Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Last Word . . . For Now

Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works. – Virginia Woolf
In the spring of 1987, Faye Moscowitz, a soft-spoken instructor and author, introduced me to the personal essay in a night class on creative writing at the Edmund Burke School in Washington, D.C. Two years earlier, Moscowitz had published A Leak in the Heart: Tales from a Woman’s Life, a collection of short, autobiographical essays on growing up in a small Michigan town, in an unassimilated Orthodox Jewish family, during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Her writing is elegant and simple. In A Leak in the Heart, her words paint a picture, frozen in time, of the insular world of her youth, days of struggle and conflict, when she was torn between the comfort of tradition and the seduction of modernity. She describes feeling the blues at Christmas while in third grade, when it seemed everyone around her was celebrating the birth of Christ and she was an outsider, unable to fit in; of marrying at the age of eighteen and settling for a life of child rearing and housekeeping, because that is what was expected of young Orthodox Jewish women in those days. She writes of when, in her thirties, she developed the self-confidence to attend college while raising four children, and of how she eventually became a political activist and feminist, a writer and a teacher.

Her writing class consisted of ten students, men and women of all ages and stages in life who sought an outlet for their more creative selves. Seekers all of us, we listened to Moscowitz discuss the process of writing creatively about personal memories and experiences. She assigned us writing exercises to get us started, and each week in class we read aloud our work and offered each other constructive criticism. It was Moscowitz who taught me the most important lesson of all: simply write and the words will form. My writing was undisciplined and uneven back then, but I learned that if I did not put pen to paper, I would never write at all.

Although I would take another writing class in the summer of 2001, taught by a lawyer turned writer who encouraged me to pursue more seriously the craft of writing, these brief diversions into creativity failed to induce in me a commitment to write for pleasure, to devote the time and attention required to pursue writing even for the simple love of writing. Through the years, I contemplated often a life of writing, but did little to follow through. Without a reason to write, or a class-imposed deadline, there was always an excuse – work, parental responsibilities, and lack of time – some reason or obstacle that stood in the way.

But that finally changed in August 2009, when I began writing the collection of essays found on these pages. A small but committed readership and imaginary, self-imposed deadlines encouraged me to write with some regularity, to create what is now Ehlers on Everything. For the past three-and-a-half years I have made time to think, write, and engage with the world. Publishing the essays and stories on this site has been a labor of love and has allowed me to express my thoughts, opinions, and insights on aspects of my life and the lives of others; to explore my passions – baseball, politics, and religion; to ask questions, about life, faith, and the things that matter. It has allowed me to write about universal themes that affect everyone, but which many of us often overlook or ignore; to write about the enduring condition of the human spirit, the beauty of redemption and second chances, the power of compassion and my hopes for humankind.


Over what are now 120 essays, I have reflected on the passage of time and unmet dreams; the conflicts of faith in a secular age and the quest for eternal truth; my bond with baseball, in which I see life in all its dimensions and which allows me to recapture, in words, the essence of lost youth. I have examined issues of war and peace, law and economics, social justice and civic obligation. I have attempted to provide a perspective on the key social and political issues of our time without, I hope, being overly judgmental or disrespectful of opposing views. I have promoted civility in our political discourse. I have suggested that Americans have much for which to be proud, but that we should not be smug, for we alone do not have all the answers to the world’s problems. I have written about the people I admire and from whom I find inspiration, and about historical events for which I find parallels and guidance for confronting today’s challenges.

As another year comes to a close, as violent conflict continues to rage in Afghanistan and the Middle East, as gun violence continues to cut short the lives of our children here at home, as our politics continues to be fragmented and our nation divided, I am taking a temporary sabbatical from Ehlers on Everything. I do not intend to stop writing, only to change venue, to modify the location of my canvas. The recent tragedy in Newtown proves that, while I could continue to write about many of the same issues over again, I risk repeating myself while offering little in the way of fresh insight and perspective. Although I will happily trade my day job should The New York Times come calling, I am not a columnist that needs to submit 1,000 words of material on current events every third day. It is time to pursue more creative avenues for my writing, to explore fiction and the short story as an art form, to confront humanity in all its dimensions. A year-long foray into fiction will, I hope, allow me to further examine in-depth the themes of redemption and forgiveness, the disappointment of dreams unfulfilled, our aspirations for the human spirit, the ever present search for God in the messiness that is life on Earth, and other issues and themes more flexibly explored in the context of fiction.

“We write to taste life twice,” wrote Anais Nin, “in the moment and in retrospect.” I do not write for money or fame; if those were my goals, I have failed miserably. I love to write – not because it is easy, it is not – for it allows me to better understand the world in all its complexity. Writing forces clarity of thought and a deeper sense of self-awareness. Words matter, and a well-crafted essay or story has the power to move people, to change hearts and minds, if only for a moment. “The difference between the right word and the almost right word,” wrote Mark Twain, “is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

“If you want to be a writer,” teaches Stephen King, “you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” It is for this reason I must devote more time to reading, studying, and reflecting, to further refine my writing and develop and encourage my creative instincts; to explore in a less restrictive platform my quest for the human spirit; and to write about experiences that have influenced my outlook on life, the people that move and inspire me, and the issues that continue to confound all of us.

Thomas Mann once said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” That is certainly true for me. But while I must continue to write, think, and read, I must also allow myself the opportunity to fail. Only if I push myself beyond my limits; only if I demand perfection where such is impossible, can I ever seek to be a writer.

Some of the essays on these pages, including those published in Eat Bananas and Follow Your Heart (Bookstand Publishing, 2011) and others I hope to publish in an upcoming collection, have started conversations and allowed us to talk about matters of importance. The essays have on occasion allowed us to reflect on life, faith, mortality, and the human condition, to examine questions and issues often neglected and overlooked in the noise of life. Some of my writing is self-directed, for how could it otherwise be? It is what I know, and about the only thing upon which I can speak with some authority. But I never intended these essays to be self-centered; to the extent I have failed in this, I offer my sincerest regrets.

Last Spring, I attended two commencement ceremonies, Jennifer’s graduation from American University in May and Hannah’s graduation from Upper Dublin High School in June. Commencements are happy and sad affairs all at once. We are happy and proud of our children’s’ accomplishments, but sad that they are moving on to a new journey. The commencement ceremony is a stark reminder that life moves quickly and that we must savor precious moments while we can. But in our sadness we should not forget that a commencement is not the end of something, but the start of something new, for the word itself means “the beginning”. So, this is my commencement of sorts, my graduation from Ehlers on Everything, the start of a new journey in fiction and short stories, and an attempt to more deeply reflect on life and the adventures, conflicts, and passions that come with it.

Henry David Thoreau admonished, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” I do not know if I have met Thoreau’s standards, if I have “stood up to live.” But in some small way, from the pleasure writing gives me to the soulful insights of the written word, I have come to grasp a deeper involvement with life and the world. I abhor small talk. My notion of success differs from that of mainstream culture. I take comfort in the words of author Erica Kennedy, who died this year at the youthful age of 42 and once asked what “having it all” actually means. “Does it mean having some fancy title, executive perks, making a lot of money, having your book on The New York Times’s best-seller list? Or does it mean waking up and looking forward to your day, whatever you make of it?”

In our remaining time on Earth, may we all wake up and look forward to the days and make something of them. To all of my faithful readers, and to anyone else who has ever ventured to these pages and spent even a little time here, you have my deepest thanks and gratitude. May peace come to you this New Year and may the world be filled with love and compassion for all.

2 comments:

  1. Mark,

    I have this hanging nearby:

    “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.”

    You are, no doubt, familiar with it. If it’s just from the amazing movie, I’d recommend the book, too. Besides being wonderful, comparing the structure of the book with the structure of the movie provides a great example of the art of screenwriting.

    I hung it for inspiration, but most of the time it is intimidating. “...basement of time”! Read it out loud. Maclean talked about the power of “three” and you can hear it in the above quote. The "Norman Maclean Reader" is a book you might want to pick up.

    I don’t read as much fiction as I’d like, but, ironically, most of the fiction I do read sends a message loud and clear. "I can write better than this crap!" But then one stumbles onto art. The last for me was "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy. I couldn’t move; sat stunned for moments after finishing it and it stayed with me for some time. And, it wiped away my cockiness.

    I wish you all the success in the world and look forward to reading what comes next.

    Rich R.

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  2. Rich,

    Thanks for the kind words - they mean a lot. That is a great quote from "A River Runs Through It", which I agree is a fabulous book (and movie). I will make it a point to pick up a copy of The Norman Maclean Reader, for he is precisely the type of person from which I should find inspiration. In fact, I did not realize until recently that he was 70 years old when he published his first book, which turned out to be a classic.

    Thanks as well for all of your comments over the past three plus years. We may not agree on much politically, but it was fun (most of the time) debating you. One day, you should start your own blog - you are a good writer. In the meantime, I am certain that our "dialogue" will continue elsewhere.

    Kind regards,
    Mark

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