I Learn By Going Where I Have to Go

I’ve been reading poetry lately, and it’s soaked into me, like sunlight into skin: there’s a rhythm, real or imagined, that falls into the body, a measure of breaths, thoughts, steps.

Today I wake with Roethke in my head: “I wake to sleep and take my waking slow.”

A villanelle is a wondrous thing. Only two rhyme sounds, and they stay with you. Refrains repeat themselves within the poem, then within your head.

My favorite villanelle: Roethke’s “The Waking.” Every time I return to it, or it returns to me, something shifts. The lines are reborn, and we meet again, strangers who knew each other long ago, but had forgotten.

“I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.”

This morning I slide to the kitchen in socks. Brew coffee, microwave oatmeal. Swirl congealed oats around the bowl, rest my chin on the rim of the coffee mug. Steam rises, warming my face.

I pack a backpack with books, a water bottle, and sandwiches.

I want a good walk—a few hours of outdoors, a space of time to be alone but not feel lonely. Three miles down the road, there’s such a place to amble: a 300-acre sweep of hills, gardens, and hiking trails that border the Middle Oconee River.

“I learn by going where I have to go.”          

I start on a trail that loops down to the river. The fractured trunk of a Red Oak rises from the ground, its splintered bust like a wooden stalagmite. I reach for the camera, but find that I’ve left it at home.

“We think by feeling. What is there to know?

I hear my being dance from ear to ear.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.”

The river is quiet. A broken tree cuts through the water, its trunk cracked and fallen, and its branches comb the current. I make a sketch—outlining frail leaves, the curve of the river, and the break in the trunk. I use a thick ballpoint pen—not great for sketching, but good enough. I finish the drawing and walk on.

The trail diverges from the river and winds through the hills, the path carved out from the woods. Creek water sings over black stones and amber minnows dart in shallow, vernal pools. A dragonfly with black wings and an emerald body hovers over a leaf.

“Of those so close beside me, which are you?

God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,

And learn by going where I have to go.”

The canopy stencils sunlight onto the trunks of trees, across the dry, tattered ground. A white mushroom with a roseate cap lies trampled on the path.

“Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?

The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.”

A philosopher-vandal has walked these paths before me, lettering the wooden planks of footbridges with a sharpie. Each bridge holds a message, and I read them as I walk:

“Do more good.” “Be mindful.” “Do you have more than you need?” “How much does your life weigh?” The planks echo under my shoes.

I enter a valley, lush with tall, leafy plants, and see a young buck, a doe, and a fawn traipse through the growth. A giant bee, thick as my thumb, lands on my forearm. I don’t flick it off, afraid it will return, vengeful, and sting. I carry it across the valley, its bright body gleaming on my skin.

“Great Nature has another thing to do

To you and me, so take the lively air,

And, lovely, learn by going where to go.”

As the valley meets the woods, I meet a man with fuzzy hair tied back in a ponytail. I ask him what to do about the bee, if it will sting me. He leans over, studying it, and it flies away. He says it’s not a bee, but an imitator. More of a beetle, really. I’m not sure if I believe him. Thanks, I say, I was terrified.

“This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.

What falls away is always. And is near.

The trail finishes out in the parking lot. I get in my car, go home, take a shower, nap. Later I walk to the grocery to buy yogurt. I read a short story on my porch, go to a coffee shop to write. I talk to Amir, a grad student, about Atlanta. I walk home, sit, post this. It is late.

“I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

I learn by going where I have to go.

All Writers Need Windows

“I can’t play bridge. I don’t play tennis. All those things that people learn, and I admire, there hasn’t seemed time for. But what there is time for is looking out the window.” – Alice Munro

Alice Munro, a Canadian author, is one of the greatest writers of our time. She also wrote one of my favorite short stories, “Gravel,” published in The New Yorker last June.

The house behind my house, where ivy clings to the fading paint, and you can look out the window, but not in.

Thanks for Making Me a Writer, Dad

Dad and I, making model airplanes together.

Thanks for making me a writer, Dad.

There are a lot of reasons why I want to write fiction, and you’re one of them.

You taught me everything in those books on the wall. You let me wear a pink princess dress while we painted model airplanes. You told me about monsters with long-reaching tentacles who lived under my bed. You made me read books I didn’t want to read: The Great War and Modern Memory, Dune, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenancethose books have changed my life.

You read me Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt,” H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls,” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Those stories scared the shit out of  me, and that’s a good thing.

You took me on trips to far-away places.

You taught me how to draw.

You told me the histories of queens, not princesses. You gave me paper dolls of women writers and women revolutionaries. You told me about Boudicca, the Celtic Warrior Queen.

You let me type up mermaid stories on your computer.

Later, when I wrote a story about a world without stars, you gave me Arthur C. Clarke. Then you made me watch Stanley Kubrick films, Blade Runner, The Twilight Zone, and Aliens.

You gave me The Writer’s Market for years—ever since I was 12—and opened up a whole world to me. I flipped through the pages, marveling over the possibilities.

You bought me a subscription to The New Yorker, just so I could read the stories.

You’ve also been the only one who’s wanted me to be a writer all along, ever since I was that little awkward nerdy kid, bringing a book to the restaurant and reading under the table.

Thanks Dad, for everything. Happy Father’s Day.


Ray Bradbury

“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” – Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury is another wonderful writer who got drunk off his work. Not only did he imagine life as it had never been lived, he also played a major role in making science fiction a respectable literary genre.

He’s always been one of my favorite authors, ever since I was a kid, and I’m sad that he died this week.

The New Yorker compiled a Science Fiction issue which happened to be published the week of Bradbury’s death. Bradbury, one of the literary greats of science fiction, wrote a personal memoir for the issue: “Take Me Home.” It is a great piece of nonfiction and a poignant narration of one of the author’s childhood memories, which later inspired his story “The Fire Balloons.”

Photo of Ray Bradbury.

Hemingway: On Drinking and Embellishment

English: Hemingway posing for a dust jacket ph...
Hemingway posing for a dust jacket for the first edition of “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, at the Sun Valley Lodge, Idaho, late 1939. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do you prefer a drink or a cognac?

Hem would opt for the latter.

“They had a vermouth…” is an excerpt from a book review by Andrew O’Hagan, originally published in the London Review of Books, covering The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Vol. I, 1907-22, edited by Sandra Spanier and Robert Trogdon.

We’ll start with the excerpt about drinking and move onto Papa’s notorious self-aggrandizement.

O’Hagan begins his review by poking fun at Hemingway for his “engorged nouns”: in A Farewell to Arms, the protagonist Frederic Henry gets continually sloshed, but never by simply “having a drink.” Instead he guzzles grappa, chugs chianti, quaffs cognac, and downs a number of other libations: vermouth, brandy, marsala, dry white capri—you get the point.

So Hemingway liked nouns…and loved drinking. Write about what you know, right?

Here’s where I have to agree with Hemingway on the side of specificity. I’m not an expert, but I do know enough from experience to say that reaching a BAC of .08 g/dl (the point at which you are legally intoxicated in the US) feels different depending on what you’re drinking.

Red wine vs. beer vs. vodka, for example. Red wine makes you feel woozy, philosophical, and wise. Beer makes you question whether you’re drunk at all. There are bees buzzing in your head, your arms are light and springy, and gosh, isn’t it a fantastic day? Yeah it is! Vodka, though…that stuff if dangerous. Vodka makes you psychotic.

I knew a guy when I lived in New Orleans, last summer, who was such a connoisseur of wine that he knew which grape variety he’d avoid at all costs.

“I can’t drink Pinot noir,” he told me. “The Pinot monsters come and scramble my brain.”

We had Cabernet Sauvignon instead, and I’ve steered clear of Pinot ever since.

So I don’t blame Hemingway. Not at all. He was right to distinguish between liquors. It’s the duty of a writer to describe feelings accurately: for an expert drinker like Hemingway, that meant describing the exact beverage that, in a given circumstance, would bring on a certain emotion. That’s detail.

Hemingway’s Greatest Fiction: Himself

Now let’s talk about Hemingway’s embellishments, which O’Hagan discusses in his full-length review. 

To point out the obvious: the world is fascinated by Hemingway because he was a “man’s man.” Unlike the thoughtful and timid writer who holes away in a quiet study and trembles before the microphone at a reading, Hemingway was loud and arrogant and big.

He shot big things and fished big things and did big things.

He was also a terrific writer. He took the flowery prose of his time and chopped off the petals. He mastered the art of subtlety, sleek sentences, and deep feeling. He was so greatly skilled in his profession that in the end he created the biggest fiction of all: himself.

American author Ernest Hemingway with Pauline,...

Reading Hemingway by his own hand, O’Hagan sees the author puffing himself up, creating the man he always wanted to be, but wasn’t:

“The letters show the moment by moment process of self-enlargement, of fiction taking over from reality, of Hemingway braiding himself a style first and then a history to match it.”

“But hey,” you say, “Hemingway was a great war hero!”

Not exactly. According to O’Hagan, “He was giving out chocolate for the Red Cross when the mortar exploded that damaged his legs….the truth is he missed most of the war and made a great deal of the skirmish that cut his legs. (No bones were broken.)”

“Ahhhh,” you say: “He was a fake! An insecure little boy writing about men with big guns.”

But that’s not really accurate, either.

At what point do we stop becoming phonies and start becoming real? How do you determine authenticity? Is it wrong, to continually try to better yourself?

Hemingway was like a real-life version of Pinocchio, stomping around the world and trying to convince himself of his own bravado.

“I’m a real boy!” Pinocchio cheers.

“I’m a real man,” Hemingway grunts.

But he was, in many ways.  By continually seeking to be the best, he became the best. Look at his fiction. If we can admire a writer for always trying to write better prose, then why not admire Hemingway himself, for always trying to be a better Hemingway?

In the end, he became what he had always wanted to be: a giant. Perhaps what he had not expected, though, was the incredible isolation that would come with it. Or perhaps he’d carried that within him all along.

As O’Hagan writes, “He wanted to be the big man in town, the big man in every town, and, eventually, he knew, such men are made for solitude: that was the fantasy of personal integrity he sold to the world.”

English: Ernest Hemingway on safari, Kenya, 1954

The Writer That Owns Herself

There’s a tree in Athens, Georgia, that owns itself. A white oak with a strong trunk and lush, green foliage, it’s the only non-human entity in the world that holds legal protection over its own existence.

The tree received this rare gift of self-possession—the right to spread roots, stretch branches, unfurl leaves, and scatter seeds—because it offered its beauty to the world, and in response, the world did what it so seldom does: returned the favor.

As a writer, I crave this same self-possession. To write, and to live off my writing:  that is such stuff as dreams are made on.

In the meantime, I’ve got some growing to do.

This blog is my first green shoot, and with any luck, it will grow into a strong tree with many branches and many roots.

As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once wrote, “The tree is more than first a seed, then a stem, then a living trunk, and then dead timber.  The tree is a slow, enduring force straining to win the sky.”

For now, I offer you what I can: meditations on literature, writing, and life—and above all, a  desire to win the sky.