Book, Book, Book, Book, Says The Chicken

Donald Hall's A Carnival Of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety sits on the kitchen table here while I type. I was reading it while eggs hard-boil on the stove but put it down when I thought to write my own words instead of reading those of someone else. The eggs are from Wegmans as I am not at all ready to create my own eggs, either by raising chickens or laying them myself. Words though, I can squeeze them out with alarming regularity.

I've read Hall's prose since a friend recommended Life Work in the only way guaranteed to get me to read: I thought about you while reading this. My ego brought me right in. I've read that book three times and will likely read it again soon. Notes Nearing Ninety (I prefer the subtitle to the title) is a hodge-podge but, as I wrote earlier to Jerry, I like a good hodge-podge almost as much as I enjoy saying hodge-podge.

On the coffee table is Anne Lamott's Almost Everything: Notes On Hope. Like most everyone, I first read Lamott's Bird By Bird which is lovely in every way and have enjoyed the other books but also been disappointed that they aren't Bird by Bird. Still I can use some hope or even just notes on the subject and the book is good. Lamott's style is quirky and she makes me laugh at just the right times. Occasionally she leaves me so stuck on an idea that I read two pages and have to go back both to linger with the idea and figure out what I've missed while ruminating.

On the passenger seat of my car at the repair shop is Meet The Frugalwoods by Elizabeth Willard Thames which is better written than I expected. The subtitle is Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living and that sort of thing appeals to me. In a chapter of Lamott's book she says we can't fill the hole within from without. I've got one of those gaping holes. I suppose we all do. Mine is a sinkhole that has recently opened to new depth. I like the idea of simple living instead of refinancing the house to afford all the things I want to buy and throw down that hole hoping to fill it up.

The eggs are hardboiled now. I've taken the pan from the stove, drained the hot water, filled it with cold water, drained that and refilled several times, and now transferred the pan, water, and eggs to the fridge with high hopes the shells have been shocked off and will be delightful to peel. Otherwise I'm going to go kill some chickens.

The fourth book, on the table with Donald Hall, is Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything open to a recipe for black bean soup calling for hard boiled eggs. I like Bittman's stuff and especially liked, even if I don't follow it, his Vegan Before Six idea through which he reclaimed his health. Instead of prescriptions he healed through good decisions. What an idea.

The books, especially the first three but maybe Bittman's too, feel connected and I'm enjoying reading them all at once. I go through several of Hall's notes, a chapter of Lamott's spirituality, and then a chapter of frugal living. There's a cycle through which I'm moving or hope to move. It gets me through boiling eggs, leads me to write a note of my own, and ends in enough black bean soup that you should come over and have some. Then we can read and maybe write books.


I cannot quite conceive of how to write a book. I can imagine it but can't work out the nuts and bolts. My guess is that learning it requires doing it, like getting a mortgage to buy a house. I tried to read up on points and PMI, but didn't understand until my wife and I just bought a damn house and learned along the way. I'd like to think that just deciding to write a book I would learn how. Well, deciding and digging in.

It isn't like I haven't tried to write books. I wrote a pretty bad NaNoWriMo novel that has a few startlingly good moments. I drafted a hundred pages of a kind-of memoir. I planned out a book about writing Morning Pages and sketched another about good tools. I've made decisions and on occasion dug in. I've tried.

Except, I haven't really tried. Mostly I've come close to trying. I've thought about these books but haven't done the work over the long term. I'm not sure how to do that kind of work. Should I outline or let the book become what it needs to be? Is it too self-centered to write about myself? Fiction or non-fiction? Non-fiction for sure because I've seen how my "novel" turned out. Then again, I like some of that novel. Maybe fiction then? Under all this questioning, I stop.

Even if I do get going, I let other things interrupt (maybe to save myself from the risk of going forward) and I go down some sidetrack. The memoir went like that. I worked on it for a summer, but when school started I left it lying on the shelf for someday when I had time to get back to it. A year later I went back for a few pages, but had lost the feel. It seemed foreign to me or dead. I couldn't quite return.

I bet writing a book is all about returning. I've read that every book is a failure, but failures aren't full stops. They yield chances to return. I know a book comes from sitting down and writing, but it also springs from returning each time I wander away.

Return. Return. Return.

It reminds me of the carriage return on my old manual typewriter. The bell sounds near the end of the line and I throw the lever from left to right. New line. Return to typing. Return to writing. Return until the end of the line and return again until there is a book. It's so simple. Then why haven't I done it?

Returning often feels too difficult to attempt and so I put it off until later. Returning requires understanding, acceptance, a gentle touch with myself, and faith both in the process and my abilities.

I return to writing daily for Morning Pages, a blog entry, and other writing, but almost everything I write is done in a handful of sittings over the course of a day or two. A book requires returning to the same big idea daily for weeks, months, seasons, and years. Stephen King says he can write a book in a season. Good God. Dani Shapiro stays with a book for two to three years. Oh my. And George Saunders talked about the two years of revisions for his book. What? That kind of returning sounds otherworldly, superhuman, the works of the gods.

I'm easily distracted and interested in everything. I've been asked what my blog is about. It's about anything in which I have some interest. Last week it was writing about writing. Today it's how returning might make a book. Tomorrow it may be physical/emotional health. I want to write about it all. How could I stick to one thing and return to it again and again? Someone on the internet said the key is to have multiple projects going at once, but I can't get anything big done. Sigh. I just don't know.

When I first learned to cook I had trouble getting all the foods to the table at the same time. The rice would get dry or cold waiting for the chicken and the sauce would need ten minutes after the chicken was done. How do I time it all to come out together? Whoever was in the kitchen with me said, you'll figure it out in time. I was ten. I'm fifty now and, though there are the occasional screwups, I almost always get a full meal to the table, warm, ready to eat, and without much thought of how. It just works. I just make it happen.

I learn it by doing — making individual dishes into a meal, taking out a mortgage and buying a house, writing a book. I probably just need to try, return the next day, try, and return the day after that. Repeat as necessary. Faith and belief in the process and in myself will come along the way, right?

I'm sorry. I couldn't hear you. Speak up will you. Or just give me a push.

A Good Book. And yet...

I just finished a book and it was good, but I'm so glad to be done with it that I won't name it out of almost boundless respect for the author. That's not how the author would want me to feel. It's certainly not what I want to be feeling. How can a good book be something I'm so relieved to have finished? How can it have taken me so long to get through? Doesn't that mean there is something wrong with the book or with me.

Of course it doesn't.

There are times when a book just works this way. There are books that I just read this way. It isn't anything wrong with the book or with me. It's more like wearing shorts when the weather turns too cold. The shorts are perfectly comfortable otherwise but today it's just too damn cold for them. (As I write this it is seventeen degrees and I am in long pants, sweatshirt, and wool socks. Still I'm cold.) This was just one of those books.

And I know what to do when this happens: Dive into the next book. I have Diane Ackerman's One Hundred Names For Love and can't wait to begin. Well, I can wait long enough to write this short piece about reading, finishing things, starting the next, and finding that about all I need in this life are good books, strong black decaf coffee, the love of my family, and something with which to write.

Was the book I just finished a good book? Yes. Yes, it was. I'm thinking of it now and realizing the marks it has left on me. I may have gone through it so slowly because every fourth page or so moved me to write some new idea. Sometimes reading pushes me away from reading toward writing or living. That can be good. I'll know more about whether the book was good for me in a while. These things don't always come immediately.

In the meantime, I'm going to find out what Diane Ackerman has to tell me about love's one hundred names.

Two Books In My Bag

This morning before I left the house I remembered that I am sixty pages from finishing the book I'm reading. I was in the living room and went over to the windowsill where I keep the books I'm hoping to read soon. I grabbed one and tucked it in my bag with the other. Then I was ready to leave the house for my job.

Stephen King says this in On Writing:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around those two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut.

In that book he talks about how he carries a book with him everywhere. I bet a lot of those books are on his phone or an e-reader, but I prefer to think of him with an actual book in his hand, held loosely as he walks, open on his lap in waiting rooms, and on the car seat when he drives because that's how it is with me.

Yesterday just before three my daughter texted that she would be done with rehearsal at three-thirty. I texted back "On my way." She wrote, "I've still got at least half an hour???" I said, "No worries. I've got my book." I drove to the school, parked, and opened my book. I read seventy pages before she came out and I couldn't have been happier. I read my book and then saw her smiling face. My life is good.

Teaching school, I schedule time for kids to read books of their choosing. There's all sorts of pedagogy behind that decision and thankfully the data from a silly reading test the school makes me give backs up what we're doing, but let's face the fact that we do reading time so I can read my book too. Call it a win-win and leave it at that.

One of my great fears in life is that I will find myself somewhere without a book to read. That this is the extent of my fears as opposed to sudden death, sickness, cancer, or another Coldplay album means I'm living well. Still, being without a book to read is fearsome enough that I remember to tuck a second book in my bag.

However comforting that second book in my bag might be, there is of course a downside beyond the added weight and overdue fees at the library. It's that now I want to finish the first book so I can dig into the second. I'm ready to abandon all other responsibilities and sit still turning page. Getting fired has nothing on not finishing the book. That's a problem too. Yet another problem I'm not too upset about having.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going back to reading.