I recently saw an interview with short story writer George Saunders. He described the inner voice that guides his writing. Once he wrote the sentence, “Bob sat down on the brown couch.” His inner voice chided him, “Is it important that the couch was brown?” The sentence became, “Bob sat down on the couch.” Again his inner voice prompted, “Is there any other way to sit than down?” He edited further, “Bob sat on the couch.” Still not happy the inner voice pushed, “Is it important that Bob sat on a couch versus say, a chair?” He now had, “Bob sat.” If pushed, I assume we could eliminate both “sat” and “Bob”.
I am fascinated by the writing process. Too often, I ignore my inner voice while writing, and simply put down everything that rushes into my head onto the paper. I write with a visceral flow of emotion. I rush to publication without reflection, without the painful process of pruning back my words. Sometimes, “Bob sat” is enough.
I recently announced that I would be dead within three months. This elicited a tremendous amount of supportive response. I put my affairs in order and began to mark off the days on the calendar. The three months came and went. The doctors recalculated, and said that I should not buy any tickets for a local production of “A Christmas Carol.” It is now the early part of December and we have purchased tickets and put out the Christmas Bears. I am grateful but puzzled, and sometimes disappointed. And when my life is difficult I often turn to writing.
I am pleased to announce that this bit of respite has allowed me to finish a project that I have put off for some time. I have created a website that has pulled together all of my writing into one central location. I am grateful to my partner Sam who took steps last Christmas to push me in that direction. I am immensely indebted to Chuck Gilkison who persistently prodded me to work on the project, and then gave tirelessly of his gifts as a web designer to bring it into reality.
Visit the website a www.haircutandhomily.net and let me know what you think.
In looking back at my writings over the last decade and a half, I am amused, proud, embarrassed and confused, “Did I really write that?” The writing is often inconsistent and amateurish, self-indulgent and maudlin. But at times it is profound and eloquent and sometimes laugh out loud funny. If you visit the website, it will be like rummaging through your neighbor’s garbage. Much of it will be of little value, some of it will be embarrassing, and occasionally you will find something worth taking home.
Here are some very short pieces that I would like to use for the inauguration of my website.
One More Moon
Death is not the Grim Reaper, a mysterious shrouded figure that lurks in the shadows carrying a large scythe. Death sits on my living room couch like an overweight hitman in a cheap suit. At first he was terrifying and could not be ignored. But the longer he stays the more normalized our relationship becomes, and I find myself asking, “Is there anything I can get you? Coffee? A scone?” He does not engage in conversation, he simply sits there with a dazed look on his face like he has forgotten something. He will pull out a piece of paper, look it over and say, “Oh yeah!” and mouth the words, “Off the Jenkins boy.” He folds the paper and puts it back in his jacket pocket.
It is now to the point where I can ignore him completely for long stretches. One time he left the house completely but he came back. He is here now. Sometimes I want to stand directly in front of him and yell, “Get the hell out!” … but I don’t. I dust around him. Recently, I put a small blanket on him when he fell asleep watching television. I am not sure why he is still here but I have come think that having him around is a good thing. One night, I looked out the window and saw a full moon. I nudged him and said, “Will you look at that!”
“At what?” he responded.
“At the full moon. Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it is.”
Stories Down at the River
My father taught me to preach. Many people assume that my father was a pastor. Far from it, in fact he did not want me to become a preacher. Inadvertently he taught me to preach. To have any success at all as a preacher you must be a good storyteller; you need look no further than Jesus to understand that. “Once upon a time there was a man who was taking a trip and was attacked by a group of thugs and robbers …”
But in preaching, a good story is not enough. My father taught me that a good story starts with having something to say. Sometimes when the preacher was away my father would be asked to preach. Almost every time his sermons began, “I have been thinking …” I have sat through far too many sermons, including some of my own, where it was obvious that no one was thinking.
The Science Club was a way that my father insured that I had friends. On Wednesday nights he would gather a group of boys together and teach us to use a microscope, or demonstrate various chemical reactions. Once he took us down to the river. We waded into the shallows and sat on rocks, as my father demonstrated the proper way to skip a rock. He motioned us together and began to tell a story. “I was thinking about the time …” And as he began to tell the story, he casually reached behind his ear and pulled out a cigarette.
The other boys did not react — all of their fathers smoked cigarettes, but I gasped out loud. My father did not smoke, ever. He did not play cards, he did not drink alcohol, he did not use the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in vain, and he did not smoke. Yet here, down at the river in front of my friends, he pulled out a cigarette and lit it ever so nonchalantly and took a puff. He resumed telling the story, and before I could shout out an objection, there was a small explosion in his hand and we all shrieked and fell into the water.
“I’ve been thinking, boys, about smoking …” I later learned that he had taken a small firecracker, hid it in the tobacco and rerolled the cigarette, making the fuse just long enough to give him time to get the cigarette away from his mouth. He did not account for the fact that holding a firecracker while it exploded would be harmful and it seriously burnt his hand.
To my father’s credit, I never smoked a cigarette in my life.
Clindon Hoard was my high school English teacher, more specifically my grammar teacher. His face looked exactly like his name sounded. It was wrinkled and pinched. His eyes were deep set and squinty and he spoke to his students with a certain amount of disdain. In the 1970s, teaching English was taking some new directions. Our school was offering courses in science fiction, semantics, and creative writing. Mr. Hoard made it very clear that he did not approve of the new curriculum, and was especially opposed to creative writing for high school students. He called it a waste of time. I loved creative writing.
I completed an assignment for his class and turned it in. It verged on creative writing and did not follow his careful grammatical guidelines. He returned the paper covered with red markings and a below average grade. I knew his criticisms were justified, but still felt pangs of adolescent indignation.
When the next assignment came, I was ready with a plan. It was mean-spirited and meant to inflict pain. I began to write, “The English professor sat at his obsessively tidy desk in his barren room. Upon examining their work, he took great delight in circling each missspelled word …” I purposely misspelled “misspelled” so that his red pencil would circle the word as he read it. The essay described in detail a lonely and isolated English teacher.
When the paper was returned, the errors were circled and a large red F was put at the top of the page without comment. I was not surprised at the circled errors. I was a careless writer. I was surprised, however, at the grade. The paper did not deserve a failing grade. I took the paper home and showed it to my father. He reminded me that it was a mean-spirited and small thing to do.
Dad made a few telephone calls and eventually got my teacher’s home address, a small apartment in the rapidly deteriorating Sacajawea Hotel. When he returned, the grade on the paper had been changed to average. My father, in his own disarming way had gotten my teacher to tell his story. Before moving to my hometown, Mr. Hoard had been married and had two small daughters. Their home had caught fire and his wife and children were killed. He moved to Oregon and took a job at the high school. The wrinkled face and squinty eyes that I had chalked up to pettiness were, instead, the result of pain and loss.
That was the only class I took from Clindon Hoard. I regret that I did not take greater care in learning grammar. My deeper regret is that I did not choose a route of compassion and empathy. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words have a power beyond our wildest imaginations.
Outside of my father and Mark Twain, there is only one other person who makes me aspire to become a good writer. Chuck and I met online about the time I started writing my Haircut and Homilies. He has read almost everything I have written. If I wrote a piece and he praised it, I would be overjoyed for weeks. If he hinted that it was not my best work, I was devastated.
He is writer, and a very good one. Chuck has an amazing gift to see the strengths and weaknesses in someone’s writing. As I began to trust him as a mentor, my writing improved. Eventually I would ask him to review my writing in detail before putting it out there. He showed me that I have a bad habit of using words and phrases over and over. Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
Chuck’s most valuable lesson has been to write and wait. My first impulse has always been to write fast and furious, and immediately hit the send button. He has encouraged me to let a piece of writing soak and then to come back to it with a critical eye. In the light of day I can find the lazy spots and the lightning bugs. Upon review, I can polish a nice image or turn of phrase. When I wait, I can eventually enjoy flashes of lightning. Thanks Mr. Twain and Chuck.