Those Pesky Emotions

Upon waking, I had thought to visit the library in search of more books by John Banville, a particular author who inspires me with his style of writing. I am currently halfway through one of his books and have periodically laid the volume aside to hack again at a long labor of mine, alternately caressed and despised, for nearly fifty years. This memoir relates a seven-year period of my life, if it ever sees print, both gut-wrenching and pathetic, a lament, self-aggrandizing, a confessional if you must.

Banville’s style is similar to my earlier writings, what came out of me in those days before I had published anything. My technical articles had seen print, and even essays on various personal topics—dreams, remembrances, all of it boiling with emotion. But after that first book, my writing wasn’t my own. I felt watched, self-conscious, fully inadequate to create anything of merit. What did I know, anyway?

Since then I have detoured into historical accounts of one thing or another, not anything to be ashamed of but nevertheless not of any emotional import. My slim efforts at fiction, where in theory emotion must reign supreme although within the harness so eloquently described by Frost, have failed to engage me—or readers. I have been terribly disappointed in that effort, as it seems I am unable—unwilling, in fact—to express or convey emotion because I steadfastly refuse to experience emotion. This failure is, as one of my characters says in a flash of fury, a response to the reality that emotion leads to pain.

Not just any pain, but a deep intractable burn that settles in the bones and leads like a labyrinth to all the many experiences of pain that I have swallowed down in the years of my life. Why should I willingly lay myself open to examine those hopeless dead-ends and hidden mortuaries? It’s not as if a re-examination will make anything change. I can’t excise the pain like a surgeon removing a misshapen, hidden tumor. Looking at and expressing it does nothing to ease its ability to wound. And re-wound.

But yet, as a writer, I must create stories that convey the experience of pain, of sadness, loneliness, despair, and all other human torments (alongside joy and pleasure, the light part of duality, the yin-yang) in order to give readers what they want. There’s some sickness in that formula, that readers seek new sources of pain in order to exhume and then exorcise their own long-hidden suffering. Is it that we don’t know we have pain? That we must cast our eyes along the pages to learn what we’ve hidden from ourselves? Is it that in living through fictional pain, distant as we are from any personal experience of it, that we can set aside the dragging fingernails of our own grief?

Honestly, I don’t know the answer. I only know I that must write, and in so doing, I become caught up in the expectation that what I write will have some meritorious impact, and in that I will gain not only self-respect but also some small congratulation even if only from a few. And so I daily strive, like today, to expand my understanding of how and why people read. I endeavor to learn more closely the peculiar ways in which successful authors manage their craft. John Banville wields words like an expert swordsman and inspires me to take a fresh look at my memoir in the belief, perhaps delusional, that if I can only find the right words, a more musical phrasing, a more authoritative approach to my efforts, I might then be able to invoke the appreciation Banville has garnered.

However, the morning nearly gone and having attended—shall we say deviated from my original intent?—to various uninspiring tasks and only just now trying again to read for inspiration, I am distracted by my plan to visit the library. I am only halfway resting in my chair, so urgent is my sense of duty to get in my car and go.

Which makes no sense because I have a half book left to read and therefore no urgent need to visit the library. I have business at the bank and mail to drop, but that’s only side dressing to my actual underlying urgency to visit the library this very moment. It’s not that I wouldn’t like a couple more Banville books in order to compare his style from one work to the next. Of course I would. The real underlying truth is, I want to escape this duty and secure a stack of romance novels to get lost in, to vacate any responsibility to learning or writing, and simply disappear into a fictional world not of my own making.

This leads me to suspect that if I was able, theoretically, to set my emotions free from their harness to run rampant across the page, I would be confronted with feelings I might not want to hear or see and be forced to start cudgeling them back like the wild beasts they are. Or, as I once understood it, I might start screaming and not be able to stop, embarrassing me, my pets, and the neighbors.

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Reprieve

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Stories await the telling, scenes the description, ideas the unfolding. Terror that time will run out and the long list of magic truth will be locked away in my grave. Horror that the stories are trite, scenes familiar, ideas old compost. Of course they are, I console myself. But your telling, your words, your angle is new. Uniquely yours. Important to at least one other person. I stare at the blank page.

Revulsion boils up. I hate this. I hate the stories that wait to be finished, the stories half done, the stories not started. They taunt me from my imagination—I can never give them life. They will never be good enough, never true to the inspiration, never worthy of a reader’s scrutiny.

Just write it, I urge myself. Write and the vision will unfold. The character will speak his voice and reveal his future. Let the fingers fly over the keys. Words will form and the story will be wonderful.

But wait.

There’s laundry I should start, or I’ll have no clean underwear tomorrow. Floors long past grim, perhaps fifteen minutes with the broom. There’s a call to be made. A business matter to tend. A window framing spring drizzle, grass greening. Thank god.

The Desk

man at deskFrom the desk, orders issue forth. Bits of paper and ideas settle into orderly stacks. Drawers open to reveal white paper, envelopes, pencils and pens, erasers, rulers, paperclips, checkbooks, random rubber bands and ephemera relevant to the civilization of mind.

The top of my father’s desk curved down at the front and back in a streamlined Art Deco style going out of fashion in the mid-Forties when my mother bought it for him. She purchased the desk new at a hardware store in Rogers, Arkansas, two years before I was born. It remains in the family household seventy years later.

The image of him sitting there with his big stubby fingers busily typing away on his massive old Royal typewriter stays in fresh my memory. Curses muttered in his deep rumbling voice signaled a mistake that required laborious erasures. Sometimes the errors ran so deep that the paper would be ripped from the carriage, accompanied by a mechanical zipping sound as the cylinder spun.

How satisfying, that ripping sound. The end to it, for once and for all! A new sheet of paper! A new start! And then the keys would tap again, clickety-clack, as he pursued the project at hand. A letter to a band parent? A notice to be posted on the bandroom bulletin board?

A bold red band graced the top border of his Bi-State Music Festival paper. It came in wrapped reams redolent of printers’ ink. Documents issued forth—letters to other band directors in the region, schedules of competing bands, ensembles, and soloists. I remember the watermarks on the heavy bond paper, the matching envelopes, the anticipation permeating our house as the festival neared. This was my father’s prize project for his years at Northside High School in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Then there were the hours, late into the night, that he bent over pre-lined manuscript paper with his quill of India ink to join the lines into a musical staff. His practiced flourish produced treble and bass clef signs, quick jots of ink for quarter notes, and quirky flags at the top of the note stem designating its status as eighth note or sixteenth. The side of his hand brushed the heavy manila paper as quarter note rests took shape or as a long slur line arced over two measures.

His concentration palpable, his cigarettes burned down to the filter in the wide glass ashtray. There were the groans and curses when his efforts went awry, when the ink bottle spilled or the muse stopping whispering in his ear. When real life demanded his attention to wife and children, the lawn that needed mowing, the bills past due. An artist at heart, he never fully accepted his role in the world of the mundane.

Command center to the world around us or doorway to the ether of creation, desks are the place where business is done. Here I utter my own curses at the petty requirements of temporal life. Can’t you see I am far away, the whispers of characters and scent of distant meadows flowing from my fingertips? Yet the desk is not only the arena of creation but also where I organize my world, establish schedules for my time and finances, and write letters to compliment the helpful and excoriate the stupid. Here I sit to stare out the window as memories and worries rush onward, ever onward, in my unruly thoughts.

Now the world unfolds on my computer screen. Words scroll across virtual paper, easily erased and corrected. No more ripping paper from the typewriter. How much more music could my father have written with the tools of modern times? Playing a simple phrase on a digitally-connected keyboard would have produced perfectly crafted notes on a virtual page, no ink required.

Maybe the result of such ease in the mechanics of creation is that we are now drowning in a sea of mediocre art. Perhaps we were better served with pages ripped from typewriters and music penned with India ink. When the need to tease out a deeply held emotion, find words that best describe, or form scenes that best reveal, I drag out the paper. It sits expectantly on the desk, this thick pad of white paper. Sometimes even the use of a pen is too facile, and I dig up the Number 2 lead pencil. It makes a satisfying sound as my hand forces the tip over the paper.

What I write on paper with pencil is different from what appears with keystrokes on a digital keyboard. The words are more carefully chosen. The shapes of letters carry significance. The words have real weight and I use them in new ways, unexpectedly poignant.

I am at my desk with paper and pencil. I can see my father bent here, his profile etched against the dark of night in the light from his desk lamp. His quill scratches across the page.