Richness follows Loss

I know that not everyone who reads the blog is a writer, or aspires toward the writing life. However, over the past few weeks, a window of reflection has opened, looking backwards. What I’ve been able to see with uncommon clarity, has been much of the past decade or more for me. Writing has been at the center of this period of time, what I characterize as my personal period of reinvention.

Life dictates that we move on from grief and loss. Outside of the death of immediate family members—and even then, superficiality predominates how others respond, with platitudes, or worse—clearly demonstrating some sort of structural disconnect and a deep-rooted denial related to death and dying in our culture. “Get over it and move on” is what we’re expected to do.

Over the weekend, I went through some of Bryant’s books. A demonstration of grace from his son, when he offered me the opportunity to go through his father’s collection of books, at the funeral service. He followed up with an email and we spoke by phone during the week. I planned to meet him on Saturday at his father’s apartment in Augusta.

Bryant had taught at Colby-Sawyer, with Wes McNair. There were several of McNair’s books sitting on his bookshelves. Most of them ended up in the two overstocked boxes I lugged out of the apartment and put in my trunk.

Mapping the Heart: Reflections on Place and Poetry (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2002)

Since Saturday night, I’ve been making my way through Mapping the Heart: Reflections on Place and Poetry, a book of essays McNair released in 2002. McNair relates his own journey, starting out as a writer and more specifically—that of becoming a poet. I’ve long marveled at those who write poetry well. I once made an ill-fated attempt at writing some vestige of of what I thought passed for poetry while in college at UMO. The resultant rejection nearly prevented me from ever becoming a writer.

McNair’s book is much more than a “how to write” poetry kind of book. It should be read by anyone serious about developing their writing craft. Rich in insight, as well as observations about the difficulty inherent in becoming a writer, McNair’s book would be a welcome addition to any writer’s bookshelf.

If you’re not a writer, you probably consider the writing fraternity as a group of people with special talents. We’re not. Actually, having a modicum of talent is probably required (and Stephen King, in On Writing, says it’s essential), but so is being committed to working at it and then having the fortitude to ride out the inevitable periods when you might be the only damn person in the world who believes that you deserve to be called a writer.  Writers are not so much born, I think. No, they’re forged during that period of doubt that McNair eloquently writes about.

Back to mentoring. There are never such an abundance of the true kind of mentors that losing two—first Dave Tomm and then, Bryant—doesn’t knock you back a peg.

McNair writes honestly and with warmth about his relationship with noted poet, Donald Hall. Hall happened to be living not far from where McNair had moved his young family, when he arrived to teach at Colby-Sawyer. The two struck up what would blossom into a long friendship after being introduced in 1976 by two of McNair’s former students. Hall was living in nearby Wilmot, New Hampshire (Colby-Sawyer is in New London), returning to the Granite State, and taking up residence in his “ancestral home,” as McNair describes it.

This was the period just prior to the release of Hall’s collection poems about New Hampshire, Kicking the Leaves. He was a major American literary figure in 1978, when the country still valued giants like Hall. Now, all it takes to be considered someone “of letters” is nothing even remotely connected to the kind of writing talent and devotion to craft that men like Hall possessed—merely a large enough Twitter feed and the capacity to blurt out 140-character streams of drivel reminiscent of someone with Tourette’s Syndrome seems sufficient in our current setting. But let’s not go there, today.

McNair recounts that Hall saw something in him, the aspiring poet who had yet to be published. He read his chapbook after he left it on Hall’s kitchen table on the way out the door after that initial visit. Hall in turn offered constructive feedback and encouragement. Why don’t more writers offer this to an understudy, like Hall did for McNair?

In a letter that McNair dates, July 8, 1980, Hall offers advice to McNair after he received yet another rejection slip for his manuscript from a publisher.

“I am sympathetic with your feelings, but let me tell you when you have published a book—nothing will happen; or at least it will seem that nothing has happened…Even if something happens, then you realize that the “something” is truly nothing. And after you have published eight books of poems (like Hall had—jb), you are still convinced that nobody reads you, and that probably you are no good anyway. Or at least you are convinced of that frequently. I have been going through quite a bad patch, in my feeling about my own ability, my past work, and certainly my present work.

There is only one place, or one moment in which one finds happiness, and it is always momentary—because that is the moment of the actual writing, and of course that [moment] is not always true.

So I do two things: I assure you that you will publish; and I tell you that it will not make any difference! But I do have a third thing to say: it makes a difference to me!”

Poets and presidents; Donald Hall being honored by President Obama (AP Photo).

Poets and presidents; Donald Hall with President Obama.

Great advice from a literary great, to someone on their way up the ladder. Oh, and an update on our writers; Hall is still writing at 87, and McNair is going strong in his early 70s.

I’m enjoying McNair’s book and I’m looking forward to going through my boxes of other books from Bryant, including several about J.D. Salinger, and Mark Twain. I wonder what other riches I’ve been left with.

3 thoughts on “Richness follows Loss

  1. Jim,

    A box of books is a wonderful gift, especially from someone who loved books and the effort of writing them. Those are encouraging words from Hall to McNair.

    Will anyone ever understand the love, hate, and torture involved in putting words together in a craft called “writing?” The writer doesn’t understand; they only know they must put words together in a certain way. The reader absorbs the words in wonderment and sometimes boredom. Some who have tried to write and failed might appreciate the writer’s torture, but like so many things in life, it’s a mystery. And yet, the world considers it a strange commodity, the words bought and sold to the lowest bidder.

    All I know about any of it is that a writer is always writing. Thanks for sharing this time of grief and healing as you make your farewell to friend and mentor Bryant.

  2. @JAB
    Writing is a tough slog for anyone that’s serious about their craft. Rarely is the ROI what a bean-counter would consider, a “good investment.” But a writer has no choice but to write and hope someone might read it.

    These past few human-scale posts aren’t great for blog stats. I guess it’s back to happy talk, and the bread and circuses circuit.

  3. Maybe the last few posts aren’t great for blog stats, but they’ve been some of the truest, most honorable and honest things you’ve published. I think you’d be a fool to stop writing what you are learning right now. Blog stats are what they are, but they don’t put food on your table, and they don’t measure your soul, either. Wasn’t that the whole lesson of this post, that the simple metrics are incapable of measuring real achievement, progress and success? Carry on.

Comments are closed.