writing lives

  • 3 musketeers bars and the hypnotic bass beat of “every breath you take”
  • new year’s eve and an evening of cole porter tunes
  • a good book and ready access to google and wikipedia for the all important insta-reference searches
  • fresh mozzarella and tomato with basil
  • heck, any melange of tomato, cheese, and grain-based substrate (tortillas, crusty baguette, magical bread that a nearby cafe brings in from a bakery in germantown)
  • year-round ceiling fan and a thick blanket
  • slightly runny eggs and toasted multigrain bread with raspberry jam
  • sparkling conversation and hot tea with honey
  • ice cream and ice water

with one exception, i still indulge in all of these combinations of things/foods/experiences with regularity. i’ve long been fascinated by how things combine — not just foods and ideas, certainly those are elevated on my radar, but also items of clothing (as worn by others mostly and less on me), gestures, images, people, furniture, sounds… more recently, as perhaps recent posts might suggest, the determinism that accompanies some combinations continues to hold my attention, especially as they become entrenched in our social consciousness and can come to have a profound impact on daily actions and interactions as combinations become labels become intractable indictments — but that is not the point of this post. i’m not yet sure what the point is, but i know that for the moment, i want to focus on something other than the social ills of labeling and categorizing and stuart hall’s multimedia treatise on race and the insidiousness of an ethos of “matter out of place.”

there is another combination that i have long enjoyed that has been absent in the pop culture landscape for over twelve years now, and that is the pairing of gene siskel and roger ebert. this may seem like an odd segue to the original odd couple of movie review and film criticism royalty, but the atlantic’s recent article about a new book by the prolific roger ebert, life itself, brought back my memories of watching the two men bickering on the movie balcony stage set. in an earlier post i quoted from an everlasting meal in which tamar adler makes a simple observation: we all need a little seasoning to be most ourselves. and even though ebert is astute and critical and witty on his own, i enjoy thinking about how siskel coaxed out of his balcony buddy some musings and observations that might have gone unnoticed, unsaid, or a different direction altogether. ebert said as much in an interview last year. (how many more examples of learning as social do we need before schools listen? sigh…)

but that is not the point of this post, either. it is, i think, found in a quote that the atlantic excerpted from life itself in which roger ebert is reflecting on being asked to review the film persona:

On writing about “impenetrable” art“In 1967, new in my job at the Sun-Times, I walked into the Clark Theater and saw Persona. I didn’t have a clue how to write about it. I began with a simply description: ‘At first the screen is black. Then, very slowly, an area of dark grey transforms the screen into blinding white. This is light projected through film onto the screen, the first basic principle of the movies. The light flickers and jumps around, finally resolving itself into a crude cartoon of a fat lady.’ And so on. I was discovering a method that would work with impenetrable films: Focus on what you saw and how it affected you. Don’t fake it.”

those last two lines sound like they are shouting to everyone who has ever attempted to utter or pen a single word. how can we write truthfully? that isn’t to say that we don’t embellish or invent or imagine fantastic tales of impossibility, but, like the pair note in clip about back to the future 2 to which i linked, how might retain in our writing perhaps a nugget of that which offers moments of connection and a glimpse of recognition for the reader. they ought to talk more about writing alienation (read: boring your readers!) and less about the five paragraph essay (which can certainly induce writing alienation). how do we move from faking it — in our letters to family, cover letters for jobs, personal statements for tenure, field notes academic articles, policy statements that are filled with assumptions and pairings to which even the most attila-the-hunnish among us wouldn’t adhere — to writing as offering, writing as work in the world.

here’s another choice nugget from ebert, who has suffered through thyroid cancer that left him literally unable to speak audibly with his voice, but as he writing continues to demonstrate, he continues to talk with his audience:

On why writing matters to him now“What’s sad about not eating is the experience, whether at a family reunion or at midnight by yourself in a greasy spoon under the L tracks. The loss of dining, not the loss of food. Unless I’m alone, it doesn’t involve dinner if it doesn’t involve talking. The food and drink I can do without easily. The jokes, gossip, laughs, arguments, and memories I miss. I ran in crowds where anyone was likely to start reciting poetry on a moment’s notice. Me too. But not me anymore. So yes, it’s sad. Maybe that’s why writing has become so important to me. You don’t realize it, but we’re at dinner right now.”

ebert’s reflections remind me of andre aciman — another writer like w.g. sebald whose words literally transport you to another world with a quiet steadiness, at once gentle and jarring descriptions, astute yet painful allegory –who seems to practice as well as embody this studied and steady ethos of being present in one’s writing, trusting one’s memory, moving simply through ideas (but not necessarily without complexity of relationships between those ideas) — recalling one’s first memory of lavender for example (see this video of aciman on writing, the lavender reference is at the 4′ minute mark). i think perhaps what these and many other writers, whose writing is available in the form of published texts as well as blogs and interviews, overwhelmingly advocate is a practice of writing itself as a start to writing. just write.* even if it’s crap. even if what you write on sunday is long gone by the time you write a conclusion on friday. of this anne lamott’s musing in bird by bird: some instructions on writing and life are particularly insightful:

You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story. You are desperate to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy or transcendence, to make real or imagined events come alive. But you cannot will this to happen. It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. So you might as well go ahead and get started.

in the ever present and ongoing existential crisis quandary in which i find myself, i wonder if perhaps there are other questions we might ask of ourselves and one another (instead of the ones we often pose to kids and derivatives of which we ask during polite cocktail part small talk: What do you do? Where do you work? Where do you live?):  how did you write your life today? which page of your story did you work on this afternoon? with whom are you spending time? with whose words and ideas and actions do you resonate, disagree, find joy? how are you living your life?
(i know, i know: i’m not getting invited to any parties any time soon. but i swear i like to wax on about my collection of boots and latest teen angst tv discoveries, too!)

ebert’s implication that what may be more important than the actual writing is where and to whom the writing may take you is a lovely and fulfilling thought. [insert flood of memories of reading and writing and conversations about readings and writings here…] and so perhaps ebert’s title is apt as suggestive of another lasting combination:

writing and life, itself.

*despite this recent spurt of obsessive blogging, writing the lives of others — which encompasses a great deal of my writing todo list — continues to paralyze especially as the desire to write justly and without freezing the dynamic realities of people’s life narratives rings loudly in my ears. and so perhaps writing this post and reading ebert’s book is an attempt to take some of that good advice myself.
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