A Benediction of Goat Bells
Just finished writing a novel, after several years of work on it. Stacks of drafts surround this desk, the house is quiet, and after a week of kitchen-painting I’m now back in this room, a notebook open in front of me.
The Question that all writers face: What’s next?
Kent Haruf called it “filling up.” I like that. I think of it, too, as quieting down. Trying to be open. Getting a sense of what wants to emerge from the wilderness this time.
I sit here and glance around at the photographs on these walls. My wife and son. The poster of Everest, Lhotse, and Ama Dablam. The photos of friends on Mount Hood, in Sri Lanka, at Machu Picchu. I look at the little notes here and there, too. There are no perfect conditions. Breathe, slow down, do your work.
Keats had a strange and wonderful phrase: Negative Capability. He defined it as when someone “is capable of living in the midst of uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” I came across those words when I was twenty, living for a year in Salzburg, and I remember them reverberating through me as I sat alone in a university library. Now, at fifty, those same words challenge and comfort me, as so often I still catch myself, amid silences like this one, starting to reach after fact and reason.
Being a writer requires patience. Genuine, long, hard-earned patience. It requires staying put, lingering in the quiet at times. It also requires showing up regularly, even when you’re lost. The poet William Stafford talked about this, about writers needing to embrace being lost at times, about finding your way by showing up and practicing faith. This is the way it is.
So I reserve and protect these morning hours, for being lost and intrigued now, for being present. This notebook remains open, and occasionally some words arrive. Glimpses of possible paths into the dark woods. It’s a time of holding thoughts loosely, feeling where they might want to lead, making no decisions whatsoever at this point about what I must pursue on another long journey. I block out all thoughts of what stamina it will take. All that comes later. And it’s important right now, also, that I let no critic, editor, agent, or well-meaning fellow writer have any say in what I follow in my imagination. This is between me and mystery. The territory of stories.
To some, it would seem a bit weird to be fifty years old in twenty-first century America, or in any other era for that matter, and carve out time each day to be alone at a desk with a notebook and pen. To others, it’s one of the most necessary and important things in the world. At this moment, the politicians are ranting, the planes are crowding the tarmacs, the brokers’ hearts are beating hard in the market frenzy.
There are those who shun frenzy. There are those who go on shining their little flashlights into the woods, waiting for stories, following them. We keep on showing up, that’s the thing. Talk about stubborn. What’s next? The story that insists (and not always in a loud way) by showing up, too.
A mountain river. A castle in Austria. The earth beneath your house or apartment or tent, and what the land above it once looked like, say, three thousand years ago. Or maybe a tall old man walking on a cold November morning, emerging from a tunnel onto a cobblestone road, there’s a cemetery with listing gravestones behind a low stone wall, and the scent of baking sweet rolls, and yes, in the distance, a benediction of goat bells from a traveling herd.