A recent piece by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian, titled "How to Think about Writing," caught my attention (thanks to Martine Page for the link) because he seemed to be describing how I've always felt about blogging -- at least the sort of blogging I do, and like to read -- but it also applies generally to much of the writing I admire.
"When you write," Pinker says, "you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that's interesting, and that you're directing the attention of your reader to that thing."
Perhaps this seems stupidly obvious. How else could anyone write? Yet much bad writing happens when people abandon this approach. Academics can be more concerned with showcasing their knowledge; bureaucrats can be more concerned with covering their backsides; journalists can be more concerned with breaking the news first, or making their readers angry. All interfere with "joint attention", making writing less transparent.
Couldn't agree more, though I never thought of it quite so simply. As Burkeman points out, many writers start with this as a goal, but somehow abandon or forget it along the way. As a meditator, I'd venture to guess that what gets in the way is our ego: the writing becomes about us: our emotions, desires, problems, needs, the particular ax we want to grind. In other words, we forget that the reader is standing beside us, or sitting across from us, waiting for something to unfold; waiting to be delighted, surprised, enlightened; waiting to ponder; waiting for her world to open and shift ever so slightly, waiting to be changed. That can happen through a little quirk of human behavior shown through dialogue, or through a single sentence of luminous descriptive prose, a line of poetry that reveals the familiar through an entirely new lens -- and of course, I think it can also happen through drawing and painting and all the other arts. Burkeman concludes with this advice, worth printing out and putting on my studio wall:
The reader wants to see; your job is to do the pointing.
Of course, it really isn't that simple. First we have to train ourselves to be people who actually see something: people who are able to quiet down enough that we become an eye, an ear, a sensitive skin, but not so sensitive that we cannot bear it. Then we have to learn how to express what we have learned through our senses, intelligence, and experience. Finally, we have to learn how to give it away - how to point our effort toward the invisible reader rather than back at ourselves; how to become a vessel that fills and empties over and over again.
Not a bad way to spend a life.
Well, here we are on a Monday morning, and for the first time in a couple of months, I am looking ahead past the deadlines on my virtual desk. We sent two big projects off at the end of the week, and I feel like I've just stuck my head up above water after swimming very hard for a very long time.
The first thing I did after getting to the studio today, though, was to accept a painting commission - with a deadline, of course. It's for a landscape in Iceland, and the scene is so beautiful I really wanted to do the commission; it will be a pleasure to work on it. Fortunately it doesn't have to be done before the end of the year.
And this morning I also received a new manuscript for consideration, a very interesting potential project, on top of the new CD and two planned books that Phoenicia will be publishing in the early part of 2014. We'll see...
Coming up before the end of December: a visit to my father; rehearsal and performance of The Messiah; singing the annual Lessons&Carols service at the cathedral as well as Christmas Eve mass at midnight; baking to do and a few presents to send off; a special concert back in Vermont for a friend's 75th birthday. J. and I have tried to learn how to keep the holidays from being too stressful, and a big part of that has been for me to learn to do less, and spread the tasks out over a longer period of time. It's taken a while but I'm getting there!
However, as my mother could have told you fifty years ago, I'm one of those people who's happier when I'm busy, though I do like (and need) to have some quiet and completely unstructured time, and struggle when I don't. What about you -- do you prefer being busy or not? Where's the line for you between feeling productive and contented, and overworked and stressed-out, and how do you manage it?
We're having a gentle snowstorm here in Montreal; it's beautiful. Wishing all of you a good week ahead, and hoping to finally be here a bit more regularly myself!
While the Midwest was being pounded with violent storms, we had an unseasonably warm weekend, and I took advantage of it to bike up to the Jean-Talon market, late on Saturday afternoon, as a break from work that has been occupying us pretty much every day. Lots of other Montrealers were there too, soaking up the precious rays of sunlight and enjoying the colors and flavors of the late harvest. We all know what's coming!
A maison de torrefaction is a cafe that roasts their own coffee. As I've mentioned before, street photography is not really legal under French privacy laws; I'm not sure if this fellow resented having his photo taken, or was just giving me the eye. Most people don't care, especially at a place like the marché, where lots of people are taking pictures. Nevertheless, on to the inanimate objects of interest:
The outdoor parts of the market were pretty much shut down, but there were cabbages and peppers...
more apples than anyone could count...
choux de Bruxelles, $5 for a huge stalk...
all manner of cauliflower and cabbages...
...and of course, potatoes. These are tiny new ones, which I would have bought if I weren't on my bike and trying to keep the carrying weight down.
Everyone was in a good mood. This fellow is dressed in a typical Quebeçois way, with his short jacket, scarf, and knitted toque. He reminded me of a man I like very much, the father of my friend Eric D. (A toque, by the way, is a knitted watch cap in Quebec. The word comes from the Arabic words for "Round" and "Hat" [taquia, which originally meant something round with an opening.] It's been known in English since 1505, but came through the Medieval French toque (15th century), probably from the Spanish toca "woman's headdress", also via the Arabic.) Like a lot of Quebeçois French, the word is a holdover from terms used by the early explorers and colonists of New France.)
This artisanal product was something new to me: gingras, "very old (aged) cider vinegar."
This musician is a market regular, accompanied by his fine chat.
After her long day I think she deserves some of this, don't you?
That's duck foie gras, and I didn't buy any of that either, though I'm sure it's delicious! Tomorrow I'll show you what I did buy, and some more photos from the interior of the market.
When in Washington, D.C. last month, I bought a skein of green worsted-weight hand-dyed yarn from this very nice woman, at a street market near Dupont Circle. Solitude Wool makes breed-specific artisan yarns from sheep in the Chesapeake Bay area.
I started knitting this lovely yarn into a beret during the week I spent with my father, just after that trip, and finished it a few days ago. (I ripped out the ribbing and reknit it with smaller needles after the hat was finished...typical me.) My pattern was the Simple Beret by Hannah Fettig, ($6 for the PDF download) which comes with directions for four different yarn weights: fingering, double knitting, worsted, and bulky.
I've worn berets and beret-style hats forever, even as a kid: I remember an authentic Scottish tam o'shanter that I loved, and two berets my grandmother made me -- one in black angora, the other in grey mohair. Somehow, though, I had never made one myself. The typical shape is created through increasing a great many stitches between the ribbing and the body of the beret, and then decreasing to make the flat crown, which makes this wonderful swirl pattern. A beret can be made as perky or as slouchy as you want. When you're finished, you wash it in lukewarm water (I added a little hair conditioner for softness) and block it on a dinner plate. Fun!
The photo shoot didn't go quite as planned, though I should have known better. This is the background: the wonderful scarf that goes with the beret, and everything else -- a gift several years ago from my dear friend Gay.
You can probably figure out what was going on behind my back as I was trying to take my own picture...
I guess I should make her one of her own, with little ear-holes: she's a French cat, after all!
But I got it back eventually.
When I came back from my dad's, J. was getting a hard cold. Half my choir has been sick, too. I had a few sniffles but seemed to be avoiding it: I consumed zinc, and echinacea, and was pleased. My nose got stuffier, and one day my limbs ached, but the next day I felt fine; I went to choir rehearsal, and sang on Sunday, my voice seemingly unaffected.
But there had been several restless nights when sleep had come but wouldn't stay. I woke on Monday, turned over, groaned, and went back to sleep until 10:00 am -- unheard-of for me -- and stayed home. A day of total rest, though? No, that would have been too radical. I made carrot soup and an apple crisp; I cleaned and weeded my closet and switched the summer and winter clothes; organized the plants that had been brought in from the terrace before the frost.
Today I woke with my sinuses pounding, but took a hot shower and bundled up and came to work anyway. As the morning went on, my head hurt more and more, and although I made myself eat something, I felt sick to my stomach; the cat and I retreated to the studio couch and I fell asleep. When I woke I felt considerably better, and even hungry, and have stayed put all afternoon, drinking weak tea and eating toast and listening to Manon purr. Upstairs, the pianist played Chopsticks, and then bits of the Moonlight Sonata; his child dragged a heavy object back and forth across the floor. We worked with our far-away client via email; a problematic graphic was resolved. Swathed in an old thermal blanket, I read a poetry manuscript for the third time. The cat lay on my lap, utterly contented; I lifted the end of her tail to her face and she happily groomed while I held it, biting the end with little nips of her sharp teeth.
There's a great deal to be said for real-time living. I missed my husband and my cat a lot while I was away; I'm glad to be back with them. By the same token, I miss my father too and was happy to have a whole week with him, and to have some time there to catch up with family and friends.
The amount of traveling I've been doing, some of it without internet access, has meant less time online. This meant that I checked email when I could, Facebook even less frequently. A lot of the emails were entirely unnecessary and unimportant. When I did log onto FB, I'd have 25 notifications waiting for me, but I noticed that 90% of them were from the same four or five people. When I could, I'd look at Feedly to check blog updates -- something that seemed to matter to me more than the social networking. I have a Twitter list for updates from a "shortlist," mainly people I know pretty well, who post either micropoems or very thoughtful tweets or photographs. Apparently what I'm most interested in is content, not chatter.
An occasional internet "fast" seems like a good thing for me; it clarifies, and holds up a mirror on my own behavior. The reverse is also valuable: noticing how much I enjoy actually being with people in person, and how much deeper those interactions often are. When I think about how much human development has gone into our abilities to read one another's expressions, subtle qualities in the eyes, hand gestures, the inflections of our voices, our choices of how to stand or sit or move in relation to one another, it astounds me that we don't think more often about the vast array of signals we lose in communicating only through computers. Will we, in time, become more and more dis-embodied as a species? If we don't use these abilities, and don't use our senses nearly as much, whether for survivial or enjoyment, surely these highly-evolved characteristics will atrophy, and others, more useful, will be selected for. The natural world is already in desperate trouble; I dread the time when we have ceased to notice it at all.
And what about inter-species communication? My cat and I can only communicate in person, and the range of our understanding, the way we "read" each other, seems to increase over time. To carry it even further, perhaps I can appreciate a flower or a tree or a landscape by looking at a picture, but it is nothing like the feeling that comes from actually being in nature. I don't want to live most of my life vicariously, but I wonder sometimes if ours is the last generation that will feel this way.
While in central New York, I went for a long walk down an abandoned railroad track to a favorite marsh and pond with a close friend who was also a dear friend of my mother's. Sometimes we talked, sometimes we were quiet: looking, listening to the geese and kingfishers, smelling the warm dry leaves, tasting a wintergreen leaf, touching bark and thorns and berries, feeling the cinders under our feet. We both felt very alive, and yet were also aware that people long dead walked with us on this same path. New memories were also being created, because we had chosen to do something together that was as real as we could, for the time that we had.
As Lorianne points out in her astute post, "The Fear of Missing Out ", people are already missing a great deal about the world that is open to our senses because they are so afraid of missing something on their phones! Travel and waiting in spaces like airports shows you that too: the great inability of most people to enjoy solitude and silence, let alone to find interest and fascination in what's going on around them at a particular moment. I used to love the solitude of long drives. Now, when I stop for a break, I feel that I have to make phone calls or send texts to the people on the opposite ends of the journey because they expect it and because I have a phone that will do this. Yes, it's considerate and loving, but it's also not really necessary; I'm all right, and so are they.
Of course, my world has enlarged enormously because of computers and the internet, and I'm grateful every day for these relationships and this ability to share our lives. I'm especially grateful that I can continue to keep in touch with people like the ones I'm mentioning here when we're not able to see one another. But my online world is not everything, and sometimes I'm glad to be reminded of that.
What can I say?
Hope you all are staying cool where you are. It's a little better here today, with rain forecast for the evening. No excuses for the Couturier Cat, however. Gotta keep those sweaty little paws busy!
This will be a close-fitting, cap-sleeve blouse with vertical princess darts, eventually. It's my third and final piece of Indian block-print cloth, and probably my favorite. However, I noticed it was getting orange dye on my hands as I worked. Does anyone know a good way to "set" dyes like this? Does white vinegar in the rinse water work?
Don't worry, it's not blood... it was not a happy discovery yesterday when J. came into the studio and found that a bottle of red stamp-pad ink had had some sort of malfunction, tipped over, and been walked in by you-know-who. Before he realized that one of her back paws was completely saturated, there were paw-prints all over our work surfaces, my ironing board, the lining material for my new skirt (thankfully not the skirt itself,) the table we eat on, various papers and photographic prints, and J's pants. You can't get mad: it certainly wasn't her fault! We cleaned things up as best we could, and she happily surrendered her paw to be wiped and blotted; her mouth and tongue weren't red so we don't think she had eaten any of it, cleaning herself off. This picture was taken the day after the fact and isn't nearly as dramatic; you can sort of see the state of the pants -- I'm not sure anything, even OxyClean, will take that ink out.