Words to live by


“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing”
— Benjamin Franklin


Another e-worthy note. So simple, so difficult. But then again, “We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us;” (Rilke).

What it takes to write

In her piece for the New Yorker titled, “How I get to write,” Roxanna Robinson describes the precious, sacred morning time between the end of sleep and the beginning of writing. The time — or more precisely, the space, the gap in the day when remnants of slumber still linger before the day’s demands become all-consuming.

I brush my teeth, get dressed, make the bed. I avoid conversation, as my husband knows. I am not yet in the world, and there is a certain risk involved in talking: the night spins a fine membrane, like the film inside an eggshell. It seals you off from the world, but it’s fragile, easily pierced.

The “fine membrane” of the previous night is one I want to stay with for longer than I usually am able to, save during breaks and time away — that is to say, physically away. While I don’t agree with all of what she writes (i.e., I love breakfast and, when I allow myself to indulge, truly enjoy the taste of coffee) —

I go down the hall into the kitchen. I don’t like breakfast, but it’s necessary to get through it in order to get to coffee.

I drink instant because I don’t care how it tastes, all I want is the kick. And I don’t want to wait for perking or dripping.

— I do have a deep appreciation for her articulation of the importance of undisturbed times to delve deeply into the gossamer hints of thought that require space to germinate and sprout.

So I don’t read the news or listen to it. Nor do I make a single phone call, not even to find out if the plumber is actually coming that day to fix the sink, which he has failed to do now for five days in a row. One call and I’m done for. Entering into the daily world, where everything is complicated and requires decisions and conversation, means the end of everything. It means not getting to write.

The reason the morning is so important is that I’ve spent the night somewhere else.

This is nowhere I can describe exactly, only that it’s mysterious and limitless, a place where the mind expands.

Being awake and ready for writing and being awake in order to be social are two utterly different things. My family knows this well…


Still more daily routines of writers were made available recently by Maria Popova over at brainpickings.org:

The Daily Routines of Famous Writers

including, Ernest Hemingway:

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.

Maya Angelou:

I write in the morning and then go home about midday and take a shower, because writing, as you know, is very hard work, so you have to do a double ablution. Then I go out and shop — I’m a serious cook — and pretend to be normal. I play sane — Good morning! Fine, thank you. And you? And I go home. I prepare dinner for myself and if I have houseguests, I do the candles and the pretty music and all that. Then after all the dishes are moved away I read what I wrote that morning. And more often than not if I’ve done nine pages I may be able to save two and a half or three. That’s the cruelest time you know, to really admit that it doesn’t work.

Don DeLillo:

I work in the morning at a manual typewriter. I do about four hours and then go running. This helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle — it’s a nice kind of interlude. Then I work again, later afternoon, for two or three hours. Back into book time, which is transparent — you don’t know it’s passing. No snack food or coffee. No cigarettes — I stopped smoking a long time ago. The space is clear, the house is quiet. A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it.

William Gibson:

When I’m writing a book I get up at seven. I check my e-mail and do Internet ablutions, as we do these days. I have a cup of coffee. Three days a week, I go to Pilates and am back by ten or eleven. Then I sit down and try to write. If absolutely nothing is happening, I’ll give myself permission to mow the lawn. But, generally, just sitting down and really trying is enough to get it started. I break for lunch, come back, and do it some more. And then, usually, a nap. Naps are essential to my process. Not dreams, but that state adjacent to sleep, the mind on waking.

Anaïs Nin:

I write my stories in the morning, my diary at night.

and, for E, the wise musings of Benjamin Franklin — seen here in this graphically organized daily routine:

Benjamin Franklin’s daily schedule

and now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to prepare to sleep so that I can get up and write.


There aren’t even crickets chirping inside my head — that’s how bad this spell of writer’s block is. The frustrating thing about writer’s block isn’t that the words don’t come forth. It’s that they are too scared to even exist in the same realm as your consciousness, too frightened to complete the transfer from notion to discernable thought. Because if you can’t think them, then you can’t assess what you have just thought or mentally composed as absolute crap. I know what Anne Lamott says about “shitty first drafts” — it’s the advice I have passed on to students and friends and colleagues. “Just write” I say, knowing full well that sometimes there are no words and that even if the words do some, they might be complete, well, you know… How does one “not take things so seriously” while also attending meaningfully to the many little fires that may crop up during the day. Can one be existential while also being engaged? Or perhaps the better question to ask whether it is possible to be engaged without a certain amount of detachment? It is, after all, just some writing or, in Lamott’s friend’s words “just a bit of cake.” (See excerpts from Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Instructions on writing and life below and you’ll see what I mean — don’t read it for answers; just commiserate and go back to work.)

The trick, it seems, is to recognize that you’re stuck and move on. Accept the denial, so to speak, and allow yourself to transition into a better headspace. It’s the unstuck-ing that is especially challenging. To date, I’ve tried my usual standards: long walks, cooking, television, reading, napping, and even laundry. Nothing has quite done the trick. This tells me two things: I really do need ongoing dialogue with actual humans to get me through this stuck-ness, and I might need to try an approach that doesn’t come naturally to me: just sucking it up and barging through the stuck wall.

Here I go…

(And if you’re still stuck, might I suggest some math)


perfect day with a side of fleeting bird

This is the sky above me as I attempt some writing at a local cafe. As the words are not flowing, I am allowing myself some creative procrastination that has come in the form of several unsent tweets, responding to overdue emails, and taking a minute to read again a few lines of an essay I just learned of by Italo Calvino. There may be a previous post that mentioned Amelie Rorty’s essay “The Ethics of Reading” in which she urges readers to consider the “author’s house” when reading the author’s words — to ask questions of the architecture of an author’s idea chambers, their histories and spatio-temporal connections. In a similar vein, Calvino, in the essay “Why Read the Classics?” very plainly, very transparently delineates his thinking about what has long been a contentious idea: classics. Or, more precisely, *the* classics.

Calvino writes about the moments when we first and then again engage in the reading of a classic, acknowledging not only that who we are shapes our readings, but also that in no way can everyone read everything “classical” and still keep current with the present moment’s goings-on. (Just today someone tweeted about Toni Morrison’s new book “Home” and I thought, “she has another one out? I haven’t finished all of the others!”) In his enumerated essay, Calvino writes:

4) Every rereading of a classic is as much a voyage of discovery as the first reading.

5) Every reading of a classic is in fact a rereading.

Voyage and discovery, the very art of getting lost and happily giving oneself over to the experience of reading — does that happen in our writing? He cleverly leaves open the question of what is a classic, saying only, “If the spark doesn’t come, that’s a pity; but we do not read the classics out of duty or respect, but only out of love. Except at school.” (except at school… sigh.)

Anne Lamott attempts to suggest something about this sense of discovery but it seems her words center more on the reading than the writing (in this excerpt at least):

“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They depen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”

Oh, I see — when we assume postures as writers, we might potentially evoke singing on a boat caught in a storm, our words may be the ones to catalyze spontaneous clapping amidst the absurdity of life. It’s so simple: we must be readers when we write.

W.G. Sebald’s writing, which I have occasionally referenced here and which were the inspiration for Grant Gee’s film “Patience (After Sebald)”, is described in Gee’s film by the artist Tacita Dean in this way: “You don’t care you’re being led nowhere because you learn so much along the way.” Could there be any higher praise for one’s writing?

Well, I seem to say to myself on occasion, these are all good ideas to keep in mind. But can one hope to evoke laughter or inspire a jig in the midst of life when the text is a grant proposal and the reviewers are… well… reviewers, cut of the same cloth, perhaps, as those who have stripped schools of toe-tapping, silly clapping, garden path sentences and textual journeys of the unbelievable variety?

deep into the grey

Flakes of snow and easily melting ice that fell three times this past week have been replaced by ordinary raindrops that have taken up the precipitation mantle and fall in an unsteady pattern from the heavens. It’s easy to be romanced by the fluffy stuff, especially when your micro-flat is well stocked with the staples and other key necessary munitions of weather-preparedness — sweet treats — and you have little need to venture outside. And while I’m often irritated by rainfall, because it dares to fall whenever I have a hankering to wear sandals or some other article of clothing or footwear that provides adequate protection from the wet stuff, the heavily blanketed skies that look ever-ready to purge their water stores induce in me a sense of pity so that when it occasionally rains here I’m hardly bothered. Out of these overcast skies emerges a nuanced canvas of greys, taupes, tans, sands, slates, and even more hues often grouped together under the category of “grey” or “greyish brown.” Against such a canvas, the occasions of color outside of this spectrum seem to beckon with greater urgency. The orange life jackets and life preservers gathered on a dock awaiting enthusiastically the next Thames boat cruise group; hints of violet and pumpkin in a sea of black and grey overcoats; the shiny silver buckle on a modern briefcase glistens as its owner rushes home from work, or perhaps work from home.

Hungerford Bridge
Hungerford Bridge
Morning rush
Morning rush at Temple Underground
Meeting of the minds
Meeting of the minds on Waterloo Bridge

It is perhaps why occasional blue skies in London feel magical and other-wordly — a sort of meteorological explication of what Mick Jagger croons almost patronizingly: “You can’t always get what you want.” But perhaps we might take another riff on the Stones and wonder whether what we think we want is sometimes hampered by the limitations of our own imagination. And thus how might we feed our minds so that the boundaries of our imaginations are actually limitless and do not, instead, fall into some sort of assessable, easily discernable rubric? And, lest we forget the rest of Jagger’s helpful advice: “But if you try sometimes/You just might find you get what you need.”

How, then, can we see the color in greys? And perhaps see grey as colorful itself?