Sunday, April 25, 2010

Letters Aren’t Dead Yet (Nor Are Books)

Sunday night, I find myself catching up on things and getting to the final few items on the weekend’s to-do list. This time, the list includes writing cards—two “welcome baby” cards (for a pair of friends who’ve had their second child and for a pair of friends who just had twins) and also a card for a friend whose mammogram turned up positive for early stage breast cancer. I don’t see any of these friends too often anymore, but when you hear about something like this—cancer or babies being born—you send a card. At least, that’s the way I was raised.

My grandmother was a committed card-sender. She bought birthday cards months in advance, wrote dates on the upper right corner of the envelopes (where the stamp would later cover up the numbers), and kept them organized chronologically in a box. She sent cards to all her friend’s children and grandchildren, no matter how physically distant they’d become. I haven’t been nearly as vigilant with birthday cards as she was, but I did get the gist of her example: that, as much as possible, it’s important to keep in touch.

Incidentally, Gram also taught me to send thank-you notes by threatening that if I didn’t send thank-you notes for birthday or Christmas gifts, she’d tell the person not to give me anything the next year. That was a high-stakes lesson for a kid, so if you ever give me anything, you’re sure to get a card in the mail if I have your address or can find it on

This weekend I stopped by the Independent Journal & Book Fair at UMass, Amherst, which was put on by the MFA program there. It was great to be in a room full of people who believe not only in texts but also in books and literary journals as art objects made with care.

A book is more than the text it contains—it is an object, it has a presence and a body. The space it occupies on a shelf or the weight it adds to your bag gives it significance. Also, books can stimulate 80% of the five senses (100% if you snack on them, but I never have). I’m not saying I wouldn’t use an e-reader if someone gave me one; they have their practicalities and I’m not a purist when it comes to technology. As author and editor Gian Lombardo wrote in his blog, "I guess I’m bi in this case." But even if I needed or chose to go digital with most of my books, I’m sure I’d still keep my favorite books in physical form.

I send plenty of emails for all sorts of occasions and I read lots of things online—but I do like to hold the things I care about. Similarly, life’s major events still call for the time and care of putting pen to paper and stamp to envelope. Thanks for the lesson, Gram. Your Mother’s Day card will be in the mail soon.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Wandering Genius

Yesterday I went for a walk with a friend at lunchtime. It was a great day for a walk - sunny, warm - but not a great day for getting writing done after work. My friend invited me to a seder, and I declined, saying I had too much to do around the house. This was a lie. I didn't have too much to do around the house, and I love seders, but I planned to spend the evening writing, even though the sunshine and sweet air gave me the sinking feeling that I wouldn't get much done.

So, last night I indeed "wrote." I thought about writing, worried about writing, and felt bad about not physically writing, even though the machinations of writing were grinding away inside my head as I walked my dog, sent a few emails, and watched a video online.

One of my writing teachers at Hampshire College, Michael Lesy, gave fewer assignments than many professors because he said we needed time to think and plan. That was the first time I'd heard reverie acknowledged as being just as essential to creation as the actual creating. Sometimes I'm OK with the reverie, but often I'm impatient. Although I want to see results, I must put up with the inertia and unruliness of my own mind. It just insists on daydreaming and wandering. In that way it's like my dog - trainable, but so much.

As I walked said dog along on a wooded trail, I wasn't consciously thinking about the order of the poems in my chapbook manuscript, but when I got back to the house I'd decided to move one of the poems from the end of the book back to the beginning of the second section, where it had been originally. "Great," I thought sarcastically when my "writing time" was up. "Three hours later and all I have done is shuffle some papers around." I was reminded of the quote from William Wordsworth (is that who it was?) about working on a poem all morning, taking out one comma, and then putting it back in that afternoon.

"You've chosen a vocation in which the rewards come very infrequently," my wife said that night as we watched the NCAA championship game at the local bar, a good venue for me to bemoan my temporary and non-life-threatening misery at not conjuring the willpower to sit down and add copious amounts to my scribbled word collection that night. I thanked her for pointing out the obvious and told her about the video I'd watched.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, was talking about "genius," but not as you might expect. She says that instead of a person "being" a genius, all of us "have" a genius, which to the ancient Romans was a daemon or spiritual being, kind of like a personal muse. It makes sense when you hear her say it. (Thanks to poet Adam Rubinstein for sharing the link.) My wife, however, immediately thought of my cat, who usually sits on my lap while I write. "Don't ask me to call him your genius now," she said. "I just can't do that."