Sunday, February 20, 2011

This Writers Life

Kentucky author Wendell Berry courted arrest when he and some friends occupied the Governor's office. Berry objected to the coal mining which strips the mountains of soil, and this kind of civil disobedience was a very strong move on his part, way past his usual comfort zone of essay-writing and speechifying.

Is Wendell Berry a farmer or a writer? Can you be both? Can you do both well?

I heard Noam Chomsky speaking with Amy Goodman on her TV news show, Democracy Now. Chomsky is an important and very intelligent idiot, known for the volume and quantity of his prose. My take is that if you spend enough hours typing you might get something right and Chomsky does.

Chomsky should write less -- you can't be an expert on everything even if you are the smartest guy in Boston.

From Bahrain to Wisconsin. But something is going around, from Bahrain to Madison, Wisconsin. People are in the streets in both places -- is this only a coincidence, or is some there some kind of surging energy coursing across the globe, like a wave about to crash on distance shores, fueled by atmospheric changes we can barely understand?
Is it from the left? the right? forward? backward? I have no read on this.

Brought to you by Facebook. This revolution is brought to us by the faceless billionaires who operate Facebook and Google.

I am glad -- don't get me wrong -- glad that the young people are using social media to get around the current regime in the Middle East. But I warn them to remain skeptical of the new powers and the new media. Use Facebook -- I do -- but don't trust it.

In Wisconsin, the governor is selectively breaking public employee unions. He is targeting the teachers and letting the police and firemen keep their arrangements. I would listen to the governor's argument if he wished to abolish or reduce the power of ALL public employee unions.

One is reminded of Governor Calvin Coolidge in Massachusetts when he broke the police union in Boston in 1919. This staunch stand against public employee unions won him a vice-presidential nomination in 1920, and then he became President when Warren Harding died in office.

At least Coolidge took a consistent and clear position.

But when you pick on the teachers, and let the cops and firemen take a pass -- because they supported your election last year -- well that just stinks of politics, and I oppose the whole thing.

What I read: "Police and fire unions, which have some of the most expensive benefits but who supported Mr. Walker’s campaign for governor, are exempted."

The Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, trouble erupts in Bahrain, and concerned citizens like me rush to Google and Wikipedia to find out where this little island IS. We don't even know where it IS, or what they do there, except it says that the Navy's 5th fleet is based on this little island.

Why is the fleet there, for the fishing?

Let's back up to last week's revolution in Egypt. We all know a little about Egypt. Many Americans have been there as tourists. The pyramid appears on the backside of our dollar bills. Our Biblical heritage depicts stories of the pharaohs, and we older folks can't help but picture Charlton Heston as Moses, leading his people out of Egypt.

We know SOMETHING about Egypt, but NOTHING about Bahrain.

So why is the fleet there? For the oil. We need to bring the fleet home and get off the oil economy. We can do this in five years if we ever really wanted to.

As clumsy and as cynical as our foreign and military policies can be, we meddled in the affairs of Egypt and Israel and helped maintain a broader peace. We have done more good than harm in that area.

But the Persian Gulf is nothing but war, death and oil. And I say get out now.

Okay, that's enough opinion. The title of this piece is "the Writer's Life." That's me, the writer.

Last week on Wednesday, I woke up feeling lonely and I was tired of working on these four acres. I was irritated at my co-workers for no apparent reason.

By the next day I figured it out. I ain't a farmer, I'm a writer.
I don't know how or why Wendell Berry does it, but it drives me nuts. Farming is a clear second choice for me, as a way to make a living. Writing is my first choice, but it always leaves me broke and breathless.

I figured by this time in my life, I would have some modest success, a few books sold, a newspaper column that paid, a writer-in-residence gig -- something. But it didn't happen.

That's why I went back to work at the farm last summer, and glad of it. But I will never be a first-class farmer like Dave Hedlin, the man I worked for back in the Skagit.

I just get tired of it. That's what happened to me last week.

Fortunately, they are not working me to death here at Love House Dahlias. I only work part-time and I can adjust my schedule, so I have begun spending more time at a house in Altadena -- not a farm, but a home filled with books and a darn good high-speed Internet connection. I go there to write.

But I do not like this multi-tasking life, trying to farm and write at the same time. You end up doing poorly at both. I don't know how Wendell Berry does it.

The Seven Storey Mountain is Thomas Merton's autobiography, a tale of his spiritual journey, one of the great confessions, from a man whose confessions are worth knowing.

The confessional genre is the most debased in current literature. People feel compelled to bare their souls in blogs and Facebook rants, and they have NOTHING to say. It's awful.

Well, it wasn't Thomas Merton's fault. We were put on this earth to commit interesting sins -- that is why God does not destroy humankind. I hope we never bore Him.

Merton preached, hypocritically, against worldly fame and fortune. His books were best sellers. He was a media star at the time. Merton was a Trappist monk with a vow of poverty, but the revenue from his book sales made him a great power within his monkish community.

That was his sin -- success and wealth, and he enjoyed it.

I have committed some interesting sins. Those are the ones I find worth writing about. But Merton never "told all" in his confessions and neither will I.

The Style of Leo Tolstoy. I am at page 771 of War and Peace. It is such a wonderful and very long novel -- 1,300 pages altogether, as broad and as deep as Russia.

I was trying to identify Tolstoy's style of writing and became astonished. He has no style! That's why he's so good.

Style has its place with lesser works and lesser writers. I have a style, a way of saying things. But I am going to rise above this. I am going to write like Tolstoy -- with no style, just the story itself. What a grand ambition.

Harvey Blume. Harvey Blume is from Brooklyn and lives there now. I met him in the 1990s when we both lived in Boston. We both attended the Tikkun salon on Sunday mornings, a discussion group of bright Jewish Intellectuals. I especially remember Debbie Osnowitz -- she could speak, off the cuff, in whole paragraphs. But Harvey was a pretty good talker himself.

Anyway, Harvey wrote this piece and I liked it. Boomers -- Part One.

Wendell Berry, Noam Chomsky, Thomas Merton, Leo Tolstoy and Harvey Blume. These are some writers I admire although I did not find anything good to say about Chomsky. These are guys I hang out with. They say writing is a lonely occupation -- not so. I live with these people, learn from them, steal from them, despise them, love them -- and other writers too.

Fred Owens
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My blog: Frog Hospital

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Fred Owens
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1 comment:

Catch22 said...


I've been enjoying your writing for a long time, perhaps decades, and generally agree wit your views and opinions, but need to take exception to your take on Noam Chomsky. I tend to get bored with his verbiage , but i eventually realize that he has something to say that i should have known all along, and then I wonder at my dunderheadedness after all these years.