The Mark Blog

A Better-Focused Lens

Last night I went to a reading at a theater in Santa Monica. My teacher, speaking to the entire audience, reminded me of the first task she assigned each quarter. To write a glimmer, one gets in and gets out. Most everything is concrete. There are few abstractions.

Recently, I rediscovered an excerpt from a NY Times editorial that I’d saved months ago. Roger Rosenblatt writes, “One morning at breakfast, when she was in the first or second grade, E.L. Doctorow’s daughter, Caroline, asked her father to write a note explaining her absence from school, due to a cold, the previous day. Doctorow began, ‘My daughter, Caroline…’ He stopped. ‘Of course she’s my daughter,’ he said to himself. ‘Who else would be writing a note for her?’ He began again. ‘Please excuse Caroline Doctorow…’ He stopped again. ‘Why do I have to beg and plead for her?’ he said. ‘She had a virus. She didn’t commit a crime!’ On he went, note after failed note, until a pile of crumpled pages lay at his feet. Doctorow concluded, ‘Writing is very difficult, especially in the short form.’

At 18, I lifeguarded at a ritzy country club in the Berkeley hills. I scanned three enormous pools, composing poems in my head. After each forty-minute shift, I’d dash to the pool house and scribble the phrases that I’d repeated in my mind so as to keep hold of them.

In the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time on airplanes, and I’ve realized that recycled oxygen and a lack of space keep me hunched over my tray table, working until the wheels re-find concrete.

A friend of mine, a fellow classmate at UC Davis, is working on a project that consists of 100 stories of precisely 100 words. Last I read, she is on #102.

In college, a teacher handed us a cocktail napkin and directed us to write a story on it. For fun, my sisters and I sometimes blindly point to a word in a newspaper and then, in fifteen minutes, compose a story that employs it.

My favorite New Yorker cartoon portrays a man on a busy city street corner, shouting into a cellphone, “Sorry, there are eight million people in my office!”

Perhaps boundaries are beneficial. The world is big. Our minds and memories are expansive. Each of our many experiences is intertwined to another, and another, and another. I’ve discovered that if I try to touch on everything, I say nothing. However if I set limits—of time, words, topic, even work space—I can often better focus my lens in order to find greater clarity. In subject and in process constraints can, paradoxically, liberate me.