Brian Doyle, Part Two of Two

A few other fragments of memories of Brian:

Once, I wrote him, asking to buy a copy of one of his out-of-print books, if he had any copies around. He sent me a pdf of the book within a few hours of my writing.

Once, I asked him who his favorite saints were. He listed Francis, Catherine of Siena, Mother Teresa. And Meister Eckhardt,“no matter what mother church says,” for saying that the only prayer we need is thank you.

Once (I discovered recently) I wrote a cryptic note to myself about him in a notebook: POKE BRIAN D AFTER CONF AND HE WILL SEND ME ESSAY ABOUT COW.

Once, our friend’s newborn died. The baby had the same heart condition as one of Brian’s sons, which Brian wrote about in THE WET ENGINE. Unlike Brian’s son, this baby did not survive his early surgeries and died at six weeks. I did not know that a coffin could be that tiny.

We gave the family a copy of THE WET ENGINE, and later I wrote Brian a letter about it. I’m a cradle Episcopalian, not from a tradition of confession, but I treated him like my confessor on that day.

I wonder how many of us did that. He wrote about so many intimate things, with such compassion and good humor — first kisses, parenting, peeing, sins large and small — it felt hard to believe that it wouldn’t be okay to tell him anything.

Once, when my husband had a forthcoming novel about a Catholic priest and was trying to place excerpts from it, he wrote Brian at his magazine. I can’t tell from the website: do you ever publish fiction? my husband asked. Brian fired back: NOT ON PURPOSE.

Once, in our very first correspondence thread, he wrote to ask me to send him poems for Portland Magazine, and I never did. Let me repeat that in case you missed it: one of my favorite writers wrote me and said, “Holy moly, I don’t know you from a hole in the wall, but sweet mother of Jesus I love your poems,” and I did nothing.

In fact, until I was sifting through old e-mails to write this elegy, I did not remember that he ever asked me for them.

I can’t believe I did that.

So we lost him, and several weeks later, I for one am still deeply sad, for all kinds of reasons.

But I am also a little afraid. Losing Brian has made me think about my own deepest challenges, which include letting go of my work and knowing when to speak up. I hope I think of Brian every morning when I sit down at my desk. Through his example — as a fecund, open-hearted writer and spouse and seeker and friend — I want to be a better writer and person in the time I have left the earth.

After Brian died, I was amazed to learn through social media how many friends we had in common, and how many people loved him and his work. These were not just the usual suspects, fellow writers or magazine editors, but people from surprising corners of my life.

It turns out that Brian had a long friendship with an old journalism colleague of my husband’s — in fact, Brian and this editor were friends while my husband and the guy were working together, decades ago. Brian even knew the priest who’d buried our friends’ infant, though they lived thousands of miles apart.

What commonplace lessons these are, really. I’d attended a lot of AIDS funerals by the time I turned twenty-five. I thought I had come into adulthood with the hard stuff licked. Instead, I learn the same lessons over and over. None of us has forever, and love is all there is. Repeat ad infinitum.

Maybe only the saints are able to learn those lessons once and for all, while still alive.

Goodbye, Brian. And thank you.

 

Brian Doyle, Part One of Two

I wasn’t real friends with Brian Doyle. I had an active correspondence with him, but then, I bet a lot of writers did. Our e-mails stretched back maybe a decade. We met in person only once. Because Brian was so present in his writing, that didn’t seem to matter.

Brian’s writing reminded me of a golden retriever. It was friendly and exuberant, playful and sunny, and it bounded across the page. It jumped into the lap of a reader and would not leave that reader alone. His prose packed the concentrated wallop of a poem.

He and I also shared a worldview, which I heard him describe as “joy and pain are identical twins,” and that the world is basically a pretty good place.

So yes, I admired Brian’s writing; I responded best to his shorter essays. But I also admired Brian as a person, and found it hard to separate the two, in the way it often happens with art I love and the artists who make it. I admired Brian’s prolificacy. He did not seem to fear releasing his work to the world. Even if, as he cheerfully said, the draft he was writing went straight to the dogs.

Truth is, sometimes I found his work uneven. I do not say this to find fault. Because Brian’s best essays were nothing short of freaking brilliant, and the uneven work only reinforces for me why those brilliant essays are just that.

Successful creative people let themselves have lots of ideas.

Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks are full of thousands of pages’ worth, some of which are centuries ahead of their time (helicopters, parachutes); others (shoes that walk on water?), not so much. Over 2,500 paintings and sketches are attributed to Claude Monet, but he is known to have burned stacks more in his gardens at night, when he was feeling discouraged.

I am a writer who holds her feelings and work close to her vest, and has trouble letting anything go into the world until I feel sure of it. I don’t know whether Brian abandoned or destroyed work — he must have, right? I sometimes do.

Brian’s journalism background freed him, I think. I am married to a former journalist, and I have a minor in journalism. Our house is a journalist magnet. Unlike fine-arts writers, journalists do not seem to suffer from the idea that words are precious commodities. Without fanfare, journalists produce.

I’m a creative writer, but my most freeing college writing experience was a news journalism course. We turned in ten practice stories, twice a week. Our professor was among the very first generation of women allowed in a newsroom, and she was very tough. Don’t tell me you’re in this business because you like people; I got a dog who likes people, she would say.

Our stories had to be accurate, on time, and well-done, but not great. It was in her class that I finally became comfortable with writing. There, done was better than perfect, and I learned that a great piece was made in the act of writing, not in its conception. Every piece of writing is perfect in your head.

I do kind of think of Brian as a dog who liked people. Things he said that stick with me: that our greatest privilege is to be witnesses to the human story. That stories are the carriers of the miracle.

This he didn’t actually say, but was as important: know who you are as a writer, and don’t apologize for it. Brian was unapologetically Catholic, and made no secret of the fact that he published in both religious and secular publications. He loved narrative at a time that many editors consider it a bit of a no-no. He liked language that was earthy and human, unpretentious and delicious.

To be continued on Wednesday.

 

 

The Internet Will Eat Your Soul

murry lake 1:1:12

 

Dramatic, I know, but I’m at least half-serious. Part of the reason I’ve been away from this blog for months is that I’ve been re-examining my relationship with the Internet*, and the news is not pretty.

I’ve had increasing trouble with engaging in any task that requires concentration for several years. I’d assumed it was the nature of being the working parent of an active young child and a teacher who is generous with feedback, with fifteen years’ worth of local students who periodically swing by my office or my inbox to say hello. Some of it is, for sure.

When my daughter gets older, my ability to concentrate will increase again, I thought; so far, it hasn’t.

I made to-do lists. I set my alarm for 5 am. I created elaborate schedules.

The distraction will pass, I thought. It kept not passing.

Meanwhile I found myself increasingly upset by reading Facebook and Twitter. It was rhetoric surrounding the election that finally made me deactivate my Facebook account on September 30, but even before that, there was always something. I was losing respect for people I’d liked.

I stuck around, doggedly giving little thumbs-ups and hearts, writing sweet comments even to people who felt tangential to my life. Doing it made me feel resentful, distracted, and depressed — but I continued, because I thought I needed to “keep up,” and maintain relationships in the writing community.

Finally, I thought: what good will contacts do if I am this unhappy? What about really spending time with people? What if I distract myself so much that I never send out work again?

The Internet probably isn’t bad for everyone. It is toxic for me. I can take or leave drinking alcohol, for example; alcohol is not my body’s drug of choice. But the Internet — ah, the Internet, the medium itself and the glowing screen and the endless links, not Internet gambling, not Internet shopping — it’s a huge problem for the body I live inside.

I throw this out there, unpopular as I think it is to say, because I’ve found very little written about it. I suspect (and now we’re getting into my own armchair philosophy) a high percentage of people have this problem, and someday, in some way, website design will be regulated in the same ways we regulate other addictive substances.

One day I sat in Kopplin’s Coffee, coffee being another one of my body’s drugs of choice, and made a list of reasons I find the Internet spiritually toxic. There is no way I am the only writer who feels this way.

Here is my list:

     1. I get distracted. I forget what I came for. I forget about other tasks I’ve set for myself that day. I sit in front of a glowing screen, click a mouse, and disappear into a trance.

     2. I feel emotions about others — anger, contempt, worry, envy, insecurity — that I don’t tend to feel when I interact with them in real life, or even in print. And I dislike what online interactions can bring out in others: the desire to judge, shame, pile on, mock, and humiliate.

     3. When I spend time online, I feel ungrounded, and as if I have no control over my life.

     4. My relationships with people become asymmetrical. When I’ve read someone’s page or timeline, I feel I’ve interacted with them, but I haven’t. In its mildest form, this means I rob myself of real engagement with them; at worst, I obsess in a negative way about someone who has no idea I’m even thinking about them, and can’t resolve my feelings in a positive way.

     5. It’s slow to look up or do something online. Online grade books, for example, are clunky and don’t allow for weird little marks that only I understand.

     6. The Internet generates dissatisfaction. With millions of pairs of jeans, flash sales and product drops — the illusion is created that it is possible to make a best choice among seemingly infinite choices. Choosing becomes weighty in a way that it is not when I stand in the aisle of a store, look at three items, and choose one that is Good Enough.

     7. The Internet is a medium on which fear-based emotions play well — self-righteousness, anger, drama, shame. Subtlety and nuance don’t.

     8. It is a medium that does well with future-based speculations, what-ifs. Which is also ungrounding, and induces a lot of fear.

     9. I am frightened by the vehemence, witch hunts, and vigilante justice I see executed online. When I interact online, I become more self-conscious and guarded about my thoughts.

      10. When an upsetting event is unfolding, following it online is like picking a scab 24/7. Life does not move at the speed that people type. As a good friend recently and wisely said to me, “It only feels as if you’re doing something by worrying about it.” Reading about a developing news event ad nauseum is a slightly more tangible form of worrying.

 

It’s ironic to say this in an online venue, but any freedom I felt while using the Internet in the nineties is long gone. I looked at my Facebook account for the last time, as said, in September. I still have a Twitter, but it will deactivate in the next few weeks if I don’t log in.

You can contact me via e-mail or this website. I pretty much live in the physical world these days. I really like it.

I try to use the phone more than I used to. I know that I’m losing traffic to this website by not promoting blog posts through social media, but, at least for now, there you are. And here I am.

 

* For grammar and usage nerds: AP no longer capitalizes Internet, but the 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style does.

 

Missionaries and Hedonists

deskscape 9.6.16

(my desk at school today)

My graduate school professor, Brian Wilkie, was a Romantic scholar. Each fall, he threw a big party at his house, for over a hundred of us — all of the graduate students, the faculty, and their families. He had a Steinway grand piano, which he would let us play. He often broke into song in his popular class, Literature and Opera. His passion for literature, and for us, was evident. Even the word “enthusiasm,” used here, sounds tepid and false, compared to the way it really was.

Dr. Wilkie could be eccentric. Occasionally in class, he would do something loud and outrageous, like reciting Milton’s “Lycidas” in a Brooklyn accent (Dr. Wilkie had grown up in Brooklyn, long before Brooklyn was hip). Or, he would shout, in an exaggerated Southern drawl, this line from Wordsworth: “Great God! I’d rather be / A pagan suckled in a creed outworn.”

Dr. Wilkie had edited the two-volume anthology Literature of the Western World, and one of the best moves I ever made as a graduate student in creative writing was to apply to teach world literature survey. When I started teaching world literature, I wasn’t especially well-read; as an undergraduate, I’d studied French. But I taught the second half of the survey, 1650-present, three semesters running, and I learned a ton, not just about literature, but history, religion, and art. Best of all, I had Dr. Wilkie’s teaching guides, which were full of ridiculous and brilliant either-or questions that never failed to sneak up on the students, stimulating far deeper discussions than they thought they were capable of having.

In those pre-Internet days, in that Research I institution, it was difficult for administrators to plan ahead, and graduate students were expected to teach on the fly anyway. So we received our course assignments on the Saturday morning before the semester started. We had 48 hours to come up with a syllabus and a plan. My first semester I taught world literature, I read that giant volume intensely, often a day or sometimes hours ahead of my students.

Don’t worry, Dr. Wilkie said. He gave us a copy of his own syllabus, along with about ten minutes of advice, which included this: Some teachers are missionaries; others are hedonists. I recommend that you be a hedonist.

I’ve thought about that advice, on and off, for the last twenty years. Is that even true? Is it true for everyone — does everyone have that luxury? What does it mean, to teach like a hedonist? At that time, I thought I was sure of what it meant: love literature, love inquiry, love my students — and I gave myself over to it. To this day, some of those classroom discussions remain the most electrifying of my career.

Really, I’m not thinking about literature, or even teaching. I bring this up because yesterday, in my head, I accidentally rewrote what he said. What does it mean to be a writer who’s a missionary, versus a writer who’s a hedonist? Because I have both a hedonist-writer and a missionary-writer in me, and I need them both.

Sure, the hedonist is important: she’s the one who goes for broke, risks, imagines, breaks rules, revels in language. She penetrates to what’s dark and scary and not-nice. But she’s also self-indulgent and doesn’t care about audience. Finally, mine is crap on making deadlines. At the times my hedonist-writer gets out of control, I need my missionary-writer to step in and impose structure and technique.

My missionary-writer is patient. She’s dutiful about all the things I have a tendency to weasel out of, like submitting work, or looking up facts. I don’t like her around all the time, though, because she’s also kind of a drag — too predictable, worries too much about what people will say.

I need them both, in the way that Mary Oliver says that a poem must be both a technical and an emotional document. A poem that is only a technical document is bloodless, but a poem that is only an emotional document is self-indulgent. However, as a poet-friend recently said, if I had to read a poem that was only a technical document, or only an emotional document? I’d pick the emotional one.

And the world needs missionary- and hedonist-professors both. A professor can certainly be both at the same time — I have! — but if I had to choose one, I’d still choose to be a pagan suckled in a creed outworn.

Happy first day of school, Dr. Wilkie, wherever you are.

 

Another good reason to get those 10,000 hours of practice

Photo by Sara Vandenberg Boc

Photo by Sara Vandenberg Boc

Here is a Water~Stone Review legend: about ten years ago, long before I came on board as poetry editor, the journal received a two-page prose-poem submission from Naomi Shihab Nye.

The then-poetry editor called Nye and said that she couldn’t publish the poem as it was, but there was a three-sentence segment she’d pulled out, lineated, and turned into a seven-line poem. Could Water~Stone publish that?

Nye said she would think about it. A couple of hours later, Nye called back and said, Sure.

It’s important to point out that this editor was very experienced and good at what she did, and that she and Nye had a decades-long relationship – in other words, this wasn’t just anybody calling up to suggest a radical edit.

Yet I think another element is at work in this story, and it’s that writers with a lot of hours behind them trust they can bend their work without breaking it.

Often, when I work with a beginning writer, that writer can hardly bear to change a word; or, they’re willing to spot-change here or there, but seldom are they willing to break open the draft and crush entire stanzas into a ball, to see what else might come of it.

Then I work with a poet for Water~Stone, one who’s published multiple books to great acclaim, and that poet has no trouble whatsoever with at least seeing what would happen if she were to dramatically move around lines or axe entire stanzas. In fact, that writer is not only willing to try it, that writer is excited.

What makes such ruthlessness possible for a pro? It’s not that established writers change their work willy-nilly according to editors’ whim — they shouldn’t, and they won’t, and a conscientious editor wouldn’t ask for that. And it’s not that established writers don’t care about the details. On the contrary, they will happily weigh the merits of a word like “come” versus a word like “arrive” for several minutes. One editor tells a delightful story about the time he worked on an article with David Foster Wallace, and the humility and openness with which Wallace wrestled over every last comma.

I’ve been on both sides of the desk, and one of the great rewards of a long writing practice is a highly-developed sense of the malleability of language. Experienced writers can smash and remake the clay in their hands, trusting they’ve not destroyed something they can’t rebuild.

I just came across this lovely remembrance-appreciation of poet and teacher Agha Shahid Ali, who died nearly fifteen years ago. Take a look at the comments Ali’s made to the student (who saved them all these years). Ali’s not saying to his student, “You should or must rewrite it this way.” He’s saying, “Look at this great clay you’ve got. What happens if you do it like this?” What a gift — how exciting for a beginning writer to take these ideas home.

By the way, here’s the poem, from the 2007 issue of Water~Stone:

Read Me (Naomi Shihab Nye)

Watch us humans

as we enter our rooms,

remove our shoes and watches,

and stretch out on the bed

with a single good book.

It’s the honey of the mind time.

Lights shine through our little jars.

 

katrina's blog

Writing matters. But it is only part of my life. The rest of the time, I work at being a parent, teacher, wife, citizen, and friend. I think a lot about what makes a writing life possible, and what makes life meaningful enough to be worth writing about.




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