Choosing to Write

Did I write in college? No. Middlebury’s English department, studded with black-clad dramatic types and buzzing with an intellectual intensity that was nearly palpable, might well have been the surface of Mars to my twenty-something self. I was terrified, and so I fled to the comparatively tamer moons of history, planted a flag.

And from there, it was law school and more law school.

And when it finally occurred to me that a court of law was too small to tell the whole story of a matter as most of it, and even often the pivotal parts, were considered irrelevant to a judge or jury, frustration grew. “Let’s talk about his mother, your honor,” I might argue in, say, a fraud case, but got nowhere with this, as technically the client’s mother was not involved.

In time, I left the halls of justice to tell the kind of stories that really were the truth and nothing but the truth so help us God. But by now, more education—albeit in the art and craft of the written word—was not what I wanted.

I wanted the café, the fashion show, and a pencil.

Looking back, looking around, I believe there is no right way, no one way, to begin. Whether with a degree in hand or a Starbucks receipt, any way that a person comes to their creative work is a beginning, and all beginnings count.

What matters is that decisive moment of touchdown, the hatch flung open, a leg tossed out uncertainly, and the first authoritative, commandeering, exploratory step taken, and taken as if one means it. It’s not for mankind maybe, or maybe so, but at least it’s decisive for the participant, the actor, the one who has gone from merely thinking of pursuing this kind of work, to overtly choosing it—the one who has planted a flag, come what will.

That person is now a member of the working ranks and should call himself or herself a writer.

Photo credit of astronaut:A. Syed,
Photo credit for “Life on Mars” interpretation: Constantin Jurcut,

Owning a Word

Word by word, writers build something. Once in a while—not too often if ever, for most of us—a writer will employ a word so well that it becomes his or her property for the indefinite future.

American playwright, performer, feminist, activist Eve Ensler comes to mind. As it happened, Eve was a college classmate—intense, even in those years, still the dark hair, only long then, not bobbed, as is her iconic look today, and no red lipstick either. But she was a writer and activist even then, and you couldn’t miss her fierce intellect.  Best known for her 1996 work The Vagina Monologues, the word “vagina” has been hers for the past fourteen years.

Of course no one much wanted it before she used it, and many avoided it as taboo, which gave her a starting advantage. She took it, mulled it over, worked it, and used it 128 times in her 106 page play. By the time she was done, she had imbued it with so much meaning that a single word has come to represent an entire shift in thinking—politically, sexually, societally, and even economically, given the proceeds she donates worldwide.

Use the v-word today, and tribute must be paid to Eve.

It’s like in the game of Monopoly. If you have acquired something, the property is yours. And until you lose it or give it up, everyone who lands on your turf owes you.

Kudos to Eve who uses the tribute paid for a greater good, as she defines it. Another player would simply keep the money.

The word “player,” by the way, is owned right now by another college classmate, another striking figure in the English department hallways, always a clutch of typed pages in hand. It belongs to Hollywood filmmaker and writer Michael Tolkin, who used it in his 1988 novel The Player, which became a Robert Altman film by the same name.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think Eve or Michael expected to own a word for their troubles. They just kept writing in a work-a-day world, which is what writers do.

Photo credit: Monopoly – Michael Metz

Winged Messenger

Bruce Chatwin, English novelist and travel writer, was the first author whose death, twenty-one years ago, made me sad.  A devoted reader, I thought we could have been friends.

I liked his work, admired his storytelling. I was intrigued by his life.  And I learned from him.

A free man, he could take off on the idle suggestion of a near-stranger. A one-line telegram— Have gone to Patagonia—served as notice at work. He had a large social crowd, arty friends, some of whom he met where he began, at Sotheby’s London. By the time he quit, he was a director and an expert in Impressionism. And only after that, he began to write.

As if with wings, he took off—Africa, South America, Australia. To lose a passport was an inconvenience, he said, but to lose a notebook—the small, black Moleskines to which he was devoted—was a catastrophe.

A bookish wanderer, his stories told of distant lands. The people he met, the places he’d been—it was as if he did my dreaming for me.

And if, as some say, he blurred the line at times between fantasy and reality, I put it to his wings.

They took him places, allowed him to see the world with his stranger’s eyes. What could have been, what might have been, what maybe even was if you looked at it from a certain perspective—Chatwin laid it out.

“[N]ot a half truth, but a truth and a half,” said his biographer, a perfect description of what a free man can write.

He died in 1989 in southern France, at age 48, of AIDS.

When I think of him, when I come across, say, a Mercury dime, I ask myself: How free am I?

Photo credit:
Photo credit for Chatwin: unknown; widely used

Although most commonly referred to as the Mercury dime, the coin does not depict the Roman messenger god but the goddess Liberty wearing a Phrygian cap, a classic symbol of liberty, with its wings intended to symbolize freedom of thought.

Reader in the Room

How much do you consider your reader?

There are those who will tell you that if the answer is not at all, you run the risk of creating something self indulgent, myopic, too dense, too vague, too general, or too utterly pointless to interest another human being.

I think this is harsh and only half true.

If I had a boss, or an editor, or a magazine, or client waiting, I certainly would think about the reader, as there is a specific someone I am meant to please. For this blog, as well, I definitely consider the reader: what he comes for, and whether he found it.

But for my other kinds of work—essays, fiction—the reader doesn’t enter my mind until well along.

Essays are about sorting it out, getting it right. And the same is true for stories of any length. And there is so much to get right, from the heavy lifting to the nuance. It’s as if from this lifeless piece of quarried stone, one’s mission is to lift the Pieta and set it on a pedestal, pure and dust free.

Do I think about the reader as I chip away at stone? Not until the spit and polish stage.

I will think about him then—that busy person looking for value—and grow feverish. Somehow, I’ve produced something I didn’t expect, not a Michelangelo at all, and I will hope he will like it.

Photo credit: Martin Walls

Baby Chicks

Who says that techies can’t write a sentence that would make the crowd sit up and take notice?

My son, an aficionado of digital wonders, saved his dollars and ordered something called a Cupcake CNC. It’s a desktop printer—your own little factory—that produces not your usual flat piece of paper but a three dimensional object. When the trio of inventors, aged 37 and under, demonstrated it at a tradeshow, they printed out shot glasses for the admiring crowd.

Naturally, my son is anxious for his machine, which should have arrived by now, so he inquired. An answering e-mail took a mere second to arrive.

We expected to have your machine shipped out last week, but our electronics are moving more slowly than anticipated. We have the boxes all waiting like baby chicks with their mouths open waiting for food. As soon as the electronics get in . . . the boxes will get sealed and sent off to you.

Like baby chicks with their mouths open . . .?

I had to ask: Who answers the e-mail?

“That was me!” writes Bre Pettis, one of the founders of MakerBot Industries. “I’m a poet when it comes to robotics and shipping! :)”

Robots and poetry?

Anyone who can produce a machine like this in his tinkering moments and be able to defuse in a single, well-chosen image any customer restlessness at a delay in shipment is someone to notice.

Count me in if this tiny, year-old company operating out of a Brooklyn warehouse goes public. I’m guessing it’s a winner.

Check out:

Photo credit: baby birds by Miguel Lima; Cupcake CNC photo courtesy of MakerBot Industries


It’s nice to have an agent with a sense of humor. After some months of doing what agents do for a project, he writes:

Rollout almost complete! Light candles.  Perform sacrificial rituals.

Who knew that slaughtering a chicken, say, was part of the business?

Better make it an ox, he adds, mindful of the capricious nature of the world.

Salt sprinkled in the four corners of the room is as far as I will go.

It’s an age-old story, always the same question: how can we impose our will, make a desire come to pass? Know any rituals that would protect a baby sent down the river in a bulrush basket?

You’d think after contemplating this question for thousands of years, a person could do better for insurance than to reach for the salt cellar. It’s kosher and all, but still.

Photo credit: Bruno Neves

In Pursuit of a Rabbit

Once, I interviewed a lot of geniuses, my little tape recorder in hand. On a tight deadline and tempted to seek secretarial help, I’m glad I chose instead to transcribe the tapes myself. Not only did this pull me by the lapels right up close to the material, but I got some surprises. One was that of the nearly fifty interviewees, two possessed the extraordinary ability to speak in perfect English.

No ums, no slang, no backtracks like the other forty-eight interviews? No digressions, nothing wasted, perfectly sequential, no mistakes, no corrections . . . not even a comma out of place?

An orderly mind like this could, I have no doubt, produce something entirely whole and alive as if from thin air, a rabbit pulled from the magician’s hat. But if I, with my far more ordinary mind, wanted to come up with that rabbit, I’d need notes.

You don’t need to be a genius to take notes.

I jot down all sorts of things, a nagging question, an interesting word choice, a bit from the radio, something revelatory. A page ripped from a magazine, a recipe, a photograph, a title for a work that doesn’t exist yet, but I like it, so I make a note.

And in a dull moment, I’ll sift through that growing pile on my desk. If I wait long enough, I hear echoes. Certain preoccupations, certain devotions and obsessions turn up over and over. Different angles, maybe, different insights, and all of a sudden the idea has taken on mass, a faint outline of a rabbit appears. Without the notes, I’d never get a heartbeat. I’d just be standing there, hat in hand, waiting for the magic to start.

Photo credit: donzeladef, stock.xchg


At Thanksgiving, once, I joined family at a rustic-styled hotel which played host, as well, to a sprinkling of celebrities. At dinner in the clatter-filled, capacious dining hall, I happened to be seated close to the dessert buffet. Chocolate, in all its glorious preparations, was in ample display. The cakes, the cookies, the puddings, the tortes! A three-tiered chocolate fountain reigned as if from a throne. The typical guest approached with barely contained anticipation, spearing a piece of pineapple, a marshmallow, or a wedge of pound cake, and thrusting it with great purpose into the flowing curtains of chocolate.

And then, along came Stephen King.

He kept his head down, didn’t speak to a soul, and no one noticed him or at least let on. Hands clasped behind his back, bent at the waist, he studied the cascades of milk chocolate. Several long minutes passed, a look of scrutiny on his most-identifiable face. And while he observed every detail of that fountain in particular, I watched him. And then, the moment passed and he left. Apparently, he got what he came for, and it wasn’t dessert.

I wondered: Was death by chocolate something he’d take up next in his work? Certainly, he was collecting the telling details, whatever his intended purpose, and it reinforced for me a simple principle: A writer, no matter the genre, ought to know what he’s talking about if he expects to deliver something of value.

Photo credit: Zsuzsanna Kilian