Writing a Painting

Below are examples of when I first began to think about how to write a painting. These are from early drafts of my first novel The Age Of Certainty (Unpublished.)

Hesus gathered his notebooks and carried them to his car. The day was heating up pleasantly. The dew hiding in the warm breeze caressed his arm and face. He held the wheel around a wide curve and crossed over narrow gauge tracks, sped up to the crest of a hill where he could look down onto the village. Behind each house plots of irregular rectangles were carved out of the forest, shaggily defined by slanting grey plank fences or low stone walls, filled with cabbage and potatoes and onions, straight laced corn and sleepy sunflowers. Occasionally a few solemn cows grazed in a plot, balancing awkwardly up the steep hillside. It was as if the entire village was a static landscape limited to his current point of view, like a painting that so catches the essence of its subject that the viewer forgets it’s only a representation playing on his unconscious assumptions.

Hesus gathered his notebooks. The warming air was pleasant, though dew still hid in the breeze, caressing his arms and face.
Hesus held the steering wheel around a wide curve, bounced again over narrow gauge tracks, stopped on the crest of a hill. He looked down to see the road split the village roughly in two. Low stone walls behind each house held back the forest in irregular plots tilled and filled with gardens, rough grey sheds, listing corrals, and the occasional solemn cow grazing awkwardly up the hillside. Farms wrapped over the undulating horizon, small orchards and rows of vines alternating with wide expanses of corn, wheat, and golden breasts of hay scattered dazzling under the sun. It was as if the village was a static landscape limited to his current point of view, like a painting that so catches the essence of its subject that the viewer forgets it is one representation stuck in time, playing on his unconscious assumptions.

And later in the novel:

He was driven into that catalytic space between day and night where your perception is mutable and it’s all too counter to your experience to quite believe, like a painting that catches the truth of a sunset yet is so unique and poignant that no one would believe it was real unless it was a photograph, but you know that there is no way a photograph of what you are witnessing would ever evoke the feelings you are having and then you realize the experience might depend on being who your are at that moment in your life so it would be impossible to adequately describe to anyone anyhow when they passed through the second checkpoint and he was handed over to Sadiq. He was deep in Taliban country now

His handlers drove him into the dusk, into a position so counter to his experience that it was hard to believe, like a painting that catches the truth of a sunset yet is so poignant that no one would believe it was real unless it was a photograph, but you know a photograph could never evoke these feelings, and then you realize the experience might depend on being who you are at that moment, so it would be impossible to adequately describe to anyone else anyway, when they passed through the second checkpoint and he was handed over to Sadiq. He was deep in Taliban country now.

Compare to more recent passages from my novel in progress, Reuel, where the main character is more painterly to begin with:

Through a more or less closed door Reuel discovered a piano and a futon couch. He could see Mrs. Justice’s prints on the ivory keys and foot petals, some jilted to the left, some to the right, as if her elbows and knees stuck straight out whenever she made a sound. Reuel tapped one of the middle keys.
“Me me me,” he sang into a mirror on the far wall. It was out of tune, as if he lived in another world. “So so so.” In the mirror he looked through a window, saw the eagle gently deposit Mr. Justice into a Pena-purple bed of forget-me-nots in the backyard. He decided to explore the mysteries and romances behind the other doors.
Mrs. Justice’s closet smelled of mothballs and cedar. When Reuel stuck his head in each dress bristled, each pair of sheer gold stockings winked daintily along a stair step of horizontal rods. Virginal, never-buttoned buttons on her blouses smiled expectantly, and skirts lifted at the slightest touch. Inside a shoebox was a jumble of delicate red straps and spikes like poison darts. Another box contained elegant black pumps stuffed with tissue paper and out of another tumbled sandy rubber sandals that smelled like fish. Reuel closed his eyes and dreamed of soaring like a seagull over a beach, salty wind sweeping his sepia locks across the frothy ocean.


The man swung his legs over the far side of the futon and pulled on his underwear, then a pair of slacks dark and blue as shadows turning slightly cooler just before dawn. Salt and pepper hair formed a tornado from the top of his head down his back. Anabel slipped into a pair of bright green flats. Reuel remembered the green triangles perched on a wooden ledge like parrots staring at him from the canopy of a tree while he read her diary. He could feel the wet jungle air, see her gathering her brushes, folding her easel, failing to completely reveal herself on the canvas. When he opened his eyes the futon was a couch again and no one was in the room.


He started reading the first story in the book, about two lonely people who dreamed of finding true love.
The lonely woman and lonely man lived very close to each other in the same city. They both loved animals, classical music, reading, were shy, and used proper etiquette even when only with their pets. The words were crafted into sentences and paragraphs that fit together in poetic harmonious purple-slate rhythms. Reuel ran his eyes over the pages like reverent fingertips over an intricately patterned melancholy-blue lined buttery marble surface polished to a smooth slippery sheen. Every time he was sure the two lonely people were about to come together some higher purpose made one turn a half a block too soon, the other look away just at the moment of truth.
Reuel decided where he wanted to be was to believe in miracles. One day the lonely man went to the art museum to see a large exhibition of his favorite artist. He walked for hours amidst the largest crowd he had ever seen at the museum. Finally the lonely man realized he had been standing in front of one painting for so long he wasn’t sure what time was. The author described the painting with such acumen Reuel saw it on the page, felt the woman’s eyes staring out tall windows in her wedding dress, felt the tension in the leg muscles of the man she was watching. He blushed, embarrassed that other patrons had been looking over his shoulder and maneuvering around him to see the masterpiece so as not to disturb him. For a moment the lonely man felt claustrophobic, he could feel someone’s breath on his ear, a tingle down that side of his body. It’s mesmerizing, the breath whispered. He turned to see the chamomile voice. Yes, he said as the lonely woman’s hazel gaze fell deeply and without qualm into his. Her skin was that melancholy-blue lined buttery marble surface, his face the perfect intricate pattern of her dreams, and his reverent fingertips ran over the love of his life for ever after.
The creative force of his paintings, Reuel decided, is greater than him yet contained within him, and can be shared by anyone, if only they realize dreams are more than mere wishes.

The tension is between abstraction, like a dream you are trying to remember, and coherent narrative. A well crafted painting does a good job of balancing the tension. My goal is to achieve this balance in a narrative form without slipping into poetry.



PeggyAbstractLandscapeDixonInProgressArt 118

Adumbrate is to darken or conceal partially, to faintly foreshadow or resemble.
Starting thinking about adumbration while reading Bruno Schulz’s Sanatorium Under The Sign Of The Hourglass. His writing is the closest thing I’ve found to my experiments with abstract writing; way more so than Magical Realism, either Garcia or Llosa.
Schulz gives me some sense of the difficulty in reading such abstractions. It’s not that the storyline is not there at all, not like some abstract paintings that are purely emotion; color and form and structure only. At this point I have doubts that writing could successfully reach the levels of abstraction that visual arts are privileged to. So far my pure abstract writing falls off the cliff of prose into the labyrinth of poetry, and as much as I love poetry that is not what this search is, not what these experiments are about.
To read Sanatorium is demanding, enjoyable work; it’s a challenge to follow Shlulz’s mind. To follow I must give up some control, allow my preconceptions to melt away. Here in a passage from a chapter called The Age Of Genius, the main character Joseph reels me in, insists I see with a child’s unbiased eye:
We stood in the semidarkness of my vast room, elongated in perspective toward the window opening on the square. Waves of air reached us in gentle pulsations, settling down on the silence. Each wave brought a new load of silence, seasoned with the colors of distance, as if the previous load had already been used up and exhausted. That dark room came to life only by the reflections of the houses far beyond the window, showing their colors in its depth as in a camera obscura. Through the window one could see, as through a telescope, the pigeons on the roof of the police station, puffed up and walking along the cornice of the attic. At times they rose up all at once and flew in a semicircle over the square. The room brightened for a moment with their fluttering wings, broadened with the echo of their flight, and then darkened when they settled down again.
The narrative is simple: a boy and his older cousin are looking at the boy’s drawings in his room, a window opens onto a square. At the end of the square are houses and a police station with pigeons on its roof doing what pigeons do. Breezes pulsate through the window.
Yet the passage is about perspective and causation more than how the relationship between the boy and his cousin advance the narrative. Breezes are calmed by silence and bear reflections of the distant houses into the room and give it its color. The fluttering of pigeons wings brightens and darkens. For the boy colors are reflections, wind determines sound, space is broadened by echoes and movement; his room, his necessarily limited world, our necessarily limited world, is a camera obscura. And it’s because of these limitations that it’s a wondrous place, a world of mystery and danger, surrounded by unknowns because anything is possible.
Drilling into a short passage like this is rewarding, fun, insightful, like a poem. The work is not too arduous because it does not take long. But it becomes tiresome at length, when the narrative and action must be subjectively gleaned from dreamy paragraphs of sparse action with unclear causes.
Here’s Ethan in Steinbeck’s The Winter Of Our Discontent expressing similar sentiments when confronted with his son’s interest in the contents of their attic:
I guess we’re all, or most of us, the wards of that nineteenth-century science which denied existence to anything it could not measure or explain. The things we couldn’t explain went right on but surely not with our blessing. We did not see what we couldn’t explain, and meanwhile a great part of the world was abandoned to children, insane people, fools, and mystics, who were more interested in what is than in why it is. So many old and lovely things are stored in the world’s attic, because we don’t want them around us and we don’t dare throw them out.
See the similarities of the above passages with my character Reuel as a naïve teenager:
Reuel loved mysteries and romances, so when for the first time ever his parents left him alone to go to his mother’s special appointment he climbed the narrow staircase from the basement and rummaged through their bedroom. It made him feel the way Merci, his mother, looks when she carefully teases tangled necklaces out of little cubbies in her heart-adorned ashen jewelry box. He arranged two gold necklaces on the glass-topped dressing table, admired in the mirror their delicacy, how they floated in the frame of chubby pink cherubs and grinning green sprites. Marbles of pearl he fenced in the chains of gold, tarnished silver-plated unicorn and satyr and elfin totems frolicked in a canyon turquoise bracelet, sparkling zirconia and ruby-like pebbles lay scattered in a glittering piece of time.
In the drawer of Merci’s nightstand Reuel sifted through silky things that had never been mentioned and discovered a blue-clothed diary secured with a lace strap and precious silver lock. He retrieved a thin skeleton key from inside the sparkling piece of time. The book fell open as if it had been waiting for him. He looked into the mirror, imagined flying out the window, over his neighborhood’s pitched rooftops, watched a perfect teenage girl perform a triple somersault into a backyard pool with scarcely a ripple, a handsome new father pick money like acorns from a stoic old oak, and a smiling gray-haired woman delight her fairytale grandchildren with stories of what she always imagined her life to be.
Here’s Reuel as an adult, an artist who never grew up:
Father Malley perambulated around the strange artist he tried to remember and watched him work. The priest squinted though the sun was at their backs, tried to make figures or images out of dripping blocks of orange and magenta and translucent green that could be rebirth or decay, and thin black and white lines teasing his eye from a lavender background. His gaze was mesmerized, and after some indeterminate moments Father caught a hint of himself in a triangle of gray-black swirling around the meal tent. The fajita grill’s smoke made him blink, charred beef teased his tongue and nose, onions and guacamole on a fresh tortilla formed to the top of his mouth. It was so real Father feared the painting was casting a spell, casting in a way The Shadow of the Cross, the mystery painting he charged tourists to view, seldom achieved.
Orange washed to sun-tinged gold under Reuel’s touch. Father finally recognized his San Francisco De Asis Mission Church amongst the blocks of color, the way the texture of the paint mimicked the texture of the drying plaster. Shadows lengthened and the walls of the church glowed. Uncertainty crept up his spine. He’d been in Taos almost thirty years and knew it would be several minutes before the setting sun made the walls of the church glow like the church on Reuel’s board. How could such a man understand this glow and Father not know him?
And finally Reuel as Steinbeck’s insane mystical child, more interested in what is than in why it is:
Reuel set up his easel high on Taos Mountain, overlooking the Pueblo. His brush flourished in the clear, thin air. Flute melodies filled his head and attracted many creatures. He painted cautious, delicate bodies with spindly legs and furry white butts, parents with their doe; tangled antlers hovered over a harem of sturdy, buckskinned torsos; and two anxious hooked lines the color of yellowed parchment coyotes skulked behind flamboyant strokes of pale green chamisa waving in the hint of a blue breeze. Reuel enjoyed his goose bumps.
Small black and white stripes of chipmunks clacked at Reuel from the safety of twisted gray piñon. At first the chipmunks were unsure of the scene he was creating. But soon they were chattering to the flutish melodies, munching on nut-shaped twists of Reuel’s brush, and flitting in fits and starts across the canvas. On the ridge above the gathering a hairy sling of black bear rummaged through unripe flashes of Indian plum. She stayed uphill and downwind, not wanting to scare her fellow Taosenos away on such a lovely day.
I want to push myself to write an entire novel the way a painter paints an abstract painting. It’s probably not fair to ask a reader to work so hard for so long, to follow a narrative that makes no distinction between characters’ imagination, dreams, and perceptions; a narrative structured only by form, color, shape, and emotion.
Yet I think to write such a novel would be an accomplishment. It would teach me about art, and not only the process, but the instinct, that primordial human spark that left its mark in the caves of Lascaux and El Castillo, the inspiration for jewelry and to knap a more perfect arrowhead.
There’s a common thread of humanity that the impulse to abstraction reaches back towards. It’s mysterious, anxious, frightening, full of doubt. It’s also the impulse that both makes us most human and ties us to other creatures, to whatever it is we share with all forms of life. It’s unregulated Time, Space torn free of measurement, freedom in its purest form allowing one to open Pandora’s box and not blink.
Writing is an art like visual arts because it can never be exact, no words, even in symbolic logic, are defined so rigidly that the beauty of ambiguity is completely absent.
Art is not the antithesis of science, as science itself is an art. This fact is not an indictment of science, but a reminder that its work, like creating art itself, will never be done.
And I want to write an abstract painting. I want to create my own Matisse, one time overcome that doubt that is the essence of abstract art.


Nough said? The real question is: Are we encouraging technically competent fiction over great writing. I certainly get the feeling that one of my problems getting published (besides running two companies and having to steal hours in the middle of the night to write at all) is that my fiction does not conform to what editors look for. They want to check off the boxes. Below is one suggested structure by Philip Brewer.

  1. a character,
  2. in a situation,
  3. with a problem,
  4. who tries repeatedly to solve his problem,
  5. but repeatedly fails, (usually making the problem worse),
  6. then, at the climax of the story, makes a final attempt (which might either succeed or fail, depending on the kind of story it is), after which
  7. the result is “validated” in a way that makes it clear that what we saw was, in fact, the final result

There’s nothing wrong with this kind of structure, and certainly any aspiring writer should be able to do it. My wishful thinking has been: As soon as I publish enough stories that fit the model and develop a following, then I can stray from the approved norm. It reminds me of freshman composition: write a beginning, middle, and end. It’s easy to understand, tells a story, and it’s great for freshman comp or a newspaper article.

But my stories don’t always follow this path. At a recent conference I workshopped a book of short stories. Yes, they weren’t all as polished as I would have liked. Yet many of the stories were exceptionally well received. They were uplifting, inspiring, clever, upsetting. The instructor said, “Start sending these out. I love it. You’re taking chances.” Toward the end of the workshop I met with an agent from a top NYC agency who had read two of the stories. She remarked, “Very creative. I really like the endings. You’ve never published, so here’s what you do. Send them out like crazy. It’s a numbers game, a full time job. After you get three or four published I can pitch the book to a publisher with the promise of a novel to come. Here’s my card.”

I was ecstatic. And I’m also building up a nice collection of rejections. The problem, it seems to me, is the stories are missing some of Mr. Brewer’s elements. They are creative yet easily readable (one of my problems in the past was asking too much of the reader.) Sometimes the main character is somewhat passive while the supporting characters react to her/his reactions. The endings are poignant, but often not validating, though always relevant (I must admit here that I find many endings, in all forms of published and even celebrated fiction, disappointing.) In short, I’m not playing the game.

Methinks there are many of me out there. I’m not a young aspiring writer. I’m a middle aged (whatever that means these days) man who has a modestly successful career and is prudent enough to not risk my family’s future over a Twilight dream. I shouldn’t have to get another degree or to move to NYC to be taken seriously.

Yes, I am still learning how to write, but the writing is good. The stories are fun, the reader can identify with the characters and still leave their world for a while. Some are more serious than others, and they all have an original voice. Maybe too original.

The debate is really MFA OR NYC, not VS. I don’t fit into either category. I’ve been in workshops with MFA students who have the same dream as I, are younger, but unfortunately have little chance of developing into good fiction writers. They’re being sold a bill of goods, and this is why many people are led to the cynical view that the MFA system in America is basically a for profit industry. An industry must have standards, and if the nuts and bolts of your product are metric it will be hard to sell. Strict standards are fine for freshman comp, but this is a Masters of Fine Arts. It’s supposed to be creative.

It is a shame that even most good fiction writers must teach to earn a living. That’s a statement about what capitalism values. The internet should provide an outlet for more creative endeavors. It’s done a fairly decent job as an outlet for the visual arts, but visual artists have for a long time been granted more license than fiction and even poetry.

MFA or NYC, Walmart or Target, TGIF or Olive Garden, Hampton Inn or Motel 6, available on any E-reader along the information interstate.

Do we feel validated now?

An Atheist’s Prayer to His Faithful Friends

Facing wonder
My small back bowed
To divine
A scrap of insight

I watch my faithful friends
Bent and twisted under the burden
Taking comfort in our communion

They murmur
Feel the weight grow
Between us

I do not know
How they rise
So easily

It is heavy
This failure
To straighten our backs

Every time we shut our eyes
We shrink to our knees
Every time the morning beckons
We beg to know
Like an honest prayer
That goes unanswered

Taos Summer Writers Conference

Attending Robert Boswell’s Fiction for Serious Writer’s Workshop at the Taos Summer Writer’s Conference.

Love Boz’s approach, his insistence that writing be art, not merely craft, that craft underpins art, yes, but when well executed stays in the background of the piece, almost unseen, doing it’s multifarious job, like jesso and scraped layers of paint on canvas.

Increasingly I understand writing as analogous to painting. I look at a recent piece of Peggy’s (my wife, Peggy McGivern,) ‘Indian Pony Dream,’ and the blue-gray shadows defining the pony’s dominant-white body are a turn of phrase with multiple meanings, without too definite a line, and the more powerful for it.

My eyes read over a wavy block of color without noticing the technique, the brushstrokes, showing me withers, ribcage, health and wild beauty standing in high grasses, provoking emotion and imagination, a phrase I can dissect in subsequent readings and analysis, an Alice Munro story offering more pleasure the more I look.

Peggy is experimenting with abstraction, and I, too, am learning how to give myself permission, permission to scrape words from my pages, see what stubbornly persists despite the razor’s edge, despite my habits and previous understanding.

My workshop mates and I are like the ponies flying dreamlike in the sky of the painting, our inner world to make manifest on the canvas and pages of experience, the evolution of memories, a new ingrained habit to use and overcome.

Taos Mountain looms in the background of our pony dreams and inspires us with beauty and novelty. I walk out of a spirited session, my mind galloping somewhere between dreams and realities, and I don’t want to drift down from the sky, even though the high desert beckons, its impossible light on the chamisa, sage, adobe, and my mind nourishing and ecstatically real. How can I maintain this ill-equilibrium, this equine existence reduced to its core?

I will not worry with that. Today I can run with my ponies through the high grass, reaching for the sky.

A Philosopher, Painter, and Writer Walk Into A Bar

Below is an email thread between a philosopher, a painter and a writer. Chronologically it starts at the bottom.

“I think paintng is about our most subtle emotional response in our lives, you can paint anything, really, all our feelings.”
Agnes Martin
The Harwood Museum in Taos currently has an exhibition of Agnes Martin’s abstracts. Several letters are also displayed. Along with the quote above Agnes talks about the process of creating art. Agnes would spend 3 months doing 100 paintings, just to destroy them all. She accepted this as a logical part of the process of creating great art.

It seems that Agnes believes art works both ways, as Dan wants to do. Her intention is not just to paint her feelings, but for us to experience those feeling through our experience of her painting them. Her destroyed paintings may be anaologous to Edmundson’s understanding of the current role of rap, rock-n-roll, and pop music. She excoriates a photographer friend for wasting her talent and the all too short time and opportunities life offers us, by settling for mediocre photography.

“I am by trade a novelist. It is, I think, a harmless trade, though it is not everywhere considered a respectable one. Novelists put dirty language into the mounths of their characters, and they show these characters fornicating or going to the toilet. Moreover, it is not a useful (original italics) trade, as is that of the carpenter or the pastry cook. The novelist passes the time for you between one useful action and another; he helps to fill the gaps that appear in the serious fabric of living. He is a mere entertainer, a kind of clown….” And later in the same essay: “…an optimistic view of human life is as valid as a pessimistic one. But whose life do we mean- that of the entire race or that of the inconspicuous fragment of it each of us calls ‘myself’? I think I am an optimist about man: I think his race will survive, I think- however slowly or painfully- he will solve his major problems just because he is aware of them. As for myself, all I can say is that I am growing old, my sight is blurring, my teeth always need attention, I cannot eat or drink as much as I once did, I am more and more frequently bored. I cannot remember names, my reason works slowly, I have spasms of envy of the young and of resentment at my own imminent decay. If I had a burning faith in personal survival, this gloom os senescence might be greatly mitigated. But I have lost this faith and am unlikely to recover it. Sometimes I have a desire for immediate annihilation, but the urge to remain alive always supervenes. There are consolations- love, literature, music, the colorful life of the southern city in which I spend much of my time- but these are very fitful.”
Anthony Burgess, in a recent New Yorker essay commenting on the long-term understanding of the movie version of his novel The Clockwork Orange.

Burgess here laments an interpretation of his work, one that obscures and eclipses his art’s ability to evoke the emotions he intended.

Ed emphasizes the importance of art for our lives, our culture, the continued viability of civilization itself. Burgess thinks it will all work out in the end, though he’s not willing to speculate how. Agnes, I think, would have been aghast at Burgesses late-in-life shrugging of his shoulders, of Edmundson’s students’ lack of will. I tend to think Edmundson is right, most people are content to be, are not willing to put out out the effort to attempt to understand. And why should they? Have the philosophers given any definitive answers? Isn’t religion being made a fool by science? Isn’t the experience of visual art more demanding than pop music? (pop music = Kincaid = romance/mystery/thriller novels/movies?)

The three of us are having a conversation about the experience of art. Ed rgihtly points out that we each bring unique cultural baggage not just to the experience, but also to our attempt to understand that experience, and our understanding of the explanation/articulation of that experience. And none of us got very far without invoking someone else’s understanding.

Ala Mode to that is the fact that only a small portion of our brethren ever think about such things, and that we are doing so probably adds to our sense of uniqueness in a perverse manner, even if we profess to advocate the importance of these fundamental experiences for human existence and meaning. Note I didn’t say aesthetic experience wasn’t important to our brethren, only that they didn’t dwell on it or maybe even care about that importance. Pass the hot wings.

I accepted that what I enjoy writing at best will be appreciated by a small audience. After workshopping and finishing my first novel I decided I needed to write a page-turner to get noticed. Maybe after appearing in print more I can then retreat into what is important for me. My rationale is that there are so many people in the world there will always be an audience for even my erudition. But I am failing. My new book languishes as I sit in front of the computer and out comes a poem or a story, as if I had been infectd by the same virus I see inhabiting Peggy. And that’s fine.

I guess my virus is a weak version of Agnes Martin. I’ll take it, and live with the fact no one wants to pay me for it.



From: “Ed Lawry”
To: “Peter Stravlo”
Cc: “Dan Ellis”
Sent: Monday, June 4, 2012 9:56:15 AM
Subject: Re: artist and audience 02, modernists via Kant

Dan and Peter,

Just read this after I posted my latest email. Edmundson says a lot more about the appreciation of art (and says it more entertainingly!) than I did.

The Chronicle Review

June 3, 2012
Can Music Save Your Life?

Tim MacPherson, Cultura, Aurora Photos
By Mark Edmundson
Who hasn’t at least once had the feeling of being remade through music? Who is there who doesn’t date a new phase in life to hearing this or that symphony or song? I heard it—we say—and everything changed. I heard it, and a gate flew open and I walked through. But does music constantly provide revelation—or does it have some other effects, maybe less desirable?
For those of us who teach, the question is especially pressing. Our students tend to spend hours a day plugged into their tunes. Yet, at least in my experience, they are reluctant to talk about music. They’ll talk about sex, they’ll talk about drugs—but rock ‘n’ roll, or whatever else they may be listening to, is off-limits. What’s going on there?
When I first heard Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” in 1965, not long after it came out, I was amazed. At the time, I liked to listen to pop on the radio—the Beatles were fine, the Stones were better. But nothing I’d heard until then prepared me for Dylan’s song. It had all the fluent joy of a pop number, but something else was going on too. This song was about lyrics: language. Dylan wasn’t chanting some truism about being in love or wanting to get free or wasted for the weekend. He had something to say. He was exasperated. He was pissed off. He’d clearly been betrayed by somebody, or a whole nest of somebodies, and he was letting them have it. His words were exuberantly weird and sometimes almost embarrassingly inventive—and I didn’t know what they all meant. “You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat / Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat.” Chrome horse? Diplomat? What?
I sensed Dylan’s disdain and his fury, but the song suggested way more than it declared. This was a sidewinder of a song—intense and angry, but indirect and riddling too. I tried to hear every line—Dylan’s voice seemed garbled, and our phonograph wasn’t new. I can still see myself with my head cocked to the spindle, eyes clenched, trying to shut out the room around me as I strained to grab the words from the harsh melodious wind of the song. “Ain’t it hard when you discovered that / He really wasn’t where it’s at / After he took from you everything he could steal.”
I couldn’t listen to that song enough. I’d liked music before that. I’d liked stuff I’d heard on the radio; I’d even liked the Beethoven and the Mahler that my father played at top volume on Sunday mornings, though I never would have admitted as much to him. But Dylan was different. Other music made me temporarily happy, or tranquil, or energized. But this music made me puzzled. There was something in the grooves that I wasn’t getting. There was something in the mix of the easy, available pop hook and the grating voice and elliptical words that signaled in the direction of experiences I hadn’t had yet, and maybe never would. The song made me feel that life was larger than I had thought and made me want to find out what I was missing.
That song kicked open a door in my mind—to borrow a phrase Bruce Springsteen used to describe his own experience with it. But to be honest, in time that door may have gotten a little rusty from lack of use. Because really, after I heard “Like a Rolling Stone” on the radio and bought the single and listened to it 50 or so times, I put it away. I never went out to cop a Dylan album. I never even thought much about the guy for the next five years.
I went back to what you might call music-as-usual: using music to tune my moods. It was as though I was myself an instrument, and I was playing away, but in a perpetual state of disharmony. I was out of whack with myself, out of tune (at 16, who isn’t?), living in a mash of discordant feelings and thoughts.
I wanted things, a lot of things—but I wasn’t always sure what they were. I wanted a girlfriend, but after a certain point, I didn’t much want any of the girls at school (nor they me). I wanted to be an athlete, but games often bored me, and the school jocks could be hard to take. I wanted to be right with God, but when the time came to go to confession, I often had so many sins on the docket that I despaired of getting them lined up properly before the judgment seat.
So I had a lot of static inside. My inner life resembled what my aged radio—red, the size of a toaster, and badly chipped—emitted when I swirled the dial from one pop station to another. It gave off the sound of chaos and the feel of the crackling void. But soon I arrived safely on the shores of WMEX, and there was Arnie Woo Woo Ginsburg, up until all hours, ready to maître d’ me into the sounds of the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Jan and Dean, the Stones.
Then all of my jarring and jangling emotions went into the radio and came back out making melodious sense. It was a little like what happened when my mother washed my clothes. She’d trudge down to the basement with my raunchy jeans and T-shirts, my stained football pants and jerseys, and an hour or two later, there came my laundry back in pleasant white piles. The football stuff was folded into a mound that looked like a fluffy loaf of just-baked bread.
Of course, some of the songs I listened to were sad, but sadness lies latent in the soul. We are always sad to some degree. The sadness in a Leonard Cohen song or the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” was different from the sadness that inhabited my spirit. The musical sadness was melodious: It had a shape, it made sense, it flowed along almost predictable lines. I won’t say that musical sadness exorcized my sorrows, but the music gave my sadness a benign expression. It put my sadness in an attractive box. It let me feel sadness from a distance. I experienced my grief over my younger sister’s death, which had taken place a few years before, but I was able to contemplate that grief at the same time. It’s difficult to express.
Music makes life melodious—assuming that the music has a melody. But life is often jarring. Pop music suggests, by its easy, pleasurable repetitions, that life makes sense. We can pretend, for the duration of a song, that there is harmony in our lives. The music of Beethoven or of Coltrane is also patterned, but the patterns are harder to find. You have to listen closely—you have to have an educated ear. You feel that you’re almost collaborating with the composer when you seek out the subtle echoes and indirect recapitulations. Life makes some sense to Beethoven and Coltrane, but it is a difficult, remote way that is not available to all and that can wink out in an instant.
In Beethoven’s late quartets, the coherence can be unbearably elusive. Is this music all about theme and variation? I once asked my father, hoping to grab his attention in the midst of something by Brahms. All music is theme and variation, he said. But how attenuated that variation can be! We might listen to a piece of music pining for a phrase that will connect us to something we have heard before, something that reveals an overall structure. In Coltrane’s late work, I sometimes can find no consistency of theme, no unity of sound, try as I might. I wonder if his impulse was to turn against sense-making through music and declare life to be incoherent—”a tale told by an idiot,” as the poet says, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Usually, though, music gives harmony to feeling and suggests a sense to life. I wonder: Do we sometimes go to music to hide from our fears that the world makes no sense at all? Do we seek in music’s harmonies a way to stabilize an inner life that is incoherent and strange? Do we use music as a way to soothe ourselves into a kind of torpor, to quell in ourselves what we cannot understand?
Music does sometimes kick a door open inside the mind, but it also sometimes insulates the house, secures it from all wayward feelings and thoughts. And when a song does seem to kick a door open, we frequently listen to it over and over again until it loses its power and all of its passion is spent.
The philosopher Allan Bloom didn’t much care for the effect that music had on his students. He believed that they used music to counterfeit experience, in particular to fabricate joy. He said that music—rock music especially—reproduced in listeners the feelings of triumph that come from completing a great work of art or doing a heroic deed or making a conceptual breakthrough in science or philosophy—or even finding the true love of one’s life. Students, Bloom said, found in rock music a way to fabricate those emotions, and then they often took the logical next step and asked themselves, implicitly, Why bother going further? Why should one actually do the deed and put in all the work leading up to it, when one can have the reward simply by putting on some music or showing up at a concert?
Bloom compared the Dionysian experience of rock music to the experience of drugs: He seems to have had hallucinogens in mind. After a heavy dose of LSD, in which the world becomes a wondrous kaleidoscope of sound and sight and even thought, what can everyday experience possibly offer? It manifests itself as a gray world of sameness and routine, nothing like the Wonderland one has recently left. People who have dabbled with psychedelics often trudge through wearisome lives that never quite meet their expectations.
Just so, perhaps music lovers feel alive only when they are plugged in to their tunes: The rest of the time they have only themselves, and they are, in themselves, insufficient.
Bloom is a student of Plato, and his critique of students’ music echoes that philosopher’s and also the later views of Nietzsche. Plato thought that music had a critical educative function. To Plato the soul is, by its nature, split into three parts. There is the rational part, the spirited, and the appetitive. What’s wanted is to bring those parts into harmony, with reason ascendant. And music can do a great deal to stimulate that harmony. Melodious music helps to create a melodious soul. There is need for martial music, for Plato: Warriors must be inspired. What there is no need for is music that sends the soul into ecstasy, that lets appetite usurp reason and so makes a man or woman into a beast.
Nietzsche was a great lover of ecstatic music, at least when he was young. His drug of choice was Wagner, on whom he wrote copiously. Wagner’s music gave him a Dionysian thrill. It took him above the sobrieties of his classical education, churchly background, and tamped-down temperament. But did Wagner visit the same magic on the crowd? Sure, Nietzsche maybe needed to loosen up a bit. But did the already-wallowing common man need to unbind himself further from civilized restraint? In time, Nietzsche thought not. By the end of his life, he was drawn to light opera—Puccini, music of no overwhelming consequence at all.
My students, like Allan Bloom’s, live inside music. Their musical lives may well be their spiritual lives. It is hard to say, because they don’t talk about music very eagerly. In class I can get a conversation going about God with no problem. And students love talking about alcohol and its effects on the human mind and spirit, theirs in particular. A conversation about sex is easy to start and quickly goes way further than I’d imagine—and sometimes further than I want. But try asking about music.
Students listen to it for hours a day. They trot around the university grounds with headphones on; they plug into their tunes when they sit at their computers. Music, usually rap, is the iron-hard heart of their parties. There is surely a competition, at least among English-major types, about who listens to the most recondite bands. Sometimes students name them in discussions: the Fruit Bats, the Shins (now no longer obscure), Fatkid Dodgeball, Pimp the Cat, Full Throttle Aristotle, Disgruntled Sherpa Project. I sometimes make up a few myself and throw them into the mix.
But when I ask what role music plays in their lives or why they listen to what they do, there is silence. When I tell them what Plato had to say about music and that he’d disapprove of almost everything they listen to for being far too raucous, far too stirring, far too close to anarchy, they bristle and tell me that Plato is wrong. I ask them if listening to hard-core rap might influence their attitudes toward sex and money—major themes in rap, of course. They tell me that I’m being silly—which to me is a little like saying that the food you eat has nothing to do with how your body feels and how it functions.
But I speculate, and my speculation is this: Music brings drama to their lives. It makes them feel more vital, vigorous, intense. Because—students tell me this all the time—much of their real life is a mildly toxic combination of boring and stressful. Music turns boredom into drama and anxiety into equanimity. Listening to little-known cool bands puts young people in a club in which they can feel special and singular. It is cool to be a fan of an up-and-coming band—you can look down on others who join the jam too late. My students need the melody and the preciousness that music brings.
For life now is hard. It is as hard for my students as it was for me when I was their age. They are heaped with expectations. They are pressured to perform. Many are majoring in subjects that do not interest them at all. They are in their courses of study to succeed, to secure jobs. They grind away, in econ, say. Their prospects are shaky—they are worried about what is to come.
Does music save their lives? No, it preserves them, much as it did mine. Music allows you to tolerate dullness, muted, icy boredom. Music is a balm—a cortisone spread.
I say this because of the disparity between the wildness and freedom of the music and the lives my students live and want to live. This is the generation of no generation gap. These students are busy cloning their parents. They need music as a world elsewhere, just as I needed mine. And if that is true, no wonder the kids don’t like to talk analytically about their tunes.
Can music still kick open a door in your mind? I’m nearly sure of it. No doubt every day numberless young people—and a few older ones too—have the kind of experience that I did with “Like a Rolling Stone.”
But it’s worth asking what kind of door that song kicked open. What room, exactly, did I enter? Looking back, I guess the song helped me get excited about the possibilities in words. For what made the song different wasn’t its melody. That was wonderful, sure—the organ intro still makes me grin with happy expectation: Something fine is coming soon. But I’d heard other tunes just as gracefully intense. It was the lyrics that got me. I’d read other poetry then, though not much. But I thought poetry was by definition old stuff: moving in its way, but always out of date, a little like those Beethoven symphonies.
In Dylan I saw that music and lyrics could sound contemporary. Someone who listened to “Like a Rolling Stone” 50 times wouldn’t be entirely lost reading “The Waste Land” or even Wallace Stevens’s “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” If you’ve met a “Napoleon in rags,” you might, with a little more effort, be able to reach terms with Stevens’s Canon Aspirin or even Nanzia Nunzio, who provokes Ozymandias to tell him that “the spouse / the bride is never naked,” whatever that means.
The door Dylan kicked open was into the world of words, and eventually, after five or eight years fluttering at the threshold, I made my way inside. In time, I began trying to write as well as to read, and I owe that to Dylan as much as to anyone.
If I’d had a little more musical inclination, the song would have made me want to make some songs of my own. I’d have wanted to bring across my own view of things in musical language as strange and funny as Dylan’s and phrased with his sense of inevitability. In fact, the best thing that hearing music can do for you is make you want to make your own.
I find it close to absurd that some people are musicians and singers and others are silent apostles who never let out a peep, maybe not even in the shower. Music seems like a basic human right, much like the right to prayer and the right to fall in love. Everyone’s got a right to sing his song—though no one should be compelled to listen to it.
The notion that people have to do our singing for us is, in some ways, a result of the mind-set developed under capitalism with its insistence on the division of labor, which, though it surely has its virtues, we have taken to an absurd degree. It’s amazing that thousands of people will pay a lot of money to go to a concert to watch 10 people on stage have the lions’ share of the fun.
I read recently that every Comanche warrior had his personal song, written for him by the wise man in his tribe, and modified by the singer as the mood arose. The warrior woke up singing it, sang it from time to time during the day, and hummed it when he was going to sleep at night. The song might go on about what a great hunter he was; how many buffalo he’d shot; what a formidable lover he could be; how tall and handsome. It was righteous music.
If music kicks in any door regularly, it’s the door that separates us from making music of our own. Sing, hum, strum, toot. It’s said that when the Diggers, a group of early hippies, were invited to a Saturday night Grateful Dead show and told they could come in gratis, they declined. Saturday night was the night that they toked up, got out their guitars, banjos, and harmonicas—for the more amateur, the pots and pans and clicking spoons—and made their own noise. They had fun.
The ultimate liberation that someone else’s music may provide is the liberation of you—the individual—into your own music, or your own creations, of whatever stripe.
Music can be a pleasure to listen to. But spending your life as a consumer and not a creator is a chump’s bet. Nietzsche said that eventually he judged music by one standard. How fertile did it make him? How much and how well did it inspire him to write? Many of us have been duped by consumer ideology. Consumerism says that life’s greatest pleasures are in consuming, in buying good stuff and enjoying it. But that’s wrong.
Life’s pleasures are in creating things, even if the creations have a few cracks in them. (Even if the creations are nothing but cracks.) If music doesn’t produce music, or something fresh, it’s often a sterile diversion. There’s no one whose company I shun more than that of the Music Geek—someone with catalog-like knowledge and taste like a guillotine, who sits at stiff attention when the tunes play. He is sterility itself.
Take every aspect of his relation to music, reverse it, and good things will come. Music at its best moves you emotionally. But it should also move you from one place to another; it should move you to get off your enjoyment-oriented posterior and do something.
The Music Geek listens only to the best music. He does it all day long, sitting in his Herman Miller Aeron chair, with his Bose headphones on; he wears pads on his eyes; his face is drawn in sublime concentration. He’s like someone who eats only the best food—very picky in all his selections—but then never uses the strength and health he engenders by it.
The Music Geek condescends to everyone else’s taste. I half-believe that, on some level, the Music Geek doesn’t really like music, doesn’t get it, and wants everyone else to join him in his sterile funk.
Can music save your life? My wonderful former teacher, Geoffrey Hartman, said that most reading was vague and lazy, like girl watching. Feminists gave him the bastinado for that, but he was right. Something similar is true about listening to music. Usually it’s about getting your emotions packaged for you, quieting the static inside, fabricating an exciting identity (the gangsta, the hipster) to counteract one’s commitment to a life of secure banality.
Most music listening, like most reading, is passive. It’s about girl watching rather than woman wooing, which is a tougher game. Schopenhauer says that most reading is letting other people think your thoughts for you. I’d add that most music listening is about letting other people feel your feelings for you.
Feel them for yourself, I say. Then shout them out loud. And sing them too. Do it for your own pleasure. It doesn’t matter whether anyone is listening.
Mark Edmundson is a university professor of English at the University of Virginia. He is the author, most recently, of Why Read? (Bloomsbury USA, 2004) and a new book on college teaching and learning, forthcoming from Bloomsbury in 2013.

From: Peter Stravlo
To: Ed Lawry
Cc: Dan Ellis
Sent: Sunday, June 3, 2012 11:26 AM
Subject: Re: artist and audience 02, modernists via Kant

Dan and Ed,

First, I want to read The Mirror and The Lamp. Should help to sort out/clarify my ideas on the experience of art, and I think this will inform the book project I am starting, the story of a US soldier who sneaks recovered art into the US after WWII and uses the illicit proceeds to start the strip-mall movement, roughly based on one of my relatives.

Peggy and I have had many discussions on how to tell the difference between good/bad/better art. Our short answer (I want to call it a definition, but the letters get too far apart) is, Look at a lot of Art.

Obviously this has its limitations, but I think it speaks to our discussion, and I think it and the Kincaid example are instructive. How do we, given attempts to define art in terms of our experience and the neverending need to create, decide what is art and what is not, without resorting to some platitude that might logically incorporate all experience?

One of the purposes of Look at a lot of Art as a method is the suggestion that, if you educate yourself enough, take it seriously enough, you can not only tell the difference between art and not so art, but what might be the better of two pieces of art. But it’s woefully incomplete, arrogant, and limited- though for those novices who are unsure of their evaluative powers in this regard it’s a step up from ‘whatever you like is art,’ and I have found it encourages many people to think more about art and be less self-conscious in their opinions.

I think this type of thinking is in fact behind Kincaid not being accepted as ‘real art,’ despite his work obviously falling within many technical definitions of art. I have relatives that love Kincaid, but also love Peggy’s work, and also scrunch their noses when confronted with abstract art. And I am quite happy to accept that admirers of Kincaid are better off than those content intermigling Wal-Mart hearts with family pictures on their walls.

Dan wants to make the artist’s genius capable of transferring her/his inspiration to the artist, thus salvaging a shared human experience.

I have always insisted the artist’s intention not need to have anything to do with my experience of the work as art; sometimes I seek to understand the artist’s intentions, history, etc., though I also often do not use the recorded explanatory headphones so popular now at exhibits, because I don’t want someone else’s well-worn analytics to corrupt my initial impressions of the work.

I think I have to disagree with you, Dan, that the history of art has somehow accomplished something in terms of learning how to corral the audience’s aesthetic experience. I fear we all bring a too varied or convoluted combination of the four corners of understanding art for that to be a realistice goal.

The understanding that Kant is attempting to justify our aesthetic and moral, etc., experience, vs explain it, I think makes me more comfortable with these discussions overall, and with the many remarks I hear from artists vis a vis their peers’ efforts. Maybe that’s another discussion.

In hopes of a shared aesthetic


From: “Ed Lawry”
To: “Dan Ellis” , pstravlo@comcast.net
Sent: Thursday, May 31, 2012 1:40:25 PM
Subject: Re: artist and audience 02, modernists via Kant

Dan and Peter,
Dan’s post from 5/29 was certainly a huge sweep of comment on the history of art from Courbet through the modernists. There are many parts that could be expanded. I just remind you that Kant’s project (in aesthetics as well as in morality and epistemology) was a task of justification of our experience rather than an explanation of the experience, even though his many suggestions have prompted his readers to understand the justification as an explanation. Kant would have been the first to say that much other empirical psychology would be needed to explain aesthetic experience.
I have always been particularly enamored of the way that the literary critic and theorist , Meyer Abrams, categorizes approaches to art in his book, The Mirror and the Lamp. Written in 1953, it was an attempt to highlight the revolution in the understanding of literature and the literary artist that took place during the flowering of the romantic era (late 18th early 19th century period). Abrams thought that all commentators approached art from one of four perspectives—art work (the objective approach), artist (the expressive approach) audience (the pragmatic approach) and world (the mimetic approach). He insists that for any approach to be robust, it must have some place for the other approaches, but he thinks everybody that tries their hand at a theory has one dominating perspective. Because of this, no single approach can satisfy everyone. But each has its insight.
Roughly speaking, the mimetic theory characterized the understanding of art in the west from the Greeks through the 18th century, and this may have been so because literary arts were the center of attention in such discussion and words tended to make people think of what meaning was contained in them—how what was said was an insight into “Nature” or the world we experience. The romantic revolution reversed the direction and suggested that it was the internal psyche of the artist that was crucial to the understanding of what art was doing. Needless to say, the art of the romantics was dramatically different from the past (think of the difference between Alexander Pope and John Keats). The last half of the 19th century saw a marked rise in pragmatic theories (here we should not underestimate the role of Edgar Allen Poe and his influence on French writers). The modern age, beginning roughly at the start of the 20th century found more and more interest in the objective approach (think of Archibald MacLeish’s famous line, “A poem should not mean, but be.”)
We can find strands of all of the approaches from the start of the history of the west. Even though Plato maintained that poetry was “an imitation” (though a poor one since it was an imitation of the world, which was already an imitation of the forms) he was much concerned by the pragmatic effect of poetry upon its audience and that is why he banished poets from the Republic. And Longinus had much to say about “the sublime” in art. But the point again, is that each approach comes from one of the four “corners” of art understanding.
Now if we think of things on this model, Dan’s comments, in a reaction to an objective approach (art for art’s sake), suggest a lot in common with the expressive approach. He talks sometimes of “intangible motivators” (Art for Your World) sometimes of “primary sensations” (the 5/29 post). These expressions try to locate the initial springs of art in the artist. What these exactly are is obviously difficult to say. However, there are similar “motivators” and/or “sensations” in the audience as well. Sometimes we get descriptions that suggest that the stirrings or inspirations that prompt the artist get somehow embodied in the artwork itself and that they are then made accessible to the audience who then experience them as a form of communication. At the same time, Dan wants also to permit the audience to have “sensations” that might be oblique to the ones the artist wished to communicate, so that there are no “lazy viewer sins.”
Now arise difficulties. If viewers are not to be held to a standard of reception, then what are we to do with the wildly popular artists like Thomas Kinkaid? His name does not appear in lists of best selling artists if you Google that phrase. The “Artworld” chooses to ignore him. But as we know, his pictures (and copies of his pictures) are eagerly bought up all over America, making him one of the most financially successful artists ever. Obviously, the audience is deeply moved by Kinkaid’s work. So then shall we say he must have had primary sensations which he was able to communicate through his work so as to give satisfying emotional experience to his audience? And if so, should he be considered one of the great artists of all and should we study his work in studios and classrooms? Perhaps there are lazy viewer sins after all? And perhaps sin is widespread?
The idea here is that such an issue can help clarify and improve the theory.

From: Dan Ellis
To: pstravlo@comcast.net; Ed Lawry
Sent: Tuesday, May 29, 2012 8:32 AM
Subject: artist and audience 02, modernists via Kant

From the Comfort Inn of Evansville Indiana…

Good Morning Pete and Ed,

Pete, perhaps you recall that before working at PSI I worked at Denver Art Supply. We had a cartoon clipping taped to our cash register that read, “Welcome to the art world. It’s a shady and manipulative place.” Talking about art can be difficult because all borders are porous and all distinctions are blurred. I would be the last person to impose rules into that free for all.
I enjoy the fact that you are reading fiction in order to learn to become less analytical. I started reading Kant in order to sharpen my analytical skills. I jumped into the prefaces and began drowning immediately being out of my depth, but I persevered and by now I have progressed to advanced dog paddling. I agree with you that Kant’s inquiry is helpful when applied to art. This surprising discovery is probably why I stuck it out through the drowning phase.
If I look at the period from the impressionists through the abstract expressionists through the filter of Kant it is easy to see that the accomplishment of modernism was to put the artist back in touch with the primary sensations of the artistic process. (What I have referred to earlier as personal motivators.) By the time that history had brought us around to the realists and the romanticists the artists are trying to create images which the viewer will cognize into language from which they would draw the sentiment that the artist intended. Think of the Stonebreakers by Courbet or the Wanderer Above the Sea Fog by Friedrich. The impressionists stepped away from this toward a more direct emotional response.
The following versions of the avant-garde kept pushing their expectations further into a more direct expression of the primary sensations that make up this need to create which Pete identifies as belonging to the true artist. Some, such as the surrealists wanted to derail the viewer’s intellect hoping to reveal to them their own primary sensations. Others, the dadas for instance set out to destroy the conventions that they thought were restricting them. Still others such as Matisse took the rout of seducing us with pleasant frankness. Personally Matisse works for me. All were attempting to be in touch with and put the viewer in tough with their primary sensations. The abstract expressionists were the inevitable conclusion to this process and their pinnacle achievement was to demonstrate that a work of art is a thing in itself, not a derivative object ala Plato.
These modernists did much needed work. Their goals have been achieved. Artists have been reintroduced to those primary sensations – what the art world calls inspiration – as the subject of art. Now the expectation is for the artist to launch from their inspiration into an image that can directly communicate that inspiration to the viewer. This transaction does require a willingness to receive on the part of the viewer. The viewer expects a willingness to give from the artist.

Kant’s search for a priori experience is similar to the modernist search for primary sensations, though I do not recall anyone using that language. What the modernists found however was not a priori knowledge ala Kant, but rather pre—cognate sensation. By channeling these sensations into image and the formal elements of art (line, proportion, etc.) artists are able to keep these sensations pre—cognate and express them more directly to the viewer. A good work of art must be personal from the artist, and it is successful as it is able to communicate these primary sensations to the viewer.

I’m out of time God bless all y’all
. Have fun D.E.


When we bought our old Victorian house, it was pretty run down; now, it is a showpiece in the neighborhood. I can buy any car I want, but I prefer to restore older models. My business affords me comforts I never imagined. My wife is not only beautiful, but extremely talented. My children and many grandchildren forgive my selfishness, and I am a failure.

We had a plan. In two years my wife quit working to pursue her art career full-time. In four years we saved enough money to last several years so I could pursue my dream. When I was thirteen I promised myself I would be a writer.

So in the middle of the night these words I scribble vie for space in my life. The familiar colors of spring turn to summer greens, the sunlight plays at my feet after navigating yellow leaves of poplars I planted in that season of promise. Their shade is pleasant now, but I hope for a lasting legacy, to arrest life and resist the vagaries of time.

My old friends ask: does someone misinterpreting your thoughts in a hundred years make up for the sleepless nights, the missed holidays, the loneliness? I am afraid to answer that my greatest moments of joy are shared with the page, that I have never experienced meaning that is not also metaphor.

A reader is a secret relation, like being able to pick your relatives instead of blind fate imposing its will. But what if no one is reading?

I have close friends, six brothers whose mother died.  She wrote a beautiful diary spanning forty years, and I am the only person who ever read it. Now I am her seventh son.

So I write, I think, I learn; and I answer the questions: How’s your book coming? When is it going to be published? I’d love to read it. Until no one knows whether to believe me anymore. Maybe all I am doing is watching old movies