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?