Strange Paths

The_library_at_trinity_college

Even before I walked around every day with a massive research library in my pocket, I often looked things up. In the olden days, when I was working on a project, I’d hunker in library stacks for hours, lug home bags of books. My life was full of Post-its, torn off slips of paper, scrawled, sometimes indecipherable notes. I fondly recall sitting hunched in a carrel in my college library with books at my elbow, books at my feet. I liked finding notes or marginalia left by other readers who—months or years previous—had been curious about the same thing I was investigating at that moment. Continue reading Strange Paths

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squirrel toy rage rocket lemon

Levi Mingus computerFirst, some good news: the first chapter of The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures was named a finalist for Fourth Genre’s Michael Steinberg Essay Prize! I’d post an excerpt, but I’m still working on actually getting it published somewhere, so the curious will have to wait.

Meanwhile…Levi Mingus computer 2

It feels like summer today. Lawnmower in the distance, fluttering curtains, susurration of leaves, chatter of birds and squirrels outside my third story window. Right now I’m doing research. Not the kind that requires library or internet or the kind that necessitates phone calls home to ask who taught me to suck the honeysuckles that grew along our backyard fence or whether it was a tire or a wooden monkey swing at that one house we stayed in that summer. Nor is it the kind of research that winds up with me on the floor amid stacks of notebooks or letters dug out of cardboard boxes from the hall closet. Today’s research involved plugging in an ancient (like over a decade old) laptop (time capsule) and meandering through its contents.

Some things it contains: Continue reading squirrel toy rage rocket lemon

And Now, the Octopus

I’m working on a chapter that’s based on a monologue I performed a few years ago at Live Bait Theater in Chicago. Every summer, my friend Tekki, the artistic director of Tellin’ Tales Theatre, curates an evening of solo performance based on a theme. That particular year she titled the show “Potholes on the Path to Enlightenment,” and she asked us to write about an epiphany. That’s not really so hard, I thought: almost every story is about some kind of discovery – some little or big a ha! But she wanted it to be something pretty major, something that could, like, change your life. When I started working on the piece, I became a little obsessed with octopuses. For weeks, I read and wrote about octopuses. (By the way, octopuses is the correct plural – either that or octopodes. Octopi is frowned on by most references because the –pus derives from Greek and not Latin.) I wrote about an octopus I remembered from Sesame Street, which I watched as a kid. A man’s voice said, “And now, the octopus,” then this octopus swam around a tank for a minute, and that was it. Anyway, I was trying to write this piece about epiphany; I thought I should be writing about God, transcendence, the search for meaning, and I kept coming back to the octopus.

Figuring out what my brain is onto is one of my favorite parts of writing. The work is making clear the dot-to-dot of connections I’ve made in my head and finding a way to take the reader along on the journey. I don’t want to make it all too obvious or the reading won’t be any fun. But I can’t make it too obscure either – I can’t lead the reader into the woods and leave them with no trail to find their way back. I want the reader to make the discoveries I made in the living and the writing of the story – in this piece, for example, how the search for God and meaning relates to octopuses (also Clash of the Titans and Esther Williams).

An epiphany is an insight that comes about because of something ordinary. I probably watched my octopus on Sesame Street every day. It was ordinary. But the octopus itself, all rippling flesh and unfurling suckers was extraordinary. The octopus was an epiphany billowing across our black and white TV.  It said, wake up! Look at what’s out here in the world. Look and look and look.

Tell me, friends. What is it that makes you wake up and look?

finding the trail

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Friends, I love me some research.

It’s just so satisfying finding stuff out about stuff.

While writing this latest chapter, I’ve looked up the paleo-diet which recommends that you eat the way our Paleolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors supposedly did (my favorite proponent is this guy whose catchphrase is “Die biting the throat;” you can get it on a t-shirt!), Isaiah 11: 6-8 (The wolf shall lie down with the lamb and so on), Quakers, how long it takes to grill a rare steak, if fish are capable of feeling pain, evolution and natural selection and, as I wrote about in this space a couple weeks ago, predatory animals, especially the ones that sometimes eat humans.

I’ve come to think that even if it seems like procrastination at times, research is a fundamental part of my writing process.  I’m trying to emulate one those super wilderness scouts who can look at the-ever-so-slightly-bent twig or the barely-there footprint and gauge exactly how far off whatever you’re looking for is and what it had for lunch.

Admittedly, I do sometimes get a bit sidetracked.  The other day I was looking up Edward Hicks’ famous painting “The Peaceable Kingdom,” which my mom always used to take us to see at the National Gallery of Art in D.C., and which always fascinated me not only because of the animals’ really odd expressions but also because they were playing with those weird-looking, early American folk art babies…Image

and then I had to read about Quakers because Edward Hicks was a famous Quaker and then I started thinking, wow, I’ve always thought Quakers were really cool and maybe I should be a Quaker and then I started looking up Quaker meetings in Chicago —

that was maybe a tich off the beaten path.

So I try to balance research and writing.  But when I stumble across some semi-hidden sign, catch a trace scent in the air that leads me to a brand new thought or connection or story, it’s really kind of thrilling.  I don’t know if I’ll find exactly what I’m looking for (a thorough understanding of why and how everything in the world universe is what it is and does what it does) but at least I’ll have an account of the expedition.

wild truth

I love this quote:

Philosophy is really there to redeem what lies in an animal’s gaze.                                                                                                    – Theodor Adorno

It’s the epigraph of the book I just read by Gordon Grice called The Book of Deadly Animals.  I’m working on a chapter about survival — the ways we find to keep our physical and emotional selves intact.  At least I think that’s what it’s about.  When I start a chapter I don’t know exactly where it’s going to wind up. I have a murmuring in my head — words, images, fragments of stories.  I have to investigate this murmuring and see what kinds of connections develop.  Thinking about survival led me to predator and prey.  Hence the rather bloody research.

The idea for this chapter started with me remembering the way I thought about animals when I was a kid — a certain look my uncle’s dog had in his eye that suggested to me a different way of knowing the world.  Then I started wondering about the ways we are animal — the ways we hide and protect, fight and defend, nest and mark our territories, the ways we communicate with one another outside of language.

The chapter is also about being a kid and becoming aware that although the world is home to abundant beauty, it can also be brutal.  It’s about how I struggled (and struggle) with that awareness.  So I’m reading about predators and prey, watching old episodes of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on youtube and writing about tooth and claw and hunger and flight.  I think writing for me sometimes is an effort to articulate things I know but don’t yet know that I know.  So I like that quote about philosophy somehow being an attempt to recover or uncover a wild truth, to know something about ourselves we didn’t know we knew. And I like that the key to that truth might lie in the gaze of an animal.