Tuesday, January 5, 2010

agonizing and excellent.

I have been spending my time lately thinking about writing. Not actually writing, mind you, but mostly about thinking about it. Granted, good writing cannot happen until the pen touches the pad or the fingers dance on the keys, but I figure that there must be some sort of reflection on the craft every once in a while. I read something interesting by songwriter Chris DuBois. Writers have the gift of perception, the craft can be developed. Perception, though, has a few faces, and that is what makes writing and writers different and worth exploring. 

Part of my meditation on writing and perception dealt with the medium. I have pondered for some time now buying a stack of legal pads and a box of Dixon Ticonderoga #2 yellow pencils and setting about becoming a man that exclusively deals with the handwritten prose. Wendell Berry is my favorite writer. So versatile, and so much to say. He only uses the pen and pad. Something about an expensive machine really cheapens the process. Perhaps its just the rationalization of the the organization and gurgitation of thought that kind of rubs me the wrong way, but then again its probably just the difference between a shovel and a back-hoe.  Tools that perform the same task in different ways.  Or, the difference between a graphite and bamboo rod. The bamboo rod is slower, more delicate, more organic, more calculated, and requires a definitive sense of process and result. The graphite is more of a brute, the result of years of development and error, requiring of the beginning angler only a few hours  on a lake to competently shoot line forty and fifty feet. Its about volume. The legal pad requires for sentiment and nostalgia, two important themes that appear in what I write, along with a delicate hand and a calculated, committed course of thought and narrative. It also requires legible penmanship, something that I lack terribly. I began recently to write in all caps, but soon my careful letters gave way to the same bullshit turkey dusting results as my former lowercase attempt at communication.

Back to the rods. The computer, and the graphite rod, while they are easier and faster, perhaps give me the chance to spill it all to a fast and volumous medium, catching thoughts that normally would fall to the basement of my brain before my hand could record them. I think of my best writing, and it has come in either of two settings , including hybrids of each. The first is when my fingers fly as my mind dumps to the keys. Some of my best work, including published work, has come this way, as if it had already been created. Other examples or descriptions of this setting are journal thoughts that I have sort of stewed and developed for a time, almost as if I have already written them consciously and orally, as if they need recording, not writing.

The other favorite writing has come as a result of the pen and pad. I think of being in Alaska and choosing to sit for two hours to develop a thought. Its more narrative, more descriptive, more careful, more calculated, because once it goes to the paper, it sure as hell isn't coming off. It is both agonizing and excellent.

I would love to hear your thoughts. 





Things I have learned: emailing your ex-girlfriend from the deer-stand produces confusing, if not undesirable results, and no matter how impressed you are with your trophy, coyotes with mange are not welcome in duck camp.

And, you can tell a lot about a man by his boots. I read an article by someone who was billed as some sort of expert backpacker, which I suppose is someone who is just really good at camping. I guess that’s just a weird distinction, because if you can set up a damn tent, not starve, pick up your trash and return uninjured, you’ve pretty much nailed it.

Anyway, he was writing about hiking some famous trail that ends here in the south, and was giving recommendations for the proper apparel. First of all, if you need to go out and purchase a new wardrobe and all new equipment to hike a dirt road, then odds are you should just stay home. What I did learn, however, is that you can somehow purchase the equipment necessary for expert status and peak performance and at the same time consequently abstain from patronizing anything that contains cotton, wool, or leather.

The recommended boots, however, were not boots at all. Instead, my man prefers what he calls a “trail-running” shoe for distance hikes, citing the light-weight as a benefit for distance hikers. I disagree (mostly don’t care, but I suppose I have spent a lot of space writing about this, so lets wrap it up). For me, it’s about soul. Cotton comes from the ground, wool from a sheep, leather from hide, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what the hell a poly-ester is. The definition says something about organic or free fatty acids, and I assume there are multiple of these things (hence ‘poly’), but it might as well be magic. Nylon is my least favorite of these miracles of modern chemistry, so damn slippery, and it always comes in the least natural color that you can imagine, like canary yellow, bright blue, some trendy red and black spandex, etc. You get the point. 

And not to say that I don’t use these materials. I have a polyester jacket that I use as a rain slicker, and it keeps me pretty warm for an Alabama winter, and the point isn’t that these new materials are bad, because they aren’t. I just don’t have any sort of emotional connection to them.  What the natural materials lack in performance they make up in affinity. There is sort of a natural sympathy, a natural history to them. Perhaps because they have been gotten, not created out of thin air, and perhaps because this history not only is imbedded in the object of purchase, but in something much more consequential, like an animal or the ground.

It is also a shame that the trail-runners don’t partake in the experience that is a good pair of boots. I got mine after seeing a friend with the same pair. I bought them used, which suits me. They are no longer manufactured, and I admit to having a sense of pride in that. As far as character, they are all leather uppers that require weekly upkeep, rubber soles that need replacing, gore-tex (the greatest invention that modern chemistry has ever happened upon), cotton laces, and so on. The left boot is missing three of the d-rings that hold the laces, but most of them are still there, so it works. The uppers on the same side were chewed to pieces by the roommates dog, so the padding is mostly gone, but the patch job looks ok, and the satisfaction that comes from fixing something you love more than outweighs the novelty of new ones.  They aren’t pretty anymore, but damn are they handsome.

When I was in Alaska, we decided to hike a 25-mile mountain pass in May. Perfectly rational for college boys from Tennessee, but apparently the run-off from the winter isn’t through until June or July. Along with other mishaps, the pass was still under snow at least knee deep, and in some places waste deep. We hiked through about two miles of this thinking that we could make it to a lake with rainbow trout the size of my thigh. Turns out that was stupid, and it was one of the only times in my life that I felt truly in danger. My boots were there, and the memories from that hike, along with the rest of the trip and ones like it are in imbedded with them. For me, the thought of trail shoes with synthetic nubuck, nylon webbing, airmesh nylon. etc. just doesn’t get me going like leather, cotton, and wool. All of these things were once living, and from my back porch I can point to a sheep, a cow, and a field where cotton can grow. You can touch it. You can connect with it.

You probably don’t give a damn about my boots, and I admit that this is more than a little self-indulgent, but that’s what essays and memoirs are about. That’s what I’m trying to communicate, I think, is the authenticity of finding your identity. Its not an exclusive thing, and I would be the first to say that the way that the world makes sense to me isn’t the way that it makes sense to you, and that makes it all much sweeter. It is about the respectable life, and the “leather identity” isn’t the only one.

For example, whiskey doesn’t have to be expensive, it just needs to be justified. There is something about a man who finds slow pleasure in a glass of working man’s bourbon. What you lose in supposed quality is made up in the peace of mind that your buzz and your wallet are equally healthy. It’s all about finding what you need. After all, a frugal man spends money on the things he loves and nothing else, so long as he can help it. A frugal man knows himself, knows his loves, his strengths, and his needs. Truly, frugality is more about respect for the respectable life: a woman with a good figure, work that is truly needed, and the simplicity of knowing that you and God have reached an understanding.

And it is soul like this that makes me love the South. Good or bad, better or worse, it is a place that knows itself. It has those old wounds, those scratches in the leather, the patch job on the uppers, and it probably needs to be re-soled. But its honest and beautiful, even if sometimes it isn’t pretty.