I am sitting in the late autumn sun, sheltered from a relentless wind. Moving into this quiet space makes it feel as if time has stopped. Like the wind, time has been swirling around me: pandemic time, presidential time, social media time, even the headlines from the Bangor Daily News time. I am overwhelmed by this excess of information. Sitting alone in the light, I remember what a friend had told me that Buddhist monk and poet Thich Nhat Hanh said “Do one thing at a time. Do it deeply.”
So instead of sitting in the sun and making the mental to-do list of my life, I take a moment to feel the sun touching my eye lids. I breathe. I open my eyes to see Adirondack chairs absorbing the sun as their living wood once absorbed the sun years before, and although I swear that I am doing only one thing, the chairs soon become the folding aluminum frame chairs of my childhood backyard, where my grandparents, older than I can ever imagine myself being though probably younger than I am now, sit. One of the chairs is tipped down, as if someone is gone. I think of the passage of time, how we learn from others and make our journey, generation to generation. I contemplate how they are vanished from this world and how I will be vanishing too. The last leaves on the Norway maples glow from within still holding summer’s light.
Have I just done one thing deeply or has my mind flitted off on a tangent? Perhaps it’s both things at the same time. I can feel the sunlight on my face and I’m happy that I can welcome my ancestors into this circle of my backyard at the same time. It feels good to have all of us together in one place.
As still as I try to make my mind, it will wander off. Perhaps artmaking is like that. We need to wander, to move to an unknown place and come back again. Sometimes we need to go to excess to become simple. Once I was in a writing workshop and one of the other participants said that he thought I’d gone too far in my comparison. The teacher, Denis Johnson, said “I’d rather see someone go too far than not go far enough,” meaning you can always edit those things that aren’t needed, but you need to get everything on the page before that process begins.
And what of the tangent? If we can be present with every tangent, then it’s not our artistic minds wandering without meaning; we are following where we need to go, where the work demands that we go. Our art is always being born as we are making it, being designed to meet the parameters of the moment that we are in.
In The Elements of Style, E.B. White writes about omitting needless words. He’s not arguing for sparse prose but advocating for the words that need to be there. “Vigorous writing is concise,” he tells us, “a sentence should contain no unnecessary words . . . for the same reason a drawing should contain no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”
That may mean that the drawing needs more lines, not fewer. What is necessary sings to us and can make the work sing. For a few years now I’ve been making blackout poems using the pages of old books, to which I add, in letter-stamped words, a phrase that complements the redacted text. It gives me as a writer a chance to be visual. A rectangular frame filled with the horizontal black lines from my Sharpie marker, and the few words that are needed. Too little? too much? I ask myself as I work, doing one thing at a time and hoping to do it deeply.