Plate-glass morning water with fish shatters. A hummingbird drops over the tent and hangs in the space created by the rain.
I read a Carol Shields novel and the daylight sneaks through the leaves of the cottonwood, white and green.
It rained steady all evening, and starting a fire was like baking without sugar or flour. But now the sky is striped by blue between clouds, and I think, “How many people in history have tried to write about clouds?”
Nubes como las olas…
Nubes sin mala intención…
Drifting thoughts of clouds…
Or some other cliché…
Better ideas waiting that I’ve never had…
It would be easy to steal. To Thomas Edison. To feed an image of greatness. “Look at me, a worker, a brilliant mind.”
But I am not brilliant. My mind is not a rare jewel. I only observe what is around me. Seeing the green grasshoppers collecting on my legs at the river’s edge. The blue heron shushing across to the other side. The osprey sitting sentinel on the fence-post above the cutbank. Flipping my spinner under the branch in four feet of water and the rainbow trout hitting the Rooster Tail in the first rotation of the reel.
We use two rocks as a plate and eat the fish with our fingers. Skin salted with Johnny’s, MSG, meat blackened over a stick-fire. Hot Tang and Folgers from boiled river water.
These are no proverbs.
These are no parables.
This is only the first day. How it is. How it was.
At an English department book exchange, I received a memoir I’d never heard of, James Thurber’s 1933 memoir My Life And Hard Times. To be honest, it didn’t look good. It was 86 pages long and filled with very mediocre black and white cartoons. Plus, I was judging the book by its cover, and simply because of that godawful cover, I doubted that I’d ever read it.
I got back from snowshoeing last night, got into warm, dry clothes, cracked the book, and read the opening chapter. And not only was that chapter incredibly well-written, but it was funny. Laugh out loud funny. My daughter and I were sitting next to each other on the floor. She was reading her book and I was reading mine, and I kept laughing so hard that she’d make me read passages aloud to her.
But I still thought the book might not be very good. I thought that the first story might be an aberration. There were still those terribly-drawn comics throughout. There was still that really ugly cover. How could a memoir that presents itself so badly be this good?
And it turns out that I was right about the first chapter. That chapter was an aberration. As good as it was, the first chapter was nowhere near as good as most of the chapters in the book. This memoir was a tiny little collection of brilliant and funny essays. The author (Thurber) sneaks up on you. His self-deprecating methods are subtle but successful. It’s almost as if he doesn’t know what he’s doing in his own writing. Yet he does. There’s mastery here. Mastery throughout.
Also, his father is afraid of automobiles.
His senile grandfather lives in the family’s attic and shoots at police officers.
The family escapes a great flood in 1913.
And Thurber’s story about a family dog is so good that I finished it and immediately started re-reading.
I’ve often thought that writing is like the paper route I worked for three years as a kid. If you want to write, get up early every day, in all weather, no matter how little sleep you got the night before – whether you partied until 2:17 AM or tucked yourself in quietly with a book at 8:35 PM. Go to work. Write. Stay in your seat. Work for an hour or two, then move on to the rest of your day. This has worked for thousands of writers before you and it will work for you as well.
In interviews and essays I’ve talked about work ethic. Writing is not about talent but daily practice – Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird ideas – that writers need to write every day, to accept the fact that our first drafts will be terrible, that we must revise and edit repeatedly until we have created something of true artistic value. Writing is not complicated. It’s about personal integrity and commitment, daily meditation, meeting personal goals and standards.
All of that is true. Sort of. But a writer needs influences. A writer needs that person around him who values writing, who encourages writing, who makes a young writer into a better writer by challenging him to push further, to never settle, to do one more round of revisions.
A writer needs a mother. Not a literal mother – it could be a teacher, another writer, an inspiring friend, a fellow artist, an uncle, an aunt, or a father – but a writer needs a mother of some sort. So this essay is about a mother. In this case, my real mother.
A Writer Needs Someone Who Reads Books Aloud:
My mother read the Bible aloud to us. She read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Where The Red Fern Grows, The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle In Time, Agatha Christie mysteries, and The Child’s History of the World.
She read aloud to us while she drove 80 miles per hour on road trips across the Southwest. She read in a different voice for each character. She read with one hand on the book, three fingers on the steering wheel, and a Pepsi pinched between her index finger and thumb.
Because she couldn’t put books down, because I saw her sneaking away to finish her latest Dorothy Sayers novel, because she wouldn’t go swimming until she’d finished a chapter, I always wanted her to read to me. When she read, I was enraptured. I didn’t talk. I stifled any coughs. I told other people to be quiet. To be read to by my mother was to enter a European cathedral and stare up at the improbable miracles of stone and stained glass.
A writer must hear the written word. There should be a recognition of sound as the words go down on the paper. Fingers should elicit syllables. But this is only possible if someone has read to the writer, if the voices of the spoken word are in the writer’s head. And it’s not too late. If no one ever read to you when you were young, or if no one reads to you now, go to readings at local bookstores. Listen to poets at the library. Listen to MFA students who need audiences for their thesis projects. Ask your husband or friend or colleague to read a passage to you.
If you’re hard up for a reader, watch the movie “A River Runs Through It.” In that movie, Robert Redford commits to passages from the original text by Norman Maclean, and the writing is beautiful.
A Writer Needs Someone Who Values Creation:
I grew up in an artist’s home. My mother drew with charcoal, pencils, and pastels. She painted with acrylics and oil. Experimented with mixed media. Sculpted with clay, chickenwire, and papier-mache. My brothers and sisters and I collected animal skeletons from the desert around our home in Tucson for my mother’s bone mobiles. If an animal we brought home was too fresh, my mother would boil the carcass in bleach, making the smell of warm bleach a smell I still associate – thirty years later – with bones and bright copper wire.
Living out in the desert, my mother home-schooled us, and we studied art history, literary history, and myths. She had all of us choose a favorite artist, get to know that artist’s work, and begin to create art ourselves. We drew and painted. We sculpted. We made collages.
Although I’ve heard some people argue that writing is not really art, that it is part science, part business, or part theatrics, I disagree with that core argument. Writing fiction, poetry, short narratives, or memoir takes incredible imagination. Writing is, at its core, art. Works cannot be repeated, and that dynamic requirement demands creativity. Imagism and evocation are products of the creative mind, so valuing creation of new and engaging mediums is paramount to any writer.
If you didn’t have a big creative influence when you were young, surround yourself with creative people now. But the key is to be around creative people who actually practice art, who produce, who struggle and fail and succeed with real works of art. Find those people and learn from each other, or at least commiserate.
A Writer Needs Someone To Say, “Go Write”:
I dropped out of college after my sophomore year to write. I’d taken two creative writing classes and I wanted to simplify my life and focus on writing. I had a part-time job as a supervisor at a drug store, and that job generated enough income to cover rent, utilities, and food bills. So I thought I’d write and work, nothing else. But I quickly got into the habit of working and adventuring, rock climbing and hiking and mountain biking when I wasn’t at the drugstore. I wrote very little. Then not at all. Months went by without me writing a single story.
My mother called me out. We were at a Christmas party and she came up to me and reminded me why I’d dropped out of school. She said, “You said that you were going to write every day.”
“Right,” I said, “Oh yeah.”
She smiled and looked me directly in the eyes. “You said you were going to be a writer.”
“Right,” I said. “I should do that.”
She pointed out my lack of focus, how I had failed to stick to the plan I’d laid out, and I’m grateful for her doing that. I never forgot that moment.
This is an important truth:
A writer isn’t someone who talks about writing or plans to do a writing project. A writer isn’t someone who wears tweeds and a scarf, someone who thinks about lyrical poetry while smoking long-leaf Tobacco from an antique pipe. A writer is someone who writes every day. That’s what a writer is. Published or not.
A Writer Needs Someone Who Teaches About Words:
Home-schooled for seven years at the school my mother called Hoffmeister Country Day School, or HCD for short, we studied the Calvert Day School’s traditional curriculum that we ordered by mail from Baltimore, Maryland. Calvert was founded in 1897 by a Harvard scholar who intended to teach the classics. My mother chose Calvert because of its focus on language, on reading and writing. We read, spelled, wrote, and studied words every day. We learned Latin and French, studied vocabulary, roots, prefixes and suffixes. We poured over our dictionaries, noting Greek word origins and highlighting etymologies.
I wasn’t the most serious student in my family (my older sisters studied and learned far more than me), but my background with words still helps me to this day. I have linguistic aptitude because of that word work. I am capable of using a thesaurus without being intimidated, and I feel intimate with my dictionary who I’ve named Big Honey.
A writer must love words, study words, think about sounds and meanings, care about origins and connotations. If that wasn’t part of your educational background, it’s never too late. Get an unabridged dictionary and go to work. Memorize definitions. Highlight roots. Learn synonyms and antonyms. If you get to know two new words each week (everything about those words), that’s more than 100 words per year. Over ten years, that’s more than 1000.
A Writer Needs Someone Who Values Individuality:
My mother let me sleep outside, swim in the river by myself, wear a beret for all of fourth grade, make up my own language, sleep on my floor in my clothes like a Spartan, and catch poisonous spider to keep in jars in my room. Maybe my mother wasn’t being wise or discerning, or maybe she understood that I needed to be my own person. No one else in my family was like me, but my mother didn’t try to make each of us like the other. She championed differences between individuals.
In the publishing world, a writer who is like every other current bestseller is not a great writer. If it’s difficult to tell the difference between two thriller writers, they’re not going to be read in 50 years. If you want to write something of permanent value (not that most of us have yet, but we hope to), then you have to be an individual. Think about science history, and consider Galileo in particular. There were thousands of scientists who didn’t believe in Galileo’s theories, and what were those guys’ names? Who were the accepted great scientists of his day? If “The Earth Is The Center Of The Universe” guys were writing right now, they’d be writing the new vampire book or The More Hungry Games. But we have to leave cheap imitation to boy bands and NFL touchdown celebrations.
Write something new. Write from you.
Could You Be The Mother For Someone Else?
Finally, if you value great writing, you might want to consider a harsh possibility: Maybe you aren’t an incredible writer. Maybe you don’t have it in you. Maybe you’ve put in the work, every day for ten years, and none of your books are going to be the next great American novel. Maybe draft ten is similar to draft two, at least in terms of excellence. I’m not saying to give up, but consider the possibility of influence. What if your passion for writing could be passed on to someone else? What if all of your knowledge and experience is meant to help someone else become great? Think of all the wonderful writers whom you admire. They were all influenced by others, raised by mothers (real or metaphorical) who valued the written word, who encouraged them to produce great art.
Maybe you are someone else’s mother. Maybe you can teach and encourage. Maybe you can help that younger writer to get her first poem published, or place an essay in a magazine. Or maybe you can teach process, structure, or narrative arc. Maybe you understand character development even if your own fictional characters aren’t that original.
I teach a high school creative writing class each year, and I require my young writers to submit two pieces of writing to literary journals. When a few are accepted each year, it’s a wonderful moment. It feels like a victory for the entire class. And who knows? Maybe that first publication is the start of something great. Maybe one of my students will far outshine my literary star (or, more accurately, my literary barrel of burning crude oil). My passion for writing and understanding of craft might not be important for me. Maybe I’m meant to help someone else. And maybe you are too.
So maybe I don’t like cell phones. At all. Maybe I don’t think they’ve added anything to our culture.
Maybe I think they’ve ruined a lot of things too, like, for example, talking to other people, hanging out without interruptions, driving cars, looking around at the world around us, going outside, being self-sufficient, knowing how to read a map, looking up every once in a while instead of staring at your stupid expensive phone, looking people in the eyes, using dictionaries, reading books on the Subway, reading books without stopping every two minutes to check a text, listening to music while staring off…
This list could go on and on and on.
Plus, I hate every cell phone advertisement ever. Why do we need phones? Why do we need them with us everywhere we go? Why does every family need a “family plan”? Why do we willingly carry a device that tracks where we are? And would we readily accept chips in our brains if they were offered to us? I think so.
Maybe my opinions are too strong, but I’ve never owned a cell phone, and here’s my new essay for Vice Magazine titled “Confessions Of The Last Human Being On Earth Without A Cell Phone” :
Bonus: The artist Jack Graydon drew some ridiculous pictures of me to go along with the article. I’m so ugly in these drawings that it’s awesome.
I used to know Jay sorta kinda fifteen years ago when we were both studying poetry under Dorianne Laux at the U of O, so Jay and I are, like, you know, best friends and all that.
Also, fans should check out Bushnell’s most recent essay in Poets & Writers (current issue). It’s excellent.
Because I teach high school kids, I think I can do this:
I wuz grading frishman essays the othur day and this ked was rittin a sturee abowt one tyme whin he put paynt in a bulloon and wayted fur his nayber to cum out of his howse so thet he cud drop the paynt bulloon on the naybers hedd becuz the nayber wuz a totill jurk and the kid wuz waytinn on the roof to throe it frum ther and the kid discribed how he wayted and wayted and the day wuz rillee rillee hot and all uv the sturee wuz pritty gud rittin and it had grayt deetills but I wuz havin trubble reeding it becuz ther wuz no punctuayshun and the spelling wuz seeriusslee hurrible and I kept thinking thet I wonted to stranggle hiz graydskull teecher or hiz middelskull teecher or hiz perrants or sumbuddy hooever it wuz hoo dednt teech him to ritt at sum aje and how to writt pruperllee becuz wutt am I suppozd to do with this kid now?