The World, the Words, and the Work

When you’re a writer and you head to a residency, you approach your time there as a job.  A good job, a pleasant job, a pearl among jobs, but a job all the same.  Because commerce is our culture and you live in the culture too, and out there in the wider world there are people who call what you do your  “product” and those people need to know if you have “built a platform” yet to sell it. Writers take themselves out of their regular lives and travel to small, quiet, isolated places:   while under deadlines; to wrap up books owed their publishers they should have turned in years ago; when they are stuck; when their marriages go south; after a particularly tough semester.  They travel with outlines and files and background research. And once they arrive, they unpack.  If people still wrote things longhand they would earnestly sharpen a pencil or two and get to work.

Connemara, Carl Sandburg’s house in Flat Rock, NC

I arrived at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site in early March with a list.  Of things I would write, of things I would read.  I would re-read The Dubliners, and To the Lighthouse.   I would read The Second Sex, just because I was working on something in which a character had been named after Simone De Beauvoir, and I had never read it before and I figured I better rectify this gap in my education. I would write four new stories, and spend a little time tinkering with a fifth: if a story runs around 20 pages, and I worked without a single false start, that meant I needed to write 3.8 pages a day, each and every day I was here. Do-able, I thought.

But what about The Dubliners?   What about walking over to the barn, to visit the descendants of the goats Sandburg’s wife Paula raised?  What about walking up Big Glassy Mountain, behind Sandburg’s house, where the provisional Seal of the Confederacy supposedly was hidden during the Civil War (I had no idea what the provisional Seal of the Confederacy was, but it sounded important).

What about noticing that the Japanese Magnolia in front of the Sandburg Home had gone from furred catkin to overblown pale blossom in the twenty-one days that I had been there?  Or absorbing the feeling that the 264 acres owned by the United States of America were very loved: regulars walked the trails on the Historic Site property each and every day.  When I  sat down on Carl Sandburg’s chair set on the flat rock behind  the house in the late afternoon, those same walkers would extend the hope that I was able to “channel Carl” when they walked past me.

I approached my time at the Sandburg Home as a beautifully-bestowed, unlooked-for opportunity to participate in some neat community outreach and (more selfishly) to get a bunch of work done. Beyond that, I didn’t think much.   And the National Park Service is not in the business of fostering personal growth in its writers-in-residence. For one thing, that would be difficult to orchestrate (can you imagine the paperwork?) and for another, we live in the above-mentioned commercial world, and in that world, personal growth and four dollars can buy you a cup of coffee.

But.  If nose-to-the-grindstone production were the only point of residencies and such, wouldn’t it just be better to lock up writers  in windowless cement bunkers?   Wouldn’t it just be better if they sat in drab highway-side motels for a few weeks?  Wouldn’t it be better just to set up some sort of assembly line, tweaked for maximum efficiency, and set them to work?

I doubt any of these would be a winning formula.

The world, and the work.  The world, and the words, and the work.  Anybody who wants to put pen to paper, anyone who wants to write  —  high school student hungry for self-expression, former English major who fifty years ago thought they might have a couple of good stories in them, grizzled professional who has been doing this for years —  has to keep these three balls in the air.

The world, the words, and the work.  Such a delicate balance!  Without any one of them, you have nothing.  Too much of one of them and you have — well, not nothing,  but a different life, a life that sometimes contains the words if only.   If only I had taken the time to write down that story my grandmother always told!  If only I had looked up from the computer and stopped to smell the roses!  If only…

Quizzical Sandburg goat…

“Poetry,” Carl Sandburg said, “is the achievement of the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits,” and that might be another way of saying the same thing.

Before I went to Sandburg’s house, I dug out my copy of his Complete Poems.  It had traveled with me from place to place for thirty years.  The last time I’d cracked it open was about 12 years before, when I pulled it from a moving box and set it on a  bookshelf and noticed  it was full of ribbons I’d used to mark the poems I especially liked eighteen years before that.  Messy!   I thought, twelve years ago.  The book had gotten waterstained somewhere along the way, and all those trailing ribbons looked bad:  I yanked them out.

Knowing what I know now, that someday in the future I was going to stand in Carl Sandburg’s house  — I wish I hadn’t done that.

Who was the person who carefully cut strips of gold ribbon and laid them along the binding of certain pages of The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg?

In 1982, when I was seventeen years old, I committed a grievous sin.  I stole it.

I justified my crime like this:  the book had been put on the shelf of my high school library in 1970 and I could tell from the card slipped into the front pocket that it had never once been checked out.  No one would miss it.  No one needed it as much as I did. 

While I was the writer in residence in Flat Rock, people asked me what my relationship was to Sandburg.  Relationship?  At first I thought this question was like asking me my relationship with Robert Frost, or Flannery O’Connor, or William Shakespeare.  For any modern writer to say they have a relationship  with these canonical writers is, in some ways, to presume.   What relationship did I have with Carl Sandburg?  I thought his house was lovely; I liked Western North Carolina.

But once upon a time.  Once upon a time there was a seventeen-year-old  so passionate about words that she resorted to petty thievery, to acquire them.

Since being at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, I’ve realized Honey and Salt  contained the first love poems I ever liked. Because of The People, Yes,  I went on to read Walt Whitman when I was twenty-three or so.  Because of Carl Sandburg, when I was seventeen years old, I read Yevtushenko!

I’m 48 now.  When I read certain of Sandburg’s poems, it’s like being embraced by an old friend.  My eyes stop at certain phrases and it hits me:  I learned to write by some of these rhythms.

Would I have realized this if I hadn’t gone to Sandburg’s house?  Perhaps.  Perhaps, when I was an old old woman, whittling down her possessions, I might have taken the Complete Poems down from the shelf.

In the Sandburg Home, mantel photograph of Carl and Paula Sandburg, by her brother Edward Steichen.

I’m glad I became reacquainted with him sooner.