Oniontown Pastoral: Sabbatical in the Writing Hut

Oniontown Pastoral: Sabbatical in the Writing Hut

On Friday, July 2, 1971, I was almost 10. Evonne Goolagong beat Margaret Court at Wimbledon, and Americans were humming Carole King’s “It’s Too Late,” baby. Richard Nixon and his associates were being tricky in all manner of things from D.C. to the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Inconspicuous 7-2-71 is neatly painted on the wall in front of me in a chalky white. A normal person would have sanded the board and hit it with polyurethane, but Mr. Tyler, the previous resident of the Coleman house in Erie, Pennsylvania, obviously had good reason for dating the wood rather than burning it. 

In any case, I’m far from normal. It’s not normal to make the walls and floor of your new writing hut out of hardwood scraps from an Amish lumberyard, leftover boards waiting above your garage rafters and tormented barn wood from Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania. Ordinary isn’t turning a slab of Old Man Tyler’s wainscoting, roasted and frozen by turns over the decades, into a desk top.

Crazy is more like. What began as tame diversion has become zealous mission. Writing is mostly on hold. The summer and fall of 2020—this strangest of years—are a sabbatical during which my medium isn’t language, but boards that you might say are grimacing if they had faces.

The peak of my ceiling, made of boards shining through every grimace

Meanwhile, writing continues in my head. For one thing, I’ve been engaging in spiritual poetry, regarding my endeavor here as redemptive. This castoff lumber represents sisters and brothers who are rooted nowhere, who stick out like burls, whose misfortunes and trespasses are knots that make sawing iffy. 

In this shed of reject materials, there are no outcasts. In fact, when handled with care and beheld with generosity, the ash and cherry and maple and pine I bought for a song or employed in honor of thrift sing of hope. Resting my eyes on misfit and forgotten boards that have found welcome and good purpose makes me glad. 

The wall behind my desk

Another fortunate thing: As I’ve refrained from putting down words, the kinship between language and lumber has revealed itself to me. Just as Mr. Tyler couldn’t part with the odd cupboard door or 10’ planks of pine painted red, over the years I’ve been hoisting extraneous words and expressions to my lexicon’s rafters. 

Some words have simply fallen out of favor. Nobody spreads oleo on toast anymore, naps on a davenport or wears dungarees. School students don’t hang their wraps on a hook and leave their galoshes in the hallway. 

Other words are so seldom called for that they get musty. I’m a devoted gourmand, but rarely say dollop. An evening beverage is medicinal, but I never drink liqueur. Reading yesterday I tripped over payola, which has never crossed my lips, but it reminded me that my parents’ generation liked to say Shinola.

And again, plenty of words have received their melancholy gold watches. Today’s cars don’t have fender skirts like my folks’ 1967 Pontiac Grand Prix did, never mind rumble seats. Does anybody still pay the light bill, unlock a door with a skeleton key or keep a milk box by the front door? 

Tortured barn wood or heirlooms?

Ah, but who cares? Rummaging through heirlooms clacked out on a manual Smith Corona before computers existed is sweetness and light. My mom collected Green Stamps and sewed herself scooter skirts. My dad got his Schlitz from the icebox, called me Buster Brown and my nose a snot locker. My coaches grunted walk it off. No matter how busy my vocabulary becomes, I’ll never scrap such pieces, which form memory’s truss.

In a week or so, the carpenter’s obsession should be out of my system. The last task, a hardwood floor, is no gimme, though. The boards are as even as I can get them, a process that started in July’s steam and finished in October’s soaked chill.

The floor in waiting, in front of wife Kathy’s tomatoes and basil

I turned 59 on 10-9-2020, not too late, I hope, to enjoy some fruitful seasons of fulfilling this place’s mission. But about the floor: It will have to tolerate wet galoshes and spiritual poetry. Its boards can’t be like words brought out seldom, if ever. 

No, any visitors will stand with me on load bearers like love, compassion, tenderness, justice, honesty, fairness, forgiveness and truth. Kindness, grace and mercy, too. 

The Amish man’s scraps at pick up

If the friendly Amish man’s scraps fit together, the floor will join Julian of Norwich in assuring this writer, guests and the walls themselves, “In this hut at least, all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Variation on a Theme by William Carlos Williams

“The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams

 

So much depends

upon

 

a red wheel

barrow

 

glazed with rain

water

 

beside the white

chickens.

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William Carlos Williams, physician by day . . . (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Literary critic John Hollander writes, “Williams ‘etymologizes’ his compounds into their prior phenomena, and his verbal act represents, and makes the reader carry out, a meditative one.”

In other words, meditative phenomena. Shamatha. Breathe. Receive.

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So much depends . . .

Kathy, Elena, and Cole drive seven hours to Virginia for a baby shower. They also visit Polyface Farms, where Joel Salatin and family love creation, collaborate with it. Elena sits on a swing and nurses Cole. She’s not ashamed. Kathy brings home a pound of bacon from a pig joyful until its last moment. Salt and earth. We taste the earth.

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A friend showed me . . . (Credit: H Zell / Wikimedia Commons)

For Sunday family dinner, we have purple potato salad and wraps: real, northwestern Pennsylvania tomatoes; avocado; feta; dill sauce; red bell pepper; chicken thighs sautéed in ground coriander seeds.

(I once saw coriander in Mary’s mortar. That’s why I thought to buy coriander, grind it, and put it with the chicken. My friend showed me.)

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I’m busy, Gramps . . .

Before Sunday family dinner, Cole works in his playhouse in the backyard. He pounds with his hammer. He examines plastic nails and a sink and makes comments about them into the perfect air. Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom (James Wright).

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Matt and Layla

Before Sunday family dinner, Elena says, “We were going to plant flowers beside the house, but Matt says he wants to keep that space open. Layla likes to run there.”

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Boulevard altos . . .

This morning, breezes lift the bedroom curtains. Kathy and I lay together, my arm around her shoulder, her head on my chest. We say nothing, listen to the trees, receive Earth’s cool hymnody on our faces and arms.

Finally: “I love you, Kathy Coleman.”

And: “I love you, too, John Coleman.”

Strange: we call each other by our full names.

 

So Long to an Expired Dream

Some dreams sting to give up. Some principles need a whipping to change.

I’ve been writing nearly every day for over twenty-five years. Before that I was an English major, publishing my first short story in a decent literary magazine in 1984, my senior year of college. A master’s in creative writing from Johns Hopkins followed. I’ve said many times that I learned more in three half-hour individual sessions with John Barth and a couple of manuscript reviews from Doris Grumbach than I did all the rest of that expensive year.

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The afternoon editor James Olney called to accept my sequence of poems about Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, felt like a breakthrough–years ago!

With essentially a graduate degree in fiction writing in hand, I moved back to Erie, Pennsylvania, with wife Kathy and promptly started writing poems and teaching college composition. 1985-1989 was a productive stretch. In my study at home I’ve got a box full of journals, rags, and newspapers containing one of my essays here, a poem or two there. I was on track for getting a poetry collection out within five years.

Toward the end of that period, Kathy and I bought a house, she gave birth to our daughter Elena, and I had a nervous breakdown. I muscled through panic attacks and depression, popped Xanax only when desperate, taught my classes, and kept on writing, this time nonfiction. I wanted nothing more than peace, so that’s what I wrote about.

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Groovy cover, customers eh.

Questions from Your Cosmic Dance came out in 1997 (Hazelden), The Unexpected Teachings of Jesus in 2002 (Jossey-Bass). An agent sold the first book, for which I received a $6000 advance. In the course of finding an agent for the second, I connected with an acquisitions editor who thought my proposal sounded promising. The publisher advanced me $4000. I consider both books the work of a young writer—hardworking, persistent, competent. Sales were modest, which is a euphemism for disappointing.

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In “Publishers Weekly,” I received a scorching unsigned review from a schmutz who didn’t take the trouble to understand the intended audience. The book got buried–not that I’m bitter.

I kept at it, though, squeezing in an hour every morning smithing a couple hundred words about something. When sixty minutes weren’t there, I’d do thirty—whatever. I have a couple of manuscripts at various levels of blah; with a ton of effort and a sturdy attention span, I might be able to get them into publishable shape. Another manuscript, which I’ve entitled Oh! Be Joyful: Notes to My Future Grandchildren, is a proofread away from something I’d ask a reader to pay for.

I won’t whine about the process of trying to find a publisher for this book, which I genuinely believe would be appreciated by the audience for whom it’s intended. I’ll only mention that an agent gave it a go and waved the white flag; meanwhile, I occasionally felt like I was selling the book’s soul and my own in the process.

So the book sat. I wrote some more. Years passed. M. Somerset Maugham said, “Writing is the supreme solace,” but maybe that’s if you’ve got readers. I’m fifty-one now and gravitate toward Sylvia Plath’s thinking: “Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing.” Thousands of my words sit cobbled together in files and on hard drives and now in clouds, having moved from the solace of composition to the stink of storage. Though I say this myself, I’m not a crap writer. I’m not great either. But I’m decent enough for my work to land in somebody’s hands. A few weeks ago I wondered if I would labor morning after morning, year after year, making chairs and stacking them in a barn for nobody to ever sit on. How dumb is that?

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Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry. Go ahead, call her lazy for self-publishing! (Credit: Wikipedia)

Why have I let my word-furniture pile up for so long? Because of a dream and a stubborn standard. The literary milieu I was brought up in dismissed writers who self-published. Serious writers never paid reading fees and never sent material to what was referred to as a vanity press. Even though Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, and Walt Whitman had their own work printed and sold, I’ve always considered not getting into print through traditional gatekeepers (i.e. agents or editors) an admission that I’m really not talented or, worse, ignorant of my own mediocrity.

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The indie-published Charles Dickens with a fierce wind at his back. (Credit: Wikimedia)

Sue Grafton articulates what is still a prevailing attitude, particularly among writers who have reached the Promised Land: “Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall. Don’t get me started. Oops . . . you already did.” After indie-authors threw a few well-deserved haymakers at Grafton, she apologized: “It’s clear to me now that indie writers have taken more than their fair share of hard knocks and that you are actually changing the face of publishing. Who knew?! This is a whole new thrust for publication that apparently everyone has been aware of except yours truly.”

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Sue Grafton (Credit: Wikipedia)

Maybe the detective novelist’s mea culpa is sincere, but it tastes bitter to this clock-is-ticking writer who doesn’t believe in short cuts either. It’s hip and intelligent to be an indie-filmmaker, but lazy and bumbling to be an indie-writer? My tipping point came a month ago when a small press rejected a manuscript eighteen months after I’d submitted it. Here was the deal: send the manuscript, a check for $25.00 (the no-reading-fee rule is slipping), and a CD with the manuscript on it. A month later my dollars were in the press’s bank account, and the waiting began. Two follow up e-mails and a letter, tic toc. At last a recently hired submissions editor returned everything I’d sent along with a complimentary book, ironically a collection published by the family of a poet whose life ended prematurely. The rejection letter—like most writers of my generation, I’ve got a fat file of them—didn’t acknowledge his boss’s using what I’d submitted as a doorstop, but he did let me in on a secret: “We receive far more submissions than we can possibly comment on or publish.” No lit, Sherlock. I’ve also had an essay with a sharp online journal since March, this after a general e-mail to authors stating the editors’ hope to have news on submissions in a month or so. It’s been “5 months, 21 days,” the handy submissions manager just now told me. At least this journal is saying something. Many agents, publishers, and editors state with an occasional apology that writers can feel free to submit, but they should simply accept silence as rejection. I trust that folks in the publishing world are overburdened and underpaid, but no response is rude. No, thanks might irk a few writers, but at least the door gets closed.

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“$9.99 for as many books as you can fit into a hand basket”–the destination of many printed books. Is print on demand really slummy?

Basta! A Napper’s Companion started in April of 2013 in part because of frustration at shabby professional treatment and a desire to connect with readers who might enjoy my work. Through this blog I’ve found gladness in sharing, which is the right word, since I’m happily tapping away at this keyboard gratis.

With luck, in a month or so, I hope to have Oh! Be Joyful: Notes to My Future Grandchildren available on Kindle. After that I’ll indie-publish a paperback edition—I’m whipped but still can’t bring myself to say self-publish. Let me indulge my denial a little longer. We’ll see what happens down the road.

My blog is “in celebration of napping . . . and all sane practices.” I’m saying so long to an expired dream for sanity’s sake. It’s time get my word-chairs out of the barn and put them around tables and on front porches, where people can relax on them and disappear into a book.