Remember when I put up that lecturette from DU’s Writers on Writing that was about the Writer’s Manifesto assignment? Well I created one of my own, based on an old piece from grad school. The old fragment would have been from 2000; the revised and fleshed out Manifesto for the WoW students was put up in 2006.
This nearly ten year old essay makes me feel sad. Why? Because the prompt for a Writer’s Manifesto is: Why I Write. If I were to try and answer that prompt today, my answer would be much shorter: I don’t write. Not anymore. Not often, not really. Also, I go to The Cup now, not the Trident. Anyway. Here are my barbaric yawps from ’06:
The Trident Cafe: a Writer’s Manifesto
“Isak Dinesen said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair. Someday I’ll put that on a three-by-five card and tape it to the wall beside my desk.” ~Raymond Carver
The Trident Cafe here in Boulder, Colorado has a number of spells that hover over it and in its interior air. Situated between a Tibetan gift shop and Jax Fish House, it serves both the best coffee in Boulder and used books and remainders of all kinds.
Walk with me through the bright coolth of a Boulder Spring day (oops, hold your nose: a clue of dreadlocked wookiies (1) are walking by…whew okay that’s over)…there’s Rhumba, nope can’t write anything in there. Why? Well, their rum list is the size of a fancy restaurant’s wine list, so we’ll wait till later for that.
As we enter the Trident, we should keep our eyes vulture-peeled for an available seat. Notice the wood throughout–wood floors, wood and brick walls, wooden bar, wood-grain tables, dark wood and leather chairs…if there was ever a fire in here (God forbid) you could steep water in the ashes for espresso. Be thinking about what you want to drink as the artistically-dressed young bussers flutter around us. There are two Naropa students, one Pearl Street Mall employee with a list for her office, and two yuppies (2) in line ahead of us, so we have time to think about it. Check out the wall of labeled exotic teas behind the tattooed barista. You bet your orange pekoe he can tell you about every one of them, never mind his apprentice youth and bold ink. Go ahead, ask.
Good choice: that tea will literally bloom into little jasmine blossoms in the water. I’ll order my usual (I often don’t even have to order anymore): a Florentine. Poor man’s mocha. Strong bitter coffee and hot chocolate. Still can’t make ’em like that at home.
All the best (and published) writing I have ever done has been at the Trident. Not without exception, but pretty much. I have been frequenting this place since teenager-hood with my blank books, and I feel after a good solid hour longhand there I have actually gotten more work done than I could at home with a parrot on my shoulder or at any computer. I am a big believer in the benefits of caffeine as a “happy drug,” conducive to my writing flow and brain waves. Maybe that’s the only magic spell the Trident needs–the coffee seeped into the wood (and bricks) surrounding me. They also have art exhibits on the walls, which is always a good thing, even if the art is not. Writing and art go hand in hand, even in my journals, and it behooves me to have artwork around. The bustle of people and music in the cafe doesn’t distract me, in fact, if I ever hit a brick wall, I start Found Conversation until it goes away.
What does interrupt me is my own self (just count the number of parentheses in this informal piece of writing and you’ll see what I mean). If I decide to write at home, there are always a thousand things to do instead: play with the parrot or cat, grade papers, surf the ‘Net, play a computer game, rotate laundry or dishes, watch the Food Network, drink a beer, hang out with Jason, play a computer game, do Tai Chi…not always necessarily bad for me, but certainly bad for my writing.
Back in the day, I had an acting professor corner me and demand I do a production he’d been working on called A Room of One’s Own, based on the Virginia Woolf piece and a performance by a well-known Dame of the RSC (3). I never ended up doing it, but researched it till it fell through (4).
In the piece, Woolf says it’s important to work in a room of one’s own, precisely for the above reasons. That was the main lesson I got from that research: that you have to make writing the most important thing happening for a certain hour on a certain day, no matter how many checks have bounced or how many people are crying (or dying) in the world. For what work do I really have to do, besides write? Later, a well-known poetry prof (Linda Hogan, in fact) said the same thing: “Turn the phone off,” she’d say, “because, you know, it may be somebody handsome calling..” (5) No distraction is as important as the writing at hand. Doing it is so much more important than the quality of actual stuff produced.
Example: a poem that came out one day at the Trident was sent out with no revision whatsoever, I barely even remember having written it–that half-asleep state that comes with a caffeine crash–and it was my first published piece.
Okay, I’m not advocating non-revision, that’s ridiculous, I’m just saying that there’s something about dropping everything and going to the Trident for an hour or two that makes my writing what it is.
What is it? Sword-and-sorcery, or just sword, or just sorcery. Or Holmesian mystery. Or all three?
I have a terrible habit of dipping into the collective unconscious at the wrong time, without banking on it quickly enough. Examples? I had young people going to wizard’s school (inspired by LeGuin’s Roke) back in the ’80s when I was going to junior high and high school with a bad knee. My Wizards’ school was a gym class substitute (of course, LeGuin and McKinley did it before I was born, but). Now that Harry Potter has a worldwide following, I wonder why I never finished my own tale. I worked closely with Jenny Heath on my sprawling pirate epic: five long stories in a fantasy world resembling our own Golden Age of pirates (mid to late 1700s Europe), researched joyfully and diligently, reworked and reconsidered, and even begun transformation into a comic book script at the advice of an artist friend in the trade. And after a half-chapter was ready for the penciller, what comes out on the market? A comic series called El Cazador. With a spunky lady pirate, and a red-headed adversary/love interest…all beautifully drawn…a bestseller…oh and don’t even get me started on the sexy vampires, I’ve got some sexy vampires (no they don’t fucking sparkle)…
There is a character from old school Sesame Street named Don Music. He had nerdy glasses and a sloppy mop of grayish hair. He’d always be sitting at his piano, trying to compose nursery rhymes. He would never quite get them right (“Mary had a bicycle…”) but he’d keep trying and trying until finally he’d exclaim: “I’ll never get it, never, never!!!” And he’d whack his head onto the piano and sob. I seem to have Don Music moments often, when I’m nearly done with a second or third draft of something and am scouting around for potential markets. But oh well, I’ll be at the next nursery rhyme in the next episode, without fail…
I find the Old Stories to be the most important–I force them upon any students I happen to have, no matter what the subject. Folks, especially younger folks, don’t know the old tales well enough–I mean, put them in the Forbidden Forest and they wouldn’t know to give that old weird beggar their food; or not to eat or drink anything a fairy gives them, or to offer to work to get into the magic palace…things any human should know well.
So my writing is recycled archetype. I think I’m comfortable with that.
(1) Wookiies are rich white young people who sport dreadlocks and a myriad other Hipster inclinations.
(2) Yuppies are hippies who grew up to be very high financed businesspeople.
(3) Eileen Atkins
(4) my writing and my acting have always been trained in tandem, but not necessarily together my until recently. My life of education has been tending the earth of two separate trees–now they’ve grown close enough together as to share vines and branches.
(5) this was uttered during a graduate poetry class, it must have been in 1995? CU Boulder.