In a book I recently bought, I came across this fascinating poem by William Stafford.
Some time when the river is ice ask me mistakes I have made. Ask me whether what I have done is my life. Others have come in their slow way into my thought, and some have tried to help or to hurt: ask me what difference their strongest love or hate has made.
I will listen to what you say. You and I can turn and look at the silent river and wait. We know the current is there, hidden; and there are comings and goings from miles away that hold the stillness exactly before us. What the river says, that is what I say.
Like many readers, I suspect, I like the poem even if I’m not sure exactly what it means. Stafford’s meaning is enigmatic, yet mysteriously attractive. There is something deeply alluring about poetry that takes us to the edge of our understanding and leaves us there searching the depths of our soul.
“When it’s quiet and cold and we have some chance to interchange without hurry, confront me if you like with a challenge about whether to me my life is actually the sequence of events or exploits others would see. Well, those others tag along in my living, and some of them in fact have played significant roles in the narrative run of my world; they have intended either helping or hurting (but by implication in the way I am saying this you will know that neither effort is conclusive). So – ask me how important their good or bad intentions have been (both intentions get a drastic leveling judgment from this cool stating of it all.) You, too, will be entering that realm of maybe-help-maybe-hurt, by entering that far into my life by asking this serious question – so: I will stay still and consider. Out there will be the world confronting us both; we will both know we are surrounded by mystery, tremendous things that do not reveal themselves to us. That river, that world – and our lives – all share the depth and stillness of much more significance than our talk, or intentions [bolding added]. There is a steadiness and somehow a solace in knowing that what is around us so greatly surpasses our human concerns.”  — William Stafford
Southern Louisiana is experiencing some serious flooding as most of you know. A good friend of mine working special security in Metaire, Louisiana, just forwarded me these photos from the New Orleans area.
The flood waters are deep!
Considering the depth of this flood, which is from torrential rains, you can’t help but wonder about the long-term viability of this area. This real-estate is at or below sea level. As global warming advances, the seas will continue to slowly rise and hurricanes will only get more intense. Poseidon will not be held back forever.
My study and my home, for that matter, are starting to become overrun with books. Actually, this started a long time ago but I prefer to ignore the realization as long as possible. Regardless of sagging shelves, loaded boxes and growing stacks, I continue to collect books. I recently told my wife I would address this addiction immediately. I would attack it with energetic vigor and a dogged determination. I will hold the line!
So with that in mind this past week I added three more books to my Mark Twain collection.
I already have the Complete 29 Volume Oxford Collection of Mark Twain’s works, a CD collection of his private letters, and a couple boxes of his books in various paperback editions. You see, when I read I use a pencil to underline memorable passages and make marginalia. I’m a slow reader, taking in every word and every punctuation mark. If I don’t underline passages I’m not likely to find them when I go looking for them. I can’t bring myself to write in my hardcover books. That’s irreverent! Well at least not in the one’s I consider my collection stock. This means I collect the hardcover books and in some cases, like my Mark Twain collection, I buy a paperback version so I can write in that book.
If you don’t already, one day I’ll have to write a post on why you should read Mark Twain. But that’s for another day.
So as for the books pictured above:
Well if you weren’t already aware, Mark Twain’s writings, beside being humorous, a work of art and fun to read, mark a transition in the history of American literature. Ernest Hemingway famously commented:
“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”
That’s high praise coming from a winner of the nobel prize for literature. A part of Hemingway’s renown as a writer comes from his adopting a Twainesque style of writing. Not the humor so much, but the rule that a writer “Employ a simple and straightforward style,” and “Eschew surplusage.” Of course there’s a lot more to Hemingway’s particular art but he was clearly influenced by Twain.
Anyone who likes to read and write is usually attentive to prose style. I pick up books all the time and skim a few passages in order to get some feel for the writer’s prose. For me, this attentiveness to writing tends to spill over into an attentiveness to everyday speech, because good writing, as Robert Louis Stevenson once said, is “the shadow of good talk.” This has become a habit. I find listening carefully to good talkers can help improve your writing. I listen for organization, rhythm, cadence, word choice, and structure. All the elements of an individual style or personality. People’s individuality and their particular way of thinking and expressing themselves is truly fascinating.
So naturally with a writer I admire, I’m interested in how they developed as a writer. What influenced and shaped their style. This is why I picked up The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff. This history book outlines the beginning of Samuel Clemens’s (Mark Twain’s) career and how he and some other prominent writers of that time helped reinvent American literature.
Then we have the recently released Chasing the Last Laugh by Richard Zacks. This book is about Twain’s great world wide tour. Mark Twain didn’t have much luck with investments and business ventures. He made a lot of money and he lost a lot of money. He got heavily in debt. He decided this wasn’t the way his story was going to end, he wasn’t leaving his family with massive debts to pay off. So Twain set out on very successful world wide tour. This book focuses on Twain’s tour around the world—chasing the last laugh.
Now, I haven’t read this book yet but I know Twain was able to pay back his debts and substantially rebuild his wealth. Full length biographies typically require a good investment of time, whereas books aimed at capturing a brief period or event in a Life are usually shorter reads and yet very informative. So this book along with, say, Man in White are good, short reads if you’re interested.
Finally, I picked up the 125th edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This edition is a copy of the original first edition with illustrations and notes as Twain originally approved. My goal is to read this one through carefully and write a review—eventually.
We worry a bit about our mental capacity, our IQs, memory, grades, skills, talents and so on but less, it seems, about our attitude. Whereas attitude is by far the biggest element in determining the success of any outing, project, work, journey.
This is a fine point we need reminding of regularly.
On the professional end, I’ve been managing in a large organization for over 20 years. I can say definitively that attitude is far more important, and far more predictive of success, than skill (most of the time) when selecting or hiring someone for a position. Sure, there are positions where being highly skilled from the get-go is more important, but in a lot of cases that’s not the case. We need a base level of skill and talent and then we can work from there.
Someone can be highly skilled and talented, but their bad attitude is toxic, combative, and creates a lot of problems for the mangers and the team. It’s not worth the trouble, believe me. Someone with a good attitude that is teachable and open to learning can be trained, improved, and coached to the level of competency you need. And because of they have a good attitude they work well with others and add value to the team. Another major side benefit is good attitudes are contagious.
On the personal end, I know, as many of you do, that I can only do the best I can with the skills, talents, and other mental capacities I currently have. I can try to improve them, as many of us work at all of our lives, and certainly we should. In fact, I find this process of learning and self development the greatest joy of life. But most of us realize, if we’re self aware, that attitude is everything ultimately. Try as we may, if our attitude sours we’re done. We can only go so far with what our mental capacities are. And the truth is some of our mental capacities may never improve.
But with a good attitude we have the emotional capacity that allows us to work and succeed within the mental capacities we have. More importantly, with a good attitude we’re resilient. We approach life and its challenges with an acceptance for who we are and a willingness to believe all will be well if we keep trying.
So I think whether it’s at work or in your personal life focus on attitude first. Once you have the right attitude you’re more likely to be able to harness the skills and talents more effectively.
Though I don’t write as often as I’d like, I think a lot about the craft and about its mysteries. This means when I see a good book that sifts the gems of a writer’s wisdom from the mass of their written work I pay attention. When the master speaks, the student listens.
I collect good quotes in general, but I probably have 30 pages of just quotes on writing. Quotes capture the essential wisdom of an author’s thoughts. For some of us, for many of us actually, all we ever read of an author is a quote we run across while reading something else. Well, like in this blog post!
So the other day while browsing the discount table (where you find some great books!) at the bookstore, I came across The Little Book of Writers’s Wisdom. I thought I’d share just a few quotes with you.
So the first one is from George Orwell:
“For the creative writer, possession of the ‘truth’ is less important than emotional sincerity.”
I remember Orwell saying somewhere something to the effect that unless a writer can “feel” they really can’t write persuasively. This connection between feeling and good writing is a common theme in Orwell’s essays.
The second quote is a very rich one by Christopher Hitchens:
“There is some relationship between the hunger for truth and the search for the right words. The struggle may be ultimately indefinable and even undecidable, but one damn well knows is when one sees it.”
Wow, this is a quote that probably deserves an entire blog post by itself. Any volunteers?
Which leads me to my final quote by John Steinbeck, which is a nice follow up to the Hitchens quote:
“The craft or art of writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness. In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. And sometimes if he is very fortunate and if the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through — not ever much. And if he is a writer wise enough to know it can’t be done, then he is not a writer at all. A good writer always works at the impossible.”
Yes, another great quote for the topic of a blog post.🙂