Month: January 2019

Right Imperfection

“A human being in action cannot represent perfection. You always represent one side of a duality that is itself perfection. The moment you take action, you are imperfect: you have decided to act that way instead of that other way. That’s why people who think they are perfect are so ridiculous. They’re in a bad position with respect to themselves.”Joseph Campbell

"Don't be afraid of perfection, you will never reach it...."
          - Salvador Dali
Salvador Dali, 1904-1989

In my previous post (Cakewalk Into Town? 1.8.19) I spoke of my own challenge in crafting the things I write, of often “picking through the weeds for the right word, the only word in the entire English language that will do at the given moment.” Now I want to make the distinction between the right word and the perfect word. The former is a sometimes illusive diamond buried in the undergrowth. The latter doesn’t exist.

Writing is an activity that requires continuous choice-making. Every sentence is one particular way of constructing a statement, chosen from a multiplicity of possible similar sentences with various configurations, styles, tones, etc. Each word is a choice of this one as opposed to that one. Sometimes that one would be suitable, but this one is more right because its denotation, or dictionary meaning, corresponds more precisely to what I want to convey, or that one has unwanted connotations or perhaps a broader denotation more easily misinterpreted, or perhaps this one just sounds better in the given context. We choose our words for all sorts of reasons.

"Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words."
                         - Mark Twain

As for perfection, fuhgetaboutit! Sure, in a spiritual sense we can say “it’s all perfect,” but I’m talking about Joseph Campbell’s feet-on-the-ground perspective (or in this context, pen-to-paper) regarding the work of being human. Language is an inherent human tool, inherently limiting. That’s what it is designed to do: limit, shape, define, distinguish, circumscribe, order our chaotic experience of this material world based on duality. As soon as I name something, I limit it. That’s the point. It is no longer perfect, in a non-dualistic sense (it is something, not nothing), but now I can deal with it.

So, perhaps I could say that my picking through the linguistic weeds for the best word is a quest for right imperfection.

Or maybe, as noted in certain Eastern philosophical traditions, it really is all about the process, not the goal. The juice is in the doing more than in the getting it done. The search for just the right word usually helps me toward finding out what it is that I’m really trying to say. It can be a catalyst for self-discovery.

My Left Hand of Darkness

16th-century Prosthetics (1564) designed by Ambroise Paré
16th-century Prosthetics (1564) designed by Ambroise Paré

I didn’t expect a hand injury to be such a big deal.

Okay, so I crushed my hand in a fall when a tree root rose up out of the ground and tackled me. Besides the fact that it happened almost exactly the way it happened to one of my fictional characters in a fantasy novel, the pain I experienced was no fantasy at all. It was very sharp, very real, and as it turns out, very lasting.

Once I got past the relief of discovering I (miraculously) didn’t break anything, the reality of the real degree of my injury—severe soft tissue damage—began to sink in. It would take weeks, maybe months, to regain full use of my hand without pain.

The kicker: it’s my right hand. Insult to injury: I work as a writer for a living.

The good news: I’m ambidextrous! This is something I’ve been telling myself since I was a child, when I didn’t understand why people favored one hand over the other when it came to cutting bread, drawing pictures, or pounding nails. I used my left hand to wield knives, pencils, and hammers just as fluidly as I used my right.

Yeah, well. That was then. In truth, I’m a soft leftie. I’m no full-blown southpaw, and I’m certainly not going to win any calligraphy contests.

What I hadn’t realized until now, was not so much how my injured hand was slowing down my ability to write—but how much it was affecting my brain.

16th-century Prosthetics (1564) designed by Ambroise Paré
16th-century Prosthetics (1564) designed by Ambroise Paré

Writing begins with the burst of an idea in my brain that my body instantly wants to activate. Since my injury, for the first time, I noticed that I could feel those fresh ideas shooting down my right arm—only to get backed up, as if in a clogged pipe.

Now, backlogged ideas are desperately seeking egress from my brain before they fade into oblivion. Old habits are hard to break, and trying to rewire my thinking to ignite my left arm to action (and with some degree of speed) has ultimately changed not just the way I write, but what ends up on the paper.

Maybe it gives me more time to edit my thoughts before they get transliterated to the page? Maybe it changes my story, as described from a left-hand perspective? Maybe it only proves that even when I can’t write, I can’t help but figure out a way to keep trying.

What is the physical act of writing, really? Maybe at the very least, it’s our brain’s great escape.

Illustration from Edwin D. Babbitt’s The Principles of Light and Color (1878)

Write-in: 01.30.19

Drop-in gatherings for no-excuse writing.

By Meister des Maréchal de Boucicaut

Join us for a 90-minute stretch of focused writing in the company of familiar faces and a mid-morning nosh or beverage.

We’ll keep the first hour dedicated to pens on paper, so bring your notebook and whatever writing project is on your front burner. Not working on anything specific right now? No problem. We’ll even bring a few prompts and writing ideas to get you rolling on something new.

For those who wish to share your work or your writing process, let’s discuss! We’ll lift the silence ban for the last half hour.

Where:
Summer Thyme’s Bakery & Deli
231 Colfax Avenue, Grass Valley, CA

When:
Wednesday, January 30, 2019
10:00 – 11:30 a.m.


January Words about Town






Literary goings on in and around Nevada County this month:

Spoken Word

What’s Your Nugget?

Friday, January 18, 5:00 – 6:00 pm
Saturday, January 19, 12:30 – 1:30 pm
Thursday, January 24, 8:00 – 9:00 pm
Friday, January 25, 9:30 – 10:30 pm
246 S. Church Street
Grass Valley, CA 95945

Five minutes to tell your true story based on a topic you pull out of a hat.

Workshops

The Joy of Writing

Saturday, January 12
9:30 am – 4:30 pm
Diane Covington-Carter
530-802-4224

Drop-in workshop with Rachel Howard

Friday, January 11
Noon – 2pm
For details and other classes: Yuba Writers Workshops

Sierra Writers Conference 2019

Saturday, January 26
Sierra College, Grass Valley Campus
250 Sierra College Drive
Grass Valley, CA 95945

Storytelling

The 4th annual Auburn Winter Storytelling Festival

Saturday, January 26
General Gomez Art Center
808 Lincoln Way
Auburn, CA 95603

An all-day event of storytelling stand-up, workshops, liar’s contest, children’s stories, poetry, and performance.

Going to any events? Let us know!
Have more writerly announcements to share? Please do!

Cakewalk into Town?

What was I thinking? Had I gone over the edge? Sure, I was young – lo, those forty-plus years ago – but even then I knew that writing is difficult, time-consuming, socially questionable, and unlikely to lead to financial well-being, especially the sort of writing I was interested in producing at the time (literary fiction and Dylanesque blues songs).

Nevertheless, when I heard the call – “Jeff, this is the Muse speaking; you’re going to need to do some writing” – I was powerless to resist (not that I didn’t try) and soon set about the task of chiseling away, millimeter by crusty millimeter, my calcified sense of a chicken-hearted, tongue-tied, talentless self to find the bold writer within. I’m certain that at the time I did not understand this to be a lifelong assignment. I thought I was negotiating for something shorter term. Perhaps I wasn’t crazy but simply neglectful in reading the small print: “Should you ever abandon the practice of writing, even for years, you will return, again and again…and again….”

Cake-Walk, Leo Rauth, 1913

And so I have. But why? Writing is not a cakewalk for me. It’s often a slow crawl on hands and knees, picking through the weeds for the right word, the only word in the entire English language that will do at the given moment. The weeds can be thick, and the exactly right word may be mythical, but I suppose therein lies one source of the attraction to the craft. As a marginally autistic child, I became fascinated with words – their sounds, innards, and representational complexity. Wordplay was a significant feature of my internal monologue.

Subsequently, by the time it occurred to me to become some sort of writer, language was much more than a means of communication: it was a vast palette of finely tuned lexical colors for painting pictures of meaning, for making narrative art. In print and in song, it’s difficult for me to quickly summarize a simple story – I have to paint it.

A participant in our recent Tell Tailors introductory workshop reminded me of the old days when people wrote actual letters, sometimes long letters, on paper that they folded and put in envelopes to be mailed. This fellow said he was prompted to explore other writing possibilities after years of being told that he writes great letters. A wave of nostalgia swept over me. That’s how I started writing, too. I realized that I miss the activity of devoting as much time as necessary to turning “Went to the beach, had a good time” into a vivid comic adventure intended for a very specific audience: a personal friend.

I think I have just discovered my next writing exercise assignment. How about you? Have you dabbled in the venerable art of crafted letter writing?


My Wordless Resolution

I’ve always wanted a compilation of the forgotten words: those lost from our dictionaries and gone from our tongues. Good ones do exist, and I often wonder whether I should try and revive the sound of kexy leaves in my writing and obarmate against the loss of language, or if by so doing I would only roblet readers and possibly misqueme them.

Instead, this year, I plan to do the opposite. I’m consciously dropping a word from my spoken vocabulary.

After catching myself one too many times using the same word in recent days, I realized it had cemented itself into the shorthand crutch of my vocabulary. The word itself is not that special. It is neither vulgar nor exciting. It is neither colorful nor placid. It is nondescript if it is anything. Yet, I find that it is in its very delivery, a word utilized to convey everything, attitude and all. Or so the tone of that delivery should suggest. Somehow vague and vogue, it feels borrowed and lazy. An ordinary word whose extraordinary usage has become, well, ordinary.

So, enough of it, I say. Expunged. Here’s to using words that matter. And here’s to hoping this overt effort with my speech results in covert dexterity with my pen.

Do you use a word worth losing?

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