Learning by Imitation

Imitation is a wonderful teacher. One learns this especially by failing at it.

Today’s post arises in part, from a quick-write exercise I did with students some time ago, about how we learn by imitation, inspired by a TED talk by the artist Hetain Patel, “Who Are You? Think Again.” When possible, I do these free writing exercises with them, and whenever I do, I vow to do it more. Invariably, some interruption will void this intention. Still, it’s always worth repeating. I am thinking about the subject of learning by imitation today. The other part is that I needed to find this post for my offering today, because of time constraints.

I drafted this one awhile back, but never posted it. I wasn’t blogging daily then. More like 3-15 times per year. Now it’s daily and after forty days, I added a time constraint. Doing this takes away the luxury of being too choosy. I can’t hem and haw over what goes up; all I can do is offer the best I have within a given hour. Today, as I was preparing to enter the 15-minute “think of an idea” phase, I got distracted by another question: What other poets/literary writers are keeping blogs and what can I learn from them?  There went my hour. The good news is, I can learn a lot. I’ve already learned that I am going to have to migrate to WordPress in order to be able to have some of the functions and features I will want long-term, so now I am adding “learn how to migrate website to WordPress” to my to-do list. It may take a little while, but I can learn. 

 “Sample Book” by scrappy annie on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic license. 

So now, it makes sense to share this other thing. One, because it’s what I have right now. Two, because it just happens to be precisely relevant to today’s thoughts. It’s funny how unexpected diversions and interruptions can lead to new discoveries. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what I mean to be showing and doing here. It was fun to find this one again. It was about a ten-minute exercise, I think. I was most likely interrupted by a hall pass after about five. But I had forgotten these things, and finding them today made me chuckle:

I used to covet the friendship bracelets of my older cousin, Kelly. Even at thirteen, I knew that what separated me from Kelly was more than the two years she had ahead of me, and more than her fashion sense. We were different types. I felt this with a sort of ominous dread. Kelly always had a boyfriend, and it was hard to imagine her ever suffering through the malaise of generalized heartbreak that was my consistent companion.

I remember wanting to have some sort of word that I said differently than everyone else, that could be “my word.” My first friend, Tara, had “beltseat” and “brefkast”, my grandmother stacked my grandfather’s t-shirts in the “armoire,” my dad could say “fuggettabbouttit” believably and my mom said “draw” instead of “drawer.” My third grade teacher, Mrs. Reynolds said “idear” and “umbreller.” I tried out different ways of saying orange — or ah-range, and I could never decide which fit best. Eventually, I forgot the whole endeavor.

Then, one day when I was fourteen or so — maybe younger, there was this girl. I can’t remember her name anymore. She was a varsity swimmer — confident, self-assured, and never without something to say that people seemed inclined to listen to. She was the sort of girl who seemed to operate on an ingrained assumption that the things that went through her head would naturally be of interest to others. In short, she had certain qualities I sorely lacked, and I watched her with some puzzlement, wondering how one would go about attaining them.

There was one thing tangible I could discern. Whenever the subject of bagels came up, she said “bahgel” and she never hesitated to get extra cream cheese on hers. It was a horrifying amount of cream cheese, a giant slab that appeared about as thick as one of the bagel halves it came between, an amount I could never imagine consuming with any degree of ease, especially not in public. She could, though, and did, and as I watched her eat with relish in the team van, without any sense of shame,  I understood that there was something greater than age or pronunciation quirks separating us. I gave up trying to say the word as she did, because it felt like a great pretension. I didn’t mind a pretension; in fact it felt like I really could use one or two, but “bahgel” felt obnoxiously contrived and false. So I went back to saying it the regular way, “Just plain, thank you,” no butter and no cream cheese, and peeled mine slowly from the outside in, trying to make it last, fighting against the urge to tear it in half with my teeth like a crazed wolf.

Imitation is a wonderful teacher. One learns this especially by failing at it. As Patel observes in his talk, “. . . contrary to what we might usually assume, imitating somebody can reveal something unique. So every time I fail to become more like my father, I become more like myself. Every time I fail to become Bruce Lee, I become more authentically me.”

I’ve been looking at poet/writer blogs all morning, and I don’t see a single one I can imitate seamlessly. I see many I can learn from. I take a lot of hope in this: the idea that imitating means I don’t have to start from scratch, and failing at it means I am being real about who I am, what I do, and how I see. In a world that often praises an empty and misunderstood “authenticity” I want something lasting, something that is honest, and something that surprises and renews my perspective by never being exactly what I planned. So here’s to learning by imitation.

Writing in the Dark, and What it’s Like to Be a Bat

One of the best things about being a writer is getting to hang out in a space of researching these questions.

One of the interesting challenges of keeping this daily practice of posting here, is noticing how often I face a sense of having nothing to share. Earlier this week, I began some early notes for what I think are two distinct coming long-term projects, and I also revised a poetry manuscript. Those are unwieldy and not appropriate for publication here. I thought of sharing something I found this morning, but I had written it years ago and part of my intention in showing up here is with new pieces, ready or not. I want to practice what I am trying to teach myself, which is, among other things: that even when you feel like you don’t have enough, or feel unworthy, there is always something new to share. Just because. It’s hard to learn this because the world is so much. Mostly, I want to avoid walking out there, especially with some creative infant child in my arms.

So, baby steps. I am coming up on forty days into this practice (Hah! I think as I write this, The length of a Biblical desert fast! What’s next, visions?! Hang on!) and after an enthusiastic day one, I have been having plenty of good practice in noticing that every day there’s a block, and every day, something new. By this point, I have learned to expect that the next time I get writer’s block (either in five minutes, one hour or tomorrow morning), I’ll just keep writing through it.  Sort of like breathing through the thing that starts to feel like despair or laughing while crying. 

I feel mostly as though I never have anything to say (if saying means, “All must hear this!”), but I can’t know what I think (and sometimes feel) without writing. As a result, I have lots of backup techniques with which to treat such paralysis. My writing self, I have learned, must be treated like a terrified, sickly child in need of a lot of extra support. I keep books of prompts handy, and bookmark weird news sites and craigslist ads, also photography sites and art books. Many days, I look up “This Day in History” to see if anything kindles there. If I still come up short, it can be fruitful to try an erasure or a found poem of another text. The worst that can happen from that is that I will spend some time reading a text I might otherwise not read. It can teach me something new. 

Juvenile Mariana Fruit Bat by USFWS-Pacific Region on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic license

Thinking about what to post here today, I checked my usual places and seemed to be coming up with nothing. But then I learned that it was on this day in 1937 that American philosopher Thomas Nagel was born. I’ve been obsessed about questions of understanding and what can’t be understood, thinking and what can’t be thought through, and (always) with the question of how to be––here, in this impossible world.  I jumped at the chance to return to his “What it’s Like to Be a Bat.” The only problem with using this text for found poetry is that I loved so many whole phrases and complete sentences, that I had to leave them intact. I thought about italicizing these sections, as though to give credit to the author, who might very well be appalled at the gross modifications and reductions of this excellent text, the focus of which is largely a question of certain inherent problems in reductionist tendencies. But then, I just italicized the whole thing. It’s an exercise. Consider the words stolen, the arrangement sometimes mine.

But, as I say to the child writer whom I’m trying to coax into writing today’s piece, “Oh, well! It was a good time, wasn’t it?! And no one got hurt!” I highly recommend the process, which if you cut out the time hemming and hawing over what to do, is entirely intuitive and basically involves trying not to think while you pluck out words and phrases of interest. Generally, something like this may be done in 1-15 minutes, which makes it great for a practice exercise. In this case, I made some attempt to honor the spirit of the work, but I took liberties with delivery and nuance. 

Caveat: I still don’t know what it’s like to be a bat. But at least I got to hang out in a space of researching the question, which is one of the best things about being a writer. 

Consciousness, the mind body problem, is intractable. 
Current discussions get it obviously wrong.


Reductionist euphoria is designed to explain, but
problems are ignored. Philosophers share a human 
weakness for what is familiar, hence familiar reductions.


Without consciousness, it seems hopeless. 
Perhaps a new form can be, in the distant future.


Extremists deny this. It is impossible to exclude experience.
Ever spent time in an enclosed space, with an excited bat?


Now there is an alien form of life! Consider echolocation, 
how they whisper with their shrieks, how different from 
any sense we possess. What is it like to be a bat?

We cannot form more than a schematic conception.
If there is conscious life elsewhere in the universe,
it is likely that some of it will not be describable. 
It would be foolish to doubt that there are facts

which humans will never possess, just as it would to be convinced that the bats’ experience, once thoroughly observed, may be known.

What would be left if you removed the viewpoint of the bat? Here is a general difficulty.There is an effort to substitute the concept of mind for the real thing, to have nothing left over which cannot be reduced.  What next? What it is, remains a mystery.

The apparent clarity of the word “is,” is deceptive.
Suppose a caterpillar, locked in a safe, by someone unfamiliar with metamorphosis. Weeks later, a butterfly! One might think a tiny, winged parasite devoured the original, and grew.


Does it make sense to ask what my experiences are really like, beyond how they appear?
Proposal: it may be possible to approach from another direction, separate from empathy or imagination. It would not capture; it’s goal would be to describe.


One might try to develop concepts that could be used to explain to a person blind from birth what it was like to see, and vice versa.  One would reach a blank wall, eventually, but still. Possible. 
Red is not quite the sound of a trumpet. I am indebted to many people for their comments.


If one understood how subjective experience could have an objective nature, one would understand the existence of subjects other than oneself.

Note to artist-child-self: now go look at bats. If none are available, because daytime, birds will do. Watch. Then later, remember to write again. Do this impossible, necessary exercise of making something even if it isn’t sense, of what you may not know. 

Ways of Looking

Deep attention is precious because it is so rare, and it speaks to what is endangered within us. This is worth fighting for.

I recently finished reading a beautiful, difficult-to-categorize novel that was almost not published. It’s Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, (the title a reference to the Kurosawa film, which features heavily throughout the story), and it was deemed by most of those who could have published it to be too difficult. People wouldn’t get it. I had never heard of it, and then I heard it mentioned twice, with earnest praise, by serious poets I was following, whose work had been sustaining me in profound ways. Serious poets are one group who tends to know especially well the loneliness of creating what no one is asking for. I had to read the book that they found so sustaining, and now I am so grateful I did.  

I won’t even try to summarize any of it here. It won’t work, because what happens in this book is not going to lend itself to any sort of succinct overview. Suffice to say, there are parallel plots: a boy looking for his father, and his mother looking for some relief from predictable banality. Her artistic sensibilities are extremely heightened, and she is the sort to be in the handful of about five people left in an audience after a renowned composer tries difficult work, exploring really new territory. The composer, too, suffers from a crisis of faith, no longer wanting to perform or create CDs when there are only about five people who would want to listen to the type of music that he finds interesting now. Each of these characters is wearied by the commodification of the familiar. None have material wealth, and all feel the limitations of not having money, in real ways. And yet. The mother, who had tried to kill herself long ago, before the son was born, is someone for whom the presence of deeply honest art may be a life-saving force.

I won’t get into further details here, except to note something profound that DeWitt writes in the afterword.  She is describing the irony of living in a world where “humanities are increasingly dismissed as impractical and whatever counts as STEM is a good thing because practical. But we don’t live in a society where every schoolchild has Korner’s The Pleasures of Counting, or Steiner’s The Chemistry Maths Book, . . . Lang’s Astrophysical Formulae. . .” She goes on to observe that “perhaps we should really be more interested in the unknown capabilities of the reader.” She reflects on the way that her manuscript was summarily dismissed for years, and also on the intensity of the response of those readers who have connected with it. She writes, “It’s not hard to imagine a world where the effect of the book on what has been a coterie of readers is multiplied to the point where general assumptions about what is possible are changed.” Perhaps alluding to the strict ethical code observed by the samurai who feature so prominently in her book, DeWitt observes, of this possible new world, that while it is “by no means unflawed, . . .it looks better than what we have. We should fight for it when and where we can.” I am so deeply grateful to this writer for persisting in her vision when all signs (as they are typically read) pointed to giving up and abandoning her vision for something “more practical.”

“The Last Samurai” by Óscar Velázquez on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 Generic license.

These thoughts happened to coincide with some vague awareness I’ve been coming to lately, about connections between honesty, risk, and gratitude. It came to me while I was observing someone who was being celebrated, who seemed rather bored by their own following, even as they had come to depend in certain ways on the attention. When there’s so much of it, the attention itself becomes excessive, perhaps even cheapened. With some people in public places doing things publicly, an offering of appreciation seems to get absorbed into an echo chamber, validating whatever sense of greatness was already felt before the performance began, looping back the grand stature like the canned soundtrack of some preordained manifest destiny, as if someone has taken a carefully prepared, handmade gift and tossed it without looking on the overflowing table behind them.

But with others, when someone approaches with gratitude, reflecting their light back to its source, they cannot help but wonder: who is this here, seeing; really seeing? How is it that some kindred soul in this moment of abject, naked vulnerability, will manage to stop and look? These others return the gaze, inviting the pilgrim to meet them; to rediscover, in the wild, the sort of contact once thought extinct. The attention is precious because it is so rare, and it is meaningful because it speaks to what is rare and endangered within us. This is worth fighting for.

Remembering Forward and Back

A cannibal galaxy has such gravity that it may eat other galaxies. Some moments in time are like that.

There are moments when you are inside something, noticing what you will remember when it’s done. Or there are exploding moments and you can’t help but notice the blast of certain solid-seeming ideas. It’s a protected site: caution tape, guards. You can’t go around taking things from it, so you look, gathering images for later when you’re no longer at the site, for when the site itself no longer exists except perhaps as a memorial, for when you are considering, in memorial, what remains.

A cannibal galaxy has such gravity that it may eat other galaxies. Some moments in time are like that, eating any memory of what happened before or after. You try to recover, but can do no better than metaphor.

It was like being inside a Dali painting, melted face propped on a stick. It was like being stuck on top of the monkey bars or like one of those dreams where you are trying to scream and the words won’t come out. The problem with trying to tell some stories is that the origin point was consumed by other origin points, cannibal moments.

It was like another dream, also: driving a car up a ramp. The ramp is so steep that it’s practically vertical. The road is narrow and it is over a bridge and the bridge is over sky and space and water and whatever you might be about to fall into is on both sides, close, and there is no way to reverse, but you see that the road ahead of you will very soon drop off into sky. You head up anyway, accepting a certain lack of choice. Or choosing to accept that the original decision was already made when you got into the car and started driving. That moment never shows up in the dream, not once.

Or it was like being underwater, in the quiet susurration of it, trying to resist the temptation to surface for air.

Or it was like flight/not flight, as in jumping up, bouncing off, or being thrown, that moment in midair when the breath catches.

And while you’re catching your breath you know that it was indeed like all of these things, but none exactly, and for the time being you are all out of words. Sometimes all you want to do is hang on to some scrap of fallen silence at your feet and close your eyes, as if doing so could make it possible to return to some moment just before.

Blessing the Torn Sky

A few hours ago, I learned it was Lucille Clifton’s birthday, and thought immediately of her beautiful “Blessing the Boats.” Then I knew what to do with what I was meaning to notice, from yesterday’s time at Balboa Park, which is right near San Diego’s airport, where the planes fly very low.

May the sky
that tears above us
every ten minutes
with the next landing
hold you still
in its infinities, barely
contained. May you notice
the webs noiselessly repaired
in the shade-giving tree. 

May you hold the noise
and feel its impact, understand
what it means to live
in the time of tearing skies
and then turn your ears 
to the hush of leaves against
leavings, expanding in chorus
above you and to the hawks
overhead, and then to the drums
beneath the tree down the hill. Watch

––the dancers in unison and each 
their own, leaves singing the leaving 
of an ancient dance, remembered
in chorus in ways that it may never be, 
alone, in the place you go first to notice
the dead 
        before they are named. 

May you see
​             the bird on the low, long branch,
how violently its blood-red breast sways 
with each new tear in the still-aching
sky. May you study like these near the drums,
those songs that time and distance and generations
of death would have killed by now if they had not 
recognized, first alone and then in chorus, 
how the only way to mark the days of 
separation by sea and torn sky
is by gripping what moves beneath you

as you grip what moves through you, as
the same song, the same flight, holding
first until you can move into it, even as
you notice each fresh wound, tearing a 

body you once thought eternal, prone to 
capricious moods but never injury, and 
may you know how something new happens
now, even if: the wound is real and yes, it is

another man with a sword, eager to pierce
the next heaven, and you know what this
is because flesh won’t forget, insisting against
its own small space, on dancing eulogies in 
concert 

with the still uncounted souls waiting
here, beneath this torn heaven, for the next 
sign, and may you trace it, holding the line and
waiting to carry it, may you wait and hold, listen

and then cry out when the time is right, as the hawks
above have been doing ever since you arrived, finding
in the act of swaying with each pointed arrival, each
still-dripping wound, some way to recognize, 

even as you feel each cut from your crown 
to your feet, how none ever sever you from it. 
May you hold your hands up, open to 
these wounded forevers, 

and sway.

On the Liquidity of Solid-Seeming Cats

What else is a writer, but always moving in and out of places that are supposed to be off limits?

One learns early (children, cats) that there is a certain way to comport oneself in public, especially around men. Like most authentic educational experiences, transmission is done more through example than direct instruction. 

Reasons didn’t matter to me early on, only how to be. I wouldn’t consider questions of why until later. Men in public places might be easily confused, threatened, or alarmed, any of which might bring out the worst. A body adapts around certain givens in nature, or at least tries to. 

Early in adolescence, I just wanted to get the moves right and remember my lines, but I had no natural aptitude for the role. I watched other girls pull it off in a manner that seemed no different than their natural selves. They were graceful and coquettish; pliant and mysterious all at once. But I felt like a semi-sedated lion at a zoo exhibit, all my wild drugged out of me until all that there was left to do was look out through my wild eyes and hope they didn’t give me away. 

Those eyes. an old woman once said, like a cat!

“Shhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!” I wanted to whisper-shout back at her. This was early on in my experiment.  Over time, I learned, and decades later (which happened to be a few years before I could fully recognize certain problems manifest in this area of study and practice – I knew that I had emerged with top marks, as evidenced by regular complements as to my smile, “easygoing nature” which I read as familiarity with certain grooming practices and mannerisms aligned with the male gaze).

It’s tempting to regret learning this, but probably futile. Knowing how to be invisible in public, how to wear veils, how and when to find the mute button on my unwieldy self, certainly afforded me certain measures of protection that I’d love to imagine myself innately resilient enough to go without, but which were probably needed. The cost of these preoccupies me lately, but it’s not like I anyone can return old lessons for a refund. As a writer, I can only turn it around, look for other angles, find some useful rationale. 

In this vein, I’ve been observing how learning to be inconspicuous is a necessary part of any sort of undercover work. What else is a writer, but always moving in and out of places that are supposed to be off limits? I grew up in the age when to “be real” seemed to be linked with a no-holds-barred sort of no-filter mystique. I watched this lauded with a sense of dread and despair, recognizing that I was constitutionally incapable of this state. 

A body learns, over time, to let go of its binary notions: authentic/invented, delicate/fierce, domesticated/wild, tender/hard. If these binaries serve any purpose, it is in creating a tension that is interesting to work with. A dancer learns to compose, with the instrument of their body, a vivid display of movement that suggests that they have managed to remove the filter between emotional states and bodily expression. In fact, they have learned to explore, lean into, and play with the body’s own limits and abilities, to achieve something that lets an audience imagine limitlessness. To achieve this, a dancer contorts into all manner of difficult and often painful postures.

In their excellent book, Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People, acclaimed object-oriented philosopher Timothy Morton makes an interesting observation about cats. Morton observes how cats occupy the liminal space “between” humankind and the so-called “Natural world.” This is to highlight another false binary, namely human/nature. 

Photo by Kirsten Bu00fchne on Pexels.com

This week I have been watching my cat with heightened interest. My interest is selfish, another funny word, implying a binary between selfish/unselfish which is problematic and likely impossible for any being whose survival depends on connection with an intricate network of human and non-human beings. I am on the lookout for clues about walking in two worlds. Considering writing, loving, and any creative work, the idea of an extended retreat is infinitely appealing, and for most of us, just as unlikely, as far as life options go. In most cases, creating anything requires a fluidity of movement between worlds.

I notice that my cat may go from sleeping in my purse to leaping over the back gate in less than five seconds. Her shapeshifting powers are a wonder to behold, but perhaps she is not shapeshifting at all even though she appears at certain times to be in one state or another (resting/leaping, domestic/wild, waiting/hunting) ––only endlessly fluid. I’m fairly certain she’ll return in the evening, contort herself into various impossible-looking nap positions, wander around, stare at me with that look that cats get, like the old sage waiting for the neophyte to move beyond lesson one.

Tell Me Something, Good

Sometimes the world shifts and lets you notice a thing that you’ve been technically seeing all along, plain as the air you’ve been breathing and equally invisible.

One day it occurred to me that I could not remember the last time I had wanted to talk to anyone.

I had been talking plenty, whenever the situation called for it. I had mostly enjoyed these exchanges, even when I dreaded them in advance. My pause came from realizing that I could not remember ever once being in a silent state of restful solitude and thinking that it would be better if I were talking. Sure, I wondered how various people were doing; I wanted them to know that I thought of them, but these feelings have to do with love and connection and not the desire to utter any actual words. I had to really ransack my mind looking for an example of a time when talk was the thing I desired. Still, I couldn’t find any. I am an introvert who fears being something else, namely an alien ill-suited for life here. This seemed like an ominous sign.

Never? I wondered. What an inauspicious thing to observe in oneself. I immediately red-flagged this newfound awareness as the sort of thing I should probably never say out loud to another human being (The irony!). To be introverted is one thing, but surely this new awareness indicated some sort of solitary leanings in the extreme, possibly pathological. Perhaps some dark secret had been hidden and missed all along.

But then I realized something else. It was also true that I could not think of a single time when I was in a resting solitary state and I suddenly thought that I would like to write. (Not once? I wondered, checked. Nope, not once––not since childhood, anyway).  

I love writing like the desperate love anything––as in, it feels like misery but I would not want to live without it. I could think of plenty of times where I had to write, or decided to do so in order to fulfill some obligation, and other times when an impulse came knocking and I answered the door. I had often looked forward to long periods of imaginary uninterrupted interludes during which I would be writing, even though I had never actually thought, while resting, anything like: This moment would be greatly enhanced if I were moving a pen along a page. 

And yet, I could think of no examples where I had ever regretted writing (but a few where I regretted hitting “send”). Considering conversation, similar themes emerged. It was never the talking I regretted (except when it took me from writing for too long), only what I did and did not manage to say.

“Wolf Concert” by Tambako The Jaguar on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Sometimes the world shifts and lets you notice a thing that you’ve been technically seeing all along, plain as the air you’ve been breathing and equally invisible. I did not dislike any available forms of communication: not speech, not writing, not dance, and not song. All were needs, and I had been prone to dreading each of them in particular ways. 

Words are so hard to deal with, and the dealing is always such a burden. Like hearts, like loves, like babies and bodies, and water; and bodies of water; and loving hearts; and the burden of carrying each one around, holding its beating insistence, its incessant demands; its relentless flooding of life into limbs and everywhere else it goes, in all the ways that are always so impossible to explain. 

Words are such a chore. I might put them off forever. All I ever want are those quiet, fluid, indefinable spaces housing the soft rise and fall of one beloved’s breath beside me; the weight of an open palm on my knee, and possibilities only tasted and never adequately described, by lips pressing into a sleeping head under my arm. All I ever miss is never words, but the sound of quiet breathing in the same room, its implied command a simple one, and as easy to follow as my own next breath. Like, Shhhhh. Like, Wait. Hold. Don’t Move. Here.

These words, these words, give me some. Let me give them back to you. Even though we both, by now, should recognize them for what they are: crude and heavy, the burdensome hot-mess cousins to the queens and kings and holy babies we are trying to sing about. Still, you work with what you have, and sometimes these are the only available tools after the quiet-by-your-side-breaths stop, and the weight of a hand has vanished, and a body fails to contain the parts that are relentlessly flying away.

Card Tricks and other Joys of Research

Writing gives me all sorts of excuses to go looking into cool things like a little kid on an extended break.

Sometimes, when I’m all out of sparks, I open one of my magic books. I have about five of these, acquired a few years back when I had a magician character in mind. 

That was my stated reason, anyway, but I confess that it is also true that I just think magic books are cool, and writing gives me all sorts of excuses to go looking into cool things like a little kid on an extended break. To the dismissive voice that might be lurking in the shadows waiting to shout, “Dilettante!” –I can call these pursuits Research (note capital ‘R’). This because I call myself Writer (see capital ‘W’).  It’s a title ripe for claiming, apparently, somewhat like Napoleon’s crown, but with much less bloodshed.  All you have to do is keep it is keep showing up, writing pen in hand, and move it along. 

One of my favorite writers of all time is Percival Everett, and I was delighted to learn, in an interview I listened to last year, that while he found the process of writing books generally difficult, angst-ridden, and unpleasurable (while also unavoidable), he found research to be a lot of fun. I was grateful that he dispelled the myth of writing as a grand old time. I have heard that it is for some, and I don’t think they are lying, but I’ve only rarely found it to be anywhere close to unpainful, much like necessary exercise.  That’s probably because my idea of fun is getting a bunch of margaritas and waxing loopy while making up song lyrics with friends, speaking in tongues and accents if with small children, or, if alone, laughing at cat memes. 

Point being, research has benefits. Among these is that when one of the horsemen of distraction come in (Thank you, Sarah, for sharing this “Four Horsemen of Procrastination”meme with me after I wrote about the challenges that come when the muse gets replaced by “That Guy“), to  ask, while I am trying to work out some interpretation of a proverb or philosophical paradox, something like, “Do you know any card tricks?” –– I can open an as-yet-unopened resource and compose an answer primarily of found passages and annotations. Such as this one, culled from the introduction to The Royal Road to Card Magic, by Jean Hugard and Frederick Braue.:

Modern magic is a vocation, a national convention
conjuring an art. In return for time and effort,
reap friends and spectators.

There are many  
whenever a pack is uninitiated, 
dumbfounding with impressions
of skill. 

There is always something 
in the effective sleight, 
unless striking feats from
wonder to wonder.

I wait for some response. The dark horseman of distraction slinks off. He was apparently hoping I would join him in some sort of illicit internet foray into all manner of card tricks.

Here the internal voice gets a moment of jubilation. “Hah!” she erupts,  “Another point for research!” Gentle reader, forgive her this cocky jubilation, as she is an endangered creature riddled with doubt.  And to the retreating back of this hooded gangster, she now shouts: “I told you I was trying to get to these proverbs! Now what?!” 

And now I may get back to writing this thing I am meaning to write.

But Why Bother? In Defense of Nobody’s Heroes

There is a lot to value about artistic recognition, but this is a cheer for the value of being solidly nobody.

There is a lot to value about artistic recognition, but this is a cheer for the value of being solidly nobody. Considering the Zen idea of “beginner’s mind, best mind” helps to highlight how the point is to keep beginning. The people I find most interesting (both well-recognized and completely unknown) are those who are more interested in what is confusing or new to them than anything they have already done. Life rarely fits any limited ideas of what it should look like, and this is the deep appeal of the misfit creative beings who go on doing their thing, pursuing deep interests and questions: not because anyone is asking, but because there is some life there, and sometimes because no one else is looking for or after it. 

To share from the point of strangeness and isolation, a person may create openings in the walls of strangeness and isolation that prevent us from knowing each other. It is interesting and deeply human, and a deeply loving act of service: the project of creating homes and supportive ecosystems that work with and for ourselves and the lives around us, regardless of who is or isn’t asking, noticing, picking up, or recognizing. 

Frank McCourt was sixty-six when he published Angela’s Ashes. He had spent a career as a teacher. Alma Woodsey Thomas had her first show at the age of seventy-five, after a thirty-five-year career teaching art in DC public schools. Mary Delany was seventy-two when she invented her own art form, mixed media collage. 

I am currently reading Helen DeWitt’s brilliant novel, The Last Samurai, which she published at the age of forty-three. This may seem relatively young, until you realize how early and earnestly she began. We live in a culture that loves to celebrate the young phenom, the wild breakout success, but I take heart in knowing that DeWitt’s brilliant “debut” was her 50th manuscript.  In each of the preceding forty-nine, she had labored diligently and faithfully toward her art, in hopes that it would be read and recognized. She was right, but she may have been “proven wrong” if she stopped after the first forty-nine “failures.” I doubt these were artistic failures, now that I have read DeWitt’s work, but her singular brilliance and truly groundbreaking aesthetic no doubt made unfamiliar demands on her readers, so it was likely passed over, in favor of more easily accessible and familiar styles.

These heroes are the passionate, sensitive artists who managed to maintain artistic vision and practice while working in other roles. Recognizing and celebrating the life-giving courage of their radical acts can be a healthy antidote to the common tendency to see perceived limitations as impediments to artistic development. I could do my work if only –– fill in the blanks, depending on the mood and obstacles of the moment. But if the goal is protection and preservation of life, then obstacles and moods, while deeply relevant to our being in the world, have no relevance (generally, in professional life) on whether the work gets done or not.

“Pygmy Tarsiers” by Rodney Campbell on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 Generic License. *

I am consistently honored, thrilled, and humbled by the power of artists who demonstrate this level of artistic professionalism even as they play working roles as plumbers and dishwashers, house cleaners and repair people; chefs and diaper changers and all-around creative inspirations for managing the way the flow of the substance of any given day can feel like trying to take a sip through a fire hose while trying not to perish from drowning or thirst. 

It’s like that. Not sometimes, not exceptionally; but most of the time, and consistently. I’d rather learn to work with these conditions than cross my fingers and hope for better ones someday. 

*The pygmy tarsier, a nocturnal primate native to Indonesia, was widely believed to have gone extinct in the early 20th century, but then it was accidentally captured (and sadly killed) in a rat trap in the year 2000. Fortunately, since then, several other members of the species have made appearances, and their movements are now being tracked and monitored with great hope, interest, and appreciation for their fragility. One of my favorite species of internet research is searching up newly discovered and rediscovered species. 

When the Muse is On Vacation and they Send in This Guy

So I am now getting down to it.  Ready.  Here I go. Wait –– okay, now.
What are you doing?

Writing. 
Why?

Well, that’s how you do it. 
What are you writing?

I don’t know yet.
So why are you opening a notebook?

It’s called showing up.
For what?

I’ll know when it happens.
What’s happening now?

We’ll see.
It doesn’t look like much. Is that a grocery list?

That’s for later. This is for now.
That also looks like a grocery list.

I make lists. 
Of?

Ideas. Verbs. Names of plants. Names of mythological figures. 
For?

For when it happens.
Oh, aren’t we grand? The happening: Live, ladies and gentlemen, right here! 

Look, I’m trying to do a thing here. Can you. . . go somewhere else?
You put in the order. Now I’m here.

Not for you, though. I can’t think.
What are you thinking?

I don’t know yet.
Hey did you see those images by that guy in the UK who does all the hilarious taxidermy memes? Look, look! You should check this out.

I really––– Oh, that is funny. 
Told you.

Okay, now back to work.
KK, let’s go. What are we doing? Wait, is THAT what you’re doing?

It’s not done yet. It’s just a list.
That looks pretty lame; are you sure you wanna go with that? How long have you been doing this?

Listen, can you just––
Do we have any snacks?