Friday, April 25, 2008


In the old writing paradigm a struggling young writer (usually male) almost secretly completes a novel that is staggering in its grasp of life and transcendent in its capacity to inspire the nation. This is the pattern followed by Ross Lockridge Jr, author of “Raintree County.” What happens after the archetypal book is published tends to be either eternal happiness (heaven) or a kind of crucifixion, since the pattern is rather Christian.

Writing is not gender-assigned, exactly. My friend Karl’s mother packed three filing cabinets with notes and attempts but never produced a publishable manuscript. Karl, wary of this, nevertheless was the first reader of my “Bronze I&O” manuscript. He is also an aspiring and natural writer, but hedged his bets by becoming a journalist and editor in Bellevue, Washington, one of the most affluent communities in the US. Now he’s retired early and reminds me that I’m not that much older than he is. In fact, he’s not the only one of the little virtual (but not necessarily virtuous except that they are all good writers) circle of men I mentioned in an earlier blog who protests that he is as old or older than me. Somehow we’ve picked up on a pattern that’s supposed to be for youngsters: creativity underwritten by poverty and optimism. But there’s more to it than that. Maybe our motto ought to be “better late than never.”

For one thing we have plenty to write about and plenty of skill. The stuff just overflows out of us. And no need to go to Paris: the Left Bank is in our keyboards. I happen to know all these folks who don’t know each other and I suspect that each of them has their own circle of people I don’t know. We don’t sit around a table spending money on drinks and throwing away our wit in conversation. We write because we just really love it, love the feeling of it, the joy of getting it down right. Then we share. Sometimes we have a political cause in mind. This is quite different from anything Hemingway or Tom Wolfe knew.

Karl and I met when I became interim minister of the Northlake UU Congregation in Kirkland,WA, now inundated by affluence but then an outpost of the humanities. In fact, this congregation formed partly around a nucleus of people supporting a liberal progressive school for their kids, so there was always a Montessori/Waldorf vibe about the church, an old mortuary with a wide porch that looked out over the lake towards Seattle. There was a pre-school in the basement, the kind of place where adults sat down to have long serious discussions about life with three year olds. The “sanctuary” was lined with fine paintings, often done by members.

What makes Karl’s writing unique is the therapeutic, exploring, humorous and yet constantly editing feel of his work. It’s very much in tune with the post-modern fascination with examination of one’s own thought in search of unconscious assumptions -- though he doesn’t consort with the big French/Algerian theory systems. Recently he sent me a set of essays he calls, “The Last of the Ice Ages: A Life Filtered Through the Marsh at Juanita Bay.” The wisdom and propriety of this title is discussed at length. There’s almost a footnote per page, most of them wry and funny.

One might say the key to the series of reflective visits is that he always sees, admires and values the regal blue herons, even after facing their true nature -- which is that of an assassin -- and without even noticing the smaller green heron -- which is brown anyway -- until it is pointed out. The turtle is his true nature, he proposes, but the sixty-pound burden on his back is the beaver. (I suspect it may be “Mom,” beavering away at her typewriter. But maybe it’s more like social obligation.) He likes muskrats (good) but can’t always tell them from nutria (bad).

At a deeper level, this set of essays is about Karl’s father sinking into Alzheimers. Archetypal dominating patriarch, he triggers the usual reaction in his son (resistance and a flight to anti-authoritarian Unitarianism) but this is complicated in several ways. Karl has mild birth damage (cerebral palsy is the diagnostic handle), barely noticeable, seeming rather like one of those handsome senators with war-damage: an awkward arm, a bit of limp. NO mental damage. To compensate for imbalance, he has been a Tai Chi adept for many years (he often suggests the herons are doing Tai Chi moves) which means that he’s given a good deal of thought to Buddhism and esp. the Tao. (After all, this IS the Pacific NW with its close ties to the Orient.)

Part of the reason for retiring early was to take on the care of both parents, demented and becoming more so. They are institutionalized, but Karl brings his father to the marsh. (He never brought his fragile living mother, but fantasizes bringing her urn of ashes.) Leaning on the railing of the viewing platform, the two men find what they share in their love of nature, panoramas and horizons. The cranky old man settles and opens when he is confronted with the marsh that Karl also loves.

In the “Chardonnay culture” where Karl lives, he is adept at Tarot, IChing, dream analysis, and various other systems of symbolism, but -- unlike his hallucinating father -- remains embedded in reality thanks to some very good friends (he has an actual writing group, though they’re half his age) and his very much grounded and practical wife. Many of his friends are female. (If his wife thinks it’s a good idea, he occasionally visits a female therapist to do some sorting.) At some point someone remarks that Karl approaches a specific woman as though he were her lover -- Mrs. Karl notes that Karl approaches ALL women as though he were their lover! But he never acts on it except to pay close attention, the true measure of love. His reward is their warm unfolding.

The Internet, especially blogging, has become like a virtual city or a university that can support an intellectual community. This particular kind of loose and overlapping circles (a little like the Olympic symbol, I suppose) is not organized or structured, like “MORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games such as "World of Warcraft", "Everquest" and "Second Life") but it has some of the advantages: little risk, freedom from physical appearance. This is an organic response to happenstance networking. So far as I can tell, no one is an avatar, a made-up person. We’re all real.

And that seems to be a value we all share, though an author puts on many faces while writing. In the end what we’re after is reality, a truth of a kind that a person can trust. Which was the original goal of the Great American Novel as written by Ross Lockridge Jr.! We wouldn’t mind being published. Some of us sincerely hope to make a lot of money. But the experience of really writing is its own joy.

1 comment:

prairie mary said...

Tip of the hat to David Lull, who recommends this essay about self-publishers.