Why I Write
by Joe Linker
South Santa Monica Bay LA working class kid, father a plumber by trade. Big family. Catholic school. Guitar. Folk revival. On the radio we listened to Motown, pop, rock, surf. On TV were the dance shows, and the afternoon soaps my sisters and mom watched. Sock hops featured live local bands. I bought a pool table for the house, for $5, from a high school friend. We rode bicycles and homemade skateboards. I got into surfing and jazz and the Beats.
Nothing was annihilated. The writing temperament comes to light as a condition of being. If there was a point, it was learning to read.
I recently put Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” to a country western chord progression and was about to give it a Johnny Cash voice when a neighbor asked did I not know what an asshole Robert Frost was, as if Frost’s being a mean man had something to do with stopping by woods. Maybe it does, and that’s biographical criticism. But the dismissal of a poem by virtue of its author’s personal failings is part of the naive notion that reading can make us better persons or that authors are somehow good people because they’ve written a good book. We should not judge a work by its author, and we should not criticize a work for not being the work it was not intended to be. An author’s circumstances, the predicament she’s born into, may or may not predict the work. Henry Green paid tribute to observation of others and in so doing pointed to them and not to himself. There are writers seemingly holy: Simone Weil, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton. But writers don’t usually become candidates for sainthood.
I’m reminded of the jazz musicians of the 1950’s turning their backs on their audiences, trying to avoid deceiving themselves. But deceit is a way of catching one’s attention. I knew a woman who seemed to believe in a literal reality of her favorite TV soap opera characters. She talked about them as if they were real people. She gossiped about them. She might have made a good writer, but she didn’t know how to read. But maybe those soap characters are real.
From the Beats I got jazz and early on wrote a few poems intended to reflect the Beat influence, music, form. But I think of jazz as a form of folk music. But I was also influenced by John Cage, but more by his writing than by his music. My writing contains music, songs, folk in nature. Does my writing sing? And if so, what genre? I don’t know.
I am living now in a winter of writing. The sky is ironic, the ground frozen in satire. The words shiver and cling together trying to keep warm. I don’t know if this writing will see another spring. But writing survives and even thrives in winter.
I suppose we all have a bit part in the creation of the world. I might want to use Buckminster Fuller’s “Operation Manual for Spaceship Earth” as a guide:
Observation, reading, listening, imagination, suffering of all kinds big and small, in the mailroom and in the boardroom, empathy and love, experiment, epiphany I don’t remember asking for, failure, animal and plant life, dream world of sleep, ageing, work, play. Joyce chose Ulysses for his all-rounder character (husband and father, soldier and sailor, traveler and explorer, ruler and exile, cuckold and lover), but Bloom’s Odyssey is made from everyday experience.
It’s probably best not to idolize, the false or the real.
We need to know how to do things: build a bed using two by fours and plywood, with saw, hammer, and nails; plumb a toilet and change a flat tire; ride a bicycle; grow vegetables and herbs, in pots on a sidewalk if necessary; play guitar; help others; save a cat, dog, or elephant; walk, swim, relax.
My first guitar, an acoustic folk, was a gift from a neighbor who had picked up a better one. He taught me a few licks. Then, one day, my guitar was on the floor and my girlfriend at the time hopped off the top bunk and landed on the guitar. My next guitar I bought for $25 from an ad in the South Bay Daily Breeze newspaper. My favorite guitar now is a Telecaster I bought used in 1985. It was one of the first guitars out of the Fender Japanese factory, the first built out of the US. It’s a good guitar, industrial. I have a couple of amps, an old Roland Jazz Chorus 50 that is too big for small rooms, and a small Crate. I also play a Takamine classical built in 1977. I have a Yamaha FG180 purchased new in 1970 for $100. It’s probably still worth $100. Great investment. I also have an Ovation acoustic electric, but I don’t play it often. I use flat wound nickel jazz strings on the tele and the Yamaha folk also, which has an after market pickup that fits into the sound hole. The FG stands for folk guitar. Now I’m playing a Gitane DG250M gypsy jazz guitar I bought used for $500. But I play it fingerstyle, without a pick.
I still favor folk, blues, and jazz. I like Indie and support the indie effort. I’ve mixed feelings about the changes in the music industry. But those changes have enabled much more experimental, original, less commercial, efforts to emerge. The self-publishing, online and text versions, have similarly disrupted the traditional publishing world, and the literary indie movement has also enabled more possibilities, though these efforts reach smaller audiences. But that’s ok. The age of the blockbuster book, driven by mass marketing and distribution, like the big stadium concert, is giving way to the smaller venue. It’s a bit like the difference between one of these so called mega-churches and a smaller gathering of searchers.
Cage’s piece called “Water Walk” is entertaining and funny. I’m not sure it evokes more feeling than a comparable poetic piece might, but it seems to do so more efficiently and effectively. And it seems all of Cage’s pieces are conversational. What is his piece for piano titled 4′ 33″ if not a conversation? But what is “feeling,” and are we predisposed to “feel” a certain way given certain arrangements. Minor and major modes, for example, melodic or harmonic scales. Music might be more direct, an express bus full of party goers on the way to a sensorium, while poetry is a taxi stuck in traffic. Can an idea evoke feeling? Can a poem about ice cream produce the taste of a banana split? The sentimental often jars feelings, and some composers and writers seem to want to avoid the sentimental. Why? Rimbaud’s “Illuminations,” when I first read it, caused emotions in me I’d never experienced before, couldn’t understand, but I wanted more.
Dostoevsky’s Underground Man says “suffering is the sole origin of consciousness.” Seems a Christian sentiment. Soul origin. Kierkegaard. Tyranny alone seems totally destructive to the individual, while total freedom seems a utopian ideal. When Jesus said, “Come, follow me,” was it an invitation to a tyranny of one’s spirit or an invitation to free oneself from the tyranny of one’s birth predicament, from attempts to shame used to control and tyrannize? This much we might know: as writers we are interested in freedom from tyranny. But maybe writing is tyrannical, the writer a tyrant. Come, read me!
I believe in the freedom of speech, but to say that, the freedom of silence is also a beautiful thought.
What’s complicated is how we define good – a good person, a good book, a good war. In any case, I don’t think “good people” are somehow favored or graced. I don’t doubt many people who consider themselves good people are nevertheless in debt to bad habits. Likewise, many people who hold positions that presuppose good prerequisites are demonstrably not good at all. Moreover, we are most of us most of the time it seems irrational or non-rational – we don’t necessarily choose what’s good for us. We might not even know what’s good for us.
When it comes to understanding, most of the time I’m drowning, and the lifeguard critic is no help. You hope for an island in the stream.
A few writers might be ships, oil tankers, schooners, cruise ships, but most of us are paddling in the slop on surfboards, or fishing from the pier for words hidden in muddy water.
Maybe everything does have a beginning, but becoming can still take a long time. At least becoming has been a long road for me. My writing, or wanting to write, or thinking I might write something, began with reading, listening, the smell of paperback pages and ink. The smell of mimeo machine paper and ink, the dark purple ink-runny letters, those handouts in grade school. The acoustic sounds of the manual typewriter, the shapes of the letters engraved, you could feel them with your fingers on both sides of the paper. So it was physical and sensual this beginning, the feel and smell of books and paper and shapes of letters and the train-clacking of typewriters and the swirl of the mimeo barrel. And writing was and is dissent, argument, style, as well as something to do with your fingers and hands. In 8th grade, we had an Irish nun who read aloud long works to us: The Scarlet Pimpernel; A Tale of Two Cities; David Copperfield; Hamlet. And she read poems and speeches and stories. Everyone responds differently. My father was not a reader, other than the newspaper, and he read blueprints and showed me how to read a blueprint, but he was a talker. He was garrulous, because he liked people, he loved talking to people. He was a good listener. He couldn’t hear worth a damn, but he was a good listener. He wanted me to be a plumber, too, but I was a poor listener.
Thomas Merton suggests prayer without words is possible, and maybe preferable. Where is the poem without words? There might be a symbiotic relationship between the Word and the writer, the one who prays. We might have several different vocabularies, the one we talk with, the one we read with, the one we write with, one for poems, a different one for negotiating. How many words do we need? For what? Language is on the move, if not on the make.
Rewards are distributed randomly. Audiences are fickle. There’s not necessarily a connection between financial success and talent, skill, or intelligence, nor is there often any equity in amount paid for difficulty of task. What’s important is to follow one’s calling, if you can hear it amid the roar of the crowd, and avoid the traps of boredom.
Human nature over time has not improved. We are no better than our ancestors, however far back you want to go. Technology does not improve our nature. Nor does it make it worse. We are the same. In that sense, time has no influence. But when something new is written, we might read what came before it in a different light, and find that it’s changed.
Lots of ways to look at literature, ways to think about it. Literature reshapes experience. That is how dreams work. Experience reappears in literature in different form. We can’t know what it’s like to be a cat or a dog or an elephant or a snake. We might not know what it’s like to be a human. Literature is a way of explaining or illustrating what life is like – for the other, for a pencil, for a bird or a tree. But notice how indirect it is. But certainly literature is art and art communicates. Literature is also a business, and like all human enterprise seeks to grow itself, advertise and market, compete in the marketplace.
Drama is literature in action, as well as a kind of literary criticism in action, since each performance interprets the work in question. Penelope Fitzgerald wrote a wonderful book about an acting school. The title is “At Freddie’s.” I like small theatre work. Awhile back I sat in the front row in a very small theatre, the last seat by a stage door. An actor would open the door and it would hit my chair. I almost felt like I was in the play. It will give you an idea of the size of this theatre when I tell you its name: the ShoeBox Theatre. But they do everything, and you get acting, sounds off, settings, lighting, music, and a live audience to share the experience. The audience is literary criticism in pause mode. Drama includes all of the characteristics of literature – narrative, plot, characters, setting, language, metaphor, symbol, plus costumes.
Huxley in “Doors of Perception” argues that the five senses act as much to keep reality out of the mind as to let it in. Blake says the same thing – that our senses limit our awareness. They seem to be saying that if the scales of the senses were lifted, we would be overwhelmed by reality. This is what Rilke suggests with his angel. And Norman O. Brown suggested that without language we’d still be living in paradise. But I don’t think words as we have them necessarily disable us. They are what we have to work with. They are part of us, part of our body reaching out to grasp the world.
I have recently started to voice text on my phone, instead of typing. The result can be confusing. For one thing, I’ve not figured out how to punctuate, or how to capitalize or not. But we could be heading toward a future without a written language, without retail. Or a written language that attempts in a bureaucratic way to avoid confusion entirely. This would be a purely mechanical writing, with no overtones, suggestive meanings, subjective implications. It would also be a dead language, all conventions fixed for once and all into one. (Let’s hope it’s neither MLA nor APA). Kafka’s writing is often perceived as confusing, dreamlike, yet his writing is very specific, very clear.
The poem written on a napkin at the table on a cafe sidewalk. I try writing to someone else, for someone else. That is the most difficult way to write, and I seem unable to do it. You must be able to see your writing as a reader might see it. We don’t see ourselves the same as others see us. That is why face recognition technology is doomed to failure. We must be able to see the other side of our faces.
We must learn to overcome boredom. Most jobs today are intrinsically boring, not what we were made for. We have to find ways to keep ourselves interested, even in the bureaucracy, the factory, the office, the restaurant, the mine, the school, the attic, the streets, whatever prison we happen to find ourselves locked within. There is no way back to nature. The concrete block is as much a part of nature as a forest of wildernesses.
Wherever we go, whatever we do, we are nature, a stew of stuff hard to define or understand in part or whole. We come and we go, but we are always here, in one form or another, never alone, always about, in tatters.
About the Author
Joe Linker blogs at The Coming of the Toads.
Republished here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. This post is adapted from end tatters (Jan 2020).
Photographs thanks to Linker.