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?

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