Thursday, August 9, 2018

On Writing Without Words

I’ve always liked it when writers call their audience “kind readers.”  I’d say if you have to have readers, it’s always nice when they are kind.

So, in that spirit, welcome back kind readers.  I’ve been busy, which is good and fine and all, and I’ve not had the yearning to write I often have.  Well, honestly, that’s not as true a statement as it could be…  I’ve really not been busy – no busier than you or anyone else – nor have I lacked the desire to write, in fact I’ve been writing all these last few months, I’ve just not been using words so much.

I doubt that last paragraph will end up in the books as a perfect example of the form, but, that’s okay.

I should probably start over, but you know I won’t.
How, you may be wondering, does one write without using words?

Watching, dreaming, hoping, drinking, thinking, listening, praying.  All are excellent ways to get words to end up lined across a screen or paper.  Sometimes, words and sentences, along with all the weight of punctuation and paragraphication and pagination, just seem impossible to conjure from that amorphous clay-like gray mass in our minds so it helps to have a few tools.

If you want to write, you simply must watch.  Watch what?  I dunno… everything, nothing - birds at the feeder, firetrucks flying by, stars or a reluctant moon.  Faces maybe.  The way that feller walks.  The architecture of a building, the chairs, a window up high that frames a certain pew in church then moves on to the next, and the next, a plodding spotlight illuminating family after family.  You can watch hands or wonder about clothing choices or why those boots.

A couple of Thursdays a month, I end up at a local beer and music venue out a ways in the country.  It is in an old schoolhouse and sits right next to a Holstein farm, it’s sort of a hippie hillbilly place.  I go on that day because they host an “open mic” night, where folks play a few songs and move on to the next person.  I play sometimes but that’s a story for a different time. 

There’s a guy who comes in every time I’m there.  He knows everyone, and he comes in with his two sons, probably in their twenties, one of whom has a mental and physical malady, the nature of which remains unknown to me, a palsy of some sort, I’d guess.  He greets everyone, shakes hands, thanks the performers and always has something nice to say.  He’s usually in business attire and seems to have come straight from work.  I asked him once if he comes in often.  Usually just Thursdays, he told me, my son really likes the music.

You write a better story than that.

Dreaming is a great writer’s habit.  I had, as a younger man, the notion that at some point in a life you stop dreaming – I guess I figured once your dreams came true there was no need for more.  I couldn’t have been wronger.  I still dream of a backyard chapel I once conjured (you can read about that here).  I dream other things, too - lottery winning, long forest campouts, a Jesuit retreat.  The truth is dreaming is imagining and I think writing is as well.  As we dream of things we describe them, often offering deep detail and emotion.  I can’t think of a better exercise for the creative mind.

Hoping, I guess, might seem the same as dreaming, but we often hope for others.  I hope for N and Z with complete earnestness, bordering on naivete.   I hope for my wife and friends and you, perhaps.  Hope ensures empathy and empathy serves writing well.  Hope, it seems to me, is also simple and frank, characteristics that also serve prose well.

I guess thinking is obviously a way to work on writing without using words.  Less obviously, and more controversially, I think drinking can be a useful tool in the hallway between the gray place of mind and the black and white of words on paper.  I’m not talking Hemingway’s Whiskey or booze as muse.  I understand – and have seen – that alcohol takes down a lot of very good people.  It can destroy relationships, break hearts, provide false courage, embarrass, cajole, hurt… you know the list. 

I get that, but…

Listen, I know that as a parent of thirteen-year-old twin boys the last thing I should do is sing the praises of drinking.  In my defense, they rarely see me drink, perhaps a beer or two late night watching a baseball game and I’ve never been, what’s the word?, blotto, around them.  I have also not condemned it as much as many parent peers seem to, nor condoned as the other half does.  I suppose I don’t want to demonize it, that’d make me look hypocritical, nor glorify it, which would be hypocritical as well in a different way.

I am digging a hole here I should get out of, but, I’ll shovel a little more.

I’ve witnessed a lot of drinking in my lifetime, both my own hand in front of me and in the hands of so many others.  I was a bartender for twenty-five or more years, also a waiter.  I’ve seen it all, man: fights, shouting, flung beer bottles, broken pool cues, parking lot brawls, called cops, robbers.  Bad stuff.

But, right now, as I look back over the long arc of my relationship with all of it, I think it swings towards the good times: gut-busting laughter, backslaps and manly hugs, nervous new relationships, a wiffle-ball game in August in Athens, campouts and even late nights alone by a fire watching a ballgame, arguments and, especially, ideas.  Songs and poems and deep friendships, integrity, courage, honor, brotherhood - all understood, considered, conceived in the forge of intemperance.

Whoa, this is a deep hole… I’m out.

Listening and praying are, sometimes, one and the same.  Folks get oddly uncomfortable when I speak of prayer, which I often do.  I think people have a curious perception of what prayer looks like – kneeling in a church, hands folded like a cliché, a chanted blessing before a meal, the tears in a Eucharistic chapel, all of which I do.  But, prayer is also listening.  Not just listening in solitude, discerning a path in faith, but also listening to others.  Dialogue, conversation, banter, joking, even fights and spats, can lead to deep understanding and empathy just as prayer can. 

I hear a prayer in the hopes and dreams of my sons.  I hear a prayer in the cheers at a summer rec baseball game or the applause for a middle school musical.  I hear a prayer in a whispered ‘I love you’ and in the sobs of an injured boy.  I hear the same prayer in uncontrolled laughter and hushed giggles as I hear in shouts and rage hurled at injustice, unfairness and just plain evil.  I hear a prayer in the sleet hitting the windows or the wind rustling the red maples, in a screen door slamming of a summer night or in a kite tail in March’s lion wind.  For me, a prayer runs through it all.  Much of what I write here is simply and unabashedly, a prayer.

Do you have time for a story?  I almost wrote short story, but that’d been a lie.


It is overcast here this morning.  The boys are counselors at a camp at the school this week, so I am alone.  It is quiet.  I open my computer and open this draft and remember where I was – transitioning from drinking to prayer – and, well, I close the damn thing.

I listen to the silence and then I stand up and drive my truck to TheTwo-and-a Half Acre Woods.  I walk to the bench I like and sit and say some prayers, mostly thanksgiving because, well, Grace overwhelms me.  And then I listen and watch and look around and I hope and dream and remember.  All at once, for I am now in Kairos, God’s time. 

For some reason a feeling of loneliness sweeps over me as I look around this little forest, this trail I’ve come to know and call my own.  It curves on my left side and begins to descend towards the creek.  On my right it is fairly straight and gently slopes upward.  Beech and maples, oaks and honeysuckle, brambles and those woody vines that climb up and up and scream for some boy to swing on them, line both sides.  I think of paths and trails and wonder how many times I’ve sat at this very juncture.  Up or down?  Stay put?

I consider the loneliness of decision.

A flood of images races through my memory.  Paths and country lanes and city blocks and ridge walks and red rocks and streams and rivers and endless eddies – all in an instant.  I notice the greens of these woods, from fresh almost mint green to deep olives bordering on brown.  I look out across the path where the ground edges downward towards the stream.  I smile at the notion that one can see both the forest and the trees.  I think of waves on an ocean, the majesty of mountains and cliffs, the solitude of deserts and wonder if these woods don’t share that sort of epic beauty.

I ponder why I’m here, what’s drawn me out, what’s compelled me to this spot, this time, these memories, this now, that past.

A quick brown flicker draws my gaze and there she stands, looking at me.  A doe the size of a pony not more than twenty feet away.  Her big brown eyes are on me, her ears twitch, her white tail waggles.  I stare back, astonished not at her proximity, not at her tawny beauty, not at the surprise of it all but because I realize…

 I am not alone.


And so, that’s what I’ve been up to, writing without words.  Today, however I’ve used up a lot them and I’ve used up a lot of your time as well.

Peace, as always, and thanks for stopping by… kind readers, indeed.  Hopefully you’ll hear more from me in the coming weeks and months.  I know, I know, I’ve said that before and haven’t followed through, but I’ve been doing a lot of writing these last few months, I think I’m ready to start using words again.

1 comment:

  1. Good start, Bill. I have missed you. Glad you are back