich 18th century publishing world of Fielding, Sterne, Addison, Steele, or Boswell, and perhaps most gratifyingly in the grand, gravid, orotund sentences of Edward Gibbon, whose work I turn to not so much for information about the grandeur that was Rome, but for the pure sensuous pleasure to be had from those accretive tunes built from the pile of ideas and imagery (to say nothing of ironic asides), and peppered liberally with the notations of colons, semicolons, dashes and inverted commas.”

The love of words fuels a fascination with paronomasia. I make up words, play with them, coin spoonerisms and mondegreens and pepper my everyday speech with them. As music critic, I reviewed sympathy orchestras. Sometimes I have trouble trying to mirimba a name. On my shopping list I may need dishlicking washwood. 

I often give my culinary creations names such as Chicken Motocross, Mentil Soup, Ratatootattie, or  — one I borrowed from my brother — Mock Hawaiian Chile. 

When my wife came home from work, I usually asked “How did your Italian?” (“How did your day go?”)

When asked for my astrological sign, I say, “I’m a Copernicus.” My late wife was a Virago. And I’m pretty sure our Orange Bunker Boy was born under the sign of Feces. I call him a would-be Moose-a-loony.

I try to keep unfashionable words in currency. On long car trips with granddaughters, we didn’t count cows, we counted kine. I tend to refer to the girls as the wee bairns, or the kidlings. 

I have no truck with simplifying the language; I will not brook dumbification. The more words we use, the better, and the better inflected those words will be. As we lose words, the slight difference in emphasis and meaning is lost, and a simple word then has to do extra duty to encompass ideas and things that are better understood as different. 

Every word has a dictionary definition, but that definition is little but the skeleton on which the meat and muscle is hung onto. Each word has a nimbus of meaning and affect around it, which is learned by its speakers and readers through long acquaintance. You can always tell when someone has snuffled through a thesaurus, because the fancy word they choose has been stripped of its nimbus, or has an aura that is the wrong color for the spot in which it is placed. In other words, such a writer doesn’t really know the word that has been chosen. The Webster version is only a fuzzy black-and-white photo, not the real thing. 

I have written before how sometimes, instead of doing a crossword puzzle or rearranging my sock drawer, I will make lists of words. Each has a flavor and reading such lists is like perusing a restaurant menu and imagining the aroma and flavor of each offering. It is a physical pleasure, like the major or minor chords of a symphony. Here is a brassy word, there the pungency of an oboe, and over there, the sweet melancholy of a solo cello. 

I think all writers must have something of the same feel for the roundness, spikiness, warmth, dryness or wetness of words. And the way they connect to make new roundnesses, coolnesses, stinks or arousals in sentences. 

Yes, there are some writers — and I can’t pooh-pooh them — who use words in a blandly utilitarian way. Stephen King, for instance, is a great storyteller. He can force you by a kind of sorcery to turn pages. But on a word-by-word level, his writing is flavorless, almost journalistic. I suspect this is a quality he actually aspires to — to make the language so transparent as to be unobservable. I have to admit there are virtues in this, also. But not for me. 

I want a five-course meal of my words. 

Language can take either of two paths: prose or poetry. The first invests its faith in language as a descriptor of systems. It reaches its nadir in philosophy. It makes little difference if it is Plato or Foucault; philosophy — especially the modern sort — is essentially a branch of philology. It seeks to deconstruct the language, as if understanding the words we use will tell us anything about the world we live in. It tells us only about the language we use. Language is a parallel universe to the one we inhabit, with its own rules and grammar, different from the rules and grammar of the real world. 

This has been a constant theme in my own writing. When we say, “A whale is not a fish,” or “A tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable,” we are talking about language only, not about whales or tomatoes. But beyond the language we use to communicate our understanding of the world, no matter how vast our vocabulary, the world itself is infinitely larger, more complex, diverse, chaotic and unsystematic, not to be comprehensively understood by mere mortal. 

And I should clarify, by language, I mean any organized system of thought or communication. Math is just language by other means. When I use the term “language” here, I mean what the Greeks called “logos” — not simply words, or grammar, syntax or semantics, but any humanly communicated sense of the order of the cosmos. Not one system can encompass it all. 

Consider Zeno’s paradox: That in a race between Achilles and a tortoise, if you give the tortoise a headstart, no matter how little, Achilles can never catch up. Before he does, he has to go halfway, and so is still behind the tortoise, and before he goes the remaining distance he must go again halfway. Thus he can never catch up. The paradox is purely in the forms of logic, not in the reality. We all know Achilles will catch up in only a few strides. But the system — the logic, or the words — tells us he cannot. Do not trust the words, at least not by themselves, without empirical evidence to back them up. 

All systems of thought, whether religious, political or scientific, ultimately break down when faced with the weedy complexity of existence.

And so, a good deal of what we all argue about is simply the words we choose to use, not the reality. We argue over terminology. Conservative, liberal? Is abortion murder? These depends entirely on your definitions. 

Poetry, on the other hand — and I’m using the word in its broadest and metaphorical sense — is interested in the things of this world. Yes, it may use words, and use them quite inventively, but its goal is to reconnect us with our own lives. It lives, not in a world of isms, but in one of mud, tofu, children, bunions, clouds and red wheelbarrows. This is the nimbus of which I speak. 

It is ultimately our connection with our own lives that matters, with the things of this world, with the people of our lives that should concern us. It is what provides that nimbus of inexactitude that gives resonance to the words. 

At various times in my career as someone who got paid for writing, I have been asked to speak to groups of students or the curious about my craft. It hasn’t always gone well. 

I remember one time I managed to annoy a community college teacher no end by telling her students to ignore everything she had been hammering into their heads. I didn’t know I was doing that; I was just talking about what I knew through experience. But she had been filling their minds with ugly formulae and what to my mind are tired old saws: Make an outline; use a topic sentence; the rule of threes. As if you could interest readers by rote. 

Part of the problem is that I believe that writers are born, not made. Of course, you can improve anyone’s ability to put down comprehensible sentences, but good spelling and decent grammar do not make a writer. Just as anyone can be taught to draw and sketch, but that won’t make them an artist, anyone can be instructed how to fashion a paragraph or two without embarrassing themselves, but that don’t make’em into Roger Angell. 

One of the things that caused the teacher no end of bother was my insistence that the single most important and defining part of writing was “having something to say.” Without it, no rhetorical device, no repetition of authoritative quotations, no using active rather than passive voice, would suffice. And the truth is, few people have anything to say. 

Of course, everyone thinks they do, but what passes for thought is most often merely the forms of thought, the words that have previously been used to frame the ideas, and hence, someone else’s thoughts. Having something to say is genuinely a rare gift. 

This hardly serves to help the composition-class student or the teacher hoping to form them into perfect little Ciceros. Having something to say requires having had a living experience to draw upon, something original to the writer — a back yard with skunk cabbage, or a two-month deployment with a platoon, or the betrayal of a spouse — and an idiosyncratic reaction to it, something personal and distinct. Instead, most people are just not used to finding words to describe such things and fall back on words they have heard before. Easily understood words and phrases and therefore the mere ghosts of real expression. 

When you use someone else’s words, to that extent you don’t know what you are talking about. 

Being born a writer means being consciously or unconsciously unwilling to accept approximation, to be unsatisfied with the easily understood, to search for the word that more exactly matches the experience. 

One of the consequences is that to be a writer means to re-write. As you read back over what you have just put on paper — or on the computer screen — you slap your forehead over this bit or that. How could I have let that through? And you find something more exact, more telling, more memorable. It is only the third or fourth go-round that feels acceptable. (Each time I come back to a piece I’m working on, I begin again from the beginning and work my way through what I’ve already finished and change things as I go to make myself clearer or my expression more vivid. This means that the top of any piece is usually better written than the end. Sorry.) 

Having something to say and sweating over saying it in a way that doesn’t falsify it — this is what writing is all about. 

But is there anything I can say to those who just want to be a little bit better when turning in a school paper, or writing a letter to the editor, or publishing a novel about your life so far? Here are a few suggestions.

First and most important: Read. Read, read, read. Not so much to imitate what you have found, but to absorb what it is to use language. Just as one doesn’t “learn” English as a youngster, but rather you absorb it. When you are grown, you may have to learn a second language, but as an infant, you simply soak up what you hear and gradually figure it out. And likewise, reading lots of good writing isn’t to give you tricks to follow, but to immerse you in the medium so that it becomes your mother tongue. 

Second: Write. Write, write, write. In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell famously made the claim that it took 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. He later explained he only meant that as an average, but the issue remains: You can’t become a writer without writing. Over and over, until it becomes second nature and all the amateur’s kinks are driven out. Write letters, journals, blogs — it doesn’t matter what, but writing and doing it constantly makes you a better writer. 

Third: Fill the well you draw from. Nothing will come of nothing. Everything you see, feel and do is who you are and is the substance of your writing. If you know nothing, feel nothing deeply, do nothing interesting, then you have nothing to bring to the sentences you write. Good writing is not about writing, despite all the reflexive gibberish of Postmodern philosophers. 

Even when you want to write about abstract ideas, you had better do it through touch, feeling, color, smell, sound. Nothing is worse than reading academic prose, because it is upholstered with “isms” and “ologies.” 

“The work of the text is to literalize the signifiers of the first encounter, dismantling the ideal as an idol. In this literalization, the idolatrous deception of the first moment becomes readable. The ideal will reveal itself to be an idol.”

Thank you. I no longer need to count sheep. 

Through the Middle Ages, all educated people communicated in Latin. In a strange way, that doesn’t seem to have changed. Words of Latin origin predominate in academic prose. Sometimes reading a peer-reviewed paper is like translating Virgil. 

Language and experience are parallel universes. We try to get language closer to the life we live, but it is always at least slightly apart. When we speak or write in abstractions, we are manipulating language without reference to the world of things we live in. Language about language. Good writing is the attempt to bring these two streams closer to each other, so that one may refresh the other. We do that primarily through image and metaphor. An idea is clearer if we can see it or feel it. Flushing it through Latin only obscures it. 

“Show, don’t tell” works best even when you are “telling,” i.e., writing. 

For those who don’t have to think about such things, a word is a fixed rock in the moving stream, set there by the dictionary. But for a writer, each idea and each word is a cloud of meaning, a network of inter-reference. To narrow down those possibilities, a picture helps — a metaphor. Not added on at the end, but born with the idea, co-nascent. 

Take almost any line of Shakespeare and you find image piled on image. “Our little life is rounded with a sleep,” says Prospero. Donalbain fears “the daggers in men’s smiles.” “If music be the food of love, play on.” “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.” Shakespeare is nothing if not a cataract of sense imagery. 

How different if Prospero had simply said, “Life is short and then you die.” 

There are a whole host of injunctions and directives that are given to wanna-be writers, and all of them are worthy. Don’t use passive voice; always have antecedents to your pronouns; avoid pleonasm; edit and revise; dump adverbs and, damn it, learn how to use a semicolon. 

But none of them is as important as the primary directive: Have something to say. 

Oh, and yes, it’s always fun to annoy community college teachers. 

I am writing this for myself; you needn’t read it. Usually, if I include myself in a piece I write, it is only to provide a personal angle on a wider, more general point that is the purpose of the text. I try not to intrude on your patience. But here, I really am writing for myself: If you continue reading, you will be eavesdropping on thoughts not aimed at you. 

One of my granddaughters is currently on an archeological dig in Peru, part of her university studies. I wrote her saying this could be a life-defining experience for her. And that began my thinking: What have been those life-defining moments for me? I don’t simply mean chronologically, such as we all encounter as we age through our existence, such milestones as going off to school, turning 21, getting married and divorced, suffering job interviews and eventually retiring. No, I mean those episodes that bend the twig so the tree is inclined: Those things that turn us into ourselves rather than into someone else. 

I could start, like David Copperfield, with “Chapter 1: I am born.” Not for the mere fact, which is universal, but for the inheritance I was given in the womb of the random pairings of genes that govern a good deal of my personality, abilities, and inclinations. I began not ab ovo a blank slate, but with bits of genetic material that came through my parents from their parents before them and so on, tracking back, if I had the means, first to Africa, and then beyond to single-cell beasties in the pond water, and before that to the prokaryotes and lithotrophs, the bacteria and the original amino acids, some semblance of which are still floating in my chromosomes, like genetic homeopathy. This ancestry is still there in every cell of my body, and they all have a “life-defining” push and pull. 

Beyond that, the first experience I had that altered my life was going to school, and not just the school, but the going. From kindergarten on, I walked to school every day and home again. It was a mile from home to the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Elementary School, and I soon began to take “short cuts” home each day, which were new routes often so far out of the way, I actually went through neighboring towns on my nostoi. These routes served two functions: first, that I avoided the routine and the boredom that ensues; second, to explore the wider world and see what else was out there. I have continued to explore and to avoid routine for the rest of my life. 

Then there was the moment I learned to read, although I cannot remember a time I couldn’t. But there was the discovery of the school library, which was also the town library, in the basement of the Charles deWolf Elementary School (we had moved). I read every book I could find there, subject by subject. Third grade was devoted to dinosaurs. 

After that, the next turning point, I believe was in third grade, when in art class we were asked to draw Christmas trees for the holiday. I earnestly built my tree up with a trunk and branches, which curved upward, as they do on a fir tree. My teacher told me I was wrong, and proceeded to demonstrate how a Christmas tree really looked, making the familiar diagrammatic greeting-card or cookie-cutter shape.

I was outraged, because I had looked at Christmas trees and I knew I was right and the teacher was wrong. So much for any trust in authority. I took from this a trust in my own observation. This would also later lead me to mistrust many mere conventions that were widely taken to be iron-clad  truths. 

As much as I loved grammar school, I hated high school. Most likely, it was just a victim of my adolescence. I studied and learned the things that piqued my interest, and ignored subjects that bored me. Concomitant grades. I got many an A in hard subjects and too many a C or D in subjects I found boring, badly taught, or otherwise had little interest in. 

But two events aimed my life in new directions. First, I worked on the student newspaper, expecting to be its photographer. But I wrote two stories for it, and both won state-wide awards. I didn’t know then I would become a writer.

The second was finding a girlfriend, who, it turned out, would go on to become a professional bassoonist, and while we were courting, we listened to classical music. I remember fondly sitting on her parents’ couch with her, spooning to the soundtrack of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. My homelife was oddly devoid of music. I was insufficiently stimulated by the popular music of my time and my own parents seldom listened to any music, except what turned up on TV variety shows, and so, becoming exposed to serious music was a revelation. I became not just a writer, but eventually a classical music critic for my newspaper. 

In college, the single most important thing was a class in English Romantic poetry, not so much for the poetry, but for the hard kick in the pants I got from the professor. I was always a smart kid, and was used to knowing how to get good grades, i.e., how to give the teacher what he or she wanted. I knew all the usual tricks. But somehow this professor didn’t want me to give him what he wanted. My first paper came back with a D-minus on it. What is this, I thought. I gave him back what he said in class. But what he wanted was not some rote lesson, but rather he wanted me to engage with the material. It would not have mattered if I was completely wrongheaded, if the wrongheadedness evolved from a genuine dive into the poetry, paying attention to what was actually there. The D-minus was like the slap a doctor gives a newborn to begin life. 

In a way, this was simply a reinforcement of the Christmas tree lesson: Trust yourself. Not arrogantly or stubbornly, but as the starting point. What the book says, or the teacher, must at least at the beginning correspond to my own experience. I may later learn more, and expand my horizon and discover my own ignorance, but the start is myself and my serious engagement with the material. Lesson: Pay attention. 

This has been the first of the two greatest lessons of my life. No: three. 

One other thing happened at college: A friend who had a horrible family turned out not to have a horrible family, and the ruin they had planned for him turned out to have been the psychiatric help I didn’t know he needed. It was another sort of kick in the pants: Things are not always as they seem; there is always more context and backstory than you have access to. This lesson was reinforced a few years later when I read through Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, which hit home like a ton of bricks. I had been Darley, I had been Balthazar, and the omniscient view of Mountolive does not exist in the world outside fiction. I was suitably chastened and forever after not so cocksure of myself or anything else. 

I skip over my first marriage and the birth of my son, because I was too young, ignorant and callow to understand any of it at the time. The marriage lasted just three years. Suffice it to say that I was repaid karmically in my next relationship for my callousness and unrecognized cruelty. 

I then lived with an exceptional young woman for seven years. I was settled into that relationship for the duration. My life was mapped. That is, until she told me she had decided to marry someone else, a shock that blindsided me and knocked me off kilter for at least five years, during which I left the state, moved to Seattle and tried to find another life to lead. I was a lost soul. 

I shared a house there with two lesbian doctors and the world’s most obscene man. It was across the street from the zoo, where I found work at the snack counter. The WMOM, who had written several pornographic novels (the first, Sixty-Nine In-Laws, is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read), was already a published author, and I learned from him a thing or two about writing. I had been so immersed in literature, that when I wrote anything, it was like I was trying to be part of a university curriculum. I wasn’t writing for readers, but for libraries. The WMOM instead wrote quickly, facilely and more like he spoke than like Strunk and White instructed. I learned not to take my words so seriously, but to have fun with them. 

I read constantly, and among the formative books were virtually everything Henry Miller ever wrote. He reinforced the lessons I learned from the WMOM and taught me the importance of flow — that the writing could pour out like spring water. It’s a lesson maybe I’ve learned too well. 

Incidentally, the WMOM has cleaned up his act and is now one of the literary lights of Seattle. Unfortunately, his writing has become so literary as to be almost unreadable. It’s like we exchanged places. 

I practiced writing through letters. I wrote everyone and frequently. I kept carbons of them all. In March of 1978, I pumped out 500 pages on my aqua-colored portable typewriter. The nozzle has been wide open ever since. 

I had a brief romance in Seattle with a zookeeper. The relationship ran hot and cold, and made no sense to me: Did she like me, or did she not?  When I couldn’t take it anymore, I decided to move back East. Only years later did I discover the tragic situation that she was in, and the trauma she had suffered and never told me of. It once again underlined the truth that we never know the whole story, and we should never judge, for we are ignorant. 

This was the second most significant lesson, which I was given reinforcement any number of humbling times. I hope I have learned to wear my nescience gracefully. 

Back in North Carolina, I was close to homeless, and my best college friend and his wife took me in. I lived with them for a year and a half, at their sufferance. They saved my life. But I then found my real wife. We were together for more than 35 years until her death two years ago. 

That encounter was the single biggest thing that happened in my life. In an echo of the English Romantics professor, she forced me to take seriously the fundamental questions of living and to give up any lingering glibness I wore.

Ignorance is about the only thing I had no knowledge of when I was young. I had an answer to pretty much everything. Now, I realize that if I knew a lot of facts, it wasn’t because I was smart, but because the facts stuck on account of my brain being gummy. A collection of facts is not only meaningless, it also prevents learning. When I was a young man, I must have been insufferable. 

I did manage to make some spare change in bar bets. But what I learned from my wife was not so much how to think outside the box, but rather to remain ignorant that such a box even existed. She was the single most intelligent person I ever knew, although that fact might not be immediately apparent when you first met her. She was likely to say the most incomprehensible things, and only if you argued with her — sometimes for two days at a stretch — did you come to understand exactly how brilliant and insightful — how comprehensible — those odd things really were. 

She admitted that she had once been intimidated by my command of facts, but, the longer we lived together, the more I came to value my own ignorance, and the more freely I came to answer, “I don’t know.” She once told me her disappointment. “You used to know everything,” she said. Well, now I don’t. 

She also made me live up to my ideals, and she made me aware, not immediately, but over the long haul, the vital importance of family, and being constantly concerned for someone else’s welfare. The lesson came into profound use as she became increasingly ill and I had to care for her. What she gave to me by her slow decline is inestimable. The greatest hours of my life were those I was able to give to her. I would have given every hour I had, past and future, if she could have lived. 

Her death was the last — or at least the most recent — life-defining point, as I watched her go and came to realize, not something so stale as that life is short. We all know that, especially the closer we come to the end. But that there is little but breath and metabolism behind all that we love and care for. Take that away, and we stare at the void. 

And I can never be vain about my abilities or accomplishments, because not only will my breath and metabolism fail, but that the entire Earth has a sell-by date, the sun, the stars and the universe all sing the lines from Brahms’ German Requiem: “dass ein Ende mit mir haben muss.” 

What I could not have imagined coming out of college is that there is nothing distressing or mournful about this, but rather that I have a small, an infinitesimal part in a vast cosmic dance. 

The value is not in the result, but in the engagement. Gratia Rudy. 

“What do you read, my lord?”
“Words, words, words.”

words words words

For 25 years, I made my living by writing words. In all, some two and a half million of them, writing an average of three stories a week. Yet, in all that time, I had an underlying mistrust of language, a sense that, even if I could still diagram a compound-complex sentence on a blackboard, the structure I saw in chalk did not necessarily mirror the structure of things I saw around me in the world before it is named. The one was neat and tidy, the other was wooly and wiggly.

A good deal of misery and misunderstanding derives from a failure to recognize that the logic of language and that of the real world are not the same.

tomatoWe find this in simple form whenever someone tells you that, for instance, “a tomato is not a vegetable, it is a fruit.” This is a sorry assertion. A tomato is neither animal nor mineral, therefore, it is a vegetable. But, of course, that is not what is meant. In common usage, we use the word, “fruit,” to name a sweet edible and “vegetable” to name a savory. But “vegetable” is also an umbrella word, describing all things vegetative. To aver that a tomato is not a vegetable is to confuse these two usages, and therefore to make an assertion both pedantic and ignorant.

More importantly, this doesn’t really say anything about the Solanum lycopersicum, but about the categories we use language to establish. It is an argument not about the berry (and that is the technical term for the red globe you slice onto your salad), but about the English language.

Whales GoldsmithOr consider this: “A whale is not a fish.” When such a statement is made, it does not discuss whales or fish, but rather, makes a claim about language. The whale is unaffected by the words and fish swim happily past it. But it is a discussion about the categories of nouns: We choose to make the definition of the two classes mutually exclusive. A whale is a mammal.

But it needn’t be so. Through the 18th century, a whale was a fish. Jonah was swallowed by a “great fish.” Anything torpedo-shaped that swims in the sea by the action of its fins was considered a fish. A whale was a very large fish, who just happened to be one that gave birth to live young and suckled them. It was an idiosyncrasy of the whale, just as it is an idiosyncrasy of the salmon that it swims upriver to spawn.

spinous and testaceous fish goldsmithgoldsmith crustaceous fishIn fact, if you read Oliver Goldsmith’s “History of the Earth and Animated Nature,” the best-selling nature book of its century, the category “fish,” also included many other things that live in the watery parts of the world. Whales were “cetaceous fishes,” flounder were “spinous fishes,” sharks were “cartilaginous fishes,” crabs and lobsters were “crustaceous fishes,” and clams and oysters were “testaceous fishes.” It was a perfectly natural way to divide up the various denizens of the undersea. It wasn’t till Carl Linne decided to slice up the world in a new way, based on a combination of skeletal morphology and reproduction, that the whale was surgically removed from the universe of fishes and told to line up on the other side of the room with lemurs, llamas and raccoons. Did the whales even notice?

The basic problem is that language is an intercessor. It sits between experience and understanding. When we approach language, we see only the intercessor — we mistake the priest for the deity.

Words always distort, they always lie. Yet, at bottom, we trust words more than we trust our own eyes. We judge politicians by the labels they are tagged with, not by paying attention to what they actually say or do: Conservative or liberal — when applied to reality, the labels are close to meaningless.

The case may be a little easier to understand in terms of Greek. The ancient Greeks were the first logarchs, they valued verbal meaning over experiential meaning; they actually thought language was a one-to-one descriptor of reality. Their faith is naive to us now. For instance, Zeno’s paradox is only possible in words. Set a tortoise and Achilles out on a race and see if Achilles can’t catch it. No problem. Set it in words, and suddenly, it can’t be done: The problem is entirely in the words, words, words.

sunspotsIt is the logic of language that frustrates Achilles, not the tortoise. It guided how the Greek thought about the world. Polarity, opposites, hidden ironies and surprising conjunctions,  it’s how the language is organized,  even before you even consult reality. So, when the Greek saw language as a mirror of the reality and language posits polarity, it must be because the world is polar. But is it? Opposites are only a linguistic trick. Hot and cold are just relative points on a single thermometer: Sunspots are “cold” places on the sun, even though they are thousands of degrees Farenheit; liquid nitrogen is “warmer” than absolute zero. Linguistic legerdemain.

Even liberals and conservatives are just guys in the same blue suits. They don’t look like a dime’s worth of difference to the Fiji Islander.

By the logic of language, the world is divided into nouns and verbs; look out the window, however, and what you see is the conflation of noun and verb: something very much closer to Ovid’s Metamorphoses: a constant velocity of things ever growing and changing. No noun is static; no verb without its referent.

Marble statue of the ancient greek philosopher PlatoThe issue I have with Plato — aside from his totalitarian fascism — is his faith in an “ideal” of things. The ideal bed, unlike any real bed, is a stultified noun, not a bed. To Plato, the world is cataloged with nouns, only nouns. The perfect human is a form of arrested development. For Plato, the perfect human form is a male figure, age of about 25, all muscle and lithe, with little fat. But a real person is born tiny, grows, ages, marries, has his own bairns, gains experience, grows feeble and dies. Just as a rose isn’t the pretty flower, but a shoot, a bud, a flower, a rose-hip bursting to seed and once more from the top. Over and over. All the world is at every moment changing, growing, shrinking, spreading, running, molting, squawking, collapsing, weeping and rising. It is a churn, not a noun. “Panta horein,” as Heraclitus says: “Everything changes.”

Language is this thin veneer, the shiny surface, the packaging we are cajoled by. Break open the box, and the reality is something else.

It is much like the belief that geometry transcends embodiment. In other words, a triangle is a universal possibility, no matter if one was ever built. It is one of Plato’s ideals. God himself cannot create a four-sided triangle. But to change this “truth,” all we have to do is change our definition of the word. We don’t need a deity to do that, all we need is a lexicographer.

Or better, we can look at the problem a different way: I have written elsewhere (https://richardnilsen.com/2012/06/24/artists-math) that a triangle is a five-sided figure — the three usual sides, plus the top, looking down on it, and the bottom, resting on the desk. You can turn any triangle over from its back and lay it on its belly. triangleIf triangles exist in the world of things, they must have five sides. Language, like the axioms in geometry, pales in comparison to the real world of mud and bricks. There are 300,000 words defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, but that is an infinitesimal number compared with the number of things, acts, colors and sizes in the phenomenological world. There are an infinitely large number of things in the universe for which there are no words.

Take this, for instance. Here, where two walls meet is a corner. But where the wall and the ceiling meet? What is its name? In English, it has none.

Or this place on the wall — it is named the “center.” But this point, just as real, only a few inches from the center, is nameless and so is the one a few inches beyond that.

starsNames are like the stars in the sky, only points, between which is an infinity of space, just as real as the stars.

Language is feeble. It is up to us to see the space between the words, to recognize the feelings between the signpost emotions of hate, joy, anger, sadness — this million slight inflections that are nameless.

Up to us to explore the confusing rush of sense data, the confusing signals of society and nature, the overwhelming input that we censor with our language, allowing only those portions that sport nametags, as if they were Shriners at a convention.

It is up to us to recognize and celebrate all the things, times, places, acts, flavors, feelings, breath and abysses that don’t have names, to enjoy the cold floor and sunlight coming through the window in the morning when the birds haven’t yet begun chattering.

Johnson dictionary

I love long sentences. I’m tired of all the short ones. Hemingway can keep them. Newspapers can urge them. Twitter can mandate them. To hell with them.

My ideal can be found in the long serpentine railways of words shunted hither and thither over dependent clauses, parenthetical remarks, explanatory discursions and descriptive ambiguities; sentences such as those found in the word-rich 18th century publishing world of Fielding, Sterne, Addison, Steele, or Boswell, and perhaps most gratifyingly in the grand, gravid, orotund sentences of Edward Gibbon, whose work I turn to not so much for information about the grandeur that was Rome, but for the pure sensuous pleasure to be had from those accretive tunes built from the pile of ideas and imagery (to say nothing of ironic asides), and peppered liberally with the notations of colons, semicolons, dashes and inverted commas.

Johnson by Joshua ReynoldsNeedless to say, my love of such sentences caused me some embarrassment during my years as a practicing journalist, where I was encouraged to keep my sentences simple and clear. I am sure I must have tested the patience of many an editor over those years. I did pick up one countervailing habit: My paragraphs tend to be short. Often a single sentence per.

It is not only 18th century writing I enjoy. The same love of the trailing, dawdling sentence gives me pleasure in William Faulkner, James Agee and Lawrence Durrell. I want to settle into each sentence as if it were a good book.

I remember in the second or third grade learning to diagram sentences. Noun, verb, object; subject, predicate. This was the armature upon which was built increasingly baroque structures. (When we had assignments to use our newly learned vocabulary words in sentences, I always tried my best to use the entire list in a single sentence.)

What kind of sentence am I talking about? When Gibbon talks ironically about how the spiritual “gifts” of early Christians as well feathered their own nests as proved their piety, he follows with: “Besides the occasional prodigies, which might sometimes be effected by the immediate interposition of the deity when he suspended the laws of nature for the service of religion, the Christian church, from the time of the apostles and their first disciples, has claimed an uninterrupted succession of miraculous powers, the gift of tongues, of vision, and of prophecy, the power of expelling daemons, of healing the sick and of raising the dead.”  I like that: “suspending the laws of nature for the service of religion.” Gibbon has a way of making clear his own skepticism through irony while at the same time never crossing the line into a simple “Nya-nya.” It is a performance of extreme delicacy.tristram shandy hogarth

Tristram Shandy lays the (comic) misfortune of his life to the interrupted coitus of his conception, explaining in one grand run-on sentence: “Believe me, good folks, this is not so inconsiderable a thing as many of you may think it; — you have all, I dare say, heard of the animal spirits, as how they are transfused from father to son, etc., etc. — and a great deal to that purpose: — Well, you may take my word, that nine parts in ten of a man’s sense or his nonsense, his successes and miscarriages in this world, depend upon their motions and activity, and the different tracts and trains you put them into, so that when they are once set a-going, whether right or wrong, ’tis not a half penny matter, — away they go cluttering like hey-go mad; and by treading the same steps over and over again, they presently make a road of it, as plain and as smooth as a garden-walk, which, when they are once used to it, the Devil himself sometimes shall not be able to drive them off it.”

The extreme pleasure of the book is as much linguistic as it narrative.

Or from The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling: “For the reasons mentioned in the preceding chapter, and from some other matrimonial concessions, well known to most husbands, and which, like the secrets of freemasonry, should be divulged to none who are not members of that honourable fraternity, Mrs. Partridge was pretty well satisfied that she had condemned her husband without cause, and endeavored by acts of kindness to make him amends for her false suspicion.”

Simple thoughts may be satisfied with simple sentences, but knotty thoughts, thoughts of subtlety and complexity, require longer compound and compound-complex sentences; sentences in which ideas are parsed, turned over, elucidated, tested and rubbed up against themselves.

(I am reminded that in The Bear, a portion of Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, a single sentence continues for 11 pages. To say nothing of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. Hurrah.)

These sentences I admire and enjoy, are not mere coagulations of verbiage, but rather like puzzle pieces that fit together ultimately to make a perfect construction. Or the worms and gears of an intricate machine turning smoothly. They might be compared to their advantage to the miserable word salad of unfinished thoughts and undefined terms of the blather of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump: long empty strings of cliches and bigotry, and cliched bigotry, in a never-ending stream of inanities and incoherencies that never reach that concluding peroration that brings all the eggs into a single meaningful basket. It is language spewed, not built. My heroes learned their lessons from the classical languages, whence Aeschylus can have his opening speaker in The Agamemnon go on for a full page before punctuating his speech with the single concluding verb that ties the whole performance up in a word that makes sense of all that came before. Grammar can be used to effect: Trump hardly knows there is such a thing as grammar. He is a bilge pump.

But all this is only prolog to my actual subject for today: The odd and magical concatenation of entries, definitions, etymologies and examples found in the famous dictionary of Dr. Johnson. Johnson has his many prejudices that today strike the reader as comical, as when he defines “oats” as “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” Or defines “stateswoman” as: “A woman who meddles with publick affairs. In contempt.”

rhinoNevertheless, if you consider the immensity of the task he set himself in 1746 — a task that wound up taking away nine years of his life — you must admire his profound sincerity and deep devotion. He put together the first comprehensive English dictionary, and in doing so, pretty well had to come up with the plan for it ab ovum. (There were glossaries and word lists, and a few dictionaries before him, but none complete or even attempting to be so). If his definitions sometime seem a trifle punctilious, it must be remembered he was pretty much inventing the whole idea. The definitions range from those that hardly convey what we would consider sufficient information (“Rhinoceros: A vast beast of the East Indies armed with a horn on his front”) to those that seem to do verbal somersaults to convey their meaning (“Network: Anything reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.” By the way: “To Decussate: To intersect at acute angles” and: “Reticulated: Made of network; formed with interstitial vacuities.”)swine

We are so used to a more casual and informal speech these days, that it is a pleasure to see these words in their after-five formal dress. (“Rosin: Inspissated turpentine; a juice of the pine.”) Remember, Johnson had to invent his definitions from sheer air. How would you do if you were faced with defining several thousand words from scratch? How would you define “lard,” for instance. For Johnson, it was “the grease of swine.” There is both an elegance to that terse explanation, but also, to our ears, a kind of humor. We don’t speak that way anymore.

Or how would you explain “smoke?” Johnson: “ The visible effluvium, or sooty exhalation from anything burning.” “Sun?” “The luminary that makes the day.”

Den? “A cavern or hollow running horizontally, or with a small obliquity, under ground; distinct from a hole, which runs down perpendicularly.” The nicety of the distinction is deeply felt for someone who cares about language.

“Mouth: The aperture in the head of any animal at which the food is received.”

“Tree: A large vegetable rising, with one woody stem, to a considerable height.”

“Wolf: A kind of wild dog that devours sheep.”

“Orgasm: Sudden vehemence.”

Can you do better? Well, in some cases, yes, but only because we have several hundred years worth of lexicography behind us (and less delicacy about sex). Remember, Johnson was inventing the thing, a first draft.

I like it when the language is wearing its white tie and waistcoat: “Cough: A convulsion of the lungs, vellicated by some sharp serosity. it is pronounced coff.” If you flip the pages, you find also: “To Vellicate: To twitch; to pluck; to act by stimulation.”

Or: “Whey: The thin or serous part of milk, from which the oleose or grumous part is separated.”

Some of the definitions bear the wisdom of Johnson’s worldview, giving us more than we may actually need to know: “Compliment: An act, or expression of civility, usually understood to include some hypocrisy, and to mean less than it declares.”

There are many words that no longer survive in any meaningful form: “Stirious: Resembling icicles.” And there are words where Johnson threw up his hands: “Stammel: Of this word, I know not the meaning.” (OED says, “A coarse woolen cloth,” and “a shade of red in which the cloth was commonly dyed”).

There are moments where the lexicographer simply got things wrong, or took a metaphorical use as a second definition. He defined “pastern” as “the knee of a horse.” It is rather, part of the foot of a horse. When a woman  asked Johnson how he came to make such a mistake, he answered, “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.”

But by and large, his work was an admirable thing, for which I thank him. And thank him for the pleasure I gain both from his formality, his erudition, and the not infrequent (and often unintended) humor. It is impossible to read through the dictionary and not sense the very particular and idiosyncratic man behind it. Most dictionaries feel distant, academic, objective. Not Johnson’s book: Who read it, hears the blood and bones behind it. Everything in it — and especially its preface — its intensely personal. Its triumphs and its failings are human and profoundly so.

This shows nowhere more than in his botany and zoology. There were many animals with which he clearly had no first-hand information. Some of these were merely legendary, and often a skepticism of such hippogryphs comes out in his entry. Sometimes not.

alligator crocodile“Alligator: The crocodile. This name is chiefly used for the crocodile of America, between which, and that that of Africa, naturalists have laid down this difference, that one moves the upper and the other the lower jaw; but this is now known to be chimerical, the lower jaw being equally moved by both.”

“Salamander: An animal supposed to live in the fire, and imagined to be very poisonous. Ambrose Parey has a picture of the salamander, with a receipt for her bite; but there is no such creature, the name being now given to a poor harmless insect.”

“Tarantula: An insect whose bite is only cured by musick.”

camelopard“Camelopard: An Abyssinian animal, taller than an elephant, but not so thick. He is so named because he has a neck and head like a camel; he is spotted like a pard, but his spots are white upon a red ground. The Italians call him giaraffa.”

It is fun to read through the dictionary as a kind of bizarro-world view of 18th century natural science, punctuated by Johnson’s peculiar phraseology and word choice: “Tadpole: A young shapeless frog or toad, consisting only of a body and a tail; a porwiggle.” As for the tail: “That which terminates the animal behind; the continuation of the vertebrae of the back hanging loose behind.”

I wish I could go on with so many more entries, but I can only end with a few.

starfish“Starfish: A fish branching out into several points.”

“Frog: A small animal with four feet, living both by land and water, and placed by naturalists among mixed animals, as partaking of beast and fish. There is likewise a small green frog that perches on trees, said to be venomous.”

“Toad: An animal resembling a frog; but the frog leaps, the toad crawls: the toad is accounted venomous, I believe truly.”

“Wasp: A brisk stinging insect, in form resembling a bee.”

“Serpent: An animal that moves by undulation without legs. They are often venomous. They are divided into two kinds; the viper, which brings young, and the snake, that lays eggs.”

“Lizard: An animal resembling a serpent, with legs added to it.”

“Shrewmouse: A mouse of which the bite is generally supposed venomous, and to which vulgar tradition assigns such malignity, that she is said to lame the foot over which she runs. I am informed that all these reports are calumnious, and that her feet and teeth are equally harmless with the mouse. Our ancestors however looked on her with such terrour, that they are supposed to have given her name to a scolding woman, whom for her venom they call a shrew.” (vide:  “Shrew: A peevish, malignant, clamorous, spiteful, vexatious, turbulent woman.”)

elephant“Elephant: The largest of all quadrupeds, of whose sagacity, faithfulness, prudence , and even understanding, may surprising relations are given. This animal is not carnivorous, but feeds on hay, herbs and all sorts of pulse; and it is said to be extremely long lifed. It is naturally very gentle; but when enraged, no creature is more terrible. He is supplied with a trunk, or long hollow cartilage, like a large trumpet, which hangs between his teeth, and serves him for hands: by one blow with his trunk he will kill a camel or a horse, and will raise a prodigious weight with it. His teeth are the ivory so well known in Europe, some of which have been seen as large as a man’s thigh, and a fathom in length. Wild elephants are taken with the help of a female ready for the male: she is confined to a narrow place, round which pits are dug; and these being covered with a little earth scattered over hurdles, the male elephants easily fall into the snare. In copulation the female receives the male lying upon her back; and such is his pudicity, that he never covers the female so long as anyone appears in sight.”

And the elephant also brings us back to the GOP and its excrescences: “Trumpery: Something fallaciously splendid; something of less value than it seems.”

Big Baby

I have slighted a good deal of the state in these writings. So much is left out. I have barely mentioned the Navajo Reservation, an area the size of West Virginia. I have loved visiting the Rez, and the Hopi Reservation swallowed Jonah-like inside it. I have left out huge chunks of Arizona that I love and remember well: I scarcely nodded to Tucson, Aravaipa Canyon, Fort Huachuca, the Petrified Forest, Painted Desert, Payson, Showlow, the Mogollon Rim — the list is too long to number here. All of it fascinating either for its geology, its history, its development, its politics, its beauty or its characteristic ugliness. Whatever it is that makes it memorable.

Little Colorado River, Holbrook

Little Colorado River, Holbrook

I feel bad for not being able to squeeze it all in.

Cottonwood bark

I began in Phoenix, drove south then southeast; then up north and across Interstate 40, making a grand spiral. If I followed that logic, this entry should begin at Hoover Dam and continue on a plumb line south to Yuma, where the excursion should end. But I have left out the middle portion of the state so far. And I should like to be able to mention such prodigies as the pile of rocks at Granite Dells, the prehistoric ruins at Tuzigoot, the Verde River valley and the sliding town of Jerome.

Jerome

Jerome

This imaginary roadtrip began because I was feeling homesick for the state I left four years ago. I have seen its distances in dreams, when I wake and only half-remember that my eyes now open in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. (When I lived in Phoenix, I often had this same homesickness for the Eastern forests and hills). The fact is, I want to engulf it all, sweep it all into my innards and swallow the map whole: I have loved travel more than anything in my six decades and eight years.

Verde River

Verde River

So, I finally recall the dusty streets of Kingman, the old road through Oatman, and the wastage south, through Spring Break Gomorrah (Lake Havasu City), and on to the remains of the internment camp at Poston, with its memorial (although more moving are the stumps of concrete foundations you can find throughout the area, where the barracks used to be that warehoused Japanese Americans), and Poston’s irrigation and farmland, all on the Indian reservation.

Poston

Poston

South of that, you follow the Colorado River to Yuma, where you can walk across the river most times of the year and hardly get your ankles wet. The green farmland along the river, all the way down to San Luis, remind you that so much of Arizona remains agricultural.

Crazy cactus

I have loved it all, and more: It has become a part of my inner landscape. Drop me anywhere — Burro Creek Canyon, Yarnell, Mormon Lake, Old Oraibi, Gila Bend — and I will know where I am instantly. I have soaked Arizona in like a sponge.

Yuma

Yuma

But I have lit out for the territories — in my case, that is returning to my past in the Blue Ridge, among the beech and oak and ash and dogwood, where bears scavenge my garbage and a pileated woodpecker knocks the old red maple in my front yard.

Quartzsite

Quartzsite

I have lived in the four corners of the continent: born in New Jersey, schooled in North Carolina, taught in Virginia, tested in Seattle and ripened in Arizona; visited every one of the contiguous 48 states at least a half-dozen times, not counting all the Canadian provinces save Prince Edward Island, and I’ve internalized it all. Now that I am old, and driving long distances is torture on my knees, I can revisit the places I know by writing about them. I recommend the maneuver to everyone: Write — or draw, or dance, or sing — and reconnect with the life you have led, with the world you inhabit. Everything written is a new Genesis: the world is created once more, and the world needs to be reborn constantly.

Tacna

Tacna