Monthly Archives: October 2007

Writing

Hereinafter follow three indisputable facts about my friend The Theriomorph, and a conclusion drawn therefrom, and I hope Tmorph will forgive me for putting her to work in this parable.

Indisputable fact number one: not long ago, The Theriomorph wrote the following about her blog-reading preferences:

the real diary blogs (which I don’t ever, ever read, since I would rather rip out my own eyelashes one at a time with tweezers)

Indisputable fact number two: The Theriomorph reads this blog on a reasonably frequent basis.

Indisputable fact number three: Vermont white-tailed deer wish they had eyelashes like these, the kind that spur chaotic fractal storms in the tropics with a mere New England blink, and which manifestly have not been ripped out one at a time with tweezers.

We may thus draw the conclusion that this blog, which The Theriomorph reads with no damage to her eyelashes save perhaps that incurred when my writing puts her to sleep face down on the keyboard, must therefore not be a diary blog.

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Motions

stump

The problem with going through the motions is that finally, at long last, you look around to find you have gone through all of them. There are none remaining for you to go through, you discover, and then the question arises: what next?

I walked eleven miles Sunday. I walked briskly, almost at a run. I was in no particular hurry. It was just that I kept finding myself in places I have been in for far too long.

There are no blind alleys in the hills around here, but I find them anyway.

Weight has been falling off me. I have, four or five times in the last month, realized that I had eaten nothing the previous day. One of those times was in the middle of a run, at twenty past midnight on a dark street. I was suddenly utterly hollow. I ran only three K instead of five. By the time I got home, the hunger had passed.

I eat when I remember to eat.

There are pomegranates in the refrigerator, untouched, and persimmons ripening on the tree. On Sunday a boisterous dog covered my shins in mud. She paid close attention to me in a way instantly familiar and wrenching, and when her people caught up we talked. Full-grown, almost, and she was not yet born when Zeke died.

He comes to me each night these days, whole and wholly present. The dreams are sweet, and kind, and most nights I stay up rather than risking even one more. Awake, there is at least the solace of solitude. There is espresso and dried mango and the creek flowing to the bay. I drink. I eat. I run. I write. There are motions and I go through them. The question arises: what next? Asking the question is itself an old, worn motion, and the answer plain enough. Nothing is next. There is no next.

You look for an ending

Editing is a tough task, and many editors unequal to it. At least in my experience.

I’ve worked with a variety of editors in a range of publications, from free tabloids to daily papers to tony lifestyle magazines. I prefer the editors at the dailies, I think. They don’t mess with the writing much. They don’t have time. Your piece gets assigned to you, you send it in, it gets vetted for length, grammar, style, and libel, and it gets printed. If your writing stinks when you send it in it stinks on the printed page, unless they find something better to swap in.

Magazine editors are different. They see it as their job to make the writing better. This is not inherently a bad idea, much of the time. Even the best work by the most talented writer could benefit from having a dispassionate eye turned on it. And the vast majority of the writing with which editors work is not, to put it mildly, the best work of the best writers. As it is difficult to land a job as an editor unless one is at least a mediocre to passable writer, most editors — aside from those in the upper echelons of publications with healthy budgets — spend most of their time working with absurdly mixed metaphors, incomplete statements, tooth-grindingly bad cliche written by people less skilled than the editors themselves.

And so the editors become accustomed to rolling up their sleeves and fixing things. They get so used to it that many of them think that they’re not doing their jobs unless they fix things. This need to fix things becomes independent of the existence, or lack, of anything in the writing that needs fixing.

There is, in the general field my writing tends to occupy, a prestigious and pretty magazine which out of a healthy regard for future potential income I will not here identify. The magazine prints some of the best-known writers in the field. Getting column inch real estate in this mag is widely regarded as a coup in my genre, providing a measure of immediate name recognition among the coffee-table ecorati. I’ve spoken to a few of the pub’s editorial staff, and each of them has said — with not a little not-very-well-hidden pride — that “we make our writers work.”

That’s all well and good when it comes to research, chasing down interview subjects, meeting deadlines and requests for a rewrite if necessary. But what these folks meant, it turns out, is that they make “their writers” turn out rewrites even when it isn’t necessary. They actually meant this as a point of pride, that they put themselves, and their writers, through unnecessary work. One friend who wrote for them a few years back, a notable environmental writer, was asked for four complete rewrites of his article. When asked for a fifth rewrite that would essentially have restored his originally submitted draft, he withdrew the piece from consideration.

That’s almost preferable to the practices of most magazine editors, though: at least the Prestigious Rag has the writer do her own surgery. Most editors wade in with the machete on their own. If they do not actually introduce egregious errors into the piece, you are lucky. That happens more often than you might think. More commonly, they make what seem pointless changes. Swapping an “and” for an “as well as,” for instance, and then changing the “as well as” in the subsequent sentence to an “and.” God forbid the writer uses a rhetorical trope like repetition for emphasis, or antimetabole or chiasmus, for they will rewrite it to read “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask whether you might owe your country something.” They will lard lean sentences with useless information, which phenomenon Ron refers to as “how much does the bridge weigh?” (Long story.) They will interrupt strings of alliteration with dependent clauses. They will violate the music.

In short, they will take writing from any of a hundred disparate sources and make each piece sound as if the same mediocre writer was responsible for it. Whole volumes of magazines, years’ worth of issues, every piece sounding as if it were written by the same committee.

I have never seen the point, myself. Thankfully, I am not the only editor who feels this way. A writer’s voice is a precious thing. Over the last two decades I’ve spent editing writing from the insufficient to the sublime I have cuisinarted precisely one piece in such fashion, and it needed it and I had no other text to fill the hole for which it was slotted, and I pledged never to work with that writer again.

I have rarely had a budget to pay writers, and I am a rather demanding reader, and I still have had more occasion than I can tell you to run articles in nearly the state in which the first draft was delivered. Sometimes a piece just comes in ready for press. Why on earth would any editor in his or her right mind alter a comma that didn’t need altering?

And the same approach, on a fractal level anyway, pays off with writers who aren’t as practiced, or who were not quite as diligent in preparing the piece. It is almost never necessary to go in and futz word by word. If a stretch of text is awkward, it is almost never necessary to the piece: the awkwardness usually comes from the writer’s not knowing what to say about that paragraph’s subject. If the problem can’t be fixed by changing a key word or making a bent sentence whole, excision is almost always sufficient, whether you’re looking at a dependent clause or a whole chapter.

An advantage of this method is that removal is less jarring to the writer than is turning awkward stretches into something else. The writer will recognize writing that is not her own, but often won’t miss what you’ve taken out.

This is even true for the first and last paragraphs of a work, despite the common position in the newspaper biz that one does not change a first paragraph overmuch. This is called “messing with the lede” and it is done only when unavoidable. But new writers often write buried ledes: it’s as if they take a couple paragraphs’ worth of warming up the fingers, knuckle-cracking, before they start writing the real piece. When I work with a piece that starts out awkward or vague, one of the first things I do is look for a good starting paragraph halfway down the page.

And likewise at the far end. Having built up a head of steam, many writers go on past the point where they ought to have stopped. What follows is usually redundant, often trite, sometimes even condescending to the reader in that it hammers home conclusions that are obvious.

A good piece of writing is like a good life. It should have a point. It should be at least moderately interesting. And when it is time for it to end, it should end: dragging it out benefits no one. You are given material with which to work. You figure out what the point is. You make it as graceful as possible. When the point of the material has been fulfilled, you look for an ending.

You look for an ending, and it is almost always obvious where that ending should be, and though the unpracticed often feel the urge to soften it, a good ending is of necessity abrupt.

Sumac

I insist, my lover. I insist
my finger softly laid against your lips;
my own tongue stopped.
There is so much I cannot say to you,
here, even, or ever. These scars of mine
that you caress with dancing fingertips,
stroking their lengths
of smooth and tender skin, they are old news
to me, though you explore them fresh;
traces of life’s landscapes long ago,
memories of dark forests
forgotten, buried, the vestiges of pain subsumed
for you to punctuate with airy kisses.
I insist, my own tongue stopped,
all missing words, all unkept promises
I will not offer you, my love, stopped up
with the breath caught in my throat.
They rise, diffuse unspoken in
the sumac-filtered sky.

I insist, my lover, I insist.
My tongue is loosed, though you may quiet it
with this soft fingertip
upon my lips. Here is more than I could ever say
to you, my words subsumed in promises
I dare not make. My scars are all unseen,
a deep-buried landscape inscribed in me,
the vestiges of long-forgotten poems
come back a sentence at a time,
as horns of stags glimpsed dimly through
the forest edges of my memory. I offer you all this:
promises yet unspoken, a stand of kisses
along your smooth scar-furrowed hip;
the breath caught in your throat, my love;
eyes held shut beneath the brightening sky;
your back an arch above this carpet
of red and fallen sumac leaves.

I insist, my lovers, I insist.
My fingers through the layered earth insist,
insinuate themselves,
through rock and clay insist themselves
each swelling season, to emerge,
to kiss the air with pinned and fingered leaves.
There is nothing I could say to you
that you would hear except this whisper,
the rubbing of old limbs, scarred where
past years’ fingers once graced them. I mend your scars,
these furrowed wastes, these gullies,
knit them together with these insistent fingers,
bind you one to the other under
each season’s leaf-kiss mantle.
The breath in both your throats will catch,
will cease,
promises kept and promises unmade dissolved
into the forest’s memory, and both of you
will settle on the patient earth, commingled,
to fade among my new-emerging shoots.

#1 on Google

Via PZ, I learn that The World’s Fair people have come up with another one a them there meems.

The idea is that you have to come up with five Google searches that return your site as the top result.

I would just like to say, in this regard, that I do not need to come up with five such. I win with this one alone. Give me the Internet now, please.

Fires

It happens this time each year, and each year of late the results seem more dramatic. Hot, dry winds race out of the desert onto California’s coastal cities. The effect is like aiming a hair dryer at smouldering coals.

Before it was colonized, most of California west of the deserts burned every hundred years or so. Some of the fires were set by lightning, more of them deliberately by Native Californians managing the land. A century of fire suppression ran concurrently with a hundred-million-fold increase in sources of ignition, and now the south coast burns from the desert to the sea.

I hope everyone you know is well and safe. My fear for the Torrey Pines has eased today: the Witch-Poomacha fire may not threaten Del Mar after all, and the stand of trees to its south — trees with the smallest range of any pine species in North America, in that one little park on the coast and a few trees on Santa Rosa Island — might well be here next year.

Sherwood sends along a link to a fairly good story with an idiotic headline: “Californians Pay Price For Communing With Nature.” The headline writer should have read more than the first few paragraphs of the story. The vast majority of the people fleeing are not those who found themselves little forest hideaways where they breakfast each day with sharp-shinned hawks. There are a few, but they tend to be those who regard the inevitable fires with resigned acceptance, if not equanimity. We Californians are paying the price, this week, for supplanting nature, for transforming it, for ignoring it. Levittown and its upscale descendants do not work here.

ugh

Hank sent me the above photo. (The CRN silverbacks have been hard at work keeping me informed.) It was taken Monday. The Santa Anas blow the smoke offshore. The official hope is that those winds will go slack today, and that the prevailing winds will resume, blowing moist air eastward from the ocean. Four years ago I left for the desert in a moment very much like this. I wrote:

What a week to choose to go to the Mojave! We have what would be called Santa Ana winds if they were down south: from the east, dry and warm. What’s saving the Bay Area so far from the conflagration they’re having down in San Bernardino is the fact that the wind up here is but a mere breeze. We went to San Francisco Bay this afternoon: the surface of the water was like glass all the way to San Francisco.

But I’ll be — as they say — at altitude for much of my trip, up where the Joshua trees grow at around 5000 feet or higher, and might thus escape some of the heat.

I got to that Mojave altitude, at Mid-Hills Campground, and woke in the middle of the night smelling smoke. I panicked: the campground was in a thick forest of juniper and pine. Had I left a stray ember in my firepit? I burst out of the tent. There was no light to be seen, no fire, no moon, no stars. The air was thick. The wind had shifted, and all the smoke from 2003’s fires in San Diego and San Bernardino streamed toward the interior. My campsite was 120 miles from the nearest fire, the Devore Fire in Cajon Pass. A hundred twenty miles away and the smoke stung my nostrils.

My campsite neighbor and I spent a few minutes that morning coffee in hand, staring at the sun, counting sunspots. I wrote, later that night, in my blank book:

I reflected on the coyote I saw yesterday, running across the road just before I reached the campsite, as I watched the sunspots crawl across the face of the sun. When I rolled the truck this year, and walked away uninjured, Ron suggested my guardian angel was a coyote. “I’ll save your life, after creating the situation that threatens it.” Not such a bad prank for the trickster to play, I thought. Definitely throws a big monkey wrench into the trip, but not a bad story, and I get to sit here in the middle of the Mojave and drink coffee while watching sunspots on the move. Getting up to rinse out the coffee cup, I made a mental note of thanks to Coyote for playing such an easy trick on me. Then the spigot of the water jug broke off in my hand.

After coffee I tried to go for a hike. Here is a shot from that hike, in the Providence Mountains a few miles down the road from Mid-Hills, about 10 a.m.:

Providence Mountains

I walked perhaps a half mile, wheezing painfully after the first hard climb. This was nuts, I thought. Time to try to escape the plume of smoke. There was a grove of Joshua trees in Northern Arizona I’d always wanted to visit, and it was nearly twice as far from the Devore Fire as Mid-Hills, essentially at the mouth of the Grand Canyon. I aimed the truck east and north.

This is what it looked like when I got there, at around two in the afternoon.

Pearce Ferry Road

A full day of breathing that crap in, followed by another the next day, and my lungs ached for weeks, though I suppose the burro that head-butted my sternum that afternoon may have had something to do with that.

Two years later Mid-Hills burned for real, a devastating and tragic fire, which fire was quite honestly one of the most painful losses I have borne. Miguel Alondra, who introduced me to Mid-Hills in the first place, asked me this weekend if I had visited since the fire. I have not, and decided to take a look this weekend, a desert trip I’d planned for the last month and a half.

I have been watching the fire news, and the weather forecasts, rather closely the last few days. It looks as if the Santa Ana winds are starting to slacken a bit. By this time tomorrow, the smoke may well be heading into the Mojave.

I’ve decided to postpone my trip for a couple weeks.