On Journeys and Journals

 

This post was originally written for 49 Writers blog in 2014. I hope you find it relevant to this week’s reading from  Writing True.

Tomorrow, my wife and I will begin a slow drive south, to Anchorage and then the Kenai. Homer is the destination, though not really the point. I often create this way. In motion, my mind clears, and, as in sunlight after a storm, worlds both fictional and real reappear. At every stop, I pull my journal, or sometimes my laptop, from my bag and I write. On the drive, in between writing sessions, the stories have room to develop. Last year, as we travelled through Washington and Oregon, I worked on a story about an ex- quarterback. I finished the story, finally, in a brewpub in Astoria.

It seems to me that there is a natural relationship between travel and writing, and, though I don’t know the etymology, it makes sense to me that the terms “journey’ and “journal’ sound so similar.

I first started writing in journals consistently during the summer of 1985 when I rode my bicycle 5000 miles through the western United States.  I rode through a mountain snowstorm and across the 100 degree desert.   Along the way I met a Hollywood stuntman who was mending a broken marriage by traveling through Montana, an elderly couple named Dick and Winifred who fed me a meal of freshly harvested clams andoysters and told me stories of  life lived near the sea. In Arizona, a Navajo man told me the names of nearby rock formations, and narrated the legends contained within them. I learned the joy of sleeping to the sound of rain against my tent and ocean waves lapping on the shore. I felt various velocities of wind against my skin.

Every day on that trip, I kept a journal. The writing in those old journals is bland, less than literary, lacking in description and dialogue. But I still have them, and always will. I wrote daily not with the goal of publication, or even with a potential reader in mind, but to keep a record, to remember and to connect with the natural world, connect with my own experiences. To write of one’s journey is to live it twice and because of those journals, that journey remains vivid in my mind, even 28 years later.

Every semester, early – I’m partial to doing this on rainy days— I ask my students this: so what did you notice when you came to class today?   They shrug, look around at each other.   Was there an assignment they’d missed?   Forgotten to do.   They glance down at their notes.   Then I ask if they noticed the reflection of the leaves in the water, the way they create abstract streaks of red and orange in the puddle outside the building; the man outside collecting cans with the shirt that says “Math is Infinite.’   The swoosh of traffic, how if you close your eyes at a street corner, you can tell when the lights change, just by the sound of those tires coming to a stop. I tell them about the conversation I overheard at the coffee house that morning. Writers, above all else, I tell them, pay attention, notice what others miss. Motion is central to this. Even if only a daily walk.

My love for books mirrors my love for travel. The travel writer Bruce Chatwin, writes that the nomadic life is the most natural human instinct.   It’s no coincidence that many of the best novelists are also travel writers: Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pam Houston, Jim Harrison, Jamaica Kincaid, Paul Theroux. The travel narrative is one of the most enduring forms in all of literature—from “The
Odyssey’ to “Canterbury Tales’ to Dante‘s “Inferno.’   Toni Morrison’s “Beloved’ is, in part, a travel narrative, as is Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.’

Writing, like bicycling, is best when the destination falls away, and all that matters
is the moment.   The ego drops away, and a connection is felt, and you enter that effortless dreamlike state, and the awareness is so profound that you are no longer peeking into the world, but have disappeared and folded into it.   It’s a lesson I have to keep re-teaching myself: you write a book the same way you bicycle 5000 miles. Steady progress.   Not a binge once in a while, but a little every day.   On a bicycle tour, you don’t take weeks off.   When it rains, you don’t stay inside—getting wet is the point. You don’t quit when there’s a head wind—you pedal.   The wind changes, the clouds clear. Writing is the same. You have to plow through the hardships. Good writing does not come about from brief moments of inspiration any more than good health does. It requires routine.

And in routine, you discover that journals and journeys have something else in common:   a natural arc. By writing every day, you begin to see the escalating and falling actions of life—the obstacles, conflicts, resolutions, joy. Our lives are our journeys. Let us write them as we go.

Blog/Lectures

TO WRITE GOOD PROSE, LEARN TO LOVE POETRY

(Originally posted on 49 writers blog)

“Genuine poetry can communicate before it’s understood.’ T.S. Eliot

Earlier tonight, I sat at a table with four poets. They are each successful and brilliant, and each came to poetry in their own unique way. One of them stumbled into a prestigious graduate program only after dropping out of school. “The last thing in the world I ever thought I’d call myself is poet,’ he confessed. One is self-taught — for her, an advanced degree was unnecessary. One had planned on being a veterinarian before finding poetry. One of them teaches at a local high school. She had recently heard that cayenne pepper can increase egg productivity in hens and she wanted to know if the rest of us thought that might be true. None knew the answer, but I could sense their poet minds storing the question away, shaping it into a potential prompt. As usual when I’m around poets like this, I reveled in the notion that I had crashed the cool people’s party.

My love for poetry goes way back, to the first creative writing class I ever took from a man named Bob Couchman, to this day one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. He was short and stocky, gentle but strict. He enjoyed being outdoors, and I’m sure drew inspiration for his writing from spending time in the Colorado mountains. He himself was a published poet, and he taught us a love for language and stories. We adored him, and he made it okay for an athlete such as I to write poems.

Generally, I think of myself as a prose writer, and only occasional poet. But there’s much to be gained for a prose writer from studying poetry, and I find more and more that the books that pile up around me as I seek inspiration for my own writing are poetry books. I’m not sure that all poets should study prose. (Okay, they probably should). But I’m convinced that prose writers should study poetry. When I was a student at the University of Nebraska, Ted Kooser used to talk about the “writer’s ear.’ Good writers learn to hear language when they read just as much as they see the words on the page. When read out loud, writing should flow easily from the lips, and such reading can be physiologically pleasurable to read; when it thrums, you can feel it. Because of its reliance on the music of language, and deep engagement with words, studying poetry and reading it out loud is one of the best ways to develop this “writer’s ear.’

I’m particularly enamored with poetic lines, and I’ve started to collect lines that sing to me. At the risk of removing them from the shelter of the poems where they live, I’d like to share a few:

Here’s a line from a poem called “Preludes’ by Tomas Tranströmer:

I shy at something that comes shuffling crosswise in the sleet.‘

The alliteration here is obvious, and a better scholar than myself could scan the meter. But the joy for me is the playfulness of the language: the surprise of “shy’ as a verb, the three dimensional effect of “shuffling crosswise,’ the way the single word “sleet’ completes the scene and makes it come alive.

Here’s a couple more, the first from Kristin Naca’s “The Adoration at El Montan Motor Lodge’ and the second from Louise Mathias’ “Prone, November.’

For hours the lovers’ feet kick at the woozy nightstand.‘

Just your slow, pink movements near the doorway.‘

Each of these lines has a light touch of eroticism. Adjectives can be overdone, but here, “woozy’ and “pink’ add just the right punch to each of the lines. You could take away these words without losing meaning, but the imagery would suffer. Above all else, these lines are fun to read out loud. Try it.

This is a line from C.D. Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining:

 In the seclusionary cool of the car the mind furnishes a high-ceilinged room with a white piano.‘

For me this captures perfectly the feeling of calm that can happen on a long road trip. There is a sense of quiet, but also the piano, waiting for one to sit down and create. What a perfect metaphor to capture that elegant space that results from the mind clearing.

Finally, this:

Their silhouettes are smudges scratched by the gray lines of the cold rain.‘

This line is taken not from a poem but from prose: it is from the short story “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly,’ by Dave Eggers. It is lyrical and, examined in isolation, matches up favorably to the lines of poetry above. Lines like this only come from a writer who has an ear for language.

What are some of your favorite lines of poetry or prose? Please post them below.