(This paper was given as a morning talk on August 11, 2015 at the Rainier Writing Workshop’s 2015 residency)
This is my first morning talk in six residencies. I’ve had the good fortune—and I truly mean good fortune—to sit where you all are and listen to one of my colleagues after another make me laugh and think and get beautiful glimpses into their strange and interesting minds. Every year in the spring when Stan or Rick ask what I might do at the residency, I feel as if I have to come up with ideas quickly, and none of my ideas seems up to a MORNING TALK. So I never proposed one.
But this one, this idea I had about love, I got to thinking about last year at the residency, so I was ready. I’ve read a lot of stories over the years that didn’t seem to have the drive they needed. Didn’t have characters who wanted something badly. Wanted something madly. Who loved something. I wasn’t reading stories that held that kind of possibility for loss. “Where’s the love?” I’ve thought too many times. Where’s the love?
When I was a few years into my writing life, there was a literary magazine called MSS out of Binghamton, New York, edited by the novelist John Gardner. I wanted to publish in MSS, and I sent them story after story. I always got polite rejections from various under-editors. Finally—I don’t know, maybe it was the tenth story I sent—I got a handwritten note from John Gardner himself. He wrote: The scene reads clearly enough on the page. But you have to remember your roots. You’re telling a story around a fire. If your listeners don’t care, they’ll throw rocks.
So this talk will have nothing to do with getting it “clearly enough” on the page. About the actual piece of prose or poetry you might be writing. This is an MFA program, and it’s good and proper for us to talk a lot about how to get it clear on the page. For one thing, it’s teachable. And for another, without craft, we’re just seals barking on the island.
But maybe I shouldn’t say “just.” Because without those barks—without where they come from—we’ve got nothing to put into our lovely structure. We’ve got nothing at all.
So I’m going to talk about where it all comes from. The raw material of stories and poems. First as the fuel that drives the actual narratives and poems themselves. What drives them? What makes them matter? What makes the people across the fire keep their rocks to themselves? And then I’m going to talk about the fuel that drives the writer, the passion that drives him or her, you or me, to want to put something down on paper. What makes us want to bark like seals in the first place?
Let’s start with two universal truths—universal truths are always a good place to start. And when I say universal, I mean for all people who’ve ever lived on this planet, people in all cultures and in all times.
1) We all suffer.
2) We all die.
What a way to start. Rick put me at the end of this residency. Maybe he thought we’ve had enough singing and dancing, goddammit.
Okay. We all suffer. We all die. And I guess I could add—or should add—and we know it.
And because those three things are true, it also somehow follows that in order to avoid the despair that might follow those facts, we’re forced to do something: we’re forced to find some meaning in this flickering, painful life. Some dignity. So how do we do this? A not-so-disastrous simplification of Victor Frankl might be this: we make things, we suffer—and sometimes even in that is the possibility for redemption—and we love.
Love. If everybody in this room told a love story, would we know all about love? ALL about love? Would we know it like we know this table? Like we know that window?
No. Because love is mysterious. It doesn’t fit in a box. It can’t be definitively defined. It’s like courage, cowardice, good, evil. The only way we know these things is from experience. And because our own experience is by nature narrow, narrow, narrow—and brief—we know love also by stories.
And because love (passion) is such a driving force in how we make meaning of our lives, if somebody came in this room and stood in the back, and raised his hand, and said, Hey, I have a great love story, wouldn’t we all look his way? Wouldn’t we all wait, still, and listen?
The description of this talk says I’d be using examples in literature to describe the power of love. Okay. How about how Gatsby the Phony is redeemed by love. Or not. Or how Humbert Humbert the Pervert is redeemed by love. Or not. Why would we ever read page after page about Jake Barnes and his drunken friends in The Sun Also Rises except for the little fact that Jake loves Brett? The Sad Little Fact that Jake loves Brett and he can’t do anything about it. How universal is that? What human being makes it through this life without knowing that feeling. Oh, Jake, Brett says to him at the end, We could have had such a damn good time together. To which he replies—anybody remember?—Isn’t it pretty to think so.
So let’s. Think so, I mean. Think of Jane Austen’s heroes. Will I marry the man I love? Yes, thank goodness yes, Lizzy, yes, you will. But not until you’ve suffered. And we’ll follow you through your travails, and we’ll follow all of your brother and sister characters in all of Jane Austen, because when the question has that kind of stakes—a life without love! A marriage with no possibility of divorce to somebody we don’t love!—we’ll endure anything to find out, won’t we?
And there’s Janie in Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Janie, too, has the brave little notion, the quixotic notion that she wants to love the man she’s married to. She wants to love and be loved. Through how many windmill collisions—er, I mean marriages—will we follow her to find out if she ever reaches her goal? Two, three, four? And all because she wants love. To love and be loved. Oh, my. Is she a hero or a fool? Finally she finds it with Tea Cake. Love, I mean. Great!
But then Janie has to shoot Tea Cake because he gets rabies defending her from a dog gone crazy.
God damn! Life is cruel. Life is absolutely unpredictable except the two things we know. Remember them?
1) We suffer.
2) We die.
Ms. Hurston’s prose, and her masterful craftsmanship aside—really, who cares about that? It’s a means to an end, it’s the basket the fruit is delivered in. What is it we care about when somebody brings in a basket of fruit when we’re hungry? We care about the fruit. We care about the love. (Well, if we’re basket makers, we care about the basket, okay.) But as readers we care about the love that, once Janie finds it, slips through her fingers like water. Yet it leaves her life redeemed nonetheless. Redeemed. Or not. It gives her life meaning.
The universe is very big, and very empty. So we have to fill it. As livers, as well as writers. We have to invent ourselves. The universe doesn’t care. But it’s hard. It’s hard. So we are inspired, filled with spirit, by those who can, by those who do. Love. And by those who write about it.
In James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, a young man is about to leave his French lover and go back across the sea to finish school. The observer-narrator describes the young man like this:
“We are subject to his friendship, to his love. It is the principles of his world to which we respond, which we seek to find in ourselves. It is his power which I cannot even identify, which is flickering, sometimes present and sometimes not—without it he is empty, a body without breath—it is this power which guarantees his existence, even afterwards, even when he is gone.”
It’s this same power that Gatsby has over Nick. Over Nick and over us. Maybe we think Gatsby’s a fraud. Maybe he stands for everything we don’t approve of. But he loves Daisy in his strange way. And because all our loves are strange, we can’t—if we’re honest with ourselves, which is what the book ultimately asks us to be—we can’t hold that against him. Gatsby is, ultimately, redeemed by his love. Or not.
And we are redeemed by his love. Or not.
Those are the only questions that matter. And that’s what stories are about.
So the world is empty—have I said that already?—but somehow full, too, of ignorance and ugliness. And we suffer, and we’re going to die: Gatsby does. But those shirts, those shirts he bought because he loved Daisy, the shirts he bought, folded and stacked in his closet. Imagine touching them, letting your hand fall over the fabric.
“The soft rich heap—shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound,” Fitzgerald writes, “Daisy bent her head into the shirts.
‘They’re such beautiful shirts,’ she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds.”
It’s enough to make her cry. In this empty, dark, sad, unjust and cruel world. It might be enough to make all of us cry.
Listen, if you give your character a deep and driving passion—it doesn’t have to be romantic, it can be any kind of love, even love that sometimes starts with hate—we will follow your character anywhere. And maybe even forgive him or her of anything. In A River Runs Through It, brother Paul loved to fly fish for trout in the Blackfoot River. Remember, Paul was a gambler. A drinker. He was a fuck up. He was doomed—we’re all fuck ups, we’re all doomed—but. But.
Paul loved fly fishing. And so he’s redeemed. Or not. Like Janie. Like Lizzie, like Gatsby, like Daisy touching Gatsby’s shirts. In a world full of suffering and death, ugliness and cruelty, Paul, we’re told—we believe—is beautiful.
A few years ago I sat next to the stage and watched through tears as murderous Lady Macbeth lay down not three feet in front of me—it was a small theater. I could see the moisture on her skin, see her chest rise and fall as she breathed. I could imagine her greedy selfish heart—like mine, like ours—as she wrung her hands, and said, “Here. Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!”
And then, still to herself: “Wash your hands; put on your nightgown; look not so pale! I tell you yet again, Banquo’s buried. He cannot come out of his grave.”
For yes, we die—have I mentioned that? Killed sometimes, even. By people we owe money to, like Paul Maclean. By enraged and mistaken cuckolds, like Gatsby, or by the Macbeths of the world.
And we can never come out of our graves again.
And isn’t this true for our loves, as well? For Lady Macbeth’s love for what’s lost forever? Her own innocence? Her own clean hands? The lives of so many, of Banquo, the Macbeths’ good and wise friend, loved by them, murdered by them?
Banquo, who, dead, will never ever come back.
Love, remember, love is the fruit, not the basket.
Here’s another story. More romantic, certainly, than Lady Macbeth’s. Remember Florentino Ariza, who can’t marry the love of his life, Fermina Daza? He spends his lifetime making himself wealthy and carrying on with a vast abundance of lovers, a hyperbolic number so large only García Márquez could imagine it. And yet neither his wealth nor the unending parade of women could make him forget Fermina, or lose his determination to outlive her husband and try to win her back.
He finally does—finally, decades later. He outlives her husband and wins her back. And he takes her on a river cruise, and they finally, finally make love. But as the ship reaches its port, Fermina panics that their relationship will cause a scandal on shore. To spare her this, Florentino has the captain raise the yellow flag of cholera. No port will let them land. So the two of them are forever exiled to their boat to cruise the river. And that’s how the story ends.
Strange. Exiled. Strange. But isn’t that just like the love in your life? Happy. Sad. Sad. Happy. Sad. Happy-sad?
Which brings me again to Shakespeare: to our literary roots. (Not Gardner’s Caveman, but still our roots.) Let’s look at the sonnets. I’m not a scholar. But you don’t have to spend much time with the sonnets to understand what they’re about. Over and over again.
1) Life is painful and we all die.
2) We lose everything we love.
3) The speaker is trying to hold it all with words.
4) And holding it with words is really, really hard to do.
In the famous sonnet 18:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st.
___So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see.
___So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Or this full out trash talk to Time in the next sonnet, 19:
Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-liv‘d phoenix in her blood;
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleet’st,
And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets;
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime:
O, carve not with thy hours my love’s fair brow.
Okay. So we suffer, we die, and because love is the highest expression of our lives, we write about it?
Maybe even make it last? Up yours, Time! My Love shall in my verse ever live young.
Like in sonnet 81:
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
You still shall live—such virtue hath my pen—
Shakespeare. But he wasn’t always so certain. Writing, after all, is like trying to hold water in a basket. Or better, make a basket so good it makes us imagine it’s filled with fruit! It’s a magic trick, and it’s hard. Really hard. The speaker in the sonnets, when he’s not trash-talking Time, constantly refers to his difficulty finding the words that will somehow hold, circle, contain the empty hole created when a loved one dies. The sonnets invite the imagination to fill the hole left when the beautiful chaos of temporal life fades, and moves, and slides away. But the words are often wrong, or not enough.
In sonnet 147, he says:
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
At random from the truth vainly express‘d;
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.
And here’s Keats. Two hundred years later. Two hundred years ago. Why not? These dead white men wrote about what everybody’s written about. What we, the living, the suffering, the not-yet-dead, need to write about.
What’s Keats say to the Nightingale? It’s so sad here on earth! It’s so sad being mortal!
The speaker wants to “fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget” what the Nightingale has never known.
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
This. This is why you are writing. Because it all falls away. It all falls apart and all falls away.
And again, it’s really, really hard.
Here’s Keats again. Same Nightingale poem. In the last stanza, after he’s returned again to his sole self. Alone. Alone. A man on earth who, despite the immense powers of his imagination, will, like all humans on earth, love and lose, love and die.
He says to the Nightingale and its song:
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
Good question, John. Good question. Floating in grief—our little lives brief—aren’t we still trying to answer it?
Okay. Now I’m going to change tack. I’m going to turn this toward the writer, toward us, as writers. I’m going to try to tell a series of stories. Silence feels empty and telling the stories feels empty and inadequate. But I’m trying to weave the basket that holds the nothing—the nothing in a basket that somehow compels our imaginations to fill with fruit, to fill with love.
Stories and poems are a plunge into the mysteries: love, death, courage, change—they are an opportunity, or an invitation, to feel compassion.
How do we get there? How to go deep into that mysterious well? Deep into the self? Here’s a Paradox: We are most unique, and most alike in that place—where stories come from. We don’t find our unique voices anywhere but down deep inside us, past all the bullshit. Past all the supposed-tos and want-tos and wish-I-weres. We find them by being brave enough to be our slobby, stupid, scared, ashamed, angry, sometimes even hateful—and yes—loving selves.
My second daughter is a singer. She went away her junior year of high school to study at Interlochen, an arts high school in Michigan. Interlochen is a fine place, but with about 300 girls and 150 boys, half of whom are gay, it’s slim pickings for a heterosexual girl. In the spring, after her first year, I picked her up at the airport in Missoula and we were driving home in the car. We were driving past the high school near our house, where’ she’d gone to school the year before, and the sidewalks outside were clustered with groups of boys. She had her face turned to the window. Really practically plastered against the window. Staring. Staring at the groups of boys filling the sidewalk. She watched and watched, and after a while couldn’t hold it in any longer. She sang/shouted in one long breath, loudly: I want a straight boy, don’t want a gay boy! I want a straight boy, don’t want a gay boy! I want a straight boy, don’t want a gay boy!
When she finished there was silence in the car. I was holding on to the steering wheel. Finally, I said: Margi, that’s a song.
Think of how songs are. How in song you can let something pour out of you that you couldn’t, or wouldn’t, say. Love me, love me, love me forever! I can’t live, if living is without you! I am lonely! I am lonely! I am lonely!
In my most recent novel, I had the feeling that what I needed to write was essentially a song. An opera-like novel with two voices—a duet—two voices singing their arias unashamedly into the dark.
We don’t get there, to that kind of passion, through the mind. We get there through the body. Through our breath, the pleasure of air, light, and the joy and burden of having a body. We get there through the possibilities of play and laughter—and by landing somehow, finding somehow, the first source of words.
Almost ten years ago, I was on the rooftop of a hotel in Tegucigalpa. It was morning. I had a few hours before I had to go to the airport. It wasn’t a fancy hotel. There were lots of crates with empty beer bottles, lots of buckets and wires, broken fans, broken dishes, clothes lines, and the half-wall I was leaning against, sitting on one of those buckets, reading Whitman. A few months before I’d finished the third draft of a novel in three years. I’d already published a couple of novels, so I wasn’t a beginner. But I thought this draft, although not done, was close. I had had a breakthrough, and I was excited, and I wanted to get it read before I moved on and re-wrote. So I handed it out to some readers I trusted and the response floored me.
What!?! I mean, I knew it wasn’t done—but awful?
But what about it is awful. Even this part? Isn’t that working at all?
No. I don’t see it.
What about this other part? Is any of it working?
Not that I can see.
The response was so unequivocal, I was devastated. I couldn’t believe it. I knew there was something there. I knew it and felt it deep inside me, but it was clear I’d failed completely to get it down right. And I thought, I had dared to think, I was close….
So I slunk off. Did nothing. Sulked. Hurt. Lived with that for a while. Months passed. I’d look at my hands, at my veins. Maybe I just didn’t have enough blood in my body for this book. I felt like I’d been punched and lost my wind and the wind hadn’t come back. I went to Honduras to work as a translator with medical teams, a couple of times. This time, on my second trip, I was on the rooftop, reading Whitman.
The sky was blue. The wind was blowing the laundry on the line air. The poetry was filling my sails, too, and I stood up to look out over the crappy old city, and take a deep breath, and like some mystical, biblical, weird thing, suddenly I knew what I had to do. I could feel it in my chest. I could feel it in my throat.
Breathe. Just. Breathe. And then just open your goddamn throat and let it out. Just let it out.
My narrator in that book was a 19th century freed slave, educated in England, wandering the civil war battlefields, the gold fields of the West.
Open my throat?
But I could feel it there, the constriction. I could feel it. I was a middle-aged man. I had failed at so many things. But on that rooftop, in the big breeze, Whitman in my hand, I could feel my throat start to open, and I knew if I let it, if I let it rip, I could finish the novel.
Open your throat. Sing it. Let it out. The music is in you—or it’s not. But you don’t know unless you tilt your head back and sing.
There’s more, though. And this is the scary part. Because it’s not just about the song. You’ve got to get to the place where you have nothing left to do but sing. You’ve got to let yourself fall into the well. Or swim to the island. To the place where the seal barks come from, to the place where there’s nothing left but the knowledge of your own mortality and your response to that certainty.
For a couple years when I was a young writer, all I wrote were scenes. Not stories. Scenes. And for a couple years all I wrote were paragraphs. Paragraphs. What was I learning? What did I think I was doing? I don’t know for sure. Crazy? But I know now I was learning craft. I was learning to write scenes. I was learning to make music in paragraphs. I was young, in my 20s, we had children already. I probably had diapers on the line. I had hay I’d mowed that needed to get in the barn. I had cattle to feed, fences to fix. I did all of those things. But mainly I wrote and read. I was learning how to put into forms the feelings I had in my body, the feelings of vulnerability and mortality that would ultimately animate my fiction—that animates all of our work as writers. The universal questions that keep our listeners across the fire from throwing rocks. I failed often, and over again. As John Gardner pointed out to me so eloquently. In fact I failed so often and at so many things that the memories of some of those years are sometimes still unpleasant. But it’s the failures, ultimately, that take you where you need to go. It’s the stumble. It’s the fall, unfortunately. Through your own self, your own body, down to the part you share with every other human being. Your own bone-deep, belly-deep knowledge of suffering and death.
And once you get there, inhabit that world, with ghosts. And with others who don’t think like you do. See what happens. See what happens.
Here’s a little love story: At my nephew’s wedding, my brother’s son. Back on the farm. My brother was a ski racer. He loves skiing. He has a rowing machine in his basement and when he exercises he puts in DVDs of World Cup races that he’s seen dozens of times already, but you can hear him down there rowing, sometimes yelling, expressing awe and delight. Each time he watches. He was really, really good himself. Not World Cup material, or even U.S. team, but at his best in the top 20 or so in the country for slalom. Not bad for a Midwestern boy. Anyway, Dick’s son Eric skied for the National Championship Dartmouth Ski team in 2007, I think. And many of his teammates, some U.S. Team members, Olympians, medalists, are there at the wedding. And the next day, in the basement, we’re hanging out, and Dick calls these half dozen young men and women down to show them his skis. These Rossies. The same kind that Jean Claude Killy used. This was the first metal ski. This is what we used for slalom. This is what I learned on, wooden, no edges. This is what we used for downhill. He lifted each pair, held the skis in his hands, turned them.
The young men and women were rapt, listening. The Olympic medalists, the World Cup skiers. You. Me. This ski, my brother said, this lover of skis and skiing. This one, he said, holding one like a child. Feel it. Touch it. See?
Do you ever let yourself get so bored, so alone, you feel an aching hollow in your chest? Almost like there’s an air pocket around your heart, a hole in there. A slight fuzzy that starts at the edge of boredom and desire, on the razor edge between hope and despair. I’m really trying to describe a place. It’s in the body, it’s teased by your breathing, almost tickles, but you can’t gulp or inhale it or whatever it is it needs. Something there and not there at the same time. It’s lonely, and terrible, and you feel the loss of everything you’ve ever loved, and only from there can you sometimes see beauty. From that place of love and loss. Light on leaves with night coming on can make you feel it. It or nothing. The buzz of nothing on hot, sultry afternoons with nothing to do, to look at, while holding the heavy certainty that your life is just a series of actions with no meaning. What if I was to say that that’s, sometimes, where art comes from? The edge of despair. The root of yearning. The heart of melancholy.
Again, here’s Keats, as good a guide as any. He’s talking about Melancholy.
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.
For: She (Melancholy) dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.
Finally: You—We—have got to love this stuff. The aching beauty of the words. How they sound, and then the silence. How our mouths form them from breath. How like our lives they are here, then they are gone. Their vaporous essence should make your skin turn inside out. Because how else to endure what you’ll most likely have to endure as a writer? To stand and look out at the world and to let the bottom fall out of the moment. Let’s face it. This is not a career. 99 percent of you will earn very little money. 99 percent of you will get little acclaim beyond a few dozen, a few hundred, maybe a few thousand readers. You’ll endure what every other human on earth has endured: all the lost, lost things. And you’ll endure it by answering these three questions: Did you work today? Did you eat? Did you love?
So the sheer impossibility of holding life and love with your physical hands makes telling stories and writing poems our way to create the space (in a structure, in a basket of words) for us to feel a heartbeat beat-beating, to imagine feeling it—which, if we do well enough, will help somebody else feel it. The heart. The life. The love. Which is all that matters, and the only reason to try.
Okay. Look around, now. Look at your fellows in this room. This is what I like about PLU. A roomful of people who love books, who love words, who love. When you write, you want to know your seal barks from the island are heard by somebody. Otherwise the emptiness and doubt can swallow you. We all know the feeling. Which, frankly, is just life in the coal mines. So occasionally we’ve got to have the company of our good fellow, stoop-shouldered, coal-dusted colleagues riding the elevator down, down, down, and then back up again to daylight.
I die, Hamlet says at the end of the play, the stage littered with bodies. I die, Horatio. So Tell him, with th’ occurrents, more or less, which have solicited.
So tell Fortinbras the story, Hamlet says, more or less, that has made all of this happen.
Our stage, like Hamlet’s, is also littered with bodies. In our own lives, perhaps, but also here, in this very room. Think of the many long gone who have sat in these very chairs over the decades. And of course, Judith Kitchen, just last year, sitting back there.
Write the poem. The sunlight is on the leaves, now. Tell the story, Horatio . . .
The rest, Hamlet says, is silence.
David Allan Cates is the author of five novels. His most recent, Tom Connor’s Gift, is the winner of the Gold Medal in the 2015 Independent Book Publishers Book Awards for Best Fiction in the Mountain West. He’s published many stories and poems in little magazines, and his forthcoming collection of poetry, The Mysterious Location of Kyrgyzstan, is forthcoming in late 2015. He’s the executive director of Missoula Medical Aid, an organization dedicated to improving health and access to health care in Honduras, and, to our great fortune, he also teaches at the Rainier Writing Workshop.