“There’s nothing to writing,” the great sports columnist Red Smith famously wrote. “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” Smith’s era predated that of computers, but no doubt many an Option and Shift key bear traces of hemic substance. So for Chronogram’s 2007 November Literary Supplement, we asked three writers of different persuasions and blood types—Gioia Timpanelli, Akiko Busch, and Janine Pommy Vega—to tackle one aspect of writing’s unholy trinity: Beginning, Middle, and End. Their personal essays appear in that order.
Beginnings, Eros, and Work
By Gioia Timpanelli
Begin, just begin. Each piece of writing finds its own way. I watched my parents, my family work together. Every one of them worked with real satisfaction. For me writing is real work, a quiet inner thrill, a real passion. So I begin from this love, attraction, from this Eros.
It could begin with a sentence that comes out of nowhere, like these sentences from my story “Working for the Den: Miss Eugenia Amadeo’s Notebooks, December 22, 1905”:
“I was once a teacher,” my Mother used to say, “I forget now for whom or exactly where.” I never believed that she had forgotten, but I knew she had her reasons for saying this.
Both my mother and father were students who “walked”—one didn’t say “studied”—with the Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus. Perhaps he was her grandfather or her great uncle. The school was in the same place where my mother lived, but for my father getting to the celebrated, but quite hidden, villa was another matter. “I had to travel the length of Sicily twice, before I found it,” he always began, and then he would tell us stories of adventures and misadventures that we children loved, stories about Cyclopes and shepherds, sailors and flying machines, lost children and treasure boxes at the bottoms of dried wells. Although it took him years to find the ancient villa, when he arrived the teacher was waiting for him on the porch steps as if he were receiving a son that he had been expecting. Father had no introductions or credentials of any kind. “No one was ever sent away for foolish reasons,” Mother said, and then added, “Besides, he came like all travelers, tired and alert, with a black bear huffing at his back.”
Now this detail about the black bear is strange, but every time I remind my brother of this bear he says he never heard my mother say such a thing, not even once. But she did say it to me a number of times. Once, while preparing dinner, I was watching her go about her business with that absolute ease she had when working. Out of the blue, she turned to me and said, quite deliberately, “Did you know that Father came to our school with a black bear close at his heels?”
“Really? A black bear? I didn’t know we had black bears.”
“It was showing him the way.”
“Showing him the way? You said it was close on Father’s heels.”
“It turned out to be the same thing.”
“Out of the work comes the work,” says John Cage. Blessed work. A painting, a drawing, an image, a whole story; someone asks you to write something and there you are, you have to do it. At this starting point it is better to not care what those supreme critics, your Aunt and Uncle Titsufrie, will say. Words are not experience or life; they are beautiful play, an attempt to show the inner and outer worlds in as tricky and real a way as possible. They start from experience and with dream, reflection, imagination, lead you to a sentence, an image, a story. The cockroach’s leap and the mouse’s nibbling of a pear to its core—and there it is: Having been said, it is now the sudden exterior. Once revealed, once written, there is no division—inner and outer in the very same place. And you didn’t have to drag your bags up and down stairs.
Franz Kafka wrote, “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
But you have to be willing to do the work, to write down the first words, to begin. I’ll skip the middle of my librarian’s journal entry, but here’s the ending: