Sunday, October 19, 2008

Coming Clean

Whenever I arrive at a place where the waiting room has stacks of magazines, I see them as life preservers, tossed out to those of us who know without being told that we will have to wait. No matter if we are prompt or even early; we'll have to wait. My first move at this state of discovery is to search through the piles of magazines for Architectural Digest, therein to brows page after page of neat, relatively uncluttered rooms, neat desks, even neat bedrooms. It is not so much the architecture itself or the furniture. In some form or other, I have all those, however improvised they may be as opposed to the opulence of the furniture in the features. Nor is it the arrangement of the furniture, although there have been times when it came to me that all in my study was not as efficient as it should be. Almost without exception, the photos in Architectural Digest show a studied neatness, however casual, however defensive the captions for the photos are about a particular office or study being "a working office" or "a study in the midst of a project." There have even been photos of artists' studios and in one case the studio of a busy potter. My study is "a working study" and my room is a room "in the midst of several projects."

Point is, I look at the photos of rooms as a tip of the hat to alternate-universe fiction; each of these pictured rooms or scenes, however filled with books or objet d'art they are, they represent to me some Platonic ideal of neat rooms.

Returning home from such places where I have been afforded time to browse, I am confronted by the specter of my desk, cheery, familiar, as mischievously disheveled as a young boy's hair. At this moment my desk is a mild clutter, a photo of an earlier dog, Mr. Edward Bear, resting on its side, a check, an ink bottle, two pair of reading glasses, a stapler, a wireless mouse, a mouse pad from the College of Letters, Arts and Science, USC; a stapler, a nail clipper, a small box of matches, a Mountblac fountain pen, a small cache pot filled with letter openers and fountain pens, a paperweight in the form of a book, given me when I moved away from Sherbourne Press and on to Dial, Dell, Delacorte. There is some satisfaction in seeing the pigeon holes at some respectable condition of neatness and organization.

It is good to clean desks and shelves and studies, even at the frequency I employ. I do so not from any inherent call to order but at a greater metaphor that relates to cleaning out the ledges, crannies, and pigeon holes of the part of me that originates ideas and sets them to word. All right, I'll take it a step farther: the ledges, crannies, and pigeon holes of my claim to creativity. It is good to write myself out, by which I mean to use up all the accumulated ideas, jokes, tropes, similes, metaphors, syllogisms, and unresolved curiosities I'm willing to lay out on the table. It is good to feel depleted, talked out, shed of an opinion or two, dissatisfied with a comparison between two or three things that may have come to me in the midst of a shower or perhaps while shaving: to start out empty-but-confident, anticipating the clutter that will come because, in a real sense, it always has.

Not all that long ago, I came upon the discovery that things with my handwriting on them often contained a sentence or two worth looking at and thinking about, matter that did not make me cringe reflectively at what I'd said or thought or surmised at an earlier time. In some cases, these notes are like memos to myself at a later time, something I was not only interested in then but as well something that actually makes sense now and holds my interest.

Yes, writers are supposed to be able to convey fact and invention in a manner freighted by clarity and the quality of being interesting, even compelling. What writer, in fact, can you name who did not set pen to paper with the avowed intent of being interesting? Alas, I think I know a few. Even greater alas, there are those who may think that very thing of me. We do not set out to be inane or boring or uninteresting, but in spite of our best efforts, sometimes we are. When Ishmael was in such a mood, "whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off -- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can." Nothing so drastic for me. Something physical such as swimming or a long stroll with Sally or the beginnings of the metaphor of cleaning, neatening the room, neatening the desk, cleaning out files on the computer, perhaps even reading, looking for something known to be wonderful or awful, listening to music, attaching the jumper cables of interest and attitude and curiosity and enthusiasm to the inner battery and jump starting the process all over again. Persons in twelve-step programs seem to agree that you need to recognize the impact that comes from hitting rock bottom in order to jump start the recovery wave. For the writer the rock bottom is much less threatening or dire; you simply dump all the momentary jokes and defenses and smartass equations, holding back nothing. Then you get yourself down to some work.

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