Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A Wonder Is What It Is

_A Warning To My Readers_

Do not think me gentle
because I speak in praise
of gentleness, or elegant
because I honor the grace
that keeps this world. I am
a man crude as any,
gross of speech, intolerant,
stubborn, angry, full
of fits and furies. That I
may have spoken well
at times, is not natural.
A wonder is what it is.
-Wendell Berry

The first time I ever wrote anything good, I didn't realized I'd done it. I got mad. I had a history teacher in 9th grade, and he didn't like anything I did. I'd always done well in history, and I loved to read history. But I couldn't figure out what this man wanted (sadly, I can't remember his name - and I owe him a great deal). He'd have us read pieces and answer the questions, and I'd answer them, and he gave me Cs. And I got more and more frustrated - I was reading. I was giving the obvious answers - it never occurred to me he didn't want the obvious answers, because every single other teacher I'd ever had did. And then he gave me a section in a book about ancient Greece to read, that argued that the ancient Greeks didn't value manual arts, and crafts. And the piece based that argument in part on the fact that the Greek god of the forge, Haphaestus, was always pictured as dirty and ugly and crippled. Well, it happened that I read a lot of Robert Graves and Joseph Campbell in my early teens, and
I happened to know that Athene, a fairly high status goddess was also the goddess of most crafts - of weaving, and pot making and most kinds of artistry. So even though I was certain I'd be failed for *arguing* with the book, I got mad and wrote a piece about how the book as completely wrong. And I got my first A+. And all of a sudden, I understood what he wanted, and the teacher stopped being my tormentor and became the first person to teach me the most important thing I've ever learned - the answer to all questions is more complicated than it seems.

I got better at writing good things now and again, but it was not and is not a universal experience. Sometimes I write and when I'm done, I find that I've said something new, something I never knew I had inside my head. Sometimes I write things down and they are so far from the ideas percolating inside me that I can't bear to look at them. And every once in a while, I look at what I wrote and it is as though some other, better author was there to write it for me. I'm grateful when that happens. I consider it a kind of magic, or gift. It doesn't happen as often as I'd like, however. And the rest of the time I struggle along saying things that are bad, or stupid, or not what I want.

Why am I writing about this? Because, strangely enough, I apparently achieved a tiny modicum of fame the other week. People have very kindly invited me to speak to their peak oil groups, or to advise them on something. And I must tell you, if you are one of them - I don't know anything special. People say "I want to see your gardens" - and I wonder - that one? The one with all the weeds, that produced such a terrible tomato harvest? Or, "I bet you have wonderful children" - well, most days I like them, but I'm not the mother I'd like to be. Or, "I'd love to see your home - I bet it is beautiful" to which I can only scream, "NOOOOOOOO!!!"

My garden looks like yours or maybe a bit worse - messy, weedy, buggy, imperfect. My house looks much worse than yours, I'm willing to bet. There are cheerios ground into the carpet and boxes I haven't unpacked since we moved in, and neither of us cleans as much as we should. My children are ordinary children (ok, I think they are wonderful - but not, perhaps, perfect) - loud and whiny sometimes and weird and rude - and also sweet and loving and gentle.

And I don't know anything more than any of you about the future or what is to come. I write with a certain degree of authority because that's how I write. I'm funny and passionate when I speak because that's how I am - and because I write better than I talk in real life. But I'm also just plain stupid sometimes, and angry and foolish, greedy and petty and small. And this is not modesty, just the reality of me. Now I don't really believe that Wendell Berry could be crude, so I understand why you think that when I say I garden you envision something perfect. But I can't possibly live up to what you envision, and I'm bound to be a huge disappointment.

I am lucky in two things as a writer. Every once in a while I exceed myself and make a sentence or an idea or a paragraph that is a worthy offering to lay at the feet of some some better writer. And unlike Wordsworth and all romantics, I've never yet had that moment of disappointment when you look back at your younger self and think that you've lost a kind of perception. I was never a prodigy - I came into everything I did well in the fullness of time. And I never was nostalgic for anything of my youth - I'm still just as outraged and passionate as I was then - only smarter and wiser, I hope. So unlike Wordsworth and his ilk, I still believe, despite all the evidence of my mind, in the transformation of whole worlds by simple human will. But that's all I have - and none of it makes me a better person.

I keep writing because I believe I can have an impact, and because there's something heady about those moments when my other, better self takes the keyboard away from me and puts the right words or the right idea on the page. But I don't understand how that is connected to the real person of me any better than you do. I just wonder at the wonder of it.



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