Henry Miller (on interest, beauty, forgetfulness)

We were about a dozen, and we were trying to work out the places where discipline, artistry, ends, practice, spirit, livelihood, beginnings and joy intersect. (My submission: all over the place!) We got quiet, and then we talked, and then we ate. I contributed this apparently velvety and colourful, but finally stone-cold prescription from the writer Henry Miller:

“Develop interest in life as you see it; in people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.”

Henry Miller (1891-1980) was best known as a writer of frankly sexual and otherwise unconventional novels which were long banned in his American homeland. He wearied of his reputation as that naughty writer; he was a rather good one. This passage is cited in Julia Cameron’s The Sound of Paper. While it is good counsel for writers, it’s an even better idea for pret’near everybody.

By the Waters of Galilee

Among the delights of a summer spent home in Canada, squeezed between two years in China, was a weekend with the Baha’is in a little town near my capital home. Summer school: reunion, reflection, prayer and conversation, kids and laughter and sun through the trees. We talked and studied and played in a gorgeous riverside retreat, an oasis of Christian calm and service garnished with pine trees and sparkling waters. Sweet.

Bernie took his canoe, for dawn prayers of the paddling kind. Dona brought tennis rackets, and found a hitting partner slightly less disastrous than his bride. Rhonda retreated from just having packed her life to go to Pakistan – two weeks before the deluge. Wee Carmel brought her brown astonished eyes, and we were grateful. Our family circle grew, like a deep breath in, inspiration, maybe for a few days, possibly beyond. Nobody watched TV.

I watched clouds and learned from faces. I listened to spirited seminars and conversations blown through the woods. I try to see and hear them now, in the midst of the city millions, the car horns and the concrete and the day’s discourse that I don’t understand. I am in Dalian. I am in China. But I spent a few divine days in Galilee.

Writers Festival Day 1

One of the highlights of my year is a big shindig of word people talking about their words, and word-ivores like me snuffling contentedly at the word trough. As a writer, libraries can be overwhelming and bookstores – especially that big used bookstore downtown, with all those dried-out husks of once-hopeful publication – can knock me down and dishonour my remains. The Ottawa International Writers Festival does me good, though.

I’m inspired by great sentences. I’m inspired, in an odd but clear way, by the ordinariness of the people. When the writers are great, I’m inspired to believe that I could be good, too. (It took me a surprisingly long time to realize the degree to which I idealized, nay deified, writers. Traces of outworn idolatry remain, but the WritersFest helps me cleanse the sanctuary.) When the writers are mediocre, a less noble inspiration turns my crankiness: if (s)he can do it, NO MORE WAITING for me!! It’s not exactly righteous anger, but it’s a deformed cousin of it. Details at eleven. (Or whenever I strap myself to the keyboard next.)

ODY: Day 14

Two full weeks of the Old Dog Year are done. It is a perfect time to sit back and evaluate. How am I doing? What components of this self-indulgent midlife quest, this pale adventure, are effective and what parts need re-tooling?

Well, screw that. No nerdy analyses for me, at least not today. (I’m a natural at rumination.) I’m playing every day even when I’m lost. I make up stuff. I pretend. I turn off my critical ear and just make noises. Last night (yes, I’m cheating today: my after-midnight guitar churning was possible with eyes closed and a burnt brain, but I sure as hell couldn’t write), I tried to get a little smoother on the tunes I’m picking and the chords my fingers are trying to find.

Son Dave the TVPI has left town, and I may be forced to pay for lessons now. (He’ll still be a Teen Punk-rock Intellectual, perhaps the only one of his kind in Canada’s Nunavut territory, but a Vegan in the Arctic? Don’t think so. Pass the raw fish, please. And how would you like your caribou this morning?) Before we took him to the airport, the T(V)PI tuned the Dégas and pointed out that the E-major and A-minor chords that I’ve been practising are rather similar – the same fingering pattern, just one string higher – so that is a chord transition that I can learn to make. (Can a three-chord rock anthem be far behind?)

And since Dave was leaving, his brother Will had convinced a good buddy to drive him up for a visit: seven hours through the tail-end drowning of Hurricane Ernesto’s sorrows. Big Man Will (the only BMW I’ll ever have) and Little Jason are a Mutt and Jeff pair (see, I looked it up for you), an odd but loyal funship, a couple of guys who can yack and laugh without end. Jay was one of the funniest kids I ever tried to teach, funny/quirky and funny/ha-ha and an apparently hopeless student. He bobbed and floated like a drunken butterfly through a couple of my English classes, writing and reading what he had to. He showed up and passed ‘em, but somehow managed to flunk guitar class miserably.

And somewhere in the four years since, Little Jay Forbes picked up the guitar again, along with a pencil, some chords and a million burning ideas. He walks through malls and hears riffs and runs for his guitar. He writes like a mad thing at 4 a.m., sings in local restaurants and Legion halls and just had a professional pressing of his first CD of original songs. He sang for his spaghetti last night in my basement, a tune too new for the album, and it was full of clear-voiced feeling and melody and solid guitar playing. It makes no sense at all, this development in his life, which is why I love it. Jay Forbes, the six-string dropout and English class lounge act, made interesting music come out of my broke-neck guitar. If I can’t find inspiration there, I ain’t lookin’ for it.   

It’s Where You Find It

So here’s a sports take with literary flavour (or perhaps just a slightly bitter aftertaste. Fear not, my brave ones!) I find that I’m relearning lessons I thought I’d mastered in the more sweat-soaked phases of my life. I’m listening to this advice, directed to those who think they might have something to say in print. It’s all about the drive, but it takes an interesting road in talking about it.

“Most writers must learn to make a pact with dullness. Not boredom, or lack of imagination or passion, but dullness of routine. Keep your daily appointment with the computer screen and keep your ass on the chair until you’ve reached your daily quota. However rich your inner life may be, seek also the dullard within.” David Carpenter’s credo, the foundation of his life in letters (he’s a short story writer and novelist, among other things), is a call I can understand. It says to any writer – this writer – that the idea of waiting around for Inspiration to come one’s way, that the idea of waiting at all for good things to somehow find us, is not only silly but actually takes the legs out from under any ambition or project.

As a long-time athlete and coach, I thought I knew this. No pain, no Spain was a jock mantra in the buildup to the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. I used to make my basketball teams read a mossy but nonetheless wonderful hymn to athletes by the early-20th century sports journalist Grantland Rice. It was a poem (a jock poem!) called “How to Be a Champion”, and it ended like this:

You wonder how they do it and you look to see the knack,
You watch the foot in action, or the shoulder, or the back,
But when you spot the answer where the higher glamours lurk…
That the most of it is practice, and the rest of it is work.

You have to put in the hours. You hope that Inspiration will seep into the cracks of all your efforts, but you don’t wait for the tap at the window. You go out and find her. You take that daily constitutional. You do your reps. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re hoisting jumpshot after jumpshot, pumping iron, working on your chord changes or getting your daily pages done.

I’m listening to Grantland Rice. (You know GR. This is his, too: “For when the One Great Scorer comes / To write against your name, / He marks not that you won or lost / But how you played the Game.” One of the great things we ever got from sport, say I.) I like Carpenter’s dullard within, too. But this is wisdom that goes far deeper than our centuries, thoughts much older than the NBA or the Olympics or even that great hitter, Willie Shakespeare. There is an ancient Arab proverb which says, “He who seeketh out a thing with zeal shall find it.” And one of the only verses from the Qur’án that I know from memory speaks with the Creator’s almighty and encouraging voice: “Whoso maketh efforts for Us, in Our ways will We assuredly guide him.” Now, that’s inspiration. (So’s my mother. Happy 86th, Mum.)