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Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Parabola of a Writer or, On Coming to This All Backwards

There is an order of Buddhist monks in Japan whose practice is running. They are called the marathon monks of Mount Hiei. They begin running at one-thirty a.m. and run from eighteen to twenty-five miles per night, covering several of Mount Hiei's most treacherous slopes. Because of the high altitude, Mount Hiei has long cold winters, and part of the mountain is called the Slope of Instant Sobriety; because it is so cold, it penetrates any kind of illusion or intoxiation. The monks run all year round. They do not adjust their running schedule to the snow, wind or ice. They wear white robes when they run, rather than the traditional Buddhist black. White is the color of death: There is always a chance of dying on the way. In fact, when they run they carry with them a sheathed knife and a rope to remind them to take their life by disembowelment or hanging if they fail to complete their route.

After monks complete a thousand-day mountain marathon within seven years, they go on a nine-day fast without food, water or sleep. At the end of nine days, they are at the edge of death. Completely emptied, they become extremely sensitive. "They can hear ashes fall from the incense sticks...and they can smell food prepared miles away." Their sight is vivid and clear, and after the fast they come back into life radiant with a vision of ultimate experience.

...Why do the marathon monks go to such extremes? They want to wake up. That's how thick we human beings are. We are lazy, content in our discontent, sloppy and asleep. To wake up takes the total effort that a marathon monk can exert. I told my class on the last day of the four-week seminar, "Well, you have two choices: Mount Hiei or writing. Which one will you choose? Believe me, if you take on writing, it is as hard as being a marathon monk."

Excerpted from the introduction, Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America by Natalie Goldberg


That quote is from one of my favorite books, a book that lives in my private exalted mental category where I consider a book to be a friend. I remember when I first read that tale of the marathon monks and something inside me gave a dull tug and also a shiver of recognition and excitement. But I was a voyeur, just a reader. I had never put pen to page or fingers to a keyboard.

Wannabe writer. Someday I'll write something. When I have something to write about.


I took one of Natalie Goldberg's workshops when she was a guest lecturer at Spirit Rock in Woodacre, in Marin County. I had read Writing Down the Bones, and I was struck by the author's brutal honesty and bravery. She just wrote. She did it no matter what mood she was in, whether or not she had a topic. It was a practice, a promise. It never occurred to me to feel that devotion about anything, but to me, if it was to be something, writing seemed to make a lot of sense.

And still I didn't write.


It's hard to say I'm a writer. I haven't been published. I haven't any expertise in a given field of study that I could be writing about. I don't have anything uniquely profound to say. But still I want to write, no matter what trappings of writingdom I haven't acquired yet.

It's primordial. A compulsion. A craving.

Once I finally let the genie out of the bottle, I haven't been able to put him back in. Not that I want to.


From the time I was a little girl , I steadily developed a fascination with the mechanics of writing: the old Royal manual typewriter that smelled of dust and hurt my fingers to press the keys hard enough just to mark the paper. The fragile onion skin. A fountain pen (how many kids in elementary school wrote with a fountain pen? I did.) Putting lead in a mechanical pencil. The shininess of lead on lined notebook paper. Pink eraser crumbs and how erasers smell when you rub them.

When I got older, I chose a major in college that would really let me dive into the mechanics of putting words on paper. I learned how to use French curves and scales to design a single letter (the old art of creating a font has nothing to do with computers, but everything to do with geometry and positive and negative space), how to measure in picas and points, how to cut rubylith, how to burn a printing plate, how to set up and run an offset press. I also had a box full of more expensive toys--every size of Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph pen, India ink, crow quill pens, engineering scales and protractors and compasses.

But still, I put no words on paper. I knew how they got there, in principle.

And still even later, when the nuts and bolts of putting ink on substrate lost some fascination for me (although I will never be cured completely), I became the writer's doctor. First a proofreader, then an editor. I niggled over minutiae. The Chicago Manual of Style was my bible, and I fought tooth and nail for serial commas and em-dashes. I became passionate about Garamond (yes, I am very old-fashioned in some things). I used a red pen, or a green or purple one to comment in the margins when I didn't want to crush sensitive egos.

And writing seemed farther away than it had ever been. I couldn't even fathom that I would ever write a sentence that I wanted to read, let alone share it with anyone else.


So many years later I have finally come to the place I meant to start. At the beginning, it feels like.

It may only be a blog, but finally, finally I write. Sometimes it's all fluff and crap, and sometimes I think hey, maybe I'm onto something here. And it's all exactly as great and hard and fun and boring and everything I thought it might be.

Below are a few wonderful quotes and images I've found about writing, trying to capture the essence of something that's hard to pin down. I hope you like them too.


It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone. That is where the writer scores over his fellows: he catches the changes of his mind on the hop. ~ Vita Sackville-West

Writing became such a process of discovery that I couldn't wait to get to work in the morning: I wanted to know what I was going to say. ~ Sharon O'Brien

There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein. ~ Walter Wellesley "Red" Smith

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you. ~ Ray Bradbury

The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say. ~ Anaïs Nin

The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible. ~ Vladimir Nabakov

Post inspired by a question from my sweet friend Relyn.
All beautiful images from flickr: typewriter, erasers, pens, nib, keyboard, metal type, notebook.


Vanessa June 5, 2008 at 3:34 AM  

A mission/vision statement if I ever saw one! I love the honesty.

I felt exactly the same way, that's why I started my blog, to keep the lethargy of thought and typing at bay, to be a better witness to my own life and times, and, of course, to write 'true sentences' every day! So wonderful to hear my own feelings reflected back at me.

I've no illusions of being the greatest writer of my time. I only know it requires patience and dedication and heart, even on days when these are scarce.

You write lovely words, so please do keep at it. :-)

Red Shoes June 5, 2008 at 7:49 AM  

I'm glad to know you, too, sniff erasers and fondle beautiful pens and paper.

You're lovely. Keep writing. We're growing from it.

Anonymous June 5, 2008 at 8:31 AM  

"The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say. ~ Anaïs Nin"

Just marvelous!

My journey was the other way around, TB. I remember the absolute frenzy I felt if I could not sit down and write. From the time I could hold a crayon. No blank surface was safe from my scribbling. I have no idea what I wrote, or if it was even coherent, but it was beyond my control. Thoughts and ideas just frothed forth faster than I could capture them.

For years I resisted using the computer (or back then, a typewriter) to capture my thoughts. I felt more connected doing it long-hand. Of course, perhaps more of my brilliance would have survived with the much faster process of typing...

It was much later that I've somehow lost the urgency, the clarity, the bottomless source of ideas, and now only write occasionally and casually while blogging and commenting.

As for you, your writer's voice is clear and intoxicating. Like any true great wine, it just took a while for it to mature :-)

tangobaby June 5, 2008 at 9:52 AM  

Hi Vanessa,

To be a better witness, exactly! I think the reason I put it off for so long was partially due to my fear of what I might see.

But all of it--good, bad, insignificant, ineffable--gives me enthusiasm now, to keep witnessing, to keep looking around me.

And I find too that when words fail me (as they are bound to, my writing muscles are not fully developed) that I have my camera to capture those moments too.

Ps. I loved on your blog masthead about writing true sentences. What a wonderful reminder for yourself. I have just added you to my blogroll so I can read more of your witnessing.

Pss. I am looking forward to the day when you decide to take a flamenco class, too! ;-)

Dear Red Shoes,

Oh, I am a sniffer and a fondler, no doubt about it. And we haven't even gotten to the other, more esoteric office supplies I have fixated on, including Mucilage and rubber cement.

And thank you for the compliment.


Dear Johanna,

I love your description of yourself as a child. I can picture you with your curly hair and tiny hands full of crayons and pencils (hmm, does that sound familiar lately?).

I think the practice and desire to write must ebb and flow like all other creative activities, but like riding a bicycle, you never forget how. And the posts and comments you make are always full of wisdom. It's the quality, not the quantity, right? Or even the medium.

Your praise, because I respect your own writing so much, is very precious indeed. Thank you.

Anonymous June 5, 2008 at 10:04 AM  

One can only hope, TB. It's hard to keep the faith when all the "experts" tell you you should be writing every day.

I guess blogging counts?

And you're welcome on the compliment. Ditto, oh Queen of the Mutual Admiration Society.

FogBay June 5, 2008 at 12:00 PM  

I believe our need to communicate and express ourselves is essential to our well-being.

Consider the solitary street people who talk to aloud to nobody, in what must be an attempt to regain themselves, or the prisoner who when placed in solitary confinement quickly loses balance.

Exercise, eat right, express yourself - sounds like a healthy lifestyle.

Anyway, great post, Natalie Goldberg's book is going into my Amazon wish list.

tangobaby June 5, 2008 at 12:17 PM  

Hi Johanna,

I think blogging has to count, because it seems to be the only way I can consistently write. I wish I could pick up pen and pad, or scribble on backs of envelopes, but if I'm not at a computer keyboard, I am at a loss. That's when the words flow.

As for the writing every day, it's like the tango every day, etc. You do it if you want to and if you can, ultimately. I find that if I write little snippets every day, some of them never see the light of day and some of them molder for a while and someday eventually turn into something to read. It helps keep my writing muscle (as tiny as it is) from atrophying.

And as for the mutual admiration society, I'm truly grateful it exists.


Hi FogBay,

So, one out of three ain't bad! ;-)
Now I have to work on the exercise and eating well parts. Those seem to be harder than the writing part.

To express oneself, surely, and also to use parts of the mind in creative ways. To me, part of the enjoyment of writing is to connect different and disparate thoughts and make something come together out of nothing. Or to observe my own mind at work. Same thing with taking a good photo, too.

I hope you enjoy the memoir. To me, it's been a comfort and a mirror.

Psyche June 5, 2008 at 1:09 PM  

You *are* a writer. You write every day. And you're a *good* writer.

Have you read 'The Artist's Way'? If not, I really recommend it.

Relyn June 5, 2008 at 2:21 PM  

Dear Tangobaby,

Of course, you know I love this post. I have fallen completely in love with blogging. It has already brought me so many blessings. You are one of my favorite blessings. Another great blessing is the writing.

I love the physical act of writing. The way writing makes your thoughts permanent; the click of the keyboard; the magic of letters forming into tangible images that were once only brief thoughts. I love the permanence of writing; likely because my own memory fails me so often. I love the audience implicit in writing. I think we all long to be heard.

I think we write to know what we are thinking, to capture moments in time, but also to know someone else is listening - even if that someone is only your own future self.

Of course, you choose quotes that expressed all of those things better than I have. Wonderful post. Wonderful writing. Wonderful you.


TheElementary June 5, 2008 at 3:58 PM  

"There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein." This has been one of my favourite writing quotes for a long time, mostly because of its brutal honesty.
When writers write it's best to do it for themselves and not an audience first. Write from the heart.
I also love this poem from Charles Bukowski at
It speaks to my heart.
My definition of a writer is someone who puts words to paper in a passionate manner for the purpose of pouring out their heart and maybe trying to teach us something. That would be you!
I have said you are wise, and I meant it :)

Christie @ fig & cherry June 5, 2008 at 7:45 PM  

That Monk story is so inspirational... it makes me feel incredibly guilty about not going for a run this morning because it was cloudy.

Phivos Nicolaides June 6, 2008 at 8:11 AM  

Among many other reasons why do we write is that we like to share ideas and views on certain aspects of our life, culture, history, even ourselves. Therefore, we shouldn't hesitate to express ourselves in one way or another in writing.
It's hard for me to say I'm a writer trying to write now my third book. This however has nothing to do with our belief, will and vision... Keep on writing.

tangobaby June 6, 2008 at 10:45 AM  

Dear Psyche,

Thank you. I know I'm a writer. I just don't think of me as A Writer. ;-)

I have not read The Artist's Way. Part of my procrastination expertise is to read books about things I want to do instead of doing the things I want to do. But maybe I will peek at it next time I'm in the bookstore, if you think I should. (I also am very resistant to "assigments" that come from external sources.)

Dear Relyn,

Someday when I meet you I will probably dissolve into a puddle of tears. It means a great deal to me to see your lovely presence here so often.

You have described the sensations of writing that I love, too. It seems a by-product of the work, but actually I think the tactile impressions we get are part of the delight, too. Thank you for putting that into words so beautifully.

I knew you would like the quotes and photos--of course, I borrowed that idea from you because you do it so well!

Dearest TheElementary,

Thank you for that poem! It made me tear up. It is lovely and inspiring and perfect. I feel like you gave me a bouquet of flowers.

Thank you!

I'm glad you enjoyed the quotes and found a familiar favorite. I really like the last one, partly because I think Nabokov is amazing, but also because I have this little fantasy that the words are already written down, and I'm just uncovering them somehow.

Dear Christy,

I don't think you should feel guilty. I think you should feel guilty when you publish such gorgous photos of food you've made and then I can't have it.

Maybe a brisk walk would make you feel better!

Dear Phivos,

Thank you for giving me your perspective, from someone who's work is out there in the traditional way. I guess no one ever feels that they've truly "arrived," even if they have published books sitting on the shelf to prove it. Perhaps that is the flip side of any creative endeavour--to doubt its validity.

But I will keep on plugging away. Thank you.

P June 6, 2008 at 1:38 PM  

Yes. I feel the same way too. Blogging is the only way I can write without feeling self-conscious and lonely at the same time. Keep writing...I so enjoy what I read.

tangobaby June 6, 2008 at 3:48 PM  

Dear p,

I will if you will. And happy birthday again! I just love love your blog.


dutchbaby June 6, 2008 at 4:23 PM  

Fabulous post! I love all the quotes but especially the one by Nabakov. You chose fabulous images. Of course, you know what a sucker I am for all things pen, paper, ink, engineering paraphernalia, and typography. Speaking of typography, next time you are near Antwerp, you can visit Garamond’s original dies of the fonts he designed:


Octavine Illustration June 6, 2008 at 8:49 PM  

it is that picture of that intricately detailed antique fountain pen that sets my passions ablaze. couldn't tell you why...something about it calls.

you write. you are a writer. because you write, i read. and i like reading your writing. again, couldn't tell you why...something about it calls.

paris parfait June 7, 2008 at 12:30 PM  

A wonderful treatise about writing - and YOU, my dear Tangobaby, are a real writer! And I'm so privileged to know you and read your insightful musings. xoxox

tangobaby June 8, 2008 at 10:16 AM  

Dear dutchbaby,

I know if I write anything about typography, calligraphy, fonts, that I am I talking to you! And we both loved the Nabokov quote the most...am I surprised? Nah!

It would be best if we could go to see the Garamond dies together. Wouldn't that be something?


Dear Octavine,

You must realize that I chose that photo of the pen nib with a smile because I knew you would love it. I'm so glad we appreciate each other. It's always lovely to see you here.

Dear Paris Parfait,

I feel like you are the Blue Fairy and I am Pinocchio when he becomes a Real Boy. Thank you for the vote of confidence. I'm so happy to have you on Team Tangobaby.

A Real Writer. I will certainly try. Those seem like big shoes to fill. Now, watch me fall into an abyss of Writer's Block!


dutchbaby June 9, 2008 at 9:11 PM  

You know Antwerp is en route between Amsterdam and Paris. Let's do it!

BTW, I count blogging as real writing - and you do it beautifully.

tangobaby June 10, 2008 at 11:33 AM  

Dear dutchbaby!

OMG, now you've got me daydreaming again. Wouldn't we have the BEST time?

I have to save my pennies but WHY NOT?! I need to find a job that I can do on the road so we can play longer...

Wendy February 27, 2009 at 12:29 PM  

I'm SO glad you write. :)