Polishing Wisdom


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Sunday, December 4, 2016


Chilly arms. I swim for warmth in the bed. Sheets a little rough from being clean.

We all used to sleep in this space, the Boys’ Cabin, a hundred yards through the Adirondack woods from the main house. A tent made of rough boards, really—roof, half-walls all around with rafters and studs showing, and the rest is screens to keep the mosquitoes from draining my blood. They’re buzzing as the sun comes up, smelling me, hoping to get a drink before the heat of the day makes them grumpy. I smell, too. Pine sap and mildewed blankets. The air infused with forest and the little pillow of cedar needles my mother made. I’m done with Teddy Bears.

My brothers have rooms now, because they ‘deserve privacy,’ whatever that is. Brand new rooms, additions off one end of the cabin, with doors and windows and cubbies for special things. But they still have to walk by my bed to pee off the porch.

The scratch of a crow’s wings on the air. A woodpecker hammers out of sight. And there’s the song that vibrates my bones: the loon calling. I throw off the blankets and run barefoot to the screen door. He’s coasting on water flat as glass. His echo comes back off the hills across the lake. Then he dives, teaching me that perfection is fragile.

© 2016 Thomas Henry Pope
(Photos from the web, unattributed)

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Vacuum, Tides and Cake

The drive behind most every author who picks up a pen is the desire—some say the compulsion—to communicate, the greatest of human skills. While the origin of this force is the subject of debate, everyone who has tried to write a polished piece testifies to the baffling difficulty of the task. I call it “Milking the Sky;” there is nothing there and hands won’t work, in any case. Still, a source of nourishment must be brought into being.

The beginner has the right to feel forces are arrayed against her. In addition to  the complexities of the craft and navigating the current tenor of thought in the market, she faces the Force of the Vacuum: no one knows that she has the ache to write; no one cares—except a spouse or mother, who love the idiosyncrasy as part of the person; no one congratulates her; the path of acquisition of these skills is elusive; the good fortune of “hitting the right time” is unknowable; and examples of excellent writing not finding a public voice abound. It is enough to make anyone retire before reaching any goal.

When work, voice and timing do yield publication, the vacuum subsides in reverse proportion to success. In particular, if one’s work receives little due, the vacuum can press forward in a more toxic form—“I’m still unknown, undercompensated, and unappreciated.” This sucks away the passion for launching another project, even when the published work or the unwritten one deserve a place at the writers’ banquet. Untold numbers of writers find themselves beached after mild success.
Which image brings us to the Force of Tides. In place of the vacuum, the established author’s next projects must ride the ebb and flow of conditions beyond his control: the depth and quality of inspiration; the excellence of the work; the expectations of readers for a repeat or a risk; the timing of other works that may compare and steal thunder; the economy; technological changes (“the Talkies” crushed the careers of some silent film star, because viewers didn’t like the sound of their voice); the financial condition of the publishing house; the politics of editorial staff and owners.

In the face of each of these highs and lows, the established writer must find inspiration to work now that the original desire to communicate may feel largely hijacked by less meaningful players. Most writers suffer some defeats. Though the Force of the Vacuum has been vanquished, the agony of tides continues. The best and most confident continue to write. Some turn to selling real estate.

At last, a few fortunate writers succeed and remember to write from passion, giving up caring about the Force of Tides. Their work may or may not draw readers, but they have vanquished the forces that have killed most others. At this time, some write their best work.

And you thought writing was a piece of cake.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Novel as Performance Art: An Update

Novels share qualities of performance art and still photography. The performance aspect is the language and story sliding into the reader’s eyes and mind. The best work flows without interruption, directly becoming image, emotion and experience. And when read aloud, it sounds good to both the ear and the heart.

Like photography, writing stays forever linked to a page to be scrutinized by readers, writers and reviewers. Each word choice, each sentence, plot point and line of dialog sits in the form the writer produced it . . . which is to say, one word and sentence at a time.

So, though much of the world’s great art leaps—or seems to leap—into being spontaneously, it is the rare novel that is not the work of many years labor. At its best, a book is a long string of static symbols on a page that magically becomes a vivid presentation of life.

The journey of my novel The Trouble with Wisdom confirms this. Born in the mind almost of-a-piece in April 2001, years of writing and research followed. Some of that research was geographical, cultural and literary. The more important work occurred internally, learning to feel and grasp the wild ride Zhampa DiOrio and his fellow travelers make (internally and externally) as they travel through an unraveled world.

A novel’s highest use comes from publication and getting there is often a long journey. The Trouble with Wisdom’s path to publication has involved many drafts and countless rejections by agents and publishers. In 2009, it entered the fray self-published as a Hand to Hand experiment, which you can read about elsewhere on this site. Two years ago an editor helped raise the story from its shallow water grave, instilled this author in the craft and persisted with him until an integrated narrative emerged.

That manuscript found an agent in March 2013 and, as of this writing, it is being read by editors in seven of the great New York publishing houses. Though the pleasure of writing is getting the story down, married to craft, every writer longs to get the book into the hands of editors. It is the greatest opportunity, the bar for which she strives. And as of this writing, I count myself blessed to be in this place.

But . . . simply arriving in New York is no guarantee of success. Many stories do not meet the whims and constructs of the day’s market. I will keep you updated on developments, as I now turn my heart and pen to another narrative. If you care to read The Trouble with Wisdom in its current form, I will be delighted to send it to you and to receive your feedback.

Starting Over

Starting over comes with laughter and hope. It comes from laughter and hope. This insight arises in me from my daily activity as a writer, where the sport is little more than redoing what was an earlier attempt to communicate. Dreams of perfection must be checked at the door.

Like any sport--be it soccer where we must head or kick the spinning ball to another player or into the net, or archery where the wind, the light, the tension of the bow string and the release effect the flight--the activity of writing is joining in the moment with the muse. . . and accepting the results. 

The source of the muse has never been established. It can be engaged but not known. It feels too vast and bright to come from inside, yet it is too personal for it to reside in the ethers or under the control of another (presumed) entity. So without knowing the mechanics we come each day to the 'dock' ready to jump in. We come naked. Confidence, laughter and carelessness are great friends.

Only when the piece has been thoroughly worked can we begin to have skill with its intent and nuance. This is true in the first chapter of a novel or--if we shrink the project down to an essay or a letter--in the first paragraph. The Trouble with Wisdom had many drafts, each an excursion coming to know the characters and their routes through challenges. And when it was all done, completely understood, it was time to begin with the first line, the first paragraph and scene. Never mind that I had rewritten it fifty times already, now I had to start again, because the first words are the connection to the world.

The antidote to thinking that our work is good and cannot be easily improved is to realize that it is nothing more than words, words that come from the muse. So let go and feel the novel that you know so well. How will it begin? What or who will speak first and how will those words land with the reader? 

It turns out Zhampa's entrance had to wait for several pages. First the Dorjay and the Purbha had to be born in the reader's mind. The young lama had to feel the heft of the gold, had to peel back the brocade and see a thousand years of history gleaming in his hand. He had to pocket them and promise to return them. He had to disappear into the mountains of Tibet.

The opening? "At first light, Selpo Rinpoche woke to the roar of his monastery's warning gong." Ah! The months of work to arrive at such a simple thing--a person, a place, an occurrence, a time and something driving all of them; a warning gong.

I laugh with relief. The manuscript is now in the hands of publishing houses in New York. And I will need to laugh again when a publisher says, "Yes, we'll take it on,  but it will need a little work." Later, I will need to roll in humor when the editor says, "Let's start at the beginning and make it good."