Bring It On Home

It’s spring. Life is stirring again. But first, there must be mud, at least in Maine. And then there are the pigheaded strips of snow that refuse to trot off.

Darwin and his Beagle, it’s lonely being a writer. Not the physical solitude (I’m equipped for that), but the loneliness of never knowing. I probably shouldn’t have read Adam Phillips’ Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life. Instead of inspiring me to greater heights of sufferance, I can’t nudge free the idea that I’m missing out on something.

And what do I feel like I’m missing out on? A gang of one’s own (instead of a room); John Ashbery talking to himself; a lovely coterie of friends; more involvement in the literary world (although I don’t even know what shape that should take); a vintage pair of jeans; a book deal.

“We make sense of our lives in order to be free not to have to make sense.”

My life at times feels like a boat in dead waters: waiting to get an agent to love me through the leafy vines; waiting for the sun to go supernova; waiting to hear if there is water on Mars; waiting for a physicist to find the God particle. If only it could be just Waiting For Godot. Why can’t I get a Golden Ticket like Charlie? “I never thought my life could be anything but catastrophe….”

But as King Lear told me the other night, “The art of our necessities is strange.” But the night before that, Mad Cyril told me: “The future is simply a ship in a bottle waiting for the right wave to let you out.”

What has happened to universities and the academic life? Send me off to American Idol with a song in my mediocre heart, but aren’t universities and colleges the Land for the Lotus Eaters? I thought it was the last refuge for exiles, eccentrics, the obsessed, thinkers, libertines, seekers, the disaffected, the lonely, those who don’t wanna grow up, those who fled the working world with Ginsberg’s Howl in their veins, those whose backs were pushed up against the wall by the world and who hopped over it into some cerebral paradise. How did all this professionalism and success and play the bonny tenured prof come about? Shouldn’t universities be letting misfits and miscreants and the mad teach the bright young things of the future?

Why is it that the middle class always work like dogs and yet never have anything to show for it but debt and mortgages and exhaustion and unfulfilled dreams? I don’t want that. I want the Alexandria Quartet in my backyard. I want the sun and moon to pass over my writing desk. And I want to someday go to Bruges as a hitman.

I have gone on long enough. I must get back to my bean field. If I don’t, somebody will think me a curmudgeon in the prime of life. I’m not that irascible. I just have this thing called life breathing down my neck all the time.


The Take Off & Landing Of Almost Everything

After what seems like an age, I have decided to get back to my blog. Whole galaxies of experiences, emotions, and thoughts have passed through me like an existential shuttle weaving a myriad tapestry of the unsexy, the common, the tedious, shot through here and there with something so extraordinary I don’t think I’ll ever find the time to write about it.

I’m thinking big, but staying particular, so as I write this blog, I have my headphones on, listening to Beck’s new album Morning Phase. I’m in love with it. There is something perfect about it, the way any mastery of an art form allows a person to slip free from the mortal coil and enter some place you never thought you ever would.

Today my eldest daughter, Vienna, learnt how to knit. She sat on the couch and the only sound that came from her was the clicking of needles. By the end of the afternoon she had knitted a coaster. I felt a surge of fatherly pride, such a strong feeling I hope will carry me through life’s crush of circumstances and little waves of elation. I loved just watching her, so absorbed, not caring about the coaster’s perfection, just lost in the creating of something. For me, that is the truest sense of art: the sense of being lost to everything but this unending sense of love for what might happen, the unexpected that will bulge over the brim.

Here’s a fantastic quote from the great Ted Hughes: “You spend your life oscillating between fierce relationships that become tunnel traps, and sudden escapes into wide freedom when the whole world seems to be just there for the taking. Nobody’s solved it. You solve it as you get older, when you reach the point where you’ve tasted so much that you can somehow sacrifice certain things more easily, and you have a more tolerant view of things like possessiveness (your own) and a broader acceptance of the pains and the losses.”

Today I dashed around a corner and ran into the writer I’m supposed to be. I came away with two black eyes, broken ribs, and guilt. And that’s the greatest threat to a writer’s life, isn’t it, the guilt. It will do you in. It will stop you writing. And you’ve got to write, whenever you can. That’s the writer’s life in a chestnut, myth, proverb, cliché, epigram, parable; it’s the biological source of every great story. And most of us have to have jobs in the day-to-day trenches of adult experience. Okay, there are some writers who need no day job, but I’m sure they have either inherited money, are supported by a spouse, or are a freelance writer working for a big company. I think it’s almost mission impossible to get to do nothing but write what you really want to write.

Wasn’t it Ted Hughes who said we are all little creatures sitting behind armour, peering through the slits.

The big question for me is always: How do I stop doing everything else and just concentrate on my writing? But because all I want to do is write, I wonder if I will disappear into the blank page. But I always feel so renewed, living boldly with each moment when I’m so deep inside a story, living it as I write it and not knowing what will happen next, just trusting to the inevitable. And even though it’s hard, I try not to play God, because that gives me a complex, and that never helps the writing, ever.

Fuck, actually that is probably good advice to take into my other life: not to try and play God, to start really exercising some control over what I think. That’s my wooden leg, I tend to over-intellectualize everything known thing under the sun, moon, all the planets, including forgotten Pluto, instead of paying attention to what is actually going on in front of me. God knows there are so many more people whose lives are harder, more painful, complex, tedious, and all the other awful crap.

It’s like David Foster Wallace wrote: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

Sometimes I try hard to get back on track to a normal life, you know, and then something kicks up the dirt into my eyes and I see clearly that there is no such thing as a normal life. Well, maybe on TV or in adverts or in some deepest despair. But the TRUTH is normalcy is like an addiction: the more you need it the more fucked up you become and the more the addiction takes hold of you the more you become nothing but the drug. Nobody, not artists, not anyone is normal. We just pretend we need to be in order to spend and get and think happiness this way leads.

I want out of my mind. Is it possible? Because I’m beginning to wonder if I’m not really seeing the prison I’m getting myself locked within. Like that cliché says, the Mind is a really terrible master.

Again I’m turning to Wallace, but I want to see the world “with the same force that makes the stars, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”

This is why I have to get back to the writing. I have abandoned it recently as my life has taken on new upheavals and changes. But writing is the only way for me to come to terms with the world. It’s the only way I have to live a real life so that the writing will turn out to be real for someone else.

The screenwriter/playwright, Martin McDonagh wrote something that caught my eye the other day. He basically said that it helps to be a writer in some way if you’re not quite connected, that you see things from a skewed point of view. I think he’s right. In fact, I think that too many of us have become over-educated at the expense of wisdom and art and life and that the rest of us have become pitifully ignorant and simple doppelgangers of the lowest interests and intellect that’s killing the heart and soul of our humanity.

But what do I know? I’m a Welshman who can’t even land a job doing something he would enjoy. What can I say? I’m tart and ruthlessly independent like Little My and have a will that would rather do whatever the hell I want. Who am I kidding? If I was anything like that, I’d be making my writing work for me or else editing or something, so I must not be doing enough to make it happen. Maybe I’m too lazy or not as driven as other writers seem to be. In fact, as much as I strive to be like Moominpapa (easygoing and enviably hopeful), I’m more like Jansson’s Little My, who drowns the ants in kerosene and when Moomintroll is shocked, she replies: “You knew exactly what I was going to do with them! All you hoped was that I shouldn’t tell you about it. You’re awfully good at deceiving yourself.”

And I am so “awfully good and deceiving” myself. I’ve always thought that because I have a spare bit of talent for writing (especially on toast) that someday I would be a writer. But I’m learning that that is an immature outlook. There is always so much more to writing than just writing, especially in this Age of Distractions. A writer, it seems, is expected to create something for absolutely nothing, and lots of it. We are all waiters now, dashing from reader to reader, imploring them to eat our tasty escargot or frogs’ legs when once we sat at the moveable feast and even designed the menu.

“The analogy between the artist and the child is that both live in a world of their own making.” Anais Nin.

Hypnotizing Chickens

Sometimes I get annoyed as a writer. At what? Anything or anyone that gets in the way of my work. I realize that this does little in the way of moving me closer to a balanced life. But who holds the scales? And what’s the point of being balanced if a pound of feathers weighs exactly the same as a pound of annoyance. The thing is, I can always see that my annoyance is not rational or even good, but it certainly is necessary if I want to write something good that is worth all the crazy hours of solitude talking to oneself in fictional tongues. But the truth is, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself without “a broad margin to my life… in undisturbed solitude and stillness” (Thoreau), the brooding and the writing and the reading and the fretting.

I just remembered it rained last night and the day before. The slow build-up of thunder. The flash behind the white slop of clouds. The rain in a panic. The damp hanging around like a lost tourist this early in September.

I just finished reading M John Harrison’s Viriconium. I couldn’t put it down until I was done. I never thought I would discover a writer that makes the ego drop in the Id shaft so fast, I’m all lost in the basement of superego. How does he write words that fill up my body with the essential nutrients I was told by the state and teachers was only absorbed by eating a regular diet of “literary” writers. It’s all genre, isn’t it? Even Shakespeare was a polyglot for art and entertainment.

One day, I will never have an apartment in the Simmeringer Haupstrasse.

Here’s some Lloyd Cole.

The Very Big. The Very Small.

Yes, persistence is the key to open the locks of possibility. Or at least to wear around your neck like a good luck charm.

Bless Henry Miller and Moominpapa that I have just enough talent to be able to write to keep myself sane on days when things are slower than sludge sucked through a straw. Although there are days when the writing makes me crazy. One day it flows like the River Taff, the next it’s like a dry creek littered with dead frogs. (Note: No frogs were harmed in the writing of that sentence.)

I don’t want much from life besides trying to figure out how to have better control of the ordinary side stuff of life so that I can toss all the wildness and craziness into my writing. The universe can keep its elementary particles a secret to me. I have no need for a Theory of Everything. I just have a strong desire to be loving, gentle, funny, kind, and hopefully wise. And not in that particular order, either.

I love that quiet after supper with no noise except for the sound of the clock. The soft stroke of the mourning doves’ wings. The desperate cry of seagulls, whirling over calm water. And the light fading fast like it has a late-night rendezvous.

There’s nothing to do. The dishes are in the sink. The cats are fed and curled up on their favourite chairs. The kids are playing in a distant room. The neighbours have gone inside. Even the phone finds pleasure in silence.

No interruptions. No one expecting anything. The fridge shivers and the food waits for another meal. There are no emails worth bothering with.

Sometimes a disc seems to whisper your name. Sometimes a dog barks and falls silent. And sometimes, I put on my boots and go for a walk, bugs buzzing, the active birds of dusk nowhere to be seen. If I notice a sailboat, it seems to lazily crawl home to some port.

I just sit and watch the light go.

“55 crystal spheres geared to God’s crankshaft is my idea of a satisfying universe. I can’t think of anything more trivial than the speed of light. Quarks, quasars, big bang, black hole – who gives a shit?” Tom Stoppard.

Here’s some early Police.

Nothing Important Comes With Illustrations

What a scorching couple of days in Maine. The last time I remember it being this hot, I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar….

My family and I have been living a life aquatic by swimming. I haven’t been getting many words down. I can’t write in the heat. I can’t think in the heat. I can only think the air-conditioned nightmare, and we have fans. I actually hate it when it gets hot since I’m only good at lounging and swimming for so long before I get bored.

Due to my highly paid skills of deduction, I’ve noticed that I am not much liked on Facebook.

This whole job seeking pursuit of sweet homilies puts me in mind of Mr. Tumnus, who said, “The capacity for ordinary work is not for me.”

I know I’m spoilt rotten by this gift of so much free time to write because I hold no honest entertainment, but always at the back of the cart I can hear the moans of a Mr. Malcontent, who sings, “I was looking for a job and then I found a job and heaven knows I’m miserable now.”

It seems true that you can never get as much done as you planned to. But, then, even God rested on the seventh day. And if a deity can feast on lotus flowers, I suppose I can as the world wags on and on.

“Why are we weighed upon with heaviness,
And utterly consumed with sharp distress,
While all things else have rest from weariness?
All things have rest: why should we toil alone,
We only toil, who are the first of things,
And make perpetual moan,
Still from one sorrow to another thrown;
Nor ever fold our wings,
And cease from wanderings,
Nor steep our brows in slumber’s holy balm;
Nor harken what the inner spirit sings,
“There is no joy but calm!” —
Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?” Tennyson

All I can say is, I’m glad that “omissions are not accidents.” (Marianne Moore)

I’m also glad I get to write my books, have my family, my friends, my Moleskine notebooks, my records, my penchants, my cup of PG Tips. These things bring me joy — and panic on the mean streets of writing. Cause right now, the novel I’m working on has a proper unlikeable protagonist and I keep wondering how low he can go be before a reader will refuse to turn the page and curse my name. But I also don’t want to change a thing about him.

I suppose it all hangs off the idea that what interests me will also interest others. But can I be sure? Do people read books for the things I do? I know I’m not that much engaged with writers who assuage or comfort but prefer writers who provoke and unsettle. And I’m not that bouncy about characters who are either villains or heroes, I prefer characters whose lives and even their morality change over the length of the novel. I don’t go to book and I don’t get books that set out to confirm my own behaviour, ideas, or feelings. And I also don’t like to read the kind of realist fiction, the low mimetic, as Angela Carter called it, that deals in simulacrums of the world I live in. Why do I want to hear and feel and think more about that? It saturates me every day. I want to discover a world that hasn’t been covered up by the philistines, or else a world that everybody has overlooked for some grand cause with money at its root, or a world nobody has imagined beyond their pedestrian constraints of the imagination.

Here’s some Smiths, lots of them, on bikes.

Free Content From My Life

Episode V

When my wife and I got married, we decided to get in a hot-air balloon and see the world in more than 80 days. In short, have a very long honeymoon. We didn’t want to begin this new adventure by ordering the little drummer boy to play the same old tunes of: start a family, own a house, have matching luggage and careers, and vote in elections.

So, with the reckless spirit of Blake’s Flea, we sold all our belongings, raked blueberries in Washington County in Maine to make tons of money, and bought one-way tickets to Ireland.

We tried living in Galway at first, but that inn was full with students and tourists, so we travelled to Yeats Country. Well, the Gateway to Connemara, to live in a one-room apartment above a barn in Oughterard, the Gaelic words meaning in English the “the Upper Lower Place,” which had perfect meaning for us. We were living in the “Upper Place” of what Wordsworth describes as those “spots of time,” which I have always understood as key elements, both psychological and imaginative, in one’s life. It was also the “Lower Place,” too, since we had very little money and no real ambition for anything besides reading lots and living life from the daily visits with the postman to the encounters with frisky bulls and the roaming bands of long-horn Connemara sheep.

The place I’m living now, the one of writing is also the “Upper Place” of imagination and the time to get it done, since I have no immediate temptations of the working kind. But it is also the “Lower Place.” I could explain, but some things are best left to oneself even in the Age of Transparency.

I also remember a funny incident from that time, cooped up in a barn reading Tolstoy and Hamsun, Ursula Le Guin and Moorcock. It happened at night between my wife and I. We had just finished an evening of watching two Bond flicks on RTE. The wonderful couple who rented the barn to us had gone to bed long ago (they were farmers). My wife and I crawled into bed and fell into a deep sleep. We were woken some time later by footsteps in the courtyard below the single window, open to the scent of wild roses. Back and forth went the footsteps. We were still drowsy from dreams of secret agents and so to our active ears it sounded like a couple of crooks were stealing farming implements or hidden treasure in the barn below. We were so scared, neither one of us could move – not even to get closer to each other. We just listened to the footsteps coming and going and hauling off the loot. We stayed awake until a jaunty robin appeared in the roses. With at least some semblance of light, I was now determined to get up and find out what the hell was taking these thieves all night to rob a barn. Like a very early bird, armed with a frying pan and ready to catch the thieves red-handed, I tiptoed out.

There were no night-time burglars.

Trotting back and forth in the early morning courtyard was a horse. A big iron-shod horse who had escaped his field and thought he would spend the night terrifying a young couple of night owls.

I remember my wife and I sat on the steps of our garret among the rafters of an old barn and laughed until the sun came up.

Here’s a Cave named Nick.

Upsetting the Order of Things

I think it was Henry Miller who advised not to work like a draught horse but to work with pleasure when it comes to writing. It’s a difficult place to find when you’re writing. And it’s useless trying to conform to it or else think too much about it. But I tend to go to the writing with something like the rub of love that by the end of the session becomes the bare nerve of doubt and a neurotic fear of the revision process. In fact, to mitigate this fear, I tend to revise as I write. Not for my new novel, though, I’m practicing fast & furious, resisting the need to tweak a sentence, a word. I can take care of that later. Or at least I hope I can. But then I have a dream with me in it, and I’m sitting in a classroom and Ralph Fiennes is playing an older me, and the older me, who is Ralph, looks at me and says, in that very Fiennes voice: “You think you can’t actually do something, when you always find out you can.”

Still, as I’m writing this new novel, I’m trying to hold this in every atom and cell: “Magic is the total appreciation of chance.” Chogyam Trungpa.

It’s working because I’m a writer who gets words down when I allow things to happen. And in order to do this, I dip into Meister Eckhart: “We are made perfect by what happens to us rather than by what we do.”

Not that I feel perfect after a bout of writing. I feel more relieved and determined to go on, like Coleridge who slogged down a Devon hillside and rushed into a garden to tell his mate Wordsworth that imagination is “essentially vital.”

I write in a state of confusion and panic but with this current that definitely knows more than I do, so I go with it, because my mind is working, I’m working without distractions, and the words are simply a matter of transfer.

“The state of things consists of islands sown in the archipelagoes on the noisy, poorly-understood disorder of the sea.” French philosopher and author Michel Serres.