Lee Bontecou or The Power of Objective Chance

So many years ago — 8 maybe. I’m trying to remember autobiographically where this might have fallen but that’s part of what makes it funny. This absurdly striking Vogue article — but then I’m doubting if it was Vogue at all — that I stumbled upon in Barnes and Noble, and this I’m pretty sure of, flipping through various things from something more significant than idleness.

Was I on the clock or waiting for someone else? There was a time when Dan and I shared a car and it seems like now I spent hours and hours waiting one way or another. But I can’t be sure it wasn’t in that interim between when I felt so very ungrounded anyway, like any small breath might couch and overwhelm me. I feel like I almost know what I was wearing. I feel like I almost remember just how I was standing.

I feel like I can almost.

And I can see these pieces of the pictures. These spindly, elaborate bundles of world detritus floating and in partial completion and pieces of life and big empty studio walls and tables full of things and then her. Her crouching — sitting? — from below, that monumental perspective photographers like to employ. Next to some giant beast of a sculpture. Was she smoking? I kind of think so but it also seems counter. I do remember her hands and her wrinkles. I remember her straight grey hair. And I remember it’s the reaction I had the first time I saw a photo of Joan Didion. I remember deliberate eyes. And thin lips. And square features. And I remember the world hesitating. Or maybe it was me realizing the world simply is steady and even and slow.

But then I put it down. I remember, of course, and it mattered and matters, of course. But I just set it down on whatever big table in whatever big studio I have in my head. And things would remind me. And I’d say — or at least I think I’d say — “I saw this thing in Vogue once that looked kinda like that” or “I saw this article in Vogue once that had this totally amazing woman in it and she was handsome. Like powerful and talented looking. Isn’t that amazing?” or I’d say, “I’m still trying to remember her name because her stuff was just bizarre and fabulous.” And then it started slipping away, I’d say “I saw this thing once, I think it was in Vogue or something, some magazine and it had this amazing sculptor” or “There was this woman I saw in something once who made these totally delicate, powerful sculptures out of metal and cloth and little pieces of thing. This totally reminds me of that.”

And then slowly it slipped further. Was it Vogue? I seemed so oddly attached to that idea it must have been but no amount of googling would turn up anything. But that was later anyway, after it had time to sit, to echo, to fester.

It wouldn’t even occur to me but I’d begun to define things according to how I remembered feeling about that article. My work, my life, my “shyness”, my angst, my being unknowingly got compared to my reaction to this article I hadn’t even read because I’d set it down when someone came to find me.

I don’t need to be a sculptor (although I wouldn’t hate that or think it’s out of the realm of could-bes). I don’t need to be famous. I don’t want to be. But this weird bastion of the creative, of strangely creative women — specifically strange and creative — seemed so significant. And it wasn’t this valiant rescue by “creativity” saving me from my boxed in existence. I didn’t discover art as my passion in this moment. I don’t feel like I’ve been swayed from the non-productive, that I’ve had the risk schooled out of me, that I’ve been denying some inexplicable desire I’ve had from birth.

I don’t believe that art is fear. I don’t, I don’t, I don’t — I have never breathed a breath devoid of fear it seems, in art, in math, in science, in the lunchroom, on the block, walking through a hall, staring in the mirror, in peace, at rest; fear is no more expressly unique to art or creativity than birth is.

But I digress.

This didn’t feel fated in any traditional sense; I didn’t feel fated to find this woman, to learn about this woman, to take after this woman, to relate to this woman. It didn’t feel like answers. It only felt like chance, unexplainable, cryptic. Cryptic or senseless, or strangely and powerfully both. It seemed like two forces, I and her — at least paper article her — had, as a fact contingent on absolutely nothing, collided, creating a fate.

I felt like, here was a woman being. She wasn’t salable, she was just valuable. And in her wasn’t some constructed confidence or pride or strength, some salesman’s easy smile. And I would find my heart go to her to rest when I could no longer weather the cognitive dissonance of interaction with people.

Presentation, I understand, is an inherent form of communication; one presents oneself, every choice and lack of choice speaks. Explanation, even of truth, requires some deliberate formulation of perspective. Communication is decisive, it’s a construction, an intention, it has purpose and motive. I feel like there’s some inherent flaw that measures good intentioned exchange too similar to stratagem.

We seem always to define and redefine ourselves by what we say, when all we wanted was to render things seen and described.

It may be silly to say that existence smolders and flares with an inherent tragedy, that we trip and struggle with the twists of language only to grab onto whatever definition seems attainable, but that is what I’m saying. And it is exhausting. It’s mostly benign but then suddenly it can become so grossly immoral, so grossly inaccurate. And now, now after losing so fantastically in school for so many tripped up pigeon holes of language and purpose and personalities, this tiny moment of time I’d set down seems some strange beacon of what-could-be.

This picture gave — gives — weight to real things and real points that have, until now, seemed brief and naive to me. Because I have used this article as a pillar, rescuing me from that rising tide of cognitive dissonance. This visual is a trail of breadcrumbs equivalent, keeping me from spinning endlessly in an idealist loop of how I should feel about communication and how I do. It has become a strong arm to give force to these obtuse and vague parts of my personality that our culture struggles to articulate and as a result dismisses.

But I’d begun to doubt I’d gotten it right. I clung frantically and often to it. I used it but I worried that I used it as a crutch, something transitory and impermanent, something false. I was in such a constricted reality at the time, self-inflicted or at least self-contingent, I worried I must have gotten it wrong. I couldn’t find the picture that would activate the memory more solidly, anyway. I would start and quit looking organically and sporadically, flip winsomely through google images or gently research Vogue databases and articles. And for those 8 or so years I found nothing. Nothing that looked even remotely like her. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to name her. I wasn’t sure about so much.

But then I go to a kid’s section in the last minutes of a museum trip that would likely end up being unnecessary. A museum I’ve been to time and again, ad nauseam and in a part that feels so patterned on other people’s worlds, I find this:

Lee Bontecou

No wrinkles, hardly any face, years and years the junior of the woman I remember. Angrier maybe. And softer too. I could hardly consider the possibility that I’d found her in such a strange place and way, in such an indefinably linked and totally opposite exposition. But I think I have. I think, even now it’s hard to say it, that yes, this is the woman.

I believe it. It blossomed up like something separate from me, like something vital. It didn’t feel ordained or momentous, not fated-to-be, just quietly absolute. The article I had seen and employed and centered on was about Lee Bontecou.

I, in knowing these things now, had stumbled upon a picture of her on a Spoon album sometime in between these moments. The significance of Spoon seems important though mostly inexpressible and perhaps not pertinent. But I remember looking up the picture because I thought it interesting. And I remember following it to her wikipedia page. I remember flipping about in search of something. And I vaguely remember thinking her to be a boy. I thought it significant enough to save for recall, clearly but I never figured it out. I even believe I related it to that Vogue article offhandedly like I had come to do.

You’d think that this would kill the connection or, if you prefer a wildly sentimental view, strengthen it. It certainly magnifies it. But the gospel of the article isn’t exactly rendered weaker or stronger by knowing this. But neither can it express how significant that moment was for me. No scratch that, how significant that moment is. Is. Not is to me, or how I thought of it, or how someone might think of it. How it is.

It isn’t dependent on me or circumstance. It isn’t dependent.

It is a thing of itself, it is that pillar, it is that trail, that correlation. And even in that, in having given it a voice in this piece which I have surely done — a voice that I am proud and sure of — I still can’t share how separate, solid and intense it is. How, even though the vehicle was personal, it was and is ubiquitous. I’m not sure how it came to be, to recur and precipitate. But now it has all fallen like dominos and means exactly nothing more or less than when I first experienced it.

Nothing more. Nothing less. It still just is.

And it ineluctably still just is.

The Panter

Advertisements

I Call Bullshit, Bukowski

Is it just me, or does the poem reek of high-handed crap?

I actually read Bukowski’s poem as barely disguised bullshit, hidden poorly within a crumbling outer shell of truth. The truth? Yes, of course you should feel compelled to write in order to be a writer. Yes, of course you should enjoy the process most of the time.

But, and this is a big but, writing is hard. Writing is rewriting. The best and the greatest of writers have sat impotently at a computer/typewriter, day after unproductive day. Even, sometimes, month after unproductive month.

To imply that writing is mostly joyous, spontaneous bursts of freed creative genius is to impede all that creativity is. It idealizes the process. This encourages a fatalistic approach to creativity where one is either meant to write or meant to do something else. I buck against this idea — it requires a blind faith in some arbitrary Fate and a total absence of personal responsibility to assume one is destined to be one thing or the other.

What hogwash.

We make our own destiny, with the support of our few champions (loved ones). We do not have to be nuthouse crazy to be truly creative.

In my humble opinion, although Bukowski condemns pretense and “self-love”, his very assumption that he (by virtue of his gift or genius?) knows what makes a “dull and boring” author and that he believes “unless being still would drive you to madness or suicide or murder” is the only proper impetus for a writer, reveals and slices open his own tendency to pretension and self-love.

This preening and commonly accepted concept of so-called “true inspiration” is the sole reason so many of us doubt our own creativity. Why so few people move beyond the Idea Stage.

Never doubt the hard and sometimes grinding work artists put into their work. If we were a little fly on the wall of a famous writer’s cottage or an artist’s studio, I imagine we’d all be a bit relieved to see our greatest influences or even envied colleagues struggle mightily with creation.

An exceedingly small minority of artistic types find the process “bursting out of you in spite of everything” (Bukowski). These are the lucky ones — and there are lucky ones in every aspect of life, not just the creative types.

I am here to maintain order and to encourage those who don’t have an unlimited supply of buoying arrogance like Charles Bukowski. If you doubt yourself — that is okay. Do not feel you are alone. Do not give up. (Unless you hate what you do. There is no getting past that.) But if you simply find creation hard, that does not in any way mean that you are incapable of excellence.

Anything worthwhile is worth being tortured over. Remember the phrase “if it feels good, do it?” Well, if it feels bad, but you still feel driven or even hopeful, go ahead. For some, the reward is in the doing, for others in the finished product.

So, Mr. Bukowski, I’ll say it again, “You make bullshit look pretty. But your bullshit still stinks.”

— Major Writer

(I’ve recopied the poem in full, but the website I linked is excellent so you should visit it all the same.)

“So, You Want to be a Writer: Bukowski Debunks the “Tortured Genius” Myth of Creativity”

so you want to be a writer

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
typewriter
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
fame,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.
if you’re trying to write like somebody
else,
forget about it.

if you have to wait for it to roar out of
you,
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.

if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you’re not ready.

don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
love.
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
sleep
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.

— Bukowski

The Way Grandpa Talks

A new Hank Williams album became available on Spotify. Spotify, knowing my widely varied and even occasionally bizarre musical inclinations, recommended the album to me as soon as I signed in. A friendly little horn-shaped reminder popped up in the corner of my laptop window.

Hank Williams

Hank Williams

So, I clicked the link and listened absentmindedly as I began the arduous process of prioritizing my writing and study agenda. Settling in for a long study session, I put American Lit. at the top of the list and Theater at the bottom.

As usual, I opened Facebook in the background (with the same twinge of guilt I always get, and ignore, when I let social media hang around with my school work). I cracked my knuckles, set hands to keyboard and started to work.

Then, mid-clicketyclack, I heard my Grandpa’s voice in my headphones. My fingers hovered above the keys, paralyzed by the oddly familiar voice chuckling and mumbling through a few old folksy stories. Tracks 2 and 3. Hank Williams stopped singing and started talking — and to my bemusement, he sounded exactly like my Grandpa!

His words sang, low and deliberate with intention. Hank’s warm southern drawl brimmed with humor and raw emotion. His E’s sounded a little like A’s. The “g” and “y” got left off nearl’ah ever’ word. Glory sounded like glor-rayh. The words, rolling out of his mouth like errant tumbleweeds, evoked images of brown dusty roads and muddy red riverbeds.

The emphasis on certain odd phrases — ! The cadence was brilliant and achingly familiar. Hank, like my grandpa, was all gifted storyteller, chock-full of charismatic vigor. His country ways and fierce intelligence radiated from the comedic tale he wove of “hepn’ a fella from Alabama git his gal a telegram from ol’ Houston, Texas. That boy like ta lost ‘is min’ ovah that gal. I ain’t never seen nobody go thew what’ee been thew… I tell him, well, suh, lots I could tell’ya ’bout marriage but twern’t do ya not one licka good.”

Hank talked about money. How they had none. How they made do anyway and how it didn’t matter a’tall anyway.

I was lost in the past. My brain raced through images I associated with my 96-year-old grandfather. Swamp country and cagey mountain folk. Religion and hell-fire. Inner strength. Black-eyed peas, rutabagas and ripe tomatoes. Tractors, alligators and well-worn hands, cracked and sturdy from a life of hard, honest work. The earth.

Grandpa's Place

Grandpa’s Place

I paused…actually, I froze completely, work forgotten. I smelled Old Spice aftershave and felt the thin button-down shirts Grandpa always wore until they fell off his body. Saw and heard him grin as he reached the punch-line to some story about being a rascal in his youth or about my daddy raising hell as a young’un.

The wall in front of me disappeared and in its place stood rows and rows of leafy vegetables waving in the wind on a sunshiny, steamy Florida day. My Grandpa was picking a great big grapefruit from a tree and using his dark stained pocket knife to whittle a hole in its mottled orange and yellow skin. I wriggled eagerly, knowing he’d be handing it to me next, to squeeze and suck the sweet juice out of the top. He handed to me with a smile and asked, “Did I ever tell ya ’bout when…”

It didn’t matter what he was going to tell me about. It was always wonderful and I always wanted to hear it.

(These moments are bittersweet for me, for many reasons too long and too snarled to get into.)

This unexpected blast of memory made me think about people who long for the “good ol’ days”. Let’s call these people Wishful Wishers. And then I thought about the people who think the “good ol’ days” don’t exist. Let’s call those people Thinking Thinkers.

So, the Wishers hearken back to a day when things didn’t cost so much, people were simpler and better for it, and land was plentiful. Maybe they didn’t have a lot of money, but they certainly didn’t steal from those who maybe earned more than their fair share. They were awash in the beauty of the Good Word and true morality.

The Thinkers scoff and say that world never existed. That minorities existed in a life-sucking vacuum, defined by those who could and would define them. Life wasn’t beautiful and times were hard. Poverty and ignorance were rampant because a few white men in power liked it that way and they leached success from the uneducated, woebegone poor.

Somewhere in the memory of my grandfather and the vanishing accent he shares with Hank Williams lies a more reasonable middle ground. A place where times were simpler and food tasted better and everything was a lot less processed. A place where things were deeply unequal and women and black men could not have opinions that mattered to the world. A culture where families were larger and work was harder and good storytelling was a part of life. A culture where lies were more insipid and realities were harsher and the time for dreaming was harder to come by.

In that place lies a rich and lush part of American history. Hank’s voice reminded me of a national treasure — our grandparents that lived through a near century of constant change. They are literally living legends. Living through the Great Depression, WWII, the Red Scare, Women’s suffrage, Korea, Vietnam, Civil Rights and on and on. Wow. It defies easy comprehension. The span of time and change boggles the mind.

However…

People always want to believe that a time, a culture, a people or an era was better. That the ignorance, hate, conflict and the unpredictability of life today is a new phenomenon, brought on by a world of non-believers, whiners and sinners. The truth is more simple and sad. Sad mostly because it doesn’t help anything to know it.

The truth is that things haven’t changed all that much. War (especially religious war) is more ancient than the Fertile Crescent.  Elitism, classism and other crappy ‘isms are hard-wired into our communal psyche. Environmental damage and Nature’s resulting fury is a process older than Rome. The world didn’t shrink. People didn’t become more evil. We simply expanded exponentially and our very human problems expanded with us. The changes that have happened are more incremental, more material.

Internally, much is as it always was.

A huge problem lies in thinking that tradition and “human nature” are good excuses not to change. Just because war is a part of life doesn’t mean we ignore it or tacitly allow it. It doesn’t mean it can never change. Just because murderers will always exist doesn’t mean we stop making laws about killing people. We must THINK deeply about things. We should reconfigure until our brains hurt and fall out of our heads. We must adapt.

Adapt or die — this is a truth at the very core of our existence.

Our world is busting at the gut with people, the good, bad and the ugly (like always), and now, unless we pull our hopeful heads out of the past and look firmly into the future, we will continue to be disappointed with the halting, hurting humanity surrounding us. Progress is our only hope for a bright future. And, frankly? Progress is inevitable. Whether it happens now, or 50 years from now, it is going to happen.

Progress

Progress

Better to jump on that train, helping the world to make good decisions, informing the future with measured reality, rather than stand beside the train, bemoaning an old dream that looks a lot better in hindsight than it ever did up close and personal.

— Major Writer

This Writer Was a Liar

“If an ordinary person is silent, it may be a tactical maneuver. If a writer is silent, he [or she] is lying.”–Jaroslav Seifert

I’ve wasted too much of my time worrying about image. Worrying about worrying about image. It seems the conclusion I’ve reached at present day is to never indulge in my overly sentimental side, at least, not publicly. Maybe I cry in the car with my closest friend, maybe I write a poem in secret — but I most certainly will not embarrass myself or those reading my words by subjecting them to the pathetically wide range of emotion I’m always dissecting and tamping down. That’s silly, I tell myself, and no one likes silly.

Well, this self-conscious behavior may be the reason I’ve felt so disconnected from the blogging process over the last year. I didn’t consciously know I was dodging the real emotions until I found myself perusing the emotive and captivating words of a fellow blogger on Subway Philosophy. She writes these short, intense bursts of prose and/or poetry, indulging in passionate displays of emotion and artistic inclination, and her words ring of bittersweet truths and a rallying spirit. I kept my eyes glued to her page tonight, reading post after post, and I realized that I’ve been holding myself back from just this kind of open expression.The kind of writing that hints at a world within a world. Somehow, in four quick lines, you know the author intimately like a sibling and yet know nothing about her at all — because you are relating to truths about yourself.

I’m ready to wrench myself back into the freedom of expression I once had several years ago, when I wasn’t ashamed of feelings and cliches. Fuck the cliches, I say…it is time to write and stop asking any questions other than, “Is this entertaining to anyone, most importantly, me?”.

Major Writer

It’s Not Really About The Milkshakes

When I was little, we’d all (as a family) get on our bikes, my little brother, my Mom, Dad, and I, and bike all over town on the old Bluebonnet Trail.

We’d bike forever — past the Little League fields, past some old brick buildings and elementary schools, over hills that rolled away from us, crossing semi-busy streets, and under endless power lines. Out on the trail, those power lines were serious business — wooden giants holding up the skies with steel cables thicker than my ten-year-old arm. We didn’t stop pedaling until we were all completely exhausted.

My brother and I would start whining and carrying on and my Dad would tell us that one day, we’d treasure these memories. My brother and I exchanged sly glances — we were already at the age where we thought we knew everything. Although, even by then I was the nostalgic sort, so I pretty much got it. Near sunset, we’d head home, tired but happy. We all knew what waited for us there.

It was time for milkshakes. These were no ordinary milkshakes. They were a special class of EPIC milkshakes.

We had a handheld mixer that would fit in a tall glass with a wide mouth. We’d each concoct our own; a splash of vanilla extract, a large dollop of Hersey’s Chocolate syrup, and the perfect, sweet spot ratio of milk to our ice cream of choice. It was the best milkshake I’d ever had and, to this day, they are still the best milkshakes I’ve ever had. I think the last time I had one, I was around 12 or 13 years old. Back then, I took everything for granted, even when I thought I didn’t. Tonight, I’d gladly empty out my meager bank account for one more of those milkshakes and the ability to travel back in time for a few sweet hours.

Major Writer