I had a friend who loved Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea. She, my friend, made all of us read it. Okay, she didn't tie us to kitchen chairs and hold a gun to our heads. But she campaigned for it and talked it up until it would have been awkward to refuse. I had my doubts already. "Wise" it said on the back cover which means facile as far as I can tell, with a little bit of cliche sprinkled in. "Wise" is almost as sure a marker for vapidity as "brave" which obviously means in blurbdom "pandering shamelessly to the hottest cause du jour."
I hated it. To be brief.
Even reminding myself that Lindbergh's silvery simplicities were hard-earned through personal tragedy, I couldn't get myself past the shallow leaps into happy resolution. I think she must have had a maid. No one who had to do their own laundry could be so trusting of her own ability to live in grace.
Especially I remember hating one passage where she equates writing her poetry to making biscuits. They are both, to her, creative acts. Equally satisfying in different ways. Which makes me think her biscuits must be out of this world and her poetry not worth hunting down.
I hate that poetry=biscuit with slightly different ingredients idea.
That anything but writing can substitute for writing. Almost as bad as that other idea that writing can be substituted for anything else. Like people who say, "My books, mother, are my babies." (From another "wise" and "brave" book. Maybe I'm just not the right audience for this kind of horatory navel-gazing.)
So I'll just say, as far as I'm concerned: Children are not anything but children.
Dogs are not children, cats are not children, pet parakeets are not. (Sorry -- no matter how many times you burble "Mommy's home, Felix" -- you're not his mommy.) Raising orchids is not raising children. Climbing mountains is not. Books are not, racing motorcycles is not, sewing up injured owls is not, hospitals built in Haiti are not. Each of these are more or less (some less than more) wonderful on their own.
They all take time, money, commitment. Many may be mutually exclusive. But the book or the cure or the computer code is not really your baby which will grow up and talk back at you and expect to borrow your keys and then wipe dribble off your chin in your old age. (With other stops along the way, of course: I'm summarizing.)
You don't raise children, then you miss out on that experience.
Just like if you don't climb mountains, you can't claim "raising Joey was my Everest." Well, you can, because that's what figurative language is for. But it's stupid if you believe what you're saying has any kind of parity with "Last summer I climbed K2." Because everyone else knows you didn't really do something all that much like mountaineering. You're just saying it's a big deal, raising Joey, and it took a lot of time and was pretty hard, too.
And vice versa.
And it goes for writing, too. Writing is not anything but writing. Well, maybe film-making is also writing. But nothing else.
Taking pictures, for example. That's not writing.
But sometimes it feels a little bit like writing. But it also feels a little bit like cheating. Because (1) it takes a lot less time, (2) it's very easy, (3) I don't know why, it just does.
Maybe it's because my grandfather and my uncle were both photographers who won competitions and sold photographs to magazines. Both of them developed their own films through alchemical mysteries in rooms bathed in mysterious red light. They had immense cameras that weighed as much as small refrigerators and many buttons that they had to fiddle over forever. It was all very satisfyingly arcane.
Me, I carry a little pocket thing -- in my pocket. While I walk. While I bike. While I cook. While I'm doing other things. I see something. I stand there. I look at it through the lens until I can really see it and then I push a button. Sometimes I kneel down. I look at it from upside down. I see how it's different with the sunlight from this side or that side. I don't really know how to take pictures except to know enough that I'm not taking real pictures. I'm just showing what I saw. What I liked that I saw.
And I have a fatal weakness for the pretty. I like edges of things and light seen through things. Which is not unlike what I do in the writing, too. Which makes me think the reason I hate Lindbergh's writing so much is because she is my semblable, ma soeur. And I am her hypocrite reader.
But it makes me very happy to take pictures while often it makes me miserable to write.
Is that a good sign or a bad sign? Does that mean the writing I do is more serious than the picture-taking?
I write like I have some kind of mental illness. No matter how unrewarding it is to write, I keep writing. How pointless the actions I put myself through. How asocial the writing process requires me to become. I keep giving up writing and then finding ways to keep writing under a different rubric. A different name.
But with picture-taking, the action is itself as much fun as fingerpainting. And more social because most of my family and friends don't mind looking at my pictures and some of them even hang out with me when I stop to look at stuff.
But the picture-taking is also more fun because I'm not aiming for some Platonic ideal of a photo. I'm not aiming for some kind of excellence and wouldn't know what that excellence would be made of. It's not really the picture that matters. It's the getting to stop and stand very still and look really closely. It's the seeing. And it's nice if afterwards someone else can see what I saw too.
But then I think, Isn't that also what I'm trying to do when I write? This picture for example, when I stopped to take it my older son said,
"I like it when you make me stop so you can take pictures. You make me see that things are really pretty that I would never have even looked at."
And isn't that what I want everything I write to do, too? So picture-taking is a kind of writing.
I don't like that.
Picture-taking allows more hiding. It's just more comfortable for my psyche, more protected-feeling. It's just a picture of thistle heads, I can say. But there are reasons, political, historical, faith-centered, and very personal why I think this kind of picture, taken from this angle, at this time of day, is worth recording. Is worth demanding your attention for.
And moreover I was a little dishonest in what I said earlier about not knowing what excellence would be made of. I think I have some inklings. I don't like every picture I take. So I must have some sense of what makes a picture worth looking at.
And sometimes I think I have a clearer idea of that than of what would make something worth reading.
Are biscuits that far off as a contender for creative space?