A.L. Kennedy (on rewriting and joy and justice)

Wendy-joon, who doesn’t Tweet – who doesn’t even write much, that I know of – is nonetheless a chronically well-read haunter of libraries. If you see her driving ‘round town, you may see a slightly open-mouthed look of attention on her face, an intense calm, if she’s listening to one of the books-on-CD that is among the 7 or 27 that she’s borrowed from her local branch. (Libraries! What pillars of civilized living they are!) And now that I’m officially an Automobile Owner again, she even has me hooked on the habit of listening to books. Yesterday, a 20-minute stick-shift errand turned into a two-hour drive because of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home, but that’s not what this post is about.

I like this person. This photo courtesy of The Guardian, where I think her blog appeared. (Or appears.)

I like this person. This photo courtesy of The Guardian, where I think her blog appeared. (Or appears.)

My Wendyful friend wouldn’t let me leave her home the other month without A.L. Kennedy’s On Writing. Stephen King’s same-titled look at the scribbling life was great, and I was up for another even if I’d never heard of Ms. Kennedy. She’s a wordsmith and often a funny one, but her artistic aim is true. Much of the book is simply a collection of her blogs on the writing life over a few years. They’re short, witty, wise, and not infrequently they draw blood.

So now I’m a Kennedy fan, though I’ve never read any of her six collections of short stories or half-a-dozen novels. She also teaches creative writing, an activity about which she is amusingly and reasonably doubtful. Yet as she went back to start a new term at Warwick University, she focussed on the delights of the job. One of those deep pleasures, in the midst of the general deafening solitude of her writing life, was the mere collegiality of the thing, the fellow-feeling, being among others for whom word-spinning is also bread and hearth and home.

The second great delight, she says, is in re-writing.

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Robert Frost (on (not)thinking)

“Thinking isn’t agreeing or disagreeing. That’s voting.

Robert Frost, 1874-1963, American poet, in a quote I’ve saved for years.* It makes for a fine back-to-the-future companion to my own, decidedly-less-concise March ’13 ramblings about the nature of thinking and not-thinking, here. I fear that our predominant culture — infotainment, media saturation, the obsession with the unimportant — makes the mature arts of reflection and profound knowing ever more difficult to cultivate. The Baha’is are doing some wonderful grassroots work to counter this tendency. The more I think about it, the more revolutionary, counter-cultural and necessary it appears. I don’t know much about the great Frost’s spiritual inclinations, but I think he’d dig the methodology, the “promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep / And miles to go before I sleep”.

* Faithful readers of this site may have noticed that I’m gradually re-posting quotes that appeared over the years on the earlier incarnation of, and we’re up to 2010 already as of March 9, 2013. Hurray!

Are You Thinking Yet?

How do we know when we’re actually thinking? Someone once said that if you don’t know a second language, you can never know whether you are thinking or simply replaying a skull-encased recording of other people’s views, Coke jingles, cultural driftwood and stale tales that pass from gossip to “common sense”. But I speak a second language and shards of other ones, and while I love to find the way another coding system expresses an idea or an action, I don’t think that mental access to another manner of speaking is any guarantee of thought, either.

All this in light of the Robert Frost quote I recently found — “to learn to write is to learn to have ideas” — and use in every class and in my own auto-peptalks. Sometimes — I think — I come closest to genuine thinking when I’m writing. How can I know what I think ’til I see what I’ve said? (Somebody. Another orphan quote.) And maybe the repeated citation of other people’s bons mots is also a sure way to avoid original thought. But I doubt that. (!)

Return of the LitWit

So I raise my head blearily from the long, muddy furrow in which I’ve been crawling for several months – it looks, to the inexperienced eye, like a clean and well-lit classroom – and I remember I used to believe in a question.

How can I know what I think till I see what I say?

That’s the novelist E.M. Forster (A Passage to India, Howard’s End) reminding himself and any would-be-wise guy that writing is, among many other things, a way of understanding. Judging from my strangled output over the last year and more, I don’t understand much when I’m teaching full-time. (And coaching. And trying desperately to influence the young, face to face. Madly off in all directions. (Thank you, Stephen Leacock.) Running to stand still? Sometimes.)

I do know exactly where I am when I face a group of students. It’s natural, it’s demanding, and I’m only slightly less manic-energetic than I used to be. But the sense of déjà vu sometimes weighs heavily, and while I know exactly what I’m doing, and while even a ninth-grade French class can turn into a chance to clarify and express my views on matters mighty and minor, I am not finding Forster. I have not been stretching and stressing my brain and typing fingers. More and more, lately, I’ve been feeling this absence from my life, hence today’s self-involved posting.

I’m back, not that cyberspace missed me much. Today, I like writing.