Tag Archives: writing

On Writing and the Pandemic

30 Mar

NY-empty-streets

By Lanny Morgnanesi

I’m not sure I’m ready to write.

The Coronavirus pandemic has inspired innumerable blogs, podcasts, articles and commentaries. Photos and videos of ghostly, empty streets circulate widely and never end. Footage of people singing to each other as a salve to the quarantine are reaching large numbers in live, nightly broadcasts. And I’m empty of thought.

In such times, for writers, the bare minimum is a journal. You can start it with vigor, try to shed light on the mundane, neglect it a little then let it trail off, but – unless you are out there and in it, which means you’ve got something – you are writing whatever everyone else is writing. My journal began thusly on March 23:

It’s impossible to put today in perspective, since yesterday was bad and tomorrow most certainly will be worse. At this point, at this time, numbers cannot adequately describe what we ultimately will face and how we will get there. Instead, let a few statistics be a point of demarcation along a road of unknown length. Let them serve not as a measure but only as a backdrop for the very present.

At that time, COVID-19 had infected 292,142 people and killed 1,600. Today, a mere seven days later, there are 729,100 infected people and 34,689 deaths. Experts say as many as 200,000 could die in the U.S.

Aside from my venturing out once for groceries – noting the absence of flour and yeast and realizing that in a panic you can’t outthink people – there really was little to write about at a time when there is a great deal about which to write.

While not writing, I read a little about writing. It was a retro piece in the New York Review of Books from 2016. The author was Joan Didion, whose utter and complete immersion in the art of writing has always fascinated me, and the piece was simply called California Notes. She begins saying that in 1976 Rolling Stone magazine asked her to cover the San Francisco trial of Patty Hearst, the heiress kidnapped by political radicals who became one of them and took part (while armed) in a bank robbery. Didion is a Californian who relocated to New York, but the Patty Hearst assignment would bring her back to California. She would seek inspiration for the piece by reacquainting herself with the state and trying to revive her own emotions about it.

didioncouch

Writer Joan Didion

For me, as I sat not writing, the best part of California Notes was Joan’s confession that she attended the trial but never wrote the piece. There was no explanation, except: “I thought the trial had some meaning for me—because I was from California. This didn’t turn out to be true.”  Her California reflections, however, led her years later to write a compilation called Where I Was From and even later  California Notes.

There’s a famous Nora Ephron quote that reminds me of Joan and has been repeated in this time of crisis: “Everything is copy.” I always thought it peculiar that such a quote would become so famous, since few outside of writing know what “copy” is. The reason must be because writers are the ones always repeating the quote. Anyway, “copy” in this sense means “material” for writing, and now – with the world shut down by a virus — everything is indeed copy. You go outside for a walk and it’s copy. You venture out and drive through town and it’s copy. You cook a meal or seek activities for your kids and it’s copy.

Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, Trancas, California, March 1972

Didion with husband, the late writer Gregory Dunne

Even without a pandemic, everything for Joan Didion seemed to be copy. (Her husband died and she got a book out of it). It might be that everything around Joan Didion, all the clouds she allowed to cover her success and notoriety, seemed like a personal pandemic, so she recorded it. In California Notes, she mentions an airline trip from New York to San Francisco in the 50s and reports that on the flight she had, “a Martini-on-the-Rocks and Stuffed Celery au Roquefort over the Rockies.” This means that while in her 20s she was taking notes on everything she did.

It’s true that in my youth I took notes. Joan got much more out of hers than I ever did. Like with her, the urge still remains with me. Recently, while in semi-retirement, I agreed to take a $25-an-hour job as a census taker, figuring I would get something out of it, a story about the real America, even though I’d only be visiting the homes of people in my mostly white, mostly affluent suburban county. As the virus spread, the government wisely decided not to send people house to house. I never went to even one.

In California Notes, there is mention by Joan of an early newspaper job at the Sacramento Union. Newspapers require reporters to learn local “style” – the proper way to refer to things in print. Joan touches on this and says,  “I learned that Eldorado County and Eldorado City are so spelled but that regular usage of El Dorado is two words; to UPPER CASE Camellia Week, the Central Valley, Sacramento Irrigation District, Liberator bombers and Superfortresses, the Follies Bergere [sic], the Central Valley Project, and such nicknames as Death Row, Krauts, or Jerries for Germans, Doughboys, Leathernecks, Devildogs.”

Patricia-Hearst-front-emblem-Symbionese-Liberation-Army

Heiress Patricia Hearst, after her kidnapping

Everything is copy. Sadly, I didn’t make any kind of record of the local style at my first newspaper, and can only remember this: “Do not use a period after the ‘S’ in ‘Harry S Truman High School.’ A period suggests an abbreviation and in this case ‘S’ is not an abbreviation because President Truman did not have an actual middle name.” In the same way I know I cannot compete with the person who thought to buy yeast before I did, I know I cannot compete with writers who know what food and drink they had on a plane in 1955, or can recite that actual constraints put on them decades ago by local “style.” Maybe Joan Didion came up dry at the utterly fantastic trial of Patty Hearst, but she found inspiration at every other turn in her life.

I’m sitting here now looking for inspiration. I suspect I’ll find it eventually. I’m fairly certain, however, I won’t be writing about my neighbors singing, if indeed they ever do. I prefer instead to write about things we fail to see. And right now, I can’t see anything.

 

Biker/Writer Shares Experiences With Fracking

14 Apr
Author Seamus McGraw

Author Seamus McGraw

I recently attended one of those events where an author discusses his or her work in an intimate setting. From the outset, it was clear this would be interesting. After all, how many writers show up in leather pants, leather jacket, a Triumph T-shirt, shaved head, goatee and with a bike out front?

Upon entering the room, he placed a can of Drum tobacco and a pack of Zig-Zag papers on the table in front of him. He didn’t smoke during the talk, but he did roll. His best points were made while gesturing with the unlit fag.

After 45-minutes, he excused himself to go outside and feed his habit.

Lunch was served, but he said his lunch would be coffee. Do you have any?

He said he was a liberal but that 90 percent of liberals are idiots.

In the middle of the talk, he invited us – and anybody, for that matter – to a huge barbeque he holds every year.

Seamus McGraw-book coverThe man’s name is Seamus McGraw.

I’m embarrassed to say I did not read his book, but I will.

It’s about fracking.

Fracking is the common term for hydraulic fracturing, which is used to extract oil and gas from shale. It does so through a horizontal drilling process that pumps large amounts of water and chemicals, under extreme pressure, into the shale. The shale shatters and the gas and oil are released.

Fracking has put a glut of natural gas on the market and kept prices low.  It has caused coal-fired power plants to shift to the cleaner, cheaper natural gas. Most unexpectedly and perhaps most important, it will help the United States become energy independent in the coming decade.

It also may poison life forms that dwell near the drilling sites, or maybe even beyond them.

When Seamus is asked, “Are you for or against fracking?” he answers, “Yes.”

His book is, “The End of Country: Dispatches from the Frack Zone.” Those who read it said they didn’t see evidence of any leather-clad biker in it. Maybe the book is where he goes to hide.

Seamus failed at college, early careers and several marriages. He stumbled into journalism and writing, became successful, and then looked for a way to stumble out of it.

Around that time someone knocked on the door of his home in northeastern Pennsylvanian and offered him money for the fuel underneath it. He signed the papers and decided, “OK, one more book.”

What resulted got him attention, so now there is another book coming. It is on conversations about climate change — how we talk about it. Seamus believes that in politics and life we are divisive because we self-polarize. He said we are too blind or to stubborn to learn that under the surface we often believe the same things. His goal is to get to the point where we recognize this, and then move on to fixing our problems. Top on his list would be a national energy policy.

Seamus, soon to be 55, is a supreme raconteur. He seems incredibly knowledgeable on almost every subject. And, of course, his presentation is unique.

After his talk, I wished I could have seen him ride out of there. Unfortunately, I missed that. I guess I’ll have to wait until his next book.

Lanny Morgnanesi

Writing is easy; truth is hard (you have to get naked)

30 Mar

Truth is one of the rarest commodities on Earth.

The reason may be that it’s actually an abstract concept, a moralistic illusion. Or maybe truth is just relative, with multiple versions floating about.

Hemingway was always barking about how hard it was to write a true sentence. Harry Crews, a writer of note who died this week, once said:

“If you’re gonna write, for God in heaven’s sake, try to get naked. Try to write the truth. Try to get underneath all the sham, all the excuses, all the lies that you’ve been told.”

That’s in his obit.

No ... that's not true, either.

In honor of Harry, I challenge everyone visiting this blog to go to the comment section below and write something true.

 

I’ll start:

“Digital communications has devolved into a lucrative confidence game where users knowingly or unknowingly reveal the most private pieces of information so that others can more easily sell them goods and services.”

Now you go ……..

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