I don’t know where I write. Couldn’t begin to tell you. I’m not being coy, I’m serious. I look at my books, the piles of uncollected work, and they just seem to have appeared. I can’t create any images to go with my sense of ownership. When it comes to where I write, my memory is completely unreliable. All I know for sure is where I am now, which of course, won’t be true when you read this.
It may be that when I’m writing I’m nowhere. I’m so in my head, my connection to the present – the chair, the table, the room – is less impressive. That is, it doesn’t impress.
Just now I’m in a library at the Windward School, a college prep on the west side. I teach Poetry and Creative Writing in alternating attitudes of euphoria and self-doubt.
Sometimes we discuss great authors, their biographies, where and when they wrote; most of it apocryphal, I’m sure. We discuss that part, too. Thomas Wolfe (supposedly) composed much of ‘Look Homeward Angel’ on top of a refrigerator. Albert Camus preferred to write while standing at a lectern.
I write in all postures: sitting, standing, leaning over something. I tend toward borrowed or temporary surfaces, fake surfaces: this library, the ‘personal desk’ at the bank, the dashboard in my car. Yesterday I edited something on an armrest. Yeah, I think I did.
Not sure how this happened, how I reached this velocity. It can’t always have been like this, right? For twenty years? The answer is as mysterious as my fantasies of the perfect office, my default dream of the future. Wanna’ hear it?
There’s a big table by a huge window. Around it, there’re reams of lined paper, cups of pens, a large computer, and time, sweet time. In the window there’s a tree or an ocean, sometimes both. I write because of them. I write in spite of them. It doesn’t feel like a wish, but somehow like nostalgia.
Needless to say, I’ve never written under such conditions. And it’s pretty arbitrary, if not ridiculous, to regard them as ideal. Chances are I wouldn’t adjust; I’d be paralyzed with choices, with freedom. I seem to recall a pro-fascist poster that warned about this, about a prison of liberty.
Peter Mathiessen died yesterday. I keep this passage from The Snow Leopard in one of my notebooks:
“And this holy man of great directness and simplicity, big white teeth shining, laughs out loud in an infectious way at Jang-bu’s question. Indicating his twisted legs without a trace of self-pity or bitterness, as if they belonged to all of us, he casts his arms wide to the sky and the snow mountains, the high sun and dancing sheep, and cries, ‘Of course I am happy here! It’s wonderful! Especially when I have no choice!”
I don’t know any better. I don’t know how to know any better.
It’s almost 8th period. Students are channeling through the library, arriving, departing. One just passed and said, “You’re always in that same spot.”
Christ, am I?
I guess I do sit at this table more than the others; there’s a bunch here. But, this is the only one with a big window and a tree. I’ve got maybe ten minutes before class. I hope they like today’s prompt. I’m gonna’ ask them to compose a dream for someone else.
Interesting. Great work today. The kids wrote and wrote. No two responses alike except in very small ways. A couple composed nightmares for ‘enemies.’ Two or three turned the prompt into love poetry. But the details and assemblage were unique. At least two students wrote procedurals or instructions for delivering the dream.
This was a good day. Goals met and exceeded. Why do I still feel like a fake? A voice, not my own, echoes in my head, “They have no idea that you have no idea.”
Home now. I’m sitting at a little wooden desk that’s been in my family a long time. A hundred years? I better call my mother and ask. She’s probably having dinner. I’ll wait a bit.
There’s a window, but no tree. Just the next building, identical blinds. I’ve done a fair amount of writing here, I guess. Assembled at least one book. But again, I can’t picture it, can’t imagine being comfortable in this space. When I write at home, I know I don’t have long. Something will intrude or distract. Did I mention my attention span?
When I was a kid, they didn’t call it A.D.D. Nope. They just said I had a lot of potential.
“He’s got a lot of potential. A LOT of potential. This kid? Lotta’ potential.”
I had so much potential, in fact, by the time I was seventeen I had a brilliant future behind me. Doesn’t Willie Nelson have a song about that? Actually, all his songs are about that.
“Are you sure
that this is where
you want to be?”
You know those bumper stickers on family wagons, the ones that boast something like “MY CHILD IS AN HONOR STUDENT AT WHALT WHITMAN HIGH SCHOOL.”
If they’d had them in the 1970s, ours would’ve said, “My son is not stupid, he’s just not applying himself.”
I’m not stupid. I have a lot of potential. No actual ideas. I’m learning to apply myself. I have to call my mother.
Just got off the phone. Mom says, Hi.
And I was right: the desk was her mother’s, bought sometime in the 1920’s. “It was there when I got there,” she says, “That was in ’29. Same year the market crashed.”
Mom was born in August, so I guess, what… two months later the Great Depression started? David McCullough says the stories of spontaneous suicides are untrue, bodies never fell from the windows of Wall Street. I think I believe that.
Mom’s from Eerie, PA. She says the desk was in a corner of the family room, by a window with a tree. I refuse to acknowledge a theme here, even if I’m the one making it conspicuous.
“The tree was a Mulberry,” mom says, “For what it’s worth.”
For what it’s worth, I’d like to make a disclaimer, to say you’ve caught me at a weird period. But once you’ve heard yourself say, “Things are kind of in flux just now,” for the hundredth time, you begin to wonder if life isn’t a series of bizarre transitions.
I almost picked up the phone a moment ago. I was gonna’ call the editor of this journal, the one you’re reading, and say I couldn’t think of anything. But I just had a flash. A memory surfaced.
I just remembered where this started for me. It really was twenty years ago, I mean, I know for a fact it was 1994 because I was living in London with my father. At some point we got in the habit of walking to Paddington Station and sitting in a little café there. The place had a big window that looked on the platform and crowds of commuters.
We killed whole afternoons, talking and writing, drinking gallons of coffee. My father was teaching himself to write screenplays. He’d been a successful actor for many years and wanted to have a go at the ‘other side.’ I was four years clean from drugs and alcohol, separated from my wife, convinced I was some kind of artist, but with no canvas, no medium. That last part had been true my whole life.
So, I just copied dad. He bought a notebook, I bought a notebook. He wrote a movie and I wrote…I didn’t know what. They weren’t stories and they weren’t songs. Maybe poems.
What they were was awful. It’s coming back now. One was about a mosque in a futuristic city, very Blade Runner, a Koran written in neon; that one wasn’t too bad.
But here’s the point: when I started I wasn’t anywhere and I didn’t know what I was doing. The station was perhaps the first place I’d been that worked like my mind, a place where nothing was still.
Poetry is a thing both still and in transit. As Celan said, a message in a bottle, always making toward someplace else, toward land.
I began writing in a train station and never left. I’m there right now. I write at large.