Teaching Myself to Write Backward

I called a contest with myself,

My insides humming like a hive:

“I’ll make my mind a mirror,” I said.

“Da Vinci did it. So can I.”


My marbled composition book

Yawned open, white as Leo’s beard,

The sunny sophomore afternoon

Upon my backward ink-dare sneered.


My wheels and cogs, once east, cranked west –

With ardor gearing to reverse –

and rendered English backward! (Though

My dogged hand drove slow at first.)


So I’m Da Vinci? This I doubt

Since though I write regressive text

I cannot seem to reproduce

The kinds of paintings I’d expect.


Since writing backward, notice that

I sometimes misspell simplest writ.

I’m humming-hearted, left-cogged girl,

Dyslexic, yes, but full of grit.




Professor Jackson in Music Appreciation

You cram our course with lore of candlelight,

Of Beethoven’s and Haydn’s bursting heads:

We feel their music pulsing through the white

Plain walls. We know they really can’t be dead.

You wear the tones of music without fail,

A dress of black and white, your hair the shades

Of crows and chestnuts, face in creamy pale

Like paper marched with musical parades.

You tell us, “Put your ears on! Here it comes!”

It’s the bassoon, the awkward brother-wind.

Though reared on rock and roll, I feel at home

Beside your tender lisp and slicing grin,

And even with these music men, long gone:

If music be the food of love, play on.

The Bradbury Thousand

Ray Bradbury Wrote a Thosuand Words a Day.

For today, these are mine. They aren’t particularly orderly:

I was thinking many things this morning – thinking them suddenly, and wishing to write them down —

I do fear that my mind now traces such matters with difficulty, and is given to slow recall —

But anyway one of them, as I sat in the lovely white blankets in the upstairs of the Olaskys’ house, was that this, this whole experience, which actually has been restful and full of love, is the gift of writing.

For writing, for me, has had many gifts – is one big gift.

Occasionally I remember to give thanks for it as a gift. Of course the first portion of my wee life I gave over to wondering if I truly had the gift and could be great, then for a season wondered if I could have the whole gift, like the Exodus artists, or if the Lord would leave me with only a part so that I could not create any kind of conclusive whole, then for a season I wondered what my gift would cost me – if it would alienate everyone I know and prevent me from relationship.

Idiot fears, all of them.

But you know the thing I really craved this year was a white room. And here I have one!

Another thing I thought, in the white room: I have missed the Bradbury thousand – have not had that internal treasure-mining for some time. But do you think, I thought this morning, that my current occupations shall keep me from it? Oh no!

Writers surround me here: Dr. Olasky in his quietness, who might, actually, have done great things for evil if God had not rescued him then given him to us. He is interested in facts. He told us last night, over the magnificent dinner we made, about the history of the Jewish race. (He is a Jew. Susan has always liked Jews, ever since the Jewish kids in her middle or high school – they were smart, beautiful, they had big frizzy hair back when that was the thing to have. And then a Jewish boy fell for her. That was Marvin. He was collecting her apartment keys.)

Sophia is interested in culture. She talks about culture all the time. She sleeps, as she does everything, in her leanness. I find her splashed, face down, against the sheets in the early morning, the left shoulder beside her ear, stretching upward in a straight line – this is difficult without drawing – Her hand, is raised…in a straight line with her body, her long lean arm. And when I go in I sometimes cannot tell whether she is in the bed at all, she is so little and brown. There is a striking magic in her flexibility.

I am interested in people and relationships.

Tiffany is a bright beautiful thing full of the esoteric words of the youth. I call her a lamb partly because of the curl of her hair and the softness of her features. I mean it when I say she is beautiful.

And Susan, I think, is the binding force, human enough to reach out and understand us all.

But what I mean is that it feels kind of pretentious to write things down all the time when you’re with a bunch of writers.

Tasks ahead of me: I pray grace to do them well and to work with all my heart.

I woke up this morning with a mysterious scratch above my left eye, dipping down in compelling redness beneath the eyebrow. And I thanked God — because it is somehow an extra excitement, like getting a piercing or tattoo—

But for a moment of sanity:

We went to a barbecue at the neighbor Coral’s house. Except I doubt you can call it a barbecue because we ate vegetables and tamale pie.

(“You would like Theodore Roosevelt if you met him,” said Sophia to me as we walked. “He was one of your kind.”)

The Presbyterian women there – who did not want to make much of being Presbyterians, though I did – were a true dose of humanity —-

Coral in her kind understanding that propelled conversation, and Beth Lutz, who wore black, listened hard, and laughed deeply. Beth Lutz I loved with a love inexplicable and suited mainly to first meetings, when all the possibility of what a person might be still hovers.

Coral had read Andrew Ferguson’s article about Obama’s rather untrue memoir –

A funny article, so full of breathless wit as to make one despair of besting it – at least not without the work energy of a hundred hauling camels – (Dr. Olasky gave me a copy of it last night after we returned from Coral’s.)

And what, asked her husband – Brent, I think – in his chair, thin-sitting, meek-seeming doctor – do I think a memoir must contain? How much truth?

Welcome, I said, to the question of my life.

The WORLD office is like a square three layer cake full of sweet Southern secretaries and peace. I can hardly believe, actually, that people work there. Or, for that matter, that the cabinet of pens – of the flowing-ink nature, red and black and green and blue – like Coleridge –“blue, glossy green, and velvet black” – should be readily available to me. How can that be? How can writing be work? How, further, can a place so peaceful exist and invite me in?

There must be a catch, a curse at the end of the apple bough.

My dearest friend and I went to the Stilson’s pond while I was at home – sat in the black tube and giggled profusely – we should be ashamed of ourselves –

And not everything was sunshine because I cannot always feel the depth of happiness I know I ought to – although the sunshine loved us, dried the warm water off our white limbs in the black tube.

Perhaps I will be a better WORLD writer if I am allowed to write loudly. To have the endless pacing parade, late-night or daylight. It always helps, I think, to perform.

Well, this Bradbury thousand has perhaps not been a triumph.

I am sitting on the front porch with Dr. Olasky – I was here first – next to the painting I made of Sophia, with the green sheet beneath the easel. Both of our keyboards take a beating: click click click!

A quick word about journalistic writing and literary writing, the two at war within me who ought rather to make a happy wedding. I trust my taste and imagination – more, I trust God – to make a good work, all my own, emerge. He wastes nothing. Let me believe that when I do not feel it.

Day 3 At WORLD: Writing Shall Be Art, Not Drugery

Since it was only my third day, I had some doubts about doing serious brainstorming (that is, standing on chairs and whipping out the markers in plain view). So I didn’t stand on chairs.

I began by writing  backward with the markers, so that no one would read what I wrote. You don’t want to be too public. Realizing how much space had to be filled, though, I gave up and wrote forward.

Mrs. Olasky (but “please call her Susan”) came in and caught me — suggested I take a picture and write “don’t erase” at the top.

I recapped the markers and grinned at her far too broadly.

In Asheville

I shouldn’t be awake writing. But that’s how most of the things I write begin.

I am a creature of the night.

Like Indians, I grace the rug.

I empty oceans while I write,

redrain a dozen times my mug.

When I scribbled that down, last April, I meant to make a picture of myself. I sat Indian-style in the Patrick Henry hallway in the navel of the night, writingwriting and drinking tea, cup after cup after cup.

But tonight Sophia was having the tea. Sophia is my fellow Olasky intern, here in Asheville by route of Korea, Singapore, Virginia and Los Angeles. She got a stomach ache eating a muffin in a bad position, so I guided her downstairs for tea. And we drew from the cupboard the can of peppermint chocolate. She said, “You want to smell?”

I did.

And I remembered that I must be grateful for each moment. I hardly know the magic of a moment until I have written it down and see it days, months or years  later.

For, as my friend Josh Chamberlain pointed out to me recently on the stone Patrick Henry steps, a  certain pleasure comes simply in remembering. I had been complaining of the untruth in  memory: that  it never captures life completely, or paints it angelic and forgets the Hades it had, or worse, the reverse. But like he says, pleasure comes just in remembering.

So though I am not in the home I love, I will treasure these moments, remembering that they will truly be something to remember. Though journalism meets me like a creek of cold water meets bare feet, by grace I will be grateful. Even though I am  not in the dear creaking church with ladies who send messages like this one:

Hi Dear Chelsea.
I keep thinking of Johb Denver’s song “goodby again” as i remember you will be leaving soon. It’s good to know that you are in the loving care of the good shepherd. I pray you will have a good time, and learn a lot. We will look forward to updates from your mom.
God bless you and make you a blessing.
love you.
I will mention that today a red-headed boy came to the Olaskys’ front door wearing excellent clothes, and rang the bell. I spied him from an upstairs window.
“Should we let him in?” I asked Sophia.
“Is he cute?” Sophia asked, and ran to the window. She went down to open the door.
He nervously asked if he could get work mowing the lawn.
Sophia and I couldn’t say, of course, and tried to guide him to the garage in the back yard where we thought Dr. Olasky was running on his treadmill. We couldn’t get the gate open, so we led the boy through the house instead.
We peered through the garage windows, but we didn’t find Dr. Olasky. We asked the boy to come back later.  I wished him much success, explained that mowing yards was a great line of work to be in ———————- entrepreneurial and all that, the American way ——
and he stared at me blankly.
Sad when that happens. The Tragedy of the Blank Stare.
Goodnight, proud world. I’m going to sleep the sleep of the grateful in the polka-dotted upstairs sheets.