Friday, December 07, 2018


"Writing" is a kind of fantasy trope for people who can't rub two words together and never read books.  it's Aladdin's lamp, if they could just find it.  First nothing is there, then print comes marching like a procession of ants and you can SELL IT!! Maybe get rich.

In truth it's a privileged skill once limited to monastic specialists hand-producing the newly invented "codexes" of pages in covers, an improvement over scrolls.  Then the invention of the printing press made these "books" less expensive and produced a lot of print that was posters, pamphlets, etc.  By now a publishing industry has developed over centuries, beginning as a prosperous and sophisticated sort of thing to do, possibly driven by religion (the Bible) and then the eruption of novels, true-but-not-true.  Does this make the point that writing is often responding to the historical reality of publishing, which converts thought into saleable objects?

One of the offshoots of "publishing writing" is the idea that writing can be taught by people who already do it and have been published.  The validity of this is dubious, considering how much is dependent upon a morphing culture that changes standards.  That's not even allowing for the multi-layered phenomena of kinds, purposes, and value of print.  Three times I've been exposed to this idea.

First, in 1957 when I began work on a BS at Northwestern University, I only knew there one person, Bergen Evans, a funny and erudite man who had a television show about the history of words.  For intake and standardizing, all freshmen who "comped out" took a survey class in an auditorium that was taught by Evans.  Ivan Doig and Paul Winter were somewhere in that crowd.  I put myself in the middle of the fourth row and made it a point to react to everything Evans said.  (I remember he kept a pitcher of water at the lectern and someone put a goldfish in it.  I don't remember the quip he made, which was maybe in Latin.)

In his office I showed him my one and only poem, about six lines long, and he was kind.  He gave me permission to join a writing class which he didn't teach, but supervised.  The teacher was a younger man who must have been published, but I didn't know him.  The entire class was young men: arrogant, privileged, dominating young men.  In those days they shaved and dressed relatively well.  They were exactly suited for dust jackets and book store readings.  Maybe a little dalliance with readers.

The teacher went around the generous table so each of us could say what we had had published -- in my case, nothing.  "Journals?" he asked me.  Then more sarcastically,  "Letters to mom?"  No.  All sneered.  Then Evans must have had a conversation.  My next story got an A+.  I do not believe in A+ as a grade.  Now I was condescending toward this professor.  The young men had such high expectations of themselves that nothing they wrote was good enough to suit them, so they wrote nothing.  They all needed a workshop on "The War of Art," about the resistance within.  I sneered at them.

When I went back to university in 1978, now aspiring to be clergy at the University of Chicago, I found Richard Stern, a stellar writer used to the above kind of class.  Instead, he ended up with four females, two of us older than usual.  He thought about just cancelling the class and steered away the only young male who applied.  Shaking his head, he took on us female renegades and that's exactly what we were.  We bonded. Stern did his best.  We wrote such things as falling, sliding across a glacier while menstruating, leaving a bright trail of blood.  No one brought baked goodies to share.  We cried. 

When I received from seminary my MA in Religious Studies, the class attended the ceremony In the Rockefeller Chapel, a near-cathedral, and stood up to cheer, against all decorum.  I took every class from Stern that I could because he was a specialist in narrativity.  His classroom anthology was called "Honey and Wax", a quote from Heraclitus off my lifework on the Sacred.  

The third incident came about when I was teaching in Heart Butte in 1991.  A professor at the U of Montana in Missoula organized a workshop led by Peter Matthiessen, an acknowledged master of writing, natural science, and Buddhism.  One qualified for it by sending in writing.  Mine was about walking out into Buffalo Lake, at a time when it was entirely dried up, and finding an iniskim, the "buffalo stone" for which the lake was named.

The class was a good mix of male and female, all ages.  In the end, there had not been enough people signed up, so some had been drafted.  Richard Manning was pulled in, locally famous for taking on corporate raider clear-cutters who destroyed whole mountain sides.  There were poets and medical writers.  I remember many of the pieces read and found a few them when they were actually published.  It was rousing all around, but I was taken aback that Matthiessen said he didn't see anything wrong with my essay and that he defended several things I said.  For instance, I talked about how buffalo look massive from the side, but when seen from up high, as in the sorting corrals with walkways at Moiese, that they were narrow from side to side.  A couple of the guys snorted and said I was wrong.  Matthiessen said he had been there, seen that, and I had it right.  They were more careful.  It turned out that Matthiessen had been in the Scriver museum and wanted to talk about that, but also about the fact that my high school teacher had told us F.O. Matthiessen, Peter's uncle, was a brilliant man, key to the New England writers.  He was also gay.

The organizer of the event didn't want me to take Matthiessen's time, as he considered himself the only one really entitled to it.  The second year of the workshop I went back to the public reading and then tried to make contact with Matthiessen but was warned off by this organizer because I hadn't paid.  There was no third because the professor and his wife died in a boating accident on Flathead Lake.  But for me Matthiessen's comments were a kindling spark.

And so it goes.  The people who write, MUST write, because it is part of being alive in risky places (which may be banal, a dangerous quality) and who do not play off the cult of ego that powers much print and even many more blank pages.  We learn however we can through opportunities, sometimes missed.  Plans do and do not work out. Gender does and does not count.  Theory and actual adventure both count.  Sometimes writing becomes sacred to the writer.  Take a knee.  Take both knees.

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