How writing is like catching fish & what Rilke said.

Illustration by Elisa Ancori

Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life. – Rainer Maria Rilke

I caught a fish with my hands once. It was swimming upstream to spawn in the thaw of spring, which in Maine means mid-May (we don’t have a pretty, dappled ascent into summer, just a mess of thawing ice and a long, painful mud-season that only plays at warmth). Every now and then, a trout would fly out of the river as it tried to make its way up the waterfall, a little flash of black and silver in the air, improbable as a proverb.

I was with a park ranger, and he told me to try and catch one. I waded out into the water across slippery stones. It was so, so cold against my bare feet and ankles. It took a few tries to catch a fish. I would see it coming, watch downstream as it approached, and plunge my hands into the water, groping blindly in the bubbles and blackness. I felt so many fish swim deftly between, around, over my hands. In the end, I crouched down with my numb hands motionless in the water, ready for the trout to come to me. Eventually, one did.

I held it over my head and my friend on the riverbank took a picture. I remember feeling so powerful, as though I had accomplished something far bigger than grabbing a dumb creature out of a river. Then I set the fish back into the water and let it continue its upstream swim, struggling against the current, driven by instinct and desire, rushing toward its chance to mate.

I’m writing this because I can’t write anything else right now. I am smothered by winter and anxiety. And when I read that Rilke quote, all I could think of was that fish. Experience is as slippery and elusive as a fish, evading all attempts to pin it down with language, though that is the job of the writer, isn’t it? To catch the fish. To say something real with the clumsy, numb tools we have.

Spring’s thaw can’t come soon enough.

Above quote by Rilke, image by Barcelona-based artist Elisa Ancori

Two nice things: Celeste Keller painting & Mary Oliver poem.

Screen Shot 2015-03-15 at 10.17.29 PMMysteries, Yes

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity,
while we ourselves dream of rising.

How two hands touch and the bonds
will never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

– Mary Oliver

I am tired and sick, so nothing more to say today, except this: Mary Oliver is the most comforting and uplifting poet. Besides Yeats, who I adore, she might be my favorite.

Painting by Celeste Keller, who does lovely portraits. 

Why I read, why I write: Kurt Vonnegut edition.

ann teresa barboza embroidery artist

Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

Kurt Vonnegut is such a boss. Here are his eight tips of writing short stories, a list that includes “be a sadist” and “every character should want something.” But the above quote is my favorite. Write to please one person. When I’m teaching writing to kids, I call this their “dream reader” or “fantasy reader.” Who is a person who you admire, who you most want to read your work? When I write, I think about a professor I studied with at Bard. I write for him, because writing for everyone is exhausting and impossible. A fools errand, just like trying to be liked by every person at the party.

Image by Ana Teresa Barboza, who creates amazing embroideries of plants and bodies and other natural things. Check out her website here.

“You are the only custodian of your own integrity.”

Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 10.12.15 AMBrain Pickings is one of my all-time favorite websites. It’s a thoughtfully curated selection of intellectual inspiration and bookwormy quotes. The woman who runs it, Maria Popova, who describes the site this way: “The core ethos behind Brain Pickings is that creativity is a combinatorial force: it’s our ability to tap into our mental pool of resources — knowledge, insight, information, inspiration, and all the fragments populating our minds — that we’ve accumulated over the years just by being present and alive and awake to the world, and to combine them in extraordinary new ways.” So good, right?

Naturally, Popova has accumulated quite a bit of knowledge in her years of running the site. In 2013, to celebrate seven years of pickin’ brains, she published a short essay on seven things she learned. It’s a lovely little meditation on how to generously give your time while protecting your own integrity, how to respect yourself and others, and why changing your mind is an important part of being human. Now, the fundamental points of this piece have been made into a sweet animated video. It is the greatest way to start a Saturday—some gentle music, some inspiration, and a reminder that slowing down and doing nothing at all is sometimes necessary. Vital even. It gives our brains time to be creative, space to play with new thoughts. I tend to think of my best story ideas in the shower. I think it’s partially due to the water (few things make me feel creative or light or good or strong like water on my body) but it’s also because showering is metal downtime, when I have nothing to do but let the drops wash over me and think, quietly and unfocused, open and without purpose.

I’m getting sidetracked! Go watch the video. Then go create things. Or do nothing. It’s Saturday, after all.

“Prose is a window onto the world.”

Marshall & Neil The Lion

The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with the truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. The truth can be known, and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world. The writer knows the truth before putting it into words; he is not using the occasion of writing to sort out what he thinks. Nor does the writer of classic prose have to argue for the truth; he just needs to present it. That is because the reader is competent and can recognize the truth when she sees it, as long as she is given an unobstructed view. The writer and the reader are equals, and the process of directing the reader’s gaze takes the form of a conversation.

― Steven PinkerThe Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

Photograph by Michael Rougier for Time magazine.

A side effect of reading.

Reading by Pablo Gallo

When you read a really, really great book, it changes how you perceive the world. I was talking to a fellow writer friend about this a few nights ago. We couldn’t quite pin down what we thought about this—it’s at once freeing and scary, intimate and distancing. It feels as though you’ve invited another writer to come live in your head—or crawled inside theirs.

I tried to think about the last book that made me feel drunk on words, and I have trouble bringing one to mind. I think it must be The Empathy Exams, a series of essays by Leslie Jamison about pain, the body, compassion, femininity, and other slippery subjects. On the other, fictitious hand, One Hundred Years of Solitude still makes me feel strange and a little dizzy every time I read it. The Unbearable Lightness of Being turns me into a overly touchy yet emotionally reticent partner. Margaret Atwood makes me bubble and fizz with nebulous anger and self-righteousness and Toni Morrison makes my heart hurt in a way that is sweet and uneasy. I just hope that I don’t lose each of these tiny personalities that forms inside my skull. I like to think they snarl together (like a mental rat-king of great authors and ideas) and wait for when I’m ready to use them. Maybe they do.

It’s my goal in life to write one thing, one book, that changes the way just a few people look at things. I want my writing to ask people to really, truly look at each other. To see them in a new, hopefully more forgiving, light.

Image by Pablo Gallo