Do you see the tree –
now this book in
your hand? Can
you hear echoes of
its whispering through
the wind? Do you
know that it once
breathed out its
life as it inhaled
This book in your hand
is your relation.
Its pages are leaves for
the healing of the nations.
You can divine in its spine
trunk and branches and roots –
given for you, given for me.
It bears the ink it bleeds
nobly. This book
reminds us that
we do not read
This book in your hand
is a living wood, and
it will not remain
Patick Modiano, the 2014 Nobel prize winner for literature, expressed interest in learning what it was about his work that earned him this honour. He was quoted saying that “one cannot really be one’s own reader.” This aphorism, which seems at blush to be but a throw away line is anything but. It is an observation made by a writer who has honed his craft for many years. The line set my mind to thinking about reading my own writing.
Do I read my work? I certainly edit my work. Anyone who writes any amount knows that getting words on paper is but the tip of the iceberg that is writing. Below the written tip is an ice mountain of work: wrestling the right word into place; switching paragraphs hither and yon beyond the patience of the harshest editor of all – the self. But is editing a work reading it? Once again, yes and no seems to go as a best first stab at answering the question: yes our eyes scan the words and detect errors and distractions, but no too; no in the sense that I do not experience the same kind of dislocation I feel in reading other authors. And so while it seems that I can have the experience of entering my text as a reader, I do not have the experience of the text entering me – at least not in the same way that I experience that when reading the writing of others. When I read the work of others I have this gratifying sense of utter alienness; of being at sea as I ask what the author has in mind. When I write, by contrast, I struggle to get what is in me out, and onto the page. When I read my own work, this is what I read.
So it seems that I cannot really read my work, but it also needs to be said that I cannot but read my work: ignoring what I have put to paper seems impossible. Something of the self remains resident in my writing and so not attending to it is rather like ignoring a mirror: not impossible, but surely difficult. And as is the case with many difficult bits in life, asking why it is that I am drawn or repelled by this or that is surely a salutary experience. What is it about the mirror that arrests me? When I revisit what I have written I do not encounter someone vastly different (as can happen in reading your work) , but I do experience a sense of the self at a distance. Perhaps this is because writing, at least for me, is not so much an experience of saying what I think about this or that, but an experience of saying whom I am. This self, however, really comes to be known to me in my writing. What I had intuited becomes concretized in my text. And because it is hard to encounter the self on account of my proximity to my writing, I need others – I need others, other readers and editors. As I hear what you encounter in my texts, I am given a fresh chance to hear myself anew, to become my own “auditor” in the sense that the word auditor comes from the Latin word for “to hear”(and so someone who “audits” a course listens in on it). My readers make me an auditor, an observer of my own work because my readers hear me out and in their hearing I begin to see and hear what I have written anew.
In the end, while it might be the case I cannot really read my work, it surely is the case that I can “hear” it by grace of your reading. You become for me ears to hear and eyes to see my work anew and for that, I say thanks.
splayed across the land
products of promiscuous thought
wild oats, they will not be tamed – nor
ordered into domestic
corrals – no they are
never to be herded, only
Too close and they bolt, these
poems not planted:
invading our guarded gardens
serenity and sour wine.
Poems under beds
slipping into heads
so many poems, daring to
under flower beds
but never flowery
The other day I noted a new follower of my Twitter account. I’m not the most popular guy in T-world and so tend to scope out followers on those rare occasions when someone signs on. I was interested to find a little URL associated with my new friend and so thought I should see where it led me. Imagine my surprise to discover that at this very site I could get more followers overnight! And to think I thought I needed to write clever, or funny, or inspirational, or thought provoking Twitter tomes to coax folk to follow where I lead. It turns out all I need to do is fork out $20 (on sale!).
This rather reminds me of my otherwise wondrous experiences with blogging. Sometimes, I’ll post a blog, and within minutes will have some “likes.” “Cool,” I’ll think, “I should check out where my fans are from.” I then go to the handy-dandy tool for scouting out those scouting you out, and discover that no-one has visited my blog. They “liked” it from their blog reader, which means they (might have) read the first 50 words or so. I have since discovered that they don’t “like” my blog so much as they would “like” it if I “liked” theirs by returning the favour. All of this got me thinking (this doesn’t always end well).
Do I write for myself, for readers, or for the subject matter?
Maybe I can do all three. Probably I do. OK, I do. But it seems that one or the other takes priority. If my first priority in writing is myself (perhaps to boost my ego), then writing moves in one direction. If I write for readers (perhaps to boost sales), then writing moves in another direction. But if I write out of passion, or even vocation – because not writing seems to be a betrayal of deep longings or persistent proddings – then yet another realization emerges: the subject matter matters. It isn’t that the subject matter trumps writer or reader, but it makes a space for us to gather together. In other words, I want readers who don’t only like what I write, but read what I write because what I write about (writing in this specific post) is more important than my popularity or the reader’s enjoyment, inspiration, etc.
I suppose I have a certain luxury in not needing to make my buck with my luck at likes. Maybe I’m a romantic. Maybe that’s not so bad. At any rate, I am so happy for all who have made it this far in this rambling rant, and am quite content to find a small community of interested writers and readers to share in this journey that doesn’t end in with the full stop.
I had the great pleasure this last week of spending time with my mother, who lives some 4000 kms from where I live and work. I only am able to be with my mom a couple of time each year. As of late, she has not been well, my mom: heart problems, mobility issues, and failing sight have complicated her life. Since I don’t get out to see her often I like to maximize my time with her. My wife suggested I bring along a book to read to her, which I did. I found it to be a rich experience to read to my mother who read to me as a child. It is a coming full circle, something that I hope comes around to me in due course.
In addition to reading the book I brought, I also read her the local paper which had an article remembering Arthur and Allen Dickau, local gentlemen who died at the age of 90 years. Arthur and Allen were twin brothers who had slight cognitive impairment. They also happened to have a very fine sense of humor. They owned hats that read “I am Allen, the other one is Arthur” and its opposite. They publically swapped hats to confound folk. I remember them so well: they spoke with a kind of slight accent I associate with children of German immigrants, in a rather sharp tenor voice. They belonged to the local Baptist church, and were much loved by folk of faith and beyond. They were true ambassadors for my home town of Ponoka. As the years progressed, their backs bowed in homage to the years of manual labor that gave them occasion to boast of having raised this roof, or having poured this sidewalk; including the sidewalk and roof of my parents’ retirement home, recently vacated by my widowed Mom in her failing health.
As I sat and chatted with my Mom about the article, she told me of the first time she and Dad met them. They were fresh in town, and making their way to the little Lutheran church. Arthur and Allen were on their way to the Baptist church and waved hello with their bibles in hand. She also reminded me that the twins often asked after me. You see, Allen believed I was named after him. Mom chuckled at that memory. I gathered this wasn’t true, but one could do worse than be named after someone who was beloved by all, who lived life to the fullest into his 90th year, who knew the names of many who did not know each others’ names and brought smiles to the faces of all. In fact, I am honored to be claimed by someone who forsook the self to live fully in the community where God placed him; not worrying about what others thought of him, but only thinking of bringing a little joy to others. One could do worse than emulate a man who loved his brother unequivocally. They died within months of each other.
Allen and Arthur will be fiercely missed in their community. Yet I believe that their legacy will be carried on, even if unaware: all who have been touched by them have learned to touch the earth tenderly, to engage their community holistically and to embrace their neighbors tenaciously. Their voices may be still but still they are heard, because you cannot corral compassion set free by joie de vivre.
Earth in ink, stark on white
Haloing a shadow of light
Words transfix me: spell bound by
Even the full stop is round.
I explore this fecund ground
Until I, too, am found
To be seed in this
Soil – I am
“In reading we are reliving our temptations to be a poet.” Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, xxvi.
What do you do with a sentence like this? This sentence sentences us to rethink reading all over again. We take for granted the very task of learning to read and the battle we went through in coming to some degree of facility in this quotidian task. We forget how we battled to make sense of those pesky letters that sometimes played tricks on us. First a “gh” is a “ghost” then we think it “through” until we have had “enough.” Reading is hard work. It is brain breaking work to wrestle some sense from those pictographs that have morphed over the century: sights made sounds made sights all over again. These sights are now sites for contention and confusion.
Bachelard knows something of this battle which is reading, which is writing, which is seeing, which is being attentive to where we are and to what we see. He knows well, as the fine philosopher that he is, that where there is wrestling, there is truth and so he invites us to play Jacob and to refuse to defuse this battle until a blessing bids us “farewell.”
What is the blessing that reading bestows on us? Bachelard seems to suggest that this blessing is behind our hidden aspiration to be a poet. But why a poet? I’m not sure that I’m convinced. I can imagine that many aspire to be a movie star, or a musician, or a great athlete. But a poet? Maybe we need remember what poetry is. The very word poet comes from the Greek word for making. Poets make. They craft confusion where “common sense” stifles vision. They incite inspiration where duty has dulled passion. Poets turn the world upside down. Luther once said that the Holy Spirit is the best poet of all: arresting our self-certainty and cutting our apron strings to pious platitudes. Tongues of fire consume satisfaction with the status quo and demand that all be given voice, especially those who are under-valued, under-represented and under-ground.
When we read, we relive our temptation to be a poet. When we read poetically we serve notice of our “No” to complacency. May your reading feed your writing; may your reading set your pen on fire; may your reading rewrite you.
September 8 was International Literacy Day (www.bit.ly/U3ogeU). Not everyone celebrated. Yesterday I was speaking with a friend whose child cannot read without difficulty despite having graduated from high school. He is orally articulate. He is clever, delightful, and passionate. He just can’t read well and he writes worse. His story is rehearsed by many. What gives?
It is hard to say. Many things can go wrong: health, education, socio-political instability, gender discrimination, ADHD, etc. Yet one thing is certain: a will to change the situation can make a difference. It begins with the recognition that the ability to read and write is a right not a privilege. In our culture, illiteracy is a sentence to poverty. We all need to do all we can to ensure that every human being has access to schools, teachers, books and the freedom to learn.
My daughter Corin recently spent two and half weeks with Free the Children (www.bit.ly/S0KvAk) building a school in Kenya. This experience enabled her (and her fans) to understand anew the depth of the lesson that it is “more blessed to give than to receive” (Jesus). By giving we get, and when we give others the opportunity to read we receive the gift of reading anew. We read with new eyes. Helping others to read helps us to read. Time and time again we learn that generosity never leaves us impoverished. This truth doesn’t just apply to money, but to skills, talents, and passion as well.
Maybe this week will afford you the opportunity in some small way to help others learn to read. Maybe you can volunteer at a school, or donate to a worthy cause, or give your employees the gift of time to read in honour of this day. The day might be behind us, but future is before us and helping others to read and write is always right.
Seize the day. End the daze. Give the gift of reading.
Corin is the tall blond on the right.
Photo Credits:Taleesha Thorogood