In my latest for The Dabbler I get cozy with the idea that reading a good book is better than writing one.
Tag Archives: Writing
In fact, I write for a living – or that’s mostly what I do. Of course, the sorts of things I get paid to write aren’t generally my idea of literature. They’re press releases, talking points, media pitches, byline articles, company reports, strategic messaging documents – that sort of stuff. I like to say that I’ve been quoted in most of America’s major newspapers but never under my own name. I generally keep a strict division between office life and home life. Work, however, has been bleeding into every corner these past few weeks. The size of our team has been reduced by two thirds, but our work load not at all. I hardly notice the robins and juncos out my office window anymore, or the fact that the magnolias are blooming. I barely find time to read, much less to write for pleasure. Most nights I dream about work, about drafting FAQs and bullet points and policy analyses. Years ago at the salmon cannery in Alaska, a Mexican coworker named Lenin told us that this sort of dream work has a name in Spanish: trabajo de la noche.
James Duval Phelan, who had a glorious moustache, was mayor of San Francisco from 1897 to 1902. He later served as a U.S. Senator for California. Between these two assignments, in 1912, Phelan built a country manse on the slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains above Saratoga. Though born to an Irish immigrant who had made his fortune in the Gold Rush, Phelan named his county residence Villa Montalvo and laid out an “Italianate garden” on its grounds. When he died in 1930, Phelan gave the property to Santa Clara County. Today it’s a public park and an arts center with an artists’ residency program. Not long ago I was hiking with the wife and kids through a grove of second-growth redwoods above Phelan’s Villa when I caught a familiar, very specific odor. It took a moment to place it, but I finally did. Beneath the trees, the orange blanket of rotting needles gave off a musty aroma that precisely reproduced the smell of my 1946 Viking Press edition of Saki’s Complete Stories, the one with the brittle, yellowing pages.
I never had much use for the Henry James titles (Daily Miller, The Portrait of a Lady) that we read in college. In fact, I never had much use for James until I was in my late thirties and read The Aspern Papers and The Beast in the Jungle and attempted (twice) to read The Ambassadors. I’m presently making a continental tour of his novellas and shorter stories. From the handsome Library of America edition covering the period from 1884 to 1891 I’ve especially enjoyed The Pupil, The Liar, The Patagonia, and The Lesson of the Master. Why is it that James suddenly works for me? His “supercivilised” world of upper-crust Victorian socialites and moneyed ex-patriots might as well be the Japanese Middle Ages for all the likeness it bears to my own life and milieu. But his language is surely a factor, a potent mingling of cool precision and warm ambiguity. It works on me like a drug. James’s main appeal, however, may be his capacity to see into the complexities of his own characters, to make them so perfectly transparent to us while preserving a core of personal mystery. After an hour reading Henry James, I find that I look at others around me with refreshed curiosity.
I began the year with the laughable idea that I would read less and spend more time walking around and looking at the world and thinking, and maybe (allowing for human weakness) re-reading books that I hadn’t read in a long time. I managed at least to do some of the latter. In 2013 I paid second or third visits to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Twelfth Night, G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici, and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. I also revisited various favorite authors to pick off works which I’d never got around to before. These included three P.G. Wodehouse novels (Leave it to Psmith, Joy in the Morning, and Bachelors Anonymous) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Inland Voyage and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, as well as Tove Jansson’s Moominpapa’s Memoirs, Theodore Dalrymple’s In Praise of Prejudice, and Chesterton’s superb and superbly digressive biography of Thomas Aquinas.
Works of fiction that were new to me last year (though most of them hardly new in themselves) included two collections of short stories by Saki (Chronicles of Clovis was the best), Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills, two Anthony Trollope novels (The Warden and Barchester Towers), Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, and Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island. I finally managed to read some Nicholson Baker (The Mezzanine), some Carson McCullers (The Member of the Wedding), and a Georges Simenon novel (Monsieur Monde Vanishes). The Simenon was good enough. The McCullers was mesmerizing. The Baker was terrifically funny but not, perhaps, very deeply satisfying. The Jules Verne title I found almost unbearable. Overall, fiction itself made up a smaller portion of my reading last year than I might have predicted.
Many of the best books I read last year were histories. These included the first four volumes of Francis Parkman’s seven-volume history of French colonialism in North America (The Jesuits in North America and La Salle and the Discovery of Great West were especially good). Richard Holmes’s latest, Falling Upwards (a history of manned ballooning from 1783-1903), was the best new title I read all year, a real joy. F. Gonzalez-Crussi’s A Short History of Medicine, John Glassie’s A Man of Misconceptions (about Athanasius Kircher), and Joel F. Harrington’s The Faithful Executioner (a biography of a 16th-century Nuremberg executioner) were all wonderful surprises which I’m constantly recommending to friends. Washington Irving’s charming and hilarious A History of New York became an instant personal favorite (though it blends, perhaps, into fiction). Other worthy titles read last year include Christopher Dawson’s Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower, Andrea Wulf’s The Brother Gardeners, and Gilbert Seldes’s The Stammering Century, about nineteenth-century American religious fads and cult spiritualities. Primary historical texts I read last year included the autobiography of the Sac war chief Black Hawk, memoirs of the American west from the late seventeenth-century by Cadillac and Liette, and the diary of my tenth great-grandfather Thomas Minor, an early settler of New England. E.H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World was a page turner, the work of an afternoon or two. James McPherson’s Civil War epic Battle Cry of Freedom was more of a trudge. So was Henry Adams’s Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (despite its occasional glories). Generally less impressive were Andrea Wulf’s Chasing Venus, Peter Gay’s Mozart: A Life, and Denys Turner’s Thomas Aquinas. Peter Hansen’s The Summits of Modern Man (about the birth of modern mountaineering in the Enlightenment and beyond) was a prime example of how a winning topic can be bludgeoned to death with unmusical, academic prose.
Among those books more difficult to categorize (though generally non-fiction of one species or another), I especially enjoyed reading the lectures collected in Professor Borges, F. Gonzalez-Crussi’s Carrying the Heart (essays on the cultural symbolism of human anatomy), and the Sir Roger de Coverly Essays of Addison and Steele. Rose Macaulay’s The Minor Pleasures of Life – a commonplace book of quotations mostly from the sixteenth-eighteenth centuries – was itself no minor pleasure. M.A. Screech’s Montaigne and Melancholy and Isaiah Berlin’s The Roots of Romanticism were both worth the time. Less so, in my opinion, were George Saunders’s The Braindead Megaphone, John Gray’s Straw Dogs, or Bergen Evans’s A Natural History of Nonsense. Books I wanted to like more than I actually did include James Schall’s On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs and Joseph Epstein’s Narcissus Leaves the Pool. Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life was so-so. Henry Beston’s The Outermost House was a poor imitation of Thoreau. But Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast was a great yarn, and Mary Roach’s Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal was a nice piece of instructional comic diversion.
I have not made any reading resolutions for 2014, though I’ve already set aside for later delectation some additional titles by Robert Louis Stevenson, Chesterton, and Rose Macaulay. I intend to read some more philosophy (Hobbes, finally, and perhaps some more Hume). Montaigne is sure to show up, as usual. Shakespeare too. I also hope to read Francis Parkman’s magnum opus Montcalm and Wolfe, and the posthumous Patrick Leigh Fermor title The Broken Road, which appears in its American edition soon. I have some more F. Gonzalez-Crussi on order, as well as John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. I want to re-read Don Quixote this year, and possibly Moby Dick. I just picked up John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor from the library and want to finally read Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. We’ll see.
One thing I learned this past year: I’m a more productive (and happier) reader than a writer. The best thing I wrote off the blog last year was a 70-page chapter book for my daughter, which I’m quite proud of. The novel which I beat out my brains for these past five or so years exists in a completed draft now. It’s still a mess, however, and last year I was given some helpful perspective on its faults and what might be done to correct them. I hope to take it up again at some point in 2014. It’s been a few months since I’ve been able to look it in the face, but I may be ready soon. Writing seriously-intended fiction for adults is no fun at all. It really isn’t. It’s nothing like reading. Reading adds to life and is, unless you’re doing it wrong, a joy and a pleasure. Writing, on the other hand, takes and takes. It drains the soul. Sure, there are moments of elation, but writing gives birth to such moments only to murder them in infancy. If you ask me.
I’ve provisionally finished the chapter book I was writing for my daughter and will finally read it with her this weekend. She’s thrilled. Hopefully she’ll still be thrilled when we’re done. The project has taken me three months and quite a few cups of coffee, working at it two nights per week between 9pm and 2am. The manuscript clocks in at just fewer than 18,000 words and I feel pretty good about it.
As mentioned before, my daughter wanted a book about cats, so that’s what I’ve given her. Phoebe Furbright is the story a girl cat who wants to be an ornithologist and who, accompanied by her brother, launches a research expedition in a homemade hot air balloon.
I don’t know if the story will have much appeal beyond its specially intended audience, but I know what my own children like in a book. They like to laugh. They like adventure and suspense. They like to catch references and inside jokes. They like books that challenge their vocabulary and treat them like “miniature adults.” They do not like to be talked down to by their reading materials.
Among the chief joys of raising children is reading children’s books. My personal favorites include The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, T.H. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose, James Marshall’s George and Martha books, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth and Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll series. I’m an equally great admirer of William Steig (Doctor De Soto, Svlvester and the Magic Pebble and Abel’s Island especially) and Bernard Waber (for Lyle the Crocodile and A Lion Named Shirley Williamson).
I don’t expect that Phoebe Furbright will ever find its way into any pantheon of children’s literature, but I do think it’s fun. And since I’ve got nothing better to post here today I’m going to share the first chapter. The story opens with a dinner table conversation:
Our heroine divulges her eccentric professional
ambitions over dinner and Father delivers a misbegotten
lecture on the subject of ‘True Cat Nature.’
Phoebe Furbright’s father said that it was uncatlike to study birds rather than hunt and kill them. They were sitting at the dinner table over steaming plates of poached herring in wine sauce: Father, Mother, her brother Alexander, and Phoebe herself, who had just informed them that she would be an ornithologist when she grew up.
“Birds,” Father said in the voice he always used when he wanted Phoebe to get over some silly notion of hers and be realistic for once in her life, “are for hunting. It’s simply not cat nature to study birds. It’s cat nature to stalk and to strike! Anyone would tell you the same, Phoebe. Why it’s preposterous, really! The very idea of a feline ornithologist!”
“But you work at an office,” said Phoebe, who was a slim gray tabby with big yellow eyes, “and we buy all our food at the grocery store like other civilized cats. We’re not tigers or leopards. When was the last time you went hunting, Father?”
“Why – I’ve been hunting plenty of times… Plenty!” he said, frowning. “But that’s irrelevant… It’s the principle of the thing! The hunter’s instinct is a part of the feline soul! A cat is meant to be fierce.”
Father went on to tell Phoebe and Alexander – for the hundredth time – about the day that True Cat Nature was once and for all revealed to him. It was winter and he was walking round the block near his office, in deep contemplation of some intractable business problem, when he looked up and saw a sparrow perched on the leafless branch of a tree that had recently been planted by the city authorities. His life changed forever.
“Why, I got an itchy feeling all over,” he said, “and before I knew it I was snarling like a savage! I crouched down on all fours with my ears turned back. I was actually stalking the thing! I lunged at it – and missed, unfortunately… But what a thrill! I didn’t give a fig what the other toms walking by in their suits and ties thought of me. Civilization has its limits. You can only hold down cat nature so long before it comes yowling back. That’s what I say!”
Phoebe pursed her lips. She loved her father very much. He was a good fellow, hard-working, and he provided well for the family. But she wasn’t sure she agreed with his philosophy on this particular point.
Mother explained, with a wink, that Father clung to this sense of essential wildness because it made him feel less constrained by work, marriage, parenthood, and cat society in general. Deep down, Father simply knew that he was a bird killer – even if he had never actually killed a bird before – and the thought made him feel warm and comfortable inside. “It reconciles him to civilized life,” she said.
Father knew when he was being teased, of course. Not that he minded much when Mother teased him, but he batted the air in her direction as if she were nothing but a bit of string dangling there.
“Now, now, beloved spouse,” said Mother, patting Father on the head and emitting a soothing purr. “You are a wonderful tom and the love of my lives, with more than your share of excellent qualities, but you know very well that you are no Uncle Jackson-Harris.”
My seven-year-old daughter recently asked me to write her a story, the only stipulation being that it should involve cats. Cats mean a lot to her. I’ve already mentioned her hand-made field guide to cats in the neighborhood, with illustrations, written descriptions, and names that she’s assigned to each.
One day last week she was struggling on her roller skates. Her brother gave her some grief about it and she began to cry. Curiously, while crying, her skating technique improved. When she stopped crying I pointed this out and told her she ought to think of something sad again. “Think of baby kittens,” I said, “with tears running down their cheeks.”
This is how fathers come to be despised by their children. After twenty seconds of shocked silence, the proverbial floodgates opened and she was bawling so hard she could barely stand, much less skate. I assured her that cats don’t really cry the way people do. “It’s just so sad!” she said. “The poor kittens!”
I’m trying now to repair this trauma by writing the requested story, which is quickly turning into a chapter book. My heroine, Phoebe Furbright, is a young cat with a socially unacceptable career goal: to become an ornithologist. Her father, despite the fact that he works in an office and has never so much as scratched a bird in his life, believes her aspirations contrary to cat nature. Birds, he says, are not for studying, but for stalking and killing!
And so on. This is fun writing. After recently finishing my novel and getting no response from the agents I’ve queried so far, I was feeling down and wondering if fiction just wasn’t my bag. In fact, I don’t read much fiction these days, which is perhaps awkward for an aspiring novelist.
If I had my education to do all over again, I suppose I would study biology in college rather than English and philosophy. Then I would do a graduate degree in ornithology, with the goal of working, say, for the National Park Service. Add books, of course, and I think it would be a fine life.
My daughter is discovering an interest in birds. For years now my son has wanted to be a herpetologist, in order to study venomous snakes and Galapagos tortoises – and he’d convinced his sister that she should do the same. But she recently had a close encounter with a hawk that’s made her reconsider. I wasn’t there when she saw it, but she wrote me the following report:
“We saw a hawk right up close and I walked under it and it looked straight down at me. After a while it flew away. Things I noted about the hawk: A white speckled front coat. Big yellow eyes. Long brownish red wings. A curved yellow beak!”
Patrick Kurp recently directed his readers to a Theodore Dalrymple essay about owls – or, rather, about a book about owls. Dalrymple writes that prior to reading this book he had forgotten that owl pellets were produced by regurgitation. He describes memories of dissecting owl pellets in school. I seem to have the same memories, though I can’t place the year or classroom in which this might have occurred. Perhaps I was at camp.
Dalrymple writes that a pair of tawny owls like to vociferate on summer nights from a tree near his home in France. “I never tire of listening to them,” he says. “I also never see them, and so their lives are a closed book to me.” Personally, I can’t imagine hearing owls nearby and not immediately running out to locate their nest and get a look at them.
A short walk from where my parents live there’s a nest of great horned owls. My father, anyway, claims to have seen two of them. Whenever I visit there’s only one. It likes to sit in the crook of a branch about thirty feet up, just below the nest. We spy on it awhile with our binoculars, and the owl watches us too. Then I hunt up owl pellets in the grass below to see what it’s been eating.
I’m curently reading Washington Irving’s A History of New York, a book which a month ago I didn’t know existed, but which I’ll never again be able to live without. It’s the best, funniest thing I’ve read all year, downright Shandean, and I’ll be recommending it to all my friends. Irving does, however, rather unfairly (I think) malign owls.
“There are two opposite ways by which some men get into notice,” Irving reports, “one by talking a vast deal and thinking a little, and the other by holding their tongues and not thinking at all. By the first, many a vapouring, superficial pretender acquires the reputation of a man of quick parts – by the other many a vacant dunderpate, like the owl, the stupidest of birds, comes to be complimented, by a discerning world, with all the attributes of wisdom.”
I don’t expect this is very fair to owls, but it’s certainly possible (for all I know) that they are relative dunderpates when compared, say, to corvids. It’s a question, perhaps, for Phoebe Furbright to look into.
I used to joke that I was a glutton for obscurity, that if no one read what I published here I was pleased as pie. That’s a pose, of course, something to make me feel better. I want readers. But as I mellow toward middle age (seven months till forty) I’m becoming more honestly comfortable with the idea that writing, like reading, is something I can engage in without the need for recognition. Writing a good sentence now and then, like reading one, is a pleasure in its own right. I hope I’ve managed a few. At any rate, the attempt seems necessary for me. Trying to write good sentences has made me a better person, or at least prevented me from being as awful as I might have been otherwise.
By the numbers, I’ve written 526 separate posts for The New Psalmanazar since February 22, 2008. I’ve received 48,700 views. I’ve earned 90 regular ‘followers.’ My busiest year, both in terms of production and in terms of readership, was 2010. The busiest day was November 10th of that year, on which I had 616 visitors (I average maybe 40). The post that’s earned me by far the most visitors is Three Paragraphs of Nature. To judge by incoming search traffic, these are middle school students hoping to plagiarize something for a class assignment (Write 1-3 paragraphs about nature). For some reason, the other search phrases most likely to bring people here have to do with Edward Gorey and the Italian film star Monica Vitti. I mentioned Monica Vitti twice back in September of 2008.
I have a small band of loyalish readers, but most of the people who come to The New Psalmanazar do so accidentally. It’s not what they were looking for, but something they found on the way to what they were looking for. When they do come, I’m glad to say that they tend to stay a while. Most of them spend a couple minutes clicking around and reading. I’m grateful for that. The things that bring people together often smell of random chance. When the results are favorable, we call it serendipity, or fate. That’s how friendships are made. That’s how people fall in love.
Thank you for reading.
I started as a busboy and dishwasher at a greasy downtown bar and grill in California’s flat, hot Central Valley. I was “paid” (if you want to call it that) under the table. My duties included killing roaches in the kitchen, carting cases of beer out of the walk-in, and mopping up vomit in the restrooms.
At college in Seattle, I worked briefly for the records department. All student transcripts in the school’s hundred year history were stored in a single windowless room where, according to rumor, the doors would automatically shut and all the oxygen get sucked out at the merest whiff of smoke. When a grade change was authorized, we employed the medieval technique of “white-out and typewriter” to make the correction.
Through most of my school years I worked for the university library. The byzantine scheming of competing management factions made for gory blood sport, but it was pleasant to read Shakespeare while manning the circulation desk at night, and pleasant to roll through the aisles with an hour’s shelving to do.
Out of school, I worked short stints for an industrial printing company, a specialty grocery store, and at a salmon cannery in Alaska. Back in Seattle, I worked three years for a late-night bookstore where, on special days, homeless people promised to murder me, crazy people defecated in the children’s section, and animals wandered in from the streets to die.
I joined the party of the devil in 1998 and took a job with Amazon, answering customer emails and telephone calls. At the summer picnic one year, I dunked the company’s billionaire founder in the dunk tank. When the WTO met in Seattle in November of ’99, tear gas seeped into the office and some of my coworkers, fleeing the building, were herded onto buses and arrested en masse as anarchists. After a failed attempt to unionize, three hundred of us were laid off in the spring of 2001, our jobs outsourced to India.
From 2001 to 2003, I worked for a health insurance company. I started in customer service but ended by drafting and editing medical correspondence. Policyholders would write to request authorization of procedures to enhance their disappointing sexual features (photos included) or for coverage of bariatric surgery or growth hormone shots for their children. I would translate the decisions of our medical review panel into plain English explaining why these things could not be paid for.
Since 2004 I have worked in marketing and public relations functions for a dotcom in Silicon Valley. I manage a bit, but mostly I write. I write to create a felt need in consumers that leads them to use our services. I write to convince reporters that they should mention us in their stories. I write to make the company and our executives look good, to make investors feel sanguine and to make government agencies happy to award us fat contracts.
I don’t feel particularly good about this. In fact, though I’ve occasionally tried to feel otherwise, I hate business. I admit, there is a satisfaction in hearing my own bullshit talking points recited word for word by photogenic persons on national television news programs. But this is not a virtuous satisfaction.
John Jay Chapman, remembering his recently-deceased friend the philosopher William James, said that “the mysteries of temperament are deeper than the mysteries of occupation.” He meant, perhaps, that it’s easier to retrace the path bringing a person to his current occupation than to measure the influence of temperament on the route taken, or its ultimate destination.
I’ve rediscovered that I’m temperamentally unsuited to my work. At least, I prefer to think it a series of accidents that brought me here rather than an inevitable expression of my nature. This doesn’t mean that I’m ready to leave my job for something else. I’ve learned to be grateful, and I can’t afford idealism at the moment.
There are three options, as I see it. The first two are described in Swann’s Way when the narrator says that people unfitted to their work may “bring to their regular occupations either an indifference tinged with fantasy, or a sustained and haughty application, scornful, bitter, and conscientious.” A third option, the one I want most but can’t afford, is to run away and live, like Thoreau, a life according to nature and my own temperament.
Living according to my temperament, every day would begin at 9am. I would read and drink tea until 11am. Then, after a nice brunch and cleaning up, I’d run errands or do more reading until 2 or 3pm. After that, I’d go for a long walk (hills or shore), returning home about 6pm. I would drink wine or gin-and-tonic while cooking dinner, which I would eat at 7pm. I would listen – depending on my mood – to Bach or Benny Goodman or Tom Waits while scrubbing dishes. At 9pm I would drink a cup of coffee and start work on my writing projects. Between 1 and 2am I would go to bed.
In other words, I would be a self-centered bastard and no real use to anyone at all. Thankfully, I’ve got my wife and children and mortgage to prevent me from living in full accord with my temperament. I used to have a little homemade sign posted in my office that read: “STOP. Your heart will not guide you.” Of course it’s your bookshelf and your sense of comic irony that should guide you.
I confront myself in the bathroom mirror, the aging vomit mopper, the cannery slave, the midnight bookslinger, a little gray now at the temples and chin: “You may find a way out some day, pal, but let’s not forgot who you are. You used to believe that to look for identity in your “job” was to impoverish your soul. Remember, you might be at this baloney for another thirty years. Go, therefore, and cultivate an attitude of indifference tinged with fantasy.”