Saturday, July 29, 2006

Bread Crumbs

Early Saturday morning and no one else is awake. The dogs are stirring. I've opened their crates, but after adjusting to my presence, they've opted for another in their daily series of long naps. The house is shiver-inducing, and after smelling gas again on Thursday, we must survive another weekend without hot water.

If I knew any curses in Arabic, I'd undoubtedly insert them here, just as I reference the "home warranty" company. Of course, living without hot water is just a minor inconvenience. Sure, speaking with customer service and trying to convince them that there actually is a problem with my hot water heater (and not the ventilation system) has knotted my stomach and made me a little bit anxious about the always-present possibility of one sort of ulcer or another, but my family's problems pale in comparison to many of the difficulties with which I grew up.

By worldwide standards, I suppose, my family was wealthy. We never had major issues with food. There were nights when we had bologna for dinner and weeks where groceries couldn't be bought without credit, but I never went hungry. I never waited in the long lines to see a doctor at the county hospital. I never worried about having new clothes or new shoes when I needed them. We never had our electricity disconnected, and we never had anyone knock on our door with the intent of repossessing our car, our furniture, or our television.

In retrospect, this might be a miracle. I honestly don't know if, had I been in my father's position, I could have managed it. But I do a fair job of helping my wife manage our family—even if it is a bit discomfiting on occasion. In fact, despite my current semi-sabbatical from the corporate world, I constantly contemplate the future of my family. I can't remember the last day I "took off." I accept weekend freelance work at the drop of a hat. I write as much as I can handle. Plus, I am constantly trying to shape the ghost-like apparition I think of as my career.

On some days, when I'm not actually strapped to my laptop, clicking away at a paragraph, a line, or sentence penned by someone else, I ask myself whether or not the risk I'm taking is worth it. And make no mistake, working from home on a freelance career, an unfinished novel, a few volumes of poetry, and an online literary magazine is a risk. What if I'm not as good as I think I am? Worse, what if there's no market for the material I create—regardless of its quality? What if I simply don't have the stamina to execute each task? What if I bounce from project to project, following the whims of creation, but never complete a task? What if my business acumen is simply lacking and I send each finely honed manuscript to inappropriate markets?

Perhaps some of these nagging questions seem familiar to you. Perhaps, as I had for years, you've often contemplated freelancing. When you're sitting in a cubicle under the constant hum of fluorescent lights, I think it's difficult not to imagine a life where sneaking a nap at 2 in the afternoon wouldn't get you fired. I do it all the time.

Of course, the problem is that each time I take an afternoon nap, it's because I'm exhausted. Either one household crisis or another has drained my energy or I've already spent between 4 and 6 hours on the assemblage of tasks before me each day. Those naps make an additional 6 to 8 hours worth of work possible. But try explaining such rationale to someone who's working for someone else—or your parents.

With all of these doubts, why do I even bother?

Because, frankly, they're just doubts. If you let yourself be paralyzed by such doubts, then perhaps writing isn't the career for you. If you let the doubts affect the way you write, rather than relying on the interplay of your intelligence and the words themselves, perhaps you might be better suited to trying your hand at haberdashery.

For me, such doubts are a roadmap to the territory of poetry. Without them, I would be lost. They circumscribe the space in which I work. They remind me, incidentally, of my fears and my ambitions.

Perhaps, like other writers, I should simply ignore those doubts and move on with the business at hand. Yet, I find a kind of comfort in staring them down. I realize that there may come a time in my life when the doubts become too loud or incessant to ignore. I'm fairly young after all. My finances aren't too bad. And I know I have at least some talent.

For now, each time a doubt bubbles to the surface like sulfurous fumes from some unseen volcanic seam, I use that doubt. I may speculate about why that particular doubt surfaced, but invariably, those doubts take me back to the page. I may alter my approach slightly. I may take a day or two away from the particular project that elicited the doubts. But invariably, I resolve to work harder, and I'll keep making that resolution until it isn't humanly possible to work any harder.

Perhaps this is merely the curse of a protestant work ethic, but to me, without the oft-disturbing single-mindedness of a professional, it's easy to get lost in the dark wood of literature.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006


Wednesday already—and the week seems to have started only now. I'm sitting outside, sipping on premium coffee from a local gas station and thinking about my day. After a weekend filled with gas-fume drama, two days of frustrating freelance work copyediting the script of a writer who couldn't tell the difference between a participle and a party, and a long night where my wife suffered through a mild but discomforting illness, I have the entire day in front of me to use as I see fit.

There are no vets to visit, no repairmen to call, no children to entertain, no scripts to scrutinize, no emails to compose, and no websites to be built. The day belongs to me and my dogs. For the moment, the dogs—both Dixie and Archie—are sniffing around the backyard in search of tiny morsels to broaden their palettes. Piles of just-pulled Johnson grass lay scattered about the yard. Birds trill songs from our neighbor's sweet gum tree. The hum of cicadas lolls from distant treetops. The morning sun burns damp from yellowed stalks of grass.


I’ve retreated inside to the air-conditioned cool of our 50-year-old house. The dogs are sprawled asleep on the office floor, stretched out as though they were ready to burst into a run. They’ve exhausted themselves with dashes across the yard, trailing an airborne football and intermittent confrontations with each other of bared teeth and slapping paws. The sound of wind, traffic, and cicadas seeps in from outside, and my computer's cooling fan whirls as I type. There is no other sound until Dixie stirs, rattling the tags on her collar for a moment.


There have been moments in my life when I would have abhorred such silence. The stereo would need to play continuously or the television would have been flicked on to stave off any notions of loneliness.

This morning, such quiet seems a blessing. I can listen as thoughts form on the page before me. Words become sentences. Sentences become paragraphs. One idea builds upon another and another.


In graduate school, we tried to teach our students that writing was more than a simple skill or simply a requirement needed to earn your diploma. Instead, we tried to demonstrate that writing is process through which you can evaluate and shape your own thoughts. We argued that, in most cases, it was impossible to know what you actually thought about something until you wrote it down.

These letters are such peculiar tools. What other tool could actively change the very nature of how you think?


During my senior year of college, I lived in an attic apartment a few miles from campus. The nearest bus stop was about a quarter mile of steep hills from my where I lived. Each day, after class, I spent the time walking uphill from the bus stop to my apartment contemplating poetry.

When I think of that image of myself, it seems I was always contemplating poetry. When I was not writing poetry, reading poetry, or working on the sundry classes required for my degree, I was often contemplating it. I thought about how poems worked, what made a poem, and what precisely this thing called poetry was.

Ironically, I still think about such things. There are no clear answers—at least none that can be articulated easily.


Defining poetry is a bit like catching a trout with your bare hands. If you think you have a grip, the little beast will, undoubtedly, shake itself free and disappear upstream. Now, I like the notion. I'm comfortable knowing that my knowledge is limited and always will be. I realize that poetry, like a trout, won't stay in the same shallows for long. Nevertheless, despite the never-ending change, poetry, to my mind, has always been able to replicate that sense of quietude. It has always offered us a portal into our own thoughts, the sound of cicadas humming.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Ward 6

I'm sitting outside beneath the shade of the sweet gum tree. The air conditioner rattles in front of me, like a wild animal with an injured leg snarling out at the world. Our dogs, Archie and Dixie, are supine on the sun-drenched slope of our back yard. Dixie squints into the distance, as though surveying the wilderness beyond the back yard for the slightest sign of danger. Archie twists his body around a dried-out twig of Johnson grass.

Inside, my niece and nephew are captivated by cartoons. My wife and her sister are tidying the house for the imminent arrival of their mother, who is returning from a respite with her sister in a small town in Indiana.

I've spent the morning, after procuring coffee, perusing the seeming plethora of email accounts I use, hoping to find a poem as polished as a gem or a story that crackles like thunder.

Last week, rather than devoting what spare time I could find to poetry, fiction, or contemplative essays, I delved into the world of the Internet and emerged with this:

Ward 6 Review

Ward 6 Review is my attempt to produce an online literary journal. I've probably invested a few hundred hours into mulling over the idea, selecting a domain name, finding hosting, and designing the website itself. I've also spent a fair amount of time contemplating how to spread the word about the journal, increase its visibility, and manage to convince poets and writers around the globe to send in the highest quality work possible.

I want to turn Ward 6 into something phenomenal, and although I've started along a path that I think will work, it's difficult not to fret about the energy, the money, and the time that I've sacrificed to this notion.

So why am I doing this?

Clearly, an enterprise like Ward 6 won't turn into the next Salon or Slate. It will not, in all likelihood, turn any sort of profit. More, being the managing editor for an online journal won't help the career I envision for myself as a freelance writer and novelist. In fact, it will, take time away from me that I could devote to those pursuits.

The answer, to my mind, is two-fold. Incidentally, I think that the experience will prove useful to me. I'll learn, once again, how difficult the other side of the submission process is. Perhaps I'll be able to sympathize with those tired editors who will read my submissions and better understand how to market my own work. The primary reason, quite simply, is that I love literature. For the moment, I can afford to provide a space where great works can be shown to the world and hopefully, in some small way, this will prove meaningful.

Think, for a moment, about why you write. What better service could I provide than the opportunity, however slight, to be heard, to be read, to have your name seen?

Now, like a farmer, I'll till the soil, fertilize it, and pray for rain.

Vanishing Act

A piano chimes along the melodic line of a pop song, hammers hitting string in some studio long ago. Though it's approaching 1 in the morning, my wife is sitting at the dining room table, playing gin rummy with her sister, one of her nephews, and her niece. The dogs are milling about. I imagine the confused computations that crunch through their tiny brains. Do they wonder why everyone is still up?

My sister-in-law arrived with her two children and her dog, Gromit, on Thursday. Since then, the weekend has been filled with the kind of minor conflicts that could one day be the fodder for great literature—but only the fodder. I spent much of Friday waiting for work that would never arrive. Friday night was spent fending off the incessant requests of my nephew for another video game until my wife finally offered to float the boy a loan. Our living room has filled with the faint sulfuric aroma added to natural gas. The children have argued over a magenta crayon and the color of the word "magenta" while I attempted—foolishly—to sleep. A plumber we found through our home warranty has checked out our water heater—only to declare that the problem was neither covered by our warranty nor something he could fix after 5 minutes of gazing into a corner of our basement with a flashlight. I spent much of the morning on the phone with someone in India trying to resolve a technical issue with a new piece of networking equipment. I spent much of the afternoon on the telephone with the home warranty people. In between the periods of drool-inducing Muzak, I drove my wife for coffee twice and off to a local discount retailer to drop a fair amount of cash on art supplies intended to keep our niece and nephew occupied, creative, and relatively quiet.

For a few minutes here and there, I've had a little time with the dogs and the barest minimum of time to myself. Now, the office door is closed. Outside, cicadas sing. I long for the impossibility of a hot shower and catch myself fantasizing about Monday when, hopefully, the necessary repairs to our hot water heater will have been made.

But, at this moment, I've managed to vanish from the puppies, my wife, my sister-in-law, my niece, and my nephew. For now, I'm happy with the slightest falsetto ringing out from my stereo and the soothing rhythm of arranging words on a page.


I must admit, of course, that part of my frustration at the day has nothing to do with the myriad small conflicts listed above. Instead, I've been pining for this moment, for the quiet contemplation that comes with writing. I've been longing to steal a few moments for myself and to devote them to a kind of ordering of my world. The knotted back and churning stomach of business is now a memory. The clenched teeth of the uncomfortable anger that children miraculously engender have been replaced by the faintest of smiles. For me, writing, I suppose, truly is therapeutic.

In the past, I've railed against the idea that positing one's own problems (which are seldom as bad as we believe) as fiction or poetry. Yet, that's precisely how I came to poetry (blessed adolescence). I think, ironically, that many of us who are drawn to writing in the first place develop some aptitude because of difficulty communicating. With words, I suppose, there is a measure of control that is so often missing from our everyday lives. If you dislike a sentence or a line, you can simply strike it and the phrase is obliterated. You can labor over such works, varying the tone with the slightest shifts, diffusing your images with the slightest of colors. You can select the sounds that you find most appealing, providing someone, somewhere with a series of pleasing syllables to utter under their voice as they read to themselves in the imagined environ of a cafe, heavy with the scent of morning coffee.


Often, life will intersect and interrupt with what you write. Regardless of whether or not you imagine moments from your own life as the raw material for a collection of poems—many around you may. More, time can be a killjoy. You can stare at your clock and notice that it's creeping past 2 AM or you can keep pushing yourself into the night, just for the sake of those few moments when your sense of self seems to dissolve into the rhythm of the words that appear upon your page. You can find the time somehow. And, if you're anything like me, this may not be healthy.


Today—after my first headache had subsided and before my second started bubbling in the cauldron I sometimes fancy bubbles just beneath my skull, I phoned my father. We had a long, marvelous conversation. I can't remember the details and can only vaguely remember the subjects that we touched upon. It isn't important. What is important, at least for my purposes here, is the way that conversation made me feel.

I was on the phone for almost an hour. Neither one of us really asked anything of the other. We simply listened and told stories about our lives for the past week. I talked about the house, and the problems I'm having. He listened and offered a kindly word of advice.

I didn't mention my novel, which is momentarily stalled in the fifth chapter. He didn't mention any of my writing. Yet, when I think of my father, I think of someone who is almost absurdly supportive of my writing. He, I think, understands that it's important to me. He also encourages me, now and again, with the best advice any writer can receive: sit down and start typing. Still, those incidental mentions of writing have been filling my father's ears for more than a decade now. And, to be frank, there isn't much to show from those years of thinking of myself as a writer or a poet or whatever. Now, I know why.

But what I don't understand is how my father had the wherewithal through all of those years to keep encouraging me simply and bluntly. He never, I suppose, thought that such a path would be easy, but he never, to my mind, has doubted that I could do it.

I think, if you're a writer, you need people like that in your life. You need people who can see how absurdly important writing is to you and can offer those tiny morsels of support without praising you a dog owner would praise a puppy that finally managed to show him that he needed to go outside.

You need people who will allow you a few moments of selfishness each day. You need someone who will understand why you would type for hours just to find those few seconds of quiet joy when the words tumble from your fingertips, and you know, somehow, that they are right.