Archive for the ‘Work’ Category

This morning, I sit in the car, listen to the famously homespun man from my home state reciting a poem called “Lonely Lake.”  Reportage of a beautiful, silent experience with an unnamed Other, every moment soaked in that familiar longing for God knows what and humorless attention to the world’s detailed confirmation of nominal meaning, the poem recalls nothing so much as poems like it.  Busy not working, the poet has noticed the world around her, sponged it all up, contemplated, tested experience against its anticipated description.  She has crafted something carefully small, flawless as a photograph of sunlight in water.  Still, I sit in the car, in the air busily soaking up the lukewarm rain now that the air conditioner is off, let the careworn voice chant the poet’s last few lines, my breath chuffing protest of predictability.  Stepping out into the street, I look across the park at the sun holding up the rain clouds beyond the trees, thrusting daylight toward me, at the water birds stalking the grass.  Everyone else spends the moment somewhere dry and out of sight, as if the scene is mine alone.  Is there a more tempting way to look at a landscape?  As if I’ve come so far for good reason?  As if I’m supposed to do something about all this.

Do not, I repeat not read that interview with the writer instead of not reading it.  And don’t go back to Google when you’re done, don’t see there’s another farther down the page that might be better.  Do not read the other one since maybe the first is just him responding to the wrong questions.  Yeah, the second has better questions, more interesting answers, but he’s still keeping the magic all to himself, and the inspiration you thought you’d get from hearing how a book you loved got made will only reveal how shallow that love is.  Don’t think that maybe the book wasn’t so good after all, that it maybe says that same thing over and over, that we’re just who we are and that’s it, since the world doesn’t allow much else, and certainly don’t waste any time worrying that your own book might not even say that much.  Don’t realize away your innocent experience of the story when you experienced it, now that you begin to see the mind that made it, and don’t worry about the politics of your own unwritten story.  Do not, not now or later, wonder what he would think of the people in your world, the ones struggling to live on the page, the others still unimagined.  Do not confuse his book that exists with yours that wants to, don’t make that confusion an excuse to stall progress.  Don’t imagine anything but more things happening in your own world.  Don’t have a conversation with the writer, and do not, if you do, turn it into an argument.  Don’t try to parse his faux humility, actually certainty that some just got it and some just don’t.

The best poem I read all week, new graffiti appears in the bathroom of the coffee shop.  A rectangle of Sharpie ink holds a heading, Petition To Kiss The Jonas Brothers, and three entries in the same hand.  The first is obscured by crayon or lipstick, some waxy stuff the color of a new bruise.  It’s hard to imagine anyone but whoever is under the substance being the one who put it there, satisfied then that the joke is no longer on her or him.   Names two and three, Angie B., Airplane, stay slapped onto the wall in plain view, apparently unnoticed, or undamning, or still eager for those fraternal kisses.  Then, underneath, in some shakier hand’s pencil, two more additions: Excited PedaphileSex.  Like some British comedians’ absurdist sketch, the list has quickly careered out of control, the penciled genius turning the joke inside out, into infantility itself, a destructive commentary that assembles some new form.  It’s hard not to imagine the thoughts of other coffee drinkers who notice me walking out of the bathroom, then right back in to linger on the names one more time, making sure I have them right in my mind.


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N gives in, starts writing a story about writers.  He figures, hey, why resist, all his characters talk that way already.  They say, “denouement.”   Say, “tellingly.”  “In the end…”   They scour experience for details that gesture toward meaning, spending most of their time alone, shuffling through the world or the worlds in their own minds.  They are all so self-aware that their interactions read like transcripts from group therapy sessions, every bit of dialogue confessional, reflective, narrative, wandering, wondering.  Their few actions are outbursts, often literally, always effectively, and more often than not these isolated incidents are fueled by liquor, loneliness, and a slow-burning sensation of powerless responsibility.  In the beginning, he stalls over a choice: first- or third-person?  A coin flip and the caffeine jitters decide: first.   Twenty minutes later he splits the difference: multiple first-people.  And if they all talk the same, fine.  That can just be part of the overall statement, or whatever: inside of ourselves, we all speak in the same cadence.  Sitting in breezy, leaf-strobed sunlight on his recently deceased mother’s favorite chair, the one where she would survey the birdfeeders while sipping morning tea and jotting in her journal, N bangs two full pages up onto his grimy laptop screen in under an hour.  When he finally looks up, the sky is making its move from orange to pink beyond the birds, the trees, and the houses across the street

Having avoided this kind of story, maybe this particular story for a long time, N is ambushed by how easy it is to write.  The paragraphs pile up and his hands are drawn to the keyboard, as if the clattering plastic keys are magnetic or life-sustaining, as if his fingers draw some mystical energy from the molded plastic squares, as if the wearing away of the letters on them somehow spells an incantation conjuring newly vivid awareness of his life unfolding in time and of the secret understanding hidden all the while in his own mind and its malleable memories.  The story heads off on its own, following a path he can only discern one sentence at a time, deep into the past, far off into the world, and probingly ever-closer to the molten core of human life.  The characters, given names and the merest description by N, step out of haze into clear light, doing what they will, writing their own dream-like tales, careening toward and away from each other, leaving glittering debris at the sites of their crashes, a luminous milky way of hopeful sadness laced into every moment, every line, every word of the story.  N wakes after only a few hours of sleep that night, the details of newly dreamed strands of the story fading with each step to his mother’s chair and his sleeping computer, entirely new ones flooding his mind even before the word processing program starts up and offers another blank page.  By dawn he has twenty pages, single-spaced, a cacophonous choir of the many voices inside him.  Some are those of people he had long forgotten knowing.   Many, to his surprise, and despite their unique timbers and lilts, are voices of his own, never spoken aloud, but for all of his life, he now realizes, murmuring in the dark recesses of his consciousness.  As the birds outside the window sing their blessings for another day born, he reads, for the first time, what he has written.  Tears welling in his eyes, he is paralyzed by his love for his own creation as his pages scroll up the screen, once, twice, three times before he is sure he is right, that he has something here, something pretty great.  Blinking quickly evaporating warmth onto his cheeks he sits back for a moment, sips from his mother’s favorite mug, and hollows himself out with the thought that she will never read these pages.

Two years later it is summer again, and N’s novel is shipped to bookstores with his mother’s full name and a descriptor, who showed me why to write and how to live, on the dedication page. He quits his job at the public transit advocacy nonprofit, gets his little cousin to watch his cat, sublets his apartment to a friend of a friend’s friend, and heads out on the road for his book tour.  Waiting nervously for the bookstore employee’s introduction to wind up at his first stop on the tour, he stares at the blown-up cover on an easel.  He frowns at the book’s title, With Hoops of Steel.  It was not his first choice, not his idea at all, but the publisher has, his agent told him, “put a pretty big push behind the hardback, PR-wise,” so N has given in, has let them decide how best to get his story in front of as many people as possible.  Besides, his agent had pointed out, the phrase is Shakespeare, from Hamlet, the play the characters almost put on at the end of the story.  N then pointed out that it is Polonius talking, that it is part of the “to thine own self be true” speech that lets you know Polonius is a fool.  His agent had stared at him for a long moment then said, “but that still works for this story, right?”  At the time, N had thought his agent was suggesting the title might be saying something about the tragic inability of people to truly hear each other’s distinct voices and their willingness to live out other people’s bad advice.  Those seemed like central themes.  Now, as the smattering of applause from the half dozen members of the audience ushers him to the podium, he thinks that his agent might not have meant that at all, might not have any idea what the story is really trying to say, and worse, that he might not be sure what the story is trying to say, or if any story should be trying to say anything.

The reading goes fine, and after signing several books, he accepts the offer of the young woman who ran the reading, and after a few drinks at downtown bar, he makes out with her in her car before heading up to his hotel room and its few dozen cable channels.  The rest of the tour goes similarly, the few people who show up seeming to enjoy the sample chapter and the way he reads it.  Reviews of the novel follow him across the country, some laudatory, some ho-hum, only one scathingly negative.  In a hot southern city on the last leg of the tour, N returns to the apartment of a friend who has let him stay the night and finds a message from his agent.  Bad news: the publisher isn’t happy with sales and is “pulling the second publicity push,” the radio talk show circuit and an upcoming convention for booksellers.  He can still do Atlanta and Miami if he wants, but his expense budget has been halved and they can only pay for a room in one of the cities.  N sets his phone on the coffee table and sits on his friend’s couch where he slept last night, sweating into the cushions, looking at the hardwood floor’s sun-shaped stains of sunlight streaming from the holes where’s where the cord goes through the mini-blinds.  The holes are lenses, someone once explained, bending the streaming photons into a picture of their origin.  He stands up, goes into the bathroom and takes a shower.  Toweled off and dressed, he calls his friend and says he’ll ride the streetcar downtown and meet him after work for drinks.  He’ll buy.  They bar hop, stuffing in burgers between cocktails and beer, and by midnight, they are both hammered.  N’s friend needs to get some sleep, he says, so they should head home.  In the bathroom, N holds himself up at the urinal with one hand as his swimming eyes bring the wall’s call and response graffiti into focus.  The words are a frightening revelation to him, the voices almost bare of character, just somehow surprisingly typical opinions and accusations jockeying with each other.  “Bush is the best,” they say.  And, “Nope, he’s a dick.”  “Thats what u suck tho.”  Who are the people in his own story, N wonders, what world did he think that they lived in?   He heads back into the smoky thunder of the bar, finds his friend, then a taxi, then the couch where his last hope for his novel’s success died that afternoon.  He falls asleep inwardly humming a wordless tune his mother sang to him when he was little.  He lies awake for hours thinking he couldn’t have done anything differently, that it doesn’t matter if he could, that he is here now, alone, that he’ll figure something else out, and he wracks his brain for what, possibilities only half-considered before he’s onto the next ones.  In the end, he gives up, letting himself falling to a swirling sleep, waking with all his dreams forgotten, his head aching and containing only one voice, his own, which asks over and over, what pushed me to this, the place that I have now come to rest?

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Possible Titles For My Unfinished Novel

The Ages

The Endless Journey

Living A Lost Cause

The Book That Didn’t Save Him

A Labyrinth Of Wondering

Words In Hiding

Swallowing Darkness

How To Be (Bad At Being) Alone


Potential Titles For My New Novel

Blood Gun

The Spy Conspiracy

Unswerving Action: A Dirk Gambles Mystery

The Sexing Of Minerva

Desire’s Apex

The Notebook*

The Soul-Seller

Money To Burn: A Prescott B. Baines III Thriller


Increasingly Unlikely Titles For My Autobiography

Unbridled Bravery, Endless Lust

Milton Reborn

A Life At War With Caution

The Library Filler

His Always-Moving Pen: A Star Of The Page And The Stage Of Life

Son Of Greatness, Father Of Followers

Success Story: Thriving Against The Odds And Ends Of Literary Life

Who Needs Glory When You’ve Got the World In The Palm Of Your Hand?

Author Of The Ages


Titles Of Web Pages I’ll Visit In Lieu Of Writing Today









New Title For This Blog Post

Quitting Time


*Titles cannot be copyrighted

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PBQ staff editor Amy Weaver shared this article with me from the Chronicle of Higher Education, http://chronicle.com/temp/reprint.php?id=zs61txc4kwr4kd1q1rjbfxt41952gdmf

a discussion of Procrastination, Genius and Mediocrity, and Leonardo da Vinci. 


It’s a thought-provoking piece, to be sure, but I’m wondering if too many concepts are conflated:  am I procrastinating about not writing my memoir collection because I am using time instead to grade student papers, read submissions to PBQ, or schedule a reading?    


The author, W.A. Pannapacker also brings up mediocrity vs. genius and fear of success, but the overriding theme:  “Academe is full of potential geniuses who have never done a single thing they wanted to do because there were too many things that needed to be done first:” is exactly what confuses me—how is doing those other things procrastinating?  Does not the minutia of our existence demand to be handled first?   I mean, the students will demand their grades, authors who submit to PBQ will demand a response, etc. 


What is the way out of mediocrity and into genius, but not out of a job? 


Will we “waste our time” of we try to answer that here? 


About a month ago I participated in a promotional event for high-school seniors who are interested in coming to Drexel, but have not yet committed.   Our job was to present our department in a truthful, but positive light.   At one point in the day’s activities, I led the students in a mock editorial session, where we read “submissions” to PBQ, and then discussed them as our editorial board does, then voted on the work.   The potential students loved the session and I was greatly impressed with the caliber and specificity of their comments.   Their parents, watching from “the peanut gallery,” became so engaged in the discussion that several times they chimed in, apologizing as they did so, but unable to help themselves.   


When the session was over I had one of those rare, lovely moments:  I thought, “I rocked that session.   Damn, I’m a good editor and teacher.”   The mini-workshop had highlighted both of those skill sets and I was proud.  The energy in the room was palpable and I was inundated with students and parents wanting to continue the conversation.


I came home from such a great afternoon and waiting in the day’s mail was a rejection slip.


So, I thought, “Oh, ok.   What I am meant to learn today is that I am not a writer, but a teacher and an editor, and I should be grateful for that; that I have something I know I am good at.”


I related the above anecdote to our own dear, lovely Marion Wrenn, and she simply said,

“Don’t you see what you’re missing?    The amount of time you put into being an editor and teacher far outweighs the amount of time you spend writing.”


So—I think the question I’m really throwing out here is, short of expanding time itself, how does one prioritize the non-immediate?  How does one not procrastinate away one’s genius?


Did I just waste half an hour?




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The purpose of poetry

Hi! Shafer Hall here.  Long-lost PBQ editor in NYC.

My post tonight is short, because I have to write a wedding ceremony for my friends.  Friends and family are funny — they say “oh hell, Shafer’s the writer, he’ll write it.”  And it’s an honor and all, but I always kind of want to ask “have you ever read any of my poems?  Do you really want me to write your wedding vows?”  But the answer is usually yes.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking today about the purpose of poetry.  It used to be a great thing for a wedding to be very poetic, but these days it seems like it’s all about business.  And you know what?  I didn’t start writing poetry for public use.  I started writing it to amuse myself, and to help myself figure things out.  Poetry in a public forum was a side-effect.

Mostly a fun side-effect, but sometimes it’s a pain in the neck.  Not tonight, though — as much as I complain about it, I think the poetry business can be fun once I dive into it.  The wedding’s on Saturday, so I’ll let you know on Sunday (earlier this time — sorry Tracy) how it went.

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Vote for the best bumper stickers

I went a little crazy designing bumper stickers this week. Proof positive of my love and adoration for PBQ! Remember: any of these can be changed and/or redesigned. So have fun discussing the possibilities…


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