New Year, New Way of Doing Things

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Avenger Field, Texas, 1943 (from http://www.vintag.es)

Like a pioneer leading her weary and cold family across the wintry prairie, scavenging for food and shelter, I aim to journey into the past and show young folks what nosiness looked like before social media.

Without giving too much away, let’s just say that instead of using handheld devices, my students will spend the semester making people anxious, as they lurk in wide, open spaces and scribble on blank pages.

I am bringing back the notebook.

Writing field notes may be a lost art. Like using a typewriter. Or handwriting a letter. Or wearing pantyhose.

But notebooks and field notes are sort of primitive forms of Facebook and Instagram. That makes them seem a little sexier, yes? We’ll see. I anticipate this may, at times, be like convincing young people to churn butter. Yet I remain optimistic.

One essay I tend to trot out from time to time is Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook.” Didion writes from a place of privilege and from a time long, long ago, so students tend to whine about it. But I ignore them and instead egg them on. Still, some look at me with an expression of “What in the heck is she talking about?”

It is images like these that keep me up at night, wondering how I can make semester plans seem less…antiquated.

I recently found solace while revisiting colleague Daniel Wallace’s blog. (No, not that Daniel Wallace, as he is likely to say. This is the Daniel Wallace of the University of Tennessee variety.) One particular post (“The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Keats”) begins with this: “John Keats’s life and work offer some intriguing lessons for writers.”

Daniel Wallace, you had me at “John Keats.” If my husband would allow me to hang posters on our bedroom walls, they would not be open-shirt images of Leif Garrett and Rick Springfield, but of lines from Keats’s poems and letters.

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Soaking up the Keats energy on his front porch in Hampstead

I (heart) John Keats and his reliance on perceptions and imagination to drive his writing process. Imagination is one of those things we take for granted, like hot coffee and hardcover books. You could probably list air and running water here, too. Wallace goes on to explain that “Keats seizes all opportunities to write.” Well, hallelujah! That is exactly what we need to hear at the dawn of a new year and a new semester: a reminder that we are largely responsible for seizing opportunities and that we had darn well keep our eyes open. These opportunities, whatever they are, just parade in front of our faces every blasted day, and we often mutter “meh” and choose instead to watch “The Voice.”

Anne Lamott put it this way: “There is no reason for anyone to watch the 10 o’clock news, except wives of firefighters.” (I found this quote in a notebook, of all places, and wrote down so much when I attended one of her talks because, well, memory.) We make choices as to how to spend our time and how to use our brains, and I count myself among those who occasionally surrender. (I’m talking to you, Kiefer Sutherland, and your “Designated Survivor.”)

Keats may not have had the TV to sidetrack him, but he had his share of distractions. Like consumption and an empty wallet. Yet he wrote.

Despite being up against some pretty big changes as publishing embraced the novel, Keats soldiered on. He wanted to be somebody and stand out among the poets. He didn’t cave.

When he occasionally tried a little too hard, the result was something like Endymion, in which I ultimately found redemptive value. I even came to apologize for labeling it “the punchline of Romantic literature.” Harsh, I know. As epic poems go, it’s not really all that bad. But mercy, it is long. It is so thick and hefty, in fact, that when Percy Shelley drowned off the coast of Italy in 1824, one Keats critic wrote, “But what a rash man Shelley was, to put to sea in a frail boat with Jack’s poetry on board! Why, man, it would sink a trireme. In the preface to Mr. Shelley’s poems, we are told that ‘his vessel bore out of sight with a favorable wind;’ but what is that to the purpose? It had Endymion on board, and there was an end.”

So I, too, seem to have veered off course here. The topic at hand is not a review of 19th-century biting comments not unlike those you might find on al.com or other online pits of irritation and antagonism, but a celebration of writing habits.

When Keats began to approach writing as a habit—like drumming a table or talking aloud in an empty car—instead of an act of labor, he allowed the words and rhymes and observations to sprout “as naturally as the leaves to a tree.” (Here’s your reward for reading to this point. The full quote, from a letter Keats wrote to John Taylor, goes like this: “If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” I know—fierce stuff.)

Only through habit and tenacity can a person produce something like Endymion, which begins with these lines: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:/Its loveliness increases; it will never/Pass into nothingness; but still will keep/A bower quiet for us, and a sleep/Full of sweet dreams, and health/and quiet breathing.” Stop. Read these words again. Maybe even a third time.

A poster with these lines hangs over my desk—not only because they are beautiful but because they serve as a reminder that from all the drafts and wandering and note taking, something good is bound to emerge.

 

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