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“We are fed by what we attend to.”
[W]hen I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liquer until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.”
In Francis Bacon’s essay, “On Studies,” he wrote:
“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”
(In The Pleasures of Reading in An Age of Distraction, Alan Jacobs notes that this passage isn’t about being snobby, really, it’s just about the knowledge that you won’t be able to read everything — the buffet is too big! — so sometimes you need to sample or nibble. And while we’re on the subject of eating books, I feel it’s worth noting that Alan also wrote a book called Breaking Bread With The Dead.)
In Waiting For God, Simone Weil wrote:
…as far as possible I do not read anything except for that which I am hungry in the moment, when I am hungry for it, and then I do not read… I eat.
When I was in middle school, my English teacher had us copy Eve Merriam’s “How to Eat a Poem” into our notebooks (note my misattribution):
Don’t be polite.
Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice that may run down your chin.
It is ready and ripe now, whenever you are.
You do not need a knife or fork or spoon
or plate or napkin or tablecloth.
For there is no core
to throw away.
Later, I found Mark Strand’s “Eating Poetry”:
Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.There is no happiness like mine.I have been eating poetry.
In his memoir, Life Itself, Roger Ebert wrote about how he couldn’t eat any more due to his cancer treatment. He said he didn’t miss eating food as much as conversation at the dinner table.
“Maybe that’s why writing has become so important to me. You don’t realize it, but we’re at dinner right now.”
“The things people refuse / are the things they should use”
The Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal once worked as a trash compactor, and, according to the critic James Wood, he “rescued books from the compacting machine and built a library of them in the garage of his country cottage outside Prague.” He based his wild, short novel Too Loud a Solitude on his experiences, giving them to the fictional narrator, Hanta, who says he “can’t quite tell which of my thoughts come from me and which from my books.” (Same.)
Because art imitates life only for life to imitate art, last week I read a story about garbage collectors in Turkey who opened a library in an abandoned brick factory from books they rescued from their trash roundes. The library now has over 6,000 books. (They also turned a garbage truck into a bookmobile and formed a band from tossed-out instruments.)
Atlas Obscura’s entry notes that “‘Stealing’ things from the trash for personal use is a big no-no in the world of sanitation.” But as Mark Twain said, quoted in Steal Like An Artist, “It is better to take what does not belong to you than to let it lie around neglected.”
Everything is eventually headed for the dump. Books, ideas… you name it. What you rescue from the dump, the treasures you keep, that’s part of your work.
Filed under: trash
I don’t do a whole lot of freelance writing, so this was a fun change of pace for me. (Thanks to @michaelhoinski for the invitation.)
As with any piece of writing, sometimes it’s hard to find a place to start. In this case, when I was researching Onderdonk I realized that 1901 was both the year the bluebonnet was named the state flower and the year that the man who would eventually become famous for painting them left Texas to go study painting.
You can read the article here.
One result of the pandemic is that I’m actually able to attend author events at the same frequency I did before I had children. Last week I watched Edward Carey discuss writing and drawing his re-telling of Geppetto’s time in the belly of the whale, The Swallowed Man (and one of my favorite reads of last spring), while highlighting treasures from the Ransom Center here in Austin, Texas. (You can watch the whole talk on YouTube.) Here are my notes:
Last weekend I invited one of my favorite writers, Sam Anderson, staff writer at the NYTimes and author of the fabulous book Boom Town, to celebrate Montaigne’s birthday with me on Instagram Live. I ended up with a tour of Sam’s library in his converted garage and a long chat about the guardian spirits that inspire his workspace, his dictionary stand, the magic of blind contour drawings, the calm of collage, how he writes nonfiction, the writing exercise he warms up with every morning, and yes, our shared love for Montaigne. You can watch the whole thing on IGTV.
View this post on Instagram
I was ready to claim the title page as an inspiration for the look of Steal Like An Artist, but if I didn’t get the book until my first trip to City Lights in San Francisco, that was in 2012 on the Steal book tour.
(I do think sometimes that artists tend to claim influence apocryphally — you put your work in the world and then you find all the stuff you should’ve looked at before you made the work.)
The thing I remember most about my first visit to City Lights in North Beach — other than the wonderful poetry room with the big dictionary in the corner — was all the hand-painted Ferlinghetti signs everywhere. I think I liked looking at those as much as I liked browsing the books.
I never wanted to be a poet. It chose me, I didn’t choose it. One becomes a poet almost against one’s will, certainly against one’s better judgment. I wanted to be a painter but from the age of ten onward these damn poems kept coming. Perhaps one of these days they will leave me alone and I can get back to painting.
There’s a great story on the City Lights website about how he discovered the basement and the signs you see behind him in the photos above:
Ferlinghetti also discovered signs painted on the walls by a Christian sect that had used the basement for prayer meetings, and on the walls today you can still fragments of them: “Remember Lot’s Wife,” “Born in Sin and Shapen in Niquity,” “I and My Father Are One,” and “I Am the Door.” Ferlinghetti made a deal with the landlord, put in a staircase, persuaded the Chinese Dragon to leave, and expanded the store into the basement.
Surely, those signs must’ve inspired him to make his own.
* * *
Dan Sinker is one of the writers who I think is best capturing the fury and heartbreak and fleeting moments of beauty involved in being a parent right now.
If you want something nice in your feed, here are posters from the last few weeks of the four-year-olds research projects. pic.twitter.com/QKHCLbHkF4
— ? damned sinker ? (@dansinker) June 15, 2020
He recently published “There’s No Such Thing as a ‘Good’ Parent in a Pandemic” in Esquire:
Every parent wants to be a good parent. And every parent, every day, fails at that because, right now, being a good parent is literally impossible. A fine parent? Maybe. An OK one? Possibly. But a good one? We’re eleven months into a pandemic that sent all our children home, laid waste to jobs, killed a half-million people in this country, and sickened many millions more. Politicians like Ted Cruz ensured it would hurt as much as possible by fighting against public health measures and relief efforts that would have made a difference. So no: a good parent isn’t really an option. We’re all just barely getting by.
“Every parent—every single parent—has known the crash this year,” he writes.
I have two of these bumper stickers: one in my studio, and one on our refrigerator.
What I hang onto these days is the D.W. Winnicott’s concept of the “good-enough” mother. “Success” in caring for children, he wrote in Playing and Reality, “depends on the fact of devotion, not on cleverness or intellectual enlightenment.” All the devotion required is an ordinary devotion, as he put it. No particular need for extraordinary skill or expertise.
In Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2016), she jokes about the concept’s popularity:
Winnicott’s concept of “good enough” mothering is in resurgence right now. You can find it everywhere from mommy blogs to Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Are You My Mother? to reams of critical theory. (One of this book’s titles, in an alternate universe: Why Winnicott Now?)
“If you are satisfied with being a good enough parent, and have no illusions that perfection is possible,” Peter Gray writes, “you see this problem for what it is, a problem to try to solve, not a tragedy, not an occasion for blame or shame.”
Me, I’m trying to see it as a comedy, or a farce, or maybe just bad improv. Making do with what we have.
We might not be able to be good right now, but we can be good enough.
* * *
Once upon a time, before Martin’s newest book, I asked Karr for a reading list on prayer and she obliged:
“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.”
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Musician James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem has taken up fishing during the pandemic.
“I’m somehow able to get outside myself,” he says, “unburdened for a few hours by whatever it is I really should be doing, while I, instead, do this repeated motion, over and over…”
He says that there’s “a meditative quality to the work” and he often repeats to himself, “Slow is fast. Slow is fast.”
“I needed for time to be meaningless so I could justify spending a few weeks learning how to do this new thing.”
It tickles me that he talks about learning to fish the way some people would talk about learning to play music.
I’m also thinking, well beyond the pandemic, we can declare time “meaningless” any time we want, and give ourself permission to learn new things…
Filed under: fishing
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