Reading Lessons

When I was seventeen I bought a slim collection of T. S. Eliot’s poems. Up to that point I had read a lot of fantasy and science fiction, a bit of poetry, and had begun to dabble in what is now called literary fiction. I remember distinctly the moment I read this passage from his poem “Preludes”:

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images and cling:
The notion of an infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

I thought, “Oh, you can do that. You can be both conversational and musical; both simple and profound.” I felt as if I were a middle distance runner who had just learned that the mile had in fact been run in under four minutes.

Of course I imitated him. What he was doing looked like fun and I wanted to try it. This was not a particularly satisfying experience. I thought that by imitating him I would begin to follow the path I believed his poetry had just illuminated. Yet my imitation sounded like someone describing a tourist attraction with which his parents had become enamored before he was born. No matter how faithful my imitation, I would never match the actual love that so attracted me to that which I was imitating. Eventually I would have to visit this place myself.

It’s always a bit daunting to visit someplace yourself, having glimpsed it through others. You know even before you arrive it will be different for you. The door Eliot had opened for me was not leading anywhere he had been. Even as I went looking for where he had been I could not find it. What I did find was quite interesting, at least to me, though I sometimes cheapen it because I am the one who discovered it.

It is not always easy to live with the mystery of what other people love. It is not always easy to trust what you cannot see but what nonetheless animates everything around you. Life will never be answered from outside. We might wish sometimes that love would limit itself to what we understand, but it will not. It seeks all forms. In imitation you reach for the heart of another, craving the warmth already pulsing in your own hand.

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I am writing from my room in the SeaTac Hilton, having ducked away from the writers conference. Andre Dubus has arrived looking dashingly unshaven, and in a hushed conference hall, Bob Mayer is explaining the perils of first person to 400 note-taking writers.

Bob gives a great presentation, and the crowd, from where I stood, was clearly loving it, but I always get the heebie-jeebies listening to anyone talk about what is hard and what is easy, no matter how statistically accurate. The hardest thing for a writer to write is what they don’t want to write, by which I mean what they believe they should write. As Emerson said, “Envy is ignorance; imitation is suicide.” You are who you are and you came here to be who you are completely and without apologies. Be it, write it, shout it, sing it, kiss it, walk it, hop it, live it, but in the name of God do not judge it.

Everything works; nothing is wrong. Start there. I have heard that newborns need to be swaddled tightly because, new to their skin, the squeakers feel as if they will fly apart. How this poll was conducted, I do not know, but I’m sure writers feel this way also when they hear that everything works and there are no rules. Fret not. You will make rules. They are your rules. And your rules are do what works and don’t do what doesn’t.

May sound axiomatic, but what is easy for Bob Mayer, I am sure will be hard for me and visa-versa. In fact, it is so hard to be someone else, it is ultimately impossible. No matter how good an actor you might be, plastic surgery won’t do it, imitating someone’s writing style won’t do it, affecting a different walk, a new accent, a new hairstyle—no matter how you dress yourself up, you are still you. That is the deal you agreed to when you came down here.

There is a mirror facing me where I now write this. For this reason, looking up from my work is a somewhat disappointing experience. Not that I am so horrible to look at, but when I am writing I am trying to forget this shell. It’s never been me anyway, just a draft I offer to the world. The true me, the me I feel is me, is an arrow shot of intention I am following as quickly and as honestly as I can.

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