Donald Hall on Writerly Failure and Teaching

“Where I sit today, working at my desk, there are shelves behind me that are dense with abandoned or unfinished work… Behind my neck roosts a rookery of bad manuscript. To write as much as I have done, I have needed often to fail. There is another book-length poem behind my neck, ten-line stanzas that look like surrealism but are actually bad dada. Rooting around, I recently found another long collection, written in the sixties in a time of fret and distress. It is what Robert Bly has called light-verse surrealism, and nothing fit to print. … There are also attempts at more prose pieces for The New Yorker, never completed. There are bad short stories, children’s books, and maybe hundreds of poems that never worked out. Every now and then I do an inventory. Every now and then something that appeared to be dead comes gradually to life. Often it dies again.” (Unpacking the Boxes, 136-138)

Everyone who loves teaching has the same experience: Someone asks a question; it’s something you never thought of, but the moment you hear the question you know the answer. Ninety percent of what you say is something you didn’t know until you said it. If you are teaching the best literature—I could choose the books I taught—you spend your working hours increasingly intimate with the art you love. You learn by teaching. Those early years, when I felt that I knew a particular book, I would stop teaching it in order to learn about another work that was still mysterious. (Unpacking the Boxes, 125-126)

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Sally Mann on imposter syndrome and showing up

Sally Mann, Hold Still, p. 281-283.

“That’s the way it sometimes goes for me: I start on a new series of pictures and right away, in some kind of perverse bait-and-switch, I get a good one. This freak of a good picture inevitably inspires a cocky confidence, making me think this new project will be a stroll in the park. But, then, after sometimes two or three more good ones, the next dozen are duds, and that cavalier stroll becomes an uphill slog. It isn’t long before I have to take a breather, having reached the first significant plateau of doubt and lightweight despair. The voice of that despair suggests seducingly to me that I should give it up, that I’m a phony, that I’ve made all the good pictures I’m ever going to, and I have nothing more worth saying.

“That voice is easy to believe, and, as photographer and essayist (and my early mentor) Ted Orland has noted, it leaves me with only two choices: I can resume the slog and take more pictures, thereby risking further failure and despair, or I can guarantee failure and despair by not making more pictures. It’s essentially a decision between uncertainty and certainty and, curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice.

“So I soldier on, taking one dodo of a picture after another, enticed by just enough promising ones to keep going. Son I encounter another obstacle: the new work, so precarious, unformed, and tender, is being subverted by my old work, which was itself once precarious, unformed, and tender but with the passage of time has now taken on a dignified air of inevitability. The new work has none of that apparent effortlessness, the after-the-fact infallibility that the old work so confidently glories in. No, the new work is always intractable, breech-presented, mulishly stubborn, and near impossible to man-haul into existence.

“Eventually, the law of averages takes pity on me, as it is known to do for my fellow sufferer, the monkey at his typewriter, an doles out a miracle: a good new picture, at last. It brings me relief and reassurance, but no one else sees it for the milestone it is. Each time, friends and family dismiss my panic and despair, saying breezily, “Oh knock it off, you’ll get another good picture, you always do. Relax!”

“Relax,” I snort sarcastically to myself, shouldering the tripod to take another picture that is certain to be vapid, derivative, unhingingly bad. “Sure, you know all about it.” How can they understand the paralyzing, dry-well fear I live with from one good picture to the impossible next? Who can know the agony of tamped-down hope between the shutter’s release and the image in the developer? Or the reckless joy when I realize that, at last, I have good one; eagerly, my ebbing confidence throws off the winding-sheet and resumes business at the old headquarters, a wondrous resurrection.

“But, of course, it is also a fleeing one. It lasts about as long as the exquisite apex of a wave and, just as the wave takes the sand castle, it sucks my confidence out with it as it recedes. In its wake, it leaves the freshly exposed reminder that, however good that last image was, the next picture must be better. Each good next picture always holds despair within it, for it raises the ante for the ones that follow.

“Every time it’s the same. It’s easy to prove to myself that good pictures are elusive, but I can never quite believe they’re also inevitable. It would be a lot easier for me to believe they were if I also believed that they came as the result of my obvious talent, that I was extraordinary in some way. Artists go out of their way to reinforce the perception that good art is made by singular people, people with an exceptional gift. But I don’t believe that I am exceptional, so what is this that I’m making?

“Ordinary art is what I’m making. I am a regular person doggedly making ordinary art. But as Ted Orland and David Bayles point out in their book Art and Fear, “ordinary art” is the art that most of us, those of us not Proust or Mozart, actually make. If Proust-like genius were the prerequisite for art, then statistically speaking very little of it would exist. Art is seldom the result of true genius; rather, it is the product of hard work and skills learned and tenaciously practiced by regular people. In my case, I practice my skills despite repeated failures and self-doubt so profound it can masquerade outwardly as conceit. It‘s not heroic in any way. To the contrary, it’s plodding, obdurate effort. I make bad picture after bad picture week after week until the relief comes: the good new picture that offers benediction.”

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Donald Hall on Winter

In New Hampshire we know ourselves by winter—in snow, in cold, in darkness. For some of us the first true snow begins it; for others winter begins with the first bruising assault of zero weather. There is yet another sort, light-lovers, for whom winter begins with dark’s onset in mid-August. If we wake as we ought to at 5:30, we begin waking in darkness, and dawn turns throaty with the ululations of photophiliacs, noctophobics, some of whom are fanatical enough to begin lamentation late in the month of June—when dawn arrives at 4:32 a.m. and the day before it arrived at 4:31:30. …

Some of us, on the other hand, are darkness-lovers. We do not dislike the early and late daylight of June, whippoorwill’s graytime, but we cherish the gradually increasing dark of November, which we wrap around ourselves in the prosperous warmth of woodstove, oil, electric blanket, storm window, and insulation. We are partly tuber, partly bear. Inside our warmth we fold ourselves in the dark and its cold—around us, outside us, safely away from us; we tuck ourselves up in the long sleep and comfort of cold’s opposite, warming ourselves by thought of the cold, lighting ourselves by darkness’s idea. Or we are Persephone gone underground again, cozy in the amenities of Hell. Sheltered between stove and electric light, we hollow islands of safety within the cold and dark. As light grows less each day, our fur grows thicker. By December 22 we are cozy as a cat hunkered under a Glenwood.

—Donald Hall, Eagle Pond, 3-4.

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50 Before 50 #24: Preserve Food

I grew up with a grandma and a momo who both canned every summer. The porch shelves and at least one outbuilding were always full of jars sealed with Ball lids and, in the case of those done by Momo, with paraffin. I helped with some of the basic processing, but never was really that interested in how the whole thing worked or, really, in homemade canned products since I was used to industrial food. My grandpa and I canned a bit one summer right after grandma died when I was attempting to keep him company, but then we exploded the pressure canner and that was the end of that.

Then, in grad school, I got hit with the urge to preserve things but had no space to start doing it. Hence the line on this list. When we moved to Central New York eight years ago, we bought a house with a large kitchen and a basement that could be used for cellaring, and we came with the intent to really explore food. And we have done that. For me, part of the process was learning food preservation, and over time it’s become a basic part of how we live our lives. We both hope that this becomes even more the case in the coming years. At this point, we dry, can, cure, and freeze items, and we’d like to expand the canning and freezing further. But in the meantime, I’m counting this goal as met because we’re competent in so many more ways than I ever really thought we’d be.

I wrote about starting to set up a cellar back in 2012, when I poked around through the process as a diversion while on sabbatical. Nowadays, there’s always at least several pounds of red and yellow onions as well as 10 pounds of potatoes of various sorts. In the fall and winter, there’s also squash roosting on the shelves. We’ve begun buying flour and other dry goods in 25 or 50 pound sacks and keeping them in food-safe plastic tubs, which is quite a bit more economical. So far, we seem to go through everything at a reasonable pace.

Strawberry-vanilla jam has become a ritual for opening the season, and I always make enough for me and for my dad.
Strawberry jam volcano

And spiced Italian plum jam closes the jam season each summer.
Spiced Plum Jam in progress

This was the canning shelf for this year, mostly jams and jellies and salsa and simple pickles. We have bigger plans for the future:
Canning, summer 2016.

We make a big jar of refrigerator pickles whenever the mood strikes or the crisper demands it.
Refrigerator pickles

And when the cellar demands it, headed-south onions become confit for sandwiches and quick French Onion Soup.
When the world makes little sense, make onion confit. Wash the flannel sheets. Tackle the work pile.

Herbs from the garden are always hung and drying in September.
Sage harvest, hung to dry

I taught myself to make bacon fairly early on from Ruhlman’s invaluable Charcuterie, thanks to my friend Greg.
Homemade bacon, ready for the pan.

This year, I made pancetta. One batch came out wonderfully, the other developed case hardening.
Pancetta!

And we’ve finally gotten a handle on freezing to the point that we’re considering a second freezer. We cook chili, marinara, meatballs, tamales, broth, puerco pibil, and a number of other things in huge batches, freeze it in portion sizes, and then have meals ready to go for a few months at a time. And of course there’s the usual stash of chickens, pork roasts and chops that we’ve portioned out from bigger loins that we find at Costco. With another freezer, we’ll have more room for organization and for frozen produce. So finding the right freezer at the right price probably the next goal at this point.

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50 Before 50 #49: Finish that damn cross-stitch piece

Way back during doctoral coursework, at the end of the fall 2005 semester, I started this rather large cross-stitch kit out of desperation to make something with my hands. I stitched on it all during the Christmas break and then wandered off for other things. It nagged me that it was half done, and so when I wrote this list in 2008, I made a line for it. I didn’t come back to it until November 2013, nearing-but-not-quite-at-the-bottom of my tenure-track depression. I stitched on it a bit every night and it started to save me. Eventually, I got it to this stage:

Cross-stitch progress:  zombie kitty will eat your face

And then I realized that it was way, way too off-kilter and messed up to really justify finishing, and so it has forever remained in Zombie Kitty stage. But in the process of getting it there, I learned that doing cross-stitch at night was a really important tool for calming anxiety. So I went to the needlework store down the street and bought the stuff to do this:

What does the faceless raccoon say?

and finished it while watching historical farming shows on the BBC. I felt a little better. And then I went to the closing of a local craft store and bought the zillion colors of floss required for this Morris print, big swaths of which were done while watching all of The Sopranos and New Who:

Floss for the next big needlepoint project.

Morris Bullerswood #2

Finishing that took me 14 months, with a few little projects interspersed, like this:

Tiny robot, done as a break from the never-ending Morris project.

At that point, I felt like I’d sufficiently fulfilled the “finish that damn needlepoint” dictum, but I’ve kept going:

Halloween cats, finished.

Done!

Red work done.  Starting white work.

And I have no plans to stop soon. If I don’t stitch for a couple of weeks, I get antsy and itchy and don’t sleep well. Plus, it’s important to make things. And so I do.

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Laguna Blues

by Charles Wright

It’s Saturday afternoon at the edge of the world.
White pages lift in the wind and fall.
Dust threads, cut loose, float up and fall.
Something’s off-key in my mind.
Whatever it is, it bothers me all the time.

It’s hot, and the wind blows on what I have had to say.
I’m dancing a little dance.
The crows pick up a thermal that angles away from the sea.
I’m singing a little song.
Whatever it is, it bothers me all the time.

It’s Saturday afternoon and the crows glide down,
Black pages that lift and fall.
The castor beans and the pepper plant trundle their weary heads.
Something’s off-key and unkind.
Whatever it is, it bothers me all the time.

(via my friend Joan on FB)

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Tove Jansson on late autumn

IMG_3146

The quiet transition from autumn to winter is not a bad time at all. It’s a time for protecting and securing things and for making sure you’ve got in as many supplies as you can. It’s nice to gather together everything you possess as close to you as possible, to store up your warmth and your thoughts and burrow yourself into a deep hole inside, a core of safety where you can defend what is important and precious and your very own. Then the cold and the storms and the darkness can do their worst. They can grope their way up the walls looking for a way in, but they won’t find one, everything is shut, and you sit inside, laughing in your warmth and your solitude, for you have had foresight.

There are those who stay at home and those who go away, and it has always been so. Everyone can choose for himself, but he must choose while there is still time and never change his mind. (5-6)

The forest was heavy with rain and the trees were absolutely motionless. Everything had withered and died, but right down to the ground the late autumn’s secret garden was growing with great vigor straight out of the mouldering earth, a strange vegetation of shiny puffed-up plants that had nothing at all to do with summer. The late blueberry sprigs were yellowish-green and the cranberries as dark as blood. Hidden lichens and mosses began to grow, and they grew like a big soft carpet until they took over the whole forest. There were strong new colors everywhere, and red rowan berries were shining all over the place. But the bracken had turned black. (24-25)

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