there is only writing on…

Muses are fickle and unpredictable. Graceless guests that cannot be trusted to arrive on time, nor counted on to show up for work ready to do their jobs, if they even show up at all. When creativity is a no call, no show, the writer must be prepared to carry the weight of covering the shift alone. “Writing can be thankless” , Amy Poehler says. Contrary to what many might think, it is far from an elegant task. Instead, as Poehler makes clear, “it’s usually lonely and isolating”. It’s pulling a double, working open-to-close, with little hope of being truly compensated for it.

Stephen Pressfield says that “Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying…Because when we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen… we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. insights accrete.” But it happens slowly, agonizingly; never all at once and never alone.

The greatest of writers give up on all desire for glitz and glamour, graciously gulping one tepid beverage after another, each gone cold too soon because inspiration couldn’t be bothered to come in. We promise ourselves that one day soon we’ll clasp our hands around a steaming cup and consume its contents the way it was intended. We know it isn’t true. We know that it’s a lie, but it’s a good lie; one that makes us smile, if only half-heartedly and if only for a moment.

there is only writing on

The one profound secret that all writers of the past, present and future can quietly and unquestionably agree on is that when there is nothing; nothing left, nothing there, nothing to find, when creativity is either gone or never arrives, you write on. When “I am not at all in a humor for writing”, Jane Austen says, “I must write on until I am.” In truth, there is only ever this one thing; only this one thing that stays, only this one thing that remains, there is only ever writing on.

to read with the eyes of an artist…

read with the eyes of an artist

I wish that I could read faster. I wish that I could absorb information more quickly. But, I also recognize that when I’m reading I’m doing more than just interpreting the markings that make up a strung together series of words. I’m scouring through sentences and syllables in the hopes that, maybe, I’ll be able to slip into the small spaces between the structures of language, where seemingly secluded and separate things start to seep into one another.

Amanda Palmer says that “artists connect the dots”. She goes so far as to say that “This impulse to connect the dots and to share what you’ve connected is the urge that makes you an artist”, but she points out that “we can only connect the dots that we can collect”. In other words, it is not enough to find and follow the trail of bread crumbs dotting the path, we must also saunter slow enough to stuff our pockets full of as many of the fragmentary particulates as possible, especially if there is to be any hope of connection.

“It is tedious” as Jab Abumrab points out, this arduous task of spinning arbitrary words into gold; this Sisyphean labor of “eyes and brain” cracking open the “elaborate husk” of signs and signifiers “to extract out meaning”. But this is the unfolding of the artistic endeavor: collecting, connecting, considering, conspiring, continually.

When we read closely we discover that each collected crumb is a microcosm; a half-opened window to a world bigger than ourselves, a small inkling of an expanding universe beyond our comprehension feverishly punctuated by the possible . When we uncover the ways in which all the crumbs conjoin “Every page is a whiplash” that, according to Abumrab, pulls us from the normative patterns of daily living. And, we discover that “Each page contains a portal”, Abumrab goes on to say, an intricate network of wormholes that reveal rifts through time and space; places where the past is made prescient, where the future becomes present, where now becomes perpetual. We escape from the claustrophobic constraints of all that we cannot control through the doorways of what Abumrab calls “a self-transcending structure”, and when we emerge on the other side of our literary meandering, we find the radicality of our realness more fully real-ized.

Perhaps this is simply what means to read with the slow and steady eyes of an artist…

the way the world opens…

“Whenever I am alone, I sit with books. If someone behaves badly with me I go home and sit with books.”

– Martha Nussbaum, A Velocity of Being

There is nothing quite like the physical presence of books. I enjoy the welcomed ease with which an audiobook can speak to me through my headphones while I’m at work or in the car or on a run. I appreciate the incredible convenience of being able to hold a digital library hundreds of books strong in the palm of my hand and ever at-the-ready in my pocket. But when I’m tired, lost, stressed, anxious, alone and overwhelmed, none of these alternative forms of books can comfort me with the same kind of consolation I’m afforded from simply sharing the materiality of space with a collection of physical books.


Martha Nussbaum says that “Reading opens up worlds inside your head, worlds you can explore, play with, roam around in.” She says that not only are these “Worlds…in you”, they “become part of you.” I know first hand how every closed and constricted corner of who I am releases when I read. How all the strangled parts of myself, gasping for air, start to breathe without constraint. Every book I open, opens me up a little more, and the whole world opens in response. When I breathe, the world breathes too; richer and deeper. Everything expanding. All at once.

Anne Lamott says that “we think we are drops in the ocean, but that we are really the ocean in drops, both minute and everything there is.” It’s not only that we are a world unto ourselves, it’s that we ARE THE world; not simply a part of it or a piece of it, but the entire cosmos intricately and meticulously condensed to a person sized scale. We are the whole world made miniature. In which case, there is no inside/outside distinction to be made between ourselves and the world. To explore ourselves is to explore the world, to open ourselves is to open up the universe in total, to expand who we are is to expand all that is. “When you read, you become bigger”, Nussbaum says, and when you become bigger the whole world becomes bigger too.

The immutability of books…

the immutability of books

“Book…are immutable…We like books because they stay the same ”

– David Byrne, The Velocity of Being

Nothing can be relied upon as concrete. Nothing is immune to that all-pervasive ephemerality inherent to existence itself. Nothing except books that is. Books are the only true unmoved movers I know of. It is their immovable fixity in the face of a world that is unfastened and always tottering that helps to keep us moving forward. Books give us the stability of a sure structure even, and, perhaps, especially within the chaotic randomness of this place we haphazardly and hesitantly call home. Despite all the capriciousness of our attempts to clearly define things, and in spite of the fact that the factual can often prove to be fickle, books are still there, ever-reliably present and unchanging.

They are unflinching when we are at our most unsteady. They are unafraid when our thoughts are flailing. When the path is faltering, when the ground itself feels unreliable, books are the offer of assured footing. When the light in the heavens and at the end of the tunnel begins to flicker and wane, books, Matt Haig says, are “salvation from the dark.” And even when we feel confined, cornered, and closed off, when are so impossibly stuck and stagnant, “Books are possibilities”, Haig goes on to say; “They give [us] options when [we] have none,” and “Each one can be a home for an uprooted mind.”

It is the stable solidity of books that show us that things can be different, that our circumstances can be altered, that things can always change, that they always do, and we, ourselves, can always change too. They do not guarantee that all our questions will be answered in the end. Nor do they guarantee that the ending will always be a happy one, but they do guarantee that the story is going somewhere, and that the surety of it’s unfolding is meaningful.

The work never stops speaking…

the work never stops speaking

If what Cormac McCarthy says is true, that “Books are made out of books”, then Grayson Perry is equally as accurate when he says that “work comes out of work”. He says that “Work makes ideas”, and those ideas feed back into the work. Like an eternal karmic return of creative iteration, our own work rebirths itself into rejuvenated forms and reincarnated lives. To have faith in the fervor of the work is to believe that its potency can never be contained within the bounds of a single setting, a single use, a single context, a single frame. That regardless of the application it is never exhausted. It is to believe that there is always an experiential excess that spills out and over the coterminous corners of its context, that it’s over-abundance perpetually exceeds the limits of what seeks to hold it. It is to be a panentheist. It is to believe in the transcendent immanence of the work, to believe that it inundates all that is and that it still somehow overflows exceedingly, abundantly above and beyond all that we could ever ask, imagine, or think.

Rollo May says that “the creative act arises out of the struggle of human beings with and against that which limits them.” We work within the limits of varying forms and structures, and we discover that the constraints of the forms, themselves, create the conditions for the expansion of the work by order of magnitude. Finding that these original limits of form are, as May explains, “an aid to finding new meaning, a stimulus to condensing [our] meaning, to simplifying and purifying it, and to discovering on a more universal dimension the essence [we] wish to express.

We must willingly and purposefully look for places and ways to reuse, reinvent, reinsert, revise, and revisit past work because we must learn to recognize that the place in which the work is born may not be the place it was intended to be. Nothing is ever static. Nothing is fixed or unmoving. The content that came to life as one separate continent may be meant to drift across the span of 8799 miles of geologic time and space in order to form a more perfect union; a Pangea of love’s vast and totalizing potentiality.

The work is never disposable, never one-time use. Instead, it is ever evergreen. It never dies. It is always alive and still breathing; always evolving, iterating, reiterating, and self-replicating. The work never stops speaking, the question is are we still listening?

to live is to learn, to learn is to live

The only way to learn is to live, and the only way to live is to learn. To truly learn means that one’s hands must be constantly dirty with the work of being alive. To be alive means that one’s heels must be steadfastly dug into the lessons that our efforts offer up to us. To live is have mud on your cleats. To learn is to have blood in your teeth.

Shelley says that “To live…we must not only observe and learn, we must also feel; we must not be mere spectators of action, we must act; we must not describe, but be subjects of description. Deep sorrow must have been the inmate of our bosoms… sickening doubt and false hope must have chequered our days”

We have but one task. One mission. One directive. One calling. Our only objective is to learn something profound about ourselves and the world in which we live and move and have our being. To heed this call is to believe in the potency and potential of our words to grow legs. But, this, in itself, is no easy task, especially because so often it will seem as though nothing has happened, as though nothing has changed.

For extended durations all our efforts are seemingly ineffectual. But, then, somewhere in the terror and bewilderment, something changes. Something arrives. Something comes into being and comes to life; it is our LIFE, provoked and prodded by lessons learned through tedium and trouble. We are transformed. It is a transformative metamorphosis that comes about not in a climactic moment of instantaneous realization, but instead, arrives amidst an almost infinite expanse of minute and incremental adaptations. When we are the one thing that changes, everything else does too. This is what it means to be awake. This is what it means to be alive. This is the arduous task of what it means to grow.

As E.M. Cioran says “There is never too great a distinction made between those who have paid for the tiniest step toward knowledge and those, incomparably more numerous, who have received a convenient, indifferent knowledge, a knowledge without ordeals.”

a fragment unfolding…

a fragment unfolding - poem and art by Duane Toops

Elena Ferrante says that “We have to accept the fact that no word is truly ours.” She says that “We have to give up the idea that writing miraculously releases a voice of our own, a tonality of our own”. We never achieve excellence out of nowhere. Never all at once, and never on our own. If we think that it can come out of the blue, if we think it can arrive fully formed in an instant, or if we think that we can achieve it alone, all we have really done is failed to think it through, failed to pay attention, failed to retrace our steps, failed to cite our sources.


“Everything, in writing has a long history behind it”, Ferrante says, and we must get “comfortable with everything that has already been written”, we must “reckon with other writing.” Excellence is iterative and incremental. It is the slow and unfolding outcome that follows from the daily act of making choices and adaptive corrections. And no matter how solitary the process seems to be, our ultimate achievement of excellence is predicated upon a plethora of engagements, interactions, and exchanges with people and ideas that have each discreetly and imperceptibly pushed us to be better than we were before. “Writing,” explains Ferrante, is “entering an immense cemetery where every tomb is waiting to be profaned”, it is “seizing everything that has already been written and gradually learning to spend that enormous fortune”.


We commune with what has come before, with all those that are both present and past, all the people on the other side. Their words like crumbs marking the path. And we realize that we are but one in a long line of “I’s” who writes in effort to make a more excellent version of the last; “a fragment among fragments”, Ferrante says. A piece of an elegant theory that helps us get to a better one.

a continent coming home…

In one of my favorite passages from Thomas Merton’s book, No Man is an Island, he writes that “We ought to be alive enough to reality to see beauty all around us”. He says that “Beauty is simply reality itself, perceived in a special way that gives it a resplendent value of its own.”  A reality demonstrating the fact that, as John Donne says, “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”.


To be an island, then, is to be adrift and uncoupled from the commonality of the mainland. It is to be detached from the special ways of seeing the resplendent value and beauty inherent in reality. It is to be ‘apart’ rather  to be a “part of.”  It is find oneself separate  from the unifying will towards life. The underlying the will to life. The will to persist. The will to go on. It is to lose that tremendous sense of resplendence and aliveness. It is to be stuck, stale, and small. Not only alone, but lonely.


Mary Oliver writes that “Even the most solitudinous of us is communal by habit”.  Even the artists, authors, thinkers, those of us who relish the the quiet seclusion of our inner worlds, require the replenishment of connection in order to see the many splendored beauty of reality all around us. Yes, solitude is necessary in order for us to make work that is significant. But, so also is “solidarity” essential, Rollo May says, especially if we hope that our work will speak to our own “age”, as well as to that of “future generations”.


When we are isolated too long in the solitary place we “forget how big and expansive the world is” Matt Haig says. We forget our own immeasurable enormity, and we begin “to imagine [that] mediocrity and disappointment [are our] destiny”. We forget that the beauty of reality is that there is a “part of the main” threaded through us all, a piece of the continental vastness of which we each connect and contain.

yearning to be whole…

yearning to be whole

Robin Wall Kimmerer says that “writing is an act of reciprocity with the world.” She says that “It’s what I can give back in return for everything that has been given to me.” This is how I relate to writing as well; as a grateful returning, a show of thanks and connection to the elaborate interwoven-ness of all that I have been the recipient of. It is, as Parker Palmer says, a way to hold the pivotal paradox of community; an adjoining to one another in such a way so as to “protect each other’s aloneness”, coming together “in ways that respect the solitude of the soul”.

In the fastening activity suffuse within the written word we are softly un-individuated. We become, what Maria Popova calls, “unselfed-not persons”, healed from the lacerating scars of ego, identity, and ideology, in restorative “fields of grateful awareness“.

But, there are days when I’m tired. When I feel so unbearably slow. Days when my eyes burn, and all my atoms ache. When my skin bristles and stings. Days when everything hurts. When extinction feels not only eventual, but inevitable. When survival is almost always the exception, and almost never the rule. Days like today. Days when its hard enough to breathe, and even harder to write.

To not be able to write is to not be able to give back. To not be able to give back is to be broken off from the mutuality of exchange with the world. It is to come uncoupled from the earth’s orbit round the Sun. It is to be disconnected. It is to be an island; an island that is both desert and deserted, both uninhabited and uninhabitable.

On these days, I press my pen into the page with the lamentable angst and travail of David’s psalm: “How long…?…How long…?…How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?…How long…?”

I try to remember the words of two other David’s. David Foster Wallace reminds me that “Writing is very difficult…and it takes a lot of time and energy”, and David Sedaris advises me that “its important to not be in a hurry”. And so I tap out a penitent prayer for not only perseverance, but also patience

To stumble across even just a few good words is to regain a revelatory sense of connected vastness, in which “hope emerges”, Matt Hiag says, “and…clings to you as stubbornly as lichen clings to rock.” Like tiny fragments of life clustered together in an indomitably effort to endure against every insurmountable obstacle, all in the service of an obstinate yearning to be whole.

Memory and Imagination

memory and imagination

John Green writes that “Language shapes our memories, and it is also shaped by our memories.”

He says in one of the footnotes of  The Anthropocene Reviewed that “Nothing lies like memory”.

Memory is inaccurate and unreliable. Memory decays and degrades. But, perhaps, if it is a ‘lie’, it is a lie in the same way that fiction is a lie; “good lies that say true things”, as Neil Gaiman explains. True things that can “keep you sane,” says Matt Haig, and that can keep “you you“.

Memory can be molded. Fashioned and refashioned. Constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed. It is something we are always actively and creatively engaging with and participating in. Memory is a story. It is like a text. Its meaning is malleable, and at any given time we attempt to reread through fading pages of memory in an effort reinterpret what it means now in the light of this day, at this time, in this place. Perhaps memory is always an activity of exegesis and eisegesis. Reading-out and reading-in. Remembering and re-membering. Interpreting and reinterpreting. Imagining and reimagining. The hermeneutics of our own history.

Carlo Rovelli  says that “our consciousness is based on” the meeting of “memory and…anticipation“. He says that “This space” where memory meets and combines “with our continuous process of anticipation is the source of our sensing time as time, and ourselves as ourselves”. This space, “Suspended…in these patterns,” between image and event, where “we might reimagine our lives…through story”, writes Barry Lopez; where “we embrace the great breadth of memory, [where] we can distinguish what is true, and [where] we may glimpse, at least occasionally, how to live without despair in the midst of the horror that dogs and unhinges us.” Where we can right and re-write ourselves.