Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Four Coded Messages About Writing

I don’t know if Nero really did once upon a time say, “What a pretty thing fire is.” I remember hearing an actor playing Nero saying “What a pretty thing fire is” in the classic BBC Television production of the Richard Graves novel I, Claudius. This was at the very end of the story, after Claudius was dead [you did know that Claudius died, right? because he totally did], and what better way to cap off a depressing ending, what finer way to put a positive twist on tragedy than to let your viewers know that the bullshit in Rome is about to get a whole lot worse? The TV Nero is right, anyway. Fire is pretty. I wonder why that’s a mystery, why fire’s draw is a mystery, since everybody knows about it already. Nero is a mystery, too, mostly because he was crazy, and even though each of us has had extensive dealings with crazy people throughout our lives, we still find crazy people, especially famous ones, to be much more interesting than people who aren’t. I do, too, but I don’t think crazy people are a mystery. They’re just crazy.

A good friend of mine – Ben Percy – made that fire pictured above. Or I should say he created it. We were on a beach in Oregon and had some dry firewood, and Ben dug a hole in the sand with his hands, in the process of which he looked a great deal like 5’11’’ crab digging a defensive position to ward off a seagull invasion. Then he arranged some firewood into a little teepee, crumpled some newspaper and stuffed it under the teepee, lit a match, lit the paper, and within a few minutes, we had a mystery to stare into. A number of people we knew arrived to stare into the mystery, too. This was tons of fun, naturally.

I mean to address the way we think about writing, I guess. We think when we’re writing that we’re creating not a mystery in the genre sense but something mysterious, something intangible, something about which people can discuss and ponder and hazard guesses with respect to its ultimate meaning. Sure, if we’re lucky, people may talk about our poems and stories and novels and nifty books of nonfiction or whatever, but really, deep down, all we’re doing is trying to light a fire. AND if you light a phony gas fire in a bar, you want people to show up and buy drinks, too.

You’re not following me, are you?

Above is a picture of my career in literature. We have your Yankee grits, your Gringo Mexican food, and your plastic bag keeping this shit from spilling over the garbage can top and making a mess. To me, the metaphor should be obvious. So I’ll give you a few moments to ponder its significance.

Sometimes we have to contemplate matters for no reason other than necessity. Sometimes, in other words, we just can’t help thinking too much. This is a picture of The Mag’s Sentence Contemplative Center. Note the “weighty” literature we’re studying, particularly The Backroads European Vacation catalogue. I like to read that catalogue a lot, and I count that as one of my supreme acts of regular imagination because do you think I’m going on a European Vacation anytime soon? I used to have a book about Gandhi in the Contemplative Center, but that required way more than imagination to understand. That required intelligence.

Intelligence is what we need.

After that, we’re just sitting and thinking.


  1. What I've taken from this is that if I need to start a fire, I should go see Ben Percy.


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