and together we have bathed in the long, long sunrises of midwinter.
(Photo by Rachel — click to see larger.)
Today is the fifth birthday of The Morning Porch. I thought I’d mark the occasion by sharing some lesser-known facts about the blog and my daily writing practice.
1. You’d think that this discipline would have made me a better, more assiduous devoteee of the early morning hours, but if anything, it’s been the opposite. I was a very early riser when I started back in 2007, as my first entry attests. Now I sometimes sleep in so late, I’m lucky to get out on the porch before noon. In my defense, there’s no doubt that waiting at least for daylight, if not late-morning warmth, does give one a lot more to write about in terms of (for example) bird and insect activity. But I can’t really claim that’s the motive for my increasingly late-rising tendencies.
2. I was very skeptical about Twitter when it got started, and felt like a relative late-comer to the platform when I finally joined five years ago. I had two ideas in mind: use the 140-character limit to literary advantage, and use the novelty of what I was doing to spread interest in nature among ordinary internet users. For most of the past five years, I’ve been very poor about using Twitter to communicate, and for several years, I was barely on it at all, preferring the open-source alternative Identica. I still feel guilty about using a social platform for broadcasting, but I just find Twitter awkward for carrying on a conversation. Part of that is because:
3. When I’m not forcing myself to be concise, I’m actually very long-winded. Browse the first couple of years of Via Negativa if you don’t believe me.
4. And I guess the other reason I’ve never really taken to Twitter is I don’t own a mobile device of any kind, and therefore don’t use an app. I interact with Twitter exclusively from the web interface.
5. I am still not sure that The Morning Porch is a particularly good fit for Twitter. I do follow some other people who use Twitter for literary purposes, of course. (One curent favorite: British poet George Szirtes’ surrealist microfiction.) But my personal favorite twitter feeds are the humorous ones, the purveyors of pop-culture snark and whimsy such as KimKierkegaardashian and Your Life Coaches. Above all, I think Twitter was made for such displays of wit. Which is why I’m never too bothered by the occasional negative reaction to The Morning Porch: people accustomed to a steady diet of snark who encounter retweets of my posts must find the sincerity and attention to nature really jarring. I think I would.
6. I’m still inordinantly proud of the fact that my Twitter feed made a sports writer’s list of Worst of 2010 at the Gawker media site Deadspin. With fewer than 3000 followers at the time, it felt like a real honor, albeit a perverse one, to be singled out as the worst feed on all of Twitter! Evidently the dude thought my use of common names such as “mourning dove” was a literary affectation.
7. From the beginning, I’ve archived my tweets at a blog, but for the first couple of years, I used Tumblr. I migrated it to a WordPress installation to take advantage of plugins and features that give better access to the archives, such as tagging (which didn’t exist on Tumblr at the time) and especially the “on this date” column in the sidebar, which fills me with geekish delight.
8. Though I don’t really think of The Morning Porch as poetry, a lot of other people do, and I’m fine with that. At one time, I was part of an active community of poets exploring the microblog medium on Identica, where I coined the term “micropoetry” to describe what we were doing. The irony is that I don’t actually think I’m very good at haiku or other types of short-form poetry. Writing haiku is hard, and I’m not sure I’ll ever have the knack for it, though that won’t stop me from writing and sharing the things from time to time.
9. Writing The Morning Porch is as much or more about the writing than it is about the observing, but my most successful posts over the years have been those I’ve composed in my head, while sitting on the porch, rather than those I’ve composed inside at the keyboard. My usual approach is to try to stuff at least two observations into each post and rely on the relationship between them to do most of the literary work, augmented by as much alliteration and assonance as I can muster. If you go through the archives, you’ll notice that metaphors are very thin on the ground.
10. Apparently a lot of readers suffer from the misapprehension that I’m a good naturalist; I’m not. I was raised in a nature-loving family, so of course some of that rubbed off on me, but when I was growing up I was actually somewhat in rebellion against the family culture — especially what I saw as the obsessive compulsion to identify everything. I felt that assigning a name to a creature put it in a conceptual box that kept us from seeing it as it truly was. Also, I was very lazy about looking things up — and still am. But writing The Morning Porch has forced me to become more disciplined about it. So if you’ve ever wondered “How does he know all that stuff?” the answer is I don’t — not always. Many times I have an idea, or several ideas, and have to rush inside to consult field guides and the internet. And sometimes those names turn out to be poetic enough that a mere roll-call comes to resemble a poem.
11. I almost never use binoculars. I just don’t like them.
12. One of my biggest disappointments is that more people on Twitter haven’t followed my lead and begun tweeting what they see from their own front porches or stoops. Despite what I said above about preferring witty Twitterers, I’d also love to read other porch sitters, especially if they’re in urban and suburban environments filled with colorful specimens of humanity.
13. Completing five years of a daily journal may seem like an admirable achievement, but it doesn’t really compensate for the fact that to me, my front yard is a landscape of loss. Gone is the big, spreading butternut tree that once shaded it, the focus of an earlier, short-lived chronicle from the porch. It fell victim to a canker that threatens the very survival of the species. This puts me in mind of all our other tree species under threat from non-native blights and insects, such as the eastern hemlock (hemlock woolly adelgid), American beech (beech bark disease), and white ash (emerald ash borer) — all of them common trees here on the mountain. The dead elm tree recently truncated by Sandy was very much alive when I started writing the Morning Porch; it fell victim to Dutch elm disease and died in less than two years. It snapped off a few feet above the flicker nest-hole, which reminds me of that little domestic tragedy (nestlings eaten by a black snake) every time I look at it. The ornamental cherry beside the porch, now reduced to a tall cluster of limb-stumps, was also alive in 2007. It fell victim to a native disease, black knot. It was never a great tree, but I miss its messy sprays of blossoms in the spring, and the way it served as a bird-perch all year long. And finally, the dog statue next to the lilac, which may well mark the grave of some forgotten family pet from 80 or 100 years ago, was smashed when the top of the elm blew over.
14. I guess this doesn’t really qualify as a lesser-known fact, but: I really don’t get off the mountain much. So in a certain sense, writing The Morning Porch amounts to making lemonade out of a lemon. I suppose I could claim that some mornings, my porch-sitting feels more rewarding than a journey of a thousand miles. And it does! But many other mornings, it’s just kind of humdrum, you know? And at those times, I don’t feel as if I have anything especially original to share. But I do it anyway.
15. Doing The Morning Porch has made one thing very clear to me: I don’t take writing as seriously as many of my peers. When I discover, as I often do, that I’ve repeated myself and used the very same image or analogy for some critter as the previous time I wrote about it, I tend to be amused rather than depressed at the limits of my imagination. And I have no trouble acknowledging the truth behind the accusation that The Morning Porch can be a bit formulaic:
some weather, birds, other animals, sound effects, and sentiment, now repeat ad infinitum. That was my attempt at a @morningporch thoughts?
— Sean Widlake (@oikospolitikos) March 25, 2011
But it’s not just the product; it’s the process. And part of the process, for me at least, involves growing so sick of one’s own words, one lurches in a new direction from time to time and inadvertently produces something brilliant.
16. When I started, my goal was to keep it going for five years. I am not a very goal-oriented person, to put it mildly, so the fact that I’ve made it astonishes me. What I didn’t anticipate was that it would become a source of writing prompts for a number of talented poets, and that one of them would become a co-author at Via Negativa, driven by the much more impressive goal of writing a poem every day, no matter what. Luisa’s been at it for nearly two years now! That alone makes me feel as if I should keep doing this Morning Porch thing as long as I can. If nothing else, it will force me to get my ass out of bed before noon.
Tinkering with WordPress sites can be a lot of fun, but often doesn’t produce visible differences as far as site visitors are concerned. This morning’s tinkerings with The Morning Porch, however, have brought one highly visible change that I think dramatically improves the reader’s experience: In the “On this date” sidebar widget, I now include the full text of posts from previous years so one can read them without clicking through. Also, I believe the widget will now change in sync with my timezone rather than stay tied to GMT, as it did before.
I should also note the addition of a new site to the “other micropoetry and microessay blogs” section of the Morning Porch blogroll: Northern Light: A Daybook, by the western Massachusetts-based poet Rosemary Starace, author of Requitements.
For those of you who are fellow WordPress geeks, here’s what changed behind the scenes and why. When I moved the site to its current location in late 2009 after two years on Tumblr, none of the posts had titles—Tumblr isn’t as insistent on that point as WordPress is. Rather than do the smart thing and start creating titles at that point, manually pasting the first few words and an ellipsis into the title field of each post going forward, I couldn’t bring myself to let the archived posts remain titleless. So I found a nifty plugin designed for a slightly different purpose, Blogger Title Fix, that would automatically substitute a short excerpt for the title field. It worked pretty well, but I had to hack the hell out of the plugin I used to display “on this date” links so that it would link to the date rather than the (nonexistent) titles. Last year, that plugin—A Year Before—got a major update, but when I upgraded, I found it didn’t play nice with Blogger Title Fix, and since its codebase had been substantially rewritten and I am a terrible coder, I couldn’t figure out how to hack it as I had its predecessor. But at some time in the intervening months I must’ve run across another, newer and more general title-adjusting plugin called Auto Post Title and given it a quick try without thoroughly checking out its features, because I found it unactivated among my plugins at The Morning Porch this morning. This time I realized that one of the things it can substitute for a title is the excerpt, so it was just a matter of radically shortening the standard excerpt length with another plugin, Advanced Excerpt, so my titles wouldn’t be the same length as the posts. (I could also do this via a hack to my functions.php file, of course, but in my opinion such things belong in plugins rather than theme files.)
So I was happy to have replaced an old, unupdated plugin with a newer one, which still leaves me dependent on a plugin where I shouldn’t be, but puts off the day when a major change in WordPress core suddenly makes all the post titles disappear. And then I was able to update to the current version of A Year Before, and oddly enough, what it uses for a post excerpt is still the standard—it’s unaffected by the Excerpt Length plugin—so I was able to include the full text of Morning Porch posts as previously mentioned, which I think adds a whole new dimension to the site. Moral: it pays to reexamine one’s plugin configuration on a regular basis. Just because a given setup works doesn’t mean it’s optimal.
Fiona and Kaspa at Writing Our Way Home are once again challenging folks to “notice something properly every day during January” and write it down — to join their “river of stones.”
Writing small stones is a very simple way of engaging with the world around you, in all its richness and complexity and beauty. They are a gateway into praise and clear-seeing. They will help you to acknowledge the ugly things (the slugs in the compost pile) as well as the pretty ones (blackbird song). You don’t need to be a writer to write small stones – the important thing is starting to open up to what’s around you.
I guess I’ve been writing what you could call small stones for four years now, one a day except on rare occasions when I’m not at home. I’m a bit more focused on the quality of the writing and the accuracy of the observations than some participants in the “river of stones” writing challenge, so I don’t know how applicable my experience would be for everyone who takes part. But for what it’s worth, here are four things I’ve learned from doing it, lessons which I think might be more broadly applicable to other kinds of creative writing as well.
1) The most obvious subject is usually the best one to write about — or as the Zennists say, “first thought, best thought!” Doing the same thing every day is often a chore, and can quickly become overwhelming if you take it too seriously or hold yourself to too high a standard. Don’t be afraid to be boring or humdrum once in a while. You may say to yourself, “I always write about squirrels,” but if the neat thing you saw a squirrel do this morning is in fact what made the biggest impression on you, that’s probably what you should write about. And what I’ve found is that nine times out of ten, these obvious subjects result in the most popular small stones, measured in terms of retweets and favorites on Twitter and likes and comments on Facebook. Does that mean they’re necessarily the best? No, but since part of my agenda is to get other people interested in noticing what’s in their own yard or street, it’s important to write things that resonate with ordinary readers from time to time.
2) Unself-conscious immersion in the world outside one’s own thoughts is key to the whole process. For most of us, immersion in the creative process is addictive, a source of intense pleasure, and there’s a great temptation not to go beyond that. No doubt you can find plenty of readers just by continuing to write about the things you already know. But if you’re honest with yourself, I think you have to recognize that your best writing happens when you open yourself up to what you don’t know. Well, I contend that you don’t need to do anything more special than pay attention to the world in all its bewildering complexity to experience that kind of wonder and bafflement on a regular basis. I find that just a few minutes of mindful awareness can yield creative dividends for hours. In fact, I often purposely refrain from trying to write a small stone for a couple hours after I come in from the porch, giving my observations time to age. A mere grain can germinate and take root — or get under your skin, like a grain of sand in an oyster.
3) You can never know too much about what you’re seeing or hearing. William Carlos Williams famously declared “No ideas but in things.” But it’s hard to enter into the lives of other beings and objects if you don’t know much about them. Start by learning their names — what writer doesn’t benefit by enlarging his or her vocabulary? Even if you live in the city, there are probably birds or trees that you see every day whose exact identity you aren’t sure of, though you might not be aware of it at first because they’re such a familiar sight. Look them up. Once identified, there’s plenty of information to be found on the internet.
This is a huge part of how I’ve been able to keep my daily microblog going for so long without boring the shit out of myself or (I hope!) my readers. Sure, sometimes it might sound more lyrical to say “a bird” rather than “the Carolina wren,” and there’s always the risk that readers who aren’t as familiar with nature will misconstrue a common name to be your own, original adjective + noun combination, but nothing says you have to use the full name every time. I just think it’s a good idea to know it. (And at The Morning Porch website, I get around this by using tags, which can be more specific than the term used in the post.)
4) A practice of enforced brevity can encourage good writing habits. Twitter’s strict 140-character limit, while completely arbitrary and a little constricting for many, more conversational uses of language, is perfect for focusing attention on word choice. I make tough decisions every morning about which words, phrases and observations I have to leave out. Almost always, I think the results end up being much stronger and more lyrical than they would’ve been if I’d been able to indulge my usual verbosity. And in the four years I’ve been doing this, I’ve noticed it spilling over into my regular writing as well. Bad writing happens when decent writers are unwilling to let go of any felicitous expression. It’s natural to form attachments to the products of our imaginations, but we have to be merciless with ourselves and ask, What does the writing need? What is the sound and the rhythm trying to tell us? Though I think I was already fairly good at editing my own work, daily microblogging has made me even quicker to reject words and ideas that just don’t fit.
Master Po: Close your eyes. What do you hear?
Young Caine: I hear the water, I hear the birds.
Po: Do you hear your own heartbeat?
Po: Do you hear the grasshopper which is at your feet?
Caine: Old man, how is it that you hear these things?
Po: Young man, how is it that you do not?
“Kung Fu” (TV series), pilot episode, 1972
A grasshopper doesn’t move when I pass her on the concrete walk through the front garden to my door. This seems unusual, and I crouch down for a closer look. I think the bright red hind legs might make it red-legged grasshopper, Melanoplus femurrubrum, but it’s probably something in that genus, at any rate. I notice the end of the abdomen is swelling and contracting, and keeps pressing against the concrete like a finger probing for a weak spot. She takes a few steps forward, presses the concrete some more, then steps off the walk into the garden and immediately finds a patch of bare dirt that behaves as expected, yielding to pressure. The swelling and contracting of the abdomen, combined with steady pressure from the big hind legs, slowly forces it into the soil to the depth of about a centimeter. The grasshopper now remains immobile for the next several minutes except for a slight throbbing of the abdomen, which I presume denotes the deposition of eggs.
The more this grasshopper absorbs my attention, the more I notice of her surroundings, too: the small black ant walking in tight circles beside her, a larger red ant that crosses the walk in a more purposeful manner, the black field cricket — half the length of the grasshopper but just as fat, and twice as charismatic — who comes down the walk toward me and crosses into the moss garden. I hear a hummingbird buzzing into the spicebush above my head, then dropping down almost to my ear and hovering for a second before rising into the lilac and briefly perching. Even as I watch, others are watching me.
When the grasshopper pulls out, she climbs back up onto the sidewalk, which has evidently lost none of its attractiveness. She crosses it slowly, again “fingering” it with the end of her abdomen every inch of the way. How can any creature be so unaware as to mistake hard concrete for soil, just because it’s a similar color? Finally she stumbles off the other side of the walk and onto another suitable patch of dirt where the moss hasn’t grown in yet. Since our last rain was just two days ago, again she has no trouble penetrating the soil surface with her throbbing organ. I stand up slowly from my crouch, but clearly she is too intent on egg-laying to notice me and the threat to her existence I represent.
A nascent online community devoted to “practicing the art of attention,” This Life Lived, challenges members this week to consider the nature of attention itself:
What does “attention” mean to you? How do you define attention for yourself? What do you look like when you are paying attention, and what are you doing? What do you feel when you are at full attention: Do you feel calm and still, or do you feel wired and energized?
Try to construct a clear and personal definition of attention this week. If you struggle to get started, you could say to yourself or write in your journal, “To me, attention means that I am ______________ .” Then describe that definition in detail. Take time with your personal definition. Notice yourself throughout the coming week, and try to catch yourself in the act of paying attention. Notice what that act or moment does for you, and how it affects your day.
To me, attention means that I am going out of myself, not unlike the egg-laying grasshopper — and in the process, making myself vulnerable. Somehow, I think, the vulnerability is key to the whole experience. Although I am fortunate to live on a mountain with (at present) no man-eating carnivores or poisonous snakes, crouching down in the woods or fields at various times of the year can definitely be hazardous, exposing one to Lyme disease-carrying deer ticks. I don’t spend a whole lot of time obsessing about that, but the point is that the vulnerability of a rapt observer is real and not theoretical. Women and girls of course experience another whole dimension of vulnerability in many seemingly remote areas. In any case, my point is that we are the products of millions of years of evolution in which we were usually prey animals as well as hunters and foragers, and I think the kinds of attention we experience today have been shaped by all three of those roles (among others). I’d go so far as to suggest that the way the attention rather quickly widens out when we focus on one thing is an adaptive behavior. We may be focusing on what’s right in front of us — some hard-to-spot wild root crop, say — but if a twig snaps the wrong way, we’ll hear it.
When I sit out on the porch drinking my coffee in the morning, much of the time I am not paying attention. But at a certain point I’ll remember that I need some interesting observation to write about for The Morning Porch, and at that point I turn into a kind of hunter-gatherer. I don’t have a clear search-image in mind, but I’m alert for anything that will make good writing fodder. Often I begin by listening, mentally naming everything I hear, which at this time of year may not be much: goldfinch chittering, the steady trill of tree crickets, the whine of an annual cicada, a passing jet, the faint sounds of traffic from the gap. Just listening like this makes me more aware of what I’m seeing, too, and it’s a good way to begin because listening is inherently more absorptive than looking, which preserves a distance between observer and observed. Sometimes then I’ll stand up and start taking a mental inventory of the plants in my front yard.
It’s funny: as I’ve probably mentioned here before, when I was a kid I was very resistant to the idea of learning names for wild things, because it seemed to me that once we associate something with a fixed name, we make it much more difficult to see that thing in a different light. Now that I’m a writer, though, I’ve bowed to necessity and put a high priority on learning the common names. It’s true, you can have some sort of relationship with something for years without knowing what it’s called. Perhaps someone more enlightened than me can experience something akin to the Zen ideal of direct seeing — good luck with that. In my experience, knowing a name is the first step toward making something’s acquaintance in a real way.
As many thousands of times as I walked up the road as a kid, coming home from school, I never knew the names of the plants whose hard, comma-shaped seeds could so easily be stripped from the stalk, or the ones with fleshy, translucent stems that snapped so easily. They were my companions in dawdling; I de-seeded and uprooted them unmercifully as an occupation for my distracted fingers. Was I really paying attention to those unnamed plants? Not really. It was only about ten years ago, on a hike sponsored by our local Audubon chapter, that I finally learned what people call them: jumpseed (Polygonum virginianum) and clearweed (Pilea pumila), a stingless nettle. These names were so right, and so delightful, I was immediately ashamed of my long-standing callousness, and I haven’t been able to see either plant since without an inward smile of recognition.
If you’re a poet, you’re probably familiar with some version of that relaxed-yet-focused, semi-trance state in which the best lines and ideas come to the surface. I’m sure other artists get into that zone as well. For me, its strongest analogy is to hypnagogia (thanks for the word, Natalie!): it is a mild kind of threshold consciousness characterized by increased receptivity and suggestibility. As with actual hypnagogia, it’s a state that often yields real insights. But it’s not so different, either, from that state of attention I found myself in this morning, watching the grasshopper probe the ground with her ovipositor, or earlier, on the porch, listening to goldfinches and watching them glean seeds from the wild thistle. I was open, I was vulnerable, I was letting things in.