The Crafted Word JournalThoughts, Ramblings & Musings of a Writer & Teacher
Remember the Time...
Write what you know
I don’t always practice what I preach, especially when it comes to the simple, unaffected, and ordinary “journal entry.” Much of my reticence towards the casual journal entry is the public nature of posting our journal writing as blogs that are more or less “open” to the public. It is hard for me as a teacher of writing to post an entry that I know is trivial, mundane, and perhaps of no interest to my readers—but that is precisely what I need to do if I am to model the full spectrum of the writing process. Keeping a journal is more than a search for lofty thoughts amidst the detritus of the day; it is a practice that keeps our wits and writing skills honed for a coming feast by rambling through the meat of the day and drifting and sailing to whatever port is nearest to my pen. Writing is always an odyssey, and so I have to let my mind go and journey (journal) where it will.
Good words are built our of ordinary thoughts. At the very least, a journal, filled with the scraps and pieces of our daily lives, will outlive our own lives and serve as both beacon and reminder to future generations. Once, in my days as a junkman, I cleaned out an old barn in Maynard after the elderly widower—a man I only remember now as Bob—had died. Scrounging through the Bob’s boxes for anything of value, I came across a series of leather bound journals dating back to the 1930’s. I found a journal marked 1941, so I looked up the date of the Pearl Harbor attack, eager for insight on the profound effect that day must have had on the common man of his or her time. I turned through page after page of impeccable script and learned that Bob and his family went to church in the morning, during which they sang certain hymns (hymns that I can’t remember now—but he did.) Afterwards, they drove to Stow for dinner with his extended family. He wrote about the meal, the weather, the condition of the roads, and, in two brief lines at the close of his entry: “The Japs attacked Pearl Harbor today. I trust President Roosevelt will know what to do.” And that was it.
At first glance, I saw a xenophobic racist putting blind trust in infallible rulers. I couldn’t reconcile it with the kind and gentle old man, and best friend to my best friend’s father, who had recently passed away. I didn’t see it as a window into another time and another mindset. In the arrogance of my youthful pride, I couldn’t appreciate the elegiac beauty of his day—a whole day devoted to faith and the full circle of family. It wasn’t until years later when I sat on the bench by the World War Two Memorial in downtown Maynard and scrolled through the scores of boys and men from this one small mill town killed in battle that I realized the full extent of my myopia. I should have sat in his barn for days and read every word from his journals and then, maybe, I could have seen the evolution of a person through the fullness of time through the clarity of still waters.
Maybe Bob’s youthful ramblings, tempered by the death of so many of his townsmen, could have somehow transformed into the pearls of laconic wisdom that old age should bring—pearls that would fetch a heady price in the market of the modern mind. The greatest tragedy is that we’ll never know. I offered the journals to his son, but he was content to have me throw the whole lot into the back of my Chevy pickup and pay me fifty dollars for the load I scattered into the fires of the Concord dump. The irony of tossing those journals away not more than 150 yards from the site of Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond remained lost on me for many years, even as I trudged dutifully to the Concord library to scour through the massive tomes of Thoreau’s own journals. The old man had done exactly what Thoreau believed was required first of any man or woman when he admonished all would be writers:
“I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives ~Henry David Thoreau, Walden
A further irony is that my own journals from my years between eighteen and twenty five years old, which filled a good-sized cardboard box, were also inadvertently tossed into the same dump by a roommate intent on purging all the junk we were accumulating in our Williams Road farmhouse. The Concord dump is now a series of perfectly sculptured hills slowly regaining the shape and character of the woods that Thoreau tramped and stumbled through 150 years ago. It is a noble idea funded by the well-intentioned, but a nobler action would be to dig through the mold and dirt of time and truly find what the past has to offer us, buried almost irretrievably as it is.
Poetry is what is left unsaid. The stolid words of brevity simply point us in a direction only the brave will wander, but through the daily words of an old Italian farmer, I found a new kind of poetry. Pine Tree farm, butted against the rail line on the far side of Walden and owned by the Ammendolia’s, was one of the last of the Italian family farms that used to be scattered in every corner of Concord. Tony Ammendolia was the patriarch who somehow kept the dream alive, even as farm after farm succumbed to the teeming aorta of suburbia. It was there where I worked on school breaks and on summer weekends, picking corn at 4:00 AM before the heat of the day and hoeing seemingly infinite rows of tomatoes, beans, pumpkins, and eggplants in the long, hot afternoons where success and failure crisscrossed and intersected in a struggle to just get by. My Goddaughters were raised there, and their parents, my good friends Deb and Jack, still keep a few acres going to this day. Tony died two years ago after defying for many years the cancer he fought with the same stubbornness that he did the vicissitudes of nature in the cycle of droughts and floods and insects he faced at every turn during his days as a farmer.
Every night for over sixty years Tony would sit at his desk after dinner and write in his journal. Tony knew I was a writer and would kiddingly tease me that he was a writer too, but in a good-natured poke at my transient approach to life, he was also a farmer. I was at Jack and Debs recently for dinner and asked about Tony’s journals. Jack perked up as the proud inheritor of this family treasure and immediately found me one of the many small notebooks that Tony kept. I opened it and felt the tears well in my eyes, for it read like a type of poetry I had never read before. Tony never meandered from the scope of his own life, but his words spelled out a conviction that celebrated both the common fragility and majesty of life with sentences both sparse and foreboding: “Potato beetles got the eggplants on Bedford Street. We will not sell eggplant this year.” “Three days of rain. Lucky, as the irrigation pumps needs a new valve.” Each entry is a sublime excising out of the ordinary: the sky, the temperature, what was done, what had to be left undone, how much seed, what was selling and what was not selling—but never a mention of the money made or not made. There is never a mention of personal angst or frustration for over sixty continuous years. Those details were best left to imagination and speculation. Some, myself especially, have to call it poetry.
Our own journals need the same attention that Bob and Tony put into their daily records so that our journals can also chart the common unfolding of our lives. As writers and sojourners in life it is our call and duty to map the expanse of our existence. We don’t need to lay our souls bare for all to see and gossip about, but we should find a place to keep a daily journal. Whether it is written in leather bound journals, spiral notepads, or saved as private or public drafts in your blog doesn’t matter, but just a few short lines each day will serve to spark your memory in a later age—and memories wizened in the vat of a thoughtful life will always produce a finer wine. Journaling is a word that has been antiquated before its time. Though fewer and fewer of us take the time to sit with pen and paper, there is still a time and a place for the spirit of journaling to continue.
Make the time to map your own quest. A friend asked me yesterday why I didn’t have a GPS in my truck. He simply shook his head when I answered, “First, I have to remember where I’ve been.” Today’s technologies offer us possibilities unimagined to our literary forbears. Our daily journals can hold both pristine images of our lives via photos, video clips, and music, and most importantly, words. The web allows us to scour the world for like-minded souls that share our particular interests with whom we can share our passions on sites like Facebook, blogs, or personal web sites.
My only issue with much of what is out there on these sites is their self-exploitive and indulgent banality. Bob and Tony’s journals seemed permeated with an almost religious devotion as they chronicled the recitations of their days in rhythm with the pattern of their everyday lives, while on the other side, many Facebook sites I have visited have a tiresome and sycophantic obsession with the painstakingly mundane and profligate side of that persons supposed interests and lifestyle. It is hard—and sometimes impossible—to wrest any kind of context out of the content. Nothing, except a prurient curiosity, keeps me interested—and that is no road to enlightenment for either side of the equation. On some few sites there are links to blogs and other artistic websites where a deeper and more invested side of that person comes through. For them, their Facebook page is simply an adjunct to their life—a social gathering place to rest and draw water with friends and community. There is nothing wrong with that, but it should never be the destination of your journey, and if you can’t see life as a journey—an odyssey of existence—then you simply can’t see.
I guess the word I am looking for is devotion. None of our lives are more complicated than Bob or Tony’s lives. All they did that is different is make time to look closely at what was important to them in the daily unfolding of each of their lives.
Take the time. Remember where you’ve been.
Don't Do It...
I was eighteen and designing a production line for making stepladders at Fitchburgh State College—the only college I could afford, and probably the only place that would have me. I remember thinking, ‘Man, this ain’t no life for me.’ I barely had a working idea of what life meant, but I was pretty sure it meant I didn’t have to do something without any meaning or purpose—and I certainly didn’t want to spend my life designing a better stepladder.’
But, what did I want to do? Did I have the courage to even make a change in my life? If I had read The Odyssey, I might have known what to do; I might have known that I was on a heroic journey and that my call to adventure was the churning confusion in my gut, and I might have known to look for a helper and an amulet to get me over the threshold—that no quest is real until you realize that you cannot go it alone.
My helper was my English professor. I can’t even recall her real name, but she was old and sweet, and so we called her Aunt Bee—and she was sweet enough to ask me to stay after class to meet with her one day early in the fall. (Although I was petrified she was going to have me expelled for charging five dollars to any kid in my dorm to write their English papers for them.)
Instead, she held a paper in her hand that I had written, and a paper in which I actually cared about what I wrote. The day before she had told us to take a walk through the city and then write about the walk. Most of my classmates stayed in the dorm, laughed about how naive Aunt Bee was, and wrote some insipid scrawls that they thought would qualify as an essay—or they tried to get me to write an essay for less than five dollars.
But I took the walk. I wandered through the poorest streets in Fitchburgh; I sat on front steps with little kids and old men; I sat with drunks and dreamers, and I wondered. I wondered if my walk was actually real, or if I was even real, and then wrote some story about a kid who couldn’t tell if he was awake or dreaming or even which state of mind he wanted to live in. Aunt Bee shook this paper in my face and said bluntly, “You shouldn’t be an industrial arts major. This [shaking the paper even closer to my face] is your gift!”
Never once had anyone told me I had a gift of any sort, except perhaps for whittling birds out of scraps of soft pine. I don’t think Aunt Bee knew how ready I was for a change—any change. I seemed to take her off guard when I responded, “Okay. So what do I do?”
“Leave this place,” she answered.
So I left.
Never had a decision been so easy and so hard at the same time. It was easy because I knew in my heart that Aunt Bee was right, but it was hard because my parents thought I was throwing my life away—and I was: I threw my old life away and charted a new course into a world of words and literature—a world that I really knew nothing about.
That decision in 1976 is the reason I am writing this to you today. It has been the proverbial long and winding road, but I have never been let down by a book or hobbled by anything I wrote, even though much of what I’ve written is pretty dumb and forgettable.
There was very little academia in my new journey. I learned to write by writing. I learned to write better by listening to what people thought and felt about my writing. I joined some writing workshops where each week each person would bring in some poem or story to share with a circle of other would be writers. I learned what worked in my writing and what didn’t work—at least to the small universe of my writer’s circle. I never thought I was a good writer, and so I was never really bothered by what people said. I just thought, ‘Cool. I guess I should change this….’
Even after a few workshops, I still never thought I was a writer, until I one day a friend introduced me to his friend by saying, “This is Fitz. He’s a writer.” I protested that I was not a writer, and my friend just said, “Then what the hell else are you?”
“I don’t know. An apple picker, I guess,” for at the time I was picking apples with a crew of Jamaicans in a New Hampshire orchard.
“At any rate, Fitz is a better writer than he is an apple picker. That much I’m sure,” my friend said, sealing the deal and sealing my fate—a fate which, by and large, has been good to me.
But be careful, for you, too, might become a writer; and once you become a writer, you can’t turn back; you can only turn away. Such is the power and allure of writing. If schools really knew what happens when a kid becomes a writer, they would ban the teaching of writing. It’s like giving a ten year old the keys to a bad-ass car; it’s like pointing across a canyon and screaming, “Jump!” It’s like opening the window and pointing in every direction and saying, “This is all you need to know and everything you’ll ever try to know.”
Writing is unfettered and audacious freedom.
Don’t do it.
John Adams & Me...
From the deck of my sister’s house on the Oregon coast, I can see the breakers lumbering in as the heavy morning fog slowly burns away. In true west coast style, I brewed a coffee that is strong and pungent and will guide me through my own morning fog. I was reading until late last night in David McCullough’s book, John Adams. John Adams is an interesting character with whom I feel a marked affinity at every turn in the book (a book which has way too many turns!). Maybe it is my distance right now from New England that creates the affinity. I am certainly not a very political person, but I relate to Adam’s need for, and dedication to, his family, his love of walking the countryside, and his practical working of the earth closest to him—an earth replete with stone walls, fields, orchards, rivers, wood-splitting, and escapes to the sea—but most importantly, his escape to “quill and paper” to better expose his vanities and commonality, and to find a pathway to express the depths of his speculative thinking.
Though he often lived low, he always aimed high, and that is the demon and angel I wrestle with every day. With summer almost over, there is as much undone as done. I feel like a waterbug that has skittered across a great expanse of time and water without breaking below the surface to exploit the riches below. There is no new batch of songs, no folio of poetry, and precious few chapters in Hallows Lake, my own—and only—labored attempt at fiction. I can console myself with ten or twelve decent essays and narratives written in support of the writing communities I oversee during the summer months, but not much creative work, which, ironically, is the strongest suit in my deck of writing cards.
Writing is still the time that is stolen from the day and not the purpose of the day itself. My own purposes and instinctual priorities, like Adam’s, are the myriad responsibilities of the lifestyle I lead, but Adams took his life further, wider, and deeper. As a public figure, Adams was prodded and coerced by the dictates of a needy public and the enormity of the political upheavals of his time, while I am only inspired by a vague sense of my potential and a mysterious need to put words to the narrow confines of my own experiences and my own sense of the world closest to me.
At this juncture in my life, I wonder if that is enough? I wonder if I need to put myself on a larger stage and summon the courage to place my life in front of a larger audience and let the chips fall where they may? A week from today I will be back in the classroom in front of sixty 14 year-old boys who I need to inspire to somehow give a damn about everything I ask them to do. My monologues need to be reinforced by a model of hope and action. Too often it is true that we teach what we do not do ourselves; too often we only build a scale model of our true greatness out of brittle plastic and weak glue that can only weaken over time, and too often we don’t answer the clarion of our own callings, and so we sit, smugly satisfied with the diluted reality of our lives.
What we think is only made real through what we say and do. The waves rolling onto the shore in front of me now are barely perceptible to the boats fishing out of Nehalem Bay. The power of the water is only evident where the water breaks and crashes onto the beach. No one is here in Manzanita content to simply look beyond the horizon. We are here because the sea meets the land in a continual expectation of beauty and awe-inspiring power. We walk the beaches in search of both the detritus and bounty of the sea. If that sea gave us nothing; if we weren’t convinced there was not more to be had here than from the confines of our own yards, we would just have stayed at home and gathered the glory of our own gardens.
I have to set to sea and trawl the infinite stew of what I carry within me, and I have to take myself to where those words curl onto a more public shore. I need to take my garden to the sea and spread my wares upon the waves and let the beachcombers gather what they wish to keep.
It is not the history of John Adams I am after.
It is his unflinching and steady spirit.
Why Read The Odyssey...
Some of the words you’ll find within yourself;
The rest, some power will inspire you to say.
The Odyssey, ~Book III, Lines 29-20
Nobody ever told me to read The Odyssey—and that was the greatest educational travesty of my life. I first read it after High School while working at Colonial Motors in West Concord. I didn’t “get it” any more than the most confused among you, but what I did do is “feel it.” I felt its primordial power and emotional bareness; I felt another world, another age, and another human journey come alive inside of me. It made me feel that I was a part of long and unbroken lineage of humanity searching for truth and purpose in a world—especially my world, a world not always blessed with clarity and opportunity. I had always been the kid in the back of the class staring out the window dreaming of a better world—and scheming a way to get there. I liked to read, and we read good books in school, but I only lived in those books for the moment. Good books were like a party with a great group of friends: fun, exciting, and memorable, but not life changing. They died, most of them, the moment I closed the book; but, The Odyssey changed my life. It showed me that wisdom is not learned, it is cultivated by deliberation and attentiveness.
I say this and you might wonder why it is not changing your life. (Hopefully, on some level, it is changing your life.) You might wonder if you are missing something everyone else is getting. You probably wonder why I feel it is worthwhile to read this book during your 8th grade year. Why don’t we just watch “Star Wars” or”24″ or “Wizard of Oz?” Why? Because “Star Wars, “24” and “Wizard of Oz” are archetypes; they are variations of experiences infinitely more real; they are built on the backs of hundreds of books and movies that came before them: but, The Odyssey was built on human experience; it was created out of our most primal need for the wisdom, hope, and guidance that will get us through life. The Odyssey doesn’t give us the tools we need to tackle the problems of life, it simply shows us the heroic nature required to deal and cope with the setbacks, sorrows and tragedies of every life. Bright-Eyed Athena might not be at our side helping us through the day, but The Odyssey shows us that Athena comes in many guises and seldom reveals her true self, and that we, too, need to accept wisdom at opportune and inopportune times in its many forms and guises.
As much as we are taught to stay away from strangers we still must turn our ears to the words they speak—for it might be the very truth we long and need to hear. We might not have a six headed monster on one side of the hallway and a deadly whirlpool on the other, but we do have to make tough decisions where the outcomes range from bad to worse. Don’t despair or even allow for frustration. If you wonder what is going on, then you are doing the right thing. Please, keep on wondering. I hope you wonder; I hope you wonder about who you are and where you are going; I hope you wonder about the problems of life; I hope you wonder where you will find the strength, the wiles, the courage—and the desire—to face these problems with insight, cunning and perseverance. This is what Odysseus had to do; and, if you are to grow towards your individual greatness, then this is what you must do as well. If songs are to sung about you, then you must be the hero of your own odyssey through life.
In a few short weeks you will have defeated me. You will leave my classroom a pillaged wasteland of poems, projects, broken pencils, essays, reflections, ballads, cheese-its, comments, short stories, blogs and granola wrappers. Maybe you will burn your Huck Finn mini series, shred your twenty writing mistakes, meditate—literally—on your haiku book, delete your website, disown your blog, and refuse to listen to ballads, write clear opening sentences and/or paragraph your thoughts; you will throw-away your active reading sheets, erase your margin notes and refuse to admit you know where a comma goes; you will dangle and misplace modifiers and use lusciously disturbing adverbs and insipid adjectives at will. You will forget when Kat died, when Huck tricked Jim, and when “Leaves of Grass” finally ended.
It might feel like you forgot everything you are supposed to remember.
But you will not forget The Odyssey.
It does not happen.
Daily thoughts on ordinary days…
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