Contents copyright 2020 by Valerie Harms
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by Brian Doyle
One of the things that we do not talk about when we talk about writing is the sound and scent and sensuality of it, the scratching and hammering and tapping, the pitter of pencils and the scribble and scrawl of pens, the quiet mumble of the electric typewriter like an old pharmacist humming, the infinitesimal skitter of forefingers on keyboards; and the curl and furl of paper, the worn and friendly feeling of pocket-notebooks, the shards and scraps on which we have started essays and stories and poems, trying to catch an angle of light or the faint sound of a child giggling in the next yard over or the way a falcon actually no kidding furrowed the air; and the dark moist smell of ink and the rough grain of dense paper and the faint scent of glue in the spines of old books; and the snap and flap as you fold a newspaper in half and then again, so that you can focus on the story above the fold. I was in a pub once in Australia when I saw a master of this craft fold a broadsheet newspaper in half, and again, and again, all in the space of perhaps five seconds, with such deft quick flips of his wrists that it seemed a magic trick to me, and I wanted to shout with delight, partly because I realized of course that he must have done this many thousands of times in his life to have achieved such unconscious skill; but I did not shout or crow, but bent again to my pint, thrilled at the prevalence of pleasures and how the smallest are not small at all.
The foldability of magazines, and the way they so easily and acquiescently allow themselves to be rolled for the pocket or against the hornet; the sturdy spidery glint and gleam of the spectacles and eyeglasses perched on our noses as we type; the creak and groan of our chairs, the silent massive patience of our desks, weighted down with piles of paper we swear we will most definitely recycle just as soon as we finish this particular project, but we lie, we lie and lie, and instead we start another project instantly, for we are dreamers night and day, and this next piece will be so much better than the last, and while we type madly, the mounds of paper on our desks and tables and shelves grumble and teeter and sometimes even suddenly slide south like tectonic plates of paper and dust.
Dust itself, covering books and papers like the faintest sand or snow; the lean elegant sinew of pencils and their unassuming humility as they become stubs and nubs. The contented heft of your own book in your startled hands for the first time, or the fifth, or the tenth; it never gets old, that feeling, does it? And the sharp scent that arises when you slice open the box of first copies from your publisher, your magical, precious, priceless six copies, or twelve, or twenty, if you were devious and surreptitiously edited the number in the endless and hilarious contract ("or any other medium henceforth to be invented"?); the slither of the scissors along the thick brown strip that bound the box-flaps against the bang and brawl of transit, and the quiet pop! as the flaps open like reluctant cardboard wings, and you bend over the box and inhale … what? You could say ink and glue and new, but it's also amazement and pride and someplace deep inside you there is still a boy, age eleven, in his room at midnight, scribbling on loose-leaf sheets, and he has no idea how to shape a story, or play with the rhythm and cadence and stutter of sentences, or catch the way people often mean exactly the reverse of what they say aloud; but he is learning, with every page of awful, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, slavish, imitative muck he composes, how to write. He will realize, many years later, that you never quite do learn how to write well, but you can continue, all your life long, to try to write with verve and zest and honesty and punch, and that perhaps one aspect of good writing is ferocious attention to sound and scent, to the immensity of the infinitesimal; for there are stories in everything, at all times, everywhere, and the writer's task, and pleasure, and vocation, is to sing as many as possible, before you too are a story told by someone else, who will begin like this: You want to know what he was like? I'll tell you a story . . .
Brian Doyle was the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland in Oregon and the author of many books of essays and fiction, notably the novels Mink River and Martin Marten.
* This essay originally appeared in Creative Nonfiction #54 (2015). Illustration by Stephen Knezovich
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This book alarmed me from the get-go. Her family did not believe in school or doctors. Her father was a relgious fanatic. Her mother excelled in herbal tinctures. One older brother physically abused her. If she wore a dress above her knee or showed a shoulder, she was a slut. It is a riveting memoir about how Tara grows out of this background, which never quite lets go.
How can we come together is the theme song of the day. Reduce name calling, stop vicious trolling under false names on media. Don't stay in one news bubble; branch out; check sources and facts. Let me say up front that I am an independent but in the upcoming election am avidly for Jon Tester and Kathleen Williams as our representatives. I think Trump has degraded the government, allowed the pollution of air, soil, water, and reduced protection for wildlife. You may have different opinions. My evangelical daughter-in-law, for instance, has been a Trump supporter from the get-go. I asked her why. She said because she is against abortion and gay marriage. In the #MeToo movement she worries about her husband and son and says women lie. I gave a counter-opinion but we avoid discussion. It's wonderful to talk to people who have give and take. Let's try to create that atmosphere more.
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My bio:I attended Smith College, raised a son and daughter, lived in France three years, and worked as an editor for the National Audubon Society in New York City. I am the author of 10 nonfiction books, two fiction for children. My articles have appeared in numerous magazines.
Currently I edit Distinctly Montana, a quarterly lifestyle magazine.
The Old Ones
His wife died after years of suffering in a nursing home. She served the husband who was a conductor with several orchestras. Became the voice of his American Indian Institute. Why always the server, not the initiator? He would say they were partners, that he couldn't have done a thing without her. But still. He lives in a big house, has meals served by Meals on Wheels, and a housecleaner. He is deaf and cannot drive anymore. He's 90.
Another 90-year-old woman still drives even in snow. She has family members who do things for her. A cat found her house. In the morning she gets coffee and cereal and takes to her bed. She lingers over her inspirational books. She goes to the Episcopal Church and several AA meetings weekly and is devoted to any AA member. She is pretty, warm, coiffed, and fashionable. She reads mysteries and likes movies. One of her sons was killed by a truck. She adopted two. Her daughter is a soft-spoken seamstress.
A woman in her 80s does not remember much but she remains cheerful and political. She lives in an assisted living after she lost the ability to see very well. She is also nearly deaf. She and friends meet to discuss politics.
My friends and I look ahead with dread.
Girls, like women in gym. Being "in.". In junior high I started a new school in Texas. It seemed friendships were already formed. On the playground I hung out with another shy girl. Her name was Sylvia. She was big and wore tent dresses. We swung on the swings and made small talk. Even then I knew she was a hick compared to me who had come from the big city of Chicago. There was a group of swish girls, who dressed well and were more or less pretty. One was homely but was a neighbor of the prettiest so she was in. Suddenly I was included. I don't know why nor if it was good for me.
The same at the gym class I go to now. At first I watched how a group of 6-7 clustered around each other before class started, laughing and talking. I would nod and exchange a word or two with one of them. Mostly I waited alone looking out the window. Then suddenly I've become part of the group.
What is it that makes girls decide you're ok? It's like a group of swallows changing direction.
Richard. ... has tended to my yard for 20 years. He works hard even in the cold and heat. He is strong with a jutting stomach. Wears suspenders on his old, baggy jeans. His mouth puckers sometimes uncomfortably close to mine, his hair and eyes are gray. He doesn't charge much. He has a hard time keeping track of his jobs. He is not professional but he knows his trees and shrubs and plants by their Latin names. Every winter he goes to seminars on trees, insects, and soil. In the spring he composes a "letter" to his clients. I type it up for him so it looks "good." The problem with Richard is that he is a repetitive talker. He could chew the fat for hours. Mostly complaining about all that he has to do or how wrong this or that landscaper is. I have had to learn to stop the flow.
The book gave me hope for us and the Earth-- the first to counter my despair over species disappearing.